My Mobile Alternative Energy Experiences, by Captain Steve

All of us who think about what we’d do if the Schumer Hits The Fan (SHTF) spend a lot of time exploring options. What will I do if this thing or that happens? Will I bug out or hunker down? What should I buy and place in my long term storage? I expect that like me, most who are unwilling to just sit back and hope for the best have taken plenty of steps to protect and prepare themselves for many eventualities.

Over the countless hours I’ve spent researching and planning, I’ve tried to assess and make note of where I’m lacking in my preparations. That list seems endless and often, overwhelming. But I continue to tackle those shortfalls one at a time. One area where I’ve noticed a lack of first-hand information has to do with plans for alternative energy (AE), its many and varied uses, and affordable ways and means to incorporate AE into our planning. Sure, there are plenty of reliable companies out there who are willing to take lots of your hard earned money in exchange for equipment you may, or may not, need. But what about the average family though, those of us who watch every dollar we spend? What can we do?

A Jack of All Trades

I’ve always been a hands-on guy willing to tackle just about any job. Years ago, long before “prepping” became a household term, I started researching solar power, wind power, energy storage, and how to make the best use of that power. Today, a wealth of information is readily available with Internet access and networking capabilities. You can search for just about anything with search engines like Start Page or Duck Duck Go. And I’d encourage you to research alternative energy options.

For the past 38 years, I’ve made use of 12 volt DC refrigeration, 12 volt to 120 volt inverters, energy efficient lighting, deep cycle batteries, efficient insulation, and other ways to conserve for a full-time, off-grid, low energy lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that adapts itself to any number of SHTF scenarios. I’ve done just about every bit of the work myself; the research, purchasing, installation, and maintenance of all my equipment. You name it, I think I’ve tried it.

Thirty-eight years ago, my wife and I sold our house, and with our two small kids, we lived and traveled the U.S. Eastern onboard a small 30 foot sailboat. From the start of that adventure we decided we did not want to be “camping out”. So we installed 12 volt energy efficient refrigeration, propane cooking, hot and cold water, and most of the comforts of home. Our little boat was our home, and hey, if we didn’t like our neighbors, we moved!

With limited funds I had to learn how to do it. I wasn’t born with the knowledge. Did I make mistakes along the way? Heck yeah, but I did my best to learn from the mistakes of others before I jumped in with both feet. Perhaps the area where I carried out the most first hand research involved deep cycle batteries and ways to keep them charged. Like most people I know, I started with wet cell, deep cycle batteries, beginning with cheap batteries bought at local discount stores. I got what I paid for – cheap price, poor performance, and a short lifespan. My first set of batteries, two Group 27, 12 volt, flooded and vented batteries lasted barely more than a year in 24/7 every day use. When that first set failed I stepped up to a locally respected brand of 12 volt, wet cell batteries. I had more power and the batteries lasted about 3 years for almost double the money.

After even more research I realized I’d be much better off using top of the line, deep cycle, heavy-duty, very popular golf cart batteries. I switched to a set of two 6-volt T-105 batteries wired in series to produce 12 volts. That approach worked much better. They had overall better performance, more available power, and a much longer lifespan. They also provided five useful years, instead of three. The downside of any wet cell battery is that after about six months you must check the electrolyte level every month or suffer the consequence of early failure. My second set of T-105s failed early due to my work schedule keeping me away from home for long periods of time and having the electrolyte drop below the tops of the cell plates.

Switching to AGM Batteries

Around 2007, after tiring of checking the electrolyte every month, I made the decision to switch to Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries. These once again were  6 volt batteries wired in series with a total of 450 amp hours. I have never regretted that decision. In my mind, the only downside to these batteries is the higher initial cost, but the advantages far outweigh that downside. When my first set of AGM’s were 7 years old I swapped them out for more capacity, but using the same brand. The first ones still held a charge, but my energy demands had increased and I needed more capacity. My wife and I were now living on a larger boat and we had a freezer, a refrigerator, a water maker, lots of lights and fans, and  electronics running 24/7. In short, plenty of power-consuming devices.

With these larger batteries, I ran into a problem with a lack of available mounting space. I didn’t have enough height. Well, one of the big advantages of this particular brand of AGM batteries is that you can mount them in any position except upside down. So I built a platform where I could mount them on their sides, and they’ve functioned perfectly in that position for the past five years. I swear by AGM batteries. They operate at a slightly higher, at rest voltage, 12.8 volts DC vs. 12.6; they charge much faster; they have a much lower rate of self-discharge, and you never have to worry about the electrolyte level. You just need to keep them charged.

Over the years as my battery issues resolved I began to incorporate AE alongside my conventional charging methods. For years I’d experimented with different conventional charging methods ranging from a simple Sears automotive battery charger to sophisticated multi-stage “smart chargers”. These smart devices, including high output alternators with smart charge controllers, are still a part of my charging regimen, but AE now plays a much more important role.

My first AE system included solar panels and a permanent magnet, 120 volt AC output, wind alternator. With the 120 volt AC alternator you can run much smaller wiring from the alternator to the wind system rectifier which converts the 120 volts AC to 12 volts DC, much like the alternator on your car. I used a spreadsheet I designed to size the system to theoretically take care of my charging needs. Simple, right? You want your amps going into your batteries to equal or exceed your amps going out. It didn’t take me long to realize that neither the sun nor the wind could be reliably predicted, and my system needed more of a cushion than I’d initially allowed.

Options for obtaining more amps going into the batteries included a second wind generator (more noise, more vibration, more maintenance), or more solar panels. The choice was pretty easy. Since that time solar panels have come down considerably in cost. They require very little maintenance, and quality panels are readily available from many reliable sources. Again, you can pay someone to figure all this stuff out for you, or with a little careful research, you can do it all yourself like I did. Should you under-size your system, it is easy to add more panels; not so easy to return them after you discover you installed way more panels than you need.

One thought in your planning would be to purchase a solar charge controller that will handle more output amps than you think you’ll need; if you need to add more amps (more panels), and you bought a charge controller that will just handle your original designed output, you’ll be forced to either buy a higher output charge controller, or a second charge controller to handle the additional output. Guess how I learned that one? One larger-sized charge controller is cheaper than two smaller ones, but your budget is strained, a second charge controller down the road may be the way to go. I recommend you purchase a quality charge controller rather than trying to save a few bucks for some off brand.

When it came time for my next AE installation, this time on a 32 year old travel trailer, I installed solar only. Quiet, no vibration, almost no maintenance, and excellent reliability with a 25 year warranty on the panels. I chose a waterproof Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) charge controller to control panel output. The term MPPT should be the subject of a later discussion all by itself. Why waterproof, you might ask? My original controller got fried when a I left a door open and an unexpected rain storm soaked the device before I could rescue it. $187  down the drain and more expense to waterproof that system.

Now living ashore, I own a travel trailer. My travel trailer installation is still a work in progress because as we spend more months living in the trailer I plan to increase output to the point where we can be totally off the grid and still have all the power we’ll need. I’ve discovered I really like the possibilities. While we’re not a fancy, high maintenance couple, we both like hot and cold drinks, hot food, nice music, plenty of light, and the ability to use small power tools when we need them. All these possibilities can be accomplished with 12 volt batteries, a reliable solar power system, and efficient devices.

What About EMP?

Now some are thinking: “Yeah but, none of these electronics will be working after an EMP, and all your money will be wasted.” Hmm, we have two camps here, the maybe yes, everything electronic will fail, and the maybe no, not all. No one really knows for sure what might happen, but we all know Uncle is taking steps to protect his backside in either situation, right? So,what should we do?

My thoughts on this score are: redundancy and protection. If you like me, plan for a simple lifestyle, redundancy and protection can be a relatively inexpensive necessity. Solar panels can be purchased for as little as $100 each; controllers likewise; wiring and connectors are cheap, and your labor, well, priceless! You can build protection very inexpensively; I have lots of electronic devices stored in plastic boxes that I’ve wrapped in heavy aluminum foil. I’ve placed the wrapped boxes in heavy plastic bags, then the whole shebang is stored in another box wrapped in foil, or in some cases, a tightly sealed metal trash can sitting on a wooden bench off the floor. I took all these steps based on some pretty extensive information I found on the Internet. I’m purchasing redundancy based on priority, price, and my available cash while watching for the best deals I can find. I still have a little ways to go here. Nope, I’ve never experimented with the protection side of things trying to simulate an EMP, but there are experts who have done so. My efforts and installations are based on their experimentation and conclusions.

Perhaps the single most expensive device in an alternative energy system, not counting the batteries, is an inverter. You can spend a lot or a little on an inverter. For my first one, I spent quite a bit on a marine grade, dual function inverter / charger, one capable of 150 amps DC charging, and 2,500 watts of 120 volt AC output. This inverter is now 12 years old. With that output I can run a microwave, a vacuum cleaner, and lots of other household devices. My backup inverter most likely will be an inverter without the charging function and thus will not be quite so expensive. I doubt I’ll need the charging capabilities because I’m sizing my AE system to take care of all my charging needs making the assumption we won’t have an electrical grid.

Lightening the Load

With your AE system complete or while you’re building it, you can work on reducing your energy footprint. There’s lots of ways to work on this task, and one of the most simple, straightforward tasks is the switch to LED lighting. You’ll reduce your lighting energy requirements by approximately 90% as a typical LED fixture consumes about 1/10th the power of an equivalent incandescent or fluorescent fixture. One issue with LEDs to be aware of is they are very voltage sensitive and they don’t like surges (think EMP). There are, however, some very inexpensive 12 volt RV LED fixtures, and these cheap options definitely have a place in your back ups.

Beyond lighting are many other devices like low wattage 12 volt fans; I have several fans that draw .1 amp of 12 volt DC on low speed and .3 amps on high speed. They do a good job of cooling your body on a hot day. We used them exclusively when our air conditioning gave out and outside temperatures reached 93 degrees.

The ways to minimize your electrical demands are many, and reducing that demand will substantially lower your charging output requirements. The alternative energy technology continues to improve, prices and availability have never been better. Hopefully, this introduction to mobile alternative energy will help you consider what you may eventually like to have in the event of a forced, off-grid lifestyle.


  1. I really liked your article on this subject Captain Steve. Perhaps, sometime, you could extrapolate on travel trailer types, systems placement, pros and cons of such and any other relevant information such as brand names of equipment. This topic interests me and I would like to learn more. Any sources you could provide for research would be appreciated. Thank you for sharing. Stay safe sir.

  2. Excellent article. I appreciate the author’s willingness to share his success and failures through trial and error, and to help educate SurvivalBlog readers. Would love to see additional articles involving alternative energy.

  3. Hope some comments will be added assuming you have a rapid stream available. I really liked this article because of the authors mindset,,,reminds me of a younger me. At my remote cabin, I turn off the grid once a month for one day (have deer in the freezer to prohibit a second day), and my life changes so little as to get visitors attention… mountain marv

  4. To help some of the folks who are starting out, I’d add some links to some of the successful items you’re using now. To get to my AE solution, I wasted a lot of money on inverters, and controllers that were,,, of poor quality,,, so to speak.

  5. Good write up. Our experience is much the same. Life on a sailboat, cruising and living aboard for years. We started out initially with 4 , six volt in series. We had a built-in diesel genset aboard. Noisy and smelly we went with solar a year later. I installed 4, 140w panels on an arch over my cockpit. I originally planned a wind generator in the works but left that out. I was on a passage across the Gulf of Mexico in a blow for days on a delivery. The blade of one of the wind generators on the boat came off, flew across the boat and sliced it’s way through the bimini, coming to rest empedded in the cockpit locker. The solar worked for us for years. It was just two of us, minimal crew. We really never “watched” our power useage levels since we just naturally lived simple. We didn’t use microwave, though we had one. My wife doesn’t believe the “safety” claims of it. Never needed airconditioning unless in stuffy marinas where we “plugged” into shore power.

  6. I really appreciate the article. Could you supplement it with information on what brands you consider quality? Either with links or just a reply in the comments section listing good brands to consider, perhaps broken down by type (panels, controllers, batteries, etc.)
    For instance, I have several times recently seen PV panels offered at consignment auctions. They typically have little or no markings and no info on output. They pretty much all seem to be Chinese manufacture. With little or no info they either sell very high ($75-$100 each) or go for very little ($10 each).
    More information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for the article!

  7. You would be better off using large military ammunication boxes and coating the gaskets and hinges with copper emulsified Jet Lube to provide lid connectivity. EMP susceptibility depends upon strength of the pulse, distance from the pulse origination, and the targeted equipment. Of these three, only the latter is under our control. Best, Panhandle Rancher

  8. I have been using solar for years on my motor homes and travel trailers. IMHO the secret is to create a small system and live within those limits. The bigger the system, the heavier it is, the more it costs and more that can go wrong. There is plenty to run lights at night, power two laptops for hours or the TV. But that is all I need. I have a 200 watt panel and two 12 v deep cycle batteries. I have seen 1000 watt + systems with 6 golf cart batteries. I have seen people running a generator all day. Each of my 4 motor homes had nice expensive generators but I either never ran them or ran them every two months to keep them lubed and ready. When I go South I don’t use the air conditioner. In fact I never use the air conditioner, just like the expensive generator the expensive air conditioner seems useless to me. If it’s too hot to be inside then we sit and eat outside, no big deal. So again the secret is keep the system small and live within it’s abilities.

  9. A tip of the hat to you, Captain Steve. Your article is well-written, useful information that every serious survivalist/prepper who visits this blog should read.

    I do agree with Fizbin. Adding links to useful items will assist readers.

  10. A couple of salient points: My wife and I lived on a sailboat for most of twelve years. We used six Trojan 6 volt golf cart batteries. We kept them topped up using solar power. This was on Mexico’s west coast. If you are not in a mostly-sunshine area solar power is MUCH less effective. We also charged the batteries with the engine-mounted 100 amp alternator when we were motoring.

    A word about high-output alternators: they get hot. The higher the output the more heat they generate. That heat will eat the diodes in the alternator. Especially in a sailboat because the engine is tucked away in a place that doesn’t get very good ventilation. Learn how to replace diodes and keep a stock of backups. To give an idea of how much heat I’m talking about, I tried soldering the pigtails of the diodes to a connector but the solder would melt.

    Another thing: Search for inefficiencies. We kept a laptop computer aboard for recreation and for email via HF radio. The computer we used was a Toshiba. I checked the internal battery and it was rated at 11 volts. The charger produced 17 volts. So, I found an electrical connector that fit the charge port of the computer and connected it directly to the boat’s 12 volt system, rather than using an inverter and the computer’s charger. There is inefficiency in both the inverter and the charger. Connecting directly to the DC did away with that. The system worked for all twelve years, including several computer upgrades.

  11. Thanks to Captain Steve,
    Sage advice indeed.
    I also discovered low quality flooded lead acid batteries from big box stores a poor investment.
    Here in The Republic of Texas, I have found what works best for our solar plant is a flexmax 80 charge controller, Gopower 2kW pure sinewave inverter and eight Trojan T1275 twelve volt batteries.
    I bought the charge controller and inverter online and the batteries and panels locally.
    I have found building solar panels unnecessary as prices are very reasonable for comercially produced panels.
    In the summers I can run a 800 Watt window unit, a refrigerator and two freezers each drawing 200 Watts weather depending. Comms are on independent solar powered deep cycle batteries.
    In winter we just grid tie as little cooling needed.
    The first Gopower inverter failed after about nine years.
    I have a 1.5 kW inverter in our diesel farm truck for back up and field use, burns about a quart of diesel per hour idling.
    I check battery water about every two months and have to add about one gallon of distilled water among the eight batteries.
    Watch Amazon and eBay as prices dip ocassionaly.
    Thank you and may The Lord continue to bless us all.

  12. I liked the article very much and I have been thinking of making my garage solar power for lights, tool charging and host of other things.
    Just an FYI is 2019 is the last year for the 30% credit of the systems cost.

    And for people that do not know the difference from deduction and credit, the credit is applied to taxes owed.

    Anyway, great article

  13. Interesting article. Thank you.

    I would have enjoyed doing my own solar system but could not for a few reasons. We asked Sol-Ark to install 12V panels with their 8K inverter a year ago. It runs our 2400 ft sq house now with 3 days of battery backup. And EMP resistant/proof. The peace of mind made it worth every penny.

  14. Jake, The 500 units were part of a kick start program that I became involved in. The unit is designed to protect devices beyond the electrical box. He plans to also make a version to protect solar/wind installations.

    Like the Captain, I found it to be a long road, with plenty of mistakes, before arriving at a whole-house backup system. I now have a solar and wind turbine solution that I have been trying to figure out how to protect against EMP/CME. I have known Dr. Bradley for quite sometime and believe he will provide good support for the device. The first 500 have all been presold and he plans to go into regular production.

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