The majority of the U.S. population lives in a city or suburbs connected to a city and is completely reliant on grid power from coal, hydro, or natural gas power plants. In the event of a national or local disaster, regardless of the cause, the electricity system is the weakest link. Without power almost nothing else in a city or town will work. These disasters may be of short- or long-term duration, but depending on the weather and medical needs of your family going without power for even a short time could cause great hardship and even death. In this article I want to explain how you can set up a small affordable survival solar electric system, so that in the event of a disaster you would still have power for basic appliances, recharging phones, tools, and lights for security.
How big of a system do I need? First, you need to determine the appliances that you absolutely need to survive. That is usually a few lights for security, a cell phone recharger for communication, and possible a few rechargeable tools. A small 100-watt solar panel, one deep cycle battery, 15 amp charge controller, and a 400 watt inverter will take care of those needs. With these, you would probably have enough power to spare for recharging a laptop computer. If you need refrigeration, then consider a small chest freezer that can be run off a 100-watt panel and frozen jugs of water can be used in an ice chest for items that just need to be kept cool and not frozen.
Where do I put the panel? The panel needs to be in direct sunlight. A roof is usually the best location, facing the panel so it will get full sun at mid-day. This can be a temporary set up, only placing the panel out in a disaster or a permanent mounted system. If you want portability, in case you need to bug-out, I would suggest mounting the panel(s) on your camper/RV roof. Using a heavy-duty extension cord and power strip you can run the power into your house or take the system with you to a safer location.
What solar equipment do I need? A basic solar electric system is comprised of at least one solar panel, a charge controller, at least one deep-cycle battery, and an inverter to convert DC to AC power. You can find solar panels on Ebay or Amazon and online from around $1.00 per watt. Some packages include everything except the battery. You can get batteries locally cheaper, without paying freight charges. I recommend an MPPT power controller, which will get you about 15% more power in low light conditions, but a less expensive PWM controller will do the job. A modified sine wave inverter works fine for most appliances, but for sensitive equipment (some fridges) the more expensive pure sine wave inverters are recommended. Get a true deep cycle battery, not a Marine battery, and Trojan T105 are good batteries. AGM sealed batteries are more expensive, but if you will be storing the battery inside with you, they are recommended. How many batteries you need will depend on how long you want to store power and how much power you will use. For a starter system with a 100-watt panel, one 12volt battery or two 6volt batteries hooked in series will be fine, and you can add panels and batteries to expand your system as needed when you have the money.
What maintenance is required? Solar panel output will be effected by snow and dust, so keep the panels cleaned off and facing the midday sun at all times. Even a small coating of dust will drastically reduce output. Open cell batteries will lose water through evaporation, and the cells must be refilled with clean distilled water. Keep a jug of distilled water on hand just for the batteries. Wear goggles and latex gloves when handling batteries, and be aware acid is extremely corrosive and the gasses released can be explosive. Store batteries in a safe location in a vented box outside the residence, if possible. Batteries work best when they are warm in winter and cool in summer. Battery terminal posts will become corroded from time to time. Use a battery wire brush post cleaner, available at any auto supply store, and a little distilled water to remove the corrosion. DO NOT touch the corroded parts with your hands or get it on your clothing. Check wiring as needed for any abrasions, and tighten connections. Power controllers and inverters generally require very little maintenance but understand the manufacturer’s specifications for use and follow their guidelines. Keep your power controller and inverter close to the batteries to reduce the length of DC wire runs, and use a heavy duty power cord and surge protected power strip attached to the inverter for your AC power line. A separate DC power line can be run directly off of the battery posts but must be heavier gauge wire. Twelve gauge is recommended for lights and 8 gauge for any appliance with a motor or pump. DC power lines must have an inline fuse between the battery and appliances to prevent a short that could burn through a power line and start a fire. Keeping a fire extinguisher is recommended in any home.
What about wind turbines? Unless you get over 25mph constant winds, turbines are not recommended for a survival system. They require more maintenance and special controllers and only work well if placed very high and over 50 feet. Put your money into more solar panels and batteries if you need more power. If you do get great wind and it is constant, I recommend the Air X or Air Breeze models that do not require a separate power controller and will work well in lower wind speeds.
What about other solar appliances and gadgets? I also recommend small solar appliances, like rechargeable lights and emergency radios that can be used at home or taken in a backpack. The Ambient Weather Radio and Solar D.Light are excellent products. These can be stored for use in an emergency, and the Ambient Radio has both a solar panel and hand crank and can be used to recharge a cell phone. There are lots of solar gadgets and small flexible solar panels that can be used in an emergency, but for more reliable power get a larger solar panel, controller, battery, and inverter.
My story: I have been off-grid for over 15 years, and my system is 580 watts solar and a 400-watt wind turbine. These power my lights, water pump, laptop, TV, and numerous gadgets. I started with just a 45-watt system and added panels and batteries as I had the money and the need for more power. My heat is a wood stove and propane backup. I use small DC fans and passive cooling, so my electricity needs are minimal. I have survived and thrived just fine with a small solar electric system. When my neighbor’s power is out and their houses are cold and dark, I am safe and warm in my solar-powered cabin. I have used and reviewed many solar products, and I am the author of the book “Ultimate Off-Grid Guide”. I have over 100 videos of my systems on my youtube channel.