It’s hard to imagine how we’ll get along without electricity but in almost every event imaginable, total power failure will be our new reality. So, unless we want to walk around with a tiki torch after dark, we’ll need to put some thought into power generation. I’m not going to waste time talking about expensive or impractical techniques (whole house generators, windmills, water wheels, thermal, etc) but will focus on the more practical and affordable methods.
For over a decade I lived and worked in the Middle East and Africa where power outages are the norm. People there get along with small, inexpensive 2000-3000 Watt generators. These little generators are easy to move around, quiet, inexpensive, and lightly sip on gasoline. You won’t be running your central air conditioner or powering your entire house with one, but you can run lights, charge power packs (more on this), and power your refrigerator enough to keep it cool. In the last few years local power companies have offered permanently installed, propane powered generators, but I can’t recommend them. First, is cost. These cost many thousands of dollars to install and maintain. Second, in most scenarios the commercial propane supply will fail, leaving you with an expensive paperweight. Small, gasoline powered generators are inexpensive, easy to operate and maintain, and are light enough to carry away if you need to move.
Of the countless generators I’ve seen around the world, the one consistent thing is almost all had Honda engines. Few were regularly maintained or well cared for and all the owners did was pour in gas and run the crap out of them – sometimes for years. There’s no greater testament to durability and reliability than for a product to survive under those conditions. Go Honda!
Extension cords. Although quiet, you’ll want a 50’ or 100’ extension cord to get the generator and it’s fumes away from your living area. Since these are so small and light, it’ll be a good idea to chain it to a tree so it doesn’t walk away.
Generators work hard so be sure to have a few extra air and oil filters. Clean the air filter every couple of days.
Fuel and oil. You’ll only be running your generator for 30 minutes or so a day, so great quantities of gasoline aren’t necessary. A Honda 2kw generator under a 75% load uses less than a gallon per hour, so 10-15 gallons should see you through most short-term power outages. If you decide to store more fuel, either use fuel stabilizer or use the gas in your mower or automobile, and replenish the fuel every 6 months to keep it fresh. Most generators only need an oil change every 25-50 hours of operation, but keeping an extra filter and a couple of quarts of oil on the shelf is cheap insurance.
Solar Power. A great way to generate electrical power for a fairly low cost is solar panels. Unfortunately, installing enough solar panels to power an entire house is prohibitively expensive and not very practical. The main reason for this is that most of the events we’re considering are weather-related and panels would be damaged or blown off the roof. Even if the panels survive, most installations don’t store the electricity they generate. Instead, they feed it back into the grid. If the grid is down and home doesn’t have a bank of storage batteries, the surviving solar panels are useless. Still, smaller solar panels ARE useful to keep electronics, flashlights, and rechargeable batteries powered.
An eBay search for “foldable solar panel” turns up countless results, ranging from $12 single 5-Watt panels to 100-Watt, 8-panel arrays. The higher the wattage, the faster it’ll charge your device. The top-of-the-line is Goal Zero (expensive), middle-of-the-road is Renogy, and cheapest is Anker. Personally, I have two small 10W Renogy panels, a Goal Zero Nomad 28W, and a Renogy 100W “folding suitcase” panel. The small panels are USB trickle chargers for phones, tablets and radios. I carry the 28w panel in my “Go Bag” to charge my GPS, Radio, and batteries. The 100W charges my power cells (see below). Panels are great but if you have 2-3 phones, a tablet, laptop, radios, and batteries to charge it isn’t very convenient because they’re slow. To make life easier, you’ll want some way to store large amounts of energy: a power cell.
Power Cells. A power cell is nothing but a rechargeable battery with a regulator and power outlets. Until recently these were quite expensive, but now there’s a lot of competition and prices have really come down. Power cells that previously cost over $100 can now be had for less than $20. The capacity ranges from 10 Amp hours over 100 Ah. To give this perspective, a 10Ah power cell can recharge an iPhone 7-8 times before it needs recharging. Years ago, I bought a Goal Zero Yeti 400 ($600) because it has a variety of outlets and voltages (5v USB, 12v Cigarette, and 120v). Its 33Ah battery can be charged from the wall, a generator, or solar panels. In hindsight, this was overkill and if I had to do it again today, I’d get two Anker 28Ah units from eBay dealers for less than $100. The best way to use power cells is to leave them plugged into a solar panel full-time, letting them constantly top off. The solar panels are low current, but the power cells have high output USB plugs, so when you need to rapidly charge electronics, plug them into the power cell instead of the solar panel. When the electronics are fully charged, the power cell turns off the USB port and tops itself off from the solar panel.
Rechargeable Batteries. There are lots of rechargeable battery dealers on eBay, most of them peddling low quality crap. My experience is that 100% of the no-name brands significantly overstate their capacity and get very hot in use. I’ve learned that name brands are worth their premium price and have settled on 3.4Ah Panasonic 18650Bs, the 0.4Ah Tenergy RCR-123A, Goal Zero’s AA cells, and Panasonic “Eneloop” AA and AAA cells.
Recharging Batteries w/USB. Your power cell and solar can recharge batteries with the right USB adapter. For AA and AAA batteries, I use the Goal Zero Guide 10 ($40), which comes with four rechargeable AA batteries. The Goal 10 has a small built-in power cell (2.3Ah) and flashlight. It comes with an adapter to use AAA rechargeable batteries.
Recharging Batteries w/12v. If you have a solar panel that outputs 12v, then the Accupower AP1212 LED Battery Charger ($30) can charge up to 12 AA or AAA batteries at a time. If you’re committed to using the 18650 (3.7v), CR123A (3v) batteries, or any other Lithium Ion battery, your 12v source can also power the Accupower IQ-203 charger ($25). I’ve used both of these for several years without a single problem.
Larger solar systems. A number of companies sell solar “kits” for RVs, boats, campers and remote cabins. These are “stand alone” systems and consist of solar panels that charge a bank of batteries. They produce a LOT more power than the foldable versions discussed above, store more energy, and can also provide 120 volts. The most popular company offering kits is Renogy and the prices range from $135 for a 50W basic kit, to $1900 for an 800W kit.
Panel Quality. There are two types of panels, Polycrystalline, and Monocrystalline. Polycrystalline is cheaper, larger and about 18% efficient. Monocrystalline is newer technology, costs about 10% more, and is about 22% efficient.
Charge Controllers. Solar panels produce either 12v or 24v that charges a bank of batteries. Since the voltage can fluctuate based on the amount of sunlight, you’ll need a charge controller to stabilize the voltage, charge the batteries, and prevent over-charging. There are two types: PWM and MPPT. PWM is an older technology that is nowhere near as efficient as MPPT. Since the cost of MPPT not that much greater, your choice is a no-brainer.
Battery Storage. Your charge controller connects to a bank of batteries configured as 12v, 24v, or 48v. In general, the higher the voltage, the more efficient your system will be. Despite the 12v rating you shouldn’t use regular car batteries for storage because they aren’t designed for deep discharge and recharge cycles. Yes, they’ll work but their life will be very short and will need replacement. Instead, use “deep cycle” batteries designed for solar power systems. These are quite a bit more expensive ($70-200) but will last for many years.
Inverters. Now that you have 12v or 24v stored in your batteries, it would be nice to be able to power some tools or the coffee pot, right? All you’ll need is an inverter connected to your battery bank and to output 120v. Easy. Inverters are rated in the number of watts they produce. A 1000w inverter, useful to power hand tools, is about $50-$70, while a 3000w to power several appliances at once can sell for $200-$700. A note on inverters though: Like batteries, stick with name brands like AIMS, Renogy, Tripplite, or Schumacher. Most of the no-names on eBay greatly exaggerate their capacity and don’t include instructions or a warranty.