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What is a solar generator?

Solar generators provide a sustainable source of backup electricity

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Written by Brian Church
Edited by Sally Jones

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    bright sun shining in the blue sky with white clouds

    “Solar generator” is a term that can technically be used to describe any photovoltaic (PV) power system that collects and distributes solar energy. A solar generator can be installed in a grid-tied or hybrid solar energy system to provide a backup source of power when utility electricity becomes unavailable. In this scenario, it's possible to incorporate a solar battery into your home’s electrical system so you can continue using devices as normal through the property’s plugs and outlets.

    When these come in handy: Imagine bringing a newborn baby home — then your power goes out for over a week. Unfortunately, this happened to a friend of Alex Smith, solar generator expert and owner of ShopSolarKits.com. A recent storm in Ottawa, Ontario, left his friend Max and family without utility power for eight consecutive days.

    “In the neighborhood, you could just hear the gas generators going everywhere,” says Smith. But Max’s home was quiet and emission-free, operating “normally for all eight days with a solar-powered generator running fridges, lights, fans (all night), cell phones, and the WiFi modem.” Max’s home was running on a solar generator.

    If you think you might benefit from this technology and want to know what to expect from a solar-powered generator, read further for the ins and outs.


    Key insights

    • High-quality backup solar generators can continuously electrify an entire home in the event of a local power outage or emergency.
    • Solar generator systems can be expanded to include larger solar arrays and battery capacities.
    • Most emergency home solar generators cost between $1,700 and $5,000.

    How do solar generators work?

    While large, fixed solar energy systems can store and distribute massive amounts of electricity, there are also many portable generator systems available today that are popular for use at home and on the go.

    Known as portable power stations or battery-powered generators, these solar generators are compact, all-in-one devices that collect, store and distribute energy from the sun. And they’re available in many different shapes, sizes and capacities.

    The basic components (for most portable solar generators)

    Solar panels: Also called photovoltaic (PV) panels, solar panels work by converting sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. Most PV panels used by solar generators are portable, differentiating them from those used in larger, more permanent solar energy systems.

    Charge controller: Once the electricity is generated by the solar panels, the first component it reaches is the charge controller (or regulator). Though solar energy is generated at highly variable rates throughout the day, the job of the charge controller is to shape and condition the electricity so it can be stored efficiently and not overcharge the battery.

    Modern solar generators typically use one of two charge-controller technologies: maximum power point tracking (MPPT) and pulse width modulation (PWM). MPPT charge controllers are a more efficient technology, but if you need only small amounts of backup power, you can still make do with a PWM regulator.

    Battery: Having a built-in battery allows portable solar generators to store electricity until it's needed. Most modern solar generators utilize lithium-ion batteries to efficiently store the DC electricity collected by the solar panels and regulated by the charge controller.

    Inverter and power distribution: If you want to use the direct current (DC) your solar generator provides, it must pass through an inverter system that converts it into alternating current (AC). Stand-alone solar generators typically invert the power at the moment it's distributed to your electrical devices through several onboard outlets, plug-ins or ports.

    How much energy does the average home use?

    According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. home used approximately 10,715 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power per year in 2020. Broken down into daily consumption, that's just under 30 kWh per day.

    The average home solar battery capacity is just 10 kWh, and portable solar generator capacities tend to be even smaller. Therefore, properties running on a solar backup system generally need to cut back on their electricity use when relying on a portable solar generator without expanded battery capacity. Air conditioning and heating systems are the largest electricity-consuming devices in a typical household, and high-capacity power-drawing appliances such as microwaves and toasters should also be avoided.

    If it's cloudy, you are going to have to go without the fan or TV, but if it's really sunny you can really get away with as much power usage as you want."

    Your local climate and weather can also impact how much energy your generator produces. As Smith explained, “Some days when it is sunny you get tons of use, but others are not so sunny, so you kind of just have to watch your power usage. If it's cloudy, you are going to have to go without the fan or TV, but if it's really sunny you can really get away with as much power usage as you want.”

    What to look for when purchasing a solar-powered generator

    Before you purchase a solar-powered generator, there are a few things you need to keep in mind that specifically relate to how you plan to use the system.

    If you’re going to incorporate a solar-powered generator into your home’s electrical system, it's vital that you check local building codes and electricity requirements to ensure the installation is safe, legal and properly permitted.

    When purchasing a stand-alone solar-powered generator, you have to worry about far fewer logistical considerations — you’ll create and store your electricity completely independently.

    Warranty periods

    Reviewing the expected warranty period of your solar-powered generator is often the quickest way to see if you're purchasing a high-quality item. While some solar-powered generators are created for camping and other small-scale circumstances, a home backup system should include a warranty for five to 15 years (or more).

    Solar batteries are typically warrantied in “lifecycles,” which is the approximate number of times you can expect to use the system. Over time, batteries slowly degrade and lose capacity, and you should seek out lithium-based or lithium iron phosphate batteries that are rated for over 2,000 lifecycles.

    Solar input

    The amount of solar energy that can be used to charge your generator throughout the day depends on the device’s solar input ratings. Even if a solar generator is rated to put out tons of power, you should pay close attention to solar input levels to ensure you can refill a generator's battery efficiently with a full day of sunlight on your panels.

    Battery capacity and expandability

    Battery capacity and expandability are the most important things to pay attention to when planning a backup source of power. Today, many solar generators incorporate modular and “chain-able” technologies that allow you to charge as many solar batteries as you can and retain them for safekeeping. The more battery capacity you have, the longer you'll be able to run life-sustaining devices.

    How much do solar-powered generators for a home cost — and are they worth it?

    A solar generator large enough to power an entire house can be expensive. While backup power sources start at around $1,700, you can expect to spend up to $20,000 to get enough energy for ongoing use in your home.

    I'm gonna save more money because I'm producing my own electricity … We live in a rural area, and when we get monsoon season, we always lose electricity, so everybody up here wants battery backups.” — ConsumerAffairs reviewer

    A fair average cost for backup power on a house is somewhere around $5,000. Smith explained that, within this budget, “You would get a good chunk of power in a solar generator, some panels, cables and connectors.”

    Whether that cost is worth it depends on how much use you get out of your solar generator. A reviewer from Prescott Valley, Arizona, told ConsumerAffairs why they chose to purchase a full-home solar generator: “I'm gonna save more money because I'm producing my own electricity, and right now, it's a nice, sunny day. It’s not hot, and I can go out in my garage and my battery's charging and producing electricity for my house. … We live in a rural area, and when we get monsoon season, we always lose electricity, so everybody up here wants battery backups.”

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      FAQ

      Are solar-powered generators safe?

      Compared with traditional gas-powered generators, solar-powered generators are generally a much safer alternative. Solar-powered generators are safe to operate indoors because they don't emit any harmful fumes. Solar generators also don't require as much ongoing maintenance or attention as gas generators, which minimizes opportunities for dangerous mistakes.

      How long do solar generators last?

      Solar generators last as long as their batteries can efficiently store and distribute electricity. While batteries can be replaced to continue generating solar energy with a set of PV panels, you can expect most solar generators to provide anywhere between two and 10 years of operation, depending on the technology and your usage habits.

      How do I know how many batteries I’ll need?

      To determine the number of batteries you’ll need for a solar generator system, you have to calculate your approximate electrical load. If you’re only planning to use your solar generator for emergency home power applications, you will want to create a battery bank that's large enough to continuously run your life-sustaining electronics, such as a refrigerator, lights and communication devices, for some time.

      Bottom line

      Solar generators are a relatively new, advancing technology and an excellent alternative to similar gas-powered devices. Although systems large enough to power an entire home independently are still expensive, more affordable portable solar-powered generators have many other uses, such as for off-grid cabins, emergency power and other small-scale applications.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
      1. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “How much electricity does an American home use?” Accessed June 2, 2022.
      2. EnergySage, “How many solar batteries do I need?” Accessed June 3, 2022.
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