Portable solar panels are very appealing because they are lightweight, easy to set up, and in theory work very well. The #1 reason people prefer portable solar panels over conventional solar panels is that they don’t have to worry about installing solar panels permanently to a roof, ground mount, or to any other fixture. It is a very daunting task to install solar panels on a house, on an RV, or in an off-grid location.
For this reason, most people prefer to set up solar panels for a solar back-ups power system like a solar generator or power station. But what is the portable solar panel lifespan? Will they be damaged by rain, snow, hail, or hot sunny days? What is the best type of portable solar panel to use? What are the different types of portable solar panels? All of that will be answered here.
Long Lasting Components
What makes conventional solar panels so great is that they last for decades while producing more than 80% of their original output. They are great because they use tempered glass which does not scratch or wears down quickly. They have an aluminum frame that doesn’t rust or degrade easily. The solar cells last a long time because they are able to dissipate heat by having air gaps behind the solar panels and have nothing on the back of the solar panel cells that will retain heat.
Portable solar panels generally do not use tempered glass, or aluminum frames, or have nothing on the back of them. Usually, portable solar panels use a special plastic coating, either PET or ETFE, that goes on top of the solar cells. The cells and plastic coating at laid on top of a plastic backing that is heat resistant. Then that will usually be sewn into some form of fabric case where the solar panel can be folded up, or in some cases rolled up for easy transportation.
There are some portable solar panels that are like traditional solar panels with tempered glass, aluminum frames, and no thick backing that would hold excess heat.
The major difference is how long the components last. Tempered glass and aluminum do not break down easily. But the fabric and clear plastic exposed to the sun can break down much faster.
As an example, look at the road and off-road vehicles. Cars use tempered glass for their windshields and side windows. They use them because when in an accident the glass tends to shatter in place and not cut people as much as other glass. The tempered glass is very scratch resistant and doesn’t discolor over time. However, you can see in many off-road vehicles such as side-by-sides and ATVs that use plastic windows, they break after just a couple of years. That or get so easily scratched that they become difficult to see through over time. They tend to discolor and turn yellow after continual exposure to the sun.
The same applies to solar panels. Glass will last much longer than plastic. The fabric that is used to hold lightweight solar panels in place also breaks down usually within 1 year of constant use. It gets extremely faded, and fragile, and is prone to ripping.
PET vs ETFE
If the portable solar panels are not the conventional style with a tempered glass front and aluminum frame, it’s very important to know which type of plastic is covering the cells. PET and ETFE are the most common plastics that cover solar cells on portable solar panels.
PET is a very common clear plastic used for a variety of applications. Including water bottles, food containers, household cleaner bottles, and much more. The plastic has flexibility, is wear-resistant, and is non-toxic. It can be easily molded and used in a variety of ways which is why it is so common. But the items that use PET generally are not designed to be left in the sun for a long time. Otherwise, they begin to turn a yellow color and become brittle over time.
The same applies to portable solar panels that are coated with PET plastic on top of the solar cells. Since solar panels are designed to be used outside in the heat and sun for long periods of time, they break down very fast. Generally, in less than 1 year PET can become completely brittle, discolored, and unusable. The big advantage of using PET on solar panels is that it is extremely affordable. Hence, affordable portable solar panels will oftentimes be covered with PET. They are only designed to be used on an “as needed” basis. Only for a few days at a time when camping, when there’s a power outage, or for charging small batteries. When used for long periods of time, they will become useless after one year.
ETFE on the other hand has all the same good aspects of PET but it doesn’t break down nearly as fast. ETFE is still very flexible, mouldable, and transparent, but can easily last up to 5 years before seeing any discoloring. Technically it’s able to last about 20 years before major discoloring is visible. It doesn’t break down easily in the sun which is why any portable solar panel that doesn’t have tempered glass, should have ETFE.
There are two major downfalls to ETFE though. When folding on the same spot many times it will eventually begin to separate or delaminate from the solar cells. This is a major problem since the higher-quality portable solar panels will use ETFE. But since they’re portable and usually fold in half or in an accordion style, the ETFE eventually splits away from the cells and can cause a total failure of the solar panel if water gets in the opening.
The second issue is that it doesn’t fold and move easily when it’s cold. The ETFE coating needs to ideally be above 75 degrees Fahrenheit in order to unfold and be used easily. That generally is not a problem if the solar panel is already set out since the sun tends to warm up the solar panels quite a bit. But it is a major problem if it’s used in a cold environment because then the solar panels won’t even stay open by themselves to get warmed up by the sun and become pliable. It will be required to use something to hold the solar panel open until it is warm enough to hold itself in place. This is the biggest problem if someone is by themselves trying to open a large folding solar panel and place a rock or stake in one corner to hold it in place. It’s quite the balancing act.
There are 3 main types of portable solar panels.
- Rigid frame portable solar panels are typically two 50w or 100w solar panels hinged together to make a portable solar panel. It’s just two normal panels put together but is more portable because it’s easier to move two at once since they have a carry handle on them. The upside to using this kind of portable solar panel is that it is long-lasting, very durable against poor weather, components don’t degrade, and tend to be more affordable than lightweight portable solar panels. The downside is that they weigh 4x more than flexible or blanket solar panels and do not stack easily in trunk space.
- Flexible solar panels have two different kinds of solar panels within their own category. One is a very flexible solar panel that can be rolled up and unrolled easily. They are designed to be flexible and roll up for easy portability. The other kind is flexible only because they do not have a rigid aluminum frame around them. The plastic backing piece behind the cells gives all of the rigidity to the solar panel and cells. The first type of flexible solar panel will not damage the cells by being handled roughly. The second type of flexible solar panel is very prone to having the solar cells crack. Once a cell is cracked, it is permanently damaged. It will still capture solar power and work but at a diminished rate. Both types of flexible solar panels cost more than rigid frame panels because there is a lot more work that goes into manufacturing them.
- Blanket solar panels are the most expensive but by far have the biggest cool factor. They are similar to flexible solar panels in the sense that they can be folded, rolled, and abused without getting damage to the cells. But that also means that they have nothing on the back of them to give them rigidity. The secret to getting the best solar output per cell is to have an evenly flat surface that is 90 degrees from the sun. Since blanket solar panels tend to be very flimsy and foldable, it is hard to get a high watt-per-cell output. But they have the unique ability to sustain great damage and continue to work without any issues. Even to the point of being shot with bullets. These are sometimes used in the military where an enemy may try to destroy power production by shooting their solar panels. With other solar panels, even one bullet going through them would render them useless. But with blanket solar panels they can take dozens of shots and still work well. Blanket solar panels will often times cost 10x as much as a rigid frame panel.
Learn more about flexible vs rigid frame solar panels.
Conclusion, Portable Solar Panels Have Advantages
Portable solar panels have their place and advantages. But generally, they will break down, cost more, and produce less power per cell than rigid-framed traditional solar panels. It is obviously much easier for someone to get into solar if the solar panels cost less. In this case, paying more for flexible panels doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality or longer lasting. In truth, using flexible portable solar panels will cost more upfront and cost much more in the long run as solar panels need to be replaced over time if they are in constant use.
The best way to use a portable solar panel is only when necessary. Contact Powered Portable Solar today to get started.