How to Choose a Portable Power Station (And Why You Want One)

How to Choose a Portable Power Station (And Why You Want One)
Photo: 4 season backpacking, Shutterstock

The risk of blackouts is growing — our national power grid is ageing, our demand for electricity is increasing, and the climate is becoming more volatile. The most common solution people think of is a gas or propane generator. These big, heavy machines provide a ton of power, but they come with some drawbacks. They require fuel and can’t be operated indoors, making this a problematic solution for folks who live in apartments or townhomes without outdoor space (and you’re supposed to run generators at least 6.10 m from any structures, so you need a lot of outdoor space to use them).

That’s why everyone should probably have what’s called a portable power station. These are essentially enormous batteries that can store electricity and power a range of devices and appliances when the lights go out. If you can’t run a gas generator or want power that’s a little more portable than those 45 kg behemoths, this is a no-brainer.

Portable power station benefits

Why do you want a portable power station? Let’s use a popular model as an example: The Bluetti EB55. While these stations vary in terms of cost (the EB55 retails for about $US500 ($694)), features, and capacity, this is a pretty typical portable power station in a lot of ways:

  • It has a 537 watt-hours capacity (with a max output of 700 watts), meaning it can run a wide range of devices. The maths on this is pretty simple: 537 watt-hours means it can deliver 537 watts for one hour, or one watt for 537 hours. Let’s look at what that means in practice. A typical television needs about 150 watts, so you can run it by itself for about 3.5 hours on the EB55. An 11-watt LED bulb will last more than 30 hours by itself. Together these appliances suck about 161 watts, so you could run them together for a little over three hours. The more power you pull, the shorter the charge will last.
  • It 12 outputs, including four USB-A ports and one USB-C port that can handle fast-charging, a wireless charging pad on top, 4 standard AC plugs, and a car DC adaptor.
  • It uses multiple recharging options, including solar and car hookup, with the ability to combine them to speed things up

The way it works is simple: You charge the station to full power, then wait until you need it. When the lights go off, 700W is plenty of power to charge phones and laptops multiple times and run lights or small appliances — as long as the power being drawn is less than 700W, the station can handle it (it can handle surges, which often happen when you initially plug power-hungry appliances in, up to 1400W — but if you exceed the 700W limit for more than a few seconds it will shut off automatically to prevent damage).

There are a lot of benefits to having one or two of these in your house:

  • Safe indoors. Unlike a gas generator, you can operate these power stations indoors safely. There are no fumes or other concerns. Even if you have the outdoor space to run a generator, brief blackouts might not warrant the effort if you can just plug in a few lamps and keep your devices charged with a power station.
  • Portable. The EB55 weighs about 8 kg — even a small gas generator will weigh close to twice that. The unit has a carrying handle, making it easy to carry from room to room as needed, or toss into the car as you escape the dystopia your neighbourhood becomes with the lights off. This also means they have a wider use-case than gas generators because they can be brought along on non-emergency trips.
  • Solar. The easiest and fastest way to charge a portable power station is by plugging it into a wall outlet, but if the power’s out you can also hook it up to a solar panel. The EB55 has a 200W input capacity from a solar panel, so you can recharge it in about 3 hours from solar under ideal conditions (bright sun). In cloudy conditions this will obviously take longer — but unlike a gas generator, you can recharge your station throughout the day and have power again at night.
  • Small. Like power capacity, the size of these stations varies, but they’re generally much smaller than gas generators, making them easy to store until you need to break them out.

The bottom line: A portable power station isn’t a whole-house power solution, but it will make your next blackout a lot more comfortable.

How to choose

Choosing a portable power station depends on your specific needs and lifestyle. A few things to consider:

  • Capacity: Think about what you’ll need to power when the lights go out and do a little research on the devices’ wattage requirements so you can calculate what watt-hour capacity you’ll need in a portable power station. If you just need to charge some phones and run a lamp or two with LED bulbs for a few hours, you might not need more than 150Wh in portable power, which you can get for less than $US100 ($139). If you think you’ll need multiple days of power or need to run larger appliances you can splash out for more wattage — you can even get portable power stations that deliver 4000-5000Wh (heck, EcoFlow models are expandable with extra batteries that can take you all the way to 25,000 watt-hours), but these are very expensive and are often as large and heavy as gas generators — although these behemoths still offer the benefit of being safe to operate indoors. The sweet spot is in the 500-2000Wh range when it comes to these stations; that’s where you get the benefits of the portable part with enough power to make a difference.
  • Battery type: These stations are essentially just large batteries with very smart management and charging technology wrapped around them. Most will offer a Lithium-ion battery that is pretty standard in the industry, but some are made with Lithium iron phosphate batteries that last longer and are more tolerant of high temperatures. Some models, like Goal Zero’s Yeti 150, offer a user-replaceable battery, meaning you can swap out the battery if it starts to fail without replacing the entire unit.
  • Charging cycles: Different models offer different lifespans for the battery. The EB55 can be charged and discharged about 2,500 before the battery starts to degrade, but other models can be much lower (or higher). If you plan to use your station frequently, that’s a major consideration.
  • Ports: Most portable stations will offer a plethora of outputs — USB ports, wireless charging, AC ports, DC ports, etc. Think about what you’re going to need to power and make sure the model you choose offers it. The EB5 only has one USB-C port, for example, so if you need multiples of that you might look for a different configuration.
  • Charging options: Almost all portable power stations can be plugged into your wall to charge up, which is a great way to ensure you have a charged battery when the power cuts. But being able to recharge during a blackout is essential. Look for multiple options — solar is a must-have, though most solar panels are an additional cost. But having adapters included that allow you to recharge from your car, for example, gives you one more option for cloudy days and having the ability to combine two or more recharging methods to speed things up is a great feature.
  • Size: Finally, make sure you can easily store the station. If your apartment is bursting at the seams, take some measurements and balance the wattage with the unit’s size so you don’t have to keep it balanced on top of your toaster or something during the brief stretches between emergencies.

A portable power station is often a better choice than a traditional gas-powered generator, and at the very least offers a lot more flexibility during an emergency. Hey, you can even live stream the next catastrophic event in your area like a star.

 

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