(Continued from Part 3. This concludes the article)
In this section I’ll cover something I haven’t seen discussed in any of the books and articles I’ve read on solar panels so don’t skip over this next part. I hope by the end of this that some will be convinced they’re a very good idea for now as well as a post-SHTF lifestyle. They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to install with a DIY approach.
With solar panels our life can proceed as usual in so many different areas which will make our transition to TEOTWAWKI simpler. Not only will our life be much easier, but we’ll also be able to provide services for our neighbors who didn’t have the foresight to install them. Just as a few examples, we can fill their water barrels from our functioning well and also charge the 12 Volt batteries salvaged from their vehicles. These can run many of the 12v repurposed items from our vehicles such as lights, windshield-wiper and door-window motors, and the pumps used by the washer fluid apparatus among others.
My recent article Using Grid-Tied PV Panels as a Starter System (Part 1, Part 2) on using grid-tied solar panels was a good start, but little did I realize until I did this full-blown 10-day test just exactly what my system can do as an off-grid setup. This was the single best discovery of my off-grid experience. The bottom line is, with a few tweaks to my routines, my particular grid-tied system can be used as an off-grid setup using just a single 12v deep cycle battery ($100) instead of a large battery pack.
My Solar panel Setup
My solar panels are what’s called grid-tied. There are no batteries to deal with, just the solar panels and a small box called an inverter. The inverter changes the solar panel’s DC electricity to the 120v AC electricity our homes use. Grid-tied is so easy to set up that anyone who can hook up an electric water heater can DIY their own grid-tied solar panels.
There’s a huge “But…” with grid-tied. Some will recall during the record-setting forest fires in California in 2021 the grid was cut off in many areas. Those with grid-tied solar panels wondered, “I have solar panels so why aren’t they working when I need them most?”
The simple answer is that grid-tied solar panels automatically shut down during any kind of power outage. This is to protect the linesmen who repair the grid from getting electrocuted if your solar panels are still feeding the grid. Hence the legal requirement to have an automatic shutdown built into the solar-array’s inverter.
Grid-tied solar panel systems are useless in a grid-down world. In TEOTWAWKI-ville the system can be disassembled and the individual panels put to use, but only if you have some of the other components to make it work, especially a charge controller. Most folks won’t have those but solar panels also make good privacy fences and shed roofs.
So what makes my grid-tied system different? My inverter is a Sunny Boy 3000 which has an accessory called a Secure Power Supply (SPS.) The company advertises this device as unique to their inverters and even in a grid-down situation, I still have electricity available.
After installing my solar panels I tested out my SPS. It looks like any other plug outlet in my house but is wired directly to the inverter, not to the breaker panel that services my shop and fees the grid. When I tested it way back when, I plugged a drill motor into the socket, pulled the trigger and declared, “Yup, it works.” I’m embarrassed to confess that’s as far as I took testing that particular prep. The SPS capability turned out to be the most exciting discovery of my whole grid-own experiment. Nothing else came close. Here’s what happened.
The Sunny Boy 3000 Secure Power Supply
The morning after I began my grid-down test it was urgent to get my freezer running. I went out to the shop and activated my SPS unit. The company’s website promotes it with a small blurb about little things it can do, including one commenter who mentioned a guy who powered his beer refrigerator with it. They all missed the point, as I originally did, of the SPS’s capabilities. The SPS can extract 1,500 watts of electricity (2,000 on the newer models) from the solar panels during a grid-down event when all other inverters throughout the land are in the doornail stage.
The SPS has just a double outlet so with an extension cord I plugged in my freezer. It started running, saving all my frozen items which was a huge relief. Another extension cord powered other things I tested. Then I got to wondering if instead of using extension cords, I couldn’t just add a few wires so the SPS could back feed into my breaker panel and supply my whole house and shop with electricity. I sketched out a schematic, triple-checked everything, and decided it was definitely worth testing out.
After hooking up the back-feed accessory (search “transfer switch” and the appropriately named “suicide cord”), and turning the appropriate breakers back on, my house electricity was running as if the grid were still up. Someone visiting my house and using electricity would have no idea that the grid was kaput. This was a very exciting discovery! I never would have guessed the SPS had that kind of potential to power my whole house and shop (with a few exceptions) whenever the sun was shining.
With grid-tied solar panels, it’s required to have a disconnect switch just below the power company’s electric meter. Mine has a 24” handle which I can padlock into the off position. This assures when the SPS is in use, I can’t feed the grid and no electricity from the grid unexpectedly coming back on can cause problems with my inverter or SPS. In a TEOTWAWKI grid-down world lasting for years, the SPS can and should be hard wired to the electric panel.
Using the Secure Power System
After connecting the SPS to my house and shop, the first thing I did was to test each electrical item I have. After my Day One success with the shop freezer my next test was the refrigerator. It started, then tripped the breaker and shut down. My hopes were beginning to fade about using the SPS to power my house and shop. The refrigerator shut down due to the large surge of electricity required to get the motor started before lowering back down to its normal wattage. After the refrigerator fail, I discovered to my relief that everything else in my house worked. I then took the step of seeing how much I could run all at once. Having my normal electricity usage down to 100 kWh per month is a huge help in this area.
For reference, the average US home uses 970 kWh per month. By the time I quit turning on appliances and switches, everything in my house (except the microwave and fridge) was working simultaneously. That included the ceiling fan (65w), woodstove blower (95w), box fan (98w), Kitchen Aide mixer (200w on medium), rice cooker (350w), 17 light bulbs (~135w), TV and DVD player (110w) and the freezer in the shop (92w) for a total of 1,145 watts. That was 76% of the available electricity so I turned on the lights in my well house and shop, then a drill press and a hand drill. The system finally shut down when I turned on a bench grinder, as expected. Bench grinders have a motor with a large startup surge.
I’d never in a million years be running these all at once so the SPS system is more than adequate for my needs. I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face for the rest of the day. YES! Oh yeah baby! For things like the microwave (1,100w), countertop oven (1,200w), Foreman grill (1,200w), and bench grinders, I can use them as long as I’m only using a few hundred watts on the freezer and lights for example, before I fire them up. Each of these items worked when tested individually. Most of these are generally used for only minutes at a time so it wouldn’t be a huge inconvenience to turn off other items during their brief usage. As for the refrigerator, it’s very large and I don’t use most of the space. Smaller models are available which use much less energy (100w) and like my freezer, don’t have a surge phase. One more item for the to-do list.
As mentioned in my grid-tied article, one of my biggest worries for taking my homestead off grid is running my 100w woodstove blower for several hours per day using a small battery pack. Now I can rest easy with my SPS, using it to both run the blower as well as keeping my 131 Ah deep-cycle battery charged before I get a larger battery pack. I’ll be experimenting this winter with all the different parameters based on the weather forecast and how early/late in the morning I can start the blower.
During the one totally overcast day during my off-grid test, my ten solar panels were still able to provide enough electricity to power the 100w freezer. They shouldn’t have any problems with my woodstove blower since they are both 100 watts and the harvest freezer won’t be in use during the winter. The more solar panels a system has, the more energy they can produce on overcast days. I’ll also be experimenting with just using the SPS and no battery at all other than a core to power my reading lamp.
For anyone interested in setting up some solar panels, the SPS feature is well worth taking a look at. Sunny Boy claims their system is unique but I’d still check to see what others may offer. IMO, this feature alone makes it worth having solar panels in our preps. Very affordable if self-installed and worth their weight in gold in a TEOTWAWKI world. As mentioned, the electricity they make is a great barter item or good-neighbor gesture to charge their 12 Volt batteries and pump water to fill their barrels.
One last thing to mention. A quick glance at my complete 2018 inverter records shows that even on my worst few days each month, I still generated 1.5 kWh of electricity or more. This is more than enough to run the woodstove blower (100w, 3-4 hours per day) and small refrigerator (100w) for the day.
Stand-Alone Small Solar Panels
In addition to my 3,000w solar-panel system and SPS, I have some stand-alone solar panels as well. They’ve been fun to play with and also serve their functions around the homestead. A 100w solar panel keeps my deep-cycle battery charged and runs both my solar water heater and my backup 12v home water system. In a permanent grid-down world, even a small 100w panel can charge batteries and run low-wattage devices.
My generator experience was by far my most painful, upsetting, frustrating, humiliating, and embarrassing portion of the test. I lost count of how many times I said, “You idiot!” There were only a few “Yes!” exclamations and lots of “Come on, come on, come on…”
I’ll save the boring mechanical details for another day but after working on it for way more time than it should have required, it was painfully obvious that it would have started up by the second pull had I just been on top of regular maintenance.
Procrastination will be my single biggest regret if I’m not ready for life in TEOTWAWKI-ville. Due to procrastination and laziness, the generator issue was an unbelievably huge regret during this off-grid preps test.
I finally figured out that what’s called the float needle was corroded in place in the no-flow position. When Gumout and Liquid Wrench weren’t working, with no options left I gave a careful pull with a pair of needle-nose pliers and, as expected, that was the end of the story. It broke at the thin neck and I knew for certain at that very moment I wasn’t going to have any water for the rest of the grid-down test. It was a scene right out of a bad movie. Imagine in The Flight of the Phoenix all but one of the starter shells were used up trying to try to start the engine — with no luck. Imagine as they’re loading the last one, everyone waiting with bated breath knowing their lives depended on it working, that the last one failed as well. They’d know at that very moment they were going to die there in the desert when the water supply gave out. That was me. I knew for sure it was all over and I’d eventually run out of water. Not exactly the time best time to break out the bubbly.
I was so mad at myself. After it broke, I put everything back together except for the all-important needle valve which regulates the amount of gasoline going into the carburetor. I gave the pull cord a tug and she started right up. I could have cried. I had to shut her down with gasoline leaking all over the place but I knew for sure it had finally been fixed. Had I not broken the needle valve, I’d be in fat city screaming jubilantly, “YES!” as water gushed out of the well and filled my water tank. I can’t believe I’m getting depressed right now just writing about the experience but it was that bad. Had this been a real-life Day One of TEOTWAWKI, it would have taken a year or two or three for me to get over that stupid procrastination-based screw-up. Every time I was fetching water from somewhere, I’d be thinking about it. Every time I saw a small engine, I’d remember that needle valve. Procrastination and a $3 part would have an enormous effect on my TEOTWAWKI life and that of others as well. More labor, far less water, no helping the neighbors, no showers, no lots of stuff. Water conservation until the day I died. All due to procrastination.
There’s nothing difficult about keeping a small engine healthy and running, it just takes regular maintenance just like changing the oil in your car. It was that simple. Even JB Weld couldn’t fix what simple maintenance could have prevented in the first place. My apologies for belaboring the point but it was such an important lesson for me.
I went to bed depressed that night.
The only redeeming thing about the experience is that “This is a test, only a test…” I’ve already bought two complete carburetor rebuild kits, and every time I look at that generator I’ll be asking myself, “Is it time to do maintenance yet?” Had it been a real SHTF I would have played around with fuel regulation by restricting the tube leading to the needle valve to see if that would work. There are so many different kinds of needle valves that finding one that was interchangeable would have been a good thing to pursue, but unlikely to have success.
General Electricity Things I Learned
Flashlights are not for lighting, just flash-lighting. I quickly realized how small my battery supply was even though I have 100+ AA and AAA plus rechargeables. Even rechargeable batteries have a limited life span so alternate means of lighting are necessary, allowing reservation of flashlights for flash-lighting. Most of my flashlights and headlamps were very dim after two hours of reading.
When better options exist, for me kerosene and candles are impractical for lighting. They’re dangerous, finite, unhealthy to breathe, and blacken ceilings and walls. I couldn’t read by candlelight unless the book was 6” away. Putting a parabolic mirror behind the candle helped some but still wasn’t ideal. All of these primitive light sources are analogous to having a ferro rod in your GHB/BOB: why have one when a butane lighter is so quick and efficient? Ditto with kerosene and candles. For me personally the only practical lighting source will be some RV 12v LED lights that can run directly off the battery without an inverter. I’ve already got three styles ordered and I’m checking out what other 12v RV gadgets would be good to have. I didn’t fully realize how precious good lighting is until I started trying to use candles and flashlights to read by.
After my 350w inverter failed on a battery core, rather than using a battery from one of my vehicles, I decided to test out light conservation by doing small things like cooking and showering while daylight was still available, getting up earlier, and using the keychain flashlight around my neck for brief spurts.
Things I Got Right
Reduced Electricity usage – Spending the last eight years getting my usage down to 100 kWh per month was one of the biggest of all helps. It made my off-grid trial so much easier since I wasn’t using a lot of electricity to begin with. This is a worthy goal for any prepper. A good review of ways to minimize electricity usage was presented in the recent SurvivalBlog article A Vehicle to Help Adjust Your Thinking, by R.V.
Composting toilet – This is one of the areas where I’m good to go and life will continue as normal when the SHTF. Both puns intended.
Freezer alarms – These indispensible alarms are used for letting me know with loud beeping when the well-house temperature is getting too low or the freezer temperature is getting too high.
Solar Panels – Solar panels are the reason why life can go on as normally as possible, in as many ways as possible, after the SHTF. Electricity is the single biggest labor-saving invention in all of history. Why go back to a primitive labor-intensive lifestyle when so much of it can be avoided?
Solar water heater – Hot water shouldn’t have to be a TEOTWAWKI luxury when there are so many inexpensive ways to DIY non-electric water heaters which circulate water out of your current water heater, heats it up, then puts it back in. Switching back and forth from electric to solar is a simple matter of closing two valves. My solar water heater valve switching is such a daily habit I can do it blindfolded and will continue to provide hot water in most circumstances. I’m sure I can barter for lots of things by letting people shower in my outdoor shower after the SHTF.
Generator – I got it right owning one but blew it major big time by not being able to actually use it. Next time!
Water backup using a 12v deep-cycle battery. Simple, easy, and inexpensive to install and I couldn’t do without mine in a TEOTWAWKI world.
Solar food dryer – I do most drying during mid-summer but wasn’t expecting to dry 20 lbs. of bananas from the freezer in late September so it was good to have.
Sunny Boy inverter with SPS – enough said already. As mentioned, I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face when I found out all it can do.
DIY and Reference Books – Books used to be common but now we depend so much on the internet for instant information that we tend to lack the hard copies we’ll need if the SHTF. My SurvivalBlog archive stick and a rechargeable laptop will be one of the better resources in my preps, not just for the articles but the included library as well. (Pray we’ll never have to use Where There is No Dentist!) My many other books will also be useful.
MacGyver skills – I don’t know if these are learned or inherited but worth developing. I think every group would be much further ahead with their own MacGyver like Lon, the machinist mentioned in Patriots.
Twelve-Volt Batteries – I’ve been very pleased with the $100, 131Ah deep-cycle battery I bought at Walmart. These can be useful as stand-alones for charging batteries of all sorts, lighting, running small pumps for water heaters and alternate water systems, and various low-wattage uses inside the house. Even old battery cores work well. My farm store lets me trade one core for another at no cost. If I take my $5 electrical tester I can choose the best one. The one I traded for during editing this article holds a 96% charge and mostly just needed the water topped off inside.
Questions and To-Do List
While making notes during your test, I recommend writing down all questions and making a to-do list to work on after the trial ends. I have my own longer version of this article which is 24,000 words with all sorts of different material on how I can be better prepared for next time. The more extensive your notes, the better you’ll recall what needs doing and how to improve your preps in general.
Not only did I learn way more than I was expecting during this grid-down test, but it was fun and challenging as well. I discovered the only realistic way to test our preps is as a complete package, not just individually.
The single biggest recommendation I would make for anyone realistically trying to prepare for TEOTWAWKI is to get solar panels and be sure they have a Secure Power System option or something similar. If you can get your monthly kWh usage down to the low 100’s, you can run most of your household during daylight hours just off your SPS wattage without even needing batteries. You’ll be as surprised as I was at how much you can do with only 1,500w. At the very least, get a small 100w solar panel and start playing around with it using an old battery core and a $20 charge controller.
My biggest failure in this test was the generator. Sometimes bad things happen due to bad timing, our lack of knowledge, or other forgivable offenses. Procrastination is one that’s unforgiveable but can be fixed so I learned a big prepping lesson the hard way during this test. Those feelings of stupidity and failure will stay with me for a while and hopefully help me to stop procrastinating important things.
I think we’re close to some world-changing events in the very near future. While it may not be TEOTWAWKI yet, we still need to be prepared for shortages in food, non-perishables, and electricity just in case. Let’s keep our eyes on Europe this winter and see how they fare. The same events are headed our way sooner or later. It will pay to be as prepared as possible.
I learned quickly during my test that it doesn’t take long to get into the survival mindset. About Day Four I saw a bunch of vultures flying overheard from a nearby roost as they normally do. I shook my fist and said, “Not yet guys!”
It was a little anti-climactic when it was all over but I knew I had succeeded for the most part. I would have celebrated with a frozen banana smoothie but I had dried all the bananas. I invited a friend over then went inside to make a chocolate mint mocha cake to celebrate. I added cocoa to my stocking-up-the-larder to-do list.
As I walked past the generator, still in its on-end position in front of the shop, I patted the gas tank, “You were a worthy opponent but you won’t get me next time!”
Now, go try your own adventure with a grid-down test of whatever length and send us a postcard to let us know how it went. We’d love to hear.