Camper Tech

Portable Lithium Power Goes Truck Camping

Truck Camper Magazine experiments with a Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium portable power station and weighs the impact of lithium battery technology and integrated portable power systems on the future of truck campers.  Wouldn’t it be cool if…

Portable Lithium Power with Goal Zero

Many of my more ridiculous ideas start with the phrase, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  For example, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was this device where you put your cat in the middle and then cranked these washing brushes to clean your cat?”

I even drew this idea on paper for Angela to fully grasp my brilliance.  Naturally, she wasn’t impressed, a fact that our cat has celebrated ever since.  The thing is, Harley really needs this fast and convenient cat washing device.  He can get pretty ripe on the road.

Gordon's Cat Washing Machine

Above: My design for a hand crank portable cat washing machine.  Man do we need this!

Another one of my, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments occurred shortly after we embarked on our second cross-country truck camping adventure.  This time we were working from the camper and found keeping our laptop batteries charged to be quite challenging.  Back in 2007, we didn’t have LED lights, solar panels, or two Group 31 AGM batteries on board.  We were practically Flintstone camping.  It’s a wonder we didn’t power our truck with our feet.

Anyway, we were parked at Panera Bread, a favorite of ours for lunch and charging our laptops.  We walked in, scoped out a table with an electrical outlet, plugged in our laptops, ate a meal, and worked.  Many Truck Camper Magazine articles have been written and published from Panera Bread.

Halfway through a You Pick Two, I said to Angela, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring our camper batteries into Panera Bread, plug them into a 110-volt outlet, and charge our batteries while we eat?”  Angela actually agreed with this idea.  “That would be cool,” she answered.  Sometimes she gets me.

Ten Years Later

A decade after my portable power station epiphany, I happened upon a remarkable product from Goal Zero.  The Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium looked like an old-school lunchbox designed by the art department for Tron.  Called a, “portable power station”, the Goal Zero charges via 110-volt outlet or solar panel and then powers 12-volt, USB, and 110-volt devices off-grid.  Wait, that sounds familiar…

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Close-Up Handle

At just 17-pounds with a sturdy handle, I can totally see myself walking into Panera, ordering a half Bacon Turkey Bravo and Greek salad, and then nonchalantly plugging in my little Yeti under the table.  It took ten years for this vision to become a possibility, but man this really is going to be cool.

A few weeks later, a Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium arrived at my dad’s house.  We were parked in his driveway on our way to the North-East Truck Camping Jamboree in Lake George, New York.  After unpacking the Goal Zero, I followed the instructions and plugged the unit into 110-volt shore power to fully charge.

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Back

The Goal Zero is exceptionally well made with a clean design, intuitive presentation, tight seams, and a rugged build.  When I showed the Yeti 400 to my family they commented on how neat looking it was and talked about how it could be helpful when the power goes out in their house.

I was very pleased that the Goal Zero appeared ready for off-road travel, not to mention the relentless ga-dunk-ga-dunk of America’s neglected roadways.  My only wish is that the front panel and outlets had a cover seal for impact protection and dirt.  That nitpick aside, I was more than impressed.

Goal Zero Yeti 400: Lithium vs Lead-Acid

Lithium batteries have a long list of advantages compared to the lead-acid batteries commonly used in RVs.  First, lithium batteries have significantly more usable capacity pound for pound.  Second, where lead-acid batteries should only be drained 50-percent before recharge, lithium can be drained 80-percent before charge – or more.

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Screen

Lithium batteries also have a longer life span with at least two times the number of useable cycles compared to lead-acid batteries.  Lithium batteries also charge faster, are well suited to high-current applications, and are smaller and lighter than lead-acid batteries.

This last point is worth repeating.  Lithium batteries are about half the size and one-quarter the weight of lead-acid batteries with the same usable capacity.  The catch is that lithium batteries are a lot more expensive.  More on this later.

The Goal Zero Yeti 400 is offered in both lead-acid and lithium battery configurations – perfect for a lead-acid versus lithium showdown.  Let’s break these two Yeti masters down by price, capacity, weight, and size.

The standard lead-acid Yeti 400 is $459 and offers 400Wh (33Ah) and weighs 29 pounds.  The lead-acid Yeti 400 is 10.25-inches long, 8-inches wide, by 8-inches tall.  That’s 656 cubic inches.

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Specifications Badge

Above: Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Specifications

The Yeti 400 Lithium is $599 and offers 428Wh (39.6Ah) and weighs 16.3 pounds.  The Yeti 400 Lithium is 11.5-inches long, 7.5-inches wide, by 7-inches tall.  That’s 603.75 cubic inches.

For those who like percentages, the Yeti 400 Lithium offers 7-percent more capacity, 41.3-percent less weight, and 7.96-percent less volume compared to its lead-acid cousin.  The trade-off is that the 400 Lithium costs 30.5-percent more than the 400 lead-acid.  That’s a considerable price difference.

Lithium prices should come down considerably as lithium battery technology advances and production efficiencies continue to improve.  The Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium dropped $100 during the course of this evaluation.

The deciding lead-acid versus lithium factors for me were the lower weight of the lithium and the desire to learn more about lithium technology and its implications for truck camping.  Let’s explore these implications.

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Rally

Above: Showing the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium off at the Lake George Jamboree.

What Can The Yeti 400 Lithium Power with 110-Volts?

According to the Goal Zero website, the Yeti 400 Lithium was designed to charge tablets, laptops, mini-refrigerators, televisions, emergency medical equipment, camera equipment, and lights.

To determine if a 110-volt device can be powered by the Yeti 400 Lithium, Goal Zero instructs customers to check how much power the device draws in watts.  The Yeti 400 Lithium is designed for up to 300-watts (1200-watt surge).  Anything over 300-watts is not compatible with the Yeti 400 Lithium.

To find out how long a 110-volt device can be powered by the Yeti 400 Lithium (also called run time hours), you need a little math.  Take the watt hours of the Goal Zero Yeti 400 (400 watts) and divide that number by the wattage of the chosen 110-volt device.

If your 110-volt device needs 25 watts, then you would divide the 400-watt hours of the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium by the 25 watts needed by the device.  In this example, 400Wh/25 = 16 hours.

Is that a Goal Zero 400 Lithium?  Well, turn it up!

I actually happened upon the Goal Zero Yeti via Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, and The Rolling Stones.  You see, I’m an incurable music nut who travels with a home-style stereo system tucked into the cabinetry above our dinette.  Naturally, I only use this 110-volt system when we’re plugged into shore power, but man do I miss my tunes when we’re off-grid.

Goal Zero Stereo System

Above: The stereo system in our camper.  Single-ended vacuum tube + 24-bit high-resolution music = heaven, to go!  Hello, Ella.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if I had a second self-contained battery system – 100-percent independent of our house battery bank – with a built-in 110-volt inverter for my stereo?”  Nobody heard me when I thought this, and subsequently searched Google.

Google brought me to Goal Zero, and their Yeti 400 Lithium.  With a Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium, it appeared I could listen to music on my 110-volt stereo off-grid and guilt-free.

TubeCub 7 tube amp in RV

To calculate how long the Yeti 400 Lithium would power my tube amplifier (run time hours), I took the 38-watts the amplifier requires and plugged that number into the aforementioned equation: 400Wh/38 = 10.5 hours.  Boondocking with Bob Marley?  Sign me up!

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Playing Music

Truck Camping Implications – Way Beyond Stereo

Then I started thinking about what the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium was and how it could be used for truck camping.  My first thought was that it contained nearly everything some small truck campers need from an onboard battery system; a 39.6Ah battery, 12-volt, USB, and 110-volt outlets, and a 110-volt inverter. Goal Zero chat at Lake George Rally

Above: Discussing the implications of the Goal Zero when truck camping

Imagine if you had a basic camper with nothing more than all-LED lighting, water pump, Fantastic Fan, and CO2 sensors.  With a 160-watt solar panel on the roof charging the Goal Zero off-grid during the day, the Yeti 400 Lithium might be all you need for a house battery, inverter, and outlets.  You could even charge your smartphone, tablet, and camera with the Yeti.

What if we add a propane furnace, propane refrigerator, and electric jacks?  Now we’re really pushing our luck with 39.6Ah on tap, especially if we’re running the heat at night.  Then again, Goal Zero does offer higher capacity Yeti Lithium portable power systems with the Yeti 1000 and Yeti 1250.  As lithium becomes cheaper and more powerful, the concept that truck campers might only need a portable power station seems very possible.

Goal Zero Yeti at Lake George Rally

Besides, there’s no rule that says you can’t have two independent portable power stations – say a Yeti 1250 in the dinette area and a Yeti 400 in the cabover.  At a minimum, these are technologies – both lithium batteries and the portable power station concept – worth keeping tabs on.  The implications for truck campers and truck camping are compelling.

Example Solution: Cabover CPAP and Star Wars

Go back about fifteen years and the only outlets you will find in a truck camper’s cabover are one 12-volt and one 110-volt on one side of the center wall.  These outlets were intended for the only devices most folks had in their cabovers back then; televisions.

How things have changed.  Today folks almost universally have efficient 12-volt flat-panel HDTVs and DVD audio-video systems.  Another change is the widespread proliferation of CPAP machines.  Just in the past decade, we have witnessed an explosion of CPAP machine usage among Truck Camper Magazine’s readership.

CPAP machine use triggered a loud and clear consumer demand for more 110-volt and 12-volt outlets in truck camper cabovers.  The majority of manufacturers got the message and have been incorporating cabover outlets for some time.  That said, not everyone has a new camper, and not every new camper has these outlets.

ResMed Travel Cpap Machine

Above: The efficient ResMed’s Air Mini Travel CPAP machine is a good candidate for the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium

Enter the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium.  Can this portable power station really run a CPAP machine?  The answer is yes, but with some very important caveats.

First, you need the manufacturer’s 12-volt adapter for your CPAP machine (if one is available).  Running a CPAP from 12-volts is usually significantly more energy-efficient than running it off 110-volts.

Second, you’ll need to turn off the CPAP humidifier.  CPAP humidifiers are notoriously power inefficient and sometimes don’t operate on 12-volts.  Also, keep in mind the higher the water pressure setting the higher the amp-hour draw.

Let’s say a given CPAP machine running at 10cm water pressure with the humidifier turned off requires 2 amp hours on 12 volts.  That’s 2 amp hours multiplied by 12-volts for 24 watts.

Since the Goal Zero stores 400 watts, we divide 400-watt hours by 24 watts: 400Wh/24 = 16 hours.  At 2 amp hours, the Goal Zero Yeti Lithium 400 would run this particular CPAP machine for about two 8-hour nights.

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium HDTV Bluray

Above: Watching Star Wars: Rogue One on Bluray with the Goal Zero providing the 110-volt power.

Further exploring the use of the Yeti in the cabover, Angela and I have a 110-volt Samsung 24-inch HDTV and a 110-volt Sony Blu-ray player in our cabover.  When we’re off-grid, we have used a small 12-volt 175-watt Duracell inverter to watch television and movies, but recently this small inverter has been cutting out mid-movie.

We have a 600-watt Zamp inverter tied directly into our Group 31 AGMs, but that’s a lot of power to use for a two-hour film.  The Goal Zero 400 Lithium is a much better solution.  Last week we watched the movie Star Wars: Rogue One (133-minutes) off-grid on the Goal Zero without a hiccup.  The Goal Zero cooling fans turned on twice, but that was it.

Click here for TCM reader feedback on portable lithium power sources.


Truck Camper Chooser
To Top