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Alternative Energy

solar panel and batteryEver since I became aware of the need to be prepared for a disruption of life as we know it, I’ve been drawn to solar power. I’ve been impressed with solar power since the first time I saw a solar powered calculator many, many years ago. A tiny photovoltaic chip generated enough energy from ambient light to run a calculator. How cool is that?

I’ve wanted to dip my foot in the solar pool (so to speak) as part of my preps. What has kept me from it so far is that I wanted to start small. Why? Because solar can be expensive and I’m on a low budget, and because I’m a solar power dummy. Unfortunately, the problem with starting small in solar power is that there just aren’t a lot of small applications that would be of any real value to me. (Beyond the nifty calculator mentioned above, that is…but these days that doesn’t have a lot of value either.) Yes, I could shell out $100 for a solar gadget that would recharge a cell phone or power an LED light, but it just didn’t meet a real need or solve a real problem in my life, so I put solar power on the back burner.

I’ve Finally Got a Problem that Solar Power Solves!

But now I’ve acquired a problem for which solar power is the ideal solution. In my last blog I discussed our decision to purchase a pellet-burning stove (as opposed to a more conventional wood-burning stove) as an alternative heat source for our home. You can read about my contrarian reasoning in that blog. But one of the key factors that impacted my decision to go with pellets was a critical piece of information provided by my stove vendor. He told me that a pellet stove, while it requires electrical power to operate, uses so little electricity that you can get a battery back-up unit to run it when there is a power outage. I asked our stove guy how much a back-up system like he was talking about would cost and he said $500.

I’m no stranger to battery back-up systems. We’ve been using battery-powered back-ups with surge suppressors and voltage regulators on all of our desktop computer systems in our office for over 20 years. The problem with those battery back-up units is that they don’t run very long. The battery just isn’t big enough to provide power for very long. They have to be recharged from a working electrical outlet. That’s not a long-term solution in a grid-down situation. And that’s when I knew that I had found my perfect small-scale application for solar power. I could get a battery back-up that recharges from a solar panel. No need for an electrical outlet. So long as the sun keeps coming up each day, I would be in business.

What Components Do You Need for a Solar Power System?

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I’m a guy who knew nothing about prepping when I started. Dumber than a bag of hammers when it came to gardening, guns, first aid, ham radio, solar power — you name it. But I like doing research. I read a lot. I like to shop online. So I set about to learn what I needed to meet my modest solar power need.

My research soon took me to a line of products offered by Goal Zero, a company that I liked well enough to add as an advertiser to this site. They make a nice line of products that address a wide range of small-to-medium sized solar applications, including three sizes of portable “solar generators.” Sounds like just the thing. And at $460 for the Yeti 400 model, the price was in line with the stove guy’s quote of $500 for a conventional battery back-up for the pellet stove.

Not content to be taken in by Goal Zero’s slick website, I dug further online looking for reviews of their products from people who weren’t selling them. I lurked online in solar power forums and off-grid websites. What I found were two types of people: those who actually used Goal Zero products and liked them, and those who claimed that you could easily assemble components to build your own system for half the price. The second option intrigued me. If I can put my own kit together, be able to upgrade bits and pieces as needed, and save a buck in the process, I’m all for it. (More on Goal Zero vs. DIY below.)

What components do you need to build a solar powered battery back-up system? You’ll be pleased at how simple it is:

  • ­­­­An energy source. Since we’re talking solar here, solar panels are the obvious choice. Just to expand your thinking a little bit, the power source could also be a windmill or a water wheel, but for our purposes, we’re sticking to solar panels for now.
  • A charge controller. Solar panels capture energy from the sun, but they don’t store it. You need a battery to store the energy until needed, but you can’t tie your solar panels directly into the battery. You need a charge controller between your panels and your batteries to control the flow of energy into the batteries. As it turns out, batteries are kind of fussy about such things. Too much juice all at once will ruin them, so you need a charge controller.
  • One or more batteries. Batteries store the electrical energy until you tap into it. Be advised that there are a lot of types of batteries that can be used with solar systems, and some kinds are better for some applications than others. I’ll do a blog that discusses battery types and features in the future, but this one is about solar power for dummies, so we’re keeping it simple. But I will say this — not all batteries are suitable for indoor use. Some of them emit fumes that require that they be for outdoor use only. Read the small print before you buy.
  • An inverter. Solar panels and the batteries used with them have something important in common. They work with direct current (DC) power. Your car battery also uses DC power. Nothing in your house does. All the electrical appliances and gadgets that we use run on alternating current (AC). So how does one get the DC power stored in your batteries into the AC power that your electrical stuff craves? With an inverter. Don’t ask me how it does it. I’ve already told you more than I know. But the bottom line is that you plug your stuff into the outlets on your inverter and it works, just like plugging into your home’s electrical outlets.

Just four pieces. Panels, charge controller, battery, and inverter. Mystery solved. schematic of a basic solar power system

Is that really all you need? If you’re keeping it small, portable, and simple, the answer is yes. If you’re going to expand your system, which you can do to meet your growing needs, you’ll want to add fuses and input/output meters and who knows what else. But at that point you’ve gone beyond small, portable, and simple, which is what we’re shooting for today.

More on Inverters

I told my stove guy that I was looking into a solar powered solution to my electrical back-up need for the pellet stove. He was dubious. While he was pro-solar in general, he had heard a number of reports from customers who had tried solar powered back-up systems and had poor results. The electrical components of the pellet stoves ran erratically or not at all when running on solar power. He didn’t know why.

a pure sine wave and a modified sine waveAh, but I do! It all goes back to the inverter, the magic box that coverts the battery’s DC power to usable AC. The electricity coming out of your wall socket comes out in nice, smooth “sine waves.” All of your electrical devices love these pure sine waves, but less expensive inverters don’t generate pure sine waves. They generate “modified” sine waves. In this case, modified means chunky. Depending on how good the modification is, the waves can be almost pure or they can be clunky, chunky stair steps. A modified sine wave is good enough for many electrical devices, but not all of them. You’ll get a lot of “noise” on TVs or audio devices — and apparently, pellet stoves don’t like modified sine waves at all. For my purposes, I would need an inverter that generates pure sine waves. You can buy them, but they’re more expensive than modified sine wave units.

DIY vs Goal Zero

So how does the home brew system match up with the sleek and sexy Goal Zero equipment? I put a lot of time and effort into finding the right components to beat the price of the Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar generator, but I just couldn’t do it. Too many trade-offs. I wanted small, simple, and portable. I wanted something that was safe for indoor use. I wanted a pure sine wave inverter. The expandability of a homemade component system would be nice, but not absolutely necessary for a starter purchase. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 provides all of the features I wanted and more.

If (when) my power goes down, I’ll want more than just my pellet stove to work. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 has two AC outlets and two USB ports. It doesn’t come with solar panels. You have to buy them separately (just as you would with a homebrew system). But here’s a huge plus — you can also charge the battery on the Yeti 400 by just plugging it into a wall outlet. Your home’s electrical system can keep the Yeti fully charged and ready to rock until your power goes off. This is a feature that I really, really like, because recharging the Yeti from solar panels might not always be a better option than from a wall outlet while the grid is up. It also meant that I didn’t need to buy solar panels right away (which my dwindling budget appreciated). A wall outlet recharger would be a fifth piece to a DIY setup, and I only found one vendor that carries anything like that. You can buy them online from Northern Arizona Wind & Sun, but it adds $154 to the price of the component system. This made the Yeti the clear winner for my needs in terms of both features and price. Another added plus is that you can also recharge the Yeti from a car battery. That feature might be the icing on the cake for some users, but it’s not something that I feel a need for right now. But it’s there if I need it. Better to have it and not need it… And the Yeti also has a simple meter built into its control panel that shows you how much charge is currently in the battery and how much power is being drawn by the stuff that you’re running off of it. A meter like this would be another expenditure in a homemade system.

Getting back to the expandability issue that I said would be nice, the Yeti 400 allows you to daisy-chain more batteries to the system, giving you more capacity than what comes in the box. You can’t add on to it infinitely like you could with a homemade system, but it provides a degree of flexibility while staying small and simple. I’ll most almost certainly go to a component-based solar setup at some future date, but that doesn’t negate my preference for a Goal Zero Yeti for my particular current need. Having a solar unit that was designed from the ground up to be grab-and-go portable just makes good sense to me, for bug-out or any number of other uses.

The Bottom Line

I haven’t had my new pellet stove delivered and installed yet because I’ve been gone on vacation, so the solar back-up unit hasn’t been an immediate need, but I knew going into the pellet stove purchase that this would be a vital part of the stove system. I never would have bought the pellet stove without this capability being available to me, but by the time you read this, I may have already placed my order with Goal Zero.

As a closing remark, I said up front that I wanted something small to get into solar power, but it had to be something that met an actual need cost-effectively. I’m guessing that most of you don’t have a burning need for a back-up power system for a pellet stove (yet, but many of you may have a need for an electrical outlet where none exist. It could be while you’re camping or doing something in your yard or elsewhere outdoors. Goal Zero has a lot of products that meet these kinds of needs head on. Simple, portable, rechargeable electric power. I know some folks who use the dreaded CPAP masks for sleeping with apnea. A battery back-up system like one of the Yetis could be wonderful to have for when your power goes off. CPAP users can even go camping with them. There are probably other medical devices that aren’t coming to my mind right now that could be run off a Yeti when the power goes down.

I’m not trying to sell you anything (although, in the interest of full disclosure, we make a little money from the purchases made when you click on the ads on this site). We NEVER want to nudge anyone toward buying something they don’t want or need) — just doing a little brainstorming. At the risk of nullifying what I’ve just said about not trying to sell you anything, allow me to inform you that Goal Zero is having a Buy 2, Get 1 Free sale on their 15-watt solar panels. It’s a $90 value (nothing to sneeze at), and is good through October 31, 2014 when you use the code EXTRASOLAR at checkout. Just thought you’ like to know.

EDIT: This bundle is no longer available. It was a great deal, but the consortium of prepper authors who put this together were true to their word about this being a very limited time offer. They’re talking about some other products in the future. We’ll let you know of any worthwhile specials that we find.

We don’t do a lot of selling on this site. That’s not what we’re about. The purpose of this site is this:

  • To inform people of the potential dangers we all face in these unstable days we live in
  • To motivate people to take steps to prepare themselves for an emergency
  • To educate people about what they can do to make those preparations

But sometimes the best way to accomplish one or more of those goals is to recommend a product. This is one of those times.

A group of preparedness authors have banded together to offer a package deal of their books and instructional materials at a discount so deep it’s too good to pass up. It’s only $29, but that price is only good until this coming Monday (September 23, 2013). I don’t know what the price will jump to then, but it is an absolute steal at this introductory price of $29. They say the retail value of the package is $700. I haven’t done the math, but a cursory glance at the wealth of materials will confirm that they’re darned close. I bought one for myself right away. It was a no-brainer. I got enough stuff in this bundle to keep me learning and prepping through the cold winter months to come.

Ultimate Survival BundleThe Ultimate Survival Bundle is a collection of downloadable books, videos, and audio presentations that covers most of the critical areas of emergency preparedness or survival. Included in the package are a couple of books that give a comprehensive treatment of preparedness and it is well worth the bundle price of $29 just to get those two books. They are Making the Best of Basics (edition 12.5) by James “Doctor Prepper” Stevens, which sells on Amazon for $28.99 (one cent less than this entire bundle); and The Untrained Housewife’s Guide to Getting Prepared (also sold on Amazon).

Topics covered by resources in the Ultimate Survival Bundle include food storage, gardening, alternative energy, security, homesteading, medical preparedness, raising animals, and ethical issues. A total of 46 resources from 36 different authors. Some are very broad while others are highly specialized. Here are some examples:

  • A 150-page book on dehydrating food, written by the author of a book on the same topic for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series that you’ve seen in bookstores
  • A 101-page guide to herbal medicines, which sells for $29.67 on Amazon (I’ve looked up all of these Amazon prices myself to get a sense of the value of this package)
  • A 266-page book about wind power from a consumer’s point of view
  • A 106-page book on “apartment gardening” – growing your own food in limited spaces
  • A book on solar energy that sells for $19 on Amazon
  • A 40-page booklet on how to build a fire
  • A 228-page book on raising goats
  • A 62-page book on building and living in a yurt (after browsing this bad boy I am really wanting to get me a yurt!)

Click on this link to go to a page that gives details about all of the many products included in this package.

Besides books, there are also a few videos that you can download. Two of them are instructions on how to build a greenhouse, companion videos to a book on that topic that is also a part of the package. These video files are very large and will take a while to download. One is two hours long (2 gigabyte file size) and the second in a little over an hour long (1 gigabyte). Another video is a half-hour presentation on hand-to-hand self-defense techniques.

I could go on, but I’m going to try to contain my enthusiasm. The bottom line is that if there’s not something in the Ultimate Survival Bundle that gets your juices flowing, you’re not a prepper. At $29, this is one of the biggest bangs for the buck that I’ve encountered in a very long time. I can blow that much on pizza in a week. This is a deal that will give me something to chew on for much longer than that. When you’re ready to order, click here. Get it while you can get it cheap.

Solar panel recharging a batteryI’ve been learning about solar power. Prior to prepping, I didn’t know anything at all about solar energy. I’d guess that a lot of you are also in the dark when in come to solar. From what I’m reading and learning, I think we’d do well to begin looking into it.

Solar power has been around for a long time and it still hasn’t really caught on. I think my first encounter with practical solar power was with a small calculator that we powered by a photosensitive strip. I still use one of these on my part-time job a couple of times a week.

Solar power has come a long way from the novelty of being able to run a calculator with it. It has many practical applications that can benefit you now and could be a game changer for you if the power grid ever goes down. Let me share some of what I’ve been learning.

Solar power works well, but it works better in some places than it does others. Solar panels work best when they are exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time. Not surprisingly, solar is a better option in Phoenix than it is in Seattle where the annual Rain Festival begins on January 1st and runs through December 31st. Another area of the U.S. that is not optimal for solar is the Great Lakes region (where your humble blogger happens to live).

If you live in a cloudy area, don’t tune me out just yet. You’ll see that there might still be a place for solar power in your energy plan.

Solar is still expensive. There are a number of reasons for that. First, it’s still in the developmental phase. New research is continually being done to make solar powered systems more efficient, more durable, more portable, and more economical. All that trial and error costs money. The other major factor in the cost of a solar system is the economy of scale. As soon as solar catches on and becomes more popular, mass production will begin in earnest. Build a few units costs a lot. Building thousands upon thousands drives the cost per unit way down. We’re not there yet, so the early adopters are bearing the brunt of the cost.

But your federal government wants to help you! Yeah, you’ve heard that one before. They’re here to help and you’re glad they’re here. But this time, really! The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on solar systems that help to power your home. Check this out from their website:

A taxpayer may claim a credit of 30% of qualified expenditures for a system that serves a dwelling unit located in the United States that is owned and used as a residence by the taxpayer. Expenditures with respect to the equipment are treated as made when the installation is completed. If the installation is at a new home, the “placed in service” date is the date of occupancy by the homeowner. Expenditures include labor costs for on-site preparation, assembly or original system installation, and for piping or wiring to interconnect a system to the home. If the federal tax credit exceeds tax liability, the excess amount may be carried forward to the succeeding taxable year.

This 30% tax credit applies to solar-electric systems, solar water heating solutions, and fuel cells. Knocking 30% off the price of the hardware and installation can make solar energy much more attractive and affordable. And there may be other credits offered by your state or local governments. Contact your local electric utility for current information regarding your locale. If you want more info about these on-the-grid systems, a good source is Solar Sphere. They’ve got a ton of good information and some interesting looking products. They also have a lot of off-the-grid stuff.

solar educationOn-the-Grid vs. Off-the-Grid Systems
An on-the-grid solar system is one that is hooked into your home’s electric power utility. The solar power that you collect from panels mounted on your roof or elsewhere feeds into your whole-house electrical system. The solar power is used first, causing you to not draw as much juice from the electric company. Your electrical meter will visibly not spin so fast. If at any moment you’re generating more power than you’re consuming, the meter will actually spin in reverse as the excess energy is fed into the grid. At this point, the electric company is paying you for helping to supply energy for your community. How cool is that? While we’re on the topic of saving money, I think the tax credits mentioned above only applies to this type of on-the-grid solar application.

Off-the-grid solar products are those that are not connected into your home’s electrical system. These are portable, stand-alone units that vary greatly in size and capacity. The smaller models are self-contained units, but the larger ones have three main components: the solar panel(s) that collect the energy, a battery that stores the energy, and an inverter that converts the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) electricity that most of our electrical appliances and gadgets run on.

Small units could be the size of a tablet computer and could be used for recharging an iPad or a smartphone. The batteries for medium-sized units would be about the size of a car battery and could power emergency or outdoor lighting systems, recharge laptop computers, or even run a TV for a couple of hours. Large units (think something the size of an ice chest) are sometimes called “gas-free generators” and can power more appliances for a longer period. A large unit fed by a nice array of solar panels could keep your freezer going for a long time.

The Non-Solar Solar Solution
Oddly enough, these solar batteries aren’t just charged by solar panels. You could charge them by plugging them into an electrical outlet and keep them charged until your power goes out or you need to take them away from a conventional electrical source. These systems are used by campers, salesmen in tradeshow booths who don’t want to pay the outrageous electrical hook-up fees charged at some venues, and people who need to do demonstrations or presentations where there is not convenient electrical outlet, etc.

It’s conceivable that you could have a use for one of these gas-free generators and never hook it up to a solar panel at all – just recharge it from your electrical outlet and take the generator out in the field with you. But if you’re going to use it outside, having one or more solar panels to help recharge your generator just makes good sense.

If you want to learn more about off-the-grid solar products, I’d start looking at Goal Zero. They are a leading brand with some very cool looking products.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with a friend!

Just because I’m a prepper doesn’t mean that I don’t like comfort and convenience. Whether the electricity is off for five minutes, five days, or five weeks, I want to maintain as normal a lifestyle as I possibly can. So I’ve been looking into appliances that will work when the power goes down.

Don’t Curse the Darkness

As a baby step in that direction, I bought two hand-crank powered lanterns. The lanterns were cheap at less than $20 each (when I bought them in September 2012 — they’re almost $25 each now). I keep one on the first floor and the other one in my bedroom. They’re small and lightweight, making them easy to store, transport, and use.

I’ve had the opportunity to use the lanterns during a couple of short power outages we’ve had. In the past, I’ve scurried to find a flashlight and wondered if I’d be able to find one with batteries in it. If it had batteries, would they still work? Would they be corroded? Would the corrosion ruin the whole flashlight? If there were no batteries in it, would I be able to find enough of the right size to make this thing work?

When you’re stumbling around in the dark with no idea how long the power outage will last, you don’t need to be doing a Chinese fire drill just to find a flashlight that works. So in that sense, these little hand-crank lanterns have been a real joy. I know where they both are, I can find them in the dark, and I no longer have to be concerned about batteries for basic lighting.

That said, these little lanterns aren’t a substitute for a good flashlight. A better way to think of them is as a good substitute for a candle. They put out enough light to keep me from bumping into walls, but it’s not like I’m going to read the newspaper with one of them. Not enough lumens. I don’t know how much light they put out, but I know that it’s just enough to not be in the dark anymore. Like I said, this was a baby step for me — one that I’ve been very happy with and can recommend wholeheartedly to others, but don’t expect too much from them.

Tell Me the News

At the same time that I bought the lanterns I also purchased a hand-crank emergency radio. I haven’t had any real need for this device yet, but I’ve tested it and am very pleased to have it as a part of my emergency supplies.

The Ambient Weather model WR-111 Adventurer Emergency Radio has a name so grand that you’d think that it should come with a decoder ring. And it very nearly does! This little radio weighs just half a pound and is small at 5.5” x 2” x 3”, but it has a lot of useful capabilities. First of all, it can be powered in any of three ways: hand-crank, USB port (to power it from a charged laptop, recommended to fully charge the device before use), or its own built-in solar panel. I’ve tried the hand-crank and the solar panel, and both work like a charm.

The radio receives AM, FM, and NOAA weather alerts. Besides being a radio, it also has a built-in LED flashlight and can be used to charge your cell phone. I remember scenes on the news from a couple of the most recent severe hurricanes of seeing crowds of people huddled together around a multi-outlet power strip that was plugged into a generator, all waiting their turn to charge their cell phones. I don’t want to be one of them. Which is the whole point of being a prepper. I don’t wanna live like a refugee.

Getting Cranky in the Kitchen

Besides the lanterns and the radio, I have a couple of hand-crank kitchen appliances that I can recommend. One of them, a hand-powered grain mill for grinding wheat berries into flour, was purchased with preparedness in mind. Anyone who is thinking long-term survival should be storing large quantities of whole wheat. When you’ve invested in the wheat, you’ll want some means to grind it to make flour for your homemade bread and pasta. (Note to self: Add a really good manual pasta maker to my Amazon wish list.)

The other hand-crank kitchen appliance is one that I’ve had for years, long before I ever thought there was a need for prepping for anything. It’s a salsa maker.

If you don’t already have one of these, you need one. I have an expensive electric food processor that I rarely use, but I haul out the cheap hand-crank salsa maker frequently. (OK, not as frequently as Sandy would like me to.) Besides being great for making fresh salsa, it’s terrific for doing a multitude of food processing jobs. Anything that needs to be chopped, whipped, beaten, or stirred can be done in this manually operated machine.

Some people go off the grid because they like to rough it. Others, like me, do it kicking and screaming. I like convenience. I want to take as much of it with me as I can. These hand-crank devices help to maintain normalcy in a time of deprivation. Don’t go off the grid without them.