Power to the people

Portable power stations have become all the rage, not only at home but also for those who enjoy spending time in the great outdoors. These versatile devices are perfect for off-grid adventures, keeping multiple devices powered on and able to recharge in record time. Anton Willemse Snr delves deeper into the subject and examines the options available.

Back in the 1990s just about everyone had a camping fridge that could run off power or gas. Very few vehicles had dual battery systems and the industry was still in its infancy, but as time progressed, so did the way we powered our fridges in the bush. However, as camping fridges became more and more efficient, they also became more dependent on electricity. To address this, fitment centres started installing rudimentary dual battery systems, with the battery basically just there to power a fridge for the duration of an overlanding trip. In the early 2000s overlanders and campers started fitting inverters to run basic 220V equipment for charging batteries and such. However, more and more electrical equipment was being added to the overlander’s checklist and the need arose for longer-lasting power sources. This, of course, led to the addition of lithium batteries to dual battery systems.

In the last few years there has been a major leap to portable power systems (PPS). Initially these systems came at a considerably higher cost than traditional battery systems, but nowadays you are able to get a decent PPS for roughly the same price as a dual battery system.

So, why are we not seeing more overlanders going the PPS route? Honestly, I think it’s because we don’t fully understand exactly what they are and how they work. We are all used to thinking in Amps when it comes to how big a system is and, on average, most overlanders have a 105A deep cycle battery on board. But a PPS measures its capacity in Watts and that is where it gets tricky…

Watts equal amps times voltage, so if you have a 105A deep cycle battery that delivers 13V of current you would have 1365W of power available to you. It’s common knowledge that discharging deep cycle batteries too much can damage them and shorten their lifespan. The answer would be to switch to lithium or lithium iron phosphate batteries, which not only last longer but can be depleted to almost zero.

As an example, most camping fridges run at 13V and draw about 3-4A, which means they use an average of about 45W per hour, or 40Wh. Taking into consideration that about 40% of the capacity of a standard 105A battery is available, you will have about 546Wh to run your fridge. If the fridge’s compressor is permanently on – and we know it turns on and off periodically to regulate the temperature – it should run for about 12 hours. But because the dual battery system is fitted in your vehicle, it can only be charged inside your vehicle. This is where a PPS becomes handy. For roughly the same price as a dual battery system you are able to purchase a PPS with between 500-700W of available power. These power stations have pure sine wave inverters built in and offer an array of outlets, from USB-C to 230V. They work great while camping and can be used at home during power outages or loadshedding – with most being capable of running your TV, Wi-Fi, laptop and a few lights for up to six hours. These PPS units usually also have built in solar controllers, so you don’t need to worry about not being able to charge them when there is no electricity. An added bonus is that most of them offer pass-through charging, which means they can be used while being charged. This gives them UPS functionality too. So, should you rush out and buy a PPS? If you are at your wit’s end with the loadshedding, it’s definitely worth considering. If, however, you already have a dual battery setup in your vehicle, stick with it for a while longer and once it’s time to replace or upgrade it, then consider going the PPS route. We will definitely keep an eye on the market and keep you informed on new offerings, upgrades and changes.

Our top picks…

We have tested a few PPS units ourselves and have also looked at what is available in South Africa currently. Important features to look at when purchasing a PPS would be battery type and cycles available, pass-through charging, Watt-hours available, charging time and type of power outlets included.

Rentech PPS 750

Price: R8 495

We have tested this rugged little power station and despite it being the most affordable solution, we were very impressed. As we work from home, it was a lifesaver during loadshedding. Although Rentech states that it can run as a UPS, we tried it multiple times but were unable to run a fridge or any appliances off it while charging.

• 786Wh (10.8V/72.8Ah) battery capacity

• Rated power: 500W pure sine wave inverter

• 1 500 cycles

• Lithium-Ion battery

• 3 x USB ports

• 1 x 12V DC port

• 1 x cigarette lighter socket

• 2 x AC ports (230V)

• 7-10 hours charging on AC

• Weight: 7.5kg

*For more information: 0800 12 00 12 / www.rentech.co.za

Flexopower Lithium 555

Price: R8 999

Locally designed and manufactured, this little power station has been available locally since 2005. We tested it on a trip we did in 2021 and were fairly impressed. The unit works well and is also the only one that comes with a standard South African plug outlet. The Lithium 555 is not designed as UPS, and it is not recommended that you keep it permanently connected to the mains.

• 555Wh (3.7V/150 000mAh) battery capacity

• Rated power: 500W pure sine wave inverter

• 500 cycles

• Lithium-Ion battery (replaceable)

• 3 x USB ports

• 1 x USB-C port

• 2 x 12V DC ports

• 1 x cigarette lighter socket

• 2 x AC ports (230V)

• 6 hours charging on AC

• Weight: 6.6kg

* For more information: +27 11 658 0500 / www.flexopower.co.za

Goal Zero Yeti 500X

Price: R13 999

Designed with the weekend warrior in mind, this is exactly the kind of camping equipment we would like to test more often. Although it is the lightest of the available options, it packs a mean punch and can supply enough power to keep your electronics fully charged for a weekend or week away. Its ultra-compact and portable design is also a major plus.

• 505Wh (10.8V/46.8Ah) battery capacity

• Rated power: 300W pure sine wave inverter – surge 1 200W

• 500 cycles to 80% capacity

• Lithium-Ion battery

• 2 x USB ports

• 2 x USB-C ports

• 1 x 12V DC port

• 1 x cigarette lighter socket

• 2 x AC ports (230V)

• 9 hours charging on AC

• Pass-through charging

• Weight: 5.85kg

*For more information: +27 11 467 2360 / www.goalzero.co.za

Jackery Explorer

Price: R11 950

Jackery is an American company that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. It specialises in clean electricity generation and associated power storage in rugged battery packs for camping and off-grid living. We are itching to properly test some of Jackery’s gear to see how it could complement our lifestyle, both at home and when camping.

• 518Wh (21.6V/24Ah) battery capacity

• Rated power: 500W pure sine wave inverter – surge 1 000W

• 500 cycles to 80% capacity

• Lithium-Ion battery

• 3 x USB ports

• 2 x 12V DC ports

• 1 x cigarette lighter socket

• 1 x two-prong AC port (230V)

• 7.5hours charging on AC

• Pass-through charging

• Weight: 6.04kg

*For more information: +27 21 762 9409 / www.jackery.co.za

EcoFlow River Pro

Price: R14 999

In my opinion this is one of the best products available on the market. It ticks all the boxes by providing fast charging, ample power, enough power outlets, and a manageable weight. The unit is also expandable to 1 444Wh through the River Pro Extra Battery. With X-Boost enabled, River Pro’s 600W output can power devices such as tools and appliances up to 1 800W. All that convenience comes at a price though, and the EcoFlow is the most expensive of the options available.

• 720Wh (28.8V/25A) battery capacity

• Rated power: 600W pure sine wave inverter – surge 1 200W

• 500 cycles to 80% capacity

• Lithium-Ion battery

• 3 x USB ports

• 1 x USB-C port

• 2 x 12V DC ports

• 1 x cigarette lighter socket

• 2 x AC ports (230V)

• 1.6 hours charging on AC

• Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to EcoFlow App

• Pass-through charging UPS

• Weight: 7.6kg

*For more information: sales.rest@ecoflow.com / https://za.ecoflow.com

Putting things into perspective

We did a quick search for components for a dual battery setup with a similar layout as a PPS. When making your decision, bear in mind that 500 cycles on a lithium battery could last you up to 10 years and that most deep cycle batteries have a lifespan of up to five years.

Dual battery system rough cost estimate

AGM 105A deep cycle battery                                                  R 3 000

20A DC-DC charger                                                                      R 5 000

12v 600W pure sine wave inverter                                          R 3 500

Outlets                                                                                            R 1 000

Fitment                                                                                           R 1 500

Total                                                                                                R14 500

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