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A while ago I was contacted by a representative of MPOWERD, who asked me if I would be interested to review their new inflatable solar lantern, Luci Outdoor. I said yes and several weeks later a package from the USA was waiting for me at home. Inside this package was Luci. Below are my thoughts and experiences of using this lantern on my several trips (Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and here in the Netherlands) during the last three months.
When deflated and folded, Luci Outdoor is around 2 cm thick and 12.5 cm in diameter. If you want to know how big it is, picture a stack of 12 CDs or DVDs and Luci will be just slightly larger than that (12 cm vs. 12.5 cm). When inflated, however, the lantern becomes 11 cm high, the top and the bottom discs connected by transparent PVC wall. The top with the inflation valve is both reflective and semi-translucent, which, while allowing some light from the 10 LED lights on the bottom of the lantern to pass through and illuminate the space above the lamp, reflects most of it through the sides.
The inflating valve that is on the top of the lantern is designed in such a way that it prevents air from going out while you are inflating it. This gives you more control over the whole process and spares you from the moments of panic when you are trying to plug that hole before all the air whizzes away. To inflate or deflate the lantern all you need to do is to pinch the valve (you can use your teeth but I prefer to use my fingers as it damages the lantern less). Once inflated, you can also push the valve inside the lamp, preventing it from sticking out on the top.
The lantern is equipped with two solar panels (with solar photovoltaic or PV cells) which you can find at the bottom part. Each panel is roughly 7.5 x 3 cm and, according to the producers, with their combined effort, it should take them 8 hours of direct sunlight to fully charge the 3.7 volts direct current lithium polymer battery (also located in the bottom part; in general this is the ‘business end’ of the lantern). What’s more, you do not even need to have the sun to do that as Luci can be charged in incandescent light as well, though it will take significantly more time to reach the same results. You will also need to place the solar panels as close to the bulb as possible without the lantern becoming hot. But how close should it be for Luci to start charging will always be a guess as there is no indication of this whatsoever? And this, in my opinion, is one of the few things that could be improved.
Another improvement point, also related to this, is the status of the battery charge. As the charging time will also depend on the environmental conditions, in which the lantern is being used, it is not always clear when it is charged enough. For example, if you mostly have clouds, as I often do in the Netherlands, and the sun is not that strong, it will take more than the promised 8 hours to have it fully charged. In addition, the older your Luci gets, the more time it will also take to charge it. But how much more is not really clear. I suppose there must be a good reason for not having this indicator and it can be technical, financial or any other in nature. But whatever that is, I still sometimes like to minimise the unknown and be in charge of things (pun intended), especially if my survival depends on it.
In general, MPOWERD promises between 300 and 500 full charge cycles which means that if it is used only occasionally, your Luci can serve you for many years. For the first three months, the batteries should hold almost their full charge, whereas after one year, Luci should still have up to 4 hours of light or about one fourth of her regular capacity (i.e., maximum 12 hours on the bright setting). This makes it a good lamp to keep in your emergency kit and when you go off-grid for a long time.
Talking about the settings, this lantern has three of them: the bright, the super bright and the flashing. To be honest with you, I always find it suspicious when companies use ‘bigger’ words to describe regular things. It’s just like a coffee company calling its smallest cup size tall. However, in this case 10 LED lights ARE bright to my eyes (it might be just me though). The information on the cover states that the perceived power of light (i.e., luminous flux or power) is 65 lumens, which, even though it is not clearly indicated, I assume, must be at the super bright setting. It does not provide you anything like the visibility of a proper torch (e.g. Petzl Nao), but you can still use it not only to read in your tent or find your way around the campsite (the lighting area is at least 1 m2 or 10ft2), but also, if necessary, to go for a short walk. But don’t expect too much though – eventually it is a lantern and not a torch. Nevertheless, if you angle and position it right, you will have about 1.5 to 2 meters of reasonable visibility, allowing you not to trip over some rocks and to see where you have to go next. The trick is to hold it in a way that it does not blind you (eventually the lights are super bright), and to angel it so that the translucent top is to the front. Another trick is to make sure that you do not overinflate it, as the top tends to curve outward slightly, effectively making the reflective inner part concave. And this results in less light being reflected outside the lamp, making the lighting area smaller (for more tips and tricks please see the end of the article).
Besides the first two setting, the lantern has the third one, which is the emergency setting at which all 10 LED lights are flashing at what seems to be the full power (i.e., 65 lumens) at 0.5 seconds interval. What this can achieve is that you will be better seen as the flashing lights are more eye-catching than the ones that are constantly on (a changing stimulus) and at the same time the 50% duty-cycle will take only about half of the power, prolonging the battery life. All this makes it even more suitable for an emergency kit.
The operating temperatures indicated on the packaging are between -10°C (15°F) and 50°C (122°F), which gives quite a window of opportunities to use Luci almost all year-round (it all depends where you want to do it, of course). However, as the lantern is made of soft PVC, I can’t help but wonder if it can actually tolerate some ‘proper’ outdoor abuse and rough handling at the very low temperatures and not to become too stiff and brittle, and thus not suitable for inflating. This is something that has to be seen. So far, after the first three months of using it, mine has no major visible signs of tear and wear, with the exception of one of the handles being more stretched than the other. And I have already taken it on a cycling trip in Poland, gone hiking with it in the Beskids and had it on my packraft on the Dinkel in the Netherlands. I also used it during our camping trip in Lithuania and Latvia and just played around with it whenever possible, even though it is stated that it is not a toy. But how do you learn things if you don’t test them out?
Thus, what I noticed is that, depending on the outside temperature, there is a chance that the clear plastic of the lantern becomes ‘foggy’ as the moisture in your breath condensates on the walls. It happened to me on a number of occasions, but to be honest with you, I did not find it disturbing. On the contrary, I liked the defused light even more as it was not so harsh on my eyes (this is actually something that I like in luminAID a lot).
Talking about the moisture, Luci has Waterproof IP67 rating. But what does it actually mean? Well, the IP stands for Ingress or International Protection. The two digits that follow classify the degree of protection against the solid objects (the first digit) and liquids (the second digit). Thus, the first 6 indicates that it is dust-tight and that there is complete protection against any accidental contact, whereas the second 7 specifies that it is safe to immerse the device in water up to 1 meter. In this case, IP67 rating basically means that unless you try to go diving with it (and it is explicitly stated, both on the package and the lantern itself, that it is not a floatation device) or clean it with a stream-jet, Luci should stay nicely dry and free of dust. This makes it not only a great lantern to go camping with (as you can leave it outside even if it rains), but also vital for using where you are continuously exposed to water (as for example in boating, kayaking or packrafting).
What’s more, in idea it should also be possible to charge it even in the rain. For example, two weeks ago when I was walking the main Beskids track in the south of Poland, it rained the better part of the afternoons. Not being deterred by ‘some drizzle’ (I live in the Netherlands after all), I pushed on with my Luci attached on my backpack, trying to make the best of already noticeably shorter days. I knew that it would stay dry and not be damaged, but I really hoped (and this hope was all I had as there was no hard proof of it) that the lantern was being charged as well.
The only moisture that can get inside Luci is the one in your breath when you are inflating it. As a matter of fact, last time I was inflating it I noticed a few small drops inside that appeared after I left the lantern standing for a while. But even though it might be unsettling to have that inside your Luci, it should not bother you too much as the bottom part with the electronics is completely sealed from the inside as well and no moisture should be able to get inside of it (thus the IP67 rating).
Even though it is inflatable and made of soft PVC, the bottom part (that holds the solar panels, the battery and the LED lights) is significantly heavier, which means that if dropped it is likely to hit the ground first and, unless it is something soft (e.g., grass, leaves or snow), your Luci can be damaged. I have tried to drop mine from different positions and from different heights to test it, and with the exception of dropping it top first from the heights below 1.5 meters, the lantern always hit the surface with the bottom part (luckily I was dropping it on a cushion).
Another thing that I like about Luci is that weighing 113g (4oz) it hardly adds any weight to your backpack. I know that for toothbrush-handle-cutting UL hikers among you it might be a LOT of weight, but for me, it seems, it is rather negligible (especially taking the comfort and possible alternatives under consideration). For example, a month ago, I took this lantern on our two day cycling trip in Poland. We did not really have to use Luci in the evenings, but I had it in the front pocket of my Osprey Talon 33 for ‘just in case’. As it is my regular ‘work and play’ backpack (I take it regularly to work, do the glossaries, use it as my hand luggage and a daypack on shorter trips), as usually I took it with me to work the next day after I came back to the NL. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the lantern in it a few days later even though I was absolutely certain that I had emptied the backpack after the trip. I was carrying it around for almost a week without as much as noticing it. Indeed, Luci hardly weighs anything and does not take too much space. No wonder I forgot about it.
When Luci arrived, it was folded and nicely packed/wrapped in a ‘box with cut-off corners’ that boasted about its core qualities and specifications, gave suggestions on how the lantern could be used and referred to the company behind it, MPOWERD, whose vision is to “eradicate energy poverty through solar justice”. For people who want to do that, there is a link to Give Luci® programme, through which you can buy a Luci lantern at a discounted rate ($9.99 instead of regular $14.99), which can later be distributed to those who are in need of it through one of their four NGO partners.
- Compact size
- Small weight
- Flashing emergency setting
- The leak-proof valve
- Guessing whether it is charging and how full the battery is.
All in all, this is a very good inflatable solar lantern, which is also a good value for money. So, if you are going off-grid for a while, try to stay sustainable and rely on the sun to power your light, or you are just looking for a good reliable emergency option, you might want to consider this lantern. And while you are at that, maybe, you can also donate one for the good cause.
Tips and tricks
- Always make sure to position your lantern so that the translucent top-side is towards the area that you would like to be illuminated. For example, if you want to use Luci in a tent, either hang it upside down from the ceiling or put it top up on the ground.
- If you want to use Luci for walking, hold the lantern sideways (top first) parallel to the ground next to your hip. This way, you keep it close to the path, avoid being blinded and make sure that you see any low hanging branches.
- Do not overinflate the lantern and make sure that the translucent/reflective top is as straight as possible. This way more light will be reflected outwards.
- In case of emergency, use the flashing mode as it is more noticeable and it conserves the battery.
- To extend the battery life when it is cold and you are not charging it, keep the lantern inside your jacket pocket. You will hardly notice it as it is only 2 cm think but it will be kept warm and safe.
- To charge it on the go, use the handles to attach the lantern to the top/back of your backpack. However, if you are planning to go bushwhacking, make sure that it is attached securely, as the lantern might snag on something and the handles might not withstand a strong tug. It might be an idea to attach it to the sternum strap on the front to keep it out of harm’s way.
- Play with it and find your own ways of using it. Share them with us.