Review of Solarpod by Thousandsuns
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The Solarpod is a portable power supply offering a single mains AC voltage output at 400W /800W-peak, a 12V DC car output and 2 USB 5V DC sockets. The unit is powerd by an internal Lithium Iron Phosphate battery that can be charged from a mains adaptor directly from Solar panels.
We tested the solarpod complete with Thousandsuns portable 60W solar panel for 3 weeks in a variety of conditions and from our observations; we would best describe it as an executive styled portable power supply. There are some serious limitations to its design making it unsuitable as an emergency or backup power supply, as we will see later.
The unit is housed in a sleek brushed aluminium rectangular box with smooth lines and pleasant curves to corners and socket recesses. It immediately gives the impression of classy electronic gadget, rather than rugged utilitarian device. Controls situated on top are two chrome push-button switches with illuminated bezels. One is the main push button on-off switch, the other being 240V/400W power inverter on/ off. Along the top is also 2 X 5-LED bar display that indicates solar electric input and another for the battery charge condition.
To the rear is a recess housing MC4 +/- inputs from a solar panel and a 12 Volt input socket for the mains charger. To the front are sockets for 5V. USB X 2, 240V. AC 3 pin socket X 1, and circular car 12V output.
The unit weighs about 4.1kg which is pretty light, in comparison to more conventional lead acid powered units, thanks to the 12V Lithium Iron Phosphate battery rated at 20Ah. These batteries are capable of some 1500 cycles or about 10 years and are thereafter fully recyclable.
The unit has soft padding lining the underside of the curved aluminium carry handle and 4 soft rubber feet. It looks very attractive with obvious attention to style, quality finish and ergonomics. It definitely will look in place on the office desk, or the deck of a luxury yacht in St.Tropez, but not a muddy campsite in Wales.
The Solarpod by Thousandsuns:
The user manual consists of 3 x A4 stapled printed sheets with a similar double page technical description manual. The manual was lacking several crucial instructions and points of information and did not serve even as an adequate quick start guide. During a phone conversation with Thousandsuns they stated that a full manual was coming with later productions. We found that the user manual served only to state the obvious, such as to describe the switches, plugs and sockets and basic details. There are several important functions that are not discussed, such as
1- How do you interpret the battery condition indicator? (which is very quirky)
2- Does the unit need to be turned on/off to receive solar/ mains charge?
3- What is the maximum peak start load for the mains inverter?
4- What happens if the unit is overloaded, does it cut out/ reset?
5- Is there a low power level alarm when running critical appliances, like a computer?
6- How long can the unit retain full charge in storage?
7- What is the peak load from the inverter? (required for refrigeration)
8- Can the battery be renewed?
9- How much current can the 12V outlet deliver?
10 Is there an alarm or indication to indicate loss of power due to battery exhaustion?
Solarpod being charged by 60W foldable solar panel:
Our main focus was to assess how well it partnered with the supplementary 60W foldout solar panels. The double panels are hinged in the middle and foldable with carry handles. The 2 units are intended to be connected in parallel together by 2 flying leads, although the user manual did not cover this. Supplied were 2 long heavy duty connecting leads for positive and negative charge terminals. The plug/sockets for these are rugged, weather proof and were configured to ensure correct polarity.
We plugged the panels together and attached the charging leads to the solarpod. With the unit turned off, there was no indication that anything was happening and the user manual was absent about how to proceed.
Turning the solarpod on we noticed the battery indicator bar was showing 2 out of the 5 lights, so we immediately assumed it was partially charged. This was in fact an incorrect assumption and we’ll discuss this later. With the solar panels angled directly towards the sun, on a moderately hazy to clear sky we got a full reading of 5 bars on the charge lights. This indication does not tell you a great deal of useful information, such as watts of solar charge coming in, or time remaining until a full charge is completed.
The following measurements were taken during the charging period.
@18VDC solar panel output
2 bars on charge indicator – 0.8A – 14.4W charge
3 bars on charge indicator – 1.0A – 18.0W charge
4 bars on charge indicator – 1.5A – 27.0W charge
5 bars on charge indicator – 3.5A – 63.0W charge
We noted over the next 6 hours that the battery condition lights climbed from 2 to the full 5 bars. The unit was turned off, disconnected and set up for appliance and load testing.
Solarpod charging mobile phone:
The quirky battery level meter
So now we come to the main gripe of the Solarpod. The 5 bar battery level indicator is totally confusing at best and completely useless at worst. Strong words, yes, but let’s go through this function as it is critical to any portable power supply worth its salt.
Through numerous experiments, we discovered that when you first turn the solarpod ‘on’, regardless of the true battery condition, it always reads 2 bars, whether it is supplying a load or not. What is more, if you leave the solarpod turned on, the battery lights appear to increase from the default of 2 to 3, 4, and 5 bars every 15 minutes or so until it indicates it’s true charge level. That means to find out how ‘full’ your battery really is may take up to 45minutes if it’s fully charged, or just 30 minutes if its only up to a 4! I did say it was quirky.
We contacted Thousandsuns and asked them what was going on and how this is meant to work, was this a faulty machine? The response was that ‘The unit needed time to adjust and stabilise when it was first turned on’
We pointed out in the beginning of the review that this unit was NOT suitable for emergency use and this becomes very obvious in light of its quirky and confusing battery indicator. The bottom line is, you have no idea what condition the battery is in, unless you leave the unit turned on, or are prepared to wait and see how many lights have come on after your round of golf …
For a £500+ portable power device, we want an instant, reliable readout like my mobile phone and computer that can tell me crucial useful information, like how long in minutes I have left on my battery. Modern technology gives us all this in a single chip display, so Thousandsuns, lets keep the fancy lights for Christmas trees and give this a rethink, please.
Solarpod; pretty but meaningless lights:
When using the mains output from the inverter, we noted that any appliance pulling more than a few milliamps caused the solarpod to start the internal fan and it’s as noisy as a high power desktop computer. This is probably due to prioritising design over function that there are minimal ventilation slots and preference given to forced cooling instead. However, most 400W inverters that are well heat sinked and open to adequate air convection do not need forced cooling. This fan undoubtedly uses up valuable juice and produces an intrusive sound level, especially when running the inverter above 3 amps. What was also unsettling was when we ran a small laptop computer from the Solarpod, using the mains output to drive the computer 3.3amp power supply. The fan was definitely hunting randomly between a low and high setting during normal use (internet browsing). This continued without stabilising. Unfortunately, the fan in this mode sounds similar to the distant howling of wind.
The Solarpod comes with a quality mains charger as standard. We noted that it does charge with the unit turned off and shows a red LED indicator on charge that turns to green on full charge of the battery.
Mains, USB output and 12 Volt socket
The Solarpod has 2 USB sockets that are situated closely one above the other. Yes, it looks neat, but not practical unless you are plugging in standard USB leads. If you plug in a device with an integrated USB plug, the other socket is easily obscured preventing access. Spacing these sockets apart would have been thoughtful.
The mains socket is very tight on the prongs, making it difficult to withdraw the plug. Maybe a nit-pick point, but a friend with arthritis, found it impossible to plug-in, or unplug using this Solarpod socket.
The 12 Volt circular socket is standard and well located for access. However, we have no idea what we can run from this, in terms of power. Laptop Computer, yes, 300W cup heater, yes, But what happens on an overload? Again the user manual is devoid of information.
Solarpod connected to foldable solar panel – rear view:
The Solarpod came in a shiny brushed aluminium flight case with internal foam cutouts for the unit and the mains charger. The case was probably twice the size required for a compact design and again appeared to be appealing to the executive market and not suitable for the rigours of the outdoor field user.
We tested the Solarpod with a variety of appliances, including some with approximate run values from the user manual. Generally, the Solarpod performed well in terms of capacity, although, as mentioned before, the mains inverter fan was ever present and intrusive on everything but the lowest power appliances, such as a phone charger. The power draw from this internal fan is inevitably going to reduce the capacity of this portable power supply.
FRIDGE undercounter, rated at 85W/ 240V. The manual says the Solarpod will run an undercounter fridge for 18 hours off a 4 hour charge from a 100W solar panel. For this test, we left the Solarpod on charge all day from our 60W panels and the fridge stopped working somewhere after 10 hours. Testing again after a full 12 hours on the mains charger, the Solarpod managed 12 hours, then cut out.
It should be noted that when the solarpod can no longer run an appliance because the battery is exhausted, it simply stops working and all the lights go out. There is no visible or audible alarm to indicate battery exhaustion. We feel this is an oversight, as it is relatively easy to trigger a low power warning signal that would draw attention when the Solarpod loses output power.
The 12V outlet worked as expected and we were able to easily boil 1/2pt of water using a car in-cup immersion heater. We measured the power on this at 110W, which is about 11Amps and at the top end of most car appliances in terms of power requirements. Notably, the Car 12V and USB 5V outputs are straight forward taps off the main battery, so the inverter is unused and remains quiet.
Battery indicator performance
As mentioned elsewhere in this review, the worst performance function was the battery indicator bar. With the unit turned on and running any appliance from any output, the unit starts off showing only 2 of the 5 bars and slowly climbs, indicating an increase in battery power, until the correct reading is established. Thereafter, it begins to fall, until battery is exhausted.
Conclusion and verdict
The Solarpod costs £599 and the foldable 60W solar panel is £251.
The Solarpod is a mixed bag of good technology, beautiful design and some glaring errors. We love its clean looks, light weight portability and simplicity of use. The Lithium Iron Sulfate battery is an excellent departure from other power units that use lead acid types that are heavy and subject to lower capacity for size/weight ratio. Solarpod also have partnered the unit with an excellent foldout solar panel delivering 60W of charge in optimum conditions. The connectivity of these panels is again well designed with fumble-free leads of high quality. With these units running together, they offer a truly sustainable green alternative for low powered electrical appliances, both in the home, or office, or recreationaly.
The manual on the other hand appears more like a prototype. It’s woefully incomplete and needs a quick start section as well as an in depth description of the features and functions. And please give us a proper booklet, not some printed A4 sheets that blow away on first setup.
As we have detailed, the main problems are with the battery charge/condition indicator. The need to ‘stabilise’ for nearly an hour before getting a true status is ridiculous given the ready availability of better technology. The Solarpod has a prime market for disaster preparedness, emergency portable power use and backup use, but all these potential users would find it totally useless without fast and accurate battery condition read outs.
We also suggest sacrificing those diminutive air vents for a functional air flow design that avoids the use of fan cooling for the inverter.
If you want a cool executive gadget to grace your deck, when style supersedes function, the sleek and sexy Solarpod is the machine of choice. If you want a rugged reliable field emergency power supply, you may want to look elsewhere.
We suggest Thousandsuns aim this product at the green executive who will appreciate its superior style over some sacrifice of functionality, or better still redesign the battery monitoring and inverter cooling and you will sweep the market with the best device available.
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