Yes, I am a geek. Not a nerd, but a geek. Being a geek is a good thing. A geek is anyone who gets excited about and stays up to date on a particular field or a special type of product. It could be anything–comic books, knives, survival kits, Barbie dolls, computer gear, or motorcycles. As much as I am a fan of outdoors gear and the outdoors experience, I am also extremely into high-tech stuff from computers, internet technologies, hand-held devices, to building my own gear. So, I get really excited when I’m able to write on a topic that brings both of those worlds together–such as today’s topic on the Brunton Solaris 6 Solar Charging Array. If you’re the extreme sort that tackles the wilderness with just a knife and a water bottle, this might not be for you. But, for those of us that like to carry just a little more gear and enjoy some modern conveniences (and perhaps necessities) out in the wilderness, The Solaris 6 just might be right up your alley.
The last few years have seen an exponential growth in personal electronics. Everyone you see today has a cell phone, a digital camera, an MP3 player, and maybe a laptop or ebook of some sort as well. While still fairly new, these personal appliances are becoming as common place as the television set. We like being connected to the world. We like being able to take pictures and see the results immediately. And, we enjoy carrying around our entire CD collection or libary of books. That’s just the way it is. But, part of the problem with bringing those personal appliances into the wild is having a power source to keep them running. Once the batteries are dead, then you have to make sure you have spare batteries on hand. In some cases, such as the Apple iPod, you can’t use a spare battery since the original can’t be taken out of the housing. The same is true of some cell phones, PDA’s and ebooks like the Amazon Kindle. What’s a person to do?
There are a few attempts at various solutions, and most of those are larger batteries that you can plug your personal electronics into and charge them several times before the larger battery goes dead. The downside is that even the larger battery will go dead after a few charges of the smaller batteries, and it’s also usually fairly heavy. Extra weight is not the friend of hikers and backpackers, or anyone else that has to haul their gear around. Even if they weigh nothing, you will still run out of juice in a short period of time. That’s where we come to Brunton’s solution to charging personal appliances.
Brunton has long been a leader in the outdoors industry for providing quality technical gear such as optics, compasses, and solar charging solutions. The Solaris 6 is a great example of their legacy and their continual efforts to improve their products and stay contemporary with modern technology. The Solaris 6 is a very lightweight (7.1 ounces) and foldable charging station for your personal electronics. When unfolded, it’s dimensions are 29 inches by 9 inches. The kit offers a couple of ways to connect to different personal electronics. There is a 12V DC car-charger adapter that plugs directly into one of the two ports on the back of the Solaris 6. So, any cords you have that will fit into a cigarette lighter in a vehicle will plug into this adapter. Another cord that comes in the package also plugs into a port on the Solaris 6, and on the other end is an X-shaped component that has 4 different adapters to be used with various outlets in consumer devices. And, finally, the last cord is one that you can clip to the terminals of a 12V battery (i.e. car, RV, marine) and use the Solaris 6 as a trickle charger.
There are several chargers of this design in the Solaris line including the Solaris 12, 26 and 52. The higher the model number, the greater power, the larger it is and the more it weighs. Even so, the Solaris 12 weighs only 11 ounces when you might expect it to weight twice the Solaris 6. That’s because both have common components like the cord ports on the back. So, for twice the output of the Solaris 6, the weight only increase by 57%. If you’ll look at the first picture at the beginning of the article, the main difference with the 12 is that it is twice as wide, but you would fold that section over first, and then fold it up just like the Solaris 6.
The Solaris 6 has a maxmimum output of 12 Volts like the rest of the line. The wattage rating is 6.5W and its power rating is 433 milliamps maximum. The Solaris 12 is rated at 12 Watts with a maximum of 800 milliamps. As much as I love technology, I’ll tell you that I have only a vague notion of what those numbers mean. In my mind, the bigger the model, the more power you get. That’s all I need to know. If you need more detailed info on electrical terms and ratings, then Google is your friend. However, I don’t need to know the mathematical forumlae that apply to the fundamentals of electricity to know whether or not I like a product, or if that product works for me. I just need to try it out first-hand.
Like tens of millions of other American, I have an Apple iPod, and it’s fairly close to being the centerpiece of my personal entertainment habits. Besides just music, I also have audio books stored which I love to listen to while I’m doing different things. Also, I keep a variety of podcasts loaded to keep me up to date on news, current events, technology, and other topics like photography, internet subjects, and so forth. And, last but not least, I keep a few movies on hand for when I’m really bored and just want to kick back and relax. So, as you can imagine, this was the first device I wanted to try out with the Solaris 6 Charging Array. I unfolded the Solaris to where it was completely open to the sun, and it was a beautiful, sunny day this past Saturday. I then plugged the 12V vehicle adapter plug into one of the ports on the Solaris. Finally, I plugged my Monster iPod vehicle cord into the iPod Classic 160 and then into the Solaris vehicle adapter. All told, it took about 45 seconds to set up. It couldn’t have been any easier.
Before I started the test, I made sure my iPod’s battery was drained down to the point that I could only see a sliver of the green battery bar. Once plugged in, it took one hour and forty minutes to charge the iPod to the point where the charge bar showed the plug icon (meaning it’s full). I was surprised at how quickly it charged and a bit dubious about it. So, I played some songs and ran a video for a while to see if the battery indicator would adjust on its own in case it was giving me a false reading at first. Some iPod batteries have done that in the past. But, all was well, and all indications were that it received a complete charge in that short a period of time. Not too shabby at all! While it took the full charge, I did have a bit of a nervous quibble about the Solaris 6. When using the Monster iPod charging cord in my vehicle, there is a solid red LED charging light that stays lit. While using that same cord with the Solaris 6, the red LED light flickered continuously as though it wasn’t getting enough power. Also, at the beginning of the charging test, the LCD screen on the iPod kept changing every two seconds from a charging icon to a fully-charged icon. The iPod doesn’t typically do that, so again, my thoughts were that it wasn’t getting quite enough juice to keep everything powered (iPod and LED on charging cord) fully at the same time.
However, after about 45 minutes of charging, the charging status on the iPod no longer kept changing. It maintained a constant "charging" status even though the red LED on the Monster cord was still flickering. So, it may only be a slight issue, but one that I’ll explore more fully to resolve it. One such alternative may be an accessory that’s offered by Brunton. If the Apple iPod is the only thing you might need to charge on the trail, Brunton offers an iPod charging cord as an accessory. Instead of working with the 12V vehicle adapter, you can just plug your iPod directly into one of the ports on the Solaris 6. That way, you can leave the other three cords at the house to save space and weight. Just remember where you left them, because you might need them one day. Also, that direct link to the Solaris 6 might increase the power running to the iPod since none is being used along the way to power the LED on the vehicle charging cord that I use.
Of course, the ability for the Solaris models to charge electronic equipment is going to be dependent on a few factors, the most important of which is the amount of sunlight available and the angle at which the sunlight is hitting the solar grids. If it’s not quite as bright out, it may take you a bit longer to charge your devices. The plastic sheet which unfolds to expose the grids has gromment rings at each corner. Those can be used to lightly stake the Solaris to the ground and keep it from folding up on itself from the wind or other occurrences. The clever person could also devise a way to hang the Solaris on their pack or person while they’re on the move (especially away from the sun) so they don’t have to be sitting still for their devices to charge. That will be a little trickier than just laying it out on the ground, but it could be done.
Remember when I talked about the Solaris helping with the necessities as well as the conveniences? There are quite a few stories where people have used their cell phones to call out for rescue when they got lost or injured on the trail. There are just as many stories about people who couldn’t call, because their batteries had gone dead while they were out. The Solaris 6 is a perfect answer to that problem. With the right charging adapter, the person could slip the Solaris 6 into their pack with the charging cord, and they would have a way to make sure their cell phone’s battery could get charged (providing the weather cooperates). The same logic could be made for having a way to charge the batteries for your GPS device as well. It’s a much better solution than having no alternative at all. And, if you’re an MP3 player person or an e-book reader, you’ll probably have this with you anyway, so you’re only talking about throwing in an extra cord for the phone or GPS. I will note that a cell phone is not the most dependable device to rely on to get help because of signal loss from being too far from a tower. The most reliable signaling device would be a Personal Locator Beacon, which you can read about over at Equipped to Survive.
After I charged the iPod, I then turned around and repeated the same process with my XV6700 wireless phone. The beauty of this phone is that not only can I make calls on it, I can also send and receive emails, surf the internet, and upload files to my websites via a Windows Mobile FTP program. So, this is truly a necessary device for me, and it’s great to have a way to charge it while in a location without available electricity. It took longer to charge the phone than the iPOD, but there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, I have an extended life battery in the phone which is very large and stores a lot power–much more than my iPod. Also, since it was later in the day, the sunlight was hitting the solar panels in a more oblique fashion. With the sun at a lower angle, I could have easily hung the Solaris 6 from a tree limb to get more direct light, but I wanted to see how much the vector change of the light rays would impact its charging speed. If this were the only factor, it would have been better to charge the iPod again for a like comparison. But, since I was also checking out the extended battery, I just went with an anecdotal test. From the 12% power rating on the battery level, it took two hours and forty-five minutes to get it back to 100%. I can live with that quite easily. A half charge on that extended battery is equivalent to what orginally came with the phone. Also, the green LED charging light was constantly on the entire time with no flickering. Considering the size of the battery and the time of day, I was very happy with how the Solaris performed.
In all honestly, the Solaris models probably aren’t going to help most folks that are just out on a day hike. Any electronics they have with them for the day will probably have enough juice without any worries or concerns. But, the Solaris 6 is a great solution for those folks that spend several days at a time out in the field, or even for the through-hikers that spend several months on the trail. In those cases, it would be a definite benefit. Even for just the day-hikers, it might be worth tucking the Solaris away in your pack in case an emergency happens and you’re out there longer than you originally intended.
And, let’s think those times when are are just sitting at home. We recently had a bad ice storm that took out our power for several days. We had a generator, but a lot of people in our area didn’t have one. While the electricity was off, the cell phone towers were still operating and people were still making calls and listening to their music. After the storm hit and passed, the sun was out for days even though the power was still off. The Solaris model of solar chargers would come in handy for those folks that might want a cheaper alternative to a generator in order to charge things like their cell phones or other devices.
A few years ago, I saw some of Brunton’s solar charging models, and while I thought they were interesting, I really didn’t have a real need for them. Thankfully, Brunton kept on developing new models and improving the technology in their solar charging lines. With the advent of all the different consumer electronics available the past few years, this has certainly become a more necessary item for me when it comes time to hit the woods. Personally, I think I would step up one level to the Solaris 12 to get that extra bump in power to charge my Ipod and other devices. The larger array will capture more sunlight and I believe will increase the current to a level that would keep the status screen from changing on my iPod. The Solaris 6 has a suggested MSRP of $208.40, but with just a little time spent on the net, I found them for as low as $120.00 from reputable dealers and the Solaris 12 for under $200.00. At those prices, it’s a great investment for the outdoors person that enjoys their personal electronics gear.
The Solaris line is a superb implementation of the solar-charging concept, and the quality in this line of products is reflective of the rest of Brunton’s gear. It’s top rate, hits the target spot-on, and addresses a need that too many others in the market ignore. I would strongly encourage the tech-savvy outdoors people to give one of the Solaris models a look. It could very possibly change your outdoors experience!