Power on the Playa
June 2, 2016 3:07 PM   Subscribe

What are my options for power while on the playa at Burning Man for 4-5 days? I don't want to buy or use a generator.

It's June so time to begin the Burning Man questions. I've been to Burning Man a bunch of times but always as part of a larger village that brought a huge generator. This time, I'm bringing a kid and we're camping in Kidsville so no generator. Orignally, I was not concerned about that but maybe it would be nice to be able to recharge walkie-talkies and cameras, and use a small countertop shaved ice machine (for example). I see lots of options for power packs and inverters but I don't know what I need. We will have a van, but I don't feel comfortable hooking anything up to a car battery or anything like that. I don't want to spend a ton of money but I'm also looking at this as part of my general household emergency kit so a few hundred dollars is fine.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Technology (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is sort of the apple-product of this kind of thing. I was going to say a little solar panel and a little charge controller/battery/inverter but... they sell you the whole thing put together.

They charge apple prices for it however. But, i saw a lot of their gear there last time i went a couple years back.

Minus the shaved ice machine, we ran our phones/cameras off a TINY USB solar panel(example) and just a bog-standard USB battery bank. It worked great, and compelled me to buy spare and larger USB battery banks.

I would try to avoid having one 120v appliance if you have no other needs like that. It's one thing to have like, a whole van/RV/bus/etc of random gear you want to run on batteries, it's another thing to have a bunch of stuff that could just charge off USB from a little DC power bank and then one high load thing, and end up lugging a big battery pack/inverter/solar charger that will otherwise essentially be idling with almost no load.

Basically... Do you have any friends you could mooch off to run the ice shaver, if you really want to bring it, and then just use a much smaller and more portable(and cheap!!) power solution? Think long and hard.
posted by emptythought at 3:14 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Our playa neighbors in 2014 rigged up a drill to power a snow cone machine. I didn't get a good look at the innards, but that would be an option if you're feeling crafty. You'd just need a cordless drill and a few extra batteries.
posted by cabingirl at 3:22 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Something like this, maybe.
posted by cabingirl at 3:25 PM on June 2, 2016

You have to carefully consider your power budget among other factors. It's easy enough to hook up an inverter to a car battery and get 120V. If you go cheap, the power supplied will be relatively dirty (makes your portable radio sound terrible) and it won't power much more than a radio or a battery charger. Then there's the installation of it safely to your electrical system. Plus you could run your battery down way out there in the dusty dusk or be running your engine a lot and annoying your neighbors.
You could go big with a couple of solar panels and an better quality inverter, but then you are definitely talking hundreds of dollars. You need a big enough inverter to get useful 120V power out of it, a couple of lead acid batteries, which are heavy, and it's all got be wired in with correctly sized fuses, cut-offs and attention to detail. It's not something you'd want to do without a fair amount of experience or a friend who has the time. For a one-off kind of project, probably not worth it.
Third option: get yourself a portable battery that you can charge up from 120V with a built-in inverter. Take some cocktails, mosey down and find a new friend with an RV running the big generator and see if you can plug in your charger for an hour or three (or four). There used to be a playa solar panel farm where you could go and charge up on 120V. Lots of people used it including moi. No idea if they still do that.
I remember seeing solar power charging stations you could buy, kind of a portable battery+inverter and panels on wheels. That could be a consideration. Just remember those inverters generally don't do squat for 120V power suckers. Getting a blender to run or something similar is usually a fail.
My advice: forget about power except for charging cameras or USB stuff. You can carry extra USB power packs that you can charge at someone's RV. You can buy ice, and the less complexity you have out there, the better time you will have doing cool stuff. Don't forget your solar charging LED light strings and lights. Those are super handy.
posted by diode at 3:59 PM on June 2, 2016

Fwiw I had a manual Shaved ice machine growing up and it worked great without electricity.
posted by Karaage at 4:05 PM on June 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

I had some Goal Zero gear a few years back, which I used to keep my electronics (headlamp, GPS, phone, e-reader) powered during fieldwork in Africa. This sort of thing, actually a Nomad 7 but a generation or so older. It worked well; leave it in the sun on even a partly cloudy day, and it would charge four AA batteries to full power. The battery charger could then double as a battery bank, outputting USB power to charge other electronics. Very useful for small-scale stuff, light and rugged and well-made, designed for life out of doors.

Something like the above would probably be fine for everything you list except for the shaved ice machine. Motors use a lot more juice than solid-state stuff, generally. For that you're going to want something beefier and with AC output, along the lines of these guys. Note that they don't come with integrated solar, so you'd need to either plan on recharging it from your van's 12v socket or else buy an appropriate solar panel to accompany it. That would be a pretty sweet portable solar rig to have, though you're probably going to be at least $500 poorer for it and this kind of tech is moving so fast right now that in five years it might be ludicrously obsolete.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:05 PM on June 2, 2016

(The 4xAA charger with USB output I mentioned above is the Guide 10. I like Goal Zero's gear, but boy it does get spendy once you add up all the different parts you need.)
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:13 PM on June 2, 2016

Nthing that you don't want to use an electric snow cone maker at your budget. They really require a genie or moderately sized solar setup, substantially above what a few hundred will get you.

If you can find a big battery pack that puts out D/C that your chargers can take, that will save you the overhead of converting to A/C and then back to D/C.
posted by Candleman at 4:17 PM on June 2, 2016

I have an automotive jump box (not this exact one, but a similar one). Ours has USB ports and a port for regular power plugs, a utility light, and an air compressor. It's come in very handy for car camping.

We keep it fully charged for emergencies as well. It's just a good thing to have around the house. :)
posted by erst at 4:38 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Solar is the answer here. You can bring a fully charged battery pack and use the solar to trickle charge it and you'll have tons of power for the uses you describe.
posted by fshgrl at 5:18 PM on June 2, 2016

Nthing that you don't want to use an electric snow cone maker at your budget.

That unit runs 55W. With a reasonable sized solar panel, battery, and inverter, you would be fine as you don't need to run it for very long. I'd aim to run it only when the sun in shining.
posted by ssg at 7:02 PM on June 2, 2016

As diode mentions, without knowing your power budget [ i.e. I need X watts for Y hours], this question is unanswerable.

Note that hooking an inverter up to a car battery is a short-term option [car batteries are not designed for this]. A better option is a deep-cycle battery and inverter. How big a battery? How powerful an inverter? That's where knowing your power budget is essential.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:04 PM on June 2, 2016

I've had the drill powered sno cones. Delicious!

I would plan on a combination of things: man powered, Goal Zero, an inverter for your car battery in case of emergencies, and connect with Kidsvillians to combine resources. I'm sure you could share a shaved ice machine with someone who has power and would be willing to charge your smaller devices.

Kidsville is awesome!
posted by Vaike at 7:25 PM on June 2, 2016

A small marine *deep cycle* battery will run a lot more than a car battery, again it depends on your total amp-hour requirement. The 55w is about 30 amp hours if you ran it for a full hour, but only 2.5 if run for five minutes. Anyway a medium 12x18 solar panel should keep the battery charged in that sunlight. Watch boating craigslist for a slightly used deep cycle.
posted by sammyo at 9:46 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are campfire generators that generate enough power to run a USB connector. We have this one and are happy with it.

It also is self-contained and so you wouldn't have any issue using it on the playa. There's a grill plate that attaches to it as well. We actually got it for the grill. The power generator can power a built-in fan, so it actually generates a lot of focussed heat quickly with a small amount a fuel.
posted by cotterpin at 4:55 AM on June 3, 2016

Given that I don't understand half of what people are suggesting here, I think I'm in over my head. I still may bring the shaved ice machine but I'm going to hope to be gifted with someone else's power to run it. For the rest of it, I'll probably get one of those solar charger dealies.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:47 PM on June 6, 2016

I'd suggest getting two USB power packs to go with the solar panels. That way you can leave one to charge while you use the other. This is important because most USB packs don't support simultaneous discharge/recharge; you can either charge them or use them to charge something else, but not both at once.
posted by mikurski at 10:09 AM on June 7, 2016

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