When Your Batteries Die, by Jay W.

Some of the most common things that we stock up on for short term emergencies are batteries. Many of our important tools need electrical power to work. Flashlights, radios, many power tools, and night vision gear– essentially anything that uses DC electricity–would need batteries. For Bug Out Bags and short-term situations batteries are almost always included and could save your life.   Virtually any situation lasting less than a few years would be fine with batteries.  You can have a hand or pedal generator, solar or wind, et cetera, to charge your batteries.   But what happens in a TEOTWAWKI situation?  Where will you store your power when your batteries fail? What will you do when the lights go out? This is something to be prepared for just like any other situation.  I have not found an efficient alternative for small batteries but larger energy storage problems can be solved.

The Life of a Battery
Many people don’t really think about how long a battery will last [on the shelf versus its life in regular use].  Different batteries have different life spans and different uses.  I will attempt to define the life of these batteries.  I am no expert on the subject but a little internet mining will give you the same info.                                                                                                                                                                

The most common type of small batteries are Alkaline batteries.  These are not normally rechargeable and will be useless for their intended purpose after their initial use.  There are some special Rechargeable Alkaline Manganese (RAM) batteries that are specifically designed to be recharged. Or you can get a special charger that will recharge normal Alkalines [with varying degrees of success]. If stored properly, most Alkalines will retain a useful charge for around five years. These should be used last because they have longer shelf life than most modern rechargeable batteries. For most Survivalists, the modern rechargeable battery designs are a much better option.  Of these, the lithium ion batteries seem to be the best, due to the number of recharge cycles they can handle. However, the shelf life of common Lithium Ion batteries may actually be shorter than that of Alkalines. Usually around 2 to 3 years no matter what you do with them. This makes it difficult to store them for future emergencies.                                                                                    

Lead acid batteries such as car batteries will be common in end times because the cars will [be out of fuel and hence] no longer have a need for them.  However, car batteries are not really good for alternative power system storage. This is because they are made for short bursts of high amps to start your car.  When used regularly [for their intended use] a car battery will last around five years.  When not kept recharged, a car battery can fail in less than six months.  If stored and treated properly, car batteries will last up to eight years, but eventually you will not have the use of them.   [JWR Adds: Deep cycle marine (or “golf cart”) batteries are better suited to frequent use, but they have the same maximum life issue as carr batteries, because their plates become sulfated.]                                                         

The only long term solution I have seen is batteries that come with the electrolyte separate.  You could purchase a large stockpile of these and store them in this state indefinitely.  This however could get really expensive.  I have done no research on the subject but it should be possible to drain the electrolyte from car batteries and store it separately to preserve them.   [JWR Adds: Unfortunately, draining a battery will not stop their plates from sulfating.]                                                                      

Capacitors are another form of energy storage similar to batteries. Unfortunately we have not yet created capacitors that can replace the batteries we currently rely on. With the advent of super capacitors we may find a solution to the current problems with batteries.  For now however, the cost and complexity is a problem.

Life Without Batteries           
The first and most obvious solution to short battery life is to rely on them as little as possible. There are a host of [traditional hand-powered or treadle-powered] non-electrical alternatives to common electric power tools. The real problem is that we don’t want to go without electricity.  We like the on demand aspect of our current lifestyle. It will be very hard to crawl out of the muck if we can’t use our tools. Some of this we can solve and some we can’t.  On-demand microwave ovens and lights at the flick of a switch will become a thing of the past. The following are some of the solutions that I have come up with for not having electrical battery power storage.                                                                                   

Build Your Own Battery                 
There are ways to store power that don’t include complex chemical reactions.  The best one I have come up with is water.  Water can in effect be a “battery”, after all a battery is really just a means to store energy.  Photovoltaic or mechanical wind pumps can pump water to hilltop reservoir or tower storage tanks.   Water from the tanks can then be used to power small hydroelectric generators.  The expended water can be collected in tanks or ponds at the base of the system for gardening or other uses.  Ponds also have the advantage of being great food producers and for watering livestock.  Proper voltages can be achieved through water flow adjustments.  I have not done this myself but the idea has merit. [JWR Adds: The scale of a system as described that could produce anything more than just short bursts of power would be enormous. It is much more practical to set up a microhydro generator situated on a year-round stream that has the requisite head (or “fall”.)]

Another way to store energy is mechanically. This may be the best system for people who don’t have a hill handy for the previous water storage method. The best mechanical energy storage device I can think of is a large centrifugal system.  In this system solar or wind energy could be used to drive a large weighted flywheel. The flywheel could then be used to power a generator using Constant Velocity Transmission (CVT) or electronics to regulate voltage. Well-lubricated high quality bearings would be required to handle the continuous high speeds and the great weight of the wheel. The wheel would also have to be perfectly balanced and as large as possible. Rotational speed is the key with this system. The faster you can get the wheel to spin the more power it will produce.  Speed is more important than weight, when you double the speed you square the energy storage potential. With proper design, planning and some spare parts this system could last a long time.  I plan on building one of these in the near future. Here is an excellent web page that covers the basics of this idea.    [JWR Adds: Keep in mind that the energy stored in a large, heavy flywheel spinning at high speed can also be incredibly destructive. If a flywheel were to become unbalanced and loose itself from its moorings, it could rip through a dozen houses before coming to a stop.]            

There are other ways to store energy out there.  These are just the ones that seem the most practical to me.  With some experimentation I believe that you could make either of these systems work for a long term solution.

There are great solid state electronic devices that use heat to generate electricity.  Small ones are called thermoelectric generators (TEGs). TEG fans are commonly used to move heat around your house if you have a wood stove.  A larger TEG could be used on your stove to power lighting in your house. Another great thing about TEGs is that when an electric charge is run through them one side of the thermo couple will get hot and the other will get cold.  This is commonly used on 12 volt DC coolers for your car, giving you another form of refrigeration. [JWR Adds:  See the SurvivalBlog archives for numerous articles on thermoelectric generators and their drawbacks.]   

Build a Still           
Alcohol is a wonderful thing.  You can drink it, clean with it, burn it in lamps, make weapons and run an engine with it, among other things.  All of these uses are valid in a TEOTWAWKI situation.  As a sterilizing fluid for medical situations, it could save your life.  Alcohol can displace electricity with lamps or as a cooking fuel.  Alcohol lamps can be as simple as a jar with a rolled cotton wick. Lamps could also burn animal, plant or nut oils.  There is some great info on alcohol stoves made from used soda and food cans.  These stoves are incredibly simple and almost never fail. Another possible use is a refrigeration system that uses alcohol. Albert Einstein jointly designed and built one in 1926.                                                                                            

I have a great book by Jerry Wilkerson, called Make Your Own Fuel.  The book shows how to make alcohol and also explains how to convert your car to run on it.  There are some other books out here on the same subject. Plans and information for building a still can be found on this web site.                                                                                         

Drinking alcohol can raise your spirits, but it can also blind you, make you mentally disabled, or kill you, if you make it incorrectly. [Wood alcohol versus grain alcohol.] Many people will find it just as useful but won’t have any.  This will give you a great bartering item.  [JWR Adds: Despite the moral implications, for some folks, selling homemade alcohol might be viable in a societal collapse without the current rule of law. But be advised that doing so in the present day would be a felony in most jurisdictions.]

The Wonders of Wood Gas           
I am sure by this time most of you have heard of wood gas generators. Heat is used to release hydrogen and carbon monoxide gasses in an oxygen poor environment.  The gasses released can be used to fuel almost any internal combustion engine.  The system doesn’t work as well for diesels but for standard gas engines it’s great. These generators have some wonderful advantages and may be the best solution that I will present. 

The first and most important thing about wood gas is that, as the name implies it runs on wood. All you have to do is dry it sufficiently and cut it to size.  Secondly it is a proven technology.  During WWII many civilian cars throughout Europe were converted to run on wood gas. There are designs put out by FEMA in the late 1980s detailing how to build a wood gasifier. This proves that FEMA has done at least one useful thing. [JWR Adds: As previously mentioned in SurvivalBlog, the FEMA plans are not detailed, so they are not particularly useful. See the SurvivalBlog archives for some better wood gas references.]   It is relatively simple and cheap to build and adapt to existing gas systems.  Almost everything you need to build one can be obtained for free. The Internet has huge amounts of information, videos and discussion on the subject.  

Transportation is a cornerstone of our current society. If we run out of fuel or if it gets too expensive then we are sunk. Without the ability to transport goods quickly we will never be able to re-establish a large scale working economy.  Wood gas can solve this problem, at least in the short term.                                                            

Small AC backup generators are everywhere, especially in rural areas.  When running they automatically regulate power output to suit demand.  You can simply run the wood gas to the air intake and you are set.  Electric generators used this way should be able to started with a pull cord [recoil starter] so that no external power for a [DC] starter [motor] is needed.  Buy the best small generator you can. Owning two or more would be beneficial and as many spare parts as possible.   

A good wood gas system could be built for a truck.  The unit could be removed or conveniently parked so as to provide power for electric generators. This could serve until more systems could be built.

Build a Root Cellar or Other Underground Storage
The ambient ground temperature 5 feet down in most areas is around 52 degrees, depending on your latitude.  This is a great temperature for making things such as seeds, food and those batteries last a lot longer.  Underground storage can also be used as a shelter in hard times or to protect your supplies.  Very heavy doors and thick concrete walls will hold out most forms of intrusion. Everyone who is preparing a retreat should have some underground storage.  If you are planning on building, consider building your home underground.  I have been studying this approach for years and the best construction form I have found is a Monolithic dome.  Building in this style is less expensive than standard underground construction.  Monolithic domes are also incredibly efficient and nearly invincible, even if left above ground. This is due to the shape, construction materials and techniques used to build them. [JWR Adds: These are built using re-bar and sprayed concrete that is up to 18 inches thick.]  Most people don’t like round houses but in this case “form follows function.” The Monolithic Eco shell is of particular interest because the “air form” [inflatable form] used to make the structure can be reused.  If you have already built or bought a house–as most of us have–then think about ways to save energy in your current home.

Other Ideas                       
There are a host of other low tech. but highly functional alternatives to common electric devices.  As mentioned above alcohol refrigerators could solve a major problem.  You can also build a refrigerator by placing a container inside another container, filling the space around with wet sand and putting a cloth over the top.  The water evaporates and draws heat away from whatever you store inside. This is called a pot in pot refrigerator.                                                                                                                             
Don’t forget horses and other forms of animal labor.  I am not a big fan of horses but if the end comes then I am going to wish that I had some. Goats, donkeys and llamas can be great pack and labor animals.  If predatory animals are a problem, donkeys and llamas when pastured with sheep and goats can help protect your herds and flocks.                                                                                                                                               

Gas engine tractors can run on wood gas or if they have diesel engines you can convert them to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO).  Many restaurants pay for someone to take their WVO away for them.  If you offer to take it for free or pay a small amount for it, a large stock of fuel could be built up fairly inexpensively.  Cars and trucks with diesel engines will run on WVO as well.                                                                                                             

If you have a good location, build a pond.  As I mentioned, ponds can be used for water storage irrigation, food production, [a firefighting reservoir,] and livestock water, among other things. Having a pond or some form of water storage positioned at a high point on a property can negate the need for some electrical or mechanical pumping.                                   

I have obviously not covered all the possible ways to save, generate, store or displace the need for DC batteries.  Some of the ideas I’ve described are strange, but all should be possible.  As with any preparedness scenario you should create redundant backup systems.  You should also have as many duplicate and spare parts on hand as possible.  Always save as much energy as possible , as the less you use, then the less you need to create. Anything you don’t do may come back to bite you some day. Good luck and remember you can never be too prepared.