Gear review- Harbor Freight 5W solar kit

test materials

The image above shows what I used for this review. The 5W foldable solar kit, an iPad, an OEM Apple charger cord, and a length of 550 paracord.

Alright, so many of you know I’m going to be doing some traveling this spring. One of the things that have changed over the last twenty years are our devices. They need power. I plan on bringing a cell phone, an iPad, and I’ll pick up a burner cell phone in-country. I’d rather stay somewhat self-sufficient, so just in case I’ll have some light camping gear. Thinking along these lines, of course the Harbor Freight 5W foldable solar power array caught my eye.

In theory, how flipping cool. A lightweight, very portable set of solar panels to supply all of my vacationing power needs. As you can see from the image above, the panels power a USB, all you need is sun.

“All you need is sun.”

Those turned out to be fateful words when I gave the panels a test, because of course I bought them. Then I brought them home and started messing around with them, my intent was to power my 5th generation (2017) iPad.

How did it go?

Well, the first thing to do is to throw away the instructions. They are useless. Besides, they are unnecessary. Open the panels. Orient towards the sun. Plug in a device. Wait.

Day one.

This was not exactly a serious day. With high expectations from an old calculator of mine  (a Texas Instruments. The solar panel on it would work in a mine shaft, I swear) and Harbor Freight’s 100W solar array, I busted open the panels, vaguely oriented them toward the sun, plugged in my cell phone and walked away. Came back a couple of hours later, the panels were in the shade and I had gained a few percentage points of charge.

portable solar panel

Not good enough. By the way, a little light on the USB plug glows red when the panels are getting ideal charge. I figured this out when I started propping the device up against old dictionaries, etc.

It was obvious that this thing needed real sunlight, and my haphazard technique was to blame. It was time to get serious, so I watched YouTube and came up with the set-up below.

550 cord rig

Day two.

550 cord, a window facing south, and all should have been well. As you can see from the photo, it was not. The sun had disappeared. But when it was out, the iPad took a decent charge. For half of an hour. Welcome to February in Ohio. Have I said before this thing needs REAL direct sunlight? If not, let me emphasize that again. I charged from 0830 to 1430, six hours, and bumped up the iPad’s charge by a measly 5%.

Not good enough.

OK, I needed sun and a new plan. And have I mentioned that at this point I started to sour on the Harbor Freight panels? Because a tool that needs ideal circumstances to work is not a tool. It is a toy. But, I forged onward. Maybe it was my methodology, and yes, it was very overcast (it even snowed).

I was determined to make this work. Probably mostly because I didn’t want to spend 80 bucks on a real portable power unit. But I digress.

I brainstormed and came up with a technique for a long car ride to a friend’s party. And so Day Three’s misadventures were born.

Day Three.

I figured for sure that I could get a decent charge on my iPad on day three, check out the forecast.


Cold, but ample sun. So I rigged up the 550 cord/southern window setup again (see above), plugged everything in and went for my morning walk. The iPad started the day at 65% charge. By 1015 it was at 71%, so it was charging at twice the rate of yesterday. Then I switched things up for my road trip. See photo below.

road trip

I got back from the road trip at 1700 and the iPad was at 80%.

So there you have it. Under pretty ideal but real-world conditions, the HF kit will charge an iPad 15%. I’m sure this could be increased by constantly monitoring it and tinkering around. But as I said, real-world usage. Who has time to be messing about all day?

Not I.

Is this enough? I don’t know. It is probably true that this setup is meant for cell phones, an iPad is probably a stretch. So I hate to say it, but tool or toy- I guess it depends. For true heavy usage, try something else. For intermittent use, it should do the job.

Will I take it overseas?

Probably. It ain’t fancy, but it’ll do.

2 thoughts on “Gear review- Harbor Freight 5W solar kit

  1. The major problem here is where you live. Solar panels work best at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t think you will be seeing that temp too soon. In Australia however…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s