Small Scale Alternative Energy in Suburbia, by David J.

Thursday, Sep 22, 2011

The range of topics in prepping pretty much covers the spectrum of life, and all aspects tend to be connected, however, this article is mostly limited to my strategies to power my grid dependant, difficult to defend, suburban home when the grid is down, all the while on a limited budget.  No new, earth shattering, break through here, just a plan that uses lots of basics.

My circumstances probably reflect a sizable demographic of the folks who are attempting to prepare for hard times in the suburbs.  A middle class male, married with 4 kids, living in a stick house, in a small town, near a small city, in the crowded northeast.  Fortunately we do not live on a main line of drift. We have no bug out locale.  I have with no military background or engineering experience beyond home handyman.

Several main ideas have guided my strategies, some of the ideas are related and inter connected:

Finances – my budget is stretched, as I am working on reducing debt, prepping, saving and still trying to maintain a modest, comfortable life style.  My energy solutions need to be affordable, or at least let me add to as my budget permits.  This is not the same as cost effective.  Nothing is a cheap and easy as getting electricity from the grid.

Flexibility – I pretty sure I don’t like what is coming down the road, but I don’t know what it is, or when it’s coming.   May not even know that its arrived till is been here for a while.  My preps have to be able to accommodate as wide a range of circumstance as possible, from no power for a few hours, rolling black or brown outs, to maybe no electricity for a year or more.  I also need to consider TEOTWAWKI, may not occur in my lifetime.

Utility – I would like to be able to get some use of my preps during relatively normal, grid up times.

OPSECOPSEC is key.  I cannot draw attention to my self and family.  We must blend in.  Our survival could very well depend on keeping a low profile.  We are well armed, but would very much like to avoid any confrontation.

Portability – I may have to relocate, hopefully not as a part of the Golden Horde, but possibly to relatives, neighbors or friends in a more easily defended section of my town.  It could be planned and orderly, or I could be quickly putting gear in the back of my truck, or even a garden wagon or bicycle trailer.  My preps must be modular and not too heavy to carry.

Redundancy - Same concept as "Two is one and one is none."

Efficiency - Efficiency is not fully on the list. Of course, I would like all my preps to be efficient, but not at the cost of robustness.  I feel that the drive for efficiency has put the nation in a precarious spot.

With these ideas in mind, my main energy strategy has been to simultaneously lower my energy needs and to meet those needs with small photovoltaic (solar) panels and limited use of wind generators.  It has taken a few years and is still a work in progress. It also requires a change in thinking.   Life will not be the same without grid electricity.

A small system will not power my fridge, microwave, toaster oven, furnace or air conditioning. at least for not very long.  I can, however, power fans, lights, sump pumps, alarm system, security cameras, battery chargers, and laptop computers.

A gas generator could meet my immediate energy demands and is affordable, but it violates too many of my guidelines, especially OPSEC. I wouldn’t mind getting one eventually, but see it mostly as a convenience.

A large solar installation is more than I am ready to spend, and also conflicts with my guidelines about portability and poses serious, although quieter, OPSEC problems.  It would probably work nicely in a remote rural area.

Goal: Lower my energy demands by finishing the basement and using DC power.

The reality is, that the only way we can stay in our home, with a long-term power outage during the winter, is to "camp" in it.  There will be a major downgrade in our standard of living.  My goal is to keep us as safe as possible, out of a FEMA shelter, and to cushion the fall as best I can.

The safest place in the house is the basement; it provides some protection from things that could accompany no electricity, like radioactive fallout, severe weather, and gunfire.  Concentrating our living in the basement also lowers our energy usage and makes light discipline a lot easier.  Essentially, we may need to live in the basement during part of the year and the rest of the house will be a large closet.

Previously my basement wasn’t a place one would want to spend much time. After cleaning the cobwebs, my first step was to add cross bracing to the ceiling joists for support.  I studded and partitioned with insulated walls, added some more insulation to the ceiling and put down inexpensive rubber puzzle mat flooring from a discount store.  I made removable, interior, plywood shutters with radiant foil backing for the windows.  We made two rooms, a utility room and a work out room.  There is a small alcove for a potential camping toilet bathroom.  I added no electrical wiring; only utilizing what was already in place. Neither room draws attention from visiting neighbors.  Both are well insulated and partitioned so as to be livable with little energy. 

While the focus of this article is on electricity, I’ll stray a little bit to heat.  Making heat from electricity, especially from low voltage systems is a non-starter; it’s way too inefficient.  Unfortunately we do not have a fireplace. I have some concerns about the smell of wood smoke drawing attention, but future plans include retrofitting the basement for a wood stove.

My extreme cold weather plan is to drain my pipes to prevent bursts and flooding.  There are numerous Internet resources on draining pipes and preventing burst pipes. 

Heat is from a pair of Mr. Heater portable propane heaters.  Mr. Heater runs off both 1 pound and 20-pound propane canisters.  I have extension hoses, filters and a protective box for the 20-pound tanks.  To conserve we will have to run Mr. Heater intermittently, but I don’t think we will freeze to death.  I am afraid to set Mr. Heater on the rubber puzzle mats, so I built plywood stands.  Mr. Heater is designed for indoor use, but be sure to understand the directions before using it and be careful because it gets hot.

For safety, both rooms have dual battery powered CO detectors two different brands) and a smoke detector.  Propane is my stored energy of choice, because it stores well, and no smoke or smell when using it. I know that the 20-pound tanks tend to be under filled, but it is a manageable weight for my wife and kids.  I keep adding to the cache of tanks under the back deck, keep them chained together to make theft more difficult.  My eventual goal is to cache enough of them to supply our needs for two winters.  We never run out of propane when we barbecue. 

The workout room would be a bedroom, and I have inflatable air mattresses and sleeping bags for the family and the inevitable guests.

In summary, the workout and utility rooms give us a relatively safe, comfortable, easy to heat and light shelter, as well as use during “normal” times.  I did most of the work myself, it took a few months. 

The other aspect of decreasing demand is to utilize 12 VDC appliances.  A quick explanation is that most solar panels store their energy in 12-volt batteries.  Converting the power from batteries to AC to run corded appliances loses a significant amount of energy in the [inefficient] conversion from DC to AC.  Deep cycle 12-volt batteries are designed to be charged and discharged repeatedly.  They are rated in amp hours, which are how long they could run an appliance of certain amperage, at some pre-determined rate of discharge, usually 20 hours.  A 30-amp hour battery could theoretically run a 1-amp appliance for 30 hours.  To preserve the life of the deep cycle battery, they are not usually discharged below 50%, so the 30 amp hour battery, realistically gives 15 amp hours of service.

Some 12 VDC appliances are easy to find; air compressors for inflating tires and mattresses, fans, battery chargers, laptop power supplies, car DVD players and lights, and so forth.  Other items take a little work, like finding a DC power supply for my alarm system and router.  I am still using cigarette lighter plugs and receptacles, but will make the switch to the preferred Anderson Power Pole connectors some day.  Using 12 VDC appliances lowers my electric bill during normal times, and has made road trips more comfortable, as all this stuff can be powered from the receptacle in my truck.  When I see 12 VDC items on sale, I often stock up, for redundancy as well as potential barter items.

When folks start talking about needing an air conditioning unit when the grid is down, it’s hard for me to not roll my eyes.  All of our ancestors survived long enough for us to be here without the benefit of air conditioning.  Air conditioning units are energy hogs and OPSEC disasters.  I get just as hot and cranky as the next guy, but it hasn’t killed me yet.  If your health is such that no air conditioning will indeed kill you, then your survival preparations are going to be complicated [and expensive].

Refrigeration is a tougher problem, and I have taken several steps to mitigate it.  The first is that we do not store lots of frozen food.  We try to keep a good amount of ice in the freezer, increasing the supply if we think there may be a power outage coming.  Our canned and storage foods tend to be packaged smaller, so we don’t have to worry about leftovers spoiling.  Smaller packages are also more portable.  I am learning about root cellars, but haven’t constructed one yet.

Finally, I have recently purchased a 12 VDC cooler, the Koolatron Krusader Cooler.  I haven’t had it long enough to deliver a final verdict, but I think it will be handy.  There is a wide range of DC-powered refrigerators, freezers and coolers.  The smaller ones at least, are different than a traditional kitchen refrigerator because the keep the contents about 40 degrees cooler that the outside temperature, and can also be set to heat the contents instead of cooling.  Many are marketed to the tailgating and RV crowd.

Even though its DC, they still use a good bit of power, drawing about 4 amps per hour, so may be needed to run intermittently.   I am still evaluating it, but at this time, I would rather have several small coolers as opposed to 1 larger one, in keeping with my guidelines.


Providing The Power

I have been using small solar panels and portable power supplies to provide back up power as well as supply some of my day-to-day needs (like my router and alarm).   It is an ad hoc system that has slowly grown as my budget and developing expertise allowed.  Unfortunately, most all of the solar panels and components are made in china, but I try to purchase American made whenever I can.

When I started getting involved in the providing the power part of my plan, I initially purchased a Sunlinq foldable 12 Watt solar panel and Black and Decker Electromate 400 portable power supply.  The Sunlinq was purchased through Amazon.com, while I found the Black and Decker was less expensive at Wal-Mart--after figuring in shipping.

The Sunlinq uses standard SAE connectors that makes a nice tight connection and allows for easy modular additions.  It’s the same type connector as used with the Battery Minder chargers. (I think that the Sunlinq may be made by Sunforce or vice versa.)

The Black and Decker Electromate 400 has an area light, a built in inverter with 2 AC outlets, 2 DC outlets, an air compressor, and attachable jump-start cables.  It’s sturdy and has a nice handle.  It was a good intro combination and very portable. 

The next addition to my collection of solar panels and batteries was the Sunforce 60-watt solar power kit, which I coupled with the Xantrex Xpower power pack 1500, to provide power to the utility and workout room. 

The Sunforce system is four 15-watt panels, a mounting frame, a 7-amp charge controller, a small inverter, and connecting cables.  It uses the same SAE connectors as the Sunlinq.  I have since purchased several more of the kits, via eBay, Amazon and Costco. 

Prices can vary considerably.  Purchasing the complete kits, instead of individual panels has given me modularity and spare parts.  Sometimes the kits are bundled with small extras like a crank flashlight or small battery maintainer solar panel.  The included charge controller is only rated to 7 amps, so if more than 7 panels are linked together, a larger charge controller is needed.  Charge controllers connect between the solar panels and the battery to ensure that the batteries are not overcharged and damaged.  Low wattage panels do not require a charge controller.

I am not sure I would purchase the Xpower power pack 1500 again.  I initially chose it because it is a very convenient package.  It has a 60-amp hour battery, inverter with 2 AC outlets, 1 DC outlet receptacle, and can handle loads of 1,500 watts, with surge to 3,000 watts (I haven’t taken mine anywhere close to that).  It weighs about 60 pounds and has solid rubber wheels.  You could assemble all the parts for less money, but it’s hard to beat the Xpower's portability.  The first one I ordered from Costco arrived with its plastic case broken, as did the replacement!.  After returning the second one, I waited till the spring and bought one from Amazon.com, at a better price, which arrived with a very tiny ding.  The Xpower  1500 comes bundled with a very nice AC battery charger.  The Xpower's batteries are pretty easily replaced, as opposed to the Black and Decker and other various power packs that I have acquired.  As with the Sunforce solar system, prices vary considerably for the Xpower 1500.

I regularly shop around for deals on small solar panels, like the Sunlinq or the Sunforce and smaller portable power packs, like the Black and Decker.  I will use them as spares and barter items.

Goal Zero seems to have a nice package of systems well assembled, but pricey.  The Goal Zero connectors are hard to find unless purchased directly from them.  I like the Goal Zero Guide 10, which is an AA/AAA battery charger, that also is also a light and a USB power supply. 

In a moment of weakness, I bought the Harbor Freight 45- watt system on sale.  I think the Sunforce is a better value.  The Harbor Freight folding 13-watt panel does work well, although the connections are flimsy.  It is a good value when on sale or even better when combined a 20% off coupon.

I have several of the Sunforce 60 watt kits discreetly mounted the south side of the house. The power cables enter into the basement utility room, and via the Xpower 1500 provide most of the power to the room, and makes up for my lack of additional wiring when I finished the basement.  The kits are connected with Powerlet SAE "Y" splitters, which are a little expensive, but well made and tight.  You can also make you own SAE connections; I buy my components at Solarseller.com

I purposely mounted the panels in locations that had solar exposure, but that were less than ideal, so as not to be very obvious from the street.  In an unstable Schumer hits the fan (SHTF) situation, my plan is to take down the solar panels, and use them intermittently in the back yard to charge up batteries.  If things seem stable, then I may remount them in ideal, non-esthetic locations to get maximum benefit.  I may deploy the reserve PV power kits as well, or save them to barter. 

I have recently added on to my system with the purchase of some deep cycle batteries.  In keeping with my strategy of modularity and portability I used 35 amp hour UB12350, batteries wired in parallel, instead of single larger battery, to add depth to my energy storage, and provide additional power to the basement.

I keep the various power packs charged with the solar panels, and during power outages, like Hurricane Irene, where we lost power for five days, we placed the smaller power packs in different rooms in the house and either used area lights, or plugged in a lamp and turned them on and off as needed.  Irene was a good test drive of my preps.  There was a time that my main panels were busy charging the xpower 1500 and the ub12350 battery bank.  We recharged the smaller power packs with small solar panels in the back yard and it worked out well.  Having the security cameras and alarm running at night helped the family sleep a little better.

For holidays and birthdays, I have given small portable solar chargers to family members to keep phones and other personal portable electronics charged.

If my vehicles are operational, I have a 1,000-watt inverter that can be connected to the car battery. I can get some short-term power from via extension cords, as long as the engine is running.  This is noisy, but probably less conspicuous than running a generator.

It is important to purchase power packs that can be charged directly via DC power due to the efficiency issues.  I have seen at least one packaged solar power system advertised on the Internet that uses a Xantrex power supply that can only be charged with AC power.

My experience with wind turbines has been mixed.  They are not as easy [to install] as photovoltaics, and to get real benefit, the turbine needs to be mounted fairly high, so it’s an OPSEC problem.  I bought a Gudcraft 300-watt unit and mounted it atop a volleyball net post in the corner of the yard.  It is a clunky unit, that doesn’t produce a lot of electricity where it sits, but is also inconspicuous has not caused any problems.  I have helped friends set up various other brands with underwhelming results, due to lack of wind in our area.

I have had some experience with an eBay vendor, USAWindGen.com.  They essentially make simple home-made units.  They are only suitable for intermittent use, but are inexpensive and have helped to keep my batteries charged.  I mount them on 1-inch conduit; about 5 feet high and only deploy them when needed.  Over all, I can’t strongly recommend wind turbines for alternative power in the suburbs, but you may find then a useful adjunct.

There are no doubt that larger arrays, ideally placed would be make for a more efficient power, but my ad hoc system seems to work and meet my needs as far as "camping" in my home.  When using small alternative energy products, you need to budget electricity just like any other scarce resource.

Summary

Essentially, my strategy has been to make it possible to decrease my “energy footprint” so that I can camp in my home if needed, in a way that doesn’t mess up my home while the grid is up and running.  I attempted to develop a plan I can afford and is flexible, portable, conducive to OPSEC, has redundancy, and if possible, useful during “normal” times.  The electrical power requirements for camping are not large, and growing an ad hoc system over time can meet these needs.  Although not as efficient as a well-designed system implemented at one time, this incremental approach has been affordable and allowed me to learn about alternative energy at my own pace.  Your mileage will vary.

I feel that if every family should have a small photovoltaic panel and portable power supply, either as their main source of emergency power, or as back up to their generator or larger alternative energy setup.  I know that if things get very bad, these steps and my other preparations may not be enough, but that doesn’t mean that I have to quit, and I hope that anyone reading this doesn’t quit either.


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