The days of running around desperately searching for an outlet to plug your phone into are mostly over. The reality is that batteries, of all shapes and sizes, have never been more powerful, available, and cheap. In fact, an entire consumer electronics industry has evolved around making sure you always have a battery backup for any situation and even have a way to power back up off the grid. Brands like Jackery, EcoFlow, and SOLIX offer a huge array of battery backup solutions across a massive spectrum of pricing. It can be overwhelming and hard to understand the terms being thrown around, though: What is the difference between a solar generator and a portable power station? Is a whole home backup different? How do you decide how much power backup you need? 

Understanding battery capacity and output

Before talking about specific devices, there are two measurements to understand. The first is how much energy the battery can output at one time. If the max output is 1,000 watts, and your device requires 1,500 watts to run, the battery can’t power on the device no matter how much energy the battery stores. The second is how much power is stored, which is usually expressed in watt hours. If you use less than the maximum output, those watt hours will last longer. If you use the maximum output, they’ll last less. To understand your needs, you have to consider what devices you’ll be powering, find out what kind of power they require, and find a battery with enough output to power that device. Next, you need to consider how long you might need to power it. Your hair dryer or microwave only requires short bursts of use, but your refrigerator will need to be powered continuously, and your CPAP may need eight hours of use. To help you figure out how long a particular power bank will power your device, you can use a calculator.

Power banks vs. power stations

All power stations are also power banks, in that they are just a battery that “banks” energy you can then use to power up devices. However, when people mention power banks, they are usually talking about very small, portable batteries. These are only meant to power your mobile devices like phones and tablets, and can be easily slipped in a purse or briefcase. Power banks generally have USB outlets. When you move up in capacity, you also need to move up in size. While power stations are also still “portable,” you’re not tossing them in your purse. They vary in size and weight in accordance with how much energy they store, so a small 240wH power station will be quite light, and a 2,000wH power station will be much heavier and larger. Still, most power stations are designed to be portable since people want to use them for camping and going off grid. These power stations will have USB ports in addition to A/C ports, and in most cases, a few of those ports act as UPS, or uninterruptible power supply. This just means that you can use the power station as an interstitial between your devices and wall power. The wall power will consistently power the battery, and thus the devices. However, if you lose wall power, meaning there’s a power outage or even a surge, the power station will continue to deliver stable power until the battery runs out. 

Power banks to consider:

Anker Portable Charger, 20,000mAh Power Bank, $31.99

Jackery Solar Powered Power Bank, 42800mAh, $29.99

Solar generators vs. portable power stations

Most companies that sell power stations also sell “solar generators,” which might lead you to believe they are different products. Rather, these are usually power stations that also come with a solar panel. The solar panel is one way to generate energy for the power station, but these stations also generally have input for standard A/C power and power from your car charger, so if you don’t have access to solar, it’s not a problem. Each power station can accept a variable amount of solar panel input at once, so how fast they charge will depend on how many solar panels you are using, as well as how clear the sky is and the panels line-of-sight to the sun. 

Power stations worth buying:

Goal Zero Yeti 1000 Core Portable Power Station, $649.00

ECOFLOW Portable Power Station DELTA 2, $629.00

Power stations vs. whole home backup

While portable power stations can vary on output and capacity, the one consistency is the portability. Sure, it’s hard to tote around a thirty pound battery, but it’s still doable. You can, of course, use these backups at home in the case of an outage, but you’d need to plug each item into the power station. That can mean snaking extension cords all over your home, and having to choose which home devices will be prioritized to get power, since you likely have tons of devices plugged into the wall and only so many outlets on your power station. A whole home backup is a large capacity battery, meant to stay in place, that you can directly connect to your electrical panel. When the power goes out, the entire home switches over to this backup via the electrical panel, meaning you don’t have to unplug anything—it will just receive power from the battery instead of the electric company. These systems can be attached to a solar panel system or not, and are generally expandable, meaning that you can add on additional battery units, depending on how much power your home needs. These backups can take different shapes from a unit like the SOLIX f3800, which, though quite heavy, could be moved around the house, or a wall battery that is installed to the side of your home. 

As the power grid becomes less stable and we experience more weather events that cause outages, whether fires or freezes, having battery backup is increasingly important. If you have medical equipment that requires power, or the weather is critical enough you need A/C or heat, these backups can be lifesaving. Having a mix of devices, including power banks, stations and/or a whole home backup, coupled with solar panels create a path to self-sufficiency and security when these outages happen.