A solar-powered cup of coffee from the Jackery 1000.
Image: Patrick Gray

Remote working obviously means different things to different people, and for a subset of us, “remote” may extend well beyond the kitchen table or spare bedroom to a tent in the woods or work related to areas without consistent access to an outlet. Even for the average person, storms and general disaster preparedness have created an increased interest in an ability to power our myriad devices during an extended power outage, either for the comfort of a working phone, radio, or coffee maker during an extended power outage, to a need to power devices as a critical worker.

SEE: TechRepublic Premium editorial calendar: IT policies, checklists, toolkits, and research for download (TechRepublic Premium)

Gas- and diesel-powered generators have long been an obvious solution to the problem of portable power, but they’re heavy, noisy, complex, and potentially dangerous devices that emit noxious carbon monoxide, and once the fuel is exhausted, there’s little recourse if you’re away from a gas station.

The big orange battery

Image: Jackery

I’ve been fascinated by working well off the grid for some time, and have experimented with small solar panels and portable battery packs to allow basic connectivity on everything from car camping and backpacking trips to backcountry bicycle tours. Jackery, a rather oddly named company, offered to send me one of its Portable Power Stations, an Explorer 1000, and a set of portable solar panels, essentially providing a personal power station equipped with USB, 12 volt, and standard wall outlets.

At the end of the day, the Explorer 1000 is essentially a big battery, with some supporting electronics. In this case, those electronics provide the equivalent of “smart” charging in the guise of an MPPT charge controller, as well as an inverter to convert the battery’s stored energy into standard household AC. There are a variety of plugs on the unit, from four USB outputs (two USB-C and two standard USB), to a 12-volt car socket, as well as three 110-volt AC plugs that look similar to the plug you’ll find in the wall in most North American homes and offices. There are 8mm and Anderson Powerpole plugs that allow for connecting solar panels, a car adapter, and a wall charger to fill the battery, as well as a backlit display that shows the battery percentage and a bar graph fuel gauge, as well as the input and output wattage.

SEE: How to eliminate the Sunday Scaries and be more productive (TechRepublic)

The device is essentially shaped like a big lunchbox cooler, weighing in at 22 pounds, a comparatively light and compact package versus similar products, and a large integrated handle on top of the unit makes it straightforward to move and transport. There’s also a small flashlight on the side, which at first seemed like the world’s most impractical flashlight, but makes for a serviceable aid as you’re moving the unit through what might be a dark home or camp should you need emergency power.

There’s a separate zippered pouch with a large wall-charging brick, and a 12-volt car adapter. Ideally, these cords would be stored somewhere on the Explorer 1000, in a compartment or with some Velcro to attach the bag so the cords are readily located in an emergency. At a minimum, it would be nice if Jackery added a logo or matching orange trim to the cord bag so it could be easily identified in the cord drawer where it will likely end up.

Juice for the remote office

The Jackery 1000 Power Station and SolarSaga 100W Solar Panel.
Image: Jackery

The two power output sections, one for DC and the other for AC, must be activated by pressing a small button. This makes sense because turning on the output requires some power from the battery, especially for the AC that draws 3 to 6 watts on standby and is a standard feature of most of the power stations I looked at, for obvious reasons. However, I would occasionally forget to activate the output and then wonder why my device wasn’t charging. There’s no such activation required for the inputs, so as long as you’ve connected external power the device will charge.

I set up a remote “office” on the as-yet-unfinished treehouse I’ve been building for my kids as a COVID-19 project. I could easily connect my 13-inch MacBook Pro to the USB-C port, and while it didn’t charge as fast as some other devices, it remained powered and “trickle charging” throughout the workday. Similarly, my iPhone, AirPods, Garmin watch, USB-C tablet, and other USB-powered devices charged while the Explorer 1000 sat silently, happily powering my treehouse office.

SEE: 5 things leaders should never say to their teams (TechRepublic)

No office would be complete without a solid cup of coffee, so to stress test the Explorer 1000 I connected our Gaggia automatic coffee maker to the device. This coffee maker grinds, tamps, heats water, and brews espresso, requiring a healthy dose of power to operate. The Explorer 1000 has a somewhat loud fan, on par with a louder rack mount network switch, and the fan spins up primarily when using the AC output. The screen reported my coffee maker was drawing 1,200-1,500 watts as it heated and performed its duties, but other than the fan noise, my coffee was as delightful as ever, and the Jackery fan quieted down once the hard work was done and the coffee machine went into standby.

Jackery’s website has specifics on device runtimes and charge rates, but a couple of remote workers could easily get 3 to 4 full workdays of laptop, phone, and ancillary device use, plus enough espresso to keep the duo dynamic, without charging the Explorer. Where things get a bit more interesting is that my cup of joe was “brewed” using solar power.

The sun also rises … and generates energy

I’ve long been fascinated by solar as an alternative power solution, both for allowing me to work (or enable electronic fun) during outdoor adventures, as well as providing our family with a theoretically inexhaustible supply of power for our devices and some basic creature comforts should a storm or other disaster knock out power for an extended period.

The Jackery solar panel.
Image: Jackery

Since the Explorer 1000 is essentially just a big battery, it makes perfect sense that it could be charged from a wall outlet, car plug, or the sun itself. The standard 8mm and Anderson Powerpole inputs on the Explorer allow a variety of solar panels to be connected to the unit, and Jackery provided two of its SolarSaga 100W panels, which I found thoughtfully designed. The panels fold in half, and have a robust plastic handle and strong magnets that make them easy to fold and carry. I have rather large hands, and I could carry two panels in one hand and the Explorer 1000 in the other, a 40 lb. load that I certainly would not want to carry a long distance, but a package that could be readily moved around a home or camp, or for transport in a car or truck.

The aforementioned magnets held the panels together well, and setting a panel up was straightforward as each half of the panel has a kickstand on the back that’s stowed with hook-and-loop fasteners. Setup was faster than I expected, requiring a bit of force to separate the two halves, some balancing to deploy the two kickstands, and then positioning the panel. There’s a zippered pouch on one side of the panel with an about eight-foot cable to connect to the Explorer, and a small panel with a USB and USB-C outlet. The addition of a built-in USB charger is a nice touch, allowing you to set up a panel to charge a phone or other USB device without the admittedly easy job of connecting up the power station.

SEE: Early bird or night owl? How to win the morning either way (TechRepublic)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a single panel provided 90 to 105 watts of input power as reported on the Explorer 1000’s screen. Adding a second panel is as simple as connecting each panel to the 8mm jack on a short pigtail adapter included with the Explorer 1000, which then plugs into the Powerpole connection on the Explorer. With two panels, the Explorer easily hit its max input of around 190 watts on a cloudless day, allowing for an about eight-hour charge, according to Jackery. Extension and adapter cords are readily available, so in an extended power outage, or just for convenience, the panels could be positioned in the sun, and the Explorer 1000 located inside a house or vehicle without the gas generator concerns around carbon monoxide poisoning.

High-power devices, mainly household appliances with powerful motors or heating elements, won’t get much more than an hour of power from the Explorer 1000, but lower-power devices, in particular laptops and phones, tend to sip power. In my treehouse experiment, my laptop, phone, and small accessories were drawing less than 50W, while the two solar panels input 120 to180 watts, allowing for a net power gain during a sunny workday. While there’s still no cost-effective substitute if you need to power a typical kitchen, a power station like the Explorer 1000 makes a lot of sense for the computers and lower-powered devices a remote worker would use.

Do I need a power station?

On one hand, the Explorer 1000 and recommended dual SolarSaga 100-watt panels seems a bit frivolous with its $1,600 list price. Laptops with eight-hour batteries are no longer the rarity they once were, so a typical worker can spend most of a workday away from an outlet. The vagaries of 2020, however, convinced me that a unit like the Explorer 1000 makes a lot of sense. Being able to spend some time in nature and outside my home, without worrying about plugs or limited battery, is certainly a luxury, but provides a quality of life benefit that’s worthwhile for me.

SEE: Chasing hankos: How to handle those who struggle to accept change (TechRepublic)

From a more pragmatic perspective, the average laptop can certainly get a day’s work of spreadsheet and email jockeying done, but if you’re editing video, capturing content in the field, or powering a larger set of power-hungry gear, something like the Jackery 1000 is lighter, quieter, and easier to transport than an equivalent gas generator.

If you’re a critical worker, or someone who must work for extended periods away from fixed power, the unit is also easy to keep plugged into the wall until needed. For my family, it’s also cheap insurance should we lose power for an extended time due to a storm. The ability to charge phones, radios, and laptops, juice up the freezer occasionally in the hopes of saving some food, and perhaps even brew the occasional cup of quality espresso is a bit of comfort that’s worthwhile.