Back in November I gave my initial impressions of the Voltaic Systems solar charging kit and its applicability to photographers in the field. At the time I also mentioned that, as with many things, the real test would be in an actual field trial. Well, after two weeks on location in northern Ethiopia it is safe to say that it has been put through its paces and its strengths and weaknesses revealed.The kit in question is the 17W single-panel kit consisting of the panel, the V72 20,000mAh lithium polymer battery and a number of connecting cables and adapters. In addition to the base kit I ordered the Canon LP-E6 battery charger and an Apple MagSafe power adapter for a 2011 model MacBook Air. It is hard to tell whether the panel and V72 are designed by Voltaic or merely off-the-shelf items but the advantage to me as a photographer was that I didn’t have to spent inordinate amounts of time trying to work out which items were required, which were not and whether they would work together. The Canon battery charger was definitely a third-party item (more on that later) whilst the MagSafe adapter was definitely hand-crafted by Voltaic.
PREPARING FOR THE TRIP
Before heading out I knew that, given our location, there would be no chance of a power source during critical parts of the journey. There are some stunning landscapes in the north of the country, but they are far from civilisation. So, whatever power requirements I had needed to be met by the kit that I carried. In the original article I outlined what I considered to be fairly simple needs: I needed a means to charge the LP-E6 batteries for the 5D Mk II and 7D bodies and also my MacBook Air that would be used for the end-of-day review and image backup. It was a simple requirement and one that the Voltaic web site suggested fell well within the capabilities of the kit.
I had also given a fair amount of consideration to how – and when – I would need to charge my equipment and I anticipated two basic scenarios. First, when moving between locations in the 4WD vehicles. Second, when on location. In the first scenario, we’d be spending a lot of time sitting around and not doing much shooting. According to the itinerary, these would be long days driving and arriving at the destination after sunset. In the second scenario, we’d be out-and-about but with a fixed camp to return to at the end of the day.
The issue that I could see, however, was that there was no easy way to attach the solar panel to the vehicle. Voltaic Systems had very kindly included a set of plastic attachments that would allow the panel to be tied to something (for example with velcro or cable ties), but they weren’t too much use on a vehicle. Luckily a good friend of mine has a mechanical aptitude and a comprehensive workshop, after a few conversations, he created a magnetic mounting kit for the panel. Now I could attach the panel to any magnetic surface – such as the roof of a 4WD – and simply run the connecting cable to the V72 safely inside the cabin. So now I was ready: I could mount the panel on a vehicle, a camel or any other fixed structure.One of the nice things about the V72 battery is that you do not have to use the solar panel to charge it. The recommended input is a 14-20V DC input and the kit came with an appropriate mains adapter for this purpose. Initial tests in the UK (and shown in the original article) also showed the solar panel happily generated around the 20V mark. Voltaic also include a cigarette lighter lead suggesting that even a 12V DC supply can charge the battery. This was especially convenient as, for the first few days as we covered the 700km from the capital to the north of the Rift Valley, we would have access to cigarette lighters in the 4WD vehicles. Once at the Erta Ale base camp however, where we swapped transport to camels, we would be on our own.
One of the things that separates Voltaic’s solar kit apart from the other ones I researched is the capacity of the V72. At 20,000mAh it has, in theory, enough reserve for ten of Canon’s 1,800mAh LP-E6 batteries although Voltaic’s web site suggests a more conservative 3.5 times reserve. Voltaic also suggested that a single, full, charge of the V72 would be enough to replenish the Air’s own internal cells.The charging process can work in one of two ways, depending upon what you are charging. Voltaic’s web site suggests that camera batteries can be charged directly from the panel, presumably relying on the battery charger’s regulation circuitry to ensure the battery is not over-cooked. However, smart phone and laptop charging should be performed via the V72 battery. In the end everything was charged via the V72 battery although it was here that I hit a bit of an inconvenience. Voltaic offer two cables (the red cables in the photographs) to connect the panel to the V72, one at 4 feet and one at 10 feet in length. In both cases they are terminated in a 3.5mm male DC plug. This is fine for the camera charger but for the V72 – which takes a 5.5mm input – a small (provided) adapter had to be used. One thing I have learnt is that when moving about at some point during the various unpackings and repackings, you lose small stuff. It is inevitable. Given that Voltaic only recommend direct charging for camera batteries, this seems an odd choice of connector. In the end I replaced the provided 3.5mm plug with a 5.5mm plug before heading out.
The other reason that I ended up always charging the V72 is one of convenience. At 12° north of the equator we were still in winter and so daylight hours were limited. Sunrise was around 6:30AM and sunset around 6:30PM. The activities of the day meant that direct charging was almost always impractical until we came to a halt in the evening.
The first few days were spent covering distance as we moved up country. Long hours in the 4WD interspersed with stops to examine some interesting geologic phenomenon. It was a light draw upon the camera batteries but in the evening it was still worth topping them up from the V72. An unexpected power drain, however, was the iPhone 6. Quite by accident I began to use it to record video clips and take those panoramas that didn’t quite seem worth setting up the panoramic tripod head for. The iPhone turns out some quite reasonable results, but its video capabilities have a heavy drain on the battery.
With the added load of the iPhone battery using the long hours of driving to keep the V72 fully charged turned out to be very useful. Even so, the first few days were a gentle introduction for the charging kit.Once we arrived at the Erta Ale base camp and headed up the volcano, the solar charging kit panel took a more fundamental role. A few of the other travellers also had Canon 5D MkII and/or 7D bodies, one had a quadracopter and the rest had their own cameras form different manufacturers. With three days at the edge of a lava lake we all became a little shutter-happy. I managed, with no real effort, to take over a 1000 shots as well as a large number of video clips and I was not alone. The quadracopter was set free and captured some stunning footage although you could literally watch the batteries drain. The problem was that we had zero access to power. The 4WD vehicles were three hours away and as the journey would require a military escort to be organised, short of a medical emergency, we weren’t going to be making it. Only one other person had a solar kit – a $60 affair off eBay – and that was so ineffective as to be useless. Suddenly I had become a popular guy to know. Due to the number of videos I was taking and a lot of use of image stabilisation I was getting through around two of the Canon LP-E6 batteries a day, some of the other serious photogs were too. The iPhone battery also required daily attention and the end-of-day upload to Adobe Lightroom on the Air drained its battery at an unholy rate. A queue formed. The Voltaic charger simply could not keep up with it all. This is in no way a criticism: It is intended vey much as a personal charging solution and we were asking it to keep up with four people each placing a heavy demand upon it. In truth it actually coped better than I expected and the ability of the V72 to output as USB and simultaneously one of 12,16 or 19V really shone; there were a couple of instances where charging the iPhone and a camera battery simultaneously was a real benefit.
It was whilst camped up on the crater of Erta Ale that the provided ‘tie-attachments’ came in useful as they allowed me to cable tie the panel to the wooden branches of the hut I was it. It was unlikely to be stolen, but we were exposed and the wind did pick up every now and then. As my hut backed on to a sheer drop to the old, razor-sharp lava, caldera floor, had the wind decided to get too playful then panel would have met a very quick end.Disaster almost struck. The Canon battery charger provided by Voltaic broke. After disassembling it I discovered that the DC input socket had a snapped solder joint and had lifted the solder tracks off the circuit board. In other words it was definitely not repairable in the field. Had it not been for one of the guys having a USB Canon charger I, and the other Canon users would have been in dire straits. It is worth pointing out that I was not trying to be overly rough with any part of the provided kit, but I was in the field. Things do get knocked about, repeatedly plugged and unplugged otherwise moved and I would expect the elements of the charging kit to withstand this level of abuse. If I am blunt about it, the supplied battery charger is (or rather was) a rather cheap-and-cheerful piece of kit. But to balance that negative, the solar panel and V72 stood up to field work admirably. The V72 may have a few scratches now and a dent or two, but it continues to be rock-solid. The panel itself has a few surface scratches but these have no effect upon its operation. The only let-down is the provided third-party battery charger. After descending from Erta Ale we moved further north to Dalol (or Dallol, depending upon which map you read) and close to the DMZ between Ethiopia and Ertitrea. Here the accommodation improved as we swapped the crude huts with volcanic ash floors and mice for crude beds under the stars. We did have one structure available to use and this doubled as a kitchen and storage area for our bags. It’s roof also server as a convenient high place to mount the panel out of the reach of the local children. Whilst we again had access to the 4WD vehicle as so everyone returned to charging their batteries that way, continuing to use the panel meant that I did not have to wait in line – and took some strain off the vehicles.
Eventually we returned to civilisation and for the last couple of days found ourselves in hotel rooms. Aside from the joy of now actually having toilets and showers, everyone rejoiced in the concept of electricity that came from sockets in the walls! Except me. I had left all my mains chargers back in the UK and so I still relied on the solar kit to provide me with power. In the first hotel $5 bought me access to the roof; in the second there was a rooftop bar.
So, the bottom line is whether I can recommend the Voltaic offering or not. The answer is an almost definite yes but I would like to suggest to Voltaic Systems the following changes:
- Include a magnetic mounting system for vehicles.
- Change, or at least offer an alternative cable to connect the panel to the V72 battery terminating in a 5.5mm DC plug thereby removing the need for an adapter.
- Offer a more resilient camera battery charger.
In addition to the suggestions to Voltaic Systems I recommend having a second V72 to hand. I’m not totally sure how keeping two charged would work given that the panel couldn’t charge a single V72 in one day, but heading out to location with two fully charged 20,000mAh batteries certainly would not hurt.
In spite of these suggestions, and even without my modifications, the bottom line is that the kit not only worked, it worked well. Despite being asked to perform far beyond it’s intended use it helped all of us keep power to our cameras and get shots from a location we’ll likely never see again. And since that was the whole point of having a solar charging kit in the first place, I can only say that it was well worth the price of purchase and import costs to the UK, the extra luggage weight and the need for me to modify it. Next time I head out to a location where power will be scarce, it is definitely on my packing list.
UPDATE: 30 JAN 2015
After posting this review Jeff over at Voltaic responded pretty much immediately (which seems to be normal for their customer service) to the points I raised. I’ve then sat on the interesting replies until now (although in my defence I have been busy).
Voltaic now link to an US-based web site that provide off-the-shelf magnets that can be purchased and fit directly to the panel’s threads. For USA customers this is a great solution although I would just point out that (1) shipping to the UK (and presumably anywhere else outside of the US) was prohibitively expensive when I sent Voltaic the link last year, and (2) the magnets have no protection and so may scratch the surface they are attached to.
Not mentioned elsewhere on their site but they have now changed the style of adapter that I was so concerned over losing (as it would prevent solar charging) that I discarded it and soldered on my own connector. Apparently Voltaic now provide an adaptor that clips over the cable coming from the solar panel. If this is anything like the one they already use on the red connecting cable then you’re probably not going to lose it – it needed a serious amount of pulling to detach the cable from the panel.
As for the failed battery charger, right now it seems that they are still being sold and I guess that my experience was not-so-common. Voltaic are interested in alternatives and I’m testing a German-made one right now. But my advice would be to take at least one spare charger – they’re critical yet very lightweight and only a few dollars.
Voltaic have posted highlights of my review on their web site here.