I had an interesting conversation via email with one of my readers this week. She was responding to my winter storm scenario and wanted to know more about alternate power arrangements in the case of a grid failure. We ran through some scenarios and I explained to her HOW to go about figuring all this out. In the spirit of learning from each other, I figured I’d write a post about our conversation and explain this to everyone in detail.
We all want to have power all the time, and if you’ve gone without for an extended period of time then you already know how important it is to actually have power on. We cook with it, we use it for light, sometimes heat, and for all around comfort. That doesn’t even begin to cover things like entertainment, luxuries, etc.
How do I get power when the grid is down?
Pure off-grid solutions are out of scope for this post. So I’m not going to talk about whole-house solar, wind, water, etc. I’m going to talk purely about what is available to your average suburb resident. Realistically there’s just three easy ways to get power when the grid is down.
Grid Power Storage
This is basically the concept of putting together a bank of batteries with a trickle charger, keeping them topped off via grid power when it’s available, and then using the stored power via an inverter to run whatever it is that you want to run. This is a reasonably viable solution, but it has two major drawbacks. First, batteries are expensive. They’re heavy, and a pain in the butt in general. Second, if the grid is down, and you run out of power, you’re done. No more lights!
Small Scale Solar
You can use a few smaller solar panels to generate some power when the sun is out. If the sun is out. And if the angle is right. And so on. Solar power is somewhat complicated, requires some extra equipment, and by itself doesn’t have any method of storing the power that it generates. You can certainly couple this with your grid power storage solution above, and use the solar panels to charge the batteries. This can be a fantastic solution if you’re in a sunny area where you can be reasonably sure that you’ll have sun most of the year. It’s not a very good solution at all if you live where it rains and snows a lot. I’m sure you guys can figure out why…
I’m sure you all know what a generator is. You can get them in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can get them with all different types of fuel types. Overall, this is my personal preference for raw power generation. You can get a fair amount of on-demand power with the generator running, and you can use the exact same trickle charger you use to store grid power to top off storage batteries. Some generators can even charge batteries directly. Fuel is generally not that hard to store, and it will keep for a while. If you get a propane generator you can even use the same tanks you would use for your gas grill on the back porch.
Rudy’s Recommendation: My personal recommendation is a properly sized grid power storage (lots of batteries) coupled with a properly sized generator. My preference in generators is diesel fuel with attention paid to overall noise reduction.
What should I use my stored power for?
Movie Night! Just kidding. I’d suggest thinking ahead about what you’d use your stored power for. Lights are a good choice, cooking can be too. I’d use generator power but not battery power to keep food in a fridge or freezer cold. Running your electric baseboard heaters is probably not the best idea. Overall, you want to think ‘comfort’ but not luxury. Also think about efficiency, etc. Deciding ahead of time what you’re going to use it for is critical to proper sizing of a power storage system.
Rudy’s Tip: Even though I say to think comfort and not luxury, in an extended grid down situation cabin fever can set in rapidly. It’s well worth using some fuel and generator power to let the kids play video games or watch a movie from time to time to keep spirits up and prevent people from going crazy.
How do I put all this together?
I thought you’d never ask. I’ll have a post on Friday that discusses the details of a generator backed grid power storage system with a specific ‘How To’ approach. I’ll talk about what to use it for, sizing a system appropriately, figuring out how many batteries you might need, the whole nine yards.