Saturday, December 8, 2012

Solio Bolt Solar Charger

My first interest in purchasing the Solio Bolt Solar Charger came from pictures out of hurricane Sandy's recent destruction in the northeast.  The photos were of hoards of cell phones being plugged in bunches on sidewalks, piled in window displays, grouped in cars, stacked at lunch counters...jammed anywhere there was electrical power available to recharge their phones.
Hurricane Sandy cell phone charging jam
We have power outages in Florida, from natural disasters like hurricanes but also from storms and failed electrical transport equipment.  Maybe in the future even from a computer hacker.  When two critical neighborhood transformers blew this week, my wife's first question was, "Is your new solar charger 'toy' charged?"  "Yes," I smiled. "It is."
So why this model?  I had been looking online at solar chargers for some time and found this one was relatively inexpensive, selling for $65 online.  The Black Friday REI sale took 25% off the price, so I ordered it.  For my $45 I got a reasonable solar charger and a lithium battery, which is said to hold a charge for about a year.  The manufacturer says you can usually get two full cell phone charges from a full battery, then either plug the charger back into your computer USB port or an electrical outlet or setup the solar panels in full, unobstructed sunlight to recharge it.  It weighs 5.3 ounces or 150 grams, about what my cook kit weighs.  Add in the 0.6 ounce cable for a total of 5.9 ounces.  Unfortunately, the Black Friday sale is over.  Here is the REI link for the Solio Bolt.  The Solio website is here.
Solio Bolt Solar Charger and included USB cord
In reading users online posts, I can tell there are varying levels of success in both charging devices from the Solio Bolt and in recharging the units battery.  I expected my mileage to vary due to different phone types and the local tilt angle of the sun, but I was surprised at the wide angle of solar alignment the Bolt can handle during charging.
So after our first full battery charge, we have charged my wife's Google-style HTC smart phone, once, while it was turned on, leaving 2 flashes of light or about 40% charge remaining (20% per flash).  If that is true, it took 60% of the battery to fully charge her phone one time.  Since she has to recharge daily to use all her smart phone functions, it may be difficult to keep up with her needs during an extended power outage, much less keep my phone charged also.  We tried charging her phone on the remaining battery the next day and got a 75% charge.  Enough to work, but not 100%.
I'll test it with my work phone next, a Blackberry Curve.  Fortunately for us, both phones work with the included micro-USB cable that came with the solar charger (my Kindle Touch works also).
My work-provided Blackberry phone charged, and while still powered on, charged and charged until the Bolt was discharged after 6 hours.  About 4 hours in, I looked at the Blackberry charge meter and it was full but the unit was still charging.  Bad for sharing.  Then I recharged the Bolt battery and tried again, this time with my work phone turned off. The phone completely charged in one hour, but it did not turn off the charger.  For all future phone charges my suggestion is the phone must be turned off.  This left a 60% charge in the Bolt battery.
My Kindle Touch drained the Bolt's entire battery and got about an 85% charge.  I had turned the wireless off.  Long enough to finish a story or check email since the Kindle charge can last a month or more.
How it works:  the Solio Bolt has two solar panels, hinged to open them both to the sun.  The included pencil allows you to prop the unit up to the right tilt height for the local sun (the pencil is slick and may need to be roughed up a bit to actually hold the Bolt in place).  Check here for your local sun tilt level and scroll down to fill out the form.  It also has covered USB plugs, a micro and a regular-size plug on the battery unit.  The micro USB connector is for incoming charges, like from your computer or an electrical outlet.  The regular-size USB port is for outgoing charges to your devices.  When the Bolt unit is being charged, the single LED button on the back glows red, turning off at 100% battery charge.  To charge your device from the Bolt charger, connect the outgoing USB cable, then press the single LED button once.  It will flash the charge level and then begin charging your device, flashing green as it charges.  This may take a minute or so, but in our case the phone came to life, just like it was being charged in an electrical outlet. Once charged, the green flashing light goes out and you press the LED button again to turn off the charger, then disconnect the cable.
From the website:
Max Wattage: 5 Watts
Discharge Rate: Fixed 5V, 1,000mAh
Charge Rate: 5-5.5V 450mAh
Charge Time via USB port/wall charger: 4 hours 30 min.
Charge Time via Sun: 8-10 hours
Battery info:
3.7V/2,000mAh Li-Poly - User replaceable at end of life (average 3 years)
Solar charging the Bolt on top of my garden composter.  Note there is no shadow from the pencil.
To charge in the sun, I used a place in our yard where the sunlight was unobstructed (it won't work under polarized glass and is reduced under pool enclosure screens and intermittent shade).  I just used the included pencil that comes with the unit and aligned it so there is no shadow from the pencil onto the front of the unit.  My results were the Bolt was almost fully charged when I checked it at sunset in 4 hours.  Since the sun had already dropped below the treeline when I got to it, the unit was not charging at that time.  It read 4 flashes or an 80% charge and started with 3 flashes or 60% charged battery.  The unit should completely charge the battery from no flashes to full 5 flashes in the sun in about 10 hours.
Note pencil shadow after 3 hours charging...even though the sun's alignment had changed, the unit was still charging!
For recharging by the sun on a moving backpack with varying degrees of shade, my expectations have improved.  I did figure how to dangle the charger at near the correct tilt over the back top of a backpack using mini bungees and cord locks.  There is the tree cover, either solid or intermittent shade, usually both,  that can hamper charging.  During breaks you can position it properly on your pack or on the ground.  The unit does charge sufficiently and I expect it would charge more so in the desert southwest or even above treeline, than in the southeast subtropical scrub.  Please let me know your real-life results.
My Blackberry USB Outlet Charger
Currently, solar panels like this one are designed for a relatively fixed location.  To change them to a mobile receive-sunlight-from-all-angles design would require a market for that specific use, one I think is coming.
The north-bound through-hiker cure for the AT would be to carry a multiple-outlet USB wall charger, and to recharge the solar charger battery (or any USB devices) while shopping and washing in a town at an electrical outlet every 5-6 days.  Then you would have two power recharges (one for your phone every other day) and if you kept your phone off between towns you may get many days between charges.  There's also your GPS, camera, e-reader or tablet to be charged, along with headlamps, video cameras, water purifiers, i-Pods and who knows what so plan well and test in advance how you will charge everything before a long backpacking trip.  My Blackberry USB wall charger weighs 0.8 ounces or 22 grams, so it is quite lightweight. You could also solar charge on clear sky zero days, but then we don't usually plan for (or get) many of those days when ultralight backpacking.


  1. This is not about hiking but related. I put a small 45 watt solar system on my house for 12 volt lighting and emergency lighting. 3 small solar panels=>charge controler/battery=> 12 volt outputs. I bought a car usb charger so I can charge the phones. My my wife then took the wrong phone charger on a trip (mine) leaving me to charge my phone off the solar panels. They worked just fine.

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