Disaster Prep – Replacing Loss of Power

I was thinking about the most important things to consider in the case of a major disaster. I think at the top of the list are water, food, clothing and shelter. I will definitely make a plan for those things, but today I’ll try to tackle a bigger project, the loss of energy/power. What would I do if in a disaster we lost electricity, and maybe even natural gas? What if it was for longer than a few hours or days? What if we lost power for many days, weeks, or in a major catastrophe, months? My planning will be with the more prolonged outages in mind, though I recognize that the more practical advantages of prepping for this will be for the usual power outages that last only minutes, hours or a few days.

Electricity

My research has taken me deep into the multitude of options regarding alternate power sources. Replacing ALL the electricity we use every day is possible, using a natural gas-powered generator that would kick in automatically if the electricity went out. This would be the ideal solution for the situation of pure electricity loss, but this option is very costly, about 4 to 8 thousand dollars, and would require installation by an electrician. And if in a major catastrophe we also lost natural gas at the same time, then we would be totally frakked! Here are samples of these generators and their cost, and here is a picture:

natural gas home generator

A better option for us will be to replace not all of our usual electricity use, but just what is required for the more critical needs. These will include the fan for our gas furnace, lights in the kitchen, family room, bedroom and bathroom, the refrigerator, washing machine, cable/internet and the alarm system. I’ll probably come up with others. This opens up several options for replacing that smaller amount of electricity. I could use a gasoline, diesel or propane generator. (Check out examples here.) I’d have to have an electrician set it up for me, but other people might actually be willing to learn how to do that themselves. Then, if the lights went out, all I’d have to do is turn on the generator and manually flip a switch, off of the electric company power grid and onto the home generator. The cost of this is more reasonable. It could be set up to turn on automatically, but this adds greatly to the cost.

generator

Of course, a generator could be used as a stand alone, not wired into the house, and one would simply plug things into it.

Another option is to have a series of batteries that are kept charged by the normally working electricity. Then if the power went out, the batteries would take over, again for the more critical circuits. We’d have electricity for a couple of days, until the batteries would run dry. The cost of this is also more reasonable. See examples here. And a picture of a battery power system:

battery backup power

Of note, solar power can also charge these batteries.

Simplest of all is the idea of using candles, battery powered flashlights or lanterns for light, and an efficient wood burning stove or propane space heater for heat, when the power goes out. Sure, that’s enough for most power outages lasting only minutes or a few hours. But if one were to last days, these solutions won’t help keep the food in your refrigerator from spoiling, or to maintain your internet access, or to get beautiful with your hair blower, etc. But I will admit it doesn’t get much cheaper than that.

I’ll talk about solar, wind and geothermal power, and the idea of self-sufficiency, in a minute. But before I do, I’ll mention that deploying any alternate source of electricity is made a lot easier (and cheaper) if our usage of electricity is efficient in the first place. The less electricity we have to replace the better. I found an excellent article here that is a good starting point if you want to learn more about making your home more energy efficient.

efficiency

As I was learning about this stuff I realized it will be important for me to know exactly how much electricity we actually use. I took a look at our electric bill with new eyes. Now I have a good idea of how many kilowatts of electricity we use. At least that is a starting point as I begin to examine the power output of various alternate power source options.

0310-electricity-meter_full_600

But what if we really did have a major catastrophe and not only did we lose electricity, but we lost natural gas, AND access to gasoline, diesel and propane? What if our local government resources were shut down and couldn’t help you in time? Would you be a victim or a survivor? Would you be a big baby and cry about why FEMA didn’t respond to your whining faster, or would you be able to take care of yourself? What would it take to become self-sufficient?

Well, in terms of energy production, self-sufficiency goes way beyond chopping your own wood for the stove and fireplace! Today we are talking about harvesting the energy in sunlight, wind and from the heat in the ground. In coastal areas, energy can also be harvested from the force of ocean waves. For most people, solar and wind power are the most practical of these cutting edge options.

Solar power technologies have gotten much better. The photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight to electricity have gotten smaller, lighter, more efficient, and cheaper. But even so, the cost of electricity obtained this way is far more expensive than getting it from your electric company. Same goes for wind power. It is easy enough to figure out how many solar panels you would need to satisfy your current usage. You have to know how much you use (check you electric bill), how much is produced by each solar panel, and divide. Then you have to have a space for all those solar panels, usually on your roof. So you have to know the area of your roof, the area of a solar panel, and divide to see how many cells will fit on your roof. Then, of course, you have to pay for them. You have already figured out the number of solar panels you would need, so then you take the price per solar panel, and multiply. And then there are the installation and maintenance costs. We’re talking a total of tens of thousands of dollars! But I’m certain that prices will go down as time goes by. And the government has been giving tax rebates for people adopting solar power technologies. That helps.

germany-solar-rooftop

So at this point in time, some people are using solar power to either provide all of their electricity needs (most of them live in the sunny southwest USA,) or to replace just a portion of their needs, or simply to heat water.

The idea of solar and wind power appeals to me because of the idea of self-sufficiency. In a major catastrophe like I described, with the loss of all services, when the DHTO (defecation hits the oscillator) :-) ,  I would love knowing I can produce even a little electricity for light and heat, completely on my own. Of course, the likelihood of that kind of major catastrophe is small, so a big investment in this direction is probably not going to happen right now. But I will keep informed on new developments, I’ll watch prices go down, and I will jump in at some point.

dv887019

Meanwhile, I have seen inexpensive solar panels that you can roll up and carry with you, that can recharge your small electronic gadgets including phones and computers. At the very least I will do that.  It might come in handy some day, and it will increase my hands-on awareness of this technology.

portable solar panel

So now I just have to think, consider my options, do some math, and decide. I’ll post again, or add to this post in the future, when I have decided what I’m going to do to prepare for a disaster that includes a prolonged loss of electric power.

happy light bulb

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  • MichaelLAX December 19, 2012 at 12:43 PM

    Ferd: What an excellent exposition on your part – Thank You!

    I do see one factual error: your claim that: “the cost of electricity obtained this way [solar power] is far more expensive than getting it from your electric company.”

    Of course there is a capital cost of purchasing and installing the solar system, but when amortized over the life of the equipment, the savings far exceed what the cost would have been to purchase the same electricity from your local utility.

    I was disappointed that you chose to include one unnecessary comment: “Would you be a big baby and cry about why FEMA didn’t respond to your whining faster, or would you be able to take care of yourself?”

    Other than that statement your piece is positive and constructive. Bravo!

    • Ferd December 19, 2012 at 5:13 PM

      Hey Michael!

      I figure the initial outlay of money for a total electricity replacement solar power system to be about the cost of a new SUV. To me, if that is someone’s priority, it is definitely doable. But the monthly payment on that loan would certainly be much higher than an average monthly electric bill. The cool thing is that after paying off the loan, electricity would be essentially free! :-)

  • MichaelLAX December 19, 2012 at 12:50 PM

    Cheap alternative for electrical power during emergencies that I use: Duracell Powerpack 600 – $132 from Amazon (with free shipping, it’s heavy!):

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009YR00MI/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=486539851&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=B000TKHMWK&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=1N4DXT5N6JWNMVMWTTFP

    Contains one DC outlet and three three-pronged AC outlets (480-watt continuous / 600-watt peak) to power multiple devices, appliances and tools

    Built-in 600-watt power inverter, 5-watt flashlight, overload/over-temperature protection and reverse polarity detection

    Sealed, non-spillable 28Ah AGM battery and detachable alligator clamps for jump-starting cars (up to 8-cylinder)

    Built-in AM/FM radio and digital alarm clock

    PLUS it contains built in overcharge protection, so you can keep it charging 24/7 for when it is needed.

    AND

    Solar Panel to keep it charged: $110 – http://www.ebay.com/itm/30W-Solar-Panel-kit-for-charging-Duracell-Xantrex-Powerpack-600-/380503132440?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item5897c10918

    • Ferd December 19, 2012 at 5:15 PM

      Most excellent!!!
      Thanks for all the detail and the links, Michael!
      How many things can that battery serve?

  • MichaelLAX December 19, 2012 at 6:40 PM

    1. If you only have installed solar panels and NOT the battery backup system, there are companies that will install and LEASE the equipment to you at essentially less than the amount of savings you will see on your monthly electric bill; at least here in California. I am looking into these companies now. Of course, this system is NOT an emergency system without batteries; only a cost savings solar power system for your home.

    2. There are two 110V outlets on the Powerpack 600, but you can split them further with the usual power extension cords. The real issue is wattage: the total of all of the operating units cannot exceed 600 watts. Obviously, this is a low power system for emergencies that will not power refrigerators, washers, heaters, etc. but provide power for lighting, small appliances, laptops, portable TVs and other needs.

    3. I have yet to buy the Solar Panel for the Powerpack 600; I just keep it ready by charging it with the included wall wart. For true longer term emergency use, I would consider a 2nd PowerPack 600 with the solar panel, because you cannot charge and use it at the same time. So alternating them would be the solution.

    4. It contains standarized Anderson PowerPoles for connecting the car jumper cables (included) with access to the full 28 Amps of the enclosed battery. I have built a setup that allows my portable amateur radio to draw full power from this unit through the PowerPoles and operate at a full 100 watts when portable (which I keep all ready to go in a back pack, complete with collapsable antenna and accessories).

    Let me know if you want some photos, if they can be posted in the comments…

    • Ferd December 19, 2012 at 9:18 PM

      Great info, Michael!

      I like the idea of two battery packs, using one while the other is charging up per solar panel.

      The links show the items well, but sure, send me pix and I’ll add them to the post.

  • MichaelLAX December 19, 2012 at 6:45 PM

    I think your suggestion of costs of installation = to a SUV is high. After the US government subsidized Solyndra’s production of solar panels, the Chinese responded by flooding the US market with cheap, subsidized, solar panels. I believe they have continued to keep the costs of these panels low, even after they succeeded at their goal of bankrupting US manufacturing of solar panels.

    • Ferd December 19, 2012 at 9:19 PM

      You are obviously ahead of me in working with the solar power issue. I’m very glad to know the prices have already come down so much. Maybe I’ll be able to jump in sooner than I expected!

  • finding pam January 1, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Hey Ferd. This is a good post on prepping. A lot of this does depend on your personal needs and what one can afford. I’ld be afraid that a tornado would damage the solar system on the roof.

    As for us, Hubs, just bought another generator. Our neighbor is a retired electrician and he will install a kill switch for us outside. Even though we live in the country, several of our neighbors are prepping. Our land is on a dead end private road, makes it nice to have back up just in case.

    We are trying to become more self-sufficient. Our immediate goal is to survive the initial event. We would like to be able to live off of our land. Our long term goals are having a stocked pond, ducks, chickens and our garden. Right now we are researching shelters.

    It all comes down to living a simple life style. Living like our grandparents once lived. I am enjoying your posts on prepping.

    • Ferd January 2, 2013 at 6:34 PM

      Even though I’m not too worried about a catastrophic event, I am very interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. I will look forward to your insights on this, Pam!

      Happy New Year! :-)

  • MichaelLAX January 1, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Pam: How do you deal with the hazardous issue of gasoline storage and handling? This issue keeps me away from a generator.