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Electric Backup for Disasters?
by Dan Fink.
As Easy As You Think.
floods, tornados, derechos, hurricanes and earthquakes shatter the lives of
a few very quickly, but cause lingering problems in the aftermath for many.
Electricity can be out for weeks on end, as power line repairs are made. Deaths
from heat stress, failed medical equipment and more are very common. The fires
in Colorado last month hit my area hard; some locations are still waiting for
power to be restored. An estimated 3.7 million people lost power during last
month's East Coast derecho, many for over a week.
So, why not just cut that
electrical umbilical cord from the power company to your home and go off grid
completely, in the middle of the city or suburbs? The power company keeps raising
their rates each year anyway. Throw some solar panels on the roof and a wind
turbine in the backyard. Looks like there's a couple funny looking black boxes
involved too, just order 'em online.
it's not that simple, and not cheap. The problem is, "How do you store energy
for when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing?" A solar array and
wind turbine with no battery backup will not power anything in your house
if the grid goes down. Only a battery bank or engine generator can do that.
And let's face it, we're
stuck with 1859 technology when it comes to storing a lot of electrical energy
at a reasonable price: the lead-acid battery. Gaston Plante, Thomas Edison and
Henry Ford would all instantly recognize the batteries used today in off-grid
power systems, and likely comment,"That's odd, they haven't changed much
over the last century." And that's the rub.
There are certainly high-tech
options out there, like the nickel metal hydride cells used in the Toyota Prius,
the lithium ion batteries in the Tesla Roadster (and also in your laptop computer),
and of course the over-hyped hydrogen fuel cell. None of these new energy storage
technologies has matured yet, at least not to the point that makes them affordable
for or compatible with powering a typical home for even 24 hours.
Even worse, all batteries
wear out. Pull a battery bank down too low too often or leave it that way for
too long, and you might get only one to four years life instead of the eight
to ten normally expected. Amortize the cost of the batteries and installation
over the years, and you can rack up a pretty expensive "battery bill"
each month, just for the privilege of owning them.
vehicles for backup power?
The 2011 earthquake
and tsunami in Japan spurred automakers there to start providing options where
electric and hybrid vehicles can provide power for lights and appliances during
a blackout. Toyota says that a full 12-gallon tank of gas in a 2012 Estima with
the power inverter option could energize a home for 2 days at full 1.5 kilowatt
output, but that still involves running an extension cord and power strip into
the house, and plugging appliances into that. Works in a pinch, but not particularly
safe or convenient.
Mitsubishi and Nissan have
both announced that they are working on standardizing systems and equipment
so a car can power home mains circuits, and Sharp Corporation revealed their
new Intelligent Power Condition that's in development to solve the tricky issue
of making different cars, battery banks and home power systems send power back
and forth to each other. Great concepts, but unfortunately "in development"
is the operative phrase right now.
sensible approach to emergency home power backup
The average US
homeowner consumes 33 kilowatt-hours of energy every 24 hours. Lead-acid batteries
to provide 24 hours of backup at that rate would come in at about $9,600, weigh
almost two tons, last only seven to ten years and take up an entire small room.
A lithium ion battery bank to do that—say from a Tesla Roadster—would cost $36,000
with a rated lifespan of about seven years. Those costs are just for the battery
bank and don't include all the black boxes needed to connect it to your home.
Instead, I recommend a
more sensible approach for most people. The more serious you are about backup
power, the farther you'll make it down this list:
- Conserve energy
– Replace older appliances and lighting with new, energy-efficient models.
Install insulated windows and doors. Upgrade your wall and ceiling insulation,
and caulk air leaks. Besides lowering your power bill, reducing your ire toward
the power company and gaining you federal tax credits, you'll need less backup
capacity during a blackout.
- Install a backup
transfer switch – Actually, have an electrician install it. This automatic
device lets you use any portable generator to safely power everything in your
home, right through your normal circuits, during an emergency. Don't even
consider a trip to the hardware store to build a double-male extension
cord to plug your generator output into a wall outlet—that's illegal because
it could electrocute a lineman trying to restore your power, and you'll be
- Install a reliable
propane generator – Propane keeps for decades in pressurized tanks,
and most propane generators can be used with utility natural gas service too.
Many can be fitted with auto-start circuits that detect blackouts. Gasoline
generators are the most common and least expensive, but gasoline is problematic
in cold weather and spoils quickly in storage, even with stabilizer additives.
Liquid gasoline is also quite dangerous to store in your garage, at least
in quantities large enough to power your house for days or weeks. And gas
stations need electricity to run their pumps, too.
- Have an electrician
install a "critical loads" sub-panel for you – This secondary
breaker box isolates all your most critical loads, like the refrigerator,
freezer, water pressure pump, a few lights, and a few outlets (for a portable
TV to keep up on emergency news, etc.) When the grid goes out, shut off everything
but the critical panel if you need to conserve generator fuel. And, you'll
be paving the way for a future battery backup system with solar power to charge
- Consider a grid-tied
solar energy system with battery backup – This is a big step, so do
your homework. Your conservation efforts and a critical loads sub-panel will
save you money on solar, but don't expect to get into it for less than $10,000.
Small, portable "emergency solar power systems" popular in survival
and preparedness publications and websites might run a few small lights and
a portable television for you during an emergency, but won't power your fridge,
freezer, furnace blower or air conditioner for more than a couple of hours.
Wind power systems are
a terribly ineffective waste of money unless installed high in the air—the small
wind industry standard is at least 30 feet above anything within 500 feet in
any direction—and most locales strictly regulate such tall towers, especially
in residential areas. So, wind is not an option for most people.
However, if your site and
climate are right for renewable energy and your utility will pay you favorable
rates, you might have the opportunity to reduce your electric bill to near zero,
get a federal, state or local tax credit, and have ample power during
an extended blackout. Contact a NABCEP-certified
system installer for the straight facts on renewable energy.
the lights go out
Do be prepared
before the next disaster strikes. But don't jump into any backup generator or
solar energy solution without a lot of research, especially if you need to power
critical equipment such as medical devices. Even a freezer can be considered
a critical device if it's full of hundreds of dollars worth of meat! Be sure
that whatever power backup solution you choose can run everything you need all
at one time—that's power, measured in watts—and can keep it up for however long
you need—that's energy, measured in kilowatt-hours.
Consult with a professional
if you have any doubts about what you are doing, and remember: If it seems too
good to be true, it probably is.
About Dan Fink
educator Dan Fink has lived high in the Northern Colorado mountains, 11 miles
from the nearest power pole, since 1991. He spreads his passion for and knowledge
of off-grid living through educational workshops across the USA and abroad,
magazine articles, and books. Dan is co-author of the book Homebrew
Wind Power, and a contributing author for Home Power Magazine, The
Journal of Green Building, Back Home Magazine, Solar Professional and more.
He holds a B.A. Degree in Technical Journalism from Colorado State University,
and is the Executive Director of Buckville
Energy Consulting. Dan can be contacted through those websites, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.