I have spent time and money on food and water preparation, on preparing my family plan for emergency situations that might last an extended period of time. I have purchased and prepared medical and hygiene supplies, trying to cover as many areas as I could. Even with this much preparation, there was still one other important issue I needed to address.
In a true TEOTWAWKI situation, a major concern for me and my family is electrical power. This concern isn’t centered on the ability to watch television, listen to music, or even cook food. Those are what I would consider the “perks” of having electricity in such a situation. No…our need is centered on another main fact of our lives…the need for medicinal storage. You see, my wife is type 1 diabetic and requires insulin in order to remain active, healthy, and…well…alive. Insulin is temperature sensitive medication and being unable to store it in ideal conditions puts my wife at a tremendous health risk…one I am not willing to take. We needed a refrigerator and a means to power it…period.
Why is this so important? Here are some facts around insulin storage. It is important to note that these findings are based on my own research and any conclusions you reach should be based on research you have done yourself. Never take someone else’s word for it. Learn the essentials for yourself.
According to the insulin packaging from the manufacturer of the insulin my wife uses, unopened vials of insulin must be kept at temperatures between 36 – 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Opened and in use insulin vials should be kept at room temperature between 59 – 86 degrees Fahrenheit for easier distribution into the bloodstream. Storing insulin in conditions outside of recommended levels can drastically reduce the effectiveness of that insulin. For example, if it is too cold, insulin can form clots and become useless. If it’s too hot, the insulin loses potency and takes more of it to be effective. Where we live, if the grid went down for an extended period of time at the wrong time of the year, temperatures could exceed 100 degrees easily. That would drastically reduce the effectiveness of my wife’s insulin. This means that, without a means to refrigerate her insulin, my wife would have to use higher dosages of “weaker” insulin in order to maintain her blood sugar levels. The use of higher dosage amounts would result in a much quicker depletion of her insulin stockpile. Not a very pleasant scenario to think about when faced with the uncertainty of when we would be able to get more insulin for her…if ever. Making it last as long as possible is extremely important.
I had many discussions with my wife on this subject and spent time and money to tackle this area of concern. I have looked at and investigated different options to cover this need for continued electrical power. A key factor for us was being able to begin preparations without breaking our bank account. We wanted to be able to prepare for tomorrow, but still live and enjoy today.
Below is my assessment of some of the options I have weighed over the past year and my reasons for not choosing them. Once again, keep in mind that my decision is not a final decision that works for everyone. It is the decision that best fits my family from a financial and practical point of view. Your situation may be different and you may feel another option best fits your individual needs.
Generator power: It is completely unrealistic for us, as a family, to afford the major investment of buying a quality generator. Not only does this approach require the investment in the generator itself, it also requires an investment in fuel supplies. The costs of containers for fuel storage, fuel stabilizer, and other safety considerations really start to add up quickly. More importantly, this option is a rather noisy approach. In a true TEOTWAWKI scenario, I don’t want to be drawing attention to the fact that I have power. In an urban environment, a noisy, gas powered generator would be easily noticed and tracked. I would be an instant target for those looking to get something for nothing or simply looking for someone to raid and take what they can from them.
Manual Generator (human power): There is not much I can say here. We have all seen the “bicycle generator” videos. Just too much effort required for minimal results. It may be a cheaper way to go, but the output is not worth the energy I would have to spend to get it. I think I would die of starvation before I could pedal enough power to charge my battery array on which I plan to run a refrigerator.
Wind Turbine: Again, this option requires some investment and know-how that I am not willing to put my time and effort into. Although this option produces free energy, it also requires a lot of material cost that quickly goes above our budget. There are other factors against this option as well. Where I live, the wind is sporadic at best and I would not consistently get the rotation speed I would require to repeatedly recharge my battery array of choice. The high profile of a wind turbine is, once again, a security issue. It is a major attention grabber that I can’t afford to have around in an urban environment. Drawing that level of attention is extremely dangerous when most people around us have not bothered to prepare at all. Again, why make my family targets for those looking to get something for nothing, those raiding others in hopes of gaining supplies.
Photovoltaic (PV) Panels: This brings us to my final option, one that makes the most sense to me and my family from both an economic and strategic position. We get 280+ days of sun where we live. There is virtually no noise, and if set up properly there are ways of properly concealing solar panels from plain sight. In our neighborhood, we have large back yards and high block wall fences separating one house from the next. These high block wall fences enable me to ground mount my panels low enough to the ground and at the correct angle to capture the most amount of southern sun and still keep them from being visible from the street or from a neighbor’s back yard. After discussing this option with my wife, it seemed the most sensible way to go.
I started by purchasing a pre-fabricated set of solar panels from a local hardware chain (45 watts, total). This set was a good investment as it gave me all the tools I needed in order to gain a better understanding of what solar power is all about and how it works. The system came with 3-15 watt solar panels, a charge controller (which is vital and keeps the batteries from over-charging or over-depleting), and two 5 watt [DC] fluorescent lights on 12 foot cords. The set also came with various cords for use with the charge controller which allows for direct connection to recharge 3, 5, 6, and 9v appliances and devices. It also has a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug (like those found in your car), so a 12 VDC appliance can be plugged directly into the charge controller if needed. I charge my iPod Nano and my cell phone on it regularly without issue.
This 45 watt system will produce an average of 2.25 amps per hour during daytime hours (roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Using a mulitmeter, I have actually taken panel output readings at various times of the day, several different days during different seasons to support the 2.25 amps average. Some hours it is less (like early morning and late afternoon) and sometimes it produces more (like the hours between 9:30 am and 3:30 pm). This is enough output to maintain my pair of deep cycle marine batteries.
This is where things get a bit on the technical side. We have to figure out the capacity of the battery bank and maximum load (the amount of power that can be used in a given hour) for that array. Each of the marine deep cycle batteries is rated at 105 amp hours each (210 total amp hours). Research has indicated that in order to preserve and extend battery life, you really want to use only 80% of that available power. That would give a total of 168 amp hours (210 x .80). To determine the maximum hourly amp load level, take that 168 and divide it by 24 (20 is the recommended load time used in these type of calculations, but assuming it will be used around the clock is to error on the side of caution). This gives a total hourly amp load of 7 amps. The total load is impressive, but you need to remember that the actual load should not exceed the solar panel array’s ability to recharge the battery bank. As I stated earlier in this article, the panels put out an average of 2.25 amps per hour over the 10 hours of daylight that are strong enough to generate power via the solar panels. That’s 22.25 amps every day (10 x 2.25). Not a bad starting point.
The next step was to find a refrigerator that would not completely drain the battery bank in the process of preserving my wife’s medication. I settled on a 1.7 cubic foot refrigerator without freezer. The freezer free option helps maintain a lower power consumption profile as it does not require a compressor to run in addition to the cooling fan and motor. This means that there are fewer cycles during which the refrigerator motor is actually running to cool down the unit…meaning it probably uses less power than the specifications have defined…great news. This refrigerator not only has plenty of storage space for my wife’s insulin medication, it also provides options for other food storage in a true TEOTWAWKI scenario. Being able to preserve other foods is always a bonus in a long-term TEOTWAWKI scenario.
Back to power consumption and maximum load. This particular refrigerator model runs on an amazingly low 80 watts. In order to figure out the amp load this refrigerator consumes, take the watts (80) and divide that by the current it will use in 120 Volt AC power. This gives a value of .67 amps. At that rate, running this refrigerator 24 hours per day would use only 16.08 total amps of power from the battery bank. Remember that the motor is not running all the time, so actual power consumption is realistically less, but use the maximum consumption in equations to be safe. In the 10 hours of direct sunlight available on average in my area and at the average panel output of 2.25 amps per hour, this results in getting a satisfactory 22.25 amps in 10 hours. This is 6.42 amps more than the refrigerator consumes all day. This allows the battery bank to remain at full capacity each and every day.[JWR Adds: To be accurate: An 80 watt demand (at 110 VAC) pulls almost 7 amps per hour. (80 divided by 12.6). Volts x Amps = Watts. Also, as SurvivalBlog Reader “Mabs” has pointed out, a 6 volt golf cart deep cycle battery can only be drained 50% without hurting the battery. In a pinch 70% can be drained but doing this adversly affects battery longevity. Keep in mind that inverters are inefficient, so you would need a substantially larger system to provide 80 watts of AC power, 24 hours per day. You must carefully match the size of the inverter to your intended loads. Even when at “idle”, inverters draw significant current. The bigger the inverter, the bigger the current draw, so choose wisely. My advice is that for the sake of simplicity and efficiency that you set up an entirely DC system, using a compact DC-powered refrigerator, such as those made by Engel. When set to 40 degrees they only draw about 1 Amp. You can also keep a small inverter on hand to plug in for occasional use of small AC power tools.]
What I have discussed here is a basic PV system. Solar panel array systems are scalable. I can add more and more panels as time goes by to increase my load closer to my battery bank’s limit [without deep cycling]. More panels will allow me to use my battery array for more than just the refrigerator. I can run lights and and small appliances with the confidence that my battery array can and will be fully charged by a larger solar panel array. The more panels I add, the more amps they will charge my battery bank during the daytime. [JWR Adds: This would require a charge controller to avoid battery overcharging, an inverter of adequate size (to handle AC loads), and a well-maintained battery bank of sufficient size to match the scale of the system.] The key for me was to build an initial system that would cover our main need, to preserve my wife’s medication. After that, I can comfortably add to it as time and money allows.
I have come to the sobering realization that only I can do the things that will best protect my family. I could not allow myself to be aware of such a serious issue and not do something about it. There is nothing wrong with preparation. God willing, nothing will ever happen and my wife will continue to get her insulin in the mail on schedule as expected. If that’s the case, I’ve got a really nice beer refrigerator I can use during football season. If something does happen, I can feel better knowing I have put my wife and family in the best position to survive. Thank you and God bless.