Way back in June 2010 I wrote this post about the FreeLoader solar charger. It was just before I set off along the Eurovelo 5 in the summer of 2010 and I was hopeful that I had found a nifty solution to the power problem as I cycled across Europe. The first sentence jumps out from the blog post: “This little device – a FreeLoader solar recharger – should be worth its weight in gold en route; it will hopefully keep the mobile phone topped up with energy without the need to stick it into the mains.” How wrong could I have been; it was worse than useless. I remember arriving at the campsite in Huningue on my last night in France before heading off across Switzerland and the Alps, opening up the little solar panels and watching as it dripped (over several hours) only a couple of percentage points of charge into my iPhone. When I arrived home in the UK at the end of August, I binned the device and resolved, should I ever set off again on a long-distance cycle across Europe again, to look into alternative power solutions. In the three years that have passed since the summer of 2010, I have been increasingly looking at dynamo hubs and up until only last weekend was seeking out advice about which device to go for. Initially I was looking seriously at the Biologic Joule 3 hub but it seemed impossible to get hold of one for a touring (many spokes!) wheel. Other options were investigated and I was moving towards a Schmidt model as it seemed to be highly recommended both online and by the people I chatted to at the Handmade Bicycle Show in Bristol a couple of weeks ago. So, armed with a little bit of knowledge I headed off to my local bike shop – A.W. Cycles in Caversham – to seek further, hopefully definitive advice. Chatting to a guy called Ricky (one of the brains upstairs in an area that you only venture into if you know your cycling stuff and usually, I don’t fall into that category), we discussed the Biologic & the Schmidt but he clearly wasn’t a great fan of dynamo hubs. He mentioned solar chargers and I told him of my experiences with the FreeLoader back in 2010. He suggested I look into a device called the Power Monkey which at only half the price of a good dynamo was worth investigating. Still not convinced I left it at that and came home from the shop still not sure as to how to solve my power generating problem. The next day, Sunday, I found myself in Cotswold Outdoor just outside Reading looking for hot weather t-shirts. There is a little room just to one side of the main sales area that is crammed full of the kind of kit that would make even Sir Ranulph Fiennes salivate; little pieces of electronic wizardry that solve problems that you never knew existed. And there was a glass cabinet (= expensive) full of solar charges. At this point I smiled as I first spotted the FreeLoader. Hah! If only someone had walked past and looked quizzically at the useless piece of crap, I could have regaled them of my little adventure across Europe on a bike and how ineffective it had been. Unfortunately, I was alone. My eye, however, was drawn to a higher shelf and what should be there other than the Power Monkey as recommended by Ricky os A.W. Cycles. It had a beautiful Apple-like box and so I was sensing that the clever marketing was already doing its business… One of the sales assistants came over and it was one of those rare occasions when, yes, I could do with some help! The cabinet was unlocked and the young chap I was talking to was clearly a fan. In fact he had one himself and would swear by it. Perhaps he had everything in the shop and would swear by every item on sale… I put that thought to the back of my mind and with promises that it was capable of charging my iPhone up to six times before requiring a recharge itself, the purchase was becoming more and more inevitable.
So, my solution is not a dynamo, it is another solar charger. The Power Monkey Extreme has two main parts (plus lots of adapter plugs to accommodate most chargeable devices); the fold out solar panels (about four times larger than the FreeLoader ones) and a battery pack. The phone (or iPad, light etc…) charges from the battery pack which can either be charged via the solar panels of via a six or seven hour session plugged into the mains. I did just that last night and upon arrival home tonight, my iPhone languishing at 23% power, plugged in the battery pack. After only ninety minutes or so my iPhone is back at 100% and the battery pack itself is still showing all six charging bars. It’s early days but I’m so far impressed. Clearly I haven’t yet tested the solar panels but give me a sunny day and I’ll do just that. Watch this space!