JFO - Part 5 - cd3wd405.zip - What if the electricity goes off...By Michael Hackleman

JFO - Part 5 - cd3wd405.zip - What if the electricity goes off...By Michael Hackleman
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
What if the electricity
By Michael Hackleman
ust as everyone was getting ready to throw the
party of the century and
millennium—out with
the old and in with the
new—someone springs
Y2K on us. Power outages, banking woes,
communication breakdowns, and even
economic collapse are some of the predictions I’ve heard. There is indeed a
kind of convergence happening here.
The changeover to the Euro-dollar is
imminent. The satellites that make up
the GPS (global positioning system)
network will automatically reset to zero
in late 1999. Things certainly look
exciting for the turn of the century.
I guess you have to walk on the planet for more than 50 years, be in a war,
have a wife and children, and fight a
whole bunch of issues for a long time
to know that this feels familiar. The
name changes, the date shifts, but it’s
the same question:
Are you ready?
People generally agree that something’s going to happen, yet we don’t
yet know the nature of the beast. It has
many faces. Earthquake, fire, flood,
plague, meteor strike, nuclear attack,
hurricane, and tornado—all strike in
the moment. Economic collapse, crop
failure, famine, and nuclear winter are
forces of siege that could last months,
years, or decades.
From a distance, the first evidence
may be a blackout or a news report.
The area affected by the disaster will
dictate the probability, frequency, and
durations of blackouts. If the scope of
the disaster is large, other
services—water, natural gas, gasoline,
fuels, food, and goods—will fail.
Following that will be the loss of
phones, police, fire, rescue, utility, Red
Cross, and government services.
It is said that crisis has two components: danger and opportunity. There is
danger in a crisis—catastrophe, collapse, and chaos. There is opportunity
in crisis—restoration, renewal, and
revival. Preparedness doesn’t mean
you’ll survive, but it won’t contribute
to your demise.
There are issues that are specific to
living in a city or in the country, so I
will treat each as distinct scenarios. As
you discover issues that approximate
ones you may experience, you will
likely be drawn to research these topics
in more detail.
A blackout is a likely scenario in
either a short-term or long-term crisis,
so that is a good place to begin.
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
Blackout ready
As winter storms roll in and you prepare for the effects of rain, wind, and
cold, what plans can you make to handle an interruption of utility power?
Most of us have experienced a blackout before. Has it been just an annoyance and inconvenience to you? Or
was it disruptive to your life or business? There’s not much anyone can do
to prevent a utility blackout, but there
are ways to mitigate its impact on
your lifestyle whenever it does happen.
Is readiness for a blackout worthy of
your consideration? Cost-cutting measures by utility companies throughout
the USA have eliminated programs
that protect utility lines from growing
or falling trees. The new policy seems
to be “fix it only if it’s broken.”
Severe storms, then, will most certainly impact utility service. An interruption lasting one or more days is more
real a possibility than ever.
The pressing question when a blackout occurs is: When will it end?
Virtually anyone can put up with a
few hours of interruption. Just break
out the candles, don warmer clothes,
and read a book or enjoy the company
of a friend. The average blackout is a
pop quiz. “Are you ready?” it asks.
When the blackout continues, with no
end in sight, the need for light, heat,
water, and food grows.
What’s important in
the home?
There are four critical loads in a
home affected by a blackout: lighting,
heating, refrigeration, and the water
system. More specifically:
• Lighting. Lighting is essential for
overall safety, particularly at night.
Fortunately, it need not be electric.
Candles, flashlights, and kerosene
lanterns are traditional lighting
sources for blackouts. Preparation for
a blackout requires stockpiling matches, candles, batteries, or fuel for
for some time following a blackout,
powered with huge standby generators. Private water systems built
around streams, springs, and wells that
use electric pumps will quit working
as soon as the electricity goes off. The
pressure tank will still deliver some
water, so immediately fill handy containers (bottles, buckets, bowls, bathtub, etc.) before this supply is depleted. The standard household water
heater is another source of 30-50 gallons of water. How will you handle
toilet, shower, and sink during a
blackout? Some forethought and planning will help with these processes
during an extended blackout.
Even seasonal streams will supply
power in the winter from units
like this pelton wheel.
lanterns. Don’t forget to put this stuff
where you can find it in the dark!
• Heating. Central air heating systems, even if they use natural gas or
propane, depend on electricity for the
blower that will circulate the heated
air. During a blackout, this system
will not work. Areas with temperate
climates allow most users to compensate with warmer clothing and the use
of small propane or kerosene heaters.
Wood stoves are also a popular alternative to central heating systems.
• Refrigeration. A refrigerator will
keep things cool for a long time after
power is interrupted. From the beginning, minimize the frequency and
duration of opening its door to preserve its cool! As the blackout continues, consume the more perishable
items first. Even a small stockpile of
canned or freeze-dried foods will
prove helpful during a blackout.
Unless you’ve arranged for a way to
heat and cook food, ensure that your
supply is edible “as is,” or with simple
re-hydrating with water.
• Water system. Most community
water systems are designed to work
Other sources of
Utility electricity available at the
wall socket in a home or business is
rated 120 Volts and 60-cycle AC.
There are two ways to supply this
same specialized power in a blackout:
a standby generator and a batterypowered inverter.
The standby generator:
Where the interruption of utility
power even for a few hours is
critical—i.e., emergency equipment
and services in businesses and hospitals—a standby generator may be used
to supply power. A standby generator
is an engine combined with a generator. This unit may be started manually
or automatically and requires only fuel
(gasoline, diesel, or propane) to operate until grid power is restored.
Homes may also use a standby generator to supply electricity during a
blackout. A common arrangement is
to start the backup generator from a
remote control panel in the house.
Some or all of the household circuitry
is transferred from the utility line to
the standby generator. This process is
reversed when utility service is
A standby generator for homes,
businesses, or hospitals is usually
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
Dual meters are common when renewable energy
systems put power back down the utility line.
rated to handle only some of the existing loads. A generator large enough to
handle all of the loads is big and
expensive to buy, maintain, and operate. A detailed analysis of existing
loads should precede the installation
of any standby generator. Make a load
list. This is a good place to rate loads
as essential or non-essential. Later,
this helps identify circuits that will be
left ON or shut OFF during generator
In theory, the standby generator
seems like the best way to handle
blackouts. However, there are five
reasons why it is less than an ideal
solution: expense, fuel supply, peripherals, efficiency, and sound.
• It is a fairly expensive system for
only occasional use. For a big chunk
of time, the generator is not doing
anything for you at all. Standby generators designed for long life and minimal noise are more expensive than
ones operating at higher rpm (3600
• Requires fuel to run. Either you
must install a large fuel tank nearby or
you’ll be transporting fuel cans to and
from town to feed a rather thirsty
beast. Weather severe enough to
require generator operation is rarely
the best time to travel to refill empty
gas cans.
• Needs peripheral hardware to
work. Remote startup. Transfer
switch. Monitoring gauges. Fuel supply. A firesafe, weatherproof installation (shed?). A battery that is ready to
start the generator. Add these costs to
that of the generator itself.
• It is needed for even small loads. A
generator powering a few loads has a
much lighter load, but gobbles (inefficiently) fuel as though it’s doing more
work than it is. Either way, it experiences wear.
• It is noisy. This is a security issue.
A standby generator lets everyone in
the area know where you are. At the
same time, proximity to the generator
impairs one’s own hearing. Bad combination.
Despite these limitations, standby
generators have their place. There is
100 times more available energy
stored in a pound of gasoline than a
pound of battery. In the short term and
for big loads, the generator gives the
biggest bang for the buck. The questions are: how big is your need and
what’s the duration of the blackout?
The battery-powered inverter:
Another way to make electricity like
that supplied by a utility is through an
inverter. An inverter is an electronic
device that converts DC electricity
into AC electricity. (DC is direct current. AC is alternating current.) The
result is identical to the stuff from the
utilities, even cleaner.
One source of DC electricity is a
battery. Thus, an inverter can transform the DC electricity from a battery
into 120V, 60-cycle AC power. A battery is not truly a source of electricity.
Rather, it is a means of storing the
energy (in a chemical form) of the DC
electricity supplied to it. The best
sources of DC electricity are PV
(Photo-Voltaic, or solar) modules,
wind-electric machines, and small
hydro-electric systems. More on this
A battery charger plugged into the
utility line will also supply DC electricity to a battery. This is a popular
idea. The batteries are charged and
maintained at full readiness, and ready
to substitute their energy for that of
the utility for as long as they’re able.
The bigger the battery (bank of batteries), the longer the system can bridge
the blackout.
These systems are common. Have
you ever wondered why your phone
works when a blackout occurs?
Phones run on electricity, too. The
phone company has a “standby” or
backup system which switches ON
automatically when utility power is
interrupted. This is called an uninterruptible power system, or UPS. At the
heart of the UPS system is a bank of
batteries that are much like the battery
in your car, except bigger and heavier.
Those batteries store enough energy to
run an entire complex of telephonerelated equipment for many hours during a blackout. When a blackout lasts
longer than that, an engine-driven
generator (fueled by gasoline, diesel,
or propane) is started up to handle the
entire load and recharge the batteries.
Until a few years ago, a small UPS
system was the primary way to avoid
the loss of power to a computer during
a blackout. A critical period is the
time it takes to switch between utility
and battery power. To avoid any
glitch, early UPS systems would run
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
the computer’s inverter from the batteries full time, while utility electricity
only maintained the battery pack’s
charge. Better electronics have
improved the purity and speed of the
transition time. Today, many computers are unaffected by the transition as
newer “line-tie” inverters switch from
utility to battery, or back, in milliseconds.
There are many applications where a
split-second transition between utility
and battery power is not an issue. Or
where more modest loads are dictated.
Here, a simple and less expensive system—a small inverter, battery, and
transfer switch—works well. The system I installed when I lived in the city
was sized to power a furnace blower
(and its controls), refrigerator, stereo,
and four lights during an emergency.
The system was installed near the
main distribution box (where the fuses
or breakers are located). It involved
moving the wires and breakers (to
which the wires are connected) into a
service box I added. With a transfer
switch added between the two boxes, I
could shift these three circuits
between utility power or the inverter’s
output. This is basic electrical wiring,
easy for a DIY (Do-It-Yourself)
homeowner or a local electrician.
How did it work? I’d give the blackout 10 minutes before I looked for the
load list. It’s a map that lets me move
about the house, shutting off unneeded
loads on the few circuits that will be
switched to the inverter. (The energy
stored in the battery is the lifeblood of
the backup system. Don’t let it bleed
away needlessly!) Next, I’d shut off
the main utility switch, flip the transfer switch to inverter, and turn the
inverter ON.
Figure 1:
12V vs 6V batteries
Batteries may be wired in
parallel to increase capacity.
The important characteristics of a
battery are voltage (V), capacity (Ah),
and design cycle.
1. Voltage. Common battery voltages are 6-Volt and 12-volt (hereafter,
6V and 12V). Large battery banks will
employ individual 2V cells with massive capacities.
2. Battery capacity. Battery capacity is rated in Ah (Amp-hours) or coldcranking amps (useless for our purposes). The Ah rating is helpful in
describing the amount of energy the
battery can hold.
3. Design cycle. Batteries are of two
types: SLI and deep cycle. (A cycle is
a discharge and full recharge.) A SLI
(starting-lighting-ignition) battery is
used in a car to start the engine—a
fairly shallow cycle—and is immediately recharged by the engine’s generator. Deep cycle batteries are used in
applications where the battery’s energy may be nearly depleted—a deep
Figure 2:
A home UPS system
The simplest backup system is composed of two major components—a
battery and an inverter. Batteries and
inverters come in all shapes and sizes.
Select carefully and they will serve
you well.
cycle—in use. This process will damage a SLI battery internally and eventually result in its failure.
Batteries are wired in
series to increase voltage.
The smallest deep-cycle battery you
might use for an inverter is rated 12V
and 110Ah. These are used in boats,
trolling motors, and RVs. At 50-70
pounds, this battery is about as much
as a healthy person can carry and
maneuver in a confined space. To
increase the capacity of this system,
you “parallel” a second battery with
the first (Fig. 1). To parallel a battery
(same voltage only, please!), make
connections positive-to-positive and
negative-to-negative for both batteries
and load. The voltage will stay the
same; in this case, 12V. At any time
later, you can increase the system’s
capacity (the rate or duration of power
delivery) by adding batteries of the
same voltage, even if they have different capacities.
A better building block in a battery
bank for inverter operation is the 6V,
220Ah battery used in golf cars. It has
half the voltage, yet twice the Ah of a
12V battery of the same size and
weight. So, they have the same “energy density.”
To supply the 12V electricity our
inverter needs, two 6V batteries are
connected in series (Fig. 2) like dry
cells in a flashlight, with ONE wire
connecting the positive of one battery
to the negative of the other. (A novice
may try to connect the other two posts
together, which results in a very hazardous short-circuit.) The result of the
series wiring is a new, bigger battery
of 12V with the remaining posts, positive and negative, connected to the
system in the same way as would be
any 12V battery.
Theoretically, pound for pound, two
12V batteries in parallel will equal the
capacity of two 6V batteries in series.
In reality, a 6V battery is tougher—
thicker plates, fewer cells to water,
and greater tolerance to deep cycling
and cold weather—than a 12V battery,
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
resulting in a longer service life for
almost any application.
Expect to pay $70-85 for a 6V,
deep-cycle golf car battery (or equivalent). You’ll need them in pairs for
inverter operation at 12V.
Inverter features
and ratings
Today’s inverters serve two critical
functions. First and primary, they convert the battery’s output (low-voltage
DC) to a form that your household can
use (120 or 240 volts AC, 60 cycles).
Second—and most desirable for
standby generator or utility
interaction—is the internal battery
charger option. A battery charger’s
operation (DC-to-AC) is simply the
reverse of an inverter’s operation
(AC-to-DC). When combined in one
box, the inverter and battery charger
share (use) the same electronic hardware. In this way, utility electricity
stores itself in a battery which, in a
blackout, will release the energy, powering an inverter to make 120V, 60cycle AC.
The battery and inverter must be
“matched” to each other and to the
loads you expect them to power.
Appliances, lights, and tools are
referred to as “loads.” Each “load” has
its own power (consumption) rating.
You may have heard the term
“wattage.” This is an expression of the
RATE at which a load uses electricity.
Generally, lights and radios are small
loads while refrigerators, motors, and
toasters are big loads. The effect of
loads is accumulative. That is, if you
operate more than one load at one
time, the total load is the addition of
all those wattages. The power consumed by even one small light all
night might be greater than that of a
toaster operating for a few minutes.
In an emergency, you must reduce
the loads the battery/inverter unit will
power. The faster you use the energy
stored in the batteries, the sooner
you’ll have a “second” blackout!
Make sense? In a blackout, you
A solar-powered food dehydrator
lessens the need for refrigeration.
become the power company, responsible for rationing both the rate and
quantity of expected household needs
for a specific time period.
Inverters have voltage and wattage
1. Voltage. The voltage ratings are
divided into input and output. The
input voltage is the DC voltage of the
battery bank. Inverters exist to handle
DC voltages of 12V, 24V, 32V, 48V,
or 120V.
The output voltage of the inverter is
the 60-cycle AC voltage. It may be
120V (commercial) or 220V (industrial), or both.
2. Wattage. Wattage ratings of
inverters range from 50-4,000 Watts
(4kW) or larger. What wattage works
for you? Here’s a handy rule-ofthumb.
a. The minimum wattage rating of
the inverter is determined by the
largest single load you expect it to
b. The maximum wattage rating of
the inverter is the largest combination
of loads you want it to power simultaneously.
For example, if you had loads of 50
watts, 120 watts, 220 watts, 1200
watts, and 1400 watts, the inverter rating could be as low as 1400 watts (for
the biggest single load) or as high as
2940 watts (for all of these loads.)
High-power inverters are expensive
and require more battery capacity.
Smart owners balance this situation by
avoiding simultaneous use of heavy
loads. In this example, then, selecting
a 2000-watt inverter would handle
everything else if the operator avoids
using the two biggest loads simultaneously.
The price tag of a small UPS system
is well within the reach of many
homeowners. Inverters average a dollar a watt and batteries (lead-acid
type) about a dollar a pound. A battery/inverter system is virtually maintenance-free and tucks away on a shelf
in the garage or carport, ready to work
when the blackout comes. Fortunately,
your investment in this system has a
second success. It is the core of a system that enables you, when you’re
ready and able, to tap the renewable
energy sources—solar, wind, and
hydro—all around you.
A no-inverter
DC system
Utility power, in the form of
120VAC, 60Hz, is very specialized
power. In a blackout, you may have
less need for it than you might think.
It is well known that a car or truck is
useful in emergencies for the radio,
light, heat, and shelter it offers.
Without the engine running, there is
enough capacity in vehicle’s 12V battery to power lights, radio, and the
horn for some time. Periodic engine
startup adds heat to the equation and
recharges the battery, too!
Similarly, a stand-alone 12V battery
pack located in the garage or home
may be kept on charge (with a battery
charger) until utility power fails and
its stored energy is needed “as is,” at
12V. This does not mean that you can
power the same 120V loads as an
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
inverter will. The RV (recreational
vehicle), automotive, and marine markets offer almost any type of appliance, motor, tool, pump, and light that
will work directly from 12 volts DC.
For example, several high-efficiency
12V fluorescent lights will provide
20-40 hours of welcome light from
one automotive-size battery. I can
think of nothing more reassuring in
the darkness, particularly when a
storm is raging, than the steady glow
of a lamp.
How do you wire up a 12V system
to be blackout-ready? For occasional
use, clamp-type lamps and several
lengths of extension cords may be
connected together to distribute light
through a dwelling. This assembly can
be coiled up and put away until a
blackout occurs. A more permanent
solution is to dedicate an electric circuit to 12V use. Existing household
circuitry rarely adapts easily to a dedicated usage (unless one is still building one’s home). Here, a well-planned
layout and one standard roll of Romex
wire will add a 12V circuit to any
home, shop, or building for lights and
a radio.
Solar cookers achieve 250-350 degrees during operation.
Living beyond
the grid
Most RE (renewable energy) systems are based around 6V and 12V
storage batteries. The simplest RE
systems use a solar module, one or
two batteries, a few 12V lights, and a
12V radio. Except for the PV module,
this is identical to the system
Figure 3:
Water systems involve the processes of extraction,
transport, storage, and pressurization.
(described above) to supply power
during a blackout. Becoming blackout-ready, then, is a step in the direction of becoming energy-independent.
RE systems are generally located
“beyond the grid.” The cost of bringing in utility service even a mile is
often more expensive than investing in
a system that is utility-free. RE technology has focused on being modular.
This makes it simple to add more
capacity, and to move and re-install
the system.
There are energy sources other than
PV modules worthy of your attention:
wind and water. Wind-electric
machines and small hydro-electric turbines are also viable energy producers. A multi-source system is smart for
three reasons:
1. Seasonally, wind and water
sources of energy are complementary
with solar-generated power.
2. Solar, wind, and water system
hardware is designed to supply lowvoltage DC, particularly 12V and
3. A system designed around one
source readily accommodates additional sources. The systems are more
similar than different. Therefore, the
battery bank, distribution and fusing
panels, and monitoring equipment are
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
Figure 4:
Low-yield sources can meet daily household water needs.
virtually the same and are shared by
the different sources.
Putting together a backup or RE system is also a good way to learn the
basics of electricity itself (i.e., volts,
amps, watts, and amp-hours). I believe
this is essential if one is going to rely
on electricity for anything. With this
knowledge comes an appreciation for
how energy moves and changes, and
how it can be harnessed to fill your
filters will be needed to breathe without risk of injury.
Water: Humans can live only three
days without water. See that you store
some or have access to it. Water is
easily contaminated. Figure out a way
to purify it. Drink and cook with pure
water or risk illness.
Shelter: Human beings are amazingly manipulative of their environment, yet remain vulnerable to it in
crisis. Shelter holds back the extremes
of heat and cold, offers dryness, and
feels safer for sleeping.
Energy: While we manipulate energy in our home, workplace, and car on
many levels every day, it is all artificially generated. When that source is
lost, the first job is to conserve it, in
whatever form it is available. With
any prolonged interruption of transportation or utility services in crisis,
stockpiles of fuels like gasoline,
diesel, and kerosene will be depleted
or prohibitively expensive.
Food: Humans can live about a
week without food, less in cold weather and limited water. In a mild emergency, stockpiling food, even enough
for 5-7 days, saves having to forage,
hunt, buy, barter, or trade for it. Or
worse. Hunger strips away the resolve
Figure 5:
Beyond a blackout
Preparing for something worse or
longer than a normal blackout is a
frightening prospect. I avoid being
overwhelmed by the sheer immensity
of the topic by dividing the issues into
two phases: basics and preparation.
Basics represent the checklist of life.
What does a human being need to survive, short and long term? Air, water,
shelter, and food.
Air: Few think much about breathing until they can’t. Remedies that
take longer than three minutes are of
little value. Shelters must remain tied
to the atmosphere directly. If there are
airborne pollutants (smoke, ash, etc.),
Understanding how water is used helps
conservation and gray water system design.
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
of people unaccustomed to its grip.
Foodstuffs in most cities would disappear in a few days during a real crisis.
As one becomes more self-reliant,
there is less dependence on (or need to
buy) water, electricity, food, and fuels.
Transportation needs also decline,
allowing you more time to live and
work at home. Coincidentally, this
process prepares oneself for short and
long-term disasters.
Here are some additional thoughts
on preparations for water, food, energy, heat, lighting, motors, electronics,
communication, and transportation.
Water: In a crisis, life is water. If
your shelter—home, building, garage,
cabin, RV, camper, tent, tipi, tarp, or
cave—is connected to the town or city
supply, your backup plan is to fill
everything you can as soon as you
can. If you can’t develop your own
source, prepare some way to store
water in 5-55 gallon plastic containers, or plastic, wood, or steel tanks.
If you plan to develop a water
source, or already have, make certain
that your system is not completely
dependent on utility or generator
power. The process of water usage can
be broken down into four areas:
extraction, transport, storage, and
pressurization (Fig. 3). Treat them as
separate issues to maximize the versatility of the system. A low-yield water
source quickly accumulates enough
water to handle a standard household
(Fig. 4).
There are low-power, low-voltage,
and energy-efficient alternatives to the
standard submersible pump. These can
be piggybacked onto existing systems
or work alone. PV modules powering
a 12V or 24V pump (no battery) have
seriously challenged wind-powered
pumps in unattended operation, like
livestock watering, in the past decade.
Most renewable energy systems use
something similar.
Water you waste also wastes the
energy invested to get the water to
This design of solar water heater exposes the
tanks directly to the sun in an insulated box.
you. A more active conservation
method makes multiple use of the
water. A “gray-water” system often
doubles the usefulness of the water
supply (Fig 5). Cooking, drinking and
rinsing are the purest uses. Garden,
clothes washing, and toilet are secondary uses. A plan and a bit of
plumbing will help with this. There
are several books on gray-water systems.
Look at rainfall collection, cisterns,
and pools as additional sources and
storage methods.
Food: Food is one of the first concerns anyone will have in a crisis.
Food issues revolve around supply,
preservation, and cooking.
1. Supply is what you start with, if
you don’t grow your own. A stockpile, however small, is a good idea.
Trading work or goods with people
who farm and garden also works.
A growing space and some seed are
the best investment. Learn what to do
with the seeds, and how and when to
use them. Greenhouses and
growframes provide vital protection
against the elements, insects, and foraging animals and otherwise assist
with year-round growing.
2. Preservation recognizes that food
must be preserved against spoilage
and infestation. Standard refrigerators
and freezers work when there is abundant electricity. In an RE system, they
hog energy. A high-efficiency, lowvoltage refrigerator is expensive, yet
rugged. More importantly, it frees up
an appreciable chunk of energy that
would be otherwise generated, stored,
and inverted—only to be wasted.
refrigerators—canning and dehydrating, selective harvesting, and earth
storage (i.e., a root cellar). Several
good designs of solar dehydrators
exist. Using one or more of these techniques further reduces the load on, or
the need for, a refrigerator.
3. Cooking. It takes energy to cook
food, particularly grains and vegetables. How much? Of what type? Solar
cookers are a good bet if you’re home.
A 24-hour solar-powered oven is possible. A parabolic tray of less than 100
square feet can heat natural oils in
excess of 350 degrees F. (100 degrees
F short of their flash point) and store a
sufficient quantity to keep the oven of
uniform temperature throughout a 24hour period. Use gas or wood heat to
back up this system.
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
Energy: Your home is probably
supplied with energy in the form of
electricity and natural gas. Rural
homes may use wood energy and
propane. These energy “sources” are
converted into only a few useful
forms: heat, light, mechanical motion,
and sound (stereo and radio).
Heat: Heat is a cherished form of
energy and the biggest load in the
home. Space heating. Water heating.
Clotheswashing. Both refrigerators
and air conditioners are heat pumps.
Good designs of solar collectors
exist to handle these heating tasks.
While designing a home to use solar
energy is optimal, many homes can be
retrofitted to use it effectively.
Thermal mass—water, concrete and
rock—will store solar energy for
nighttime and storms. Save wood and
other fuels for really bad weather. The
perceived need for air conditioning
and massive heaters is a coverup for
poor design, sloppy construction, and
cheap materials. Good insulation is a
must—floor, walls, and ceiling—to
avoid heat loss in winter and heat gain
in summer.
A good understanding of how heat
moves (radiated, conducted, and convected) and what happens to radiated
heat (transmitted, absorbed, and
reflected) helps collect, contain, store,
use, and release it .
Lighting: Lighting is essential for
moving about at night, or in dark
places. Still, night is for sleep, even in
emergencies. Rest is important in survival. And sleeping saves light!
Incandescents, fluorescents, LEDs,
and oil lamps all have value in lighting.
1. Incandescents, like standard
household 120V bulbs and spotlights,
gobble energy. Reserve their use to
short durations. 12V automotive (turn
signal type incandescent) bulbs are
inexpensive, work directly on 12VDC,
and are low-wattage. Still, use them
This electric motorcycle is recharged
daily from two solar modules.
2. Fluorescents, particularly those
that are high-frequency (20KHz or
above) are efficient and long lived.
3. LEDs are light-emitting diodes
that operate at extremely low power.
LEDs may be grouped together to
increase voltage and light intensity.
They’re expensive but have a service
life hundreds of times longer than
4. Oil lamps will burn natural oils
that may be pressed from many types
of plants.
Motors: Motors convert electricity
into mechanical motion. Motors
power appliances in the home and
tools in the shop. Pumps, fans, hair
dryers, coffee grinders, juicers, turntables, tape decks, CD players, vacuum
cleaners, computers, answering
machines, and electric can openers use
AC or DC motors.
High-wattage motors are difficult to
power with low-voltage DC directly.
Use an inverter or generator, as needed. Low-voltage DC motors may be
substituted for AC ones under 2 HP.
Or seek their 12V DC counterparts. Of
course, manual tools don’t need electricity to work.
Electronics: Electronic devices may
be divided into two categories: high
voltage and low voltage. The bigger
and heavier the electronics, the more
likely the need for 120V, 60-cycle
AC. This includes the family stereo
system, computers and peripherals,
printers, television, and microwave
ovens. Inverters and generators will be
needed to power these units.
Light-duty electronics work around
low-voltage DC, often below 12V.
This includes remote phones, answering machines, portable radios, calculators, and portable CD and tape players. Look for a black module that
plugs into the wall receptacle. The
other end plugs into a DC input jack.
DC input jacks may also be found on
battery-powered units.
With a suitable DC-DC converter
(or a dropping resistor), these electronic gizmos can be directly powered
from a 12V car battery. (With a small
modification, the jack can be re-wired
to also recharge NiCads while they’re
in the radio.) Note the voltage printed
near the jack to find the unit’s voltage.
Or count the number of cells (batteries) the unit contains and multiply by
1.5V to calculate the voltage. Or read
the rating on the black module that
plugs into the wall. This will help
select the dropping resistor or converter setting.
Most electronic devices are polarity
sensitive. By law, manufacturers are
required to show the polarity of DC
inputs, usually with a symbol. Wire
the jacks and plugs accordingly.
Small 12V B&W TV sets may also
prove handy, providing local coverage
of a crisis. (Sorry, 12V color TVs gobble energy. Avoid using them.) These
and other 12V devices often use a cigarette lighter plug (like the one that
plugs into the car dash). If your vehicle doesn’t have one, buy a lighter
receptacle from an RV or renewables
dealer. It can be clamped to the car
battery posts or hardwired into the
Communication: Details of what is
happening beyond your own influence
January/February 1999 Backwoods Home Magazine
during a crisis is useful and, perhaps,
crucial. In a blackout, the AM-FM
radio in a car or truck may be the only
communication at your disposal. At
low volume, a radio will work for
many days on just the car battery. You
may need to position the vehicle (and
antenna) away from buildings to get
good reception. The news may not be
reassuring if you’re expecting help,
but it will help you make better guesses or decisions about what you can
and can’t do.
Battery-powered, multi-band radios
or boomboxes that use dry cells are
equally good. With rechargeable cells
(i.e., with NiCads) installed, there is
no end to their useful service life. The
cells can be recharged from renewable
energy sources or even the 12V battery in a car. Note the actual voltage,
use a converter or dropping resistor,
and observe polarity. At low volume
(or with earphones), these radios use
only a tiny amount of energy in operation.
Transceivers, ham radio sets, walkie
talkies, and CB (Citizen Band) radios
are all useful, particularly for communities. Understand the power requirements to ensure that you can meet
them. As well, recognize that sophisticated radio gear doesn’t mean more
effective communication. The semiconductor junctions in transistors and
chips are extremely vulnerable to
EMP (electromagnetic pulses) generated at high altitudes by both nuclear
weapons and meteor strikes. The more
complex something is, the more there
is that can go wrong with it.
Transportation: Transportation
may be adversely affected by crisis.
Roads blocked with debris or other
vehicles, bridges out, power lines
down—these are common themes in a
disaster. Owning a 4WD vehicle helps
but it will need fuel, oil, tires, and
parts to operate.
Vehicles converted to electric
propulsion have an advantage over gas
engines. There are only a few sources
for gasoline. An electric vehicle (EV)
No Electricity? No Problem!
is “fueled” by electricity from utility
power, a standby generator, and
renewable energy systems (solar,
wind, or hydro). An EV has an additional advantage over vehicles with
engines: it is silent in operation.
It may be easier to get around with
motorcycles (noisy unless electric)
and bicycles (mountain-type). Closer
to home, carts, wagons, wheelbarrows, and garden carts will help with
everyday work or emergencies. Again,
with self-reliance, there is simply less
need for transportation.
(Photos and drawings in this article came
from these books by Michael Hackleman:
• Wind and Windspinners: A Nuts’ &
Bolts’ Guide to Wind-Electric Systems
• The Homebuilt Wind-Generated
Electricity Handbook
• Better Use Of: Lights, Appliances, Shop
Tools, and Other Electric Loads
• At Home with Alternative Energy
• WaterWorks: An Owner Builder Guide
to Rural Water Systems
• The New Electric Vehicles: A Clean and
Quiet Revolution
For a publication list, send an SASE to
Michael Hackleman, PO Box 327, Willits, CA
95490. ∆)
It ain’t cold if it ain’t
Crystal Cold
· 13.3 cubic feet
· Textured almond or white
molded steel cabinet
· Reversible doors
· Single deep crisper
· Two deep-door, shelved
· Mounted on heavy duty rollers
· LP or natural gas
· Thermostat controlled
· Front push button ignitor
Designed to
withstand hot
Weight: 190 lbs.
Dimensions: 60”H x 32”D x 28” W
For more information contact:
Ervin’s Cabinet Shop
220 North County Road 425 E.
Arcola, Illinois 61910
* Also lowest prices on Norcold *
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