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)
My first activation using the PowerMini 2 was on April 28, 2022: our first full day camping with our travel trailer/caravan.
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:
Click here to view on YouTube.
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,
20 thoughts on “Solar POTA: Pairing the Buddipole PowerMini 2 with folding panels and the FT-817ND at New River State Park”
I like doing solar and have several solar panels. Two of them have USB ports so I can charge my phone and IC-705 with just an USB cable and the panel. I want to pick up one of those Buddipole chargers when they are back in stock.
Very cool! I’ve been really tempted to grab one of the PowerFilm roll-up panels with built-in battery and USB. May some day, but I think this system works quite well.
My Bioenno controller has worked well the few times I’ve paired it with my small Bioenno array but I agree – the controller itself looks much more designed for permanent mounting as opposed to a portable unit like the PowerMini. Keenly watching for stock here as well.
I will likely buy one of there’s for a permanent installation at some point–perhaps in my camper!
I’ve been trying to get my hands a power mini but they are unobtainium. After a call to them before Hamvention, I fear it may be a while before we see them. I will continue using my current charge controller until then.
I am headed out with a Powerfilm Lightsaver Max and a 30watt Bioenno panel next week to the wilderness for four days. Should be fun!
That Lightsaver Max looks like a cool piece of kit! I may get one someday if they’re ever on sale.
Thomas, great setup. I did pretty much the same thing last year with the PowerMini2 & 30W foldable Powerfilm panel, which works well with any of my Bioenno batteries. I also don’t have a lot of need for it, because of what you pointed out with a single 3Ah battery lasting multiple activations. Usually it is easier for me to pack enough battery, but I do like having the option to recharge and I am glad to have the stuff to do it.
Excellent point. Yes, I’ve actually started carrying the Solar kit (panels and charge controller) in my car at all times. It’s very compact, so why not, right? If I ever need a little solar charge, I’ll always have it available. 🙂
I use the Renogy Wanderer controller. I notice no noise from it. It allows you to select battery chemistry, has two USB ports and a load terminal. The manual apologetically says the load supported by this generation of the charger can only be about 3A… why, that’s perfect for my FT-817ND!!
I also had the previous generation and it’s load provision was much more generous and I ran my FT-897D at up to 50W directly from the controller.
Solar is awesome!
73 de VA7SGY
Wow–what a great deal and ideally suited for QRP! I like Renogy too–I have two of their rigid panels.
Thank you for the tip!
Yep I’m learning Morse Code. And halfway thru building a TR 35. Thanks for the words of encouragement at the end. I’m getting there slowly!!
72 de Neil 2E0CMN
Brilliant, Neil! You’ve got this. And what an epic little kit to start with–the TR-35 is a gem.
Boy that sounds Familiar… I too sent them an email around the same time which turned out to be about a week before they restocked. I ordered as soon as I saw some in stock. I had been looking around for a solar charge controller for field use was was convinced the Buddipole PowerMini 2 was the way to go. I love it, works great with my 28W and 60W Bioenno solar panels in the field and I have used an off-brand 100W at the house through the PowerMini 2. Its a great product. The only issue I have with it is some devices when plugged into the USB port will cause it to reboot which will cycle off the output power. I can’t imagine this is intended but I simply avoid plugging in USB when relying on output power or simply cycle the Radio off when doing so.
Thanks for sharing that, Joshua!
Thomas. I been working on my CW for a few weeks now and can hear my call sign and signal reports. I can also send my call sign and send signal reports. As long as I know the callsign from an activator I can decipher that also. Hoping to catch you next week since I am on vacation, but me living at the base of the mountain range you live on I do not know if we could have a qso unless I head towards Georgia which I am thinking of doing one day next week to activate a park.
Woo hoo! Tommy, you’re on the path to long CW rag chews. Actually using and listening to CW is a very quick way to build your skills quickly.
Next week, I’ll be on the road most likely, but it would be great if we could work each other.
I have always wanted to try solar but never got the courage to try it.
It used to be relatively complicated and expensive. These days? It’s within everyone’s reach and quite safe.
I’m with you – it always seemed pretty complicated and intimidating. Solar power today especially in amateur radio seems much more “plug n play” and there’s something terribly satisfying in knowing you can keep operating as long as you want to. Or at least as long as the water and trail mix last.
Or, in my household for Field Day, the Coke and Cheezits!
I own the original Powermini. It has charged my LiFePO4 Bioenno OK. However, when I question Buddipole via email they are quite unresponsive. It took 3 emails to get them to respond with the differences between the original and the Powermini2. I still wonder if the original is working efficiently or if there is a design fault.