Sep 23, 2011
Review of Goal Zero Products:
I'll start this review with some pre-purchse back story. After a few trips to the local lake with the family (among other outdoor outings) I finally decided it was time to look into some alternate energy options for the "out-of-doors". Let me be up front here and say I approached this purchase with very little intent to go deep into the backcountry ala many adventure filmmakers (Think Big Up, Sender Films et al). The need for power was more to make car camping with the family more comfortable and MAYBE be able to one day bring some camera stuff into the backcountry.
So off to the internet for some research. Surprisingly, there isn't as much in the way of info and reviews out there as I would have thought. They exist mind you but, they're pretty short and light on details. It's usually something akin to "It's cool to have power in the woods and system X does it fairly well". One trend I did see is that the OVERWHELMING leader in terms of discussion was Goal0. I was familiar with them from ads in the climbing mags as well as mentions from the BigUp, Sender and Camp4Collective productions houses. After reading some more reviews online (including the only one that covers several brands / options from Chris Mac and crew over on ST.com) I decided to look into getting some Goal0 kit.
I'll save you the details of my searching but, for my needs, I settled on the largest battery pack Goal0 makes, the Extreme 350, a large solar panel and the extreme inverter that works in conjunction with the Extreme 350 Battery. I wasn't sure if I wanted the 27 Watt Nomad solar panel that folds up or the solid 30 Watt Boulder panel that is much more like a picture frame. I also had an interest in getting their small Nomad 7 - 7 watt panel for smaller power tasks ( I wanted to try and run a small USB Fan to keep my 10 week old daughter cool in the stroller down in the TX heat).
Still not 100% on what my "Kit" was going to be I went to the 'net to look into pricing. Chris Mac had mentioned in his review that you can do better than list but things were still pricey.
Maxing my "google foo" I came up with a surprisingly BROAD range of prices for the same items at different sites. For example: the Nomad 27m Solar Panel.
Goal0 Website (MSRP) = $350 + SH
Amazon = $270 incl SH
"Site X" = $200 incl SH
By "Site X" I mean there were several lesser know sites that had far different prices than the mainstream online outlets I was familiar with (Amazon, Buy.com, REI, Cabelas etc etc). see the end of the review for which "site x" I am talking about.
So there's a BIG difference in pricing out there... The sale of the Nomad 27M made me think "Man, that's a KILLER price. I could put together my own KIT rather than a bundle from Goal0 etc and save some $$ with the obvious caveat that I might run into "issues" on the 'net.
I liked the idea of the more compact, foldable Nomad 27M so I decided to order that, an Extreme 350 Battery w/ Extreme UI inverter.
Here's where it gets more "interesting". Since the panel is from a different "series" than the battery (Elite vs Extreme) I wanted to double check what (if any thing) was needed to make them all work together. So I go onto the Goal0 website and look at the product information pages. On the Technical Specs page I wanted to see SPECIFICALLY what ports, in, out etc were on the Nomad 27M so I could hook it to the Extreme. This is what was on there:
27 watt mono-crystalline solar technology
Open circuit voltage: 18V
Charging voltage: 12Vą2V
NOTHING about the physical PORTS you'll find on the panel let alone what size they are. This is a PITA because if you go to the accessories / cable part of the Goal Zero site you'll see they have THREE sizes of cables. 4.7mm, 8mm and 6mm. With some looking you'll see that the Elite and Escape series products use the 4.7mm and the Extreme stuff uses the 8mm. The 6mm is for OUTPUT to their lights. While you can figure it out eventually, it's a PITA and you ultimately will end up buying a crap ton of adapters (more $$) if you don't stay within a specific series (more on that later). It's also hard to figure out WHAT cables/adapters come with a product. In some cases Goal0 lists them on the individual product page (eg the Extreme UI) or mentions them as included or NOT included on an individual product page in the accessories section but it's not very clear. Also weird was the fact that cords that WERE NOT listed as included came with products when I opened the box. For example, the Extreme 350 battery came with a cord to Female cigarette adapter. This is specifically listed as NOT included with anything.
To add to my cluster, I planned on getting a Nomad 7 panel as well for day-to-day stuff and wanted to chain it with the Nomad 27 when base camping. Figuring out what cord I needed was, again, not as easy as I would have liked. (You need a 6' long 4.7mm Extension cable)
I finally deciphered all the cables, adaptors etc and just to be sure, emailed Goal Zero support. To their credit, they got back to me quickly and confirmed what I had selected was correct.
So here's the list of stuff I had settled on...
1 - Nomad 27 Panel
1 - Extreme UI Inverter
1 - Extreme 350 Battery
1 - Nomad 7 Panel (I ended up ordering the Nomad 7 Rock Out Kit that includes the small speakers since Amazon had a deal going. The speakers were essentially $3 more than the Nomad 7 Panel alone!)
Cables: 1 - 4.7mm x 6 foot extension cable (This lets me chain the Nomad 7 to the Nomad 27)
1 - 4.7mm to 8mm adapter cable (This lets me connect the Nomad 27 output cord to the Extreme 350 Battery)
When I went to order it all, one of the "Site X" places had a SALE going on the Elite Sherpa 120 Battery for $200. A significant amount less than the $400 MSRP.
Having just sold a bunch of gear while cleaning out the gear closet I said, "hell, that's such a deal, why not?". I'd have a killer base-camp setup AND a killer portable setup as well.
All that stuff should run me $1430 from the Goal Zero site. I got it for less than half of that from various online sources.
The first items to show up (Amazon Prime) were the Nomad 7 Panel and the Rock Out Speakers. They came bundled together in a plastic pack holding the boxes for each item. The Nomad Panel is made of some heavy duty Cordura cloth with the solar cells on 2 of the 3 "folds". The power outlet port and storage pouch are located on the 3rd "fold". There are small cord loops sewn around the edges of the panel in various spots providing excellent attachment points to hang the panel. Goal Zero includes a micro biner that's pretty handy for this. (The micro biner comes with EVERY Goal Zero product. They use it as a "paper clip" to hold together the instruction booklet.) All-in-all, a decently put together package. It's pretty well documented online that the Nomad can have trouble with high power smart phones like an iPhone 4 or DROID. This has to do with those phones wanting more amps via the 5V USB than is standard (USB is typically 5V and 0.5 Amps) My iPhone will charge, albeit more slowly. I tried it out in direct, TX sun and my iPhone went from 80% to 90% in 20 minutes. Your Milage May Vary and most certainly will. Just know that it CAN be done. One issue NO ONE seems to discuss is the HEATING of whatever it is you're charging. By the very nature of the setup, you're leaving stuff out in the direct sun. Good for power but bad for things like your iPhone. The panel gets HOT in the sun (it's black) so your phone or what have you will cook as well. I hid my phone beneath the panel but I'd probably use a spare shirt or something else as insulation in the future. That or get a longer cord to get your device into the shade. My other "gripe" is the accessory pocket. It's on the inside of the panel when folded and can interfere with the folding of the panels if you put the female cigarette adapter in it. I've read Goal Zero has added an external, mesh, zippered pocket to an upcoming panel (only 3.5 Watts?!) so they've fixed it, but not on the 7 Watt one. Oh well.
In addition to the USB port there's a port for connecting an output cable to hook up the cigarette adapter or extension cable (a funky male in a female port) and a micro port for connecting the Nomad 7 to their Guide 10 (or upcoming 10 Plus) batter pack. I THINK that port is a 6v higher AMP port to work faster with the Guide 10 but, like I said, it's hard to tell.
| || Nomad 7 Panel |
| || Nomad 7 Opened |
| || Noamd 7 Power Ports |
| || Nomad 7 Pocket |
| || Nomad 7 Pocket w/ cigarette adapter inside |
| || Nomad USB and Guide 10 Ports |
| || Nomad 7 "She-Male" port for 12v out. |
| || Mini Biner |
Along with the Nomad 7 came the Rock Out speakers. These are small, portable speakers with a built in rechargeable battery that you can connect to any "source" via a standard, male, headphone plug. It's a bit bigger than a soda can and works just fine. Sonic bliss it's not but for having some tunes at the lake, crag etc they're fine. There's a power switch with red LED indicator light and no volume control; that's done via your device so max volume might vary (I noticed my iPhone 4 is softer than my Shuffle). The speakers recharge via USB using a USB to Mini USB cable - An LED lights up when charging. There's also (on mine) a mystery 5v jack but no mention of this in the manual or online. I do wish Goal Zero included a right angle miniUSB cable. When you have the normal one connected to charge, you can't zip the speakers closed so if you want to listed to music at the same time the whole package is a bit awkward flopped all about. Not a huge deal. One WEIRD thing (there are more to come...). Online Goal Zero videos talk about and demonstrate the ability to CHAIN multiple RockOuts together. Not a big deal for me but I wanted to check it out nonetheless. Problem was, I had NO CLUE how to do it. I'm a pretty tech savvy guy and looking at mine, I couldn't see a way to do it. You'd THINK there would be a female headphone jack there but all there was was that mystery 5v port. I emailed Goal Zero support and they quickly wrote back with detailed directions on how to locate said FEMALE HEADPHONE jack near the male input cable. I wrote back to them saying essentially, "look, I get it but it isn't there"and sent a picture to prove it. They wrote back saying that the Rock Out I had was an OLDER MODEL and couldn't be CHAINED. Huh? I just got this from Amazon. Weird. They offered to send me a newer model if I sent the old one back. I told them "no thanks" because the COST to send it back would be nearly half the price of a new one on Amazon AND 3x what I "paid" for mine as part of the Rock Out Package. A little online digging revealed that the Rock Out's once existed as a product called "myBass" and were not sold under the Goal Zero umbrella. I suspect that Goal Zero brought this product into their stable as a quick way to add to their product line. Still, I wish they were a bit more upfront about old and new models. Regardless, for $23 you'd be hard pressed to do better for some handy little speakers.
| || Rock Out Speakers |
| || Rock Out - Backside |
| || Rock Out Inside - Note the lack of a headphone jack. |
| || Rock Out Mini USB cable charging. A right angle mini would be better. |
OK, next to show up were the Sherpa 120 Battery and Sherpa UI.
I'm going to skip specs like Watts, weight etc. You can (somewhat) easily find this online and this review is LONG as it is. The Sherpa 120 is well put together, albeit with a lot of plastic panels. Not a huge deal but I'd be a bit concerned about them cracking in extreme cold. Not an issue for me however. The 120 is a bit bigger than your standard guide book. Stack two of the New Eldo guidebooks on top of each other and you're really close. I hooked it up to the Nomad 27 and it started charging right away. This is indicated on the front LCD with a Flashing, "Escalating" battery icon. (At some point I might get some video of all of this). Good to go. I charged it outside for a while and then finished on the included wall adapter inside later that night. I haven't been out to test it yet so any and all "real world" info will have to be in a Part 2 - Review. The Sherpa 120's front panel has the input port (4.7mm Female), USB output port (Female)and a 12V DC output port for a cigarette adapter etc. (6mm Female). The rear has a short cable on it for chaining multiple Sherpa 120s together (it's a MALE 8mm CORD). The back also has a female 8MM port for the chaining. Again, NONE of this 8mm info is listed on their website. I was SURPRISED to find 8mm ANYTHING on the Elite Sherpa 120. On the front, below the LCD display, is the power button. You can charge the pack with it turned off but you need to turn it on to output any power (this goes for chaining and CHAIN CHARGING too). All in all, pretty simple.
| || Sherpa 120 and Eldo Book. |
| || Sherpa 120 FRONT Panel |
| || Sherpa 120 Back Panel |
Next up is the Sherpa UI Inverter. Most specs on this are online. It's a nice small unit about 1/3 the size of the Sherpa 120. Of note here is the INPUT on the back is a Female 8mm port. It links up just fine with the Sherpa 120 cable mind you but again, this info is NOT on their site. Also included in the package is a male cigarette plug to male 8MM so you can connect the inverter to your car as well as a battery pack. Nice. OF NOTE HERE: None of the Goal Zero inverters are PURE SINE WAVE at this point. They're both modified sine waves. Buried in a blog post is mention that they have Pure Sine Waves in the works but none right now. It's too much to get into here but Pure Sine Waves are better. While my Macbook Charger works with a Modified Sine Wave it buzzes a bit more and gets pretty WARM. Anyone with more experience on this, feel free to chime in but I'm going to use a 12v DC macbook adapter with this setup for now and avoid the Modified Sine Wave AC. It's more power efficient than going DC - AC - DC anyway.
Alrighty, time to fire these bad boys up. Sherpa 120 charged to full. Check. Sherpa UI connected to the 120. Check. Plug in random desk lamp with 30 Watt bulb. Cool. Hit the power switch on the Sherpa UI..... Hmmm. No lights. Check the 120 power button. Yep. Check all the connections. Yep. Check the lightbulb. Yep. Ruh Oh.
The Sherpa UI didn't seem to be working. No lights would light up on the front and no power was coming out. I plugged it into my car to double check as well. Nope. The Sherpa UI seemed DOA. Off I go to Goal Zero's site again and I start a tech support chat with "DAVE". (Not really the name) I explained to DAVE what was going on. His response (Direct Quotes Here) "Hello Matt, we are sorry for the inconvenience. Do you remember where you bought it?" I tell him "Site X" and it was not part of a package. He writes back "Unfortunately, we can't always control what 3rd party sellers decide to sell. We're a customer based company so you will be taken care of. Check with xxxxxx first to see how they handle exchanges. They might handle it directly so check with them first. Then if they give you any trouble, let us know." Frankly, that response is a bit weird in my opinion. What exactly does he mean by "can't control what 3rd Parties Sell"? I can tell you, the Sherpa UI was SEALED in it's plastic bag (what you'd take off before putting it on the self at REI) and was in retail packaging. This wasn't some "2nd" or display model. So I'm a little perplexed here. I'm glad he's said I'll be taken care of but at the same time feel like the buck is being passed a bit. I contacted "Site X" customer service and to their credit, immediately shipped a replacement and issued an RMA label for the return. Cool. A customer service guy even called me the next day to ask what method would be easiest for me to ship back with. Cool again. So "Site X" not only had smokin prices but solid customer service as well.
So no field report on the Sherpa Elite system until I get all the parts together AND get a trip outside. To Be Con't...
Next up is the Nomad 27 Panel. The build is pretty similar to the Nomad 7, just BIGGER. 8 panels instead of 2. The power "port" is different as well. It has USB out (again, NOT documented), a 4.7mm Female input for chaining and an attached 6' male 4.7mm output cord. It comes in the box folded for display (solar panel out) and folding it up the "Right" way took a try or two. There's a right way to do it, while the wrong way won't let you close the last flaps up. Not at all hard but something that could've been in the "manual". The Nomad 27 also comes with 3 short aluminum rods stored in a pocket (where you put the output cord as well). They're just cheap "tent poles" and serve to help stiffen the panel. They slip into pockets on the back of the panel. They a a bit of stiffness but the panel will still bend if you try and prop it against a wall at 45 degrees. (I'll get pics of this and more of the 27 at some point).
| || Nomad 27 |
| || Nomad 27 Power Ports |
| || Nomad 27 USB Out and 4.7mm Female "chain" in. |
Lastly; The Extreme 350 Battery and Extreme UI. Note that these items came from another store via Amazon, NOT "Site X"
The Battery is Heavy. Let's just get that out of the way. You're not gonna drag 2 of these into the backcountry (unless that's ALL you have to carry). That said, it's pretty small in size ala a 2 slice toaster. There's an LCD indicator on top and ports on either end. See the pics for more. Note there is NO power button like the Sherpa 120. There's an 8mm Female input for charging and 2 "Goal Zero" ports for outputs. (EDIT: These ports appear to be Anderson Powerpole Ports - common in the HAM radio world? ). You connect the Extreme UI to one and can connect a Female cigarette adapter to the other. (Yet another cable that was included but NOT indicated as such on the website). The 350 also comes with a Wall Charger (Wall wart with 8mm male cable). The Extreme 350 also has a fuse panel with 2 fuses, one for each of the BIG output ports I'd guess. They're the typical auto type. I forgot to look at the rating but I THINK they're both 20 amps.
| || Extreme 350 and UI |
| || Extreme Ports. The other side just has the single Black/Red port |
| || Extreme 350 Fuses |
The Extreme UI is designed to mate to the side of the 350. You connect it to one of the 350's output ports and it "Hangs" on the side. The connection is good but not designed for serious jostling. Of "weird" note here AGAIN. My Extreme UI had a large BOLT through the middle of it. One side you could turn with a quarter and the threaded , bolt side spun freely. It LOOKS like it was designed to BOLT onto a 350 Battery (or something). It would have been a REALLY solid connection however, I see no way to use it and have NEVER seen this in any product photos. Again, JUST PLAIN STRANGE. It's like there are multiple versions of Goal Zero Products out there and no acknowledgment of this. You see it with the product naming as well. The Extreme was called the Ranger at some point. There was a Scout line that's now called the Escape line etc etc. My Extreme 350 Manual actually said Ranger 350 on it... You get the idea.
| || Extreme UI Front Side |
| || Extreme UI Backside - Note the BOLT on the side. |
So I plug the Extreme UI into the 350 Battery (It's not NEARLY as easy as the online videos make it out to be. Other online reviews say as much as well). Then I connect the wall charger into the 350 and watch the LCD start to indicate charging. Good To Go. So I hit the power switch on the Inverter. No lights AGAIN. WTF? I check the other output as well via the cigarette adapter. Now power there either. Crap. The Goal Zero instructions said to charge the battery for 8 Hours prior to use so I decided to wait. I thought it a little odd there was NO POWER even though the setup was connected to A/C and the manual said you could use the battery while charging. Hmmm... So I wait 8 hours and the LCD says the pack is only at 40% AND there's STILL no power coming out of either port. Hmmm. I decide to let it go all night and see what happens in the morning. In the morning, the Battery Said "Full" on the LCD AND I got power from the UI and the other port. Cool. I ran a test run with the setup. I fired up a 300 Watt Bottle Warmer (the original inspiration for all this solar stuff. Have you ever tried to warm up a bottle with an MSR pocket rocket while you have a screaming 10 week old ? Yeah, there's a reason someone invented the electric bottle warmer...) As soon as I hit the power button on the warmer the UI fan kicked in and BAM, we're rocking out some steaming water for a bottle. SWEET. The battery LCD indicates a discharge as well.
So, this setup seems to work well so far. I'll have to see how many "bottles" I can get out of the battery but I suspect it will work for any weekend trip given the power ratings etc. That and I have the Nomad 27 to charge it up with (with the 4.7mm to 8mm adapter cord of course!).
Real World testing will be at another date. I want to see how long I can make a Sherpa 120 or Extreme 350 last on some car camping trips starting out with a full charge. Reviews over on the 4x4 forums indicate the 350 does will with a 12v ARB Fridge (cool!) and people, for the most part, seem very happy with their products.
If the Sherpa UI issue works out (as I suspect it will) I'll be pretty happy with the Goal Zero Products. As it stands with Goal Zero the "Company", I'm 50/50 at this point. They seem to be suffering some growing pains. They went from what seems like NOTHING about 2-3 years ago to THE NAME in outdoor solar. They're carried by REI, Cabela's and a plethora of other retailers. I suspect there's a bit of "CCH / REI Issues" going on here. Thankfully they mainly just cause some frustration! If they can get their website in order and the "variations" in products in order I'd have very few issues with them.
Conclusion So Far: Let's face it. There's something COOL about folding out some cloth, metal and plastic and getting POWER from it. I tend to agree with Chris Mac; While systems did exist to make this possible in the past, no one has done it as easily and at such low cost as Goal Zero. They seem to be having some teething issues at the moment but none that drastically effect the end product or result. Just be prepared for a speed bump or two. I wouldn't plan on unpacking these things and heading to Denali without vetting your systems thoroughly. (There's a video of a Goal Zero sponsored guy UNBOXING Sherpa 120s at BASE CAMP. Cardboard and all!) While MSRP on products is still pretty expensive, some Google Foo will get your costs down a good bit. The "Site X" btw was MooDeals.com and I used Google Checkout to help CMA if need be.
I'll do a part 2 Review after I get some mileage into the equipment as well as try and update this as well...