Charging Systems Revisited

Written by robert on January 4th, 2013

No Nukes

About a week before I set out on my cross country Journey to the East last year I put up a post about my charging system that I had worked out for that tour. It seems worthwhile to post the results of how that worked out for me.  For the tl;dr crowd: in the main it worked as intended but there were some issues on the margins.  I feel it is worth examining in depth the caveats, issues and workarounds I found with this system plus my thoughts on improvements, change and additions I’d make to the overall system.

The charging kit

 

System Overview
The charging system had three main components (top row from left to right in the above photo):

1) Biologic ReeCharge Power Pack
2) New Trent IMP60D
3)  Sanyo USB Charger

plus various wires, adapters and accessories. With this I could charge AA/AAA batteries, my cheapo  Samsung dumb phone and my third generation Apple iPad. There are two external battery packs involved: the BioLogic ReeCharge and the New Trent IMP60D. The ReeCharge could charge the batteries or the New Trent but not the iPad. The New Trent could be used to charge any device that could be plugged into the USB port. The Biologic ReeCharge Rectifier (which connects to the generator hub and converts the AC power to DC) has a 3.5mm barrel plug in it which connected to the ReeCharge Power pack. It turned out that it also could plug right into the mini-USB adaptor for the New Trent so I could charge the New Trent directly from the generator hub. But it also turns out that you can plug any USB devices into the ReeCharge Powerpack while riding and it would funnel the juice out to that device. So you could say charge the New Trent or AA/AAA cells with the ReeCharge itself not charged.

So how did it all work out you ask?  Pretty good I have to say. However I still primarily relied on mains power for my charging needs. But I think if one used something less power hungry then the iPad you’d be pretty well served by this system. Let me lay out how things went.  Two days after I sent out from Olympia I found my iPad running pretty low on juice.  Now circumstances on that day found me unexpectedly in a motel on day two so I recharged there and did some research and changed my behavior with the iPad to maximizes power usage (I should do a post on using the iPad on tour sometime but basically you keep the backlighting at the lowest setting unless you need it higher (in direct sunlight for instance), keep it in airplane mode (which disables the various wireless radios) when you aren’t online and turn off any push/auto uploading features).  Once I had done this I very rarely ran out of power but as I said I was plugging it in whenever I could.

Mains power on tour
My general routine is that I cook breakfast and dinner almost everyday and I try to eat in the communities for lunch (though in some locals this wasn’t an option).  I typically would try to have this lunch somewhere where I could plug in though of course sometimes that didn’t work out. When I was camping at non-park campground there often was an option to recharge. Any campground that has plug-ins for RVs for instance. A lot of ‘grounds now just have those plugins in every site so you could charge there. Other times I’d be in the camping section but there’d be unused RV slots right nearby. So I’d plug into those and keep an eye on the gear. Sometimes when I was staying at the parks in a town they’d have a covered shelter which would oft have power.  So in contrast to my 2011 tour which was more remote and much more in state and national parks I felt like I was a slave to the power source, this tour I rarely went to places or lingered longer explicitly for power. A key factor of that of course was being able to recharge from my own power when I had to.

Charging system in usein situ: ReeCharge hooked up to the battery charger

The charging system in situ
Charging batteries and the dumb phone was pretty straightforward. I would run with the ReeCharge Power pack installed and the Sanyo USB battery charger plugged into it. The Sanyo recharger charges one battery more than the other so after it indicated it was completely charged I’d swap the batteries and let it continue charging. When that was complete the batteries were pretty well charged. As this power was trickled out the ReeCharge battery pack would also (very slowly) charge as well. I could charge a pair of batteries fully in a given days ride.  By the end of the tour most of my AA/AAA batteries were pretty well memoryed and needed replacing. The Sanyo charger also crapped out so I dumped it in Bar Harbor. But there are many USB battery chargers and they are cheap so apart from the irksome-ness of the waste not a huge deal.

My Samsung dumbphone was also easily chargeable by plugging it into the New Trent. I deliberately bought this cheap phone as it had a long standby battery time and I wanted it primarily for emergencies. I made very few calls myself – mainly the occasional call to the ‘rents and once I hit the NE I’d have to occasionally call campgrounds to find out if they had space (or where even still in existence).  It needed charging pretty infrequently and I typically could top it off with the remaining charge in the NewTrent after charging the iPad. As all my devices could be charged via USB I had only carried one AC adapter with me – the iPad charger. I could plug the USB cables for any other device into that and charge them up. However it turned out I’d always plug the iPad into power when I could so while on tour I bought a second AC USB adapter so I could charge the phone or more typically the New Trent.

Charging the ReeCharge and the New Trent was the primary activity that my charging system was engaged in. I generally was always charging – it was the rare case that everything was fully charged. The ReeCharge unit is a 1600 mAh battery capable of recharging the phone and batteries but also could be used as a conduit to charge any USB devices. That is it gives a constant output of power at the correct USB values (it puts out 5V at 1 amp. This won’t charge the iPad for which you want 2A) so I could use it to charge the New Trent. It took a day or so to fully charge the ReeCharge depending on how much riding you did and the terrain (spending the bulk of a ride at 5mph climbing say Washington Pass doesn’t go so far in charging).

The New Trent IMP60D is a 6000mAh external battery pack with both 1 amp and 2 amp ports. Thus it could charge the iPad and any other device, took about three average days to fully charge.  Fully charged it would recharge the iPad about 40% with enough juice left over to charge up my Samsung. I would also sometimes use the ReeCharge in series with the New Trent which I’d say gave me about 50% recharge. I could as I mentioned above charge it directly from the rectifier with an adapter but I also could plug it into the ReeCharge Battery pack to charge which turned out to be fortuitous as I will describe below.

Charging BatteriesCharging the New Trent from the ReeCharge

Caveats, problems and work arounds
While everything worked as intended there were a number of issues and some problems. First off the Samsung phone couldn’t charge from the ReeCharge unit. This was strange as it was the device that came with the adapter for the phone and was marketed as charging all these devices (it came with adapters for dozens of different phones). This was not much of an issue as the New Trent could charge it, but not being able to charge it while in motion was a problem a couple of times. Usually though I’d plug it in to mains power and even after a short period of time would have enough of a charge for emergencies.  So a minor concern but without the New Trent this would have been more of an issue.

The biggest problem I had was with the New Trent’s micro-USB charging port. It’s output is two full sized USB ports which very firmly hold the cable(s) in place. But the micro-USB is so tiny and very easily jogged out of place which could also bend the plug itself.  The first few weeks of the tour I tended to charge up the ReeCharge and then stick it in my panniers and then plug the New Trent in directly. I’d keep in in one of the rear facing pockets in my handlebar bag with the flap loosely strapped down. In this configuration I’d never be sure it was charging as I couldn’t see it but generally this worked well enough. However on May 25th (day 26) my bicycle fell over while in this setup and the micro-USB adapter got bent and no longer worked. Thus I could not re-charge the New Trent anymore. Luckily the next day I arrived in Newport WA (right on the Idaho border) where there was a Radio Shack. I couldn’t get a direct barrel connector to micro-USB but I was able to go from full size USB to micro-USB via the iGO system which utilizes a USB cable with interchangeable tips for virtually every connector known to man.  So I was again able to charge the New Trent as long as I ran it through the ReeCharge (I had at one point thought about sending the ReeCharge home  as superfluous extra weight. Good thing I didn’t).  However as the tour wore on the connector on the New Trent became increasingly flakey requiring the battery to be flat on a table with the cable attached and usually held down by some object. So it could no longer charge while I was in motion so I’d charge up the ReeCharge and then transfer its power to the New Trent. Needless to say this wasn’t optimal. It is now as of the time of this post almost impossible to recharge do to the connector.

Optimizing use
The other learning curve on the tour was how to best use the system.  I’ve already mentioned some of the power saving tactics I took with the iPad to maximize it’s battery use but usage patterns in general is worth examining. I used the iPad a lot it turned out: I stored my photos on it (I had an adapter to transfer them from my cameras SD card), I blogged daily on it, I did the bulk of my reading on it (Kindle and iBooks), I used Google Maps a bunch (primarily to find stores and such, but also when there were detours or I was off route), I checked email and a few websites, I used Twitter a bit (not heavily; I primarily sent out road conditions for others using the #ACANoTier hashtag) sometimes I streamed internet radio (less so once I got my windup radio).  Some of these activities I’d only do while plugged in (radio, photo transfering) but some I relied on doing every day (blogging, reading), so it was important to me to have a charge. My initial plan was to plug in when I could and then if I was desperate to get a partial charge from the New Trent. I did this at first and this was problematic – once you charged off the New Trent it was empty and needed three+ days to be full again. A 40% charge didn’t last three days of even typical use. So what I learned is that what you really want to do is keep the iPad as fully charged as possible. So what you do is charge it when you hit the amount the New Trent can recharge – that is about 40%. When the iPad would reach about 50-60% charged I’d then charge it from the New Trent. Then I’d have a near full charge which I could make last 3-4 days. By then the New Trent would be charged again. Obviously this is always on a downward trajectory but it’s rare that during any given week one couldn’t plug in. And when I’d plug in I’d also plug in the New Trent (After I’d gotten that second AC adapter) which would speed it’s charging along as well.  After the first month or so I almost never had serious power issues though I did run right down to the edge numerous times.

So the goal is to basically be charging all the time. If I had everything fully charged I’d sometimes just charge up the iPad no matter where it was at so I could then dump the days charge of the ReeCharge battery into the New Trent. Then it’d be back to being charged. The iPad, especially the third (and now fourth) generation ones with the retina screen really are power hungry. With a lower wattage tablet, smartphone or netbook I bet one could pretty rarely have to utilize mains power while on tour with this setup.

System Iteration
It is a constant learning curve with power systems and there is always improvements in the tech and choices. So what have I learned from this one and what I would I change for the next tour?  First off I think the large external battery pack is the key regardless of what kind of tech you are using (barring using no tech obviously). However the Micro-USB is not ‘tour tough’ and I would use a battery pack with a different input connector.  The current, largest New Trent seems ideal for touring: New Trent iCarrier 12000mAh Heavy Duty and it uses a barrel connector of some sort (no size listed on the stats). This may or may not fit right into the ReeCharge rectifier connector but making a small tough adaptor would be trivial and shouldn’t be as susceptible to the problems of the micro-USB adapter. This also is nearly twice the capacity of the IMP60D that I used and thus would be closer to a full charge on the iPad. Though of course it would also take nearly twice as long to recharge.

The other thing that I felt I really learned with this setup was the usefulness of the USB charging configuration. You can plug virtually anything into the ReeCharge battery and charge while you are in motion.  I only used this for the battery charger (as I said my phone didn’t work with this, but I’m sure many would) but there is no reason to limit oneself to that. I’ve long been a big advocate of having my digital camera, my non generator powered lights, flashlights and the like all use AA/AAA batteries so that I can a) swap them out when needed and b) not need any additional charging devices (wall warts et al). But now you can easily find USB charged cameras, lights and other devices (e.g. an electric shaver) and it would be pretty straight foward to keep them charged and no additional cables or wall warts required. Certainly would be as easy as it was for me to charge the batteries. I think it’d be nice to only have the batteries needed for blinkies, which last a long time and only use AAAs, thus reducing the amount of  batteries needed.

I should note that IMO if you have a generator hub you absolutely should buy the ReeCharge rectifier. This is a small, light, cheap unit that zip-ties to your forks and has a wire out with the afore-mentioned barrel connector. It’d be quite easy to mate that connector to any given device, make one’s own powerpack (there are tons of DIY lighting/charging systems out there) and charge on the go.  Barring wanting to leave your lights on all day (which would still allow charging but at significantly reduced effectiveness) there no reason to not be charging as you ride. At least with my Schmidt Dynohub I find riding with it on unnoticeable and the rectifier is only a US$30 item. However it looks like they have changed the system to use Micro-USB which as I have noted is problematic. However it probably mates solidly to the ReeCharge battery and then one can of course plug in any USB device. Of course then it’s not as cheap.  But regardless the system overall is not a great expense, it should last a good while and I think it would save one time and money in many ways.

windmill

Reducing mains power dependency
I mentioned that on my 2011 tour, where I was more in the mountains and using state, national, BLM and NSFS campgrounds that I had a harder time keeping just an iPhone charged using just mains power.  The tour before that I’d used a different charging system and mains power to fairly easily keep my iPhone going (though that system had it’s own problems as detailed in the charging systems post). But how to keep a more power heavy system going in these more remote destinations?  First off the number one thing is conservation – use your devices as infrequently as possible, set them up in the most power sipping mode and do not let it try to connect to wireless networks when there aren’t any. Of course you will still need to charge and as I said above the key to this is a large battery pack like the New Trent iCarrier and then using multiple charging systems to decrease the charge time. So what I’d do is use my current dynohub charging setup but also have a solar array on the back and/or front rack. These wouldn’t all need to be wired into the New Trent (though f you worked out some sort of DIY rig for that it’d be ideal) you could just use them to charge their own batteries and then dump them into your New Trent every night. While in camp you could use a stove like the Biolite Stove which also does USB charging. With this setup you’d have three non-mains methods of charging your external battery – the question of course is how much of the New Trent you could charge per day. I think one would like to get that fully charged about every three-four days which seems possible. I haven’t read muchs on how much charge people get out of the Biolite yet though it doesn’t seem like a lot (8% charge per hour on an iPhone one site claimed, but not much data there). But the point being that since I’m going to be cooking every night anyway, if it can trickle in a few watts into the battery pack all the better. There is a lot more info out there on solar and people have used that as their sole power source on tour (+ mains of course) so I’d think a modest solar setup plus generator would go a long way.

Of course this is all adding up weight wise (and cost) so it is a tradeoff. But there are ways to minimize that – everything could hacked to feed into the New Trent thus you’d only have the one battery which is the bulk of the weight. Using less power hungry gadgets and minimizing their use will reduce needed charging time as well. But there is always a tradeoff. My iPad was used as an eBook reader, a camera and journal and could certainly have replaced physical books, cameras and journals (though I did not on this tour at least). What one needs to reach is the point where you are recharging your battery pack more then you are using your device and then you have reached mains independence. You only need to approximate that if you know you’ll have at least some  access to mains power at bars, cafes, motels etc.

Conclusions
This turned out to be a lot longer then I originally anticipated but that’s not really unexpected: there is a ton of variables, options, experiences and trade-offs. To try to cover all of that with any sort of persuasiveness requires a lot of verbiage. Of course I only scratched the surface on options, especially for future tours and on resources but I did mainly want to document my experience with the current setup. For my next tour I’ll more likely as not use an iteration of this system with some of the changes outlined above. Whether I try to get more mains independent will depend a lot on what sort of touring I do in 2013.

 

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. adventure! says:

    Interesting. I don’t think I’d go the route of solar panels or battery packs on my next tour, but I have thought about tapping into ye olde Dynohubbe, since, well, it’s there. I’m going to show my ignorance with that system and ask “Can you run the headlamp while charging?”

    Yeah, smartphones suck a lot of juice, something I’ve been learning recently. Still, there is the tradeoff of having a much more useful phone for travelling.

    I’ve also been thinking about getting an iPad mini down the road to replace my iPod Touch. Firstly, my iPod Touch has come a bit redundant since I got the smartphone. But there is also the new problem of “planned obsolescence” that Teh Tech Gods have directed towards this device. It’s barely three years old, but now I find some apps have been running clunkily and when I tried to update them (or get other apps), Surprise! My operating system is outdated.

    Now where’s my Commodore 64?

    • robert says:

      Interesting. I don’t think I’d go the route of solar panels or battery packs on my next tour, but I have thought about tapping into ye olde Dynohubbe, since, well, it’s there. I’m going to show my ignorance with that system and ask “Can you run the headlamp while charging?”

      Well I was speculating there on how one could be more self-sufficient – I’m not too likely to go for that full set up either (though I am highly interested in maximizing self-sufficiency). But beyond going to a minimal amount of electronics that one could charge with the dynohub alone one would have to consider that. Anyway to answer your question – yes you can run the lights and charge at the same time. At normal touring speeds (fairly low in the main I’d hazard) you wouldn’t get much charging going on but it would happen. If you want to leave the lights on all day as ‘running lights’ this would not be ideal for maximizing the charge.

      I should note that while you lump battery packs in with solar panels here you really do want to have an external battery pack. Yes there are holders and special things that allow specific smartphones to charge directly while pedaling, but the external battery is a much better option. For one you aren’t limited to charging while one is riding the bicycle, for two you can charge any device from it and for three it is the only way to charge some items (such as the iPad Mini you mention or any comparable tablet).

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