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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.

When most people start prepping, they go on a buying spree. I know we did. There were just so many things that we needed that we didn’t have. We started buying things that I thought we’d never had any use for before — things that weren’t on our radar before we became aware that the lifestyle that we enjoy right now might not always be available. We bought long-term storage food and stackable water storage containers. We bought hand crank powered appliances such as a radio, grain mill, and lights. We bought a couple of knives that we had no intention of using in the kitchen or dining room. And we still have a list of wants and needs that’s as long as my arm.

Acquiring all of these new tools and necessities is fun and exciting, but one of the keys to prepping is preserving the things that you already have to protect them and make them last longer. A great tool that I’ve found for helping to preserve stuff that I want to keep is a vacuum sealer.

I’m sure you’ve seen the infomercials on TV for these things. They show you how the vacuum power is so strong it can crush a beer can and they deliver the long awaited good news that now you can buy a big block of cheese on sale at the warehouse club store and vacuum seal it so it won’t go all green and fuzzy on you. All of this is true! It’s also a great prepping tool. Two of the worst enemies of preservation are air and moisture. A good vacuum sealer can help you with both of those problems, opening up a nice range of prepping applications.

Food Storage

  • Most obvious is the fact that you can use it to keep your everyday food fresh for a longer period of time. Use vacuum sealed plastic bags to keep meat, cheese, or any kind of dry food fresh longer, especially if you freeze it. One of the biggest benefits pointed out in the vacuum sealer infomercials is that sealing your food means that you save a lot of money because you’re not throwing away food that has gone bad. Saving big money on food means more money to spend on preps.
  • Many vacuum sealing systems have an optional accessory that lets you vacuum seal canning jars. This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, including vacuum packing wet foods.  You can’t use the regular vacuum sealing plastic bags for wet foods, but now you can put them in a jar and vacuum seal them for longer freshness.
  • Preppers are known for having a stockpile of the gallon-sized #10 cans of dehydrated or freeze dried food. In the past, you once you opened a big can you had to use it up quickly to keep the food from going bad. Now you can vacuum pack the leftovers in canning jars. The shelf life of food in a vacuum sealed jar is only five to ten years, far less than the 25 years for an unopened can, but hey! — you’ve already opened the can, so you’re going to use the contents sooner than that anyway. Keep it fresh for years by vacuum sealing it in canning jars.
  • Freeze dried entrées are good, but they’re really expensive, and many of them are loaded with sodium or other ingredients that you might not want. You can save money by assembling your own entrées from individual freeze dried and dehydrated ingredients and vacuum sealing them in canning jars. When you assemble your own meals, you can customize the recipes to your personal taste and dietary requirements. There is a wonderful website run by a lady who calls herself Chef Tess that has many good recipes for putting up meals in vacuum sealed jars. Highly recommended.
  • In case of an emergency, I want to be able to share what I’ve stored with others. I’d rather be able to give someone a couple of jars of entrées that I’ve vacuum canned than a bunch of dehydrated ingredients that they wouldn’t know how to use. These meals in jars are very simple to prepare. For most of them, you just add the contents of the jar to boiling water and simmer for 25 minutes or so. This is a great option for sharing your food with others.
  • When times get tough, you can also use food as a bartering item. It’s so much better to be able to barter a meal in a jar than ingredients to make a meal – easier for you and whoever you’re swapping with.
  • The bad news about canning jars is that they’re breakable and relatively heavy. No one is going to go backpacking with quart-sized glass jars of entrées. The good news for all you bug-in types is that canning jars are reusable. If you’re careful when you pry the lid open, both jar and lid can be reused over and over and over again. Take out half of what you’ve sealed in a jar and seal that bad boy once again.

Are you catching the vision for this? Let me widen it just a little. While not a prepping application, we also love meals in jars as our homemade quick dinner option. Having one of those days when the last thing you want to do is cook dinner? You know – one of those days when fast food or eating out is so tempting it’s about all you can do to steer your car toward home instead of the nearest establishment that will put food in front of you. Knowing you can go home, put some water on to boil, change into comfy clothes, grab a jar and throw the ingredients in the boiling water, relax for about half an hour in your comfy clothes and favorite chair and then enjoy a tasty dinner curbs that temptation.

Vacuum Packing Other Items

OK, like I’ve said, food preservation — both short-term and much longer-term — is the first and most obvious use for a vacuum sealer. What else can I vacuum seal?

  • Vacuum seal important documents or books in plastic bags (again, not a prepping application, but we’ve vacuum sealed Sandy’s grandmother’s Bible that has all her personal notes in it – what a treasure!)
  • Vacuum pack your medications and first aid supplies, either in bags or jars
  • Personal sanitation supplies
  • Tools or small parts
  • Matches and fire starting supplies
  • Cash


Think Bigger

There are much larger bags that you can buy (“Space Bags”) that allow you to vacuum pack clothing, blankets, pillows, etc. The vacuum sealing process squishes these items so that they take up a small fraction of their normal space and keeps them dry to boot. Once you open the bag, the air fluffs your stuff up again and it’s back to normal. These space bags are generally reusable, whereas the smaller food vacuum bags are generally not.

Vacuum sealers really suck  – sometimes that’s a good thing. Put one to work in your prepping plan.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

As I indicated in my last blog, I’ve decided to join the ranks of the reloaders and start making my own ammo. Since I’m starting from scratch, that means shopping for the equipment that I’ll need to get started. I’ve done a lot of research to learn which of the many options will work best for a beginner like me.

Reloading presses come in three basic configurations — single-stage, turret, and progressive. They vary in purpose, complexity, and price. The place to begin with the purchasing decision is to evaluate your needs, budget, and skill level. There’s a press that’s right for everyone, but what’s best for me might not be best for you. Here’s the rundown on each type:

This single-stage press uses one die at a time to work with one cartridge at a time

This single-stage press uses one die and works with one cartridge at a time

Single-stage — A single-stage press, like the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme shown here, holds only one ammo case and one die at a time. Dies do the work of removing (decapping) the old primer from the case, installing a new one, resizing and shaping the case, and seating and crimping the bullet. To make handgun ammo, most reloaders use three or four dies to complete the process. With a single-stage press, since it only uses one die at a time, you would batch process your ammo; that is, you would load the first die on each case, change dies and run each case through the press to complete the second die’s function, and so on, until you complete the final stage of crimping the bullet in your cartridge. You have to pull the handle on your press four times for every round that you manufacture.

Because they only do one function at a time to only one cartridge, single-stage presses are inherently slow, but they give you the highest degree of control over the reloading process. They have traditionally been the recommended entry point for new reloaders because a single-stage press gives a beginner the opportunity to closely observe and understand what is happening with the ammo manufacturing process every step of the way. Besides beginners, single-stage presses are also a good choice for those who mainly reload rifle ammo, especially hunters. They don’t blow through as many rounds as handgunners do, so they don’t require a high output reloading press. For them, it’s more about quality than quantity of ammo. They have the luxury of taking their time to craft a small number of highly accurate rounds. Single-stage presses are also the best option for those on a low budget, with some models starting at around $100.

This Redding turret press allows you to have as many as seven dies installed at once

This Redding turret press allows you to have seven dies installed at once

Turret — The next type of press is a turret press. It also works with only one round of ammo at a time, but it can have multiple dies installed, which eliminates the need to switch and reconfigure dies after each stage of the reloading process. You can do all of the stages of reloading a cartridge without removing the cartridge until it’s finished. Place the cartridge in the press and pull the handle to perform the function of the first die. To do the next step, rotate the turret to move the second die into position, then pull the handle again. Repeat the process with all of the dies until you have a completed round of ammo. You still have to pull the handle four times for every round, but you don’t have to swap out every round of ammo multiple times, and you don’t have to install and configure each die repeatedly when you move from one stage to the next. Set it and forget it.

Some turret presses accommodate as few as three dies, while others, such as the Redding T-7 shown here, can have as many as seven installed at once. With a seven-hole turret, you can have the dies for two different calibers installed and ready to go. This can be a real time saver if you typically reload two particular calibers. Skilled turret press operators can turn out up to 200 rounds of handgun ammo per hour. And you always have the option of batch processing your ammo (doing the first step on all of your rounds, then doing the second step on each of the rounds, etc.) and running your turret like a single-stage press if you so desire.

There's a lot going on with this Dillon progressive press

There’s a lot going on with this Dillon progressive press

Progressive — Progressive ammo presses are the real production machines of the reloading world. Instead of working with just one round of ammo at a time, progressive presses work with four or five cartridges simultaneously. Set a case on the shell plate in the press and pull the handle for it to work with the first die. The shell plate is then rotated for you to insert the next case onto it. If the press has the capability to automatically rotate the shell plate from one stage to the next (and most progressives do), it’s called “auto-indexing.” Pulling the handle engages the newly placed case with the first die and the first case that you placed with the second die.

As you continue to pull the handle and add cases, you soon have a cartridge in every position on the shell plate and every pull of the handle performs engages all of the cases with the dies above them, so you’re working with four of five rounds of ammo simultaneously. When a cartridge has made it through all the stages and is complete, it gets dumped out into a storage bin to make room for a new case to be inserted. After the first four or five pulls of the handle to get the shell plate fully loaded, you’re spitting out a completed round with each subsequent pull of the handle.

Completing a round of ammo with each pull of the handle makes a progressive reloading press a real speed demon. Optional attachments are available for most progressive presses that will automate the process of placing a case on the shell plate and placing a bullet on the mouth of the case just before seating it in the brass. Many reloaders say that they can turn out 500 rounds per hour with one of these tricked-out machines. That makes them ideal for high-volume handgun shooters or for anyone who has more money than time. But because they perform every stage of the reloading process to a different cartridge at the same time, they generally aren’t recommended for first-time reloading users. Obviously, a progress press is much more complex mechanically and can require some troubleshooting and tinkering to keep it running properly. If you are “mechanically challenged” a progressive might not be your best option.

So as with most things in life, there’s different strokes for different folks. You may want to jump right to a progressive, but it will cost a lot more than a single-stage or a turret, especially if you get add an automatic case feeder and bullet feeder. Changing calibers on some progressives can be expensive and complicated, too. But if you’ve got the money, need a high-volume manufacturing capacity, have a decent amount of mechanical aptitude, and are a skilled multi-tasker, why not go for it? If that doesn’t describe you, a single-stage or turret press is a better entry point.

In my next blog I’ll reveal which press I’ve decided to start with and why.

I have to confess. I’m not much of a knife guy. That’s subject to change, of course. Two years ago, if you had told me that I would become a gun guy, I would have been very skeptical. So there’s hope that my interest in blades will develop.

I’ve owned a couple of pocket knives at various times in my life. It wasn’t my idea really. Other people told me that I needed one. And besides, it seemed like carrying a pocket knife was an appropriately manly kind of thing to do. But I so rarely needed to use one that I stopped carrying them. I use knives in the kitchen to cook with, in the dining room to eat with, and for opening the occasional mail order package. So why do I need a knife?

I’ve come to realize that I need a knife because it is one of the basic tools of a well-prepared individual. Because there are so many specialize uses for knives, I will undoubtedly be acquiring more to meet these different needs over time. My starting point was with car rescue knives. A car rescue knife is an affordable piece of emergency equipment designed to help you get out of your car if you have a wreck and are stuck inside. I saw a bunch of them at a tradeshow a couple of months ago and bought one as an impulse purchase. I paid about $20 for mine, but I could have gotten it for half that much on or gotten a really decent one for a little more than what I paid for mine. I keep it in a little compartment in my car up near the rearview mirror that was intended for storing sunglasses. It’s the ideal place to keep this knife — secure, out of sight, and easy to access. I’ve never used it for its intended purpose, but I’m glad I have it. It’s kind of like my fire extinguisher. I’ve never used it, but if I ever need one I’ll be glad I have it.


Anatomy of a Rescue Knife

The features of this knife that make it a good choice for car rescue are:

  • Easy opening. I wanted something that I could open with just one hand — what is commonly called an “assisted opening” knife. A push-button operated switchblade opens easily with one hand, but they’re illegal. My knife’s legal assistance comes in the form of a little thumb stud near the back end of the blade. The stud provides adequate leverage to open the blade with a nudge from my thumbnail and a flick of my wrist. Since getting this knife, I encountered a couple of old-school, long-time pocket knife carriers who showed me their knives. Apparently, neither of them knew what the new-fangled thumb studs on their knives were for. I flicked one open with one hand and their eyes just about popped out of their heads. Score one for the newbie prepper! Here’s a very short YouTube video that demonstrates the proper use of a thumb stud.

Another type of assisted opening knife has a lever at the back part of the handle. Pressing down on the lever with your index finger swings the blade open, usually with the help of a spring. Here’s another short YouTube video that demonstrates this type of knife. Actually, this particular knife, made by Smith & Wesson (yes, that Smith & Wesson — who knew they made knives, too?) has both a lever and thumb stud. It’s even got a safety on it to keep it closed until you want it open. The video demonstrates all the controls. I want one of these bad boys!

  • Partially serrated blade. Most knives have a smooth edge for the entire length of the blade. There are a wide variety of shapes of blades for various purposes (almost certainly the topic of a future blog), but a lot of knives have a blade that is smooth near the tip and serrated about halfway back toward the hilt. Best of both worlds. I’m a real two-fer kind of guy, so this design appeals to me. Quickly cutting the clothes off an injured person works best with a serrated blade, but it’s good to have a smooth blade, too.
  • Seatbelt cutter. There’s another short blade built into a recessed, angled channel on my rescue knife that is specifically designed to cut seat belts. Seatbelts are notoriously hard to cut, especially when wet. I’ve seen a couple of YouTube videos that demonstrate how poorly seatbelt cutters work, but they were doing everything wrong, so what do you expect? A decent seatbelt cutter will go through a seatbelt like a hot knife through butter if you do it the right way. To effectively cut through a seatbelt, it’s best to have considerable tension on the belt and cut it at an angle rather than perpendicularly.
  • Glass breaker. There’s a pointed metal stud on the back end of my rescue knife for breaking the window of my car if I get trapped in it. This could come in handy.
  • The right size. You always want the right tool for the job. Part of what makes a tool right for the job is its size. My new knife is at the small end of the “right size” scale for me, but it still works. With a blade length of about 3 inches, it fits my hand comfortably enough that I can exert some force with it, but is still small enough that I can store it into the sunglasses holder compartment in the roof liner of my car.

Keeping a knife in each of my vehicles has become part of our preparedness plans. It just seems like a good idea to have a tool as functional and affordable as this on hand for one of those “just in case” moments. If this sounds like a good idea to you too, there are many places online where you can shop for a versatile knife at a decent price. Here’s a suggested site for you to start your browsing.

Stay safe.