Emergency Power, Part 1

I was ready to start a series on emergency power and got waylaid with a family thing. Since then a hurricane got Puerto Rico and New England and then a humdinger of a storm started on Fort Myers and chewed its way to the Carolinas.  Then, this week, The east coast got zinged by another ‘cane.  NOT having this ready in time for the storms, I am afraid I have not helped anyone.  We still have the ice storms of winter to look forward to in the north, so maybe better late than never.

What was the number?  2.8 million Floridians with the lights out after Ian.  With an army of linemen and drones and new analysis techniques, most folks had their lights on within a couple of days.  Some folks will be without power this time next month, I suspect.  Even the folks who got off easy probably had their freezers thaw out.  Some people just do not handle being in the dark very well, while others, like folks in Puerto Rico, are better able to take it in stride…because their grid sucks and the power is often out.

After the 1926 ‘cane, my grandfather built a hurricane-proof house.  When the 1935 storm came around, houses on the coast weather-cocked on the kitchen well pipe while my grandfather and friends drank akvavit and played canasta by candlelight, taking a stroll over the levee to Lake Okeechobee when the eye came through.  The house is still there and you can still use candles for emergency lighting, but we are all spoiled.  And we have frozen foods that can spoil.

As soon as the National Weather Service puts the crosshairs on your town, Home Depot sells out of portable generators and gas cans and plywood, the grocery store sells out of easy food and bottled water.  We never seem to plan ahead.

Hey, I’m talking about hurricanes, here, but power outages can happen anywhere.  Different regions have their usual problems like ice in New England, tornadoes in Missouri or wildfires in California.  Then there are surprises, like ice in Texas.  Who’d have thought of that?  Murphy’s Law.  It’ll happen.

The past couple of weeks I have been going through my late brother’s things and have found a number of items that can provide us with examples to use for emergency power production.  He was an avid camper, a spy and an urban survivalist.  Maybe a little bit of a nut, too, as I go through his gear.  (A big part of my delay was in moving and securing his armory.  You just wouldn’t believe…)

Yes, he had a generator.  It is a dual fuel model, so that doubles your choice of fuel and if you run it primarily on propane, the carburetor will never get clogged with stale gas.  The thing with generators is they end up using a lot of fuel and are most efficient under heavy load.  You can’t just stock one or two 5 gallon cans of gas and expect to keep everything running for a week.  He had a dozen 6 gallon gas cans and 8 tanks of propane.  If you have that much fuel, better have a few quarts of motor oil and a spare filter or two.  Most generators call for an oil change at 25 or 50 hours.  This one has a stick-on hour meter to help keep up with running hours.  Cheap and handy.  A great generator accessory is a locking cable or length of chain and a padlock.  Makes it harder to steal when chained to a tree.

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We’ll come back to the portable generator after discussing the 4000 lb. generator in the driveway.  Your car.  If you have a hybrid or electric truck, there is a chance you have a huge battery and a substantial inverter ready to go.  If so, great.  If not, read on.

After one heckuva storm, I alternated between my big red Chrysler and my F250 to keep my fridge going.  I had an automatic battery backup system on the lights that could do the fridge, microwave and all important Mr. Coffee, but at a cost of battery life.  I also had a humongous military generator out in the barn and was reluctant to drag it out.  My tractor was reluctant to drag it out too.  (I later acquired a bomb cart for the generator and it is much more portable.)  So we connected an inverter to the vehicles and ran with it intermittently until it became obvious that the lines would be down a while.  It would be 5 weeks.


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A vehicle with a full tank of gas and a good inverter make for a great portable generator.  As shown, however, might not be a good idea.  Vibration could cause the inverter to slide off or into something it should not contact.  More likely, the heat from the radiator could overheat the inverter and cause it to fail or shutdown.

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A handy feature on many trucks is this power connector block for heavy power items like a winch or inverter.  AND trucks usually have a bigger alternator and sometimes a second battery.

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Getting the inverter away from the engine, but not down in the grass, is better.  This Ram has TWO batteries.

In using a car as a generator you have several considerations.  Number one, don’t let it get stolen.  Judging by all the empty, idling SUVs I see at stores, people have learned to separate the remote from the key so they won’t lock themselves out.  You’ll want to do that, of course, unless maybe there is a tree on the roof, making theft unlikely.  Next is this, if the inverter is running, the engine needs to be running.  If you run the starting battery down, it won’t start and you are probably shortening the life of the battery.  Running at meal times is great and then intermittently to keep the fridge cold.  We’ll get to small loads for interior lighting in a moment.

Bro tried a variation of this, running 2 gauge cables from the truck to his balcony, where he kept a Rubbermaid tote containing 4 golf car (not cart) batteries, wired for 12v and topped by a 2000 watt (2kw) inverter.  He could disconnect the truck’s battery switch and leave the inverter on the balcony running off the batteries.  The flaw in this plan was that there is voltage drop, even across wires as big as 2 gauge.  Then, there is the fact that the alternator’s voltage regulator was measuring battery voltage on the vehicle and not on the balcony.  The result was the batteries never got quite as well charged as they should have.

Also consider, he had  a 2kw inverter.  A 100 amp inverter at 13 volts is only 1300 watts, so at times he was using more than the alternator could generate with the engine running.  Now, consider overall capacity.  4 golf car batteries hold about 12v X 440ah = 5280 watt hours.  5.2Kwh.  Given the 50% rule for battery discharge, that brings it down to 2.6kwh usable, or just over an hour with the inverter running full load.  That means you need to stick to the basics.  Forget about the luxury of a n electric water heater and air conditioning.  Think of it as camping in.

Back to Bro’s collection, let’s look at spare batteries.  Fishermen use electric trolling motors, which use a light duty deep cycle battery and a handy box has evolved with a lighter outlet and connecting terminals.   Maybe even a battery gauge built in!  Any sporting or boat store should have them.

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This one is lashed to a luggage cart for ease of transport and there a 400 watt inverter strapped to it.  What can you do with this?  Charge it during the day and at night you can run an LED lamp, a small fan and even a CPAP machine if you need one.  Charge the phone and run the radio or laptop for news.  In addition to connecting it to your idling car, we can think of other ways to charge it.  Remember that little yellow genset?

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While the generator is running to boost the fridge and get Mr. Coffee going in the morning, you can also do a little charging on the battery.  This generator also has a 12v charging output.  If yours does not have that you can also plug in an ordinary charger.

If you have some solar modules about the place, you can put them to work.

This hodgepodge of small modules was used on his surveillance vehicle.  With batteries like these, or more, stuffed into ice boxes, these small solar panels kept power to run a 2-way radio and a cooling fan for days at a time.  With a generator, a battery and solar panels, you have a power trifecta.

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So let’s look around for batteries.  If you own a boat, you may already have a trolling battery in a box just like this one.  If you have a golf car, you may have a bonanza of batteries.  If your golf car uses 6 or 12v batteries you are good.  Pull them out and rearrange them into a massive 12v battery.  If you have 8 v batteries, then you may have to go to a 24v inverter.  Or you could just use a 48  volt inverter and not have to rewire anything.  You can charge most 48v cars with a 12v motor vehicle.  Smashed or drowned cars or that boat that ended up on your lawn may be a good battery source, too.

On my farm, there are all sorts of batteries.  They are in tractors, generators, trucks etc.  What about an inverter?  In addition to the EVs I mentioned earlier, a number of vehicles have 110v outlet built in.  I know some Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix and Sienna models have 110v outlets.  Don’t  get your hopes up.   They are rated at 100 watts.  That won’t run the fridge, but it will charge the laptop or run a small fan or CPAP.

If you have a computer or a fine home entertainment system, you may have a UPS.  An Uninterruptible   Power Supply.  These usually have terribly undersized batteries and are good for about one shutdown.  I found 3 APC brand UPSs under Bro’s desk.  All dead…but useful.

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These units here, I think, run from 600 to 1200 watts.  One uses a 12v battery and the other 2 use 2 batteries in series for 24 volt input.  APC makes good electronics, but seriously undersize the batteries.  People just throw the things away when they die after a power failure and melt the batteries.  Most use the same batteries you find at Academy for deer feeders.  Cheap.  By the way, when I had a real job, if everybody left the office for a hurricane, I would back up the computers and then turn off the UPS units so they would work when the power came back on in a few days.  Anyway, I found 4 usable UPS units at Andy’s, one with a working battery.  With a bigger battery pack wired in, these are big enough to keep the lights on and maybe even make coffee or run the fridge.

Okay, we have batteries and inverter and generator, now what?  Oh yeah, some serious solar.  Maybe you have some real panels, bigger than those little jobs above.  If you have the charge controller to match, great.  If not, you are not out of luck.  You CAN charge a 12v battery with a 38 volt panel, but you have to keep an eye on it.  Let’s say the panel can make around 8 amps.  Properly matched with an MPPT charge controller, you’ll get maybe 250-300 watts.  Limited to 14v connected directly to a battery (a fuse would not be a bad idea, if you have one) you’ll get 112 watts.  That’s still good power, and you should be ok as long as you are using a good bit of power into your inverter.  Leaving it unattended without a load is asking for trouble.  Pay attention or lose the battery.  BTW, a lot of inverters have an overvoltage alarm.  If you hear the inverter honkin’ then it may be time to throw a blanket over the panel.

And what if you don’t have a spare panel in the garage?  Maybe one blew off the roof of someone in the next county and landed on your lawn.  Chances are it will be broken, but chances are it will still work!  In John’s blog, he’s been talking about using cracked panels.  A while back, on a dare, I took a broken panel, shot the heck out of it with a .45 and then blasted it with a shotgun.  A couple of years later it still works.  Not exactly good as new, but it works and could be of some help in an emergency.

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Above, a voltmeter and ammeter stuffed into bullet wounds give the numbers, but the panel is powering that driving light in the upper right corner.  That’s what really counts.

So there are some hints and ideas, all of which are proven in the real world.  Coming soon, I will give some ideas on permanent setups.–Neal


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