Sweat, Flies and Flying Glass (but living the dream)

working on the balcony of les o kiri

The temperature gauge in my car says it is 28 degrees centigrade in the shade. I spent most of the day working on the balcony of a campsite bar, using my very little french "Une cafe noire sil vous plait" to procure coffee, because I really shouldn’t start on the beer yet, and the french don’t really do tea. Despite my appalling pronunciation, each time I receive an espresso in a glass or cup, and know (from the change rather than the spoken response) that these cost me 1 euro 20 each time. Occasionally one of the bar staff speaks to me and I nod and smile – hoping that what they are saying is good, rather than “can you please leave now?”.

From the balcony I can see the “beach on the mountains” – a sandy beach on a turquoise lake, with the French Pyrenees as a backdrop. In the water are a load of kids (one of them my own), having a riot with an inflatable roundabout in the shallow part of the lake. At lunchtime I wander down and have a picnic lunch in the shade with my wife and son, then I wander back up to the bar. Although my solar charging experiments are showing some promise, I plug into the mains to enable me to work for a decent stint without the “plate spinning” needed to swap round partially charged batteries, while I get others charging.

If I wasn’t working, now might be time for a beer, but I stick with the espresso. It’s hardly “chilled” here, i’m being accosted by flies, I can barely see my screen, even in the shade. Some workmen take the table next to me and start talking far too loud, and seem to be enjoying themselves far too much at my expense, (or maybe that’s just my “not speaking the language” paranoia). To top things off, someone drops a whole tray of empty glasses and a splinter of glass pings off my arm. It doesn’t draw blood, but adds to the feeling that this isn’t exactly the ideal working environment. But then I look at the view again, and see my family enjoying themselves in the sun, and I know that i’m earning enough through working part of the day each day (or a whole day every other day) to justify the extended holiday, and that I am in fact living the dream.

Experiments with mobile internet abroad and charging on the road

SolarSupra solar panel trickle charging a leisure battery

We’ve been on the road in france for a few days now. I have an iPhone with t-mobile sim, and was offered (via SMS) one of a few data roaming bundles when I drove off the eurotunnel in calais. I opted for a 30 day/ 200mb bundle for £40, which should be plenty enough for checking email and the odd bit of remote working. At the first campsite we stayed at in the town Jumièges, the phone was showing a strong 3G signal through Orange France, but it was struggling to download webpages, via the phone or tethered to my macbook. Sometimes they loaded, sometimes they didn’t – mostly the latter. I wasn’t planning on doing any serious work on the first day anyway, but it wasn’t encouraging.

The campsite was shady and the clouds were grey (followed by thunderstorms and lightning), so it would have been pointless to try solar charging! The battery on my casio elixim camera had gone flat (probably accidently left switched on in the bag), and the only way I have of charging this is on the road is using the 240 volt inverter on the leisure battery. This is very inefficient, so took quite a chunk of charge out of the leisure battery. Packing up in torrential rain the next morning everything was a bit frantic, so I missed an opportunity to get some charge from the car while we drove the next 200 miles south.

The second campsite near the town of Ligueil in the Loire valley, had free wifi which stretched as far as our pitch a good 200 metres from the office, which was really useful. From there I did a couple of hours work, caught up on email and launched a few new features on one of the sites I look after. There was plenty of sun, so I plugged the SolarSupra panel into my leisure battery via the 12 volt connection to top it up. I haven’t got an accurate way of working out how effective this is, but I have to presume that it its a minimal trickle charge, so would require days of trickle charging to have any useful effect. When I am stationary for a longer period of time, i’ll try to to leave this hooked up for a few days to see how it fares.

Back on the road heading south to St Emilion, I plugged the leisure battery into the 12 volt socket conveniently located in the boot of the beetle, and by the time we reach the campsite it was fully charged – if only I could get that kind of charging power from nice clean solar power. Also along the way, stopped at a services near Tours my mobile data connection allowed me to check my email no problems, so i’m thinking it will just be a lottery, but at least I know where will be a good bet when we head back up this way.

Meanwhile i’m going to try to charge my iPhone exclusively from the SolarMio for a while to see how I get on with that. I can’t help but cheat a bit as every time I plug the phone in to the laptop to get photos off it, it charges a bit!

The site i’m currently on – Camping Domaine de la Barbanne in St Emilion, has wifi but I need to go and pay for a time period, and the signal doesn’t reach our pitch. This means I need to work offline, then probably before I leave, will pay the minimal amount to check my email (i’m getting no data connection here) and upload some work. I think this will be the case for much of this trip, so i’ll make note of any useful lessons as I go.

It is also worth noting that I had given up getting a data connection on my iPhone, until I switched off 3G and rebooted – I have been getting a slow but working data connection eversince – good news.

More solar chargers to test – SolarMio, SolarDuo and SolarSupra

solarsupra solar charger panels

I think I am getting obsessed with solar chargers – when I see or feel sunshine and i’m not pointing a solar gadget at it and charging something, it feels like a massive wasted opportunity!

As I mentioned before, I have been looking around for other products to test and possibly sell via partner site light planet. I now been sent three new solar chargers to test:-

The SolarMio

Small, portable solar panel/ battery pack combo aimed at charging phones and USB powered devices. The panels are flexible, water resistant and robust and fold out into a sheet with eyelets making it ideal for attaching to a backpack.

The SolarDuo

Smaller version of the SolarMio, with only two panels, and the battery pack is actually a charger for two AA rechargeable batteries. This can be used purely as an solar powered AA battery charger, or to charge/ power stuff via USB. Alternatively the batteries can be charged via USB – the solar panel out put is actually mini USB, so hopefully this could also be used to charge small USB devices directly.

The SolarSupra “Value”

Much bigger and more powerful solar panel/ battery pack combo. The battery in this one can power laptops at different voltages, as well as having a USB output. It has eight solar panels on a sheet that folds out and can be laid out or hung up. The unit and all the associated bits and pieces fold away into a nice self contained package resembling a washbag.

I’ll write up full reviews of these as soon as I had time to test them properly.

A weekend trial run

powergorilla on the roof of our bug

An opportunity came up at the weekend to head down to croyde in devon to try out some of the new camping gear and kit. I had a deadline, so there was a genuine need to work while we were down there. The campsite (sorry – top secret!) didn’t have much in the way of mobile coverage last time I went, but things have obviously moved on, as I was getting a full 3G signal with t-mobile on my iPhone. The nearby beach at Putsborough sands had zero signal, which was probably a good thing as I had just bought a surfboard!

The Quechua base tent and picnic table (pictures and post to follow) worked a treat as an ad-hoc office, and I kept the macbook running from the leisure battery, which had some charge from the car on the way down. It kept me going for an evening shift and left me with a charged macbook, but the charge indicators on the battery only showed one out of four when I had finished. One thing I did notice is that I need some kind of reading light to light up my keyboard working in the near dark (yeah, yeah a new macbook pro with backlight keyboard is appealing right now!)

I charged my iPhone via USB directly from the solar gorilla – it turns out positioning really does make a difference. If I layed the gorilla flat, the iphone would complain “charging is not supported with this accessory”, but with it angled to the sun it charged. I also kept the solar gorilla plugged in and charging the leisure battery when it wasn’t charging the iphone, with negligible results I suspect.

My attempt to do a bit of work at a cafe in Braunton failed miserably – not only did their wifi not work, but I then proceeded to leave my bag with netbook and powergorilla in it at the cafe when I left, leading to a panic drive back to collect it..

I’m pushing the envelope with what we can realistically carry in our tiny car. These working road trips are also family trips, so tech and camping gear is fighting for space with bodyboards, wetsuits and toys. This is only possible in our car because 1. we only have one kid so we use the rest of the back set for camping gear, and 2. because of the carnopy roof bag, which we somehow manage to get a load of stuff in. After buying a surfboard off a friend in a beach car park at 5.30am, I was in danger of not being able to carry it home when the rest of the stuff was packed on the roof, but by removing the aerial I was able to jam it under the roof bars. Needless to say I was really eyeing up VW transporter vans this weekend…

Pedal power generation

After disappointing results with my first foray into solar power, I started researching alternative ways of generating power. I was wondering what was on the market in the form of pedal powered generators. I was hoping to find a decent dynamo for a normal bike, or roller type system where a normal bike could be mounted, but looking around so far i’ve only found DIY solutions for the roller systems (modified “turbo trainers”) and very low power dynamo systems. Some of these will charge a mobile phone or other USB device, but I haven’t found anything advertising laptop or 12 volt battery charging.

I did come across these two standalone solutions:-

freeplay freecharger weza

powerplus gazelle

They both have a 7ah battery, which wouldn’t power a laptop for more than an hour or so, but also both take a full day or more of pedalling to fully charge! If I had had better results with the solar panel, I might have impulse bought one of these to try, but I can’t see them being much use for anything other than emergency/ novelty use.

As ever, i’d love to be proved wrong on this, so any suppliers who want to send me samples to try out, please get in touch!

Charging a powergorilla from a solargorilla in the UK

solargorilla hanging out of the loft window

Following on from the previous experiment, I wanted to see how long it took to charge the powergorilla from the solargorilla in our not exactly solar-friendly climate.

Yesterday was promising as it was fairly sunny all day, but a days worth of charging (admittedly not making a massive effort to position the solargorilla so it was always facing the sun), only produced 3 out of 6 bars of charge – the first three are smaller than the last three, so i’m not sure if this represents 50% charge, or a much smaller percentage.

Today it is cloudy, and plugging the solargorilla in does nothing except cause the display to flicker. So, er.. i’ve postphoned this experiment too, as I want to make use of the powergorilla in the meantime. I will try again starting from the next sunny day.

Looking on the powertraveller site, the description sais the following of charging from the solargorilla:

“the powergorilla features solargorilla auto recognition, which means when you connect the solargorilla, the powergorilla will shut off unnecessary internal circuits to improve charging time by up to 2 hours and the little solar logo in the LCD screen will confirm this”.

Mine doesn’t have one of these, so i’m thinking maybe that the newer models, both of the solargorilla and powergorilla may be more efficient that the ones i’ve got. (Powertraveller PR dept: Feel free to send me newer versions and any other gadgets you think i’d find useful for review 🙂

Links to other articles about charging the power gorilla with a solar gorilla

A week on solar and battery (and borrowed mains) day 2


The start of day two and i’m preparing to abandon the experiment. The tiny amount of charge I managed to get into the power gorilla yesterday only gave me 30 minutes worth of macbook, so at 10am i’m back in a cafe on borrowed mains.

I think I was very over-optimistic about how much I would get out of the leisure battery yesterday – I thought that maybe by getting at least one charge a day from the leisure battery and relying on the solar+powergorilla combo for the rest of the day, I might just make it through the week.

The experiment isn’t wasted though – as a friend said to me yesterday, a failed experiment is just as useful as a successful one. I can conclude that I can’t expect to sustainably get full working days out of my current set up. In fact, I can only just expect to get one full working day from the macbook, starting with fully charged leisure battery and powergorilla.

I therefore need to look at either getting hold of more kit (we actually have a couple of samples of alternative portable solar and battery products on their way to us at light planet), or planning the working patterns of my road trip (an extended family holiday), around charging time. I’m reluctant to consider a bigger leisure battery, as we only have a very small boot in the car which will already be overflowing with camping gear, plus a bigger battery just means more charging needed.

Several people have pointed out that the new macbooks and macbook pros claim 9 – 10 hours of battery life. I’m not rushing out to buy one though, because I suspect that a significant of this gain is because it is a higher capacity battery, so will therefore need more charging. I know there are probably other efficiencies in the macbook itself, but £1000+ is a lot to pay, especially if i’m going to leave it hanging around charging in a tent! My £200 netbook also claims 9.5 hours, and I think this is realistic. The battery capacity however is the same as the macbook, so will require a similar amount of charge.

One thing i’m keen to see is if it is possible to fully charge the powergorilla from the solar gorilla in one day, on a cloudy day in the UK. See – i’m still optimistic!

3pm and i’m just starting to run out of the “illegal” charge from the cafe earlier. I check the powergorilla which has been charging from the solar gorilla since 8am, and it is only showing 3 out of 6 bars. I don’t want to discontinue that experiment, so I plug into the leisure battery again to see if the solar charging from yesterday afternoon amounted to anything. It’s difficult to make out where the sun is (see the flaw in my solar charging plan?), so i’m not sure if it is worth moving the solargorilla to the front of the house yet.

When the leisure battery gets too low to sustain a charge, the DC-DC converter starts to make a high pitched noise and get very hot, so it can’t be left unattended. This happened after about ten minutes. It added 10 minutes to the estimated macbook charge, so yesterday afternoons solar charging amounted to about 20 minutes macbook charge.

I have an important project to push out of the door, so at 3.22pm as I reach for the mains adapter, this experiment is officially over (for now).

Unplugged: An attempt to spend a week working on battery and solar power (and a bit of charging from the car, and maybe a bit borrowed mains!)

halfords power pack being charged by a solar gorilla

As an experiment, even though i’m working mainly from home, to simulate working on the road, I thought I would see if it’s possible to work for the entire week without plugging into, or charging from the mains.

In an unscientific way, i’m starting from:-

  • Fully charged leisure battery (let’s pretend this was charged from the car on a long journey)
  • Flat netbook
  • Half Charged macbook
  • Fully charged powergorilla

Day 1

Last night I plugged the flat netbook into the powergorilla. A few hours later (didn’t record this properly, so not sure exactly how many hours, sorry), the powergorilla was drained, but the netbook was fully charged. This morning I stuck the solargorilla on the roof out of the loft window, and the powergorilla is charging, but I have no idea what current is being produced. I’ll need to keep an eye on the sun and move to the other side of the house before the solargorilla falls into shadow. The solargorilla is laid flat, I haven’t pointed it directly at the sun and it’s a sunny but cloudy day.

Meanwhile the macbook is being powered and charged by the leisure battery (via the trust car charger plugged into the 12v output and DIY magsafe cable). When it reaches full charge i’ll leave it plugged in, on the basis that powering a laptop is more efficient than charging it. I’m doing some layout/ design stuff today, so I want to use the macbook rather than the netbook if possible.

Starting work at about 10am (i’d usually start earlier, but had car problems in the morning), I get a full macbook charge just after midday, but the macbook starts discharging at about 2pm. I was hoping to get more out of the leisure battery! By 3pm the macbook is getting very low on the internal battery, so I go and unplug the powergorilla, which is showing three bars out of 6 on the charge scale. I move the solargorilla to the velux window at the front of the house and plug the solargorilla into the leisure battery. I then plug the partly charged powergorilla into the macbook. I get about 20 minutes of charging before it is drained flat! At this rate there’s no way i’m going to get a full days work. I still have the charged netbook, but it’s not set up for the project i’m working on, and I really need the extra screen estate of the macbook today. The brief bit of charge I got added about 10 minutes to the estimated run time on the macbook.

This leaves me with about 4 more hours of possible solar charging with which to start tomorrow with!

By 4pm I have to switch to the netbook for a bit, but really need to get back on the macbook, so I modify the experiment to allow me to go to a local cafe to charge up. After a moment of panic where I can’t find any plug sockets, I spot a double socket on a window sill so start charging the macbook and powergorilla with borrowed mains juice and charge myself with an americano.

I have to head out at 5.45, which leaves both the macbook and the powergorilla partly charged. When I get back home, I check the leisure battery, which although still showing a charging indicator hasn’t been charged a measurable amount (it has 4 LED’s to show charge status, and it’s still on number one).

As a last attempt to keep this experiment going tomorrow, I plug the partly charged powergorilla into a sleeping macbook to see if I can get an hour or two out of it tomorrow.