One of the most overlooked emergency preparedness items is alternate power sources. People always assume that when they flick the switch, the lights will come on.
That’s a bad assumption.
For Baby Boomers – and others that may have medications or other items that require refrigeration – being without power can turn an otherwise inconvenient situation into a deadly one.
There are all sorts of options when looking to provide for emergency power. This article is going to look at systems you can build at your primary residence with the assumption that all utility-supplied energy is unavailable (meaning, for whatever reason, you have no electricity or natural gas being supplied to your home).
Obviously, by imposing these restrictions, the options we’re going to consider would also be ideal for people that choose to go off-grid as a way of life.
Before we build a system, we need to know how much power we’re going to need. This calculator at Consumer Reports can get you started in the right direction.
I know when I keyed in my numbers, I was shocked (no pun intended)! One of the key things you’ll learn below is that more power = more money. Consider ways to whittle down what’s going to be powered to the bare essentials.
If this is a back-up power source for emergencies, what does your life depend upon? If you’re diabetic, consider buying a camping refrigerator instead of your full-sized fridge to keep your drugs chilled. Instead of powering up enough lights to make your neighbors squint, get compact florescent or LED bulbs.
Off-gridders already understand this concept.
You get the idea: Lower your energy needs, especially during emergencies, and you can reduce your costs for putting together a system.
A good place to start when thinking about alternatives to “the grid” is to consider how the utility companies generate the power they send your way, and figuring out a way to “scale down” a similar operation. Let’s not reinvent the wheel if we don’t need to do so.
Two-thirds of power plants are fed by some sort of fossil fuel – natural gas and coal. The fuel turns water into steam, and the steam turns turbines. The turbines produce electrical energy, which is sent down-line to your home.
Obvious scale-down options are propane-, gasoline- and diesel-powered generators. These come in all sizes and power configurations.
They are a proven technology. Generators have been used in applications ranging from camping trips to construction sites to whole-building UPS (uninterrupted power supply). As mentioned before, more power equals more money.
Small, 3500 watt systems will run a few hundred dollars. Larger whole-home systems will run several thousand. Some of the larger systems can be tied into your home electrical system so that your core “systems” – refrigerators, freezers, pumps, etc. – can stay attached to the same outlets even when powered by the back-up system.
Beware of the emissions Nazi’s, though. In California, for instance, many generators are not allowed, even for emergency applications.
The biggest drawback to fossil fuel-powered systems is you may find yourself without fuel! It may either be unavailable, or it may be cost-prohibitive to acquire. The next largest generator of power from the chart above is nuclear.
Not really an option (and if it is, I don’t want to know about it!).
So, that takes us to “renewable” – wind, solar, hydroelectric, and it’s sister, geothermal. For the vast majority of people, hydro and geothermal are not options, so we’re not even going to consider them.
That leaves us with wind and solar. Lots of options here!
Perhaps one of the most important considerations with wind and solar is storage. If you need power 24/7, you’re going to need batteries, because the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. This significantly increases the complexity of your emergency system (and will be covered in future posts).
If you’re comping at the bit, and just gotta see a very inexpensive battery set-up, take a look at this video –
The concept behind home-based wind power is actually very similar to the utility-produced energy: A turbine is used to generate the power. Instead of steam spinning the blades, the wind does it.
The following video shows a turbine being made from some turbine-specific parts, but also some “re-purposed” items, such as a treadmill motor!
In the video, he talks about some of the drawbacks of using PVC for certain parts, especially for the blades. Good advice.
I think most folks think solar when considering alternative power sources. Just about anywhere in the lower-48 states, you’ve got sufficient amounts of sun to power up a system.
This gentleman has put together a nice video showing his entire system – which will power his home for 5 days without sun. His cost of $5000 is, I think, not wholly realistic, unless you really know what you’re doing, and are willing to barter, re-purpose and go all “McGyver” on the project!
Still, it’s doable –
I lied. There are actually a couple more ways to generate your power other than those shown on the utility company chart up top. Think of these a bonuses!
Something that is gaining more and more acceptance is wood gasification.
In short, you don’t actually burn wood (or any other similar substance) to get the heat. You heat it to have it out-gas its vapors, and you burn the vapors to run your generator. Or your truck. Or whatever you have that runs on gasoline or other fossil fuel.
Let me just say up front, that this technology – which is over 100 years old – does have it’s down-side. Do things incorrectly, and you can blow yourself up!
I guess you can do that with gasoline as well, though.
To give you a little taste of gasification, take a look at this video. This guy takes a wood stove and runs his generator.
Yes, he’s got some tweaking to do to the system but he has that generator humming! If this is something that interests you, do a LOT of research. It’s a great way to power yourself up during an outage, but you need to do it right.
Our last bonus feature is you. Yeah, human power for admittedly short-term power needs.
As with all preparedness tasks, look into the future to figure out what you MUST have in the event of an emergency. And as we’ve seen with these items, alternative power sources can be the cornerstone of an independent, off-grid lifestyle.
Just what we like around here!