(Continued from Part 3.)
8. Simple Electricity: Car Batteries and “Solar Generators”
Car-battery electric systems are basically a DIY “solar generator” and are easily put together at a fraction of the cost of commercial ones using three inexpensive components. As mentioned, solar generators don’t actually generate electricity and are really just large portable batteries with some extra features. They’re better referred to as “portable power stations.” They can be recharged three ways: solar panels ranging from 25-100 watts, 120-v house electricity, or 12-v vehicle electricity via the cigarette-lighter plug. They’re handy for many functions such as lighting, recharging laptops, and other items which use a USB cord. They can also run low-wattage appliances.
In a forthcoming article I discuss how to put a solar-charged one together for as little as $75 as well as the benefits of spending more money to use a 12-v lithium battery instead of a lead-acid car or deep-cycle battery.
My DOM Action List
1. Check the charge of all 12-v batteries:
Portable power stations
Deep-cycle battery in the well house
All core batteries
2. Inventory 12-v battery maintenance supplies: test kits, gloves, pipettes, etc.
3. Begin charging everything that is rechargeable using well-house solar chargers, SunnyBoy SPS, 100-watt solar panel, and while multi-tasking the generator.
portable power station
Begin charging the portable power station. If not already fully charged, top it off while the generator is topping off the water tank. When not in use, the model I have (EBL MP 500) will maintain a 100% charge for months. The manufacturer recommends topping it off every three months if not in use.
Charge phones, night-vision equipment, laptops, tools, and other rechargeables. Phones likely won’t be working after Day One but most of the other phone apps will continue to work.
Independent systems – With DIY car-battery systems it’s best to have as many independent dedicated electric systems as possible, especially critical ones like water and lighting. My backup plumbing system, solar water heater, and lighting systems are all independent. The plumbing and water-heater units each have multiple USB ports for recharging various items.
Contrary to what it might seem, lighting is a difficult prep for TEOTWAWKI and is possibly something most preppers haven’t adequately prepared for to survive the first year. One easy way to remedy this is using a car-battery system as discussed in Section 8.
My DOM Action List
1. Leave a lantern-style rechargeable LED lamp in the bathroom, bedside, kitchen counter, and by reading chair.
2. Don’t use lights where dim natural light is sufficient.
3. Implement 12-volt lighting systems for the kitchen and living room. These are stored in the well house with many other 12-v items and supplies.
4. Carry key-chain flashlight around my neck at all times until the new routines are habits
5. Keep rechargeable flashlights and headlamps charged and topped off at all times.
6. Save candles as a last resort or for special uses since they have limitless storage life.
My DOM To-Do List
1. Buy more rechargeable flashlights: table-top “lantern” styles, headlamp, hand-held, and key chain.
2. Buy more DIY LED components and experiment to find best combination of low energy usage vs. sufficient luminosity.
3. Start using battery charger for AA, AAA, etc. batteries to see how long to charge, life expectancy of rechargeable batteries
4. Assemble 12-volt battery lights for kitchen food-prep area to keep on hand.
Considerations when planning our lighting preps
There’s much more to prepping for lighting than buying candles and kerosene lamps.
Speaking from experience, when planning our preps we sometimes get stuck in a normalcy mindset and don’t take into consideration how certain things will differ after the SHTF. With lighting for example, we plan on replacing light bulbs with candles and kerosene lamps without adequately considering that they can’t come even close to replacing the level of lighting we currently enjoy in our pre-SHTF lifestyle. For most, bright cheery well-lit homes will be replaced by dimly-lit rooms with soot-blackened walls and ceilings and the ever-present smell of kerosene filling our nostrils.
I thought I was adequately prepared for lighting as I began my preps test but quickly discovered that lighting uses up a surprising amount of energy resources. I was soon passing evenings in a dimly-lit home learning it takes more than one candle just to be able to read a book, and that battery-powered headlamps and lantern-style lights won’t provide light for very long in a continuous-on mode.
I had to reanalyze what my habits and needs were and then plan from there. With those in mind, my lighting plan fell quickly into place.
I need three lights for short-time usages: at the bedside when getting dressed, in the bathroom, and in the kitchen when making coffee in the morning. Using my rechargeable lantern-style lamps in these situations is the practical solution and since they’re on only minutes per day, the batteries should last a few weeks before needing to be recharged. The main thing I need continuous light for is in the morning and evening when I’m in my reading chair reading, writing, drinking coffee, or working on the planning portion of the next project. To a lesser extent the only other situation requiring continuous lighting would be in the kitchen when cooking or working at the table. Generally, I can do these two things during the day when the sun is shining.
For my reading chair, I currently use a 12-volt riding-mower battery setup as described in the previous section. A 12 VDC vehicle dome light LED “bulb” is more than adequate and with plans to rig up and test a similar system for the kitchen. I discuss this lighting setup in the DIY Solar generator article and how to assess various LED lights to make the battery last as long as possible.
Changing habits will be the easiest way to conserve resources for lighting: cooking and other situations requiring a lot of light can be done during the day, and easiest of all, getting up with the sun and using all that free light. When designing and building our homes, skylights and lots of windows can make all the difference in the world. Other changes of habits will include people working, reading, and playing games at the same table to take advantage of a single light source instead of spreading out into various areas as we do now.
I discovered during my 10-day preps test that, surprisingly, an inexpensive key-chain flashlight on a cord around my neck was one of the items I used most. The neck cord prevented me from putting the light down and misplacing it. I now have a rechargeable one just over 3” long which plugs directly into a USB port with no annoying cords to mess with.
I learned during my preps test that LED flashlights and headlamps have a relatively short time they can be left on continuously. While trying to read at night my headlamps dimmed fairly quickly even on the dimmest setting. My tabletop LED lantern-style lights did the same. Candles weren’t a much better option: one 8” stick candle cast a surprisingly small amount of light and I had to get my book within 18” in order to read. Without rechargeable lights and a way to recharge them, Week One survivors will rapidly burn through candles, kerosene, and non-rechargeable batteries, batteries which have far more important uses than lighting.
Based on these experiences, using non-rechargeable AA and AAA type batteries for lighting will be a huge waste based on their short life span. These are best reserved for long-term low-energy uses such as smoke alarms, driveway and perimeter alarms, temperature alarms, etc. When compared with the importance of these devices, wall clocks will also be a waste of batteries even though they may last for a year. Wind-up clocks are a more energy-efficient use of energy.
I now have a rechargeable table-top lantern-type of light made by Ezorkas. It has a regular LED light, flashing red lights, and on the top, a flashlight. A handle on the side allows the lantern to be held like a flashlight with the beam pointing forward. What I really like about the flashlight is that instead of making a bright beam that uses a lot of power it casts a small light which is adequate for 95% of the needs I use a flashlight for. Aside from the built-in rechargeable battery, another compartment holds three AA batteries as a pre-SHTF backup for the rechargeable.
One last thought. Sometimes dim light is sufficient so we can avoid waste resources. A dim bathroom lit by natural light is adequate most of the time for bathing and toilet use.
10. Electricity: Rooftop Solar-Panels
My DOM task for Day One involves the five-minute task of switching my solar panels over from a grid-tied system to a stand-alone off-grid system using the same inverter.
My DOM Action List: Activate the SPS System
(My solar panels are currently grid-tied)
1. Turn disconnect switch off at street and lock in place.
2. Shut off the breaker connecting the generator to the main service. Unplug the cord from generator.
3. SPS suicide cord is above the shop breaker panel.
4. Follow instructions in the suicide-cord bag for backfeeding the SPS power to the house and shop.
Grid-tied vs Off-Grid Solar Panels
A complete home solar-panel system is by far and away the best way to provide electricity after the grid goes down forever. As long as we have our beans, bullets, band-aids, and water, the loss of electricity is going to be the biggest challenge facing us after the SHTF since nearly everything we do uses electricity. Anyone with a renewable source of electricity will be miles ahead of those who don’t.
The majority of people who’d like their own off-grid solar-panel system quickly change their minds when they see the realities: cost, maintenance, number of components, and inability to provide the 1,000 kilowatts of 120/240-volt the average US household uses per month. Plus the fact that it can’t pay for itself.
For those who can’t get past these obstacles perhaps a simple grid-tied system may appeal to you. There are only two components: the solar panels and a small box called the inverter. There are no batteries, the grid itself acts as your storage battery. Other than hosing the dust off the panels now and then there’s no maintenance required. They’re easy to DIY: anyone who can hook up an electric water heater can install a grid-tied solar-panels. Three wires go from the solar panels to the inverter, then four wires connect the inverter to the main home breaker panel.
The reason grid-tied solar panels are generally pooh-poohed by the prepping community is that if the grid goes down, so does your solar-panel inverter and you can’t get any electricity. That’s a pretty good reason!
With the Right Inverter Grid-Tied Solar Panels Continue to Work When the Grid is Down
The good news is, with the right inverter solar panels will continue to provide you with electricity. My system uses a Sunny Boy brand inverter with their unique Secure Power Supply (SPS). When the grid is down, I can activate a switch which lets me draw 1,500 watts of electricity from my 3,000 watts of solar panels. Their newer models can provide 2,000 watts. Very few brands of inverters have this feature so it’s important to keep that in mind if this grid-tie concept appeals to you.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 5.)