01 July 2012

And then the power went out...

Preparing for disaster includes such things as having the power go out, like it did in my location with a storm system that went from 'Chance of Rain 10%' to sudden downpour, and very high winds.  At 10:20pm on Friday night the power went out... at 6:00pm on Sunday afternoon it came back on.  The high temps during the day was in the 90's to 100's, and the evenings featured hot, still air which meant that you could have the windows open but nothing really moved through them.  At night there were no artificial lights to be seen anywhere, save for the rare car driving by or aircraft overhead at night.

For powering equipment I have a number of short-term UPS back-ups for computer systems.  These are the 'give me 10 minutes to close everything down gracefully' sorts of back-ups, not long-term ones.  For a bit more power I also have a Universal Power Group Eco 1800S solar generator system.  These systems are, I suspect, rebranded to a lot of different names and basically looks like this:


The solar panel is of the folding type and the battery system is basically a large UPS with a 12v input to supplement a 120v input.  Fully charged it ran my refrigerator (a basic Frigidaire model, no frills) for about 6 hours supplemented with the solar panel.  My back deck situation gets me about 80% direct sunlight from dawn to dusk if you reposition the panel every hour to hour and half, and takes about 4 hours to bet to a 50% charge.

If you are getting this to run a refrigerator, it would be best to have the most energy efficient refrigerator on the market.  Or a small cube type that is also energy efficient. A basic full size no-frills refrigerator is a short term stop-gap with this unit.  If you want it for powering up electronics, a simple cell-phone charger can take a decent chunk from its battery reserve.  For 5-6 hours of uptime for a refrigerator it is decent, but for anything more than that or for more than a laptop, you are going to have to look at your current draw rate for the item vs. storage capacity in the batteries.  The refrigerator took between 0.15 to 0.17 kWh draw during the uptime of the device.

Trying to get a refrigerator chilled down is an energy intensive task and once the refrigerator starts to get warmer, the ability to do more than put a slight chill back into it via such a system is minimal.  The lesson: when you get a power outage of more than a few minutes and time is unknown to restoration, put on the battery pack immediately to keep the refrigerator as cold for as long as possible.

Also tested was a Kaito radio KA600:


This comes without a transformer block.  Your choices for energy sources are AA batteries, that cute little solar panel or the hand crank.  It has an on-board little LiON battery for holding a minimal charge so that after 1.5 minutes of using the hand crank you get about 10 minutes of radio time.  As the amount of radio time is limited by battery size and input source, you can go a bit longer with the LiON if you have pretty intense sunlight to put the radio in while running it.  A set of 3 AA batteries lasts about 3 hours.  In other words an energy sipper this isn't.  It is amazing it has so many functions built-in, but that really hits the LiON battery use for the main display and TEMP/HUMIDITY display.  Radio reception in the great outdoors is good, from the great indoors it depends on how close you are to a window.  With that same 80% sunshine the radio shuts off after about a minute of use.  For a bit longer the hand crank and sunlight to supplement the battery gets about 15 minutes of use.  The antenna is uni-directional.

Based on your needs this may do fine, but it isn't recommended for an extended power outage.  If a better LiON battery were on-board to get at least 1-2 hours of use or a low energy system put in with options for turning off other functions like the displays and such and just go to radio, then it would be a better option for longer-term use.

One neighbor had a gasoline back-up generator but hadn't done basic maintenance and monthly start-ups on it, so it didn't work.  If you get a liquid or multi-fuel generator, do the maintenance and any recommended check-ups, and get gasoline from a marine or boating station as they tend not to have ethanol in them.

Coming from the Western NY area there are some things I can say about the NoVA power grid: it is fragile.

Very fragile.

Mind you, living near the Niagara Power Project meant (back when I lived in that region) that power line situations tended to get addressed rapidly.  Since bad snow and ice storms happened every couple of years, trees tended to get cut back from the lines in a severe manner so as to limit the number of winter outages.

A few years ago, here in NoVA, we had a 5 day power outage.  With no storms.  Power outages of the 3-5 hour variety are of the 1-2 year amount.

Growing up in WNY I experienced the Great Blackout, the '77 storm and an early '80s ice storm with power lost for a week.  Basically, over two decades there were three outages of any real length and the 3-5 hour types were rare, about once every 2-3 years due to lightning.

One of the local radio stations was asking people for input on who they blame for this.  My answer is simple: customers who are unwilling to tell the power company to harden their infrastructure are to blame.  There is lots of other blame to go around at the local, State and federal level with make-work money hand-outs that don't do a thing to get better power grids and only get some cosmetic work done to the existing infrastructure.  This outage is a wake-up call to the region: if you aren't willing to complain about this sort of thing, expect to get more of it as you reward bad behavior.

I will be complaining more.

I'm also getting two SUNRNR units with four solar panels and will look to take my refrigerator and freezers off the grid entirely. Trying to live off-grid in a Built-Up Area is difficult, but since the population at large isn't getting the hint that infrastructure needs to be maintained, that is about the only solution until there is enough of an economic recovery to leave the region and make an off-grid home somewhere with a better climate.  I would prefer someplace where the people take having a hardened infrastructure seriously, but so far, no luck on that.

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