Using the sun to charge a mobile phone

I’m not sure if I was more excited to have a beautiful sunny weekend in London because of the opportunity to be outside or because it meant I could test out the Freeloader, solar charger I was lent!? Made by Solar Technology International, the charger looks very cool – small, sleek with brushed aluminium finish which I, as a designer find appealing. It is also very easy to use; you pull sides apart and push the solar panels into the sides of the main body, place it in the sunshine and watch the flashing display show that the charger is charging.

The website makes the device look like a gadget everyone should have but does it work? After excitedly putting a message on Twitter saying I was going to test the charger out for the weekend, I received a number of negative reactions all implying the device didn’t work. Not wanting to believe that solar power charging isn’t effective, I set myself the challenge of charging my iPhone 4 (purely using solar energy) over the weekend and this is what I discovered!

The device is very convenient to carry around (it weighs hardly anything which is a real plus point) so I took the charger out for brunch and left it on the table to charge, took it to the park and left it in the bright sunlight and finally left it for another hour on my balcony in direct access to plenty of sunlight.

Freeloader in direct sunlight

I realised that after a day of charging (probably about 4 hours on and off) I only had 2 bars of power displaying on the charger screen. Slightly disappointed, I decided to try charging my phone anyway and I literally managed about 15minutes of charging before the solar charger ran out of charge!

Freeloader charging phone

I realised I should probably read the user manual and look at the specification to see if I was doing something wrong. Surely for the cost of £32 and for the wide range of electronic products it charges, the device must be worth having and I must be doing something wrong.

I downloaded the specifications from the pdf booklet:

Electrical Characteristics / Performance
1. Solar Panel (mono/multi crystalline): 5.5V 150mA
2. Rechargeable Lithium Battery:
3.7V 1200mAh 3. USB charging cable: 5V 500mA
4. DC Output: 5.5V+/– 0.5% 500mA
5. Time required to deliver power from Freeloader Classic: 30 minutes to 2 hours
6. Time required to charge the FreeLoader Classic internal battery using the USB charge cable: 3 to 4 hours
7. Time required to charge the FreeLoader Classic internal battery in sunny conditions using the solar panels: 5 to 10 hours
Note – light quality plays a key role in determining the speed of charge. Cloudy days or the Freeloader Classic being positioned behind a glass window will all increase the time needed to charge its battery.

It’s clear that I needed to charge the Freeloader for between 5-10 hours (when in the UK do you ever get 5-10 hours of bright sunlight?) which is rather annoying. If you thenread on to the FAQ this is written:

If Freeloader Classic is connected to a device that has a near full battery (if for example you were testing Freeloader Classic from new), Freeloader Classic would, potentially, not deliver power because if the battery in the device has more or equal power than the Freeloader Classic, Freeloader Classic will not be able to deliver power. Wait until the device to be charged is 50% to 60% full


After 1 day in full sun (9am to 6pm) the Freeloader Classic hub will be pretty much fully charged. When connected to your device it will deliver power for 30minutes to 2hours depending on the device.

I feel that 30 minutes – 2 hours is a large time frame and I wonder if 2 hours would really charge my iPhone to full power anyway? Check out Justin Horn’s charging time test of the iPhone.

As much as I LOVE the idea of using the sun to power my telephone, I do wonder if I could successful use the Freeloader to charge my phone on a regular basis. I do also have to question the actual energy used to manufacter the Freeloader in the first place. Does anyone know what the carbon footprint of the device is?

Considering devices like the iPhone (the Freeloader is suggested for use with iPads, Blackberrys and iPods) use very little energy to be charged, I think I will stick to my iPhone charger as the cable and plug are small, light weight, come with the phone and using that bit of kit it only takes just over an hour to charge my phone from the mains supply.

Sorry but the Freeloader is going back to where it came from. If, however you have a different experience, I’d love to hear from you!

I’m not saying I won’t ever try and make my own one though! The instructablesMightyMintyBoosh‘ looks amazing!

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