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.