Solar Panel chargers – huge differences in efficiency (shootout)

Solar panel chargers

Outdoor security cameras from companies including Swann, Nest, Arlo, Ring, Reolink, Uniden and many others are becoming a fixture in more homes – or should be. Solar panel chargers are seen as the solution to the annoyance of constant battery recharging.

Spoiler alert – only one of the solar panel chargers on test, was capable of producing enough power to keep the camera running and charge the battery at the same time! Read on.

Solar Panel chargers 101

Before we get into Solar Panel chargers it is important to know that it is not necessarily physical size but energy efficiency that counts.

Panels/cells can be either thin crystal (cheapest), polycrystal/amorphous (mid-price) or monocrystal silicon (more expensive). Efficiencies in converting sunshine to power range up to 10, 19.3 and 24.2% respectively.

Gadget Guy found popular security-camera portable solar panel chargers range from a meagre 12-cells, 24-cells (average) to a massive 64. Assuming each cell generates similar current (amperage) the more cells the better.

But of the five panels tested the worst had 10% efficiency and the best was 17% indicating not very efficient cells, placement or power delivery.

Then there is the IC chip controlling voltage and amperage output. Because all the panels only have to power a known camera with set battery/voltage/mAh, the IC regulator is the cheapest possible to do the job – just delivering up to the stated voltage/average. In multimeter tests, two had no semblance of regulated voltage delivering from below 1V to 9V (but read why later*)

Mounting solar panel chargers

Roof-mounted solar panels work best in an east/west orientation (north facing) where the sunlight hits at a 90º angle.

solar panel chargers

The ideal tilt for Australian sun is at 32º from horizontal (imagine 1/3rd of a right-angle). Anything more or less reduces efficiency far too much. Security camera solar panel chargers are no different!

solar panel chargers
solar panel chargers

Why then do the majority of photographs show almost vertically mounted panels under eaves or on walls facing a fixed direction?

Solar Panel chargers
This upright wall location simply does not work efficiently.

This orientation would produce effectively less than half of the efficiency of our test rig.

How much voltage and amperage do you need?

The assumption most panel suppliers make is that the camera has a ‘few’ activations per day. We dug deeper to find what each camera maker defined as a few and what power the cameras actually need.

Only Uniden was brave enough to state,

“The panel allows the camera to recharge during daylight conditions. Different weather conditions in Australia and New Zealand can affect the rate of charge to the battery.”

Uniden state about six month’s battery life – at one detection a day! That is unrealistic but it does add that the battery (on a specific model) will last a total of 650 minutes (day use) and 400 minutes for night use. It goes on, “Fully charge the camera with a wall charger first and only use the Solar Panel for long-term power. Heavy usage of your camera can drain the battery faster than the Solar panel can recharge it.”

OK, at least Uniden are honest and work within the terms of Australian consumer laws.

We estimate that a camera will have at least six activations per day resulting in live streaming and recording to the cloud or a local microSD card. Using Uniden as a guide that is about a month or so’s battery life as evidenced by frequent customer reviews of all cameras. Fact: you won’t get anywhere near the claimed battery life.

How much does current does a camera really draw?

In idle mode it should draw just enough current to keep a PIR detector and Wi-Fi alive. We could only measure the battery depletion because these are sealed units and no maker reveals this statistic.

Working backwards we estimate a typical camera with IR and PIR needs about 5V/.8A (4W) to run the device and maintain the battery charge, let alone top it up. Our figures could be wrong so if any camera maker wants to reveal their power use we will be glad to publish it.

So, a solar panel charger with less than 4W (5V/.8A) will at best only slow the rate of battery depletion.

If you factor in cloudy days and inadequate placement to maximise the sun, then solar panels are not the panacea as typically quoted “for a continuous charge, so you’ll never run out of power”.

We also review the interesting Choetech (24W) portable solar panel charger that is a must for any adventure person. It shows what you can do with better panels and regulation technology.

A little about the testing technique*

Electricity behaves predictably – volts x amps = watts. One amp = 1000mA. And mAh is milliamp per hour.

So, a 5V battery capacity of 5,000mAh can provide 5A (25W) of power for one hour, 2.5A (12.5W) for two hours, 1.25A (6.25W) for three hours, and 500mA (2.5W) for 10 hours etc.

To put this in perspective a typical security camera battery is around 500mAh and if it lasts say, 1 hours (60 minutes) under load the maximum draw is 500mAh. Put in layman’s terms unless you can put in more power than the camera uses, the battery will have to make up the rest.

And finally, the fiddle factor – charging is not 100% efficient. For example, using a cheap regulator can mean an efficiency loss of up to 50%, usually via heat. That is where a quality USB Power regulation chip comes in.

We test this via a multimeter placed between the micro-USB connector and the battery. It measures voltage and amperage but there is one caveat. It works well with the standard USB power delivery 1.0 (5V/up to 5A) measuring a reasonably fixed voltage and variable amperage. We are not sure the results are accurate with Quick Charge 2.0 where voltage can vary from 3 to 9V.*

Review: Solar Panel Chargers – for security cameras

We conducted a 45-day test of the Swann, Ring, Arlo, Reolink and Uniden panels. Rather than check daily we only need to know two things – how much charge remains in the battery at the end of the trial and an estimate of the efficiency of the panel.

Each fully charged camera and solar panel was set up together on the same mounting board in the same position with direct sunlight (east to west) available all day. The test period was December to mid- January where it was cloudy for at least 15 (1/3rd) of those days.

Swann Solar Security Panel $94.95

The Swann Solar Security Panel cells measure 210 x 160m (33.6mm2) or about twice the size of the rest of the tested panels – although it is not too big to use. It has a proprietary two-pin water-resistant connector to the panel and a 3m cable ending in Micro-USB. Swann supplies a spare silicon cap for its camera to provide water resistance. It was tested with a Swann SWWHD-INTCAM.

Solar Panel chargers
360° mount and showing in slightly off-horizontal position – good for efficiency

It has a mammoth 80 standard-sized cells and outputs a ‘mostly’ regulated 5V/1A (5W) – voltage remains constant but amperage can vary. It uses a standard tripod mount that offers flexibility in positioning.

In the trial it was able to keep the battery fully charged – it produces more charge than the camera needs.

Solar panel chargers

On further tests with a 0% charge battery and standard camera activity it topped up the battery at about 5-10% per day, after 7-days it had reached 58%.

Pro: True 5V output, Will keep the battery topped up, good price/performance
Con: 2x larger than most panels

Ring Solar Panel $79

The Ring Solar Panel has 40-cells and outputs what appears to be unregulated* 5.2V/.42A (2.2W) where voltage can vary from 0-9V. It has a long 3.96m cable with a fixed cable connection to a proprietary barrel connector for its Stickup Cam. Note the Spotlight Cam below draws more power as the PIR is linked to LED spotlight – results are worse than the Stickup Cam.

Solar Panel chargers
The worst type of mount only allowing tilt, not swivel is not efficient

We were a little overwhelmed by the marketing hype until we remembered that it is an Amazon Company focusing on one thing – the sale! Terms like ‘Non-stop charge’ (what about the night?), around the clock power with just a few hours of sunlight every day gives you 24/7 protection. The Solar Panel can keep your Spotlight Cam Battery charged with just a few hours of direct sunlight per day … It is all bovine excretement.

Over 45 days the battery went from 100% to 13%. This also had a very poor mount bracket with only tilt (no swivel) adjustment so in normal use sunlight efficiency is poor.

It was unable to charge the battery from 0% providing just enough power for the camera although it was not stable power resulting in dropouts and longer Wi-Fi connect times especially if the spotlight activated.

As it is built for Ring products and uses a proprietary connector there is no alternative. One ‘verified’ reader comment sums it up, “With regular motion events this panel cannot keep up with Ring’s charging demands. Its claims of ‘just a few hours of sun’ are grossly exaggerated.”

We agree!

Pro: Only charger you can use for Ring
Con: Does not live up to marketing hype and at best extend the manual recharge period by about 10-20%

Arlo Solar Panel $149

Note: Update January 2020. Arlo now has a dedicated solar panel for its Pro 3 and Ultra cameras that is terrific. The panel below is for its older Arlo camera.

The Arlo panel VMA4600  measures 160 x 105mm (16.8mm2), has 12-cells and does not state the cell type. Research reveals it is a monocrystalline silicon panel and nominally outputs 6V/.333A (1.998W).

Solar Panel chargers
The near-vertical position and static direction are highly inefficient. Note the short cable – it is a pain!

The test was with an Arlo Pro 2 camera with a 7.2V/2.44A (17.57W) battery. The battery charger that comes with the Arlo 2 is 5V/1.8A or 9V/1.1A (9W Quick Charge 2.0).

The panel also works with any ‘box’ battery camera like the Arlo Go LTE camera with 7.2V/3.36A (26.35W)  rated for up to 660 minutes of daylight use. The LTE uses more power because of 4G connection and results would have been worse.

But hang on, electricity behaves predictably and Arlo’s panel specifications do not make sense – a charger should provide higher wattage than the battery needs to charge – or it’s much, much slower to charge.

It has half the surface panel area of the Swann and a far shorter 1.8m cable (proprietary to micro-USB). Its voltage output appears unregulated* often providing less than 1V and sometimes more than 9V. But a battery won’t charge if the voltage is below 5V so go figure that!

In any case, the batteries are 7.2V requiring 17.57W (26.35W for LTE) or more to charge and our results confirm that under normal conditions the panel is simply not up to the task.

In our tests, the Arlo panel was able to provide enough power to run the Arlo camera but not reliably. It is insufficient to ever charge a battery 0-100%, especially during cloudy conditions. In the 45-day trials the with minimal camera use there was 5% left.

There are quite a lot of negative user reviews about this panel. Typically, “This solar panel does not put out enough juice to make a difference. In standby mode it might put out enough to power the camera without losing too much. In live mode the camera depletes almost as rapidly as if it were not there. Don’t waste your money.”

As such GadgetGuy cannot recommend it.
Pro: none
Con: Most expensive and worst performance

Reolink Solar Panel US$26.99

The Reolink Solar Panel is a similar size to the Arlo but it has 24-cells and outputs a fairly stable 6V at up to 480mA (2.88W). The test was with Reolink Argus Pro.

Photographers obviously have never used a solar panel. Note the Reolink comes with a 4.5m extension cable.

Reolink state that the camera should use a 5V/2A adaptor (10W) but will charge at voltages from 5-9V/1A. It also honestly states that the panel may not be able to keep the camera fully charged on days that are snowy, cloudy, gloomy, or rainy or periods of heavy use (active access or frequent triggers). At least it is honest.

In the 45-day trials the with minimal camera use and a fully charged battery there was 47% left.

Pro: Cheapest of them all, will extend manual recharge intervals by about 2x, slightly better voltage regulation, includes extension cable
Con: None really

Uniden Guardian solar panel $79

The Uniden Guardian Solar panel is exactly the same as the Reolink panel with the same specifications and cable. It fits all Reolink cameras as well as Uniden. Not surprisingly as the latter has the same pedigree as many Reolink cameras. The test was with a Uniden Guardian app cam Solo+.

Comes with a 3m cable

In our test, the Reolink/Uniden performed second best after the Swann – still not powerful enough to produce more wattage to fully charge but it should reduce battery recharges by a factor of two.

GadgetGuy’s take

Now you can see why we went to so much trouble over so long a period.

The Swann solar panel charger in conjunction with the Swann 1080p Wi-Fi camera gets our recommendation as a panel that will at least provide enough power to run the camera and some excess to charge the battery. Its marketing hype is not over the top – “Mount the solar panel outdoors and forget about recharging the camera ever again” is truthful provided it has unimpeded east/west orientation and there are not extended periods of cloud cover.

Swann supports standard 5V/1A (5W) USB charging

As it supports standard USB 5V/1A you could buy this to support any camera (or other device) that uses standard USB charging like the Reolink or Uniden but you would need to jury-rig some waterproofing around the USB connection.

Reolink/Uniden (and their respective cameras) will give you at least a 2x extension on manual recharging – perhaps more if ideally sited and in good weather. These have the hooded micro-USB connector for weatherproofing.

Arlo and Amazon are overhyped and underperformers outputting variable voltage and amperage*. But as these are proprietary chargers you have no option if you wish to use these brands.

As we stated earlier things like the number of PIR events, Wi-Fi strength and recording/viewing time daily all affect battery life. As yet no battery-operated outdoor security camera lives up to claimed battery life but hey, they quote laboratory, not real-world tests.

And in Arlo and Ring’s case, it is time a third-party made a Quick Charge compatible, high-efficiency solar panel with a gimbal motorised mount to follow the sun – they would make a mint at even half of Arlo’s price! Perhaps we need this on our roof?

Solar panel chargers