For this month’s gear review, I’m testing out the:
If there’s one issue with remote travel by vehicle, it is energy consumption and management. Whether you’re exploring the desert, kicking back at a mountain lake, or camped out for the week at a remote beach in Baja, you need to be concerned about the charge levels in your batteries. Without a functioning battery in the middle of nowhere, you’re toast. I run a dual battery system in the Land Cruiser to help me be less neurotic about whether or not my battery will start the truck when I’m out in the backcountry, but even then without any kind of energy augmentation my main battery drains within three or four days of sitting still. The reasons are endless. Mostly I’m drawing stored energy off my battery to power my ARB 50 qt Fridge/ Freezer, but I’m also running lights and recharging multiple pieces of electronic equipment including my headlamp, Kindle, computer, smartphone, and GPS.
I’ve been looking to add solar functionality for the vehicle for a long time, but the price was far outside of my budget and comfort zone. I know people running setups that range from a clip-on charge controller and multiple panels, to more elaborate set ups that have panels attached to the vehicle roof and hardwired into an easy-to-read charge control panel. These systems can run anywhere from $400-$1200 or more. When Goal Zero contacted me to test out their new Guardian 12v Solar Recharging Kit, I was game!
What’s Included in the Kit?
The Guardian 12v Solar Recharging Kit comes neatly boxed in a reusable storage case and includes everything you need to get started with solar collection. The kit includes the newly redesigned Guardian charge controller and the Nomad 13W solar panel. Out of the box the kit looks hearty enough to be tumbled around in the back of the Land Cruiser over washboard roads.
The Guardian 12v Charge Controller weighs in at a super light 7.1 oz. and is made from tough ABS with a built-in PWM Lead-Acid Controller with three charging stages; bulk, flat, and float. The charge controller can support up to 90W worth of solar panels. The charging ports support both the 4.7mm and the 8.0mm inputs from the small and large Goal Zero panels.
The Nomad 13 solar panel uses 13W of mono-crystalline solar cells packed into a foldable, cordura sleeve. The panel weighs in at 1.9 lbs. and includes a built-in 4 way junction box that allows you to charge direct to USB, direct to 12v, or direct to your Guide 10 battery pack/ storage device. The other input allows you to chain together up to four separate solar panels for more efficiency (up to 90W total).
How is it Supposed to Work?
Using the kit is easy. You simply plug the alligator clips into the charge controller and then attach the clips to the positive and negative terminals on the battery you’re trying to charge. MAKE SURE you attach the positive clip to the positive terminal and the negative clip to the negative terminal! Then, you simply plug the solar panel into the charge controller and begin charging. You’ll know if the battery is charging because the Guardian’s battery light on the front panel will blink to indicate charge level. A fast green blink means the battery is 80-100% full, a slow green blink means 50-80% full, and a red blink means 0-50% full.
How Does it Really Work?
On an incredibly sunny winter morning, I took the Guardian 12v Solar Recharging Kit out to the Land Cruiser and popped the hood. Setup was as quick and easy as I imagined it would be and within five minutes I was positioning the Nomad 13 solar panel to the south and collecting sun rays. The important thing to remember about solar is that any type of cloud cover or shadow will affect the efficiency of your collection, so it’s critical to find a spot that gets good, even sun throughout the day. For this test, I decided to check on the process every hour for about ten hours, just to see if there was a change in charge level on my battery. To read the charge level, I used my National Luna Dual Battery Monitor that reads voltage in the battery. Once everything was hooked up, I noticed that the charge indicator on the Guardian was reading steady green, meaning the battery was completely charged. I knew this wasn’t the case as my truck had been sitting in my driveway for about a week unused.
After one hour I checked the process only to find there was no change to my battery level. At two hours there was no change. In fact the charge indicator didn’t budge for the entire ten hour test. The indicator light on the Guardian still read “fully charged” even ten hours into the test. Something was wrong here. I sent an email message to my contact at Goal Zero and she quickly got me in touch with one of their electrical engineers to see if we couldn’t diagnose and fix the problem. After a few rounds of email, we decided there was an issue with the charge controller and they shot out a new charge controller and panel to me within two days…which was incredibly lucky, because we were leaving for Baja that weekend! Even though the charge controller didn’t work as advertised, working with the team at Goal Zero was great!
New charge controller and panel in hand, Astrid and I headed down to Baja for some exploration! The perfect spot to test out the new panel and controller was during our three day stay in Bahia de Los Angeles. We pulled into our camp site a mere 20 yards from the Sea of Cortez and set up camp. After camp was arranged, I broke out the Guardian 12v Solar Recharging Kit and hooked the controller up to the battery and then daisy chained the two 13W panels together and connected them to the charge controller. After positioning the panels facing the sun, I went to kick back under our awning with a cold beer and my Kindle. About two hours later, I got into the cab of the Land Cruiser to grab something and noticed that the charge indicator on the monitor had gone up! SCORE! This was working!
Over the course of the day, the battery gained a bit of power from the sun, but mostly it just augmented the power that the battery was losing from running the refrigerator. I need to do more testing with larger solar panels, but this test proves to me that it can be done easily and affordably. As is, the Guardian 12v Solar Recharging Kit might be a little too basic for powering large AGM batteries used in expedition vehicles, but with additional panels it can easily help you power your offroad adventures too!
Do you run a solar system in your vehicle? Let me know in the comments!
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