Bicycle Touring with a Solar Laptop
Note: This article was begun on a Toshiba Libretto laptop, using solar power. The majority of my pages are currently written using solar energy.
For two years, I carried a laptop to school with me via bicycle every day. After that, I frequently carried the laptop to school or into town on my bike. I have also carried a laptop on touring trips totaling over 25,000 miles (my main trips in 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2003 plus local tours), which includes over 9,000 miles of use with a solar panel. I currently carry my laptop on my bike everywhere I go, averaging 500 miles a month. I therefore feel I can answer some questions about commuting or touring with a laptop:
Q. Why would anyone want to carry a laptop on a bicycle?
A. For the same reason one would carry one in a car. It's very useful for doing work -- taking notes, keeping records, writing up adventures -- especially for those like me who have difficulty writing by hand. In addition, a laptop is a compact way to carry a lot of useful information. With my first laptop, which lacked a hard drive, I could carry all my school papers on floppies. With the current laptop, I carry two street atlases, a full encyclopedia, and all my photos and webpages. On my 2000 trip, I also used my laptop to update my website and to carry on correspondence; this was not done in 2003 due to fatigue and the amount of work involved.
Q. Isn't a laptop likely to be destroyed on a bike?
A. In a lifetime of cycling, I have fallen just seven times, and never on my way to work or school or while on a tour. I was carrying a laptop when I had my last fall, but it was uninjured. Statistics show that falls are fairly rare for cyclists in general. However, bicycle wheels are unsprung, so more of the pounding is transmitted to the load. I carried my original laptop to school in a small pack on my back. When I carry a laptop on my tours, it sits on top of my clothing. In addition, a laptop has a greater chance of getting wet on a bicycle; therefore, I always carry the laptop in a waterproof nylon bag which I wrap in two throw-away plastic bags. An additional opportunity for damage is in the campground, where the laptop could be dropped, stepped on, splashed on, or even burned. I always keep laptop work separate from other activities due to these dangers. The laptop stays in the pannier until after the cooking gear is put up and the tent is pitched. Or, on a day when I stop early and use the extra time to write, I put the laptop up before beginning other activities.
Q. Isn't a laptop too big and heavy to travel well on a bike?
A. Most laptops are. Although the value of a laptop lies in its portability, most weigh over six pounds and are luggables rather than portables. My first laptop (1990) weighed six pounds, and it was really too big to travel far by bike or to be used in a classroom. Thus, I looked for a smaller solution. My second laptop was a Gateway Handbook (1993), about the size of a handbook -- ten by six inches and weighing less than three pounds. It fit very comfortably on a desktop, on my lap, or in a pannier, where it would be placed flat on top of my clothes bag. My third was a Toshiba Libretto (1999), which was nine by five, weighed 2.2 pounds, and had a very tight keyboard. On my most recent trip, I carried a Fujitsu P2000 (2002), which is eleven by seven and weighs 3.5 pounds. At present, many laptops are sold as lightweights which are eleven inches square or even larger. I don't know how they could be used in a classroom, and they certainly are too wide to fit into a pannier unless placed in there vertically. Considering the thinness of these computers, the pressure of the clothes, and the common necessity of laying the bike on its side, I would never chance carrying one in this position. I think the only solution for such a large laptop would be a special bag that would ride on top of the rear panniers and rack.
Q. Isn't a small computer terribly difficult to work with?
A. I have fairly big hands but narrow fingers. I also have sharp eyes. Therefore, I found the tight keyboard and 7.1 inch screen of the Libretto adequate. The Fujitsu P2000, which I am currently using, has a much wider keyboard and 10.6 inch screen, and thus would be suitable for most users (I got the larger laptop because I couldn't see work with graphics on the Libretto). I think it's the largest computer which should be carried, although I have a friend who carries one which is much larger.
Q. Is a solar panel really necessary? Isn't possible to use a laptop on tour just by carrying extra batteries?
A. With the Handbook, I carried four batteries, which lasted two hours each, originally. I would find plugs to use the laptop and charge the batteries at libraries, places where I stopped to eat, laundromats, town parks, and motels. No one ever objected to my plugging in and working on the laptop, not even when I would plug into the supermarket plug while eating on their bench. However, using the batteries in this fashion resulted in a fairly rapid decline in battery power. In addition, most small laptops lack the rapid charger that the Handbook had; for instance, the batteries for my Libretto took longer to charge than they did to run down. Some laptops won't charge the batteries while operating; this seems to be true for my Fujitsu P2000. When traveling without a solar charger, it makes better sense to not use the batteries at all but to work on the laptop only while it is plugged into a power source.
Q. Why not just use disposable batteries?
A. I did that on one ocassion with the Gateway Handbook. It's difficult to recognize how power-hungry a laptop is until you have watched one wolf down five dollars' worth of small alkalines in 40 minutes. One would have to purchase 12 good quality, alkaline D cells every two or three days to match the power I get from my panel and 12 5.7 AH nicads.
Q. Do you ever get any real writing done on a bike trip?
A. It's more difficult than one would think. While traveling by bike, one is on an adrenaline high all day, and it's hard to settle down to do some hard thinking. However, even when being used only occasionally, the computer has been a good place to store notes and perform calculations. Certainly, I would forget a lot of information that could be useful to other touring cyclists by the end of the trip unless I record it daily. In addition, good ideas pop into my head all the time, and I sometimes start articles that I finish later, such as my article on camping. In that article, I was describing the details of making a camp while I was camping during a tour in Alabama. I have also used the computer for more complete work. In 1993, I made my first complete computer record while on a tour; unfortunately, the narrative portion was lost due to a the hard drive crash, and I did not try to make a complete record again for some years (not realizing that I would be publishing my trips on the internet some day). However, in 1998, 2000, and 2003, I wrote up the trip while I was traveling.
Q. Wouldn't it make better sense to just carry a paper notebook?
A. For most people it would, but I find that a hand-written notebook just doesn't get completed. I do carry a very small "scratch pad" type notebook, so I can jot things down immediately without having to open the computer each time or trust my memory until the next long stop. I have real problems with writing by hand. My handwriting is much slower than my typing, I make frequent errors, and I have trouble reading my own words. I also frequently want to completely re-edit what I've already written. Before the computer, I used to make a huge pile of drafts that were difficult to work with. With a computer, I can make as many edits as I want. I think the only person who should carry a laptop on a bicycle trip is the person who wouldn't leave without a laptop.
Q. Why not just use a PDA instead, which has a long run-time on AA cells?
A. That would be a good solution for many people. However, I want to be able to touch type, and I want to be able to use all the programs, applications, languages, and files that I use on my main computer, which include Mozilla for web page and mail viewing, Arachnophilia for web page creation, REXX for text manulation via a programable language, Take Command for programing and viewing and managing files, Editpad for global web page changes, Accent for writing and translating Spanish, French, and German, MSPaint and PhotoShop Elements for graphics, and DeLorme Street Atlas for road information. In 2003, I also used the computer to download all the digital photographs which I took on the trip.
I imagine that my method of travel will change as I get older. I will probably take more leisurely trips, covering fewer miles and spending more time camping and writing. On a trip like that, a solar panel could allow me to stay away from the plug altogether, especially if I use a larger panel with larger batteries. Therefore, I think my future life of bike travel will include more computer use while on tour.
Q. How does the solar panel work?
Working on the Laptop
A. The ten-watt solar panel (which weighs about a pound) lies on top of my panniers on the back of the bicycle (I carry my tent and sleeping bags in the front bags). As I ride, mostly in the sun, the panel produces current which runs through 12 5.7AH nicad cells, charging them during the day. After I stop for the night, I unplug the panel, and use the same plug to connect the battery to the computer via a Targus auto/air adapter.
Q. Why don't you just get a KISS system instead? Then you wouldn't have to worry about batteries.
A. The KISS system does look very nice. It consists of some ultra-lightweight panels that open like a book and which produce enough power to operate the laptop directly, without the need for a battery. However, to use the KISS panel, I would have to stop in the middle of the day to work, and I would not be able to use it at night. I have found through experience that laptop screens are difficult to read outdoors in the middle of the day, even when sitting in the shade, and the KISS panels would have to be in bright sunlight. If I'm going to have to stop to work in the middle of the day, why not just find a library?
Q. Then why not just stop at a library and avoid the extra weight of the batteries and panel?
A. Often I travel a week or more without finding a library or other place to work during the daytime. Many libraries lack the available plugs or won't allow me to use the laptop inside. In addition, my day time is limited, as I often travel as many as eight hours in a twelve-hour day. If I were spending my nights in motels or near other power sources, I wouldn't need to carry them. With the solar panel, I am able to work on the computer in the tent at night or in the morning. Rather than take the nicads into the tent, I just leave them on the bike and run a cord from the bike to the tent.
Q. Why don't you use a bicycle generator (dynamo) for power instead of a solar panel?
A. The solar panel weighs just a pound and produces ten watts of power. In riding the bike at 15 mph, my effective output of energy is 80 watts; thus a generator with the same power as the panel would significantly slow the bike. In addition, converting power from a generator to a battery is much more complicated, and an efficient generator is more expensive than the panel.
Q. With your system, don't you have to carry a lot of unnecessary weight?
A. What is a necessity to one person will not even be used by another. I don't carry many items that others consider important, and I do carry the items that I consider important. This setup requires me to carry the computer, an AC charger and the Targus DC charger, the solar panel, nicad cells and connector cord, a multimeter, and various nylon and plastic bags plus the computer case, with a total weight of seven pounds or less. (NOTE: On my year 2000 trip, I had a lighter laptop but carried an external CD drive, so the weight was about the same.)
Q. Isn't that a huge amount of weight to carry on a bicycle?
A. Weight on a bike does not have as much effect as weight on the back, yet backpackers generally carry more weight than cyclists. While fully loaded and on a long day's ride, I frequently zoom past joggers who are laboring to get up a hill. The weight would be of consequence only on the steep climb, where seven pounds would slow me down by 3%. If I were making a steep, five-hour climb, this extra weight would make the climb nine minutes longer; thus, the maximum delay in any day would probably be about nine minutes. I think the computer is worth that.
Q. How much time can you use the laptop every night?
A. With the Libretto, which used .7 to 1.0 amps, up to three hours per night (on many occasions), but normally about an hour or so. With the Fujitsu P2000, which uses 1.4 amps, up two hours (one occasion), and somewhat more than half an hour every night. The panel supplies ten watts (.6 amps), and the batteries hold 90 watts (5.7 amps), and the panel requires approximately 15 hours of sunlight to recharge the batteries (due to 50% energy losses while recharging). One can assume, then, that the batteries require two or three days to completely recharge, thus only 1/3 to 1/2 of the battery power is available on a nightly basis. Less capacity would be available due to cloudy weather, haze, shade (produced by trees, buildings, or the rider), height of the sun, length of day, and riding in high latitudes. The length of time that I was able to use the batteries in 2003 was probably also reduced due to using the same batteries as on the trip in 2000.
Q. Are there dangers of overcharging the battery or of too deeply discharging it?
A. Nicad batteries are fairly well suited to solar power charging, and I've made several adjustments to reduce to the minimum the possibility of overcharging. First, by using 12 cells, I have fairly nearly matched the voltage of the panel to the voltage of the battery. The panel is supposed to produce 16.5 volts (I've measured up to 20.5 volts at no load), and 12 cells, when fully charged, should reach a maximum of 17 volts, although the normal peak voltage will be somewhat less. I never saw the nicads reach a voltage above 16.58 (in 2003, the batteries never reached above 16.10). Second, by using 5.7 amp hour cells, I have matched them to the maximum output of the panel, which is .6 amps. Charging at a rate of 1/10 or less is supposed to be a very safe way of charging a battery. The other technique I used to avoid overcharging was to disconnect the panel from the battery if the battery was fully charged but not used.
Discharging the battery too deeply, however, is something for which I had no safeguards in 2000, other than the storage capacity of the cells. If I discharged the battery below 12 volts, 1.0 volts per cell, I was in danger of damaging individual cells. In fact, it would be better not to allow the voltage to drop below 12.6 volts. My method of avoiding this kind of danger was primitive in 2000, I admit. I carried a multimeter to measure the voltage of the cells, and I did not use the nicads if the voltage was below 15.5 volts. On two occasions, when I overused the nicads, the voltaged dipped below 9 volts, but each time the voltage rose back up to well above twelve volts once the laptop was disconnected. In 2003, whenever the battery voltage dropped too low, the P2000 laptop automatically disconnected itself. When I checked the batteries after they had had time to recover, I found that the voltage was always above 14.7 volts.
Q. Well, you've explained the theory about using a solar panel with a laptop; how did it work out in practice?
A. Well, in 2000 I traveled for seven weeks and over 2,500 miles from Alabama to Ontario with my solar panel, batteries, and laptop, and I can report that everything worked very well until the panel failed. I did not intend to use Windows much because it crashes more, takes much longer to reboot, and runs the hard drive more, but I had more battery time than I needed to work on the laptop, so the extra power required for Windows was a problem only for one period of time (in Connecticut, the laptop failed to shut down, and the battery was drained; for the next several days until the battery was recharged, my computer time was limited to an hour or so, so I went back to using DOS). Nor did it create any problem for me to use the laptop during the day for route finding when necessary, as the nicads were easily up to the task of recharging the laptop's battery. Even during cloudy and rainy weather, I was able to use the laptop a sufficient amount of time. Nor did Canada's high latitude hurt. On two occasions, the voltage of the nicads dropped below the desired amount, once dropping to 8.5 volts; however, on that occasion the voltage was rising rapidly and built up to 13 volts before morning. In fact, I learned to regard anything below 15 volts as low voltage, and almost always the nicads were above 16 volts when they had half a day or so to charge. Any time the voltage was above 16 volts, I knew I could work for two or two and a half hours without any problem. I also did not notice any overcharging problems, although I unhooked the panel for part of the day when I had not used the nicads the night before. The panel failed on the same day that I accidently kicked it while getting off of the bike, so that was evidently the cause of the failure. At any rate, one of the internal connections failed, and I received a free replacement after I got home.
In 2003, I traveled for fifteen weeks and 6,500 miles, using the panel, batteries, and laptop without serious problems. On several occasions, I found I did not have sufficient battery power to finish writing my day's account at night, at other times I was too tired; in both cases, I caught up on my writing using AC power during the day instead. I often looked at my highway atlas or other computer information during the night as well. On a couple of occasions, I downloaded photos from my camera and backed up my hard drive using my solar-charged battery, but normally I carried out those functions when I had access to AC. A problem I experienced but could not completely solve was that during the second half of my trip, the laptop would not always completely shut down; therefore, the laptop's internal battery would be down to 85% when I would restart, and as a result, the amount of time that I could use the computer was reduced due to the battery recharging while I was working. I had no problems due to the batteries overcharging or discharging too deeply.
Q. Did you do anything to better protect the panel on the second trip?
A. I had planned to build some sort of a frame for the panel, but I ran out of time while getting ready and just let it go. On the trip, however, I found a simple method of protecting it: I just placed a partially inflated intertube underneath it.
Q. Exactly how did you create your solar panel set-up?
A. I received help and encouragement from several sources, but I did not follow all the advice I was given, and thus I am responsible for my mistakes: Bill Cotton first, who uses his solar panel to extend the time on his lead-acid battery while he uses a GPS system while touring; Bill and I communicated on the subject long before I planned this trip, and he helped me right until I left. Bill has a page called Tripmate that describes his set-up. The people on the Libretto mailing list, who provided practical suggestions, especially David Hettel and David Van Horn; see the Libretto Digest, numbers 949 and 950. I also received good advice from William Burrow, who maintains the Bike Current FAQ, and further advice from members of the Bike Current Mailing List.
As for the equipment I used and how I put it together: I used the 11-560 ten-watt panel from Creative Energy Technologies which weighed about a pound (NOTE: This panel is no longer being sold by CETSolar, nor do I know of an alternate source; look for a panel which weighs less than two pounds); 12 5.7 amp hour D cells which I ordered from the Nicad Lady, and which I hot-soldered together, using short sections of wire, and wrapped with duct tape; a male-female car extention plug, which I cut in two near the male end (the male end was attached to the panel with an added diode and the female end with most of the cord to the battery); a Targus Auto-Adapter with a tip (ordered by phone) for the Libretto; and a Toshiba Libretto computer. During the day, the panel was attached to the battery using the male plug on the panel and the female plug on the battery. At night, the panel was unplugged, and the female plug and cord were extended into the tent (leaving the battery on the bike), where the Targus Auto-Air Adapter was plugged into it.
Please note that I used a little bit of overkill: the adapter was not needed with 12 nicads, as they were supplying sufficient voltage anyway; however, I needed the tip, and I wanted to be extra cautious. As alternatives, I could have made a plug for the Libretto and have not bought the Targus adapter, or I could have used the Libretto with 10 nicads or with an SLA battery; however, this second alternative would have required getting a regulator because a lead-acid battery can be damaged by higher than necessary voltages. Also note that by using the solar panel without a regulator, I was being rather primitive. Only nicad batteries can stand unregulated voltage, and I had to match the batteries to the panel at that.
The same set-up was used in 2003, except for changing the computer. A larger panel and larger batteries would have matched my Fujitsu P2000 better.
Q. How did you hook up to the internet on your bike trip?
A. On the 2000 trip, Before starting, I downloaded the free internet service from Altavista and tested it for several days. When I stopped at a motel, I would establish a new location with the software on the computer and get a new telephone dial-up number very quickly. I used all my time while at such motels to download and answer messages and to upload my travel account to this website. Of course, the free internet service was available only in and near large urban centers, which is generally true of the nationwide ISP's (AT&T, MSN, AOL, and Earthlink, for instance). I also answered email messages from public libraries, when that was allowed. I probably missed answering some of those messages due to the inevitable confusion.
However, Altavista's free internet service is no longer available. I see these alternatives: 1) Other free internet services exist; find one that is nationwide and that will allow you to change your dial-up number when you enter a new town. 2) Use a nationwide ISP, such as AT&T, that allows you to use multiple dial-up numbers. 3) Earthlink provides a travel offering which allowed unlimited access using local dial-ups plus five hours of 1-800 internet use each month for a little more than a regular account. 4) Some companies sell a CD which provides an internet connection on a pay by the minute basis. 5) Use Pocketmail to send and receive emails, using a PDA with an acoustic phone connector and a dedicated 1-800 number. 6) Just use the internet and email services at libraries. 7) Use a low-cost phone card, your local ISP, and a motel phone.
On my 2003 trip, I intended to use solution 7, but I never had the time to write the web pages or to answer the messages.
Q. Which laptops, currently being sold, are small enough to travel in a bicycle pannier?
A. There are a number of models sold that would be suitable. The Libretto is still being sold with an English keyboard, although not in the US. Someone willing to make an overseas purchase could get the current model. I don't have details; see the Adorable Toshiba Libretto site. The Sony PictureBook C1 is popular. This computer weighs 2.2 lbs., has a 8.9" screen, and a Transmeta Crusoe processor. I don't have the exact dimensions, but it is wider and thinner than the Libretto. The Casio Cassiopeia also weighs 2.2 pounds and has an 8.4" screen, the Crusoe processor, and dimensions of 8.8 x 7.8 x .8 inches. The Fujitsu P Series includes the P-2000, which weighs 3.4 pounds, has a 10.6" screen, the Crusoe processor, and dimensions of 10.5 x 7 x 1.4, and the P-1000, which is similar in size to the Sony PictureBook, and which has a touch screen. The Fujitsu B Series includes two similar-sized computers which are more expensive. The NEC Versa DayLite weighs 3.3 pounds, has a 10.4" screen, the Crusoe processor, and dimensions of 10.2 x 8.3 x 1.2. The Panasonic Toughbook 34 weighs 3.8 pounds, has a 8.4 screen, a PIII processor, and dimensions of 9 x 7.4 x 1.7. I haven't included operating system or harddrive size, as this kind of information changes frequently. Note: I am not a source of information about these laptops. See the manufacturers' websites or do a web search for further information. A site which includes a number of these (but also PDA's and larger-sized laptops) is the Transmeta Corporation site, the maker of the Crusoe processor. Remember that, due to their size, these laptops will usually have a tighter than normal keyboard, which people with large hands frequently find objectionable.
Q. Do you plan to continue to use the Fujitsu P2000 for touring?
A. No, as I have no use for the CD-R/DvD drive while on tour. I did carry CD's for Topo USA with me on the tour, but it was not practical to use them. I plan to get a P1000 for the next tour, which will give me a longer working time with the current panel and battery, plus save some weight. For someone needing the larger screen, larger keyboard, and/or ability to use the CD drive plus a longer running time, it would make sense to purchase a 15-watt panel coupled with 8.0 AH F cell nicads.
Note: I suppose this article gives me my sole opportunity to pass on a joke I once made about cells. We were talking about living things, so I said (baiting a trap), "You know, single-cell animals must be awful primitive!" My companion was puzzled by my remark, so he replied, "Why do you say that?" "Well," I pointed out, "even flashlights have two!"