Study Hall

A solo artist at the Swap & Recycling Event in Maryland powered by a Southwire Elite 1100 providing 120-volts AC to a Bose line array, an Allen & Heath mixer and a pedalboard. No sun required for up to 11 hours of playing. Meanwhile, a Jackery Explorer 1000 at right with 100-watt folding solar panel is powering a JBL EON 1 MK2 for sidefill.

Unplugging From AC, Part 4: Early Road Tests Of Solar In The Field

Running sound systems (and more) at ongoing events using solar power stations and accompanying accessories. (An audio version of this article is also available for download.)

Editor’s Note: If you’re just joining this series in progress, you make want to go back and check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. In the meantime, here are the basics…

Live gigs took a real nosedive during 2020 and 2021 due to many venues shutting down during the pandemic. But bands have got to play, so there were many (many!) live-streamed performances. And while that was good for keeping musicians’ playing chops in shape, and also becoming a new area of focus for audio folks, it didn’t provide the biggest money-making opportunities.

Now local clubs are opening up again and willing to pay for a band, but at least in my area, there’s a serious traffic jam of weddings and reunions that couldn’t happen 2020 and 2021. For example, there’s an estimated 2.5 million weddings that are already booked 2022, and that doesn’t even count the millions of additional wedding receptions that were delayed after many couples did online and courtroom weddings last year.

In fact, my niece was married online last month in California with different guests attending via Zoom from Maryland, Wisconsin, Texas, South America and even India. While the wedding was virtual, they still want to have a reception, but it will have to wait until at least early next year since they can’t find any open venues in 2022. In addition, one of the local catering companies my wife used to manage is now cramming in three wedding receptions every weekend, with no end of bookings in sight. Wouldn’t it be great to add beaches, wooded areas and parking lots as possible sites for these events?

And weddings are not the only possible paying gigs. I just did sound for the Swap & Recycling Event sponsored by the Boonsboro (Maryland) Green Fest Committee last week, and they wanted to put the solo singer/guitarist out in a ball field that was 200 feet away from the nearest electrical outlet – and that 200-foot extension cord would have run right down the middle of the walking path for hundreds of attendees.

I’ll also soon be doing sound for a service dog memorial service on the local airport tarmac, and I have no idea how far away any AC outlets might be. In addition, some of the local wineries are opening up their weekend programs to music acts and want to move outside. Same for one of my guitarist colleagues who’s playing sing-alongs at a nursing home. He has a nice portable sound system but running extension cords on the ground or across a hallway is certainly a trip hazard for senior citizens.

To The Rescue

So, do I need to use a noisy generator or 200-plus feet of extension cord to get it done? Nope. Armed with the knowledge of just how little electrical power modern sound systems require I’ve been able to procure six different solar power stations from Jackery and Southwire and have been experimenting with powering a band from them.

Yes, I know that many of these products are called solar generators by the manufacturers, but they’re actually not generators. These are Lithium batteries of various watt-hour capacities with an onboard pure sine-wave inverter that produces clean, 120-volt, 60-Hz AC power. So, anything that can plug into a standard 120-volt outlet can be powered by a portable power station.

Left to right: Southwire Elite 1100, Elite 500, Jackery Explorer 300, Explorer 500, Explorer 1000 and Explorer 1500 portable power stations.

For GreenFest I brought along a Southwire Elite 1100 with a 100-watt solar panel and had the singer/guitarist plug his sound system into its 120-volt AC outlet. This is a pure sine-wave inverter that makes 60-Hz power that’s cleaner than what comes out of an electrical outlet on a stage. The Elite 1100 easily powered his Bose line array, Allen & Heath mixer and pedalboard, with tons of juice to spare.

Note that the Elite 1100 has a 1,000-watt 120-volt inverter with a 1,100-watt-hour battery. In theory, the Lithium battery could provide 100 watts of power for up to 11 hours of actual playing time. And indeed, the crest factor of the music was such that even at a reasonable level of 85 dBA measured 50 feet from the loudspeaker, most of the time the actual power usage was less than 80 watts. So, even without a solar panel, the battery monitor predicted 15 hours of playing time at that usage level. Pretty amazing.

Here Comes The Sun

But when I plugged in the 100-watt solar panel to the battery/inverter things got really interesting. While it was an overcast day and the panel was only making 50 to 60 watts of charging power, it was more than enough to make up for the power used by the sound system.

So, at 10 am the battery charge was at 99 percent, at noon it was at 99 percent, and when he finished playing the gig at 1:30 pm it was still at 99 percent. Essentially, he was gathering more solar power than he needed for his sound system, and could have played all day long, day after day after day, all while recharging on solar power alone. Desert island gigs?

Southwire Elite 1100 with 100-watt solar panel.

Measure It

The equivalent version of the Jackery solar power station is the Explorer 1000, which I also plan to test powering a few gigs next month. It seems to have similar performance capabilities and features as the Southwire Elite 1100, but I don’t have enough field data to recommend one brand over the other just yet. And there are several Lithium battery power stations with 100-watt solar panels available from several manufacturers.

The important thing to check before purchasing a portable power station is that it needs to have a pure sine-wave inverter, Lithium battery, and at least 500 watt-hours of storage for a solo act, and perhaps 1000 watt-hours of storage for medium-sized acts.

In any event, you’ll definitely want to measure your band’s actual peak wattage and total watt-hour needs before spending money on a power station. You can easily acquire an electricity usage meter from many sources – just be sure it measures peak wattage (which will determent how big its inverter needs to be) and kWh energy usage (which determines how big of a battery in kWh is needed).

You can get an electricity usage meter like this one from Amazon (for $21.95). I like the BALDR US model since it includes a backup battery that retains the measurements for a day, even after you unplug it from the outlet.

I always plan for more time than booked, and strongly recommend at least 50 percent more peak wattage and kilowatt-hour energy storage than calculated for your longest gig. After all, you don’t want to be running out of power during the encore, do you?

What about bigger acts? I’m booking sound for a guitar/keyboard gig in a few weeks and will set up a DJ rig just for fun, I have a pair of Chauvet LED Gig Bars (lights) that I’ll experiment with for shows when the “sun don’t shine”? Right now, my ballpark guess is that a 500-watt-hour power station will be very well suited for any solo/duet act, and a 1,000-watt-hour unit will be able to meet the needs of three- and four-piece acts.

Of course, if you want to go full tilt with a bigger sound system, monitor amps and perhaps some stage lighting, then a 1,500-watt-hour unit could probably power the gig for three sets. But be sure measure your actual power usage as detailed in part 2 of this series. Then you’ll know which battery/inverter is right for your needs.

How much solar do you need? All the units I’m testing have 100-watt panels that can be added together, so my best guess is that a single 100-watt panel would be suitable for a 300- and 500-watt-hour power station, two 100-watt panels for a 1,000-watt-hour model. I have four of the 100-watt panels that can recharge the 1,500-watt-hourr Jackery Explorer in less than a day. So that’s pretty much unlimited playing while the sun is shining, and several hours of playing in the dark (to keep the party going), all without an AC outlet in site.

Coming Soon

I just received a loaner JBL EON ONE MK2 line array (shown in the image that opens this article) and a Fender Acoustic Pro Junior, both of which have internal batteries promising four to six hours of run time on a single charge. I believe the Acoustic Pro amp is ideal for table-side music in a restaurant or reception, plus it can be used as a monitor amp/mixer for a guitar/vocal performer that can be plugged into a larger sound system to cover a full room.

The Fender Acoustic Pro Junior has separate guitar and microphone inputs, each with their own processing and effects. The on-board battery promises up to five hours playing time at full volume and 12 hours at moderate volume levels.

The EON ONE MK2 has a built-in five-channel mixer that can be controlled by a smart phone or tablet, so it has a lot a capabilities for a two-piece act all on its own. And you could deploy a pair of them with an outboard mixer for three- to four-piece acts and bigger rooms.

What about lights? For the Chauvet LED Gig Bars that I’ll be testing soon, my calculations show a pair of these 4Bar lights (8 total fixtures) should be able to be run for at least five hours using a 1,500-watt-hour power station. So, a 1,500-watt-hour Jackery Explorer should be able to power a four-piece band with a modern PA and basic LED lighting system for at least three sets. But I won’t know for sure until I try it later this summer. Stand by…

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