Keep the Lights On: A Look at Portable Power-Stations

With all of the recent wet weather we’ve received in California and Nevada, thousands of us have experienced power outages. In the Summer, the demands of air condition have strained the power grid, and the Public Safety Power Shutoffs have interrupted service to thousands more. So having emergency backup power is a good idea year-round.

You can have a whole-house emergency generator installed, and some home solar systems offer battery power storage, such as the Tesla Powerwall. These systems can be quite expensive, and require professional installation. If you’re not willing to spend thousands of dollars but would like the peace of mind that comes with having alternate, emergency power, what options are available?

Many of us have gas-powered generators in our garage or RV’s. These are great for powering some items, but unless they provide regulated sine-wave output, they can damage sensitive electronics. Additionally they can be noisy. Since all of these generator use gasoline or propane as fuel, they must be operated outdoors. This will require extension cords to be run-in through a door or window. What’s more, in 2024, the sale of small generators in California will be banned.

Another solution is to use a portable power station. These have been around for decades, most commonly as car jump-starters. Many have AC inverters allowing for some limited applications. These have rely on lead-acid battery to store electricity. These batteries are heavy relative to their storage capacity.

With the increased availability of lithium batteries, a new generation of power banks is coming to market and they are gaining popularity. Their weight to storage-capacity ratio makes them ideal for in-home use.

These power-banks are commonly marketed as Solar Generators, which is a bit misleading, since they don’t generate electricity, they store it. They can be charged by solar panels, but those are sold separately. They can also be charged using household AC power and even DC from your vehicle. Since they produce no exhaust, they can be used indoors.

Due to their increased storage capacity, many of these power banks can operate most household appliances and tools for an extended period of time. To understand how long, it’s important to look at the various power ratings.

For portable power devices, the battery’s capacity is measured in watt-hours (Wh). So a unit rated for 500 Wh. can operate a 500-watt appliance for 1 hour. Another number to consider is its output rating, measured in watts. If a device is listed as having a 1000 watt output, it can handle a maximum continuous load of 1000 watts. And then there is the peak output, or surge rating. Some electrical devices will briefly draw more power, especially at start up. So if you plan to operate a 1000 watt device, it may draw 1,200 watts briefly.

All AC powered devices should have their power requirements listed. Often it will be listed in watts. Other items may display their electrical requirements in terms of amperage. To determine its power requirement in watts, simply multiply the amperage by the voltage. For example, if a fridge is listed as 7.2 amps at 115 volts, the power is 828 watts.

A typical mid-range unit is capable of operating a full sized refrigerator for a few hours. In the kitchen, they can be used for a wide variety of devices including microwaves, crock-pots and pressure cookers. So even if the power is out, you can enjoy a hot meal.

Around the house, a power-station can power a cable modem and WiFi router. You can keep your laptop and other devices charged up so you won’t be offline. Although for many of us, a power-outage can be a welcomed break. If you use a medical device such a CPAP or oxygen concentrator, having reliable power is essential.

Prices can range anywhere from $300 for a small-capacity unit to thousands of dollars for a high capacity system. Many offer the ability to add additional battery modules for increased capacity.

Portable Power Station Hooked up to Solar Panels to recharge

Because these are portable devices, they aren’t limited to home usage. They are extremely popular with campers and overland travel enthusiasts. Whether it’s a cross-country camping adventure, or a trip to the park, the convenience of quiet, on-demand power has its benefits.

Like generators, the sale of gas-powered yard equipment will be banned in 2024. This will mean electric lawn mowers, string-trimmers and chainsaws will need to be used. If you have a large lot and don’t want to use hundreds of feet of extension cords, one of these power stations might be a solution.

For lithium batteries, there are two types to consider. Lithium Nickle Metal Cobalt (NCM) have a higher energy density and have the advantage of being light in weight. These are the type of batteries that power out smartphones, laptops and many EVs. The generate heat as they are used and can be prone to “thermal runaway events” (catch fire), if damaged, misused or are poorly manufactured. A newer type of battery called Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP or LiFePO4) aren’t prone to overheating. They also have the advantage of having a longer useable lifespan. LFP batteries are heavier than NCM batteries relative to their storage capacity, but are considered to be safer.

Since this new generation of power-banks is relatively new, it’s the “wild west” in terms of availability, options and pricing. There are several companies manufacturing and marketing them. So it is a good idea to some research before making a purchase.

Some of the most well-known brands currently include Yeti, Jackery, Bluetti, Anker and Vtoman. There are dozens of additional brands available, with more coming to market all the time.

The next time the power goes out, it might be a bit inconvenient, but with a portable power-station, you can enjoy what matters most to you.

1 Comment on Keep the Lights On: A Look at Portable Power-Stations

  1. carol peters // January 27, 2023 at 9:01 am // Reply

    Jayna, very cute picture of you! can you talk to me more about a generator?
    carol peters


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