Charging devices

Off Grid Cycling: Choosing a Power Generator and Battery

  by Stephen EwashkiwNo Comments

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About a year ago my wife, Jane, and I decided we should get rid of just about all our earthly possessions and ride bikes around the world. On March 26, 2013 we said goodbye to Los Angeles and began the My Five Acres world tour.

For more on Stephen and Jane’s story, including a full list of equipment that they left home with, check out the first article in this series: How To Power A Round-The-World Bike Trip

Power Me Up

Part of my eco-travel plan was to harness as much natural power as possible, so that we leave the Earth pretty much as we find it. We wanted to be able to stay in touch with people, and set ourselves a goal of daily blogging. I also wanted to test the limits of Apple and use an iPad mini as our sole mapping device.

This would involve generating power.

I set my sights on solar. We had already installed solar on our home in LA (which we sold to go on this trip). Just last summer I had recently seen numerous passed-out trustafarians recharging their iPhones via solar at Lightning In A Bottle (a mini-Burning Man in Southern California). Surely solar would be up the the task.

My research, however, showed otherwise. I might be able to recharge an iPhone if the entire day was sunny and my solar panels were pointing in the right direction the whole time. I would not be able to recharge an iPad or a laptop.

This will surely change over the next few years, and in fact if weight and cost are no object to you, then there are solar systems available to power iPads etc right now, but for a cycling tourist the weight of these units ruled them out.

Hub dynamoI began to research other options, which led me to the world of dynamos. As a child of the seventies I was aware of the dynamo, if not its name. My family had owned several bikes equipped with those oddly shaped devices that touch the front wheel and barely power up a headlight.

In most of Europe they never went out of style and have been refined to things of beauty, style, and abundant power. In fact almost every bicycle, no matter how run down, we have seen so far this year has been equipped with one kind of dynamo or another.

For the kind of power I wanted to generate, and considering we are travelling great distances on our bikes, I wanted a powerful dynamo with minimal drag, and a long life.

Two contenders came out on top, both of them hub dynamos. Instead of touching the wheel, these are built into the front wheel’s hub. This limits drag, increases efficiency, generates more power, and is also quite discreet.

Shimano and Wilfried Schmidt Maschinenbau  make the two top rated hub dynamos. The WSM built hub, known as the SON Hub, has a very long lifespan (between 5,000 and 10,000 miles) and the company will rebuild it for you if you run into any problems.

The Shimano seemed to be less well-built, has a shorter lifespan, and gets thrown out when it breaks. It is less expensive than the SON Hub, and that seems to be its main draw when people choose it instead of the SON. We have met plenty of people with the Shimano along the road, and most of them seem perfectly happy with it.

I bought a Son Hub 28 from Peter White Cycle, the official US distributor of not only this, but many European bike components, and the owner of a hilarious “grumpy old man” no-nonsense old-school website. I found a great wheel builder, Steve at The Bike Shack in Simi Valley, to rebuild my front wheel. With its shiny black power generator installed, my bike was now also a mini power plant.

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Holding On To Power

Charging devices

Next, I needed to buy a power converter to connect to my hub so I could power my toys. The power that comes off the hub is the wrong current and it needs to be converted before it becomes useful for anything besides a bike light.

Busch & Muller, a German bike accessories company, make the E-werk, a bulky and pricey tool that converts power, and gives you outputs at various levels so that you can power all sorts of smaller electronic devices. It has a separate battery you can buy that is also quite expensive.

There is an Australian company who make the Pedalpower+, but they wouldn’t reply to my emails asking about their product, so I am not sure they are even still in business.

I went with the BioLogic converter. This is available as a separate piece or with a small battery pack (called the Reecharge Power Pack). I tested the Power Pack and it worked well. It powered things up as it was supposed it, and it even did pass-through powering, which is important for a long-haul cyclist (it means you can power the battery and a device at the same time).

The Reecharge Power Pack does however have finicky lights which make it hard to tell if it is working. Once I figured them out, it did work, but I decided the BioLogic converter was all I needed as long as I could find a battery that would work with it.

HyperJuice make the HyperJuice Micro battery, but their micro USB connection was weak and I couldn’t keep the cord plugged in at home let alone on the bike. Their customer service was good, but there wasn’t anything they could do about the connector being loose. That is just how it is made.

The battery is meant to do pass-through powering, however when I could keep the cable attached the power would ONLY pass-through. It didn’t charge the battery, just the device connected to it.

I loved these batteries because they are well designed, compact, and hold a lot of power, but they just didn’t fit my needs. I would consider using them if I wasn’t travelling by bike and just wanted back-up power, but as I am, my HJ Micro was returned.

Charging from wall socket

The New Trent line of batteries seemed to be up to the task. Everything I read about them seemed to be right. When I tested the New Trent Easypak NT70T I was sure I had found the right battery.

It has a high-powered USB output which is necessary for powering the iPad, a USB for powering iPhone devices and other 5V devices, and, at 7,000 mAh it holds enough power to power the iPad twice.

It has a built-in micro USB output plug, and a built-in regular USB cable for powering the battery. This means one more cable I don’t have to carry on the trip. I tested the battery and it seemed to be powering up – the lights were flashing as they were supposed to – but I discovered it won’t accept power from the dynamo either.

Unfortunately I didn’t actually figure this out until a couple of months into our trip, since we’d been able to plug in the New Trent enough to never have it run out of juice.

I probably should have stuck with the Biologic Reecharge Power Pack as my converter and battery combo. I likely would have also brought a HyperJuice or New Trent battery for back-up power, as the Reecharge battery holds quite a small charge (1700 mAh). I had already returned it, however, so I decided to work with what I had.

The Biologic power converter allows me to power my headlamp battery and the lights for Jane’s bike. The New Trent battery has a large capacity, yet is only the size of an iPhone 4, so I decided to bring that, and just plug it into the wall every couple of days as needed.

On the entire journey from Rome to Russia, which took us five months, there was only one day where the battery died and the iPad died before I got to an outlet to plug things in, so if you’re not wild camping too often this combo would suffice.

That said, however, I have decided to upgrade my lighting and power storage set-up for the rest of this trip – check out the next instalment to discover why.

Have you ever tried to power your tech gear while off the grid? What did you choose, and how well did it work?

About the Author

Stephen Ewashkiw

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Stephen Ewashkiw is a yoga teacher who has (temporarily) traded in his daily class schedule for the life of a bicycle nomad. In an attempt to explore a more environmentally friendly mode of travel, he recently cycled from Rome to Russia with his wife, Jane Mountain. They have just begun the second leg of the adventure, Beijing to Bali, also by bicycle. Along the way he is teaching yoga in local studios and filming classes for his students back home.

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