Survival tech - Weathering the winter storm

-January 07, 2014

It was a cold winter morning, not at all uncommon for Michigan in December. The skies were crystal clear as the twinkling stars began to fade into the brightening blue sky. The golden sun rose lazily over the horizon, illuminating the ice covered landscape that sparkled like a diamond under jewelers light. It appeared that the prediction of a winter ice storm had come to fruition. As the sun bathed the Earth with its gentle warm touch, the lights began to flicker and finally went out.

Losing power is usually an inconvenience but in most cases it really isn’t a big deal. Repair crews work quickly to restore energy and it is rare to go for more than a day without it being restored. As it turned out there was not a whole lot of normal associated with this winter ice storms wrath. It managed to knock out power to more than 2.3 million people and in excess of 42% of the local utility companies’ clients (see Figure 1). Estimations for restoring power were listed at one week. A day is inconvenient, but a week in the middle of winter could be deadly.


Figure 1. Map of outages two days after power was lost

Surviving in an unexpected power outage in the middle of winter can very quickly turn into an episode of MacGyver especially if an investment in a backup generator hasn’t been made. Weathering the storm quickly becomes an exercise in utilizing what is on-hand and how it could fulfill a function that it normally might not be intended for. In this particular situation there are two primary needs, the first is a way to heat the house so that pipes don’t freeze and the second is to find a way to power some devices of convenience. Let’s be honest, a week without power means a week without cell phones, tablets, computers and Kindles which is completely unacceptable to most of modern mankind.

It turns out that someone who has natural gas appliances such as a hot water heater, fireplace and stove find the first issue of heating the house relatively trivial. The fireplace can be ran 24/7 and as discovered during this instance they can heat the entire house relatively well. To the point in fact that shorts and a Hawaiian shirt were required to prevent being overheated! A gas stovetop can also be easily lit manually resulting in a way to cook warm food and boil water for warm beverages.

The second issue of providing some type of power for cell phones, computers or even a television for entertainment purposes requires a bit more thought. Despite today’s technology being “low power”, the thought of trying to generate a few hundred watts of power without the power grid suddenly becomes a bit daunting. Take a look at Figure 2 which shows a few common devices that someone would want to power during a week-long power outage. Some of these power levels might be attainable through the use of a battery power pack or even pulling power from a spare battery but many of them would require a backup generator. Where could someone get a generator on a moment’s notice that doesn’t require special and costly installation?


Figure 2. Power usage of common household devices

One of the most overlooked and mobile generators in the world are the automobile. Gasoline is burned which drives the combustion engine that in turn drives an alternator capable of producing upwards of 1800 watts depending on the engine and alternator. Now 1800 watts isn’t a whole lot to be excited about considering most homes have standard circuit breakers that are rated for 2000 watts but when the power is out it is amazing just how far that can go! In order to utilize this available energy, the car battery can be jumped to a power converter that will generate either pure or modified AC. Then an electrical cord (or two depending on the rating of the cables and available outlets) can be run into the house to power the critical devices. Figure 3 shows an example of what this setup would look like (with an extra battery being charged in the mix).


Figure 3. The generator you never leave home without

There are of course a couple of immediate safety concerns. The first is that the vehicle be at least partially pulled out of the garage in order to ensure that there is proper ventilation. There are always tragic stories of homeowners dying from carbon monoxide poisoning because they ran a generator in their garage. Secondly it is important to ensure that the power converter is rated to match the alternator and that any devices that are plugged in do not exceed the maximum peek current draw. Starting the house on fire is not worth being able to power a few electronic gadgets.

An ice storm the week of Christmas that threatened to leave the author without power for a week put this makeshift system to the test. A 1500 watt inverter was used to power critical household devices such as a sump pump (melting snow and no power leads to flooded basements), refrigerator and of course some creature comforts such as a Christmas tree, television, cable modem, wireless router and mobile devices. Unfortunately to the wife’s dismay the 1875 watt hair dryer was just out of reach.

What originally was gearing up for a very uncomfortable week turned into only a mere inconvenience of a couple of days. Letting the car run idle for two days only burned through on average an estimated $10 - $15 per day and was minimal wear and tear on the vehicle. Considering the costs to purchase a generator and installing it (at least a $4,000 endeavor) versus the actual operational time, this make shift power station appears to have a much better return on investment if properly used.

This is just one simple example of how someone might restore some civilization during a power outage situation. What types of other setups do the readers use? Solar? Wind? Anti-matter?

References
1) http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/estimating-appliance-and-home-electronic-energy-use
2) http://www.wholesalesolar.com/StartHere/HowtoSaveEnergy/PowerTable.html

Jacob Beningo is an embedded systems consultant and lecturer who specializes in the design of resource constrained and low energy devices. He works with companies to decrease costs and time to market while maintaining a quality and robust product. He is an avid tweeter, a tip and trick guru, a homebrew connoisseur and a fan of pineapple! Feel free to contact him at jacob@beningo.com or at his website www.beningo.com.



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