Lately we've been getting questions about "portable power stations" and "solar generators." The top question people ask is: "Do I need one these things for my Airstream?"
The short answer is maybe—it depends on what you do with your Airstream—but in most cases, probably not.
Here's how you can decide:
What's the difference?
First, let's understand what we're talking about. A portable power station is just a battery bank. You might have a small battery pack to recharge your phone while traveling—a portable power station is just a bigger version of that.
A portable power station includes an inverter so you can plug in appliances. Depending on the capacity of the batteries and inverter, you might use the power station for outdoor appliances like a blender, outdoor fan, refrigerator, pellet grill, etc.
A "solar generator" is the same thing, with the addition of a solar panel to recharge the battery.
What can you do with it?
For many people, the value of a portable power station is so you can run electrical items outside the Airstream when boondocking. The exterior outlet on an Airstream is not connected to the on-board inverter, so if you are boondocking and need to run a mini-fridge and a string of lights for a party on the patio, the portable power station comes to the rescue.
But that's not a common situation, so what other uses might a portable power station have?
Outdoors, when you use a portable power station for accessories, you don't have to worry about accidentally depleting your on-board batteries while you're powering things outside.
Indoors, the power station can be used to augment your Airstream's batteries, to run things like a CPAP machine, as long as you can find a place to put the power station.
Finally, a portable power station can be used without the Airstream, if you find that you need power when you're at the beach or attending an outdoor event.
Why wouldn't you want one?
Let's remember that your Airstream is itself a giant portable power station. It has batteries already, and many Airstreams have inverters installed. Plus, most new Airstreams have solar panels (or you can add portable panels easily) so they're equivalent to "solar generators" too.
So the question becomes whether it makes more sense to add battery capacity to your Airstream, or to buy a portable power station.
Our feeling is that it's generally better to add battery capacity to the Airstream when you can. That way your investment serves to extend your overall boondocking time. In other words, you may not use the portable power station on every boondocking trip, but you'll always appreciate the extra capacity in the Airstream.
The exception would be when you need to power items some distance from the Airstream. In that case, a portable power station is really handy.
Also, you might go with a portable power station if the cost of upgrading your Airstream's battery bank turns out to be too expensive. Usually the most cost-effective improvement is to switch to lithium batteries, because they give you more usable power in the same size battery box. That means you don't have to get into expensive custom work.
What alternatives are available?
Whether you want a portable station or not, we always recommend that frequent boondockers have other ways to generate power. There are three good methods to consider:
We've written another blog which talks about how to choose between these methods. With one of these, you will have much more capacity from your Airstream, which might make a separate portable power bank unnecessary.
No matter how you generate power, keep in mind that lithium batteries for your Airstream are a worthy upgrade too. They have greater capacity in the same physical size, last longer, and are safer.
Which portable power station to get
With many different brands and capabilities on the market, it’s important to look at your needs before buying a portable power station or solar generator.
Start by figuring how much power you’ll need. Every electrical appliance has a power consumption sticker on it. Things that change temperatures, like coffee makers and refrigerators, tend to consume a lot more power than lights and fans.
Figure out how many watts you’ll need and then multiply that by how long you’ll want to run those appliances and you’ll have an idea of how big a battery you’ll need.
Also consider whether the brand you're considering uses industry-standard connectors or proprietary connectors. Jackery, for example, uses proprietary connectors which means you can’t easily upgrade or make changes.
Also look at the underlying battery chemistry. Most feature some form of lithium batteries but they aren't all the same. Look at the life cycle rating. You'll see that it varies quite a lot among brands and battery chemistries. More charge/recharge cycles is better.
Can I power my Airstream?
What if you want to power the whole Airstream? It's not the intended use, and we definitely wouldn't recommend trying to run the air conditioner or microwave on a portable power station. But if you wanted to plug the Airstream into the portable power station just to boost the on-board batteries, you could.
It's not the most efficient way to charge the batteries (because of inverter/converter losses) but in a pinch it might help a little. For this task, we'd recommend portable solar, a generator or CarGenerator instead.
Photo by Jackery Power Station on Unsplash