I’m often asked if I ever charge my LiFePo4 batteries in the field via solar energy.
Truth is, I’m a big fan of solar, but I’m rarely in the field long enough to need to recharge my batteries via solar when performing SOTA and POTA field activations. It’s easier to charge them at home in advance (often via the solar system at our QTH).
In fact, one of my 3 Ah LiFePo4 Bioenno batteries can easily take me though 3-5 activations or possibly more, depending on the length of the activation and the rig I’m using.
For longer forays into the field, however, I love going solar.
Indeed, every few years, my family will stay in an off-grid cabin on Prince Edward Island (Canada) for up to 6 weeks at a time. Solar is the only practical way to stay on the air that length of time.
Of course, I also like having a solar option, when doing proper primitive/off-grid tent camping.
In the past, I’ve used a very simple portable solar charging system based on a variety of rigid and folding panels, a Micro M+ charge controller, and sealed lead acid batteries. The batteries are of course heavy, but they work brilliantly for fixed operations.
These days, I’m fully invested in LiFePo4 batteries and my Micro M+ charge controller is not really designed to pair with the BMS (battery management system) in my Bioenno packs.
Bioenno sells a number of affordable solar charge controllers, but most resemble units that are used in permanent installations. I wanted something more portable and, ideally, something with Anderson PowerPole connections.
Late last year, I discovered the Buddipole PowerMini 2:
I contacted Buddipole with a few questions about the unit and to find out when they would be in stock again (at the time, they were on back-order and indeed they are at time posting this report).
Turns out, they were to be restocked the next day, so as soon as inventory was showing on the site, I ordered one.
The PowerMini 2 retails for $149 US which means it’s pricier than most of the other charge controllers I’d researched, but it has a load of features I love like:
- Compact size and only weighs 7 ounces
- Informative backlit display with load and battery health monitoring
- Protections and alarms for over-charging, deep discharging, over-current, and it can auto disconnect from a radio
- Selectable battery chemistry (LiFePo4, Li-Ion, and Lead Acid)
- A USB port to charge my camera, phone, or tablet in the field
Looking at the PowerMini 2 product page today, I see no mention of a USB power port–perhaps this has been removed? I’ll reach out to BuddiPole and try to confirm. I do find USB charging to be a practical addition.
I purchased the PowerMini 2 in November 2021, but other than some testing at home, I hadn’t had an excuse to really put it into field service until our family went on a camping trip to New River State Park in late April 2022.
New River State Park (K-2748)
Our campsite had shore power, but I wanted to test the PowerMini 2 because the setup was nearly ideal–the picnic table at our campsite had unobstructed southern exposure, so it was perfect for proper solar gain (readers in the southern hemisphere, of course, would be looking for northern exposure).
I paired the Powermini 2 with two PowerFilm Solar folding panels I purchased many moons ago at Hamvention (I’m guessing in 2012 or so–?). These were blemished units and I snagged them for a brilliant price. Looking back, I wish I would have purchased a few more.
They’re only 5 watts each, but I run them in parallel to feed the charge controller with the equivalent of 10 watts. QRP gear is so efficient, these modest panels actually do a respectable job keeping the battery topped off.
FYI: In the activation video below and image above, you might notice that the two bottom PV sections were still folded closed. Wind gusts from the south kept flipping the bottom section on both panels. I eventually draped the panels off the end of the picnic table to stop this from happening.
Since I covered our camping trip in detail in a previous post, I’ll dive right into the actual activation…
- Yaesu FT-817ND
- Moleskine Cahier Journal (affiliate link)
- MW0SAW end-fed half-wave
- N0SA portable paddles
- ULTRA-PK CW memory Keyer KIT
- Spec-Ops Brand T.H.E. Pack EDC
- Bioenno 3 aH LiFePo Battery (Model BLF-1203AB)
- Weaver arborist throw line/weight and storage bag (affiliate links)
- Tom Bihn Large Travel Tray
- Rite In The Rain Weatherproof Cover/Pouch (affiliate link)
- Portable Zero FT-817 Side Rails and Bail
- Buddipole PowerMini 2 Solar Charge Controller
- PowerFilm Solar Folding PV Panels (discontinued blemished units purchased at Hamvention around 2011)
- Camera: OSMO Action Camera with Joby tripod (affiliate links)
I’ll admit: it was great to put the FT-817ND on the air again. I do love this fine radio!
On The Air
I also used my kit-built ULTRA-PK CW memory Keyer during this activation. Since the FT-817/818 has no built-in message memory keying, this inexpensive little device works amazingly well for sending CQs and standard messages.
I had no internet coverage (at this point) so was completely reliant upon the POTA Spots RBN connection to auto-spot me. Prior to leaving on our trip, I scheduled a multi-day activation on the POTA site which meant that I would receive auto-spots any time I called CQ in that time frame.
I hopped on the air and after a few CQ calls, I started working a steady flow of contacts.
In about 19 minutes, I worked 18 stations–all on 40 meters. Obviously, the propagation gods were smiling that day.
Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation:
Thank you for joining me during this campsite activation!
I’ve quite a few more videos in the queue from our vacation at New River State Park and am already enjoying reviewing them again.
Many thanks to my daughter, Geneve (K4TLI), for a few addition photos I’ve included here.
Of course, I’d also like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support which allows me to open up my work life to write more field reports and film more activation videos. It also helps fund purchases like the PowerMini 2 which is a brilliant addition to my field kit.
Those of you learning CW? Keep up the pace. CW takes patience, persistence, time, and practice, but I promise you can learn it. Do it for me because nothing gives me a bigger thrill than working a new CW op! 🙂
Cheers & 72,