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This Solar Energy System Is Perfect For #VanLife

Or, you know, just good old-fashioned camping.

Over the past several years, people have been leaving their tiny city apartments behind for a camper van and the freedom of the open road. Dubbed #vanlife through the popular Instagram hashtag, the craze is a reaction against the lonely confines of an urban existence in the concrete jungle, away from the joys of nature. Just one problem: When you’re on the road, how do you charge your phone so you can post the amazing Instas that show everyone else exactly what they’re missing out on?

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Mobile chargers abound, but a new product from the Brooklyn-based off-the-grid energy company BioLite allows van-lifers (or any outdoors adventurers) to give their unelectrified home solar power. Called SolarHome 620, the product is a lighting system composed of a solar panel, battery, lamps, and device charger specifically targeted at the outdoor recreation market in the U.S. “It packs into what’s effectively a shoebox,” says Mindy Abbruzzi, a senior industrial designer at BioLite who led design for the project. “You can take it with you anywhere and bring light and energy to wherever you are.”

While it launched in late February in the states, the exact same product also launched in June 2017 in Kenya, where today it lights about 40,000 homes. There, the SolarHome solves a similar problem–lack of electricity–but was designed specifically for people who live in rural areas without access to power.

[Photo: BioLite]
Abbruzzi says the SolarHome was initially inspired by research from BioLite’s team in east Africa. “What we see is that a lot of customers in this market live off the grid but they own cell phones,” Abbruzzi says. “The rate of mobile phone growth far, far, far exceeds electrification. Everyone has a simple phone. So customers walk into the city and go to charging stations and spend a meaningful part of their income charging their phones.”

Abbruzzi designed SolarHome to not only electrify people’s homes with light, but to also provide a place where they can charge their mobiles and eventually power other kinds of home appliances, like fans or televisions. The kit is composed of a small solar panel that you can install on your roof, three pendant lights (one of which has a motion sensor), and a control panel on top of a large battery. It’s meant to be easy to set up–once you install the panel on the roof, you run a cord into your home, where it connects to the panel-cum-battery affixed to the wall. Based on how many lights you’re using and how much energy you have stored in the battery, the panel display shows users how many hours of light they have left–something that few others systems provide.

[Photo: BioLite]
When fully charged, the battery can hold 20 watt-hours of electricity, which Abbruzzi says translates to about 8 to 10 hours of light–or two full charges of an iPhone battery. Dumb phone batteries don’t require nearly as much energy to charge them, so users without smartphones would be able to charge many more times over.

For African users, a highlight of the system is its design aesthetic, which most other products that provide a similar service de-prioritize in favor of durability. But the SolarHome’s lamps have a lovely aquamarine color, with a sleek modern design that would look at home anywhere in the world. “The part I’ve been most tickled about is how much they love the form and the beauty of the system,” Abbruzzi says. “I think it’s meaningful to these customers to have something that’s cosmetically really beautiful in their home.”

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Along with the dashboard, one of the most popular features of the system is the motion-sensor light. Abbruzzi says that users in African countries have tended to install this bulb outside their door for use as a security measure, similar to how people in the U.S. will install motion sensor lights outside. But for use in outdoor recreation, Abbruzzi thinks that this feature will be popular because it’ll help people conserve energy by only staying lit while you’re moving around.

BioLite’s SolarHome is a functional, flexible way to bring electricity to wherever you are, whether that’s an off-the-grid cabin, a treehouse, your van, or just your home. You can make sure everyone’s jealous of your highly Instagrammable camping spot, too.

The SolarHome costs $149.95 and is available on BioLite’s website.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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