Alternative Energy Sources For Emergencies, by Smiledr

Being in preparedness mode opens your eyes to a number of factors, not just Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids. As a battalion coordinator for the Los Angeles Fire Department’s CERT program, I was asked to give a presentation on Alternative Energy sources for an emergency situation. My research into this was very enlightening, and I found a number of great ideas. This does not encompass everything available, but it is fairly thorough.

So, why Alternative Energy? In an emergency, such as a major earthquake, there can be a loss of power, gas and water. If it is a short-term problem e.g. a couple of days, then no big deal. But what if it is two weeks, or even longer before gas, electrical and water services are restored? Being prepared for such a scenario is just one more area that will make our lives, as well as our families lives easier in the event of such an emergency

There are three areas of Alternative Energy that we need to be concerned with in an emergency: Heat, Cooking and Electricity. The first, heat, means staying warm in your home or shelter and is a huge priority. Once you get cold, survival can become extremely difficult.   Wearing warm clothes, wearing layers, and being prepared for rain, are the very basics. Have blankets and well-made sleeping bags for nighttime when the temperatures drop. (Wiggy’s makes a Flexible Temperature Range Sleep System (FTRSS) which is similar to what the the U.S. military uses.)

Fireplaces- These are designed more for show, and traditional open masonry fireplaces should not be considered heating devices. Traditional fireplaces draw in as much as 300 cubic feet per minute have heated room air for combustion, and then send it straight up the chimney. Although some fireplace designs seek to address these issues with dedicated air supplies, glass doors, and heat recovery systems, fireplaces are still energy losers. When burning a fire, you should turn your heat down or off and open a window near the fireplace. 

Fireplace Inserts – Only high-efficiency fireplace inserts have proven effective in increasing the heating efficiency of older fireplaces. Essentially, the inserts function like woodstoves, fitting into the masonry fireplace or on its hearth, and use the existing chimney.  A well-fitted fireplace insert can function nearly as efficiently as a woodstove.  Studies have shown that proper installation of fireplace inserts is very important.  Inserts should be as airtight as possible. The more airtight it is, the easier it is to control the fire and the heat output.

Wood Stoves and Pellet Stoves –
Wood stoves are the most common appliance for burning wood. New catalytic stoves and inserts have advertised efficiencies of 70%–80%.  Advanced combustion woodstoves provide a lot of heat but only work efficiently when the fire burns at full throttle. Also known as secondary burn stoves, they can reach temperatures of 1,100°F—hot enough to burn combustible gases   These stoves have several components that help them burn combustible gases, as well as particulates, before they can exit the chimney. Components include a metal channel that heats secondary air and feeds it into the stove above the fire. This heated oxygen helps burn the volatile gases above the flames without slowing down combustion. While many older stoves only have an air source below the wood, the secondary air source in advanced combustion stoves offers oxygen to the volatile gases escaping above the fire. With enough oxygen, the heated gases burn as well.

Pellet Burning Stoves –
Pellet fuel appliances burn small, 3/8–inch (100–254 millimeter [mm])-long pellets that look like rabbit feed. The pellets are made from compacted sawdust, wood chips, bark, agricultural crop waste, waste paper, and other organic materials. Some models can also burn nutshells, corn kernels, and small wood chips. They are more convenient to operate and have much higher combustion and heating efficiencies than ordinary wood stoves or fireplaces. However, they do require a supply of pellets, and electricity.  A pellet stove is often cheaper to install than a cordwood-burning heater. Many can be direct-vented and do not need an expensive chimney or flue. As a result, the installed cost of the entire system may be less than that of a conventional wood stove. Pellet fuel appliances are available as freestanding stoves or fireplace inserts. Freestanding units resemble conventional cordwood heaters in that they generally heat a single room well, but not adjacent rooms unless you use a fan to force the warm air into those other spaces. There are also fireplace inserts that fit into existing fireplaces. Because they require electricity for their pellet conveyers and for their fans, pellet stoves are NOT a good choice for disaster survival unless you have a fairly capable alternative energy system with a battery bank and have the dry storage space for a large stockpile of pellets.

Space Heaters – There are 3 basic types of space Heaters:
Electric Space Heaters, Propane (or natural gas) Space Heaters and Kerosene Space Heaters.
Electric Space Heaters are the most commonly seen by most of us. They do a pretty good job at heating up a room.  The problem is that you have to have back up electricity of some type to make them run. They are good for the short term if you have a back up system, but can be draining on back up batteries. Next are the Gas or Propane Space Heaters.  They run on Propane or White Gas and don’t require any electricity. They will run on your barbeque propane tank, or other sources of natural or propane gas. These heaters have to be properly vented, and can be very dangerous used indoors without proper venting.

The last type of Space heater is the Kerosene Space Heater. It uses a wick that soaks up kerosene (only K-1 kerosene) from a refillable tank.
These heaters have double the heating capacity of an electric heater — ideal for heating large areas. You should look for a model with an automatic shut-off feature

Space Heater Safety
– When using space heaters, it’s important to be aware of the risks involved and how to prevent accidents. Here are some guidelines to follow to maximize your safety:  Select a space heater with a guard around the heating area to keep children, pets and clothing away from the heat source. Keep all flammable liquids away from the heater. Place the heater at least three feet away from bedding, furniture, curtains, or anything else that could fall on the heater and cause a fire. Never leave the heater unattended. Look for a heater that has been tested and certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory such as Underwriter’s Laboratory. This way you can be sure that specific safety standards have been met.  If you use a heater that burns kerosene, LP, natural gas or wood, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector installed on every floor of your house.  When purchasing natural gas or LP heaters, look for a model with an oxygen depletion sensor feature. These sensors will automatically shut the heater down when it detects the air is low on oxygen.

Cooking –
Alternative methods to cook food and sterilize water may become necessary.
In the event of a major disaster or other Emergency, there may not be availability of gas or electric for cooking addition, due to possible water supply contamination, it may be necessary to boil water for drinking and possibly laundry.

There are a number of possible solutions to this problem. We will start with the simplest, and work from there.

Soda Can Stove –
A beverage-can stove (or pop-can stove) is a homemade, ultra-light portable stove. The simple design is made entirely from cans (typically soft drink or beer cans) and burns alcohol, typically denatured. Countless variations on the basic design exist.  A ring of holes is pierced into the top with a pin. Parts are glued with high temperature epoxy or sealed with thermal foil tape. The total height is less than two inches (50 mm), though dimensions can be increased to hold more fuel or decreased to take up even less space.  This can be made by yourself, or purchased online for very cheap.  Another Alcohol Stove Option is the Vargo Titanium Alcohol stove which comes with a built-in pot stand. Note that these must be operated outdoors or in a very-well ventilated area!

Propane or White Gas Stoves –
These are lightweight camping stoves that run on propane, butane or white gas.  They can be found online or at most backpacking and camping stores such as REI, Adventure 16 or even Sports Chalet or Sports Authority. These types of stoves rely on canisters of gas to work. My Favorite Mini Stove is The Jetboil, It is an ultra compact 1 liter unit that can quickly heat water for dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. The JetBoil Personal Cooking System (PCS) weighs about a pound.  It lights with the click of a button. It can bring two cups of water to a boil within two minutes (at sea level). Jetboil also makes the larger Group Jetboil system. This is sized for small groups of 2 to 3 and has a 1.5 liter fuel capacity.

Volcano II Collapsible Stove – This is a Tri-Fuel Stove that can use Charcoal, Wood or Propane for cooking. It is a very versatile cooking system: You can grill right on the stove or use a skillet or pot or even a Dutch oven. You can cook a meal with as few as 12 Charcoal Briquettes. A 20 lb bag of charcoal will cook 1 hot meal per day for several months. Overall, a really great, compact system. Note that these too must be operated outdoors or in a very-well ventilated area!

The Solar oven – For those who are very patient with a solar oven, if the sun is shining, you can cook.  Solar cooking is clean, it keeps the heat out of your kitchen, and it uses a free source of energy…the sun.  With solar cooking, you can’t start dinner at 5 pm because you’ve lost your source of fuel. Your best cooking hours are during midday. You may want to do what our ancestors did; have breakfast in the morning, a big meal in the afternoon and a light snack before bed. See for more information

Electricity – Keeping appliances going, lighting at night, Radio and television for information. If the grid goes down during an emergency, It could last an hour, 24 hours or weeks.
Power may come back on then go off again, as in a rolling brown out scenario.
It is important to have a number of alternatives for electrical needs.
You need to evaluate what it is you simply cannot do without that uses electricity, and plan accordingly.

Lighting –
There are a number of options for your lighting needs.
The simplest solution to lighting issues is the use of candles. 120 hour emergency candles are a great start. There are also liquid candles, propane lanterns designed for camping and Kerosene lanterns.  Be sure to take appropriate precautions to avoid fires.

Flashlights and Batteries –
Multiple flashlights are a good idea. LEDs will last much longer than traditional filament bulbs, and draw less current per lumen. If you have any lights with filaments bulbs, then sure to have plenty of spare bulbs. There are also LED lanterns available which are very convenient.
It is also a good idea to have a head lantern, this will allow you to work with both hands, so you don’t have to hold a flashlight.  Loads of batteries are a must.

Rechargeable Batteries –
After much research I recommend the following: The Sanyo Eneloop battery comes fully charged up upon purchase and even after hundreds of charge-discharge cycles; it will retain 85% charged up capacity after 12 months. This means that you can charge up these batteries, put them away in your drawer or cupboard and in a year’s time when an emergency occurs, you can whip them out and they will still be charged up to 85% capacity. As well as this, Sanyo claim 1,000 recharges are possible before deterioration and the Eneloop is renowned for its long life even when consistently used in high drain devices such as digital cameras and transmitters.

Battery Charger
The ultimate small battery charger is the La Crosse Technology Battery Charger is a “smart” charger. It has sophisticated monitoring circuitry that controls the charging process, and it is also capable of “renewing” batteries by running full controlled discharge-recharge cycles. The charger shows battery voltage and charge status on its digital display.
It has four separate charge channels so you can charge one, two three or four batteries at a time – even on individual charge programs. This allows you to test one battery while charging the others. The package deal comes with four AA and four AAA batteries, four battery adapters (which convert AA sized battery to C and D sizes) and a carry case.
Generators – Before you buy a generator, you need to figure out how much wattage you really need. You also need to decide where you are going to run the generator; it has to be in an open area. Having done some research on this I can give a couple recommendations. For a large generator, I’d suggest the Powerland Portable Generator.  It has 10,000 Watt Surge/8,000 Watt Continuous duty capability.  It is mounted on a steel frame with four point isolated motor mounts and has and oversize a muffler to reduce engine noise. These have a typical small power panel with a “low oil” warning light. They have a key start switch voltmeter circuit breaker and power outlets. Like most other generators, it has an idle control that holds a constant RPM.

On the smaller, quieter side is the Honeywell HW2000i Generator. This generator uses an inverter, which keeps voltage consistent and reduces the risk of damage to electronics such as computers and televisions.  It’s great for emergency scenarios because it’s relatively small, lightweight (58 pounds) and quiet. Two AC outlets and one DC outlet are included. But if you don’t need to power electronics, you can get about twice as much power for the same price with a standard (non-inverter) generator.

Gas Generator Problems –
Gasoline is not a fuel that professionals ever choose to use on emergency generators.  Hospitals and other large facilities “never” install gasoline powered emergency generators.  They always use natural gas or diesel.  Gasoline has a very limited shelf life and will actually cause engine failure.  Worst of all when power outages occur due to ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and all other disasters, the first commodity to be hoarded is gasoline.  The hurricanes that hit Florida were sad proof of that.  Propane, and especially natural gas, were more plentiful and just the ticket to keep the lights on and the crews working.    Unfortunately, as some have learned the hard way, if not used often enough, gasoline will gum up the carburetor and will render an engine on the emergency generator useless. If you have invested in an emergency generator, make sure that it runs when you need it the most.  Modify your emergency generator to run on propane or natural gas or even keep the gasoline option if you like and have the option to run all three fuels on the same engine

How to build the tri-fuel generator –
Buy a Coleman Powermate Emergency Generator – (6,875 Watts Peak) or a similar generator.  Then buy a Low Pressure Tri-Fuel Type C Kit priced for most engine brands up to 12 h.p. These cost $187. They are available from Propane and natural gas can save you time, money and aggravation.  This do-it-yourself change over kit allows you to run your gasoline emergency generator on propane (LP Gas), natural gas, or all three. 
Propane and natural gas are truly backup fuels for a backup emergency generator.  Your engine will last longer, start better in cold weather and even start next year when you go to use it in an emergency.  The best part is, with one of these do-it-yourself kits you can change your engine from gasoline to propane or natural gas all by yourself.

Why use propane or natural gas to power my generator?
If you have propane available you know you can store propane for years because it does not gum up, or go bad like gasoline does.  You can use the 100# (24 gallon) cylinders, little barbeque grill type 20# cylinders, which is equivalent to 5 gallons of gasoline, or big tanks like 250, 500 and 1,000-gallon ASME tanks. If you have natural gas available you would certainly agree that it is probably the most dependable fuel on earth and virtually an unlimited supply.   It does not gum up or go stale like gasoline. 

Solar Panels – Photovoltaic panels with battery banks, charge controllers and inverters are available from a number of vendors. [JWR Adds: Be careful to size your system to match your power needs and be sure to do some thorough comparison pricing. Unless it you are buying a specialized transportable PV system, the bottom line is the cost per watt. There is at least one vendor that heavily advertises nationally using the phrase “Solar Backup Generator” that sells packaged systems with a very high price, per watt. The good news is that there are many reputable vendors out there that offer high quality equipment at competitive pricing. Some of these vendors advertise on SurvivalBlog.)]

As you can see, there are a lot of options out there. I haven’t covered everything, such as DC appliances, propane refrigerators, or making your own Bio diesel fuel. With a little research, you can set up a back up system for all of your energy needs.