Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Hurricane Preparedness: Some Simple Off-The-Shelf Solar Solutions For Power Outages

My Old Solar Power System


We are just 3 weeks before the start of the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season (June 1st-Nov 30th) - and while it is impossible to predict who will get hit, or how hard - forecasters are already predicting an above-average hurricane season.

Those who live within a few hundred miles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast are at greatest risk (see Hurricanes Threaten 32 Million U.S. Homes), but inland flooding and spin-off tornadoes can extend that threat hundreds of miles farther in from the coast. 

While most people can ride out a hurricane (or other weather-related disaster) in their homes, prolonged power outages are common following big storms.  In some cases, those outages can last for days, or even weeks, making life - and recovery from the storm - difficult.  

Sixteen years ago in the blogspace I posted on how to construct a crude (read : Cheap) solar power system for those with light duty requirements. It was based largely upon the knowledge I'd gained as a liveaboard sailor in the 1980s and 1990s, when I constructed several solar charging systems for our boat when we were away from the dock.

I would revisit, and improve these plans many times over the years (see Grid Down Solar Solutions On A Budget).

Times change, and so do our requirements.

In those blogs I described a 12 volt system, which would use (one or more) heavy lead acid batteries for storage, and an inverter to provide (brief, and very limited) 120v electricity, which could be recharged by either a generator, a solar panel, or any 120v wall outlet.

12 volt systems have been the standard for small solar setups for decades, but today we live in a more USB (5 volt) reliant world, which we use to charge our laptops, tablets, phones, radios, and a plethora of other devices.

While my old system would convert 12v to both USB 5v and 120v AC - unless you needed those voltages - it was unnecessarily cumbersome, less-than-efficient, and required a certain degree of maintenance.

Although I still maintain my old lead acid solar setup for use with my (nearly) 30-year-old 40 watt solar panels, since I was forced to evacuate for hurricane Irma in 2017, I've been slowly moving over to an off-the-shelf USB power solution.

I started small, not quite sure it would fulfill my needs, but over the past couple of years have cobbled together a `solar solution' that handles 90% of my needs during a prolonged power outage. Since I live in the heart of hurricane country, going a day - or even a week - without power is not unheard of.

The `core' ingredients are 2 or more USB battery banks (1 to use while the other charges), preferably 20,000 milliamps each ($25-$40 each), and at least one solar panel. I went with a single 21 watt 5 volt panel ($50) since two of my battery banks have (very) small integral solar panels.

This initial investment will run you between $110 and $140, depending on brand. I'm not recommending any specific brands, so do your homework.

The accessories: . . . in my case, they include mini-fans, rechargeable lanterns, cell phones, my iPAD, and a USB powered battery charger. This allows me to recharge my supply of Ni-CD or Ni-MH batteries that power my walkie-talkies, battery operated lanterns, radios, and other devices.

While this won't run an air conditioner, freezer, refrigerator, or anything 120 volt, it will keep LED lanterns and fans running, sustain simple communications (radio, cell phone, and walkie-talkies), and even allow for some `luxuries', such as my MP3 player, tablet, and even an bluetooth speaker.

An unlike my old solar charging system, all of this (including accessories) fits nicely in a 26 inch gym bag. Ready to throw in the back of my car if I am forced to evacuate again.

Obviously, if you can afford a bigger system, or a generator, your options go up exponentially. But if you power needs (and budget) are modest - and you aren't comfortable building a more complex system - then this just might be the ticket.

Although I've prepared primarily because I live in hurricane country, it should be noted that many governments view a prolonged grid-down scenario as the 2nd most likely high severity disaster - after a pandemic - that they are concerned with.

Four year agos, in NIAC: Surviving A Catastrophic Power Outage, we looked at a NIAC (National Infrastructure Advisory Council) 94-page report that examines the United State's ability to respond to and recover from a widespread catastrophic power outage.

Between our ageing infrastructure (see ASCE report card on America’s infrastructure), natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, disruptions caused by solar flares (see NASA: The Solar Super Storm Of 2012), and even cyber attacks (see DHS: NIAC Cyber Threat Report - August 2017), the odds are that some kind of prolonged power outage is in your future.
As always, in any emergency, the advantage goes to the prepared.

And in these trying times, we need all the advantages we can get.