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Knowledge Base : Frequently Asked Questions : Solar Charging FAQ : Can I Run my Device Directly from Solar Power?

Can I Run my Device Directly from Solar Power?

Solar Energy. It's an option that is becoming more and more viable as the years go by. Maybe you have a friend who has a small solar panel on the dashboard of his pickup maintaining the battery, or you've read about people who manage to live off-grid, entirely relying on solar energy. Put simply, solar panels - or solar chargers - are straightforward devices that capture rays from the sun and transform them into usable power. But before jumping into the world of solar, there are a few details about solar panels that you ought to know of:

A Solar Panel Can...

  • provide electrical current when placed in direct sunlight
  • be connected with other panels in series or parallel
  • be designed with a glass surface or flexible material

A Solar Panel Can't...

  • store electricity to be used at a later time
  • output power during the night
  • efficiently provide power when placed under flourescent light bulbs

So, with the knowledge gained in the preceding paragraphs, Can you run (enter favorite device here) directly off solar energy? The simple answer is this: Yes and no.

Well, that's not such a simple answer, so here are a few things you need to know that will help explain how the answer can be both yes and no simultaneously.

Most solar panels are rated for 12 volts DC nominal. Nominal in this example means that is what the panel is rated at, but it will likely put out more (or less) voltage in varying situations. Often, solar panels are called “solar chargers,” meant for maintaining or recharging 12-volt batteries. What’s more, most household appliances require a very different voltage than what a solar panel produces and cannot run things like your kitchen blender or plug-in heater. Household appliances and electronics in our part of the world (good ol’ US of A) require 120 Volts AC*, and a solar panel does not meet those power requirements.
**Additional information on how to power 120 VAC devices can be found in our article: Solar Systems the Right Way**

Can I use solar chargers directly without a battery?

Okay, so what can I power directly off a solar panel? Many off-grid homes and camping equipment accessories are designed to run off 12 VDC. However, powering off a solar panel directly may or may not work due to the voltage ranges a solar panel can operate within. If you measure the live power from the solar panel, you can expect voltage anywhere from 12 to 21 volts! This is perfectly normal for solar panels because the power ranges with the intensity of the UV Rays they receive from the sun. The total amount of energy will never exceed the wattage rating of the panel, but the voltage and amperage can increase and decrease accordingly throughout the day. As voltage goes up, amperage goes down. Total power remains the same. Volts x Amps = Watts. This solar calculator comes in very handy when working with solar.

You can run a device off a solar panel if it can handle the fluctuations in solar energy and the panel meets the device's minimum power (amp/wattage) requirements. If you try using a solar panel on a partly cloudy day, you will quickly see that you have full sun one minute, and the next, you have a cloud blocking the sun. These fluctuations can cause large swings of solar energy - one minute, you may have little to no voltage, and the next minute you have full voltage and/or amperage. Simple devices like pumps and fans are less susceptible to damage and more likely to handle these fluctuations. You will see that some of the foldable panels we carry come with cigarette lighter sockets to plug in a 12v car accessory. These panels are popular among backpackers and offer a solution for people trying to charge GPS devices, e-readers, or cell phones.

However, with most modern technology, devices get picky and will shut down if you try to power directly off a solar panel. One issue we have noticed is with certain cell phones; if the solar input fluctuates (partly cloudy), the cell phone cuts the charger off and will not resume charging until it has been disconnected and reconnected.

Make it work with a Solar Charge Controller and a Battery

So, what’s the use of a solar charger? You can get around these issues by installing a solar charge controller and a small battery between the solar panel and the device. The solar charge controller will stabilize the voltage to normal levels, and the battery will stabilize the amperage fluctuations. This then leaves you with the cleaner power that most devices need. Please keep in mind that the small battery is not there to run the load but stabilize the power. If sunlight conditions diminish greatly, the battery may become discharged, defeating the purpose of stabilizing the load. For this reason, it is also recommended to make sure your panel outputs a little more than you need, so it can recharge the battery if required.

All this explains why we cannot give you a firm yes or no answer regarding powering devices off a solar panel. A lot will depend on the device and the voltage ratings it is designed to operate within. So, yes, it is doable, and no, it is not always the solution or as simple as you might have hoped. However, we like figuring stuff out, and we are always happy to help you solve the problem and see if we can work up a solution that meets your off-grid needs.

Summary

If you are looking to power devices on the go, we recommend checking out our solar section. We have plenty of framed solar panels and some very nice military-grade foldable solar panels, and we have the knowledge to get you where you need to be regarding off-grid solar charging.


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12 people commented, Tech, Stoney, Admin, Adamu, and 8 others
This article is rated 4.5 out of 5
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  • Stoney
    What would I need to run a heat lamp through the hours of darkness for my chicken coop?

    Reply  •  October 10, 2014 at 2:22 am
  • Adamu
    How can I run solar panel with computer ups

    Reply  •  August 15, 2014 at 2:03 pm
    • Admin
      Due to the fact that we don’t have all the information for your system we would need you to contact us at tech@batterystuff.com so that we can ask the appropriate questions, to get you the answer that you may need.

      Reply  •  August 15, 2014 at 2:18 pm
  • Tkoci
    I have a 12v fan and a 6 watt solar panel. What do I need to do to get the fan to run off the solar panel without a battery in the middle? Have tried hooking it straight with the clamp connection and nothing.

     

    Due to the fact that we don’t have all the information for your system we would need you to contact us at tech@batterystuff.com so that we can ask the appropriate questions, to get you the answer that you may need.

    Reply  •  Rated article 5  •  July 7, 2014 at 12:53 pm
  • Kyle
    Solar panels don’t convert UV rays, only the visible spectrum of light.

    Reply  •  Rated article 4  •  June 6, 2014 at 10:29 am
    • BatteryStuff Tech
      That actually depends on the panel. If it is single layer that is generally true, but multi-layer amorphous do actually convert UV light as well. That being said, the majority of solar panels only use the visible spectrum.

      Reply  •  June 6, 2014 at 10:37 am
  • Steve Abraham
    I have a question guys..

    1.If you have an battery 12v will a solar panel charge battery over time?
    2.If you have an UVB AND ULTRA VIOLET FLUORESCENT TUBES above your solar panel will it produce the frequency and charge the battery?

    Reply  •  Rated article 4  •  April 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm
  • Jevon
    we have a gas tankless water heater and when the power goes out the pilot light does not work so no hot water would a small unit power the spark needed to light the heater?

    Reply  •  March 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm
  • Richard A.
    You did not mention an important point regarding powering 12 vdc devices directly off a solar panel. You did mention that the actual voltage can range up to 21 volts, but you did not mention that some devices will not work, or will not work for long, at that higher voltage.

    I was running a 12 vdc muffin fan in an outdoor shed powered only with a 15 watt 12v solar panel. It worked for one season then died. I suspect because the higher voltage burned out the fan. This season I have replaced the fan and added a 12 volt regulator chip to reduce the 20+ volts to 12. We will see how long the fan lasts.

    Reply  •  March 28, 2013 at 7:03 am
    • Srinivas
      Hi Richard,

      what is the 12 volts chip regulator name? Is it LM 317 or 7812 IC?
      I have 50 watt solar panel and 15 watt DC table fan. I want to run this fan with solar power in day time.

      Reply  •  December 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm
    • Jeremy Fear
      Good point! Yes, the 21 VDC can be too much for some loads, which is why it is always a good idea to check with the device manufacturer to see what voltages the device can tolerate.

      Reply  •  March 28, 2013 at 9:19 am



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