I suspect it has something to do with ARRL field day, potential SHTF or something else but recently, there’s been lots of questions coming in about the differences between the various PowerFilm solar, solar panel series. Some time ago, I did a video on two types of PowerFilm Solar panels I own. One is the Foldable, the other is the Rollable. Perhaps the most popular of the PowerFilm panels on the channel is the Lightsaver Max. The PF LSM has powered many a QRP radio for quite some time but fits into a sort of “third category”. We can discuss the PF LSM later in this post.
In regards to the PF Foldable or Rollable, which one someone chooses depends on the environment they plan on deploying in. For the sake of this discussion, we can think of the PowerFilm panels as being divided into two groups
One is extremely lightweight, weatherproof, has redundancy against total failure, and folds down into a man-portable package about the size of a laptop. It also meets or exceeds MIL-STD-810G standards. This is what we call the Foldable Series.
The second is also ultra-lightweight, has redundancy against total failure, rolls down into a small form factor, is totally waterproof and IP67 rated, and again meets or exceeds MIL-STD-810G standard. This one is the Rollable series.
From an end-user perspective, these two different versions of the PowerFilm panels represent our deployment options. One either wants extreme portability and reliability or ultra-portability and reliability, along with the ability to deploy in monsoon rains or an arctic expedition.
Sorting out the truth
Words like “Lightweight”, “Flexible”, “Waterproof”, “Portable” are often used too loosely. I do appreciate this is “marketing”. Unfortunately, “marketing” has a nasty habit of not delivering the reliability we expect from a product. The hook is dangled in front of our faces as “Value”, but value only serves us, if we get the product we expected. PowerFilm represents The Benchmark in man-portable solar design. The hooks with a PowerFilm panel are in their meticulously documented specifications. So there is no difficulty in understanding what was expected versus what we get from the panels delivered. When comparing PowerFilm solar panels to others referencing them, here are a few things to look out for:
- Waterproof: If a product claims to be “waterproof” insure you ask the seller for the published IP rating of the product. The IP or Ingress Protection rating tells us how moisture or dustproof something is, for how long, and for how deep, or how much pressure. A seller can say anything, but published public documentation is the proof in the pudding. Always ask for the published IP rating of the product claiming to be “waterproof”
- Size and Weight: PowerFilm Solar publishes the spec sheets for each of its panels on its website, in PDF format. Size rolled or folded, unrolled or unfolded, and their weight. PF also published the expected solar output for each panel. With this information, we can calculate the wattage versus the weight of the panel. Many sellers mention the size of a panel alone but ignore or omit the total weight. Total weight is the real winner of a foot race.
- Standards and Certifications. Each PowerFilm panel specifications sheet lists the standards and certifications each panel meets. The Foldable and Rollable series both feature:
- MIL-STD-810G – MIL-STD-810G is a U.S. military standard that through iterations and decades has certified military equipment as field-ready with a system of tests that simulate a variety of environmental conditions, including shock, vibration, and more.
- Berry Amendment Compliance – The Berry Amendment Compliance is a federal regulation that requires Department of Defense funds to be spent on U.S. manufactured items to protect the United States industrial market during times of war. The Berry Amendment is intended for companies that wish to acquire Department of Defense contracts.
- CE Certification – The Conformitè Europëenne (CE) Mark is defined as the European Union’s (EU) mandatory conformity marking for regulating the goods sold within the European Economic Area (EEA) since 1985. The CE marking represents a manufacturer’s declaration that products comply with the EU’s New Approach Directives.
- RoHS – RoHS is the acronym for Restriction of Hazardous Substances. RoHS, also known as Directive 2002/95/EC, originated in the European Union and restricts the use of specific hazardous materials found in electrical and electronic products.
- Flexible solar vs rigid or semi-flexible. PF Foldable panels are both foldable and flexible. This means they not only fold open and closed, they also bend the same way we can bend a sheet of paper. The Rollable series are less flexible, but still more flexible than competitor panels which really should be referred to as semi-flexible, rigid, semi-rigid, … Honestly, anything but flexible! A thin film panel will always bend or roll, literally. This is part of what makes them so portable. Moreover, a folding panel is not necessarily flexible!
- Made in America – PowerFilm solar panels are designed and manufactured in Ames Iowa, in the United States!
PowerFilm Lightsaver Max
The Lightsaver Max is sort of a “Third Category” in the PowerFilm solar panel lineup. It is differentiated by being a power bank with an integrated thin-film solar panel. The integrated panel allows it to recharge itself. The Lightsaver Max can also be charged or augmented by an additional external solar panel, for a rapid field recharge.
I have used the PowerFilm Lightsaver Max with a variety of QRP radios. It has also been an excellent tool for powering my DJI camera and camera copter gear when away from traditional means of power. The Lightsaver Max is an excellent choice for extremely low power radios like the Icom IC-705, Xiegu x5105, Elecraft KX2 & KX3, Yaesu FT-818 and even the Xiegu G90. All of these and much more are covered in my Portable QRP with the Lightsaver Max, in the following video.
Sorting through the confusion
When we find ourselves sorting through the confusing marketing of portable solar panels proclaiming themselves as “Just Like” PowerFilm, generally this is the grift. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the other solar panels, but they want you to believe this panel is “Just like PowerFilm” solar panels, but only cheaper! That is the “Value trap”. As mentioned before, PowerFilm panels are the benchmark of man-portable solar power. The amount of power a PF panel puts out versus its weight is truly an astonishing accomplishment. As such a brand comparing itself to PowerFilm is usually more targeted sales and marketing rather than technical fact. The only way to get a more cost-effective offering is to forego one or more of the requirements. When weight doesn’t matter, we can find other solutions. When flexibility isn’t a requirement, again, there are other options, but we sacrifice the things which make every PowerFilm solar panel special.
Buy Once, Cry Once!
As a premium product, PowerFilm panels may not always seem like the right fit for everyone. They are certainly the most portable, most rugged, most reliable offering on the table. As such they are a well documented, American made product with a long and positive track record. There is no tricky marketing, no vague claims of being “just like” this or that. What you see is what you get! With PowerFilm you buy once and cry just once. That’s been my experience, as their customer since 2015, and more recently as a PowerFilm Brand Ambassador.