Cellular trail cameras offer big advantages for hunters and land managers. The biggest are time savings and the ability to limit human intrusion, but they certainly do not stop there. As hunters continue to rave of cell cameras, we can't forgo mentioning some of the cons. The advantages gained from cell cameras come at a cost, literally. An increased cost to operate cell cameras comes in two parts.
#1 - Data plans
#2 - Increased spending on power sources
While the advantages certainly far out weigh the increased cost to operate cell cameras, the question is how can we further move the needle further towards the advantages? The answer is simple. Be more efficient with power sources. In this article we are going to breakdown how you can get the most bang for your buck when purchasing batteries for your cellular trail cameras.
Up until the cell cam craze, internal power sources where by far the most common way to power trail cameras. Yes, cameras have had the ability to utilize external power for decades and people were using external power in their regular trail cameras but not to the extent of today.
While internal batteries are not always a requirement if you are using external power supplies, pending the make and model of your cellular trail camera, we still recommend using internal batteries as a plan b or fail safe.
When it comes to internal batteries, were looking at AA cells and there are really only a few options to analyse cost efficiencies. To analyse cost efficiencies we need to look at the upfront cost and the length of time each type of battery can effectively run your cellular trail camera.
The upfront cost of Alkaline AA batteries make them an eye catcher as they are easily the cheapest AA battery. However, they have too many shortcomings to be a viable internal power options.
Alkaline batteries have terrible extreme weather performance due to their chemical makeup. The change in resistance can also lead to leaking batteries which will ultimately cause damage to your cellular trail camera.
Alkaline batteries also horrendous discharge rates leaving less than 50% of the advertised capacity useable. Most alkaline batteries have a starting voltage of 1.5v and 1.5Ah of capacity. Each time your cell camera takes and uploads a photo, alkaline batteries drop in voltage. Often times when alkaline batteries drop below 1.2v there is no longer adequate voltage to properly power your camera. As you see below, this happens relatively fast!
As you can see, even though the upfront cost of alkaline batteries seems to be effective, they actually become more expensive due to the unusable capacity and voltage loss!
There are a wide range of chemical makeup when it comes to rechargeables, all of which offer better performance over AA alkalines. If you plan to go the rechargeable route for internal batteries in your cell camera, you need to look at the chemical makeup and note it's parameters around extreme weather.
While the upfront cost of any rechargeable AA batteries is typically more, the numerous life cycles take down the per use cost dramatically! The down side here is managing a fleet of batteries, knowing which are charged and which are discharged.
With AA rechargeables the challenge becomes the starting voltage, it's typically lower than 1.4v. While the discharge rates are also better than AA alkalines, the lower voltage also limits the useable capacity. Pending the brand and chemical makeup of your rechargeable of choice capacity will vary, so you really need to pay attention to watch you're putting in your cellular trail camera.
Single Use Lithium AA
It's no secret we are/were big fans of single use lithium batteries. Over and over again they prove to be the most reliable AA battery for any high drain device.
Lithium AA batteries provide the best extreme weather performance while delivering a constant voltage output for 3Ah of capacity.
The draw back to lithium AA batteries is two fold. The upfront cost is increasingly getting more expensive due to not only the lack of manufacturing competition but also available inventory. On top of the rising costs, the manufacturing process and disposal is terrible for the environment. Thus the reasons of rising demand for external power sources.
Remember the real goal of cellular trail cameras. Be more efficient with your time and limit human intrusion. To achieve these two goals you need to be able to set your cell camera at the beginning of the season and utilize the ability to manage remotely. The set it and forget mentality only you aren't actually forgetting it. To accomplish this you must have a big enough power source to run your cell camera through the entire length of the season. There are two priorities when it comes to this, capacity and renewable energy.
When it comes to a power supply's capacity, it is noted in Ampere Hours. Sometimes you'll see this abbreviated as Ah or amp hours. Ah is the amount of energy charge in a battery that enables 1 ampere of current to flow for one hour. Another way of saying it is that 1 Ah is the rating indicating how much amperage a battery can provide for one hour. If you really want to get dive into the weeds you can also look at capacity under pulse loads which more accurately mimic a cell camera.
This specification becomes ultra important for those cell camera users using a non renewable external power source. Something like a SLA (sealed lead acid) battery without a solar charger. A lot of DIY tinkers build these types of power sources themselves. When built properly they can work great and provide proper voltage to a cell camera for an entire season. The caveat here is due to the fact that the battery's capacity will be limited to what you purchase, you need to ensure it's enough to last the desired length of use. While every use case is a little different, the general rule of thumb is it's always better to go bigger. For example a 12v 8Ah SLA runs just over $20 you can grab a 12v 12Ah SLA for $30.
While there are other types of external batteries out there, we've used SLA as the example due to the cost savings over a LifePo4 and the environmental safety over AGM batteries.
By renewable we are talking solar. Running cellular trail cameras in conjunction with solar charged external power sources is really where users can start to save money and become more efficient. To accomplish the two giant benefits of cellular trail cameras, save time and limit human intrusion, cell cam users need to be able to set their cameras up at the beginning of the season and manage them remotely. The set it and forget it mentality.
While the specifics of this topic can drag you into the weeds really quick, we're only focusing on the top line object, uncapping your external power sources capacity. So if you're looking for specific info on solar cells, materials, charging efficiency, etc you will need to reference a different resource.
While SLA batteries are great, they are still have limited capacity. If you want more capacity you have to spend more money, ultimately driving the cost of running cellular trail cameras up. Add the correct solar panel to your SLA setup and you've just unrestricted your capacity and have a solid external power source to last many years to come.
While SLA and solar panel setups are great, they too have some cons. Both visually and operationally these types of setups are yard sales. You have a battery box on the ground, solar panel in the tree, and wires running everywhere. All leading to additional failure points. The solution to this is streamlined external power sources that include rechargeable internal batteries with a solar panel all in one housing. The marketplace has seen an explosion of these types offerings in the last 12 months. Not only do these "all in one" renewable external power sources provide extended capacity, you save time by eliminating the tinker and build factor and they typically have increased dependability over DIY builds.
If you've made it this far, you are certain have the desire to become better with your trail cameras while also making more cost effective. Be sure to check out the Exodus line up of products and some of our additional content around cell cameras, trail camera batteries, tips and tactics.
Author: Chad Sylvester, Exodus Co-Founder/Owner