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There are many options out there now for small sized solar panels. However, there is a lack of standardisation on what is considered a small solar panel.
Type ‘small solar panel’ in a search engine and you’ll get solar panels as tiny as 0.5 watts to as big as a few hundred watts. This can make choosing the right one for your specific needs a little challenging.
That is why we’ve come up with this article to help you differentiate between a mini solar panel and small solar panel from a regular one. We also put together a list of the best small solar panels for different purposes.
What is considered small solar panels?
The traditional 60 or 72-cell panels used for rooftop, ground-mounted, commercial, and utility-scale solar panels are regular-sized or super-sized. These are often around 65 x 39 inches in size.
Small solar panels are generally 100 watts and below. They are physically smaller than traditional solar panels. Most 100W solar panels tend to have dimensions of about 2 feet by 4 feet. Some small solar panel kits are portable and thus, can be taken with you when you’re going off the grid.
Different types of small solar panels
Small solar panels can be further broken down into three types:
Mini Solar Panels
These are miniature in size as well as wattage. A classic example and age-old application of mini solar panels is the solar-powered calculator. However, this article is about mini solar panels which are sold separately to be used for DIY projects, or for powering small electrical devices.
Power generation capacity is typically below 10 watts. Their sizes can range from 0.6 x 2.55 inches to 8.85 x 5.12 inches. Because of their size, they usually weigh less than 100 grams. Mini solar panels are a cheap option but they don’t generate enough power for a laptop.
Low-wattage solar panels
These come in sizes from 50 watts to about 100 watts, but less than 200 watts. The 100W variety has more similar dimensions to regular residential solar panels which have a power output of 250 to 364 watts.
This type of small solar panel is a good solution (and is commonly used) for off-grid applications such as on RVs, motorhomes and boats. Combined with the use of sufficient solar batteries, the power generated is enough to run some or all of the electrical appliances.
This would also depend on the quantity of appliances and their power consumption. If a single 100W panel isn’t enough, you can multiply the power output by adding more panels.
Portable solar gadgets
The small solar panels of this category are already integrated into gadgets or equipment. For example, solar backpacks. The solar size of these gadgets can be within the range of mini solar panels or low-wattage solar panels.
Choosing between the types of small solar panels
Small flexible solar panels
These are made from amorphous cells or thin film. The wattage of such panels is usually within the mini to low end of low-wattage solar panels. As such, they are only good for powering small gadgets.
They are incredibly lightweight and because they are flexible, they don’t break easily. In fact, the solar cloth can be rolled up like a scroll. This makes small flexible solar panels great for use on areas which are not flat like the top of a backpack, the top of a curved tent or the bow of a boat.
Small solar panels for camping
For camping, you should look for mini or small solar panels which are waterproof, weatherproof and sturdy. If you don’t need the solar panel to sit on a curved surface, you can opt for the rigid type, usually made from monocrystalline solar cells.
Alternatively, you can buy portable solar gadgets made for camping or outdoor use. If you need a power source for an extended period of time, it may not be enough to depend on only your solar backpack.
The maximum wattage of a solar backpack can go as high as 180 watts but this product is rare in the market. Furthermore, this may not be enough to power all the electrical gadgets that you have unless you want to carry more than one battery with you.
The next best option is to buy gadgets with their own built-in solar kits. For example, the BioLite Campstove 2, Scorpion 2 Multi-Powered Weather Radio & Flashlight and Luci Survival Solar Air Lantern.
Small solar panels for home use
There are two types of homes: a permanent home and a mobile one. If you are thinking of getting small solar panels for the permanent one, the most that these can do for you is run only one large electrical appliance or less than three smaller appliances. You might not get enough power from a system with four 100-Watt panels to power the entire house.
However, if you’re in a tiny home with a minimal number of electrical appliances, that system may be enough, backed up with a sufficient solar battery pack.
Small solar panels for garden lights
For garden lights, mini solar panels can do the job just fine. If one panel isn’t enough to illuminate the garden light, select those that come in a pack of 3 or 5 panels. Just make sure the brands that you buy are waterproof and weatherproof as they will be exposed to the elements on a constant basis.
Where to buy small solar panels
Most large manufacturers that produce regular solar panels don’t produce mini and small solar panels. Small solar panels are usually produced by manufacturers that are more focussed on the DIY industry.
Most small solar panels can be bought from online stores or online wholesalers. However, these products don’t come with installation services.
What is the best small solar panel?
Here is our recommendation for mini solar panels and low-wattage solar panels.
0.5-watt solar panel: Seeed Studio Mini Solar Panels
Suitable for: camping
Sized at only 55 x 70 x 3mm and weighing only 17 grams, this mini solar panel is waterproofed with a resin surface. Its 17% efficiency rating allows it to produce from 5 to 10 Volts a day. If this isn’t enough for your needs, they have larger options of up to 3 Watts.
1-watt solar panel: Seed Studio Flexible Mini Solar Panels
Suitable for: camping
This 2-Volt cutie is made from thin-film flexible solar cells. It can curve up to 30 degrees. Durable, super light and waterproof, it can be chained to your backpack to constantly charge your batteries.
5-watt solar panel: CIGS Solar Cloth
Suitable for: camping
This product is great if you wish to pack it up in your backpack. The solar cloth is so flexible it can be rolled 360 degrees. This is possible due to the material of the thin-film solar panel – CIGS and ETFE film – both of which make the product durable, lightweight and have high light transmittance.
40-watt small solar panel: X-Dragon Solar Charger
Suitable for: camping
This portable solar panel kit is suitable for outdoor explorers. The panel comes with eye holes that let you attach it to a backpack.
It is small but it can produce enough electricity to power multiple electrical devices. Its touted 22% to 25% efficiency is a figure beyond what most solar cells can achieve. Typical values for efficiency are usually around the 15% mark.
The kit can also automatically adjust the voltage and current to give maximum power delivery. Two power output connections are available: a USB port for charging smaller gadgets and a DC output for bigger devices like laptops.
It folds away to about 10 x 6 x 3 inches and weighs 3 pounds. If this is too heavy, there is a 20-watt model.
50-watt small solar panel: Renogy Solar Panel Kit
Suitable for: off grid applications
This solar kit doesn’t come with a deep charge battery. It is made for hooking up to RVs, sailboats or any grid independent set-up.
Aside from the 50W monocrystalline solar panel, the kit comes with a 10 Amp PWM charge controller, a 20 feet 12AWG MC4 adaptor kit, an 8 feet 12AWG tray cable, and a set of Z-brackets
The solar panel efficiency rating is 18.4% which is pretty decent. On shady days, the bypass diodes in the system will minimize the drop in power.
The aluminium frame of the solar panel is corrosion-resistant; perfect for extended outdoor use. The solar panel also has pre-drilled holes on the back which makes mounting it easy, fast and secure.
100-watt small solar panel: WindyNation Off-Grid
Suitable for: off grid applications
This small solar panel kit comes with a 12-volt deep cycle battery, charge controller, Z brackets, 40 feet of AWG solar cable, MC4 connectors and mounting hardware. The solar panel measures 40 x 26.4 x 1.2 inches.
In optimal weather conditions, the kit can produce an average of 350 Watt Hours (Wh) of energy, or 33 Amp hours of power charge each day.
The plus point of this kit is that it can be upgraded easily. You can add 3 more 100-Watt solar panels in a 12-Volt system, or 8x 100 Watt panels in a 24-Volt system.
How do small solar panels work?
Small solar panels work pretty much the same way as regular panels. Sunlight is absorbed via photovoltaic cells and transferred to a semiconductor. The semiconductor then creates an eclectic field and delivers the current to the designated electrical appliance. Small solar panels are usually made from monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon or thin-film solar panels.
What will a 100 watt solar panel run?
A 100 watt solar panel is about 47 x 21 x 1.5 inches which means that you can bring it around with you without much hassle. It can power up small devices such as lamps, cell phones, wifi router, laptops and fans. Larger appliances such as heaters and air conditioner will require more than a 100 watt solar panel.
100 watt solar panels are quite easy to use and also very convenient. If you’re planning on getting one, you can start off with a 100 watt solar panel kit. You can add more panels to your kit when you want or need to.
How to clean small solar panels?
Grime, dust and other substances can impact the amount of power generated by your solar panel. The first thing you need to do when cleaning your small solar panel is to check the manual for instructions. Follow the procedure and cleaning instructions, and remember to shut down the system before you start cleaning.
- Before using water, brush off loose materials to make cleaning easier and quicker. However, make sure not to use metal objects or abrasive products. Doing so can scratch the panels. Abrasive powders can also scratch your panels.
- Clean water and some scrubbing with a soft brush or cloth covered sponge should be sufficient to remove the dirt and grime.
- While you can clean them anytime you want, early morning is a good option as dew settled on the panels would have helped soften the grime. This means it will be easier to get the dirt off.
Getting the most out of your small solar panels
It can be frustrating when you need to use your solar panel only to find that it is not functioning properly. Here’s what you can do to ensure that your solar panel kit functions effectively:
- Remove the transparent plastic film from your solar panel.
- Care for it and avoid scratching the panel.
- Keep it away from water if possible. Water vapour inside the panels can cause it to be ‘cloudy’.
- Clean residue or dust from the surface of the panel.
- Read the manual and follow care instructions
There is little doubt that really cheap solar panels are out there. However, these are usually mini solar panels and low-wattage solar panels, both of which fall under the group of small solar panels.
A system with small solar panels is not likely to power the energy needs of a whole house. However, one with at least a few higher scaled small solar panels may be enough for a tiny house on wheels with a minimal number of electrical appliances.
Knowing what you need to power and how you’re going to use the small solar panel can help you decide which product is the best for you.