On the Adventure Cycling Association Blog they recently posted a list of 10 Things you Might Think You Need On Tour But Really Don’t which in the main is a pretty good list but includes at number 9, a Solar Charger which I take some issue with. Note that they don’t suggest that the technology itself is that item you don’t need, just a way to charge it while actually riding. I am definitely sympathetic to that view, to tour without the technology is definitely removing yourself from a leash. However after my very first tour, in which I only carried a cell phone for emergency purposes, I have toured with an iPhone. I use it for the GPS, as that emergency mobile phone, as a note taking device, backup camera and for internet access. Now even with the technology being fully charged I was often out of the network so it still is a pretty reduced amount of tech compared to sitting at home but is definitely still being connected. If you value that connection and use it pretty frequently you will become a slave to keeping it charged and that is why I take issue with that entry in the list.
While it has not been the case that I’ve been able to seriously test and compare various charging system I have utilized four systems for keeping my technology charged. The first of these is what is promoted in that ADC Blog post and I’ll describe why I found this to be a necessary option but not sufficient and one that decreases my enjoyment on tour if solely utilized. The other systems are all methods to charge while you are actually touring and can (and should) be combine with the first option.
1) Charging via mains power
If you are at a cafe/bar/laundrymat/etc plug in your device (s). This is what the aforementioned blog list suggests as opposed to having a charging system and it is what I did on my last tour. I had an iPhone 3GS on this tour and since I was blogging the tour along with taking notes, pictures and checking email I was running down the battery pretty fast and so I would plug it in wherever I could. Barring those times I was at a cafe/bar/et al and sitting around anyway I began to feel like I was spending too much of my time chasing a charge. Just thinking about a morning I spent sitting in the amphitheater (only plug outside of the bathrooms) at a Mount Rainier campground reading while my phone charged when I could have been hiking pretty much removes the allure of this method. Not to mention that for each device I needed to charge (AA batteries for me in this case) you’d need to bring yet another wall wart along. Of course one will plug in ones device when one is at the aforementioned cafe/etc but for me that will only go on while I’m actually doing those activities.
Solio Solar Charger on the back of my Atlantis
2) Cheap Solar Charging
I bought the first generation iPhone the day it was released and went out on tour a couple of months later. The iPhone was a different entity then – no apps, no copy/paste, EDGE cellular data but its thirst for power was certainly just as voracious. This tour (Tour 2007) I was riding around the Olympic Peninsula and knew I wouldn’t always be able to access power so I decided to bring along a solar charging system. Even in 2007 there were plenty of solar options and being restricted on time and budget I bought a Solio Solar Charger (which they still sell an updated version of). This particular unit charges an integrated battery which you can use to charge a cell phone or whatever you can plug into it with it’s many adaptors. It was noted as working with iPhone which was part of why I bought it.
This particular unit did work, but it took days to charge itself in at least the conditions I was in: forested, often overcast, sometimes foggy, but also many bright, sunny days. The built in battery then only charged the iPhone about 50% which was a bit disappointing considering that it was days to recharge. It proved to be fragile as well and by the end of the tour had fallen apart. Of course there are dozens of solar options, including much larger panels that can charge a lot bigger batteries, considerably faster. The stuff I’ve read from those who’ve relied on solar does seem to indicate a decent amount of planning involved to keep the panels optimally pointing at the sun but I suspect that if ones technology usage was light one could just hang out a panel on the back of the rack and use it every few days to charge up.
The Busch & Müller Ixon IQ+ headlight that I used to charge AA batteries
3) Generator Hub Charging I
I’d added a Schmidt generator hub in 2007 and I immediately wanted to use it for charging purposes while I was riding in the daylight. At the time most of the options out there was home-brewed but then Busch & Müller released a system to allow one to run their Ixon IQ+ headlight via the generator. The system consisted of a rectifier which converted the 6V AC that the hub generates to DC. The Ixon could be run off this power or charge the batteries it had inside it. Busch & Müller called this system the Ride & Charge and I immediately recognized that if I could charge AA batteries I could charge what I needed from them. I bought a power pack that would take 4 AA batteries and could then charge my iPhone (now an iPhone 3GS). I used this on my 2009 Tour down the West Coast of the United States.
In the main this worked out pretty well. I was able to get the 4 high milliamp batteries that the iPhone wanted charged after a day and a half or so of typical touring speeds and distances. I still plugged my iPhone in when I could but this allowed me to move more toward the style I like – plug in when its convenient and have a charging method available for when you need it. Additionally I was able to replace other rechargeable AA batteries in my camera and the like. This was more or less a complete power solution.
Alas the Ride & Charge itself was quite flakey. The rectifier was a little box whose lid flipped open revealing a wiring block that you connected the wires from the hub and out to your headlight. It then had a cable that when plugged in would switch the power to the Ixon. This auto switching never worked for me and basically I was unable to use my mounted E6 headlamp after I’d spliced it in. I could use the Ixon itself but after a full tour of using it to recharge batteries it no longer worked as a light (still charged batteries though). So when I got back to Seattle at 11 pm and had to ride the 20 miles home in the dark I ended up ripping the wiring out of the Ride & Charge and twisting them together to power the lights. After this experience I removed and disposed of the Ride & Charge and Ixon.
Biologic ReeCharge Power Pack and rectifier
4) Generator Hub Charging II
This brings us up to the current day in which there are a lot more generator charging systems available. The best one seems to be the E-WERK by the very same Busch & Müller that made the Ixon/Ride & Charge system (which seems to still be available). These systems all work the same as the Ride & Charge in that there is a rectifier to convert the AC to DC and then various connecting methods for your technology. The iPhone, requiring a pretty high amperage to charge, seems to have driven all of the various charging systems toward charging an external battery. Your various devices can then be plugged into that batter. This is in my opinion the way to go and it makes sense that everyone has converged on this option. Besides the E-Werk the other systems include the Biologic ReeCharge, Tout Terrain’s The Plug, the Australian made Pedalpower and so on.
As I began researching for this years tour I came across this post on the Adventure Cycling Forums: Charging batteries with a SON hub. This post goes into serious detail on voltages, power output, charing various devices and so on. While I’d been tentatively planning to get the E-Werk, its great expense had turned me off. But now I realized that there were a lot more options out there. So I began researching the ReeCharge (hate the name I have to say) and subsequently found this post on Bicycle Forums: Solar, Dynohub, Other Chargers. In this thread Bike Forums user lhendrick describes using the ReeCharge to charge another battery pack that he can then charge his iPad from. He also proposed charging this other power pack directly from the ReeCharge rectifier which would allow one to forgo the ReeCharge Power Pack. This was of interest to me and after researching it some more this was the system I settled on.
On getting the unit I wired it into my hub which required me to purchase from the ever excellent Peter White Cycles a pair of “piggy back” connectors so that both my headlight and the rectifier could be wired into the hub. Once that was done it was a matter of testing things out. The first time out I just tried charging the ReeCharge Power Pack and as has been widely complained about the unit, it’s green “charging” light was completely undetectable in daylight. I pulled over and cupped my hand around it and spun the wheel and verified that it was working. But later as I went through a tunnel it was clearly not on. So back home and more fiddling. I decided the connectors were a bit loose and so I crimped them tight and adjusted the dynohub for maximum clearance and the following day went out riding again. This time it was definitely working and I did a nice ~30 mile ride to see how it’d charge – about 2/3s it appears. So a days touring should charge the ReeCharge Power Pack.
The ReeCharge Power Pack though is to low an amperage to charge the 3rd Gen iPad which I’m planning on using on tour so I had gotten a New Trent Power pack as suggested by the Bike Forums user. They have two models that they claim can power the new iPad but only one of them has USB charging which is what one needs in order to charge it via the ReeCharge Power Pack. I got this unit and charged it up via mains power and tested it on my iPad – it managed about a 40% charge. Not bad but not ideal either. Coupling it with the ReeCharge Unit might get closer to 60% which would be pretty decent (I tested this but the Reeharge was not fully charged). Additionally the New Trent IMP60D which I’d gotten came with a mini-coax to micro-USB converter which allowed me to plug this directly into the ReeCharge rectifier. This would let one ditch the rather kludgy ReeCharge Power Pack if one wished. For now I intend to use both as the New Trent alone only juices up the iPad so far. The question will be how long it takes to charge both units.
The Charging Kit
The off the bicycle kit is made up of the above items which are clockwise from the upper left: Biologic ReeCharge Power Pack, New Trent IMP60D, Sanyo USB Charger, iPad Cable and various connectors for the chargers. Not pictured is the standard small iDevice wall wart which is used for charging off of mains power when it’s convenient. As all of these battery chargers can be charged via USB I only need that one wall wart (though obviously can only charge them one at a time). This setup allows for me to recharge anything that I currently have: the New Trent can charge the latest iPad, I can use the connectors to plug into my cheap Samsung cell phone and the Sanyo will allow me to charge AA/AAA batteries in my flashlights, blinkies and the camera.
One nice feature of the ReeCharge Power Pack is that once it has a bit of a charge any USB device can be plugged into it and it will charge as you go (using the battery as a buffer). This is how the New Trent is charged, but it could also be used with the Sanyo to charge batteries, or with a convertor a phone (not the iPad though). This allows for a lot of flexibility and the option of once ones external batteries are charged of charging other things while you are moving without draining them. A good use of ones energy and time.
That is my experience with charging devices in the past and future. I’ll certainly update with my experience with the current system at some point after it’s gotten some good use. This is of course just my experience; I certainly haven’t done a real test of these systems (well except for 1) as to do so you’d need to get a broad spectrum of the options and really compare and contrast them. Definitely don’t consider my super limited experience with solar as very meaningful. There are lots of reports on Bike Forums, Crazy Guy on a Bike and the Adventure Cycling Forums on people using solar where one could glean a lot more info. These same forums also have plenty of info on the use of generator hubs but I’d be remiss in not mentioning Peter White Cycles which imports nearly all of the charging systems and has reams of data. Hopefully this has been some interest and might provide at least some useful info for anyone looking to go down this path.