The BioLite Prep Kit: The SolarHome 620 and Apartment Kit
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By Doc Montana 13 min read
Why doesn’t everything that can run on solar power actually run on solar power? Solar is a universal energy source given that all the plants, oceans, and winds have rolled along just fine on solar energy for millennia with nothing more than a steady stream of photons from the nearest star. And that particular star still has a couple of billion years of fuel in its tank.
But two words tend to kill our personal preparedness solar enthusiasm: charge controller. The solar panel is like a plant leaf that converts light into electrical current, in this case a flow of electrons through a conductor. A battery is a storage tank for the electrons where all those tiny negative charges are organized into chemical bonds for later use. And a light bulb converts the flow of electrons back into photons that bounce off of stuff and reflect into our eyes allowing us to avoid stubbed toes, dinged shins, bonked foreheads, and calling it a day with plenty of awake left.
Make sure to check our guide on the best survival solar panels on the market.
I was going to but…
With dedicated solar lighting systems where the solar panel, battery, and light output are integrated, all the electrical engineering is done and baked into the design at point of manufacture. But what if there is variability in the storage and output options? Then there are some calculations to deal with, and that’s usually where eyes glaze over and the dream of off-grid solar hits a speed bump or even a full-on roadblock.
Enter turn-key solar solutions like the BioLite SolarHome 620. With a six watt solar panel, three independent lights, and a combination battery/controller/wall light/dual USB charger/FM radio/music player. The solar panel plugs into the controller, and the two lights plug into the controller with the third light daisy chained together with one or more of the others.
In recognition of September as National Preparedness Month, BioLite dug through its rich and wildly diverse product inventory and compiled several options together for those who want instant solutions for power outages, are off grid curiousness, and just general preparedness because you should. Reviewed here is The BioLite Prep Kit: Apartment Edition, an emergency solar-solution and lighting bundle for 2-4 people. Included in the package are two headlamps, two solar-powered Sunlight area lights, two diffusion stuff sacks, a LifeStraw water filter, and the entire BioLite SolarHome 620 microgrid solar lighting solution.
The pair of HeadLamp 330 headlights are a balanced 2 ounce headlight solution where the ultralight light frontend is supported by a backend battery. With a less than one centimeter thick frontside, the tilting light has both spot and flood capabilities and a night vision-saving red light option. With an advertised 40 hours of runtime, on a week-long trip in a remote high mountain region of Montana’s high country (the highest possible actually), I couldn’t push this more than two hours a day before falling asleep. That leaves 26 more hours beyond the 14 hours I used for camp chores and reading, or a little over one third of the low output (book reading level) total runtime. The only two issues I noticed included that when lying down, the battery pack located on the headband at the back of my head needed some adjustment for comfort. And since the tilt lever of the headlamp also houses the on/off/adjustment button, attention was needed to ensure that only a tilt or light adjustment happened, not both. And gloves make it a little more difficult to separate the functions.
To add lighting options to the headlamps, two amazing Light Diffusing Stuffsacks are included in the BioLite package. By providing a way to turn a compact direct lighting solution into a wider area one, just a few grams of storage double as an area light converter. While the Stuffsacks do have an engineered way to attach the headlamp properly so as to float inside the bag for maximum diffusion, I found over time that when exhausted or late at night and couldn’t care less, I just cinched the Stuffsack over the business end of the headlamp and hung it by the headlamp strap. Either way, it’s a winner, and a new member of the essentials kit. Think of it as a way for two people to prepare the tentspace and fall asleep reading with one light source.
Two basic independent area lighting solutions are also part of this kit with a pair of SunLight LED solar recharging lights. These are rough squares about three inches on a side and an inch thick. At only 3.5 ounces, the 100 lumen output is plenty of picnic table area-sized lighting. One face of the SunLight LED is for lighting, and the other face is full of integrated solar panel for charging. If you can plug in the SunLight to the grid through its miniUSB powerport, a full charge will happen in two hours or less. With just the sun to give you juice, it might take seven hours; still within a day. And if your needs expand beyond basic survival, then the party-color output choice will raise the mood.
The LifeStraw water filter needs no introduction. Providing gallons of safe water, the LifeStraw is a fine addition to a turnkey off-grid survival solution. One would hate to have plenty of bright light but no clean water to drink. And remember, you can scoop up water in a container and then use the straw rather than lay face down in the mud with your head inches from the mosquito-infested swamp.
The Main Event
And the coup de grâce is the Biolite SolarHome 620 system. What if outfitting an area with four solar powered 100 lumen lights, an FM radio/MP3 music player, dual 5-volt powerports for charging phones, a solar panel, and a charge controlled battery was as simple as stringing Christmas lights? than likely all your fears and confusion over installing and using a basic solar system would disappear. Enter the SolarHome 620; a solid, intuitive, flexible, and affordable solar lighting solution.
In one box are all the parts to connect a six-watt solar panel to a combination battery/charge controller/audio/charger/light box, and then connect two more light cables to the charger for full room lighting including one with a motion sensor that Biolite refers to as a security light. The plug-and-play connections are obvious, and the digital readouts on the controller keep you up to date on the health and strength of the system.
Real LIfe Test
I set out to install the Biolite SolarHome 620 in my proverbial “cabin in the woods.” an off-grid single room mountain retreat nestled just a couple yards from an isolated two-acre pond in Nowhere, Montana USA. The usual lighting solutions we use in the cabin are headlamps, old-school cotton-wick oil lamps, and the warm glow of the woodburning stove that keeps the place toasty in the winter.
For tools, I brought my go-to multitool a Leatherman Charge TTi. With its 19 different tools, but I quickly realized that I brought 18 tools too many. The only tool needed was a Phillips screwdriver, and even so there are many installations that would not even require twisting a single screw.
I was already familiar with the components of the Biolite SolarHome 620 because I played with it in the comfort of my home before heading off to the mountains. Troubleshooting any system during the actual time you need it is a broken rule. Do familiarize yourself with the basic operation, and that all components are fine and dandy before storing the system for a future disaster, or packing up the fun-truckster to go adventuring. I charged up the battery using an AC converter, played around with the connections and switches, confirmed that the radio works, and most importantly, loaded a gig of music onto a microSD card. Advanced work with the system allows a richer and quicker imagination when you survey the potential installation site.
The small LCD readout on the 620 controller has five info display options: day/date with battery and sun strength indicators, a battery screen with percent full and numbers of hours of available light at current settings, a sun strength display with panel efficiency percentage, an FM radio station frequency selector, and an MP3 track display. A previous screen button and a next screen button toggle through the five options. The remaining buttonset on the controller/battery/light counsule include a light on-off-dim button, a radio on off button, volume up and down buttons, and back/forward/play buttons to run the MP3 player. There is also, of course, a speaker built into the unit that does a nice job with radio voices, but not quite the rich audiophile experience many of us are used to. But remember, this entire Biolite SolarHome 620 might cost less than many of the better portable Bluetooth speakers we use with reckless abandon.
The back of the controller has plug-in ports, two for lights and one for the solar panel input. The left side (when facing the unit) contains the microSD card slot, and the right side has two USB charging ports and a battery expansion port. On the front of the unit, the top third is a variable 100-max lumen light, the middle third houses the buttons, display screen and speaker, and the lower third is a shelved tray that holds your phone while charging since the unit is likely mounted at eye level on a wall. A short multi-ended USB cord is included that will connect to most non-Apple devices. iPhone users will need to include their own particular charging cord.
So in a nutshell, you place the solar panel in the sun within 21 feet of the controller since that is the length of the non-removable cable. Then two lights are plugged into the back of the unit. Each light has an 18 foot cable, and they are all chainable meaning you can reach out quite a distance in any direction from the controller. The chaining connection ports are about two-thirds of the way through the light cable length so you don’t get the full 18 feet of stretch combined. In other words, you are not going to light up a 55 foot long hallway, but you can spread out the lights in other shapes and directions filling a room with usable light. Not surgical theater lighting, but four 100 lumen sources that is plenty for most end-of-day tasks and safe mobility. Also at the chaining junction is another four-foot strand of cable leading to the switch. The additional length allows the lights to be much higher above the switch.
Although each light has a 100 lumen output, as the light moves away from the object that reflects it (floor, table, book page, etc.) the brightness drops off as a function of the inverse square law. That just means that the intensity is reduced by the square of the distance so twice as close gives your four times the light, or double the distance away and you get one fourth the amount of light energy bouncing off the surface. Our eyes are pretty good so the reduction in brightness at room distances is not dramatic unless you need fine visual acuity or to see colors accurately.
In my cabin, the first thing I did was to mount the solar panel to a spot on the roof where the sun peeks through the tall lodgepole and ponderosa pines. Actually no, the first thing I did was turned on some music. Then I went to work as Led Zeppelin disturbed the peace. I ran the solar panel’s power cable through the leaky door seam to the controller I mounted on a wall near a corner. Since the controller is also an area light, it’s placement should be part of your lighting plan so keep that in mind. The security light with motion sensor was mounted outside the cabin above the small raised porch. I noticed that it turned on reliably just before I placed a foot on the first of the two steps up to the porch. The security light has a non-adjustable 30-second timer for keeping the light on that long if no further motion is detected and the switch is in the sensor position. Otherwise, all three separate lights have their own switches that toggle through three light settings and off. The other two lights were chained along a beam inside the cabin filling the entire short length of the room with controllable light.
The aerial view of the Biolite SolarHome 620 is a controller with three cables running from it, one to a solar panel, and two to lights. That’s it. So any complex issues behind the concept of installing the system are optional. The Biolite SolarHome 620 could just as easily be set up around a tent campsite, car camping area, or temporary worksite. The key to easy mobility and setup is mostly in cable management. There are a combined 85 feet of wires between all the components so build in an extra minute or two in your takedown routine to properly manage all the electrical lines.
The MP3 player accesses MP3-formatted audio content on a microSD card. That content can be anything including music, podcasts, and audio books for example. That said, in the size of a baby’s fingernail, you could house 256 or 512 gigabytes of audio content on a single chip including kid’s audio books, survival manuals, audio entertainment, two to four million songs, and of course all the Survival Cache Podcast episodes ever made. Just have patience with the navigation buttons since forward and backward are your only options.
You Need It Yesterday
The Biolite SolarHome 620, so named because it is a 6 watt solar panel and a 20 watt-hour battery, is a fixed set of components specifically sourced to work together. There are many other solar panel/controller/battery/lighting combinations possible if you want to assemble and match the components yourself. But the Biolite SolarHome 620 begs the question, “Why bother?” If your solar needs require portability, simplicity and efficiency and yet still fit in a shoebox (more like a boot box), the Biolite SolarHome 620 should be your first choice. And if you would rather get on with your life then calculate panel output, controller cost, battery power management, and compatible connectors, then get the Biolite SolarHome 620 as a useful introduction to solar living. Better yet, get the whole Biolite Prep Bundle and meet all your needs. Or at least a bunch of them.
I’m typing this as Hurricane Dorian was just declared a Category 5, and the strongest storm on the planet this year. Whether the Bahamas, Florida, or points north, there will be all manner of power outages, family displacement, destruction, and plenty of long-term unknowns. As the irony of September as National Preparedness Month is overshadowed by actual reasons to prepare or suffer, turnkey solutions exactly like the Biolite SolarHome 620 and Prep Bundles are just what is needed to check off that box and move quickly to the next of the dozens of other preparedness decisions and challenges. Plus, the BioLite colors and form factor always make people smile. Something we can use more of.
Biolite Debuts New Portable Power Station and Solar Panel Combo
As we enter the dog days of summer, keeping ourselves cool and our devices on is top of mind (especially if you live in an area with rolling blackouts). If you’re looking for dependable power at an approachable price point, you’re in luck: there’s a new power station on the block.
Biolite has made a name for itself providing off-grid power in a number of iterations, each well-designed with the end user in mind. Today’s release is no different; the brand is debuting two new power stations and a solar panel, built to address the growing needs for portable power that can be used in the backcountry, or at home.
The handles and vents (in yellow on the side of the power station) are designed to be unobtrusive and useful.
The Basecharge 600 and 1500 were built with the intention of building safe, reliable power solutions that can be used in a variety of environments and conditions. Both the Basecharge 600 and 1500 feature an internal AC converter, essentially providing an on-the-go wall outlet. The rechargeable power stations also come with multiple DC ports, which are commonly used in RV and overlanding devices, as well as USB-A, USB-C, and USB-C PD at a full 100W rating, ideal for laptops and hungrier personal electronics. The power stations also come with an easy-to-use wireless charging deck built into the top of both models, allowing users to cut the cord, or charge their smartphone even when they forget said cord.
I tested Biolite’s Basecharge 1500 (1,699) for a month this summer, using it to charge a variety of outdoor gear from my Dometic fridge to a Yamaha electric bike, and many things in-between. I found the power station was easy to use and understand, and like many of Biolite’s products, intuitively designed.
Here’s what I liked, and didn’t, about Biolite’s new product.
The Biolite Basecharge 1500 is easy to use and intuitive
I tested the Basecharge 1500, which was designed to provide 1500 watt hours of power, whether you’re off-grid or without power at home. Set-up was simple, thanks to the easy-to-read front LCD interface; it calculates inputs, outputs and battery life in real time, and features a digital messaging message center that alerts users to port activations, system notifications, troubleshooting actions, and warnings as well as a resettable energy odometer that measured my usage over time.
Using Biolite’s new 100-watt-hour SolarPanel 100 (399.95) with the power station provided endless power: I didn’t have to plug it into the wall once to charge, and kept a portable fridge running continuously for a month — as well as charging multiple electric bikes, power tools, walkie talkies and more. If you live in a consistently sunny area and want a stream of off-grid power, this set-up will appeal.
The Basecharge 1500 is lighter and better-designed than competitors
I’ve used other power stations before, and none have impressed me as much as Biolite did with its design. The first thing I noticed about the power station was its integrated, concave carrying handles; rather than sticking out the side (which can make packing a challenge) like other portable power stations, Biolite’s version has concave carrying ports that also house the vents that keep the lithium-ion battery cool during use.
It’s a clever design feature that speaks to the level of attention Biolite places on usability and function. The Basecharge 1500 is only 26.5 pounds — that’s half the weight of other competitors. I could move the power station around at will, depending on my activity and need. The weight cut offered way more use cases for the power station; I didn’t feel like I had to set it and forget it. Rather, it integrated naturally into my routine.
Both models of the Basecharge come with a 12-point safety checkpoint system that prevents circuit overload, and keeps your devices safe if you plug too many in at a time.
The Basecharge’s wireless charging is finicky
The Basecharge’s wireless QI charging (10W) allows users to charge any wireless-capable single device by placing it on the wireless charging icon, thanks to the invisible induction field created by powerful coils underneath. In theory, wireless charging is quick and easy: set your device down on the icon, get a charge. Biolite says its power stations can charge smartphones and tablets with up to a 10 inch diagonal screen with BaseCharge 600, and up to 14 inch diagonal screen with BaseCharge 1500.
I had a hard time using the wireless charging deck — half the time, after placing my phone down on the designated symbol, I would come back to find that my phone wasn’t charging at all. I experimented with multiple placements and even with taking my case off, which seemed to work a little better, but is a hassle (especially if you’re overlanding and need to keep your phone protected). One benefit is the lack of a cord: using wireless charging leaves extra ports open for your other devices (if it cooperates).
Although the deck wasn’t as perfected as the rest of the portable power station, when it did work, it charged my phone in about two thirds of the time it normally takes to get a full charge. If you can figure out the best placement for your device so it actually charges, you’ll be impressed with the power output.
I discovered post-testing that the reason my charging my not have worked properly was because I had multiple devices on the wireless deck. After experimenting with a single device placed on the icon, wireless charging was much smoother.
The Biolite Basecharge 600 and 1500 will be available for pre-order starting September 7th, 2022 on Biolite’s website.
BioLite SolarPanel 5 review
I originally intended for this panel to power a small IoT device, but since you have to manually toggle between charging the panel or your device, it won’t work as a power source. But how does it work as a portable power bank that refills?
The BioLite SolarPanel 5 is from a hip startup in the US that offers some very nice looking gear and a good business philosophy. I’ve looked at their products before and thought this summers IoT project would be a chance to test it out. As mentioned above, the device cannot both charge a device and itself at the same time. You have to toggle this manually, so for my project (plant monitoring), this just won’t work.
How about using it as a solar charger while camping then? This is my thoughts after trying it out for a week.
First of all. this panel looks good! The panel feels quite rugged. The packaging says it’s waterproof, but it’s not listed as such on the product page. The rubber flaps that protect the ports fit well enough to provide some splash resistance. I’m sure it would withstand a light rain, but I don’t think it could survive a proper downpour. If it could, it certainly should have been mentioned on the website, so my guess is that it’s just “weather resistant” and not “water proof”.
The solar dial is pretty cool for aligning the panel. It’s a completely manual device that is using shadow to tell you how to position the panel. Keeping the panel at a perfect angle will increase the charge rate significantly. The metal hinge is more solid than it seems and the holes at the edges are great for attaching the panel to a backpack or hanging it somewhere to catch sun.
The status indicator is visible also in sunlight and the “charge stuff” vs “charge yourself” button is easy to spot and use. The panel will blink one of the status LEDs to tell that if it’s charging or not. Good interface overall.
On a full charge, it’ll charge only 25% of my phone (Huawei Mate 10 Pro) battery. The BioLite is listed as having a 2200mAh battery and my phone has a 4000mAh battery. I don’t expect to get a 50% charge on the phone, but 25% is a little on the thin side? That means that there is a 50% loss in the conversion and that’s quite terrible statistics. In good sunlight conditions, the BioLite battery will fill up in a couple hours, but you have to be there again when it’s full to press the button to toggle over to charging.
Also, there’s no need to plug in the phone until the BioLite is fully charged if you have a large device. Why? If the BioLite is charged less then 50%, it won’t charge a 12.9” iPad Pro at all. Initially this worked better, but it now seems to have tapered off. It actually seems that it has a problem with large devices such as iPads as we once had the Biolite fully charged and it was only able to charge from 2% to 4% on the iPad. BioLite also offers the BioLite 10 plus. With a 10W panel, this’ll charge faster but it only has a 3000mAh battery. This is less than a 50% increase over BioLite 5 and it has the same design problem. you have to be there to click that switch when its fully charged. no way to just leave the phone/tablet to charge while your out on a trip.
While the sun dial is cool, you have to stick around to move the panel all day. This limits it’s usefulness. The small battery makes it so that you have to remember to charge every time the Biolite is full and then be sure to get it charging again as quickly as possible. To get a full charge, you’ll have to be around all day just to press a button every now and then. If the device had a larger battery, you could leave it out all day and come back to a full charge. This will of course increase the weight, making it less portable so I fully understand that this is a design decision. I still would like some more capacity for a panel of this size.
This is a nice looking and well built panel, but the battery size makes it less than ideal for charging phones with large batteries and iPads.
The BioLite SolarPanel10 is a travel- and eco-friendly device for slow-charging a smartphone while camping
Digital Camera World Verdict
With a built-in battery behind a solar panel the BioLite SolarPanel10 is one of the best ways of recharging a smartphone if you’re outdoors, but only if you have time to kill.
- Rugged design
- Sundial for max. solar power
- Integrated 3,200mAh battery
- Folds up for travel
- – MicroUSB input
- – Battery is small
- – Requires regular realignment
- – Slow to recharge gadgets
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The BioLite SolarPanel10 isn’t going to save you much on your energy bills. At just 10W don’t expect it to recharge anything quickly. However, if used properly a little patience will be rewarded with free power for a smartphone.
It takes a little knowledge to set it up properly and the occasional repositioning while it’s doing its thing, but a built-in battery enables this solar panel-battery to refuel devices even when the Sun goes down.
Size: 259x208x23 mm/10.2×8.2×0.9 inches
Weight: 550g/19.4 oz
Connections: micro USB, USB-A
Battery: 3,200 mAh
The BioLite SolarPanel10 is a 10W solar panel with a 3,200 mAh battery built-in to it. That’s incredibly useful because it means that it can send energy into a smartphone, tablet or camera battery not just at midday when the Sun is high in the sky, but whenever you want. It recharges its own battery, which in turn sends a steady charge to whatever device is connected; the end result is a constant recharging process that doesn;lt stop just because there’s Cloud … or even darkness.
On the back of the battery is a USB-A slot (5V/2.4-amp) for attaching whatever you want as well as a micro USB slot for recharging the BioLite SolarPanel10 from the mains. It’s just a shame micro USB is used since that’s now very outdated.
Build and handling
The BioLite SolarPanel10 has exceptional build quality for the task at hand. The photovoltaic cells themselves are housed beneath a tough plastic layer, making the solar panels themselves particularly rugged and able to withstand all kinds of rough handling. The solar panel actually folds in two for easy travel. One half of it has a kickstand that extends out. This helps aim the BioLite SolarPanel10 at the Sun, but also creates a shadowed area behind it where you can place your cabled-up phone/camera out of the Sun.
That kickstand also makes it reasonably easy to fasten the BioLite SolarPanel10 to a backpack, so you can recharge while you hike.
Any time the BioLite SolarPanel10 is outside you can monitor its progress by checking the LED lights on the battery; there are four to indicate whether it’s between 25% and 100% charged. They blink if the battery is currently receiving energy from the Sun.
In our benchmark test the BioLite SolarPanel10 took six hours to put an 80% charge into a 10,000mAh portable battery that was connected to its USB-A slot. That’s impressive, though not exactly lightning-quick; you do have to be patient with the BioLite SolarPanel10. Its headline act works well; as it recharges using sunlight it tops-up its built-in battery and sends that directly into a device connected via USB. So you can leave the BioLite SolarPanel10 back at camp to recharge while you go out, then use it to top-up your phone when you return after dark. However, practically speaking there are a couple of problems with that approach. The first is that the 3,200 mAh capacity of the BioLite SolarPanel10’s built-in battery isn’t much, so we’re talking a 50% top-up of the average smartphone, not a full recharge. The second issue is that the BioLite SolarPanel10 recharges about 30% faster when directly aimed at the Sun. The Sun, of course, appears to move through the daytime sky, so every hour or so it’s wise to reposition the BioLite SolarPanel10. It’s easy to do; a small sundial is produced in the corner that projects a shadow onto a dial. All you have to do is centre that shadow to ensure the BioLite SolarPanel10 is receiving direct sunlight.
It’s not going to solve your battery anxiety issues and it requires a sunny day, but used all day the BioLite SolarPanel10 is a useful and easy to use device for topping-up a smartphone on the go. However, we do wish it had a 5,000 mAh battery as well as a USB-C input for recharging it.
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