Lithium batteries have been steadily dropping in prices in recent years thanks to more efficient manufacturing processes and the global transition to electric mobility. Along with a boost in the popularity of vehicle camping, partially amplified by the pandemic, an explosion of portable power banks are now available on the market from various manufacturers. From the smallest pocket-sized USB chargers to massive backup solar generators that can power an RV or even a home, there is one out there for every purpose. Regardless of what kind of electrical system you have in your camper, just about anyone can benefit from a standalone portable power bank. Unless you use it to power your entire camper’s electrical system, the category sweet spot of these products seems to be right around the 500Wh capacity range. They are affordable enough that just about anyone can own one, small and light enough that you can carry it with you everywhere you go, and powerful enough to run pretty much anything you would want to use in your day-to-day life.
One of the great things about using a portable battery bank versus just charging directly from your camper’s electrical system is that if you happen to completely deplete the charge from a long day’s use, you are not at any risk of severely affecting your day-to-day living in the camper. Your fridge will still keep your food cold and fresh, your lights will stay on once it gets dark and if you can take it with you anywhere you can find an AC outlet and top it off in a matter of a few hours. This is especially great if you are boondocking somewhere in the wilderness but are within driving distance to a city or small town with a coffee shop, you can pop in there, get a cup of coffee, do some work on your laptop and drive back to camp with a full power bank.
The most common use for these portable battery banks is to charge personal electronic devices. That is more or less what the manufacturers had in mind when they designed these. That is why there are always plenty of USB ports, some have wireless charging pads and most have a sinewave inverter to convert battery power to clean alternating current. However, we have found these things to be useful in many other ways. Here are just some ways that I find myself using our portable bank that you might not think about and I wanted to share them with you.
Charge your power tools
Having portable power that can last a whole day of work opens up the possibility of getting untethered from the vehicle or a wall outlet so you can really be free to work from anywhere. The obvious type of work that many people do is with a laptop computer. However, you can also use this battery bank to charge power tools for any kind of carpentry or construction project. I am often using my Milwaukee M18 drill around the van and having a second battery nearby and charging is always a good idea so your project doesn’t grind to a halt when the first battery dies.
Pump water out of a lake or river
We are often camped next to a river or a lake when it is possible. Although we usually don’t use the water for drinking, we often use it for washing. Washing dishes, washing ourselves, and sometimes even washing the car. We’ve done it so much that we have put together a little 12-volt portable submersible water pump with a long pickup hose that can be dipped into a body of water. On the other side, we can connect another hose with a sprayer nozzle to use practically unlimited amounts of water for whatever kind of washing we needed. It feels like a luxury when you are boondocking to be able to use water frivolously. Be mindful of the environmental factors and don’t use soaps or chemicals of any kind if possible. If you must, carry the water in buckets to be away from the water source to the minimum required distance and use only biodegradable soaps.
Run your fridge from anywhere
When people ask us what kind of fridge they should use for their camper build, I always recommend getting a compressor fridge. That is opposed to the other type of fridge that uses absorption technology and is often called a 3-way fridge. A compressor fridge is much more energy-efficient in terms of electric consumption. An absorption fridge is best used with propane gas and can consume a lot more power in electric mode. With a top-loading compressor fridge like our Dometic CFX3, it is essentially a powered cooler. It uses about 40 amps of 12-volt power which means a power bank like the ones we are talking about here can easily run it for an entire day. Having the flexibility to take your fridge outside of your camper is a great luxury. Most people already have a portable stove to cook outside. Being able to take refrigerated goods with you along with a portable stove means there are no limits to where your next home-cooked meal can be prepared.
Power a soldering iron for wiring jobs
As an owner of a DIY camper, there is always some kind of wiring project that needs to be done. Being able to make strong solder joints is critical in making sure your electrical system is safe on the road. Anytime I need to use my soldering iron, I am always thankful that I have my Bluetti AC50S. It allows me to take my soldering iron anywhere I need to and make sure that I am not constantly tripping over extension chords during these projects. As soldering produces harmful fumes, it also allows you to be working on these projects outdoors or in well-ventilated areas that may not have power outlets.
Emergency power for your camper
Lastly, this use case of portable power banks isn’t necessarily the most efficient use of the stored power but can be a lifesaver when you are in need. My Bluetti AC50S can store about 500Wh of power when it is full. My van’s battery bank made of 280Ah EVE LiFePO4 cells can hold roughly 7 times that amount of power. However, when there is no place to plug in to charge and if there is no sun, I can use the portable power bank to add just enough power into our house battery in a pinch if I just need to push enough power into the van so we can last through just one more night to run our fridge and diesel heater. There is a noticeable efficiency loss when this method is used so expect to only be able to recover anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the stored capacity.
Which Ones Should I Buy?
Just for a frame of reference, here are 5 units that fit that mid-size category from reputable manufacturers making dependable products.
- Bluetti AC50S (Click to see latest price)
- Goal Zero Yeti 500X (Click to see latest price)
- Jackery Explorer 500 (Click to see latest price)
- EcoFlow River Max (Click to see latest price)
- Anker PowerHouse II 400 (Click to see latest price)
These are just some ideas of what a mid-sized portable battery bank can help you in your off-grid journeys. Lithium batteries have finally become the standard in off-grid power. With lots of new manufacturers producing products of all sizes, prices have never been better. I hope I’ve given you some ideas as to what types of things you can do with these powerful tools. If you have used them in other unique ways or have ideas of what might be possible, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.