Unboxed: The Origins of SolarHome 620

March 14, 2018

Behind The Design of BioLite’s First Crossover Product

SolarHome 620 is BioLite’s first crossover product. Translation? Whether you're in a home in Western Kenya or a van in Utah, we’re all using the same gear.

Usually when we do a “Behind The Design” post, we share insights from our outdoor community and how they informed the final product. This time around, we’re focusing on the community of farmers we worked with in Western Kenya to bring this system to life.

#1 Challenge: Permanent and Pleasing Without Being Precious 


“So often we see products that are low cost and durable, but they’re obtrusive in their environment and not optimized for customer use,” says BioLite designer Mindy Abbruzzi. Through months of research, Mindy and the team found that current solutions on the market were solving the basic problem of light and power, but not solving for the design challenge of creating something you’d be proud to have in your home. With long-term adoption being the end goal, we wanted to create something that felt like a permanent indoor appliance, but had an easy setup and the promise of durability.

Small Touches Make a Big Difference

With that challenge as our north star, we identified ways to create opportunities for the system to feel special – to add meaningful functionality without a lot of additional cost. Here are a few ways that translated into the system:

  • Individual Light Switches: Press on one of these and you’ll feel a satisfying “click” as your lights dim up or down; that’s a conscious, tactile choice designed to encourage the calibration of each light so each room or area is using just the right amount of power.
  • Bonus 4th Wall Light: Many solar kits use the battery box as just a storage unit that runs lights; we saw this as an opportunity to turn it into a modern appliance you’d be proud to have out on display. The result is our central Control Box that incorporates a 4th light that shines like a sconce from the wall. Rather than being tucked away in a high corner, this invites homeowners to use it as a part of their daily life.
  • Lamp Shape: So. Many. Lamp. Shapes. We designed dozens of styles of lights to explore what felt well-designed, but also could stand the test of daily use. We landed on a rounded shape where the pieces snap together seamlessly to minimize wear and tear (you’d be surprised what a centimeter of extra plastic can get caught on).

One Person's Path Light is Another's Sense of Security

“The security light, overall, was one of the most surprising and warmly received features of the system,” said Mindy. “Over and over we heard customers in the field telling us that having light made them feel more safe.” For the design team, this was an interesting opportunity to create a single feature that served our two markets slightly differently: in our rural, off-grid homes, our built-in motion sensor was celebrated as an energy-efficient boost to home security while in the outdoor market, we had feedback that it would be used to quickly light a pathway or welcome someone home.

What Else Do a Shelf and a Speaker Have in Common? Phones and Storage

Take a closer look at the Control Box and you’ll see two features: a shelf and a Micro SD card slot. These elements were designed to serve the most common phones found in Western Kenya. Our users tend to keep valuable items out of reach of children (don’t we all) and that often means keeping things high off the ground. Since our Control Box offers USB out to charge phones, we wanted to offer an easy way to safely place the phone out of reach but still make it close enough to the USB port. Secondly, these phones store data like Mp3 files on removable Micro SD cards, allowing users to play music without draining any precious battery from their phone. For those in the outdoor community looking to play their tunes, we highly recommend storing some playlists on a Micro SD card and throwing it in your SolarHome Kit. This gives you phone-free entertainment and one less thing to charge.

Feedback for All and a Game-Changing Payment Method For Some

Just like our core thermoelectrics, solar can be a magical experience that sort of turns maddening when you don’t understand what’s going on. That’s what makes real-time feedback so important; demystifying the process so you can optimize your system and use your energy wisely. The included LCD display provides immediate reporting on your sun strength and your battery life so users can plan for how much energy they want to spend or save in a given evening – a welcome feature anywhere in the world.

But here’s the real game-changer: keep scrolling through the LCD on a SolarHome System in Kenya and you’ll get to a screen that asks you to enter a code; this is the Venmo of Kenya, and it completely transforms how users can afford products in their home. The vast majority of our customers are unbanked, meaning they don’t have access to credit cards or checking accounts. Instead, they have leapfrogged that system entirely and rely on mobile payment systems for almost all of their transactions. By building a Pay-As-You-Go platform into our units, users are able to pay for the system in small installments, often using the savings they are enjoying by avoiding kerosene lighting or expensive out-of-home charging. (Stay tuned for more on that later in 2018).

So now you know the origins of SolarHome 620 – how’s the crossover going? Here are just a few ways the outdoor community has taken SolarHome 620 into their environments for reliable light & power:

Cabin Life

“We turn the lights on at our cabin when we are tired of hearing the generator running. Love this system. We keep the lights on low, sit back and play cards. The silence is golden. The cool thing is that it charges in the sun and is ready to go the next day. We occasionally indulge by listening to the radio.” ~ Derrick


“I use this unit camping. (Yes, even in winter here in Utah). The panel charges our phones all day as well as the Control Box! And that motion sensor light? It’s better than the one on our front porch at home!” ~ Jess

“This is an awesome set-up. I use it to light up my campsite at night. I attach the lights to some lantern poles, set-up the solar panel and controls near the tent and I'm set. Also helps keep the phone charged for emergencies.” ~ Stephen

Shed It Up

“Great little solar light set up, perfect for our garden shed. Easy to install as a bonus.” ~ Rocha

“SolarHome 620 has been a reliable tool for light and power. I have it set up in the shed in the backyard; however, I like the idea that I can take it out and use it elsewhere in the future. I am planning on building my own tipi as a temporary shelter while I build a green, off-grid home, and the SolarHome 620 will be part of both shelters as each is built. I like the fact that it creates light, allows one to play the radio, and powers a cellphone.” ~ Logan

In & Around Home

“We got this to use in our next home but started to use it now - especially the sensor light to light up the backyard to any cougars and deer that hang around - that way we can let our pups out without disturbing the animals. It's also great for the power outages we get here on the island.” ~ Kris

"I purchased SolarHome 620 for our off grid cabin (more shed) in NV (our summer outdoor get away). Until then I thought I would try it out in the garage office (kids game room). It worked out great. Doesn't matter if they leave the lights on and the proximity light is perfect for kids going to and leaving the office. I may need to buy another for the cabin. I love BioLite gear and am going to take my CampStove and NanoGrid system to Joshua tree very soon." ~ Mike

“I purchased SolarHome 620 as a gift for a friend who was living without electricity. The difference it made in the "quality of life" is immeasurable! Previously he had to use gas lanterns and travel to his dad's house to charge his devices, both time and fuel consuming. SH 620 is the solution to many problems. I highly recommend all your products to anybody that camps or truly lives off the grid. “ ~ Leland

Backup & Emergency

“I use my Solar Home 620 as an emergency backup power source. Even in winter in New England, it fully charges in 1 to 2 days. It even charges through the windows in my home, so I can keep the solar panel inside.” ~ Diana


Editor's Note: As of Fall 2020, we currently have 280,000 BioLite products out in the field.