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DIY portable power system for Paul C. Buff monolights: Vagabond III?

I rarely shoot on locations, always feel more comfortable working in the studio. In most cases there is a power outlets on location, I had only a few where it was too far from the lights (warehouse freezer, for example). With no external power I’ve used 4 Canon speedlites, but they too weak to be used with serious light modifiers or on a large objects.
It makes me feel very uncomfortable when I do not have enough power:-)

So, I was looking at Vagabond II or similar portable power solutions, but did not find the one I like: it should be powerful enough to run 3-5 strobes equal to X1600 (1600 effective/ 660 true WS) for at least 300 pops and to be not expensive, as I won’t be using the system often, therefore do not want to invest lot of money in it.

diy portable power battery pack vagabond II paul c. buff
DIY portable power battery pack for Paul C. Buff monolights

After researching and reading Vagabond II specification and reviews I found that I can easily build an equivalent of vagabond II with more powerful battery and inverter (not the inverter: I was thinking vagabond II has 150 W one, but it appears that it has 400W inverter) for a less money and more fun.
I am not the first who did it, I found this simple guide to be the most helpful.

Yes, I won’t have any customer support or warranty for the whole thing, but the enjoyment from making the thing myself will cover all the drawbacks:-)

Here we go, the ingredients:

  1. The power inverter: I know it should be a pure sine wave inverter, so I’ve tried Sunforce 650 watt, right from Fry’s.This was the wrong step, as it did not work with more then 1 x1600 strobe:
    At the beginning of each recycle, each X1600 WL unit will draw a peak current of about 18A for about 200 milliseconds. With 3 units connected, a draw was much more then 650 watts, and inverter shuts down to protect circuits from overload.This is the key, our inverter should handle it differently: reduce the voltage under the heavy load, this will give enough time for capacitors to be charged.Unfortunately, this is no such information can be found on the inverter specification, only our community mind can help us here:-) Correct inverters are made by Samlex America. The 150 watt model is exactly  (at least some people believe so) the same unit used in Paul C. Buff Vagabond II system (Update: I was wrong here, 150 W on vagabond I, and 400 W on Vagabond II).I bought PST-30S-12A (300 W) model here for $140 shipped.
  2. The battery: Vagabond II has 20 Amp Hour(s), so I went for 35 Amp Hour(s).  It should have enough juice to run for 75% more pops than vagabond, but still to be not too heavy or too big for more or less comfortable use.
    I’ve got Powersonic PS-12350NB (almost like a Panasonic, but cost 35% less) battery: 27 pounds sounds just right for me:-)
  3. The battery charger: Following Jacob’s advise, I’ve got SUPER SMART BATTERY TENDER JR. for $20 shipped. 700 milliampere should get a full charged battery in one night, and it also has car adapter if you need to do it during the trip.
  4. The bag (AWP 8″ Electrician’s Tote – the link is for 10”x8”, but I’ve got 8”x8” bag) and miscellaneous accessories such as a wires, switch, etc I’ve got from a local Lowes store.

Wooden plates, black mate paint, a soldering iron (I’ve used a torch light), two hands and two hours of  my time between my lovely family and my precious tools were enough to complete everything.

Few more images:

diy portable power battery pack vagabond II how-to
Opened DIY power pack for strobes

diy portable power battery pack vagabond II with charger
diy portable power battery pack vagabond II with charger

A little bit more explanation and some tests (2 x WL X1600 and one AlienBees B400 connected) is on the video below.  (I guess this is time for me to invest in my English, it is a shame how I pronounced “sine”… :-)

The video of DIY portable power pack for monolights:


Let me know what do you think… If you have made something similar, I would be glad to post here your experience: just give me the link!

Update (11/14/2010):

I was asked few times for a circuit diagram of the device, so here we go. I’ve added a fuse and a voltmeter to it: I do not have them yet, but its on my to-do list.

DIY battery power supply vagabond II - like electrical diagram
DIY battery power supply vagabond II – like electrical diagram

Today (12/14/10) I’ve received an update from Samlex, I think they have some interesting info for those who used/thinking to use Samlex inverters in the DIY powerpacks.
Here it is:

We looked at a fix from one of our R&D engineers. It was a simple fix of adding of a thermistor to the AC output. It certainly dramatically lowered the current load presented to the inverter from the strobe, in this case a single 250 Wsec unit).

From this:

To this:

While this looks great for this application (powering a strobe) it is not ideal for all applications which this inverter gets used for, and end users will be using higher power and multiple strobes which will continue to stress the output components with the end result of lowering the life of the unit.

We are going to try a few of these modified ones out with customers short term before we make any final decision, medium term we are providing users the attached with recommendations in section 7.11:

“The rated RMS Surge Power rating of the of the inverter in Watts should be more than 4 times the Watt Sec energy rating of the strobe / flash unit. For example, if the energy rating of the strobe / flash is 320 Watt Sec, the surge power rating of the inverter should be more than 320 Watt Sec X 4 = 1280 W. An inverter with surge rating of around 1280 W or above will thus be suitable for this strobe / flash – e.g. Samlex America, Inc. inverter Model No. PST-60S-12A that has a continuous rating of 600 W and a surge rating of 1200 W.

Full spec of ongoing changes on Samlex inverters: Download docx

So, it looks like the new revision of samlex inverters will work better for powering strobes…
I guess I may send mine for a replacement, but after few extensive runs I am going to do while having fun on Key West.. going there in 4 days:-)

9/08/2011 Update:

The unit (Samplex inverter) has died working with 2x640Ws lights at full power. Died after 5 pops. talked to Samlex engineer and was surprised to find that this 9inverter not suppose to work in such application. Go figure now:-)

Going to buy Vagabond Mini™ Lithium instead.


Interesting in other DIY solutions?  Check out Free course for DIY lighting, cameras and other stuff on Photigy: 

61 responses on "DIY portable power system for Paul C. Buff monolights: Vagabond III?"

  1. hello thank you for this work, I bought an inverter 1000w vestek brand but I to run with my perfect scuare 400w lamps, horn flashed only half power but to put it that gives full power flash bulb permannente, coo I can choose the best investor as also prove a 750w inverter to harbortoolsy and this did not get up, waiting for your counselor .. thank you very much ..

  2. Does work with a moonlight Flashpoint II 320M????

  3. Use the resistance between the flash unit and the inverter

  4. I have a continues light soft boxes each of those soft boxes has 5x45watts fluorescent bulbs how many of those soft boxes I can use? last question, What is the highest power (watts) strobes or peedlights or monolights can the portable battery system can hold with no problems? Thank you

    God Bless you


  5. Great video and blog but I see you have abandoned this project and bought the vagabond minis instead.

    My question is, can the vagabond mini power a DNP DS80 photo printer for at least 4hrs of continuous prints?

  6. Fiddlesticks! I really need the weight to balance out the custom dolly I mount my AB1600 and softbox on.

  7. Can you tell me what the weight of the DIY kit is compared to the VBII? Would you still do everything the same as you have listed above?

    • Lori,
      90% of the weight is a battery, and because i had much bigger battery it was probably twice heavier then vagabong II. Li-ion vagabong mini -s like a baby (by weight0 to my DIY.
      No, I would’nt do it again: it was more like a fu project, plus, inverter has died recently. So, eventually it was not successful experience.

      I would buy few vagabond minis instead.

  8. i was thinking if you plug the charger for the battey back to the inverter that is outputting the power will it be able to keep the battery powered up or fully charge at all times or not…………

  9. Hi Alex

    I am try to build this portable power system but I have a question. I am using studio flash of
    2X 600watt flash and a 400watt flash. Did this would fire on this power system. I would just to know this before I purchase the inverter on 300watts pure sine. Thanks for your advice.


    • Fan,
      Everything depends from the inverter you are going to use and the flashes you have.
      Example: I can fire up to four 640WS Einsteins from my Samlex 300W inverter.. Another 600W pure sine inverter I bough a while ago couldn’t keep up with 2 x640 WS strobes, shutting down from overload.
      If i connect my old PCB UltraZap 320WS to my current setup it will fail to load..
      The key is ability of the inverter to keep up with high current by lowering voltage and ability of a flash unit to get charged using much lover than working voltage..

  10. Alex,

    Great build guide. I have used the pst-60s-12e as i was unable to get the pst-30s-12e, i used it on a 18ah battery to power a Dlite 4 but i’m having trouble. Although it charges the strobe, it does this quite slowly and gives a pulsing beep during the recycle, it also makes the dlite power on indicator light flicker. I used large jump leads to connect to battery and also tried using it in my car whilst running the engine with the same issue. Should i just send the inverter back?!

    I’ve had much more success with an apc700 ups, this gives about 130 full power pops with the 15ah battery in it, only trouble with this is that if left it drops charge rapidly!


  11. Hey, just a question about the wiring… I wish you could actually build one from scratch and video it! LOL! Since I doubt that’s going to happen could you make a short blog addendum and explain or show the wiring and the wiring parts needed. In paticular the fuse-ing as well as the battery charging system.

  12. ok so, i tested the new samlex 600watt at two seperate shoots and everything went great, no problems or issues at all. i fired the b1600 over 300 times, some were at full power. i ran some voltage test and the lowest voltage drop that i recieved was 11.35 volts. also, the recylce time at full power was 1.7 seconds. one of the things that i higly advise is that you use the correct wire gauge. you can go to lowes and buy multi strand welders wire or, a good alternative is the TRACKER 1250 WATT POWER INVERTER CABLE KIT. both those options are very affordable. i went to home depot and bought a “Stanley Mobile Tool Chest” for only 50 dollars. its a big tool case but it fits most of my lights and cables, ect.

  13. hi, many thanks am I without my translator in a fix haha :-)
    I have this inverter voltcraft npi 300-12 for 64 €
    300 watts peak output power 600 watt

    How can I tell if the inverter for a quick careful loading time?

    thanks, eugen

  14. Alex,
    Thank you so much for your power system posts & video. I now have what was supposed to be an exact copy of yours, but ran into the new Samlex 300w inverter issue and had to go with the 600w. I still am using the same case, but unfortunately due to the 600w inverter being 2 – 3 timed the size of the 300w it had to be mounted on the outside of the bag. At first tests of mine I was a little dissapointed in the performance I was getting. After upgrading to #4 gauge wire and ANL fuses I am very happy, at least with my basement tests and cant wait to use it in the field. I do hope you make another in the near future using the 600w inverter so I can see what kind of case you end up using. I will try to post some shots when I get a chance.

  15. sorry :-)
    I have a question …
    I’ve also now something built and the problem is but who needs flash about 23 seconds to load …
    I have a 40Ah battery and 300 watt power inverter.
    is lightning watt 300 …
    what it could be the reason it takes so long?
    I hope you have understood English :-)
    Greetings from Germany

    • Eugen,
      Your English is better then mine:-)
      The load time depends from a flash power. I have 1920WS (this is a LOT) loaded with 35Ah battery and 300ws inverter in 7 seconds.
      300 ws light will be loaded in 1 second. I think something is wrong with you build..

      What inverter do you have?

  16. Здравствуйте, меня зовут Евгений Вайгель и вопрос :-) Я только что был опубликован после выписки, но мои молнии необходимо около 13 секунд при полной мощности :-( Что это может быть? Спасибо

  17. yah like it very much!
    Very practical and simple…

  18. Alex, Great video and information!
    Rene, please post an update with results using the 600 watt inverter. I really want to make one of these!

  19. I recently built a battery pack that consist of a samlex 300 and a 21.0 amp powersonic battery. i ran an alien bee 1600 mono light and used it for the first time on a location shoot two weeks ago. the power inverter lasted for about 2 hours. the light on the inverter turned orange and the error beep turned on. at first i thought that the battery had been drained out, but after heading home and recharging the battery and reconnecting to the inverter, the power inverter continued to give out the error beep and the orange light. i called the seller from where i got the inverter and explained what was wrong with the unit. he said that the new samlex 300 inverters can no longer power the alien bee mono lights due to component changes in the unit. he suggested i upgrade to the samlex 600 watt power inverter and assured me that it would work fine. i received the new 600 watt power inverter and i’m about to take it on a location shoot tomorrow. i’m hoping that everything works fine and that there are no issues, but we’ll tomorrow how it goes.

    • Rene,
      Thank you for sharing this info! I am using my “old” Samlex 300W with 3x640Ws (true ws, 3×1600 in your case) and it works just fine.
      Strange new units has this issue: It may be a damaged ones, I suggest you to contact Samlex directly and ask about the issue. They said the new design should handle such load even better then the old one.

    • @Rene, Please post an update using the 600 watt inverter. Thanks!

  20. Alex, I have built an identical model you yours…and it is great. I’m not quite sure, but what is the purpose of the switch? Thanks,


  21. Could one use a gel automotive battery instead

  22. Greetings, I bought a Samlex 300W, a battery of 35 worked 20 minutes and then started flashing orange light and a beeeeeeeeeep, turn off the inverter, the power came back on keeps flashing orange. Send the inverter back sent me another and returned to do the same.

    • How much WS do you have connected to a inverter? How many pops approximately did you get before it started to beep? Do you have a fresh battery? (test your inverter on your car’s battery if you wan tto see if this was not a battery issue)
      All this info will help to see the problem.

  23. Hi,

    I just tried setting one of these up, I have used a 33ah 12v battery and this invertor http://www.dc-ac.com/pr_p_sn300.htm thing is if the ab is at 1/32 power it will charge for one shot, then fire and then the invertor alarm starts, if you switch it on and off, it reloads the ab and you can slowly crank it up to 1/1 if done slowly and again as you fire it the alarm sounds, I guess this is to do with the peak current however the specs seem to match the samlex invertor and also I am only running one light on the power supply….. any thoughts? I have the option to switch it to the 600W version which is here http://www.dc-ac.com/pr_p_sn600.htm but thats about all that is available on my market (UK)

    any help would be greatly recieved


    • Rob,
      I had exactly the same issue (I think I’ve mentioned in the article) with 600W pure sine inverter from other brand I bought prior my 300W samplex: it can handle only one 160WS light.
      The difference is how different inverters behave under peak heavy load: samlex is always reduce the output voltage in order to be in the “working load range”, while others simply shut power off, indicating overload.
      This is something you won’t find in a spec.

      So, my suggestion is to change inverter.. if you do not have samlex, try to contact manufacture before you buy and as about inverter’s peak load behavior.

      wish you good luck!

  24. Alex,
    I recently built the power pack but I bought a different inverter (aims 300w). It works but has about a 45sec recycle time. Do you think the recycle time would be faster if I switched to the samlex 300w?

    • Dave,
      I am a little confused: recycle time can be only applied to a flash unit, not a converter, right? How many units you have connected to inverter? How many total Ws do they fire? Knowing this may help to understand why you have such long recycle time.
      In any case, two different 300w inverters should be pretty close with the recycle time for the same total Ws of power they charge, IMO.

      • @Alex Koloskov,
        I was using 1 ab1600 (640ws) at full power it took 45sec to recycle and at 1/32 power it was taking about 35sec. Not sure if this helps but I hooked a voltage meter up to it the battery maintained the 12v dc output but the inverter after every flash dropped down yo about 17v and would slowly go back up to 120v

  25. Are you sure that you have the 8″ Electrician’s Tote? I can not find any reference to this model anywhere on the web (except on your site). I can only find the 10″ model. However, a company called McGuire-Nicholas sells an 8″ bag which looks exactly the same as your AWP tote (just a different color). It can be found on Amazon.com


    • Jeff,
      I’ll check exact size today with the ruler and will let you know. I was always thinking that this is 8” tote, but you are not the first one who can’t find it on Lowes or Home Depot.. so, let me check, I’ll post answer today.

    • Jeff,
      Just measured my tote; it 8”x8.5” on it’s “neck” , a little wider (about 9””) on the body.
      I’ve looked again at the link to that 10” tote I have on my original post may be exactly what I have.. really, as on a store’s photo it look exactly the same. I can’t believe I have a different one.

      Wish you good luck with the project!

  26. Hi,

    This is a terrific video and diagram. Does your unit/method need to be grounded at all? Thanks for your reply…Ben

  27. Alex,
    This power supply is awesome. I need to build one quickly. I’m also wondering about the cables and how to connect them. I have a few friends and my sister who are electricians, but the more information I provide them, the better they will be able to help me build this. Any information you can provide regarding the cables would be very appreciated.

    Thank you.

  28. Hi,
    Great information. Thank you for sharing!
    I was planning on getting vagabond, but they are on back order and instead of renting batteries, I am thinking of building this one in the meantime.
    I think I am fine with all the larger “ingredients”: battery, inverter, bag and charger. With regards to the cables, which ones do I need to get additionally to the ones that ship with the inverter and battery (I will be ordering exactly the same models as you posted). Do you have a schema (even hand drawn) of how to connect the cables between the inverter/battery/charger/switch? This would really help out! Thank you!

  29. Alex –
    Great setup- thanks for the awesome video too.
    So I got the inverter you recommended from donrowe.com and it seems to be a lemon. I’ve tried it on a couple of 12V power sources and it goes orange and the alarm goes off non-stop. It’s such an easy system to set up I can’t imagine I’m doing anything wrong? Any ideas – have you had this happen before? Maybe just a bad inverter, but man, they’re pricey to send back when one is bad – it’s one strike against mail order for sure.

    • Lech,
      Sorry to hear that you have such issues… Did you get Samlex? Also, it goes off orange without any load, just right after you turn it on, connected to 12V?
      I know if source is 10V or below, inverter will shut off. However, if you use your car battery which is fresh (meaning no problem starting engine), it should have 11.5-12V available at least.
      if so, your inverter is a lemon, like you said. It is always more risky to buy online, as you usually pay shipping if item needs to be returned..

      Hope they will be able to replace defective one for you.

      Good luck!

  30. Thank’s, OK will try experimenting now.
    I will let me know what happen.

  31. Hi,
    Really interested on your VAGABOND III, I just try to do mine for bigger wattage.
    I plan to order einstein and zeus in couple of month.
    I’d like to ask if I use pure sine wave 600w or bigger, will the flash recycle time shortened ?
    Is the count will be like: Zeus 1250Ws for 4,5 seconds with Vagabond 400w PSW inverter (12VDV 20Ah batt) will be 2,2 seconds with 800w inverter
    or even 1,2 second with 1500w inverter (assumed with the same batt) ?

    And about samlex brand, I browsed eBay and many pure sine wave inverter come to list, is it OK with other brand ?
    I’m interested in bigger wattage pure sine wave inverter, 1000w to 2000w (2000 – 4000 watt max) which about US$ 199 only very heavy (8 to 12 lbs)

    Really appreciate for any information you may help.

    • Kurniawan,

      By increasing wattage of the inverter you won’t get proportional increase of the recycling time, unless you’ll use a set of batteries with set of inverters. As I’ve read, if you’ll use a huge inverter with regular battery it may draw to much current at first milliseconds after pop so battery voltage may drop under 10V. Which will trigger shut-off of the inverter.
      I do not know about big high-crank AMP batteries, they may work.

      As for the inverter brand: I had an experience with other brand pure sine inv, was not successful: 600W inverter couldn’t power more then one WL; it shuts off because of the high current draw.
      read the post, I have some info there: so far I know Samlex works well with high current, it lowers voltage instead of shutting off.
      I do not know what those 2000-4000 wt inverters on ebay, but they seem to be really cheap for that power. The real one with the same power will cost $600-$1000. I doubt that those cheap one will work with monolights at all… You cna try, and tell is; it would be cool if they work.

      Good luck!


      • @Alex Koloskov,

        OK thank you for information,
        Is the “big high-crank AMP batteries”, you mean the batt that is more than 35Ah ?

        “By increasing wattage of the inverter you won’t get proportional increase of the recycling time, unless you’ll use a set of batteries with set of inverters…………..”
        is it means that I have to use bigger battery ?

        If I buy Samlex 600W psw inverter, or bigger, what do you suggest for the batt ?
        How about Samlex’s 1000W ?

        Really appreciate for information, best


        • Kurniawan,
          Big crank :yes, I meant something like a truck battery..
          Let em tell you why:
          I remember reading post of the guy who used 600W inverter (samlex) and did not get much increase in recycling time. When he used 2x300W inverters connected to a same battery, he got the whole system shuts off because battery dropped under 10V..
          The rest is my speculation: bigger battery and bigger inverter will work, but won;t give you a proportional recycle time increase.
          Think about this: one Paul c Buff unit draws about 18 Amp at it’s peak load (according to manufacture spec), which is 120Vx18A=2160W. A single unit can run about 2000W at first few milliseconds after each pop.. when you run 3-4 units like this, the power consumption will be enormous.
          This is why not every converter will work. Samlex will reduce it’s voltage from required 120V to.. 12V? I do not know, but I guess it will reduce it to fit in it’s maximum power rating at peak load.
          Speaking of battery, it should support that 1000W inverter at peak load, right? So, my guess was that big batteries ( like for SUV or truck, with 500-600 Amp of crank power) will be able to feed a big inverter without dropping under 10V.

          However, all of this is my guesses based on what I know about all this stuff. If you can get a good return policy, try different inverters, see how they will work with your setup:-)

          Good luck!

  32. Hi Alex,

    I’m always interested in seeing how other people solve the power in the middle of nowhere problem, especially since I use Speedo Blackline packs. The solution that worked best for me was a Innovatronix Explorer XT battery pack because I can get a good 150 pops out of a 2403 pack before I have to recharge.

  33. I saw the first image above and said to myself, “that’s a nice looking product shot”. Then I scrolled down and saw the first frame of the video and recognised you and then said “but of course” (regarding the image quality).

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