Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Emergency Survival Ideas

Living through an emergency is challenging, but even more so for those whose don’t prepare in advance. To some, emergency survival means living in primitive conditions and eating bugs. My idea of survival is to live as comfortably after an emergency as I did before, without moving from my home, and certainly without eating bugs. Knowing that an emergency will force me to give up some conveniences, I still believe my goal is achievable, but probably in a much smaller space.

In addition to stocking up on water and food, my photovoltaic (PV) system plays a significant role in my survival strategy. But keeping even one room warm in the winter is a challenging task, since my PV system doesn’t produce nearly enough electricity to do the job using resistive heating. To deal with that problem I’ve installed a corn-burning stove. And, while the stove’s motors require a significant amount of electrical energy, the PV system is capable of providing it. It is only necessary to store a supply of corn sufficient to keep the stove going in the event of a long-term emergency. A pellet-burning stove would be another good choice for emergency heat, with the added bonus that mice are not attracted to the pellet fuel as they are with corn. A good supply of bagged pellets can easily be stored in a garage or basement. A wood-burning stove or fireplace is another alternative heating option, but you’ll need to keep an ample supply of firewood on hand. An advantage of a wood-burning stove is that it does not require electricity to operate. A disadvantage of wood is that it does not burn as clean as corn or pellets, requiring more attention to the chimney and flue lines. Electricity may also be needed in order to circulate the heat. A kerosene heater is another emergency heating option, but not a particularly attractive one since it involves storing a large quantity of an expensive and flammable liquid fuel. Additionally, the smell of kerosene burning is not something I’m particularly fond of.

Refrigeration is another thing I don’t want to do without in an emergency. Besides preserving food and making it taste better, refrigeration is a necessity for those who need to keep medicine fresh. To make sure I have enough electrical power to maintain refrigeration in the event of a long-term emergency, I’ve had to abandon the idea of using my big, energy-wasting refrigerator-freezer combination. Instead, I provide power to an efficient top-loading freezer. Even with my small photoelectric (PV) system I can keep frozen food frozen indefinitely, and I can use the freezer to produce ice for use in portable coolers. I already have several blocks of ice in the bottom of my freezer, giving me a head-start for the next power failure. A full freezer has the added advantage of operating more efficiently than a not-so-full freezer. The coolers (ice chests) can be kept outside during the winter in order to make the ice last longer, and in the coolest part of the house during the summer.

In the event of a grid power failure, I’ll do most of my cooking in a microwave oven. I’ll also consider a solar-cooker, an outdoor charcoal grill, and even a campfire in the backyard as long as firewood is available. It’s important to remember that it might be necessary to boil water for drinking, and all of these options can be used as necessary.

Electrical energy needs will be the greatest during the coldest winter months when keeping warm, cooking, and lighting place the greatest load on my solar electric system. Periods of extended cloud cover might also limit the amount of energy available during these times. My goal is to enlarge my current PV system until I’m confident that it can meet my needs under the worst-case conditions. Once that’s done, I’ll have an abundance of energy generating capacity and storage to serve me when power outages occur during mild or warm weather. My goal of living comfortably in the event of an emergency is easily achievable during those times.

In addition to the electrical requirements for lighting, heating, and refrigeration, energy will be needed for a radio, TV, and to charge cell phone batteries. These devices use only a small amount of energy, easily provided by even a small PV system. Still, they must be considered when calculating energy needs. Here is an example/summary:

Corn stove - - - - - 100-Watts - - - 12 hours per day - - 1200-Watt/hours per day
Chest freezer - - - 35-Watts(avg) - 24 hours per day - - 840-Watt/hours per day
Microwave oven - 750-Watts - - - 0.5 hours per day - - 375-Watt/hours per day
Lighting (cfl's) - - 45-Watts - - - - 3 hours per day - - - 135-Watt/hours per day
TV - - - - - - - - - - - 60-Watts - - - - 2 hours per day - - - 120-Watt/hours per day
Radio - - - - - - - - - 5-Watts - - - - - 4 hours per day - - - 20-Watt/hours per day
Cell phone charger - 25-Watts - - - 1 hour per day - - - - 25-Watt/hours per day

Total need per day: 2715-Watt/hours

These needs can be met with 700-Watts of solar panels, assuming 4 hours of sunlight per day. Installing eight 100-Watt solar panels and an appropriately sized battery bank will ensure ample power in the event of a grid power failure. Holding down the cost of the PV system was accomplished in this example by excluding devices that consume large amounts of energy. Using a microwave oven instead of an electric frying pan is much more energy efficient, and using a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner also helps. A larger system would, of course, provide even more comfort during an extended power outage by providing the power needed for additional appliances, and other substitutions are possible. A few hours of air conditioning in the summer can be substituted for the use of the corn-burning stove in the winter. However, we’re talking about a window air conditioner in this example, since the PV system described here cannot provide enough power for a central air system. Still, as I said earlier, I believe it is possible to live comfortably in the event of an emergency, but in a smaller space.

In addition to its use as an emergency backup electrical system, the PV equipment can provide a portion of your everyday electrical needs, reducing your utility bills. You might use a small system to power only a few items in your home, perhaps your refrigerator and freezer. As your PV system grows, you can add additional appliances. I hope to own a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle (PHEV) someday, and will use my PV system to charge its batteries. If all goes as planned, I’ll be driving on free power from the sun.



Anonymous said...




Solar John said...


I'm located in Southern Illinois, and I bought two plastic 55 gallon drums for about $9.00 each from Rural King in Marion. I've heard that you can also buy large barrels from car wash operators. I understand that soap or wax comes in them. I hope this helps.


Damon Hart-Davis said...

Hi John,

Very interesting blog: thanks, especially the earlier stuff on battery rating vs performance.

I've just started a very small pilot project (12V DC lighting only) in London. See http://www.earth.org.uk/solar-PV-pilot-summer-2007.html

Power is reliable and cheap here, but I want to evaluate the possibility of relying less on mains power, though I'll have to give up some of my addiction to computers servers eventually I think!



Anonymous said...

>> In the event of a grid power failure, I’ll do most of my cooking in a microwave oven. I’ll also consider a solar-cooker, an outdoor charcoal grill, and even a campfire in the backyard as long as firewood is available. It’s important to remember that it might be necessary to boil water for drinking, and all of these options can be used as necessary.

John, It seems to me like your ownly thinking half way through the problems. Grid failure stuff your talking about is hopefully short term, because long term grid failure or something like POST PEAK OIL grid loss is a much bigger thing. Here's what doesn't make sense in your long post and thoughts.

1. If there is a grid failure and it's long term you need food supplies and necessities. Your plans sound like a short term thing only. So your only talking about grid outage not failure.

2. You have not planned for long term disasters, unless you have local and self sufficient lifestyle plans. What to grow, eat, trade without the grid, you don't have a job to pay the bills or shop for corn husks at the local Wallmart.

3. If your only driving your car to some non-necessary local place a few blocks away, then your going to be wasting an awful lot of energy from your SOLAR system to power the hybrid car. That car weighs 200lbs. You could be charging it all week to try to get a few horsepower. Which is dumb and won't take you far.

Think about it 650 watts equals one horsepower. So 4 hours is four horespower. So two weeks of sunlight might get you what an hour of 40 horsepower. That won't even move your PRIUS, your dreaming.

A better idea would be to charge a smaller battery and have a hybrid bike with a battery powered motor. If you want to travel down the street in cold weather, then wear some winter clothing for your crisis or make yourself a velomobile like enclosed one man car. Bicycles are not moving 1800lbs or more of excess steel to protect you from drunk drivers and the weather. They are much more efficient becuase most of the weight is the passenger.

4. You talk a big talk about surviving if the grid goes down. But the truth is if you are talking about a temporary emergency, you'd be better off with a generator, and a full tank of fuel for your Prius. The Prius should run for a couple of weeks to three or four if you don't drive much during the disaster, and that's insurance against a grid failure enough. If your planning for a major grid failure of more than two weeks then those plans will have to start taking into account economic changes and running out of food. You can have a years worth of can goods, but what good will that be if you can't pay your bills.

Self sufficiency is a dream unless you plan on a much smaller lifestyle and expectation. Unless your tied into a small self sustaining economy. (like Organic Amish farmers) even bums can't be self sufficient, becuase they are digging in the garbage and eating the excess of what others throw away.

Without farming, some kind of economic activity, a much smaller footprint, you won't survive long. You may weather temporary grid problems a bit better. A friend of mine was playing Xbox in his air conditioned room watching a giant screen TV during a couple day power outage, while my mother struggled to keep her feet cold for a foot condition using ice donated by a local Meijer store that had some in the back. The guy with the generator faired better as long as his gas lasted. For longer term shortages, the stores being closed, or "long term grid failure" you still haven't figured those things out.

YOur on your way however.

Solar John said...


you bring up a number of good points. In my writing, I'm guilty of mixing short-term emergency plans with long-term survival plans. But I believe that if I prepare for survival in the long-term, short-term power outages will be easy to deal with. In response to your comments:

1. I'm actively looking for a three-acre or larger plot of land. I'll not only grow much of my own food, but also corn to burn in my stove.
2. Self-sufficiency, or getting as close to it as possible, is what I'm trying to achieve. At the same time, I won't live like a minimalist unless that's forced upon me.
3. I agree with some of your car comments. I may use a bicycle or electric scooter to meet most of my transportation needs, but it would be nice to go for a Sunday drive with my family in a 4-passenger electric car. I've read that electric cars can be powered for about 1/3 the cost of a gasoline car. If that's true, I won't mind driving around in a comfortable 2000lb car.
4. Gas generators and gas cars are of little value if gas is unavailable, or unaffordable. I'll put my money into PV and and electric transportation of some form.
If I can't pay my bills due to a collapse of the economy, many others will be in the same predicament. I doubt that I'll be foreclosed upon.
I hope to grow most of my own food, and some of what I'll grow can be bartered for other items. I might even be able to sell some of the surplus electricity I expect to produce. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I'm learning. Comments like yours help. Thanks!