Welcome to this week’s Urban Survival Newsletter, sponsored by the SurviveInPlace.com Urban Survival Guide and UrbanSurvivalPlayingCards.com.
Since we’re coming up on blizzard season, I wanted to share some tools that we have on hand for short, medium, and long term power outages. I’ll be the first one to admit that our system would never be considered perfect. That being said, it IS in place and a good plan that is in place and proven will always beat the snot out of a perfect plan that’s never executed. We are actually able to get use out of it on a regular basis, whether we ever HAVE to use it or not.
We have built up our system over time and will probably keep doing so until we are able to be at least ½ way off the grid without advertising the fact to our neighbors. Solar panels are great and wind generators are even better, but they have pretty unique visual and audible signatures that advertise to the world that you’re not someone who simply follows the herd.
I’ll be writing about stealth solar and wind power techniques in the future…basically how to enjoy the benefits of solar and wind power without advertising the fact that you’re using it.
But today, we’re going to go over modular solutions that work alone and together to help you both now and in the event of a breakdown of the electrical grid. I’m going to focus on off-the-shelf solutions that you can either go out and buy today or click a couple of buttons and have on your doorstep within the next few days. Again…my stress is ALWAYS on good, solid action right now rather than a perfect plan that never gets implemented. I’ll put links to where you can buy several of the products online at the end of the article.
Here are some of the main factors that I look at when I’m buying electrical backup items:
Practical: It’s important to accept the fact that a solution for “survival” isn’t necessarily going to allow you to do everything that you currently do. As an example, while you can probably have your AC, refrigerator, washer, and dryer all kick on simultaneously today; You probably won’t want to spend the money necessary to buy all of the equipment necessary to be able to do that in a survival situation. If you’re interested in going completely off of the grid, that’s one thing, but for emergency preparedness, it’s unnecessary.
Cost: I don’t only look at the purchase price, but the cost per use and life expectancy. As an example, Generac generators are a great buy, but the break on the starter (pull handle) is made of plastic. I’ve read of several cases and verified the reports with store managers that it’s very common for the starter to break after 5-10 uses. This makes them VERY expensive on a per-use basis.
Usability & portability: I’d love to have a 10,000 watt generator and a huge supply of gasoline to run it, but I would never have a need for it unless there was a disaster. With a handheld 2,000 watt generator, I can throw it in the car and use it for family and church events. Same with solar panels. Fixed solar panels are great, but they take up a lot of space and don’t store very well. I’ve had a lot more opportunity to use foldable solar panels than I have had to use fixed panels. There are three big benefits to this:
- You’ll get more bang for your buck if you actually USE the stuff you buy.
- You’ll be familiar with your equipment if you actually use it.
- You’ll have earned peace of mind and confidence in your equipment if you actually use it.
Durability: Many fixed solar panels lose 70-90% of their output if they take ANY damage. The circuitry on Cobra inverters looks like a basket full of snakes. And see my comment above on plastic brakes on generator starters.
Output: We oversize everything so that we have excess capacity to use and so that we’re fine if we have to go silent or don’t have sun for a few days.
Operational Security: I like small, quiet, unobtrusive tools. I want to be able to store stuff without it standing out and I want to be able to use it without painting a bulls-eye on our family.
One of the easiest and cheapest things that you can get that will buy you some time and flexibility if the electricity goes off is a 12 volt inverter. For less than $50, you can get a 300 watt inverter that you can hook up to your car and run your refrigerator in the summer and the blower on your furnace in the winter.
This is NOT very efficient, and it’s not a 24/7 solution, but it will buy you some time for short emergencies…if your car is close to your house. Along with the inverter, I’d suggest getting as big of an extension cord (small guage number) as you can find and afford. This is especially important if you’re crossing a large distance or have a large load.
Here’s why this is such a good solution. First, you can use the inverter in your car right now while you’re driving to power or charge up anything that uses a wall outlet. We’ve used ours to recharge our son’s portable DVD player, my laptop, and our phones.
Second, an inverter will allow you to convert 12 volt battery power into regular household current that you can use to run appliances.
Batteries are a HUGE topic. I go into this in the SurviveInPlace.com course, but here are a couple of options, what we’ve decided to go with, and why.
For everyday use, we have a few battery backup devices, or uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) with voltage regulation. We have dirty power where we live, so we have to use them for our stereo, computers, etc. When we bought them, we bought large capacity ones, like the CyberPower 810 watt unit. This unit has 2 9AH batteries in it. (AH=amp hour. This means that it will put out 9 amps of power per battery for one hour or .9 amps for 10 hours.) This is enough to run a desktop & monitor for about an hour. The downside on these is that they have a 3-6 year battery life…but once they die, you can break them apart and replace the battery with a 10 year lithium battery and still have the built in inverter, voltage regulator, and charging controller.
These are marketed in several ways, such as “battery generators,” “emergency power generators,” and even bundled as “solar backups.” Duracell makes one that has a 600 watt output and 28 AH capacity which I can recommend and another one that has a 1800 watt output and 60 AH capacity that I can’t recommend.
The 1800 watt unit is appealing because of the capacity, but has reliability issues. Duracell used to carry them, but they’re hard to find now…presumably because of the quality issues. You can buy private label versions on Amazon under the name “Xantrex” or from other preparedness vendors online. These seem to either work great or not at all, depending on your luck of the draw. I will not be buying any of these 1800 watt units until I find a manufacturer that can deliver more consistent circuitry.
***Update 19-Nov-2010 @ 1129: I’ve received SEVERAL emails and some comments asking about Solutions From Science’s 1800 watt solar backup system.
I tried to allude to the Solutions From Science solar generators in the article without mentioning them directly. I don’t know Bill (the owner) directly, but I DO like what I know about him and I really appreciate what he’s done to help educate people about preparedness and get them prepared. I’ve even advertised with them before, but they decided that I’m a direct competitor and will no longer let me advertise with them, although I would welcome the opportunity to again.
I see us as teamates in a common cause to help people get prepared, so I didn’t want to say anything unflattering.
As to their BBB rating…anytime you get as many customers as SFS gets, you’re going to get complaints. Most businesses don’t feel like it’s worth it to placate the BBB and feel like they extort money from businesses and let complaints stand and simply contact the customer directly to get things resolved. Some of their physical products are more expensive than if you buy them from other vendors, but I can’t fault them for having the skill to sell products at a profit…after all, that profit gets put back into marketing which allows them to help even more people get prepared.
A year and a half ago, when I first started offering the SurviveInPlace.com course, I showed people how to make a system for a few hundred bucks like what Solutions From Science sells for $1700. The 90 watt panel costs $200-$300 (retail) and the battery pack & inverter costs $400-$500. The panel is severely undersized for actual use and simply will not provide enough charging power to run appliances. I’ll link to them below if you want to see exactly what I’m talking about. ***
There are a couple of other portable lithium battery/inverter units that I’m going to be buying and testing very soon and I’ll let you know how they pan out.
Deep Cycle Batteries
The workhorse of our system is a set of 4 6 volt deep cycle “house batteries” that are made for RVs and golf carts. Our batteries are each 200 AH for a total of 800 AH of power. We set two of them up parallel to each other and the two sets of parallel batteries get set up in series so that we have an output of 12v and can use a simple 12v inverter to power household appliances.
As an example, our refrigerator is Energy Star compliant and is rated for 1000 kwh per year or 25 AH/day. That means that under ideal circumstances, we could run our refrigerator for 16 days without recharging our batteries.
Our gas furnace blower would run about a day and a half without stopping, or 9 days running 10 minutes out of every hour. It would be odd that we’d need both the refrigerator and the furnace.
If you go this route, make sure to get true deep cycle batteries and not marine batteries or hybrid batteries. AND, in general, the heavier and more expensive the deep cycle battery, the better. Some good brands to watch for are Rolls, Trojan, Crown, & Dekka.
Rolls is the “gold standard” and will take several hundred discharge cycles and last from 7-15 years. Trojan batteries are very solid and will last from 300-750 cycles. If you find a cheaper deep cycle battery, make sure that it is rated for an equivalent number of charging cycles.
As I mentioned earlier, we have a 2000 watt generator. As far as generators go, this is small…and I’m fine with that. Specifically, we have the Yamaha EF2000is and I’ll link to it at the end of the article. It’s NOT the cheapest generator out there, but there are a few reasons why I bought it.
First, I prefer 4 stroke engines to 2 stroke engines. The Yamaha has a 4 stroke engine.
Second, was durability. The Yamaha has a steel break on the starter rather than a plastic one like what the Generac has. The Generac costs 40% less, but breaks often and retailers told me that they get returned broken A LOT.
Third was sound level. The Yamaha is advertised as operating at 51.5 dBA in “eco” mode. Mine is quiet, but I have no idea how they got that measurement. When I measured mine, the ambient noise level was hovering around 40 dBA. I took readings all the way around the generator approximately 18-24 inches away and got readings of 81 dBA in front of the exhaust pipe and 75 dBA on the other 3 sides. In eco mode, I got peak readings of 71 dBA.
What’s this mean? When I set it up in our garage and shut the door, I couldn’t hear the generator when I got 50 feet away from the door. Of course, it’s very dangerous to run an internal combustion engine in a closed garage, so don’t do so without adequate ventilation.
Interestingly enough, even though the eco mode was quieter, I could hear it from further away because the pitch of the engine in eco mode was more distinctive. This simply illustrates that dBA levels on generators, like firearms silencers, only tell part of the story.
There are ways around this by adding on an additional muffler, building an underground vented (forced air) enclosure, a vented (forced air) sound insulated generator box, or putting the generator in the middle of “stuff” in your garage to absorb and break up the sound waves. All of these will be helped by running the generator on wood or stiff rubber mats rather than directly on concrete.
In any case, if we need to run our generator when the electricity is out, we’ll be using it during the loudest times of day to charge batteries and running as much as possible off of batteries and only batteries at night.
If you run the unit at ¼ the rated load (400 watts,) it burns through 1.1 gallons every 10 hours, giving you 30 AH of power. Since our refrigerator only uses 25 AH per day, we don’t have to run it very much (charging batteries) to run our refrigerator all day.
The fourth reason why we bought the Yamaha was because it has a built in 12v output for charging 12v devices.
The fifth reason was because the Yamaha has circuitry to regulate output to protect electronic devices.
Sixth, you can connect 2 of these units together and they act as one unit with twice the power.
And finally, it’s 40 pounds and has a handle. I can “hide” it in our garage or throw it in the car. It’s big enough to do what we need without screaming “I’m a prepper” to anyone who happens to see it.
Of course, you can add hand/pedal crank generators and solar panels to the mix, but you need to be aware of what they can and can’t do. You can’t realistically power appliances off of them. Most solar panels will only put out a couple of amps. A hand generator will put out 2.5-3 amps, and a pedal generator will put out 10-20 amps. There are a limited number of peak solar hours per day and cranking or pedaling on a generator for several hours every day is not practical for most people/families/groups unless you’re in a long term off grid scenario.
The other issue with solar and wind power, that I referred to earlier, is staying invisible. Both solar and wind generators, if they’re big enough to power household appliances, will create a big visual/audible footprint.
What’s the best solution? It’s a complicated question that doesn’t have a simple answer…especially if you’re trying to figure out something that you can use to help your family if disaster strikes before you are living in your ideal retreat location.
Pragmatically, a gas generator is simply a stop-gap measure that you can use for short term emergencies or until you run out of gas. As people in New Orleans found out, they’re worth their weight in gold in the meantime.
Once the gas runs out, you’ll want to have your daily energy consumption so that it’s approximately half of what you generate on a daily basis. For most people, that means that you stop using refrigerators, furnaces, and other major appliances that rely on electricity.
So, what can you do today so that you’ll be more prepared if something happens in the next few months?
Obviously, one of the best things you can do is go through the SurviveInPlace.com Urban Survival Course. You can get more information by going to SurviveInPlace.com.
But for electricity, I think that the approach that we took is a great balance for people who can’t afford the time or money to go completely off of the grid immediately. It’s also great for people who need to get more fundamental preparedness items taken care of, like food, heat, water, security, and medical.
In summary, here’s the order that we took:
- UPS supplies for computers/electronics
- Small solar chargers—I have almost everyone that has been made to clip on to a backpack and I don’t love any of them. It seems to be impossible to create a small solar charger with high output. Save your money on the small, less expensive ones and buy one that works. Here is the bare minimum: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001RMBHMK?ie=UTF8&tag=surviveinplac-20
- Deep cell batteries—BUY LOCALLY, unless you can find free shipping. Good brands to watch for are Rolls, Trojan, Crown, & Dekka. Don’t buy used.
- High quality 3 phase battery charger with desulphate mode
- Portable generator
- Pedal crank generators and larger portable solar panels
Pedal a watt: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003GJL6GO?ie=UTF8&tag=surviveinplac-20
Sunforce 25 watt panel: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000TIM3EO?ie=UTF8&tag=surviveinplac-20
Brunton 26 watt panel, that can be paired with other panels. I’ve tried most sizes of the Brunton panels and am a big fan:
Kill A Watt. Simply put, I LOVE these and think that everyone should have one. You plug it into the wall, plug your appliance into the kill-a-watt, and you get voltage, wattage, amperage, and other information INSTANTLY! This is the best way to know exactly how much power your appliances use. The manufacturers’ ratings MAY be correct on the showroom floor, but most appliances get less efficient with age, actual use, wear, & tear.
Solutions From Science “Solar Backup” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0041E7TX2?ie=UTF8&tag=surviveinplac-20
You’ll note that all of these links are to Amazon.com. I’m referring you to them because they offer free shipping if you’re in Amazon Prime and because of their generous return policy. They’ve been great to me through the years and I know they’ll be great to you. If you ever happen to get a lemon, they’ll make it right. In addition to having low prices and free shipping, items purchased through the links above that say tag=surviveinplac-20 generate a small commission that helps to support this free newsletter.
As you can see, this isn’t a cheap endeavor, which is why we have always chosen to buy power items that we can use on a regular basis rather than ones that will only have value after a disaster. We also don’t have a big house or a ton of storage, so size was also a major consideration. Finally, we’ve bought these items over the course of the last 5 years. Don’t feel like you have to eat this elephant in one sitting.
A discussion on power wouldn’t be complete without at least mentioning EMPs. All of this equipment should be shielded. To read more about this, do a search in the search box in the upper right hand corner for “Faraday” or “EMP.”
What have you done to prepare for long term power outages? Have you taken the course of cutting your electrical usage as much as possible? Have you sized your backup power to meet your current needs? Or have you done something in between? Many of you have written in with questions about how to run medical equipment after a disaster. I’d appreciate it if you’d share any solutions you’ve found or questions you have by commenting below.
Also, if you have any wisdom on why my sound level readings are so different from what Yamaha reports, I’d love to hear your input.
God Bless & Stay Safe,
P.S. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving! Keep an eye out for my newsletter next Friday. I’ve got some great preparedness gift ideas for you and your family .