Nobody likes spending money on a product only to find out it’s not what you thought.
I run into this problem with shirts all the time. I wear a 3XL tall, which is hard enough to find that I have to do most of my shopping online. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered a shirt that’s supposed to fit only to find out it doesn’t even come close. Disappointing to say the least.
It’s one thing to be let down by a $20 shirt, but it’s so much worse when you’ve spent a lot of money on a product to then find out it’s not at all what you thought.
If you’ve made the decision to invest in a power station, you’ve committed to spending a large chunk of money. In this guide I’ll share my tips for guaranteeing that you get a shirt that fits — I mean a power station that works for your needs.
Know Your Measurements
As I mentioned before, I struggle to find my size, which is partly due to inconsistencies in sizing. Both when buying clothes and buying a solar system, it’s helpful to know your exact measurements and needs so you can be more confident in what you’re buying.
You should know ahead of time what you’re planning on using your power station for (or at least have a good idea). Are you camping, powering a small cabin, keeping it for emergency use, powering grow lights, installing it in an RV? If you’re not sure, call a company and talk it through with a sales or tech representative. Give as much detail as you can because the more they know about your needs, the better they’ll be able to help you.
Try to be specific and make a list of appliances you’ll be running and for how long. A home office full time? TV three hours a day? Some lights, a fan, and a radio on and off for 24 hours? The more information you have ahead of time, the better you’ll be at choosing something that works for you.
Know the Lingo
Admittedly, this isn’t a huge deal for buying shirts, but I still need to know some things. For instance, I’ve had to learn the difference between a straight fit, slim fit, and “fitted;” and it’s good to know what materials will shrink in the wash.
There are also some basic terms you should be familiar with when buying a power station. Watts, watt-hours, volts, and AC versus DC are fundamental for talking about a power station’s abilities. If you know what they are, you’ll be able to ask the right questions and understand the answer. This is just a primer, so I won’t spend a ton of time on them here, but here’s a quick rundown of what they mean.
Watts (W)measure electrical power and are used for talking about energy consumption. They measure how much power your device is using when it’s on. Knowing your device’s wattage helps make sure you choose a system that can power all your devices.
Watt-Hours (Wh)are used to measure the energy storage capacity of a battery and refer to the maximum number of watts a battery can supply in an hour before it runs out of energy. Watt-hours will tell you how long it will take to charge the system or how long you can use it before the battery needs to be recharged.
Volts (V) measure the electrical pressure from the power source (like water pressure in plumbing). You’ll most likely see volts listed when looking at the power rating of things like solar panels and batteries. Staying within the voltage limitations of a system is important for making sure you don’t damage it.
AC vs DC: Alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) are basically different ways to deliver power. DC is ideal for low-voltage applications and is the kind of power you get from USB plugs, solar panels, and cigarette lighter plugs. The batteries in your power station store DC power. AC is used to deliver high voltage, so it’s what you get out of the outlets in your home.
Watch out for Misleading Claims
I’ve been hurt by the line “pre-shrunk” too many times to fall for it again. If I know a shirt is made from a material that will shrink in the wash, I won’t buy it. I don’t care how many times they promise it won’t.
When buying a power station you should watch out for misleading claims. Sometimes system specifications can misrepresent a system’s true capabilities. Whether this is on purpose or by mistake, you should make sure you know exactly what the manufacturer means. If something seems too good to be true, it just might be. It’s always a good idea to contact the manufacturer, ask your questions, and be sure you’re clear on the performance of their system.
For instance, a power station may say something like 2 x 1500 watt outputs. At first glance, this may look like each outlet can supply 1500 watts, so if you run them simultaneously you get a total output of 3000 watts. There’s a missing piece of information, though, and that’s the inverter rating. If the inverter can produce only 1500 watts, then what they actually mean is that each outlet can supply 1500 individually, orboth combined can supply 1500 watts, but never more than that.
In general, keep an eye out for missing information, things that don’t make sense, or claims that seem too good to be true. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.
Know the Projected System Life
The shirt analogy kind of falls apart here, so we’ll skip it.
Portable power stations are designed to be rugged and with that comes the expectation that they’ll last a long time. After all, it’s an expensive piece of equipment and one would hope it would last years and years. So what is the expected life of a power station?
You’ll find that a lot of systems tout their long battery life by telling you that they’ll run for 1,000 cycles or three years (or something similar). There are two problems with this:
1,000 cycles do not necessarily equal three years. The rating assumes that you are going through one cycle a day, which may or may not be the case. You can run through 1,000 cycles a lot faster if you use the system constantly.
This only represents the life of the battery. A power station has other components that probably won’t last that long, especially if the system is under constant or heavy use.
Make sure that you have the right expectations for system life.
If it’s important to you to have a system that will last a long time, be sure to ask what you can do to extend your system’s life. Typically it will involve things like storing the battery at the correct state of charge, using it within operating temperatures, and avoiding large loads (where possible). Knowing and following these guidelines for your system will allow you to extend its life so you can enjoy it for years to come.
Test the Fit
If I buy a shirt, you’d better believe I’m going to throw that puppy on right away. Obviously, I want to test the fit to make sure I have a shirt I can actually wear — otherwise I’m returning it. But I’m also excited about my new shirt (I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise), so I’m totally gonna parade it around and fish for compliments.
The same goes for the expensive power station that just got delivered to your house. Test that bad boy out! I am constantly surprised at how many people buy an expensive solar system, don’t open it, and then get mad when they finally use it six months later, it’s not what they expected, and they can’t return it.
When you get your system, test it out. Take it camping, if that’s why you bought it, or have a fake power outage. Put the system through its paces to make sure it does everything you want it to do. Also, be sure to call the manufacturer if you haveany questions about how it works and do it right away so you can return it if it doesn’t meet your expectations. You don’t want to be stuck with something you can’t use.
Know Your Options for Expansion
There’s no such thing as an expandable shirt, but I’m sure you’ve seen those zipper pants that can be turned into shorts. It’s a cool idea.
Now, imagine you had a pair of zipper pants but didn’t know they could be converted into shorts. Then, at the end of the summer, you find out that you’ve been underutilizing your pants and you could have been so much cooler! Or maybe you’ve been wearing jeans all summer and didn’t know that zipper pants even existed.
Expandable or modular power systems have made their debut, and they’re changing the market. These systems are exciting because they are halfway between something totally prefabricated and something custom-built. A modular system combines the best of both worlds by giving you a safe, easy-to-use system that can still be modified to meet your specific needs.
In addition to being fully customizable, a modular system will make repairs easier and help extend system life. Because a system can be broken down into parts, it's not necessary to repair the entire system if only one module has failed. You can also replace modules as they go out or become outdated, so a single system can last you years and years, instead of having to buy a new one every so often.
The possibilities with a modular system are basically endless and as more companies begin to explore and incorporate expandability into their designs, it will be worth your time to ask about what opportunities you’ll have with their products. That way you’re not underutilizing your system or missing out on a feature that could help address your diverse needs.
Buying a power station that works for you, like buying a shirt that fits, doesn’t have to be hard. Just follow these six tips and soon enough you’ll be enjoying the benefits of a solar power station that is perfectly suited to your needs.
And if you learn nothing else from what I’ve shared, I hope you learn to ask questions. Lots of them. You’re much more likely to find your perfect system if you do.
Bonus Tip: Communication is Key
By the way, a majorly helpful resource when buying a power station is the customer support team for the product. Their job is to help you, so they should answer your questions promptly and clearly.
Even after you’ve bought the product, you want a team who’s as invested in your success as you are, who will help answer your questions post-purchase, and who will work efficiently to service your product when the need arises.
Do your homework, not just about the product, but about the company. Do they have a history of good customer service? Are they U.S.-based? What kind of turnaround time do they have on warranty services or replacements?
Finding a company that truly supports you will make it so much easier for you to find a power station that meets your needs.