Which portable solar panels should you buy?
I often get asked which portable solar panels are better, the regular solar suitcases, with sturdy glass fronts and a strong frame, or the lighter flexible panels. For years I only carried solar suitcases, but the flexible panels have gotten better so now we have both available.
Both panels have their strengths and weaknesses, so lets try to break it down
A solar suitcase, like its name implies, folds in half like a suitcase for easier storage and transport. They are made out of traditional solar panels, with a sturdy glass front and aluminum frame. Most have legs for tilting them towards the sun.
Their main strengths are:
1) Very sturdy , robust and reliable. I have accidentally run over my solar suitcase with an ATV and there was no damage done. I had one set up at an RV show, and a little 3 year old boy stopped and studied it, trying to figure out what it was. Finally he decided it was a slide, climbed up it and slid down! No harm done.
2) They will last 25 years, even if you leave them out in the weather full time.
The Solar Suitcase’s main weaknesses are:
1) Rather heavy (about 22# or more) and hard to transport.
2) Their weight and how they are shaped limits where you can put them. For example, its difficult to put them in a tree or on the roof of the RV.
These panels are often two, three or even four small panels sewn together with a cloth backing. They fold up nicely, and can make quite a lot of battery charging solar power.
Their main strengths are:
1) They are incredibly light and easy to fold. This makes them good for physically challenged people.
2) They can be set on the grass, hung from a tree, thrown up on the roof of the RV or car. They can be placed almost anywhere on any surface. In Colorado, we often have people take the flexible panels on their overnight raft trips. Electric bikes are becoming very popular here, and a portable panel with a small solar generator is a great way to re-charge your e-bike during multi-day camping trips.
3) They can easily make twice the power of a solar suitcase.
The flexible panel’s main weaknesses are:
1) They are not sturdy, nor robust. If the kids run over them with a bicycle, it is possible they will be damaged.
2) They have a limited lifetime, due to aging in the sun and weather. They are usually good for about 300 days in the sun before they degrade. Of course, if you are only using them 10-20 days a year camping, you will probably get 10 years or more of good solar power.
3) Because they are not sturdy, you need to be careful how you transport them. You can’t stack heavy stuff on them, or crunch them up and stuff them in the RV storage compartment.
We often see elderly RV’ers go for the lighter flexible panels, and young RV’ers, with children, opt for the sturdy solar suitcase style panels. We even have some cabin owners use the flexible panels, because they only set them out when they are actually at the cabin, which is only 20-30 days a year. So now you can decide which portable solar panel is right for you.