The Yellow Box of Power

After Hurricane Sandy, I became slightly obsessed with alternative power, but focused most of my energy on generators, always remembering that I can only store so much gas. The natural alternative to engines and gasoline is solar power, but I wasn’t sure I was looking for a whole-house solution since we don’t have room for batteries and I’m not a fan of selling my surplus energy back to the power company. An idea for a portable solar solution rattled around in my head for years, and while studying for my Amateur Radio Extra Class license exam (K2GAD/AE!), plans started to germinate that resulted in what you see here. I present to you the Internet unveiling of The Yellow Box of Power.

The Yellow Box of Power is a very yellow Pelican box (size 1550) loaded up with 36 amp-hours of 12-volt battery capacity that can be charged by way of normal 120V household power or through one or more solar panels. It is mostly self-contained, is completely portable, will charge laptops and phones, run a ham radio station, or just light up a room. It will even float! Actually, it won’t float for long since I cut a bunch of holes in the side, but it’s pretty darn water resistant. Read on to learn how I made it after a quick rant about the term solar generator(more…)

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Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

In November of 2012, New Jersey was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Places like the Jersey Shore and parts of Long Island, New York were destroyed utterly. Many people in these areas were keeping watch with shotguns while their families slept. There was looting, a National Guard presence, and countless people lived on the brink of a societal collapse. It was literally that bad in many places.

We live about sixty miles inland, and though we did not suffer the ravages that plagued the coast, we were among the last of the towns left standing to get our power back. From the day the storm hit until the day we were “back to normal”, we spent 14 days and nights without power. Like many homes, no power means no TV, no computers, no Internet, and of more importantly in the cold of a New Jersey November, no heat. But that wasn’t the worst of it for us.

We thought that we were prepared, and we were for a few days, after which things changed in unexpected ways. My hope is that someone will benefit from the lessons we learned from this event. There is a lot of information here, so I’ve split the original 6000 word essay up into smaller chunks. An index of these posts appears below. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Shelter and Warmth

Shelter

Shelter is one of those things that many of us take for granted. You need to be safe from the winds, the rain, the storms, and whatever else nature can throw at you.  If 70 mile-per-hour winds knock a tree into your bedroom, you’ve suddenly got a compromised shelter. If your shelter is compromised, take steps to find new shelter, fix what you have, or both. Many survival schools teach students to make a shelter before even starting a fire when lost in the woods. In our case, our house was thankfully unscathed, but there were many people sleeping in church, firehouse, and Red Cross shelters in our state. Don’t be afraid to use such services if you need them.

Warmth

With shelter taken care of, the next immediate need in the winter is warmth. This is one category where I thought we were prepared, and we weren’t. We have a wood-burning insert in our fireplace which keeps almost the entire house warm when the power is out. We had some wood, and I had bought some kiln-dried firewood just in case we ran out. I had figured on a few days without power, and that’s how long the wood lasted. Since we were burning wood on a 24×7 basis, we went through it at an alarming rate. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Water

Water

Since we live in a very rural area, we have a well, and the well pump runs on electricity. While many people complained about not having any hot water, like most of our neighbors, we had no water. A lack of hot water means being unable to take a comforting, hot shower. No running water means no flushing toilets.

The average person can survive for about three to five days without water. We have Poland Spring water delivered to our house, and we always have at least four five-gallon jugs of clean, drinkable water available. With four of us and two dogs, in a worst-case scenario of one gallon each per day, we have water for 3.3 days. None of us consumed one gallon per day, especially at the beginning when we still had bottles of other things to drink. We went through about one 5-gallon jug per week, and that included giving the dogs water. Note that we only use this water for drinking, possibly cooking, giving the dogs water, and things like brushing our teeth. The bigger issue by far was the water consumed every time a toilet was flushed. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Tools

Tools

OK, Tools shouldn’t be listed before food, but for us, water has one serious drawback: it’s heavy. At 8.3 pounds per gallon, each of those jugs weighs over 40 pounds when full. Here’s a picture of me hauling four jugs with the tractor last year. Looks like fun right? This time we had prepared the cars for the storm, but I’d totally forgotten about the tractor, so naturally it wouldn’t start when I needed it. Without it, had the firehouse not been available, we would have had to haul water from the woods by hand, in forty pound jugs, in the freezing cold.

Lesson learned: Make sure any power tools you may rely on are operational before the big storm hits. That includes tractors, generators, chainsaws, and anything else you might need. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Food

Food

Imagine that you’re at the center of a 100-mile wide circle where there is no power. In other words, there are no stores open for 50 miles in any direction. You can’t just go to the supermarket when they’re all without power. After about 10 days, stores started to open, but the shelves and coolers were largely empty of things like bread and milk.

You can’t go out to eat when no one has power. A couple of enterprising local eateries had thought ahead, stocked their coolers, bought the proper generators, and were able to make pizzas in an otherwise dark world. They made a LOT of pizzas. They even donated many pizzas to the local shelters. That’s great, but pizza every day, three meals a day gets old fast, and it’s not the best source of nutrition, either. Better to stock up before hand. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Power

Power

I like to think that I can live in a cave without all of the modern conveniences. IPads, Laptops, cell phones – they’re all just distractions and we can do without them, right? The truth is that we made multiple trips to a generator-powered friend’s house in order to charge our many “necessities.” Based on frequency, keeping these devices charged was seemingly more important than taking a shower. Harumph. To be fair, I can charge a laptop in my car. It is admittedly difficult to take a shower in there.

On day 12 of our 14-day adventure, I woke up to a house that was only 46 degrees Fahrenheit. That was the point that I said, “Screw this!”, and went out to buy a generator. Believe it or not, I found one too. I even got the transfer switch so that it could be properly wired into our service panel. We will never have to go through such an extended outage again. Or will we?

The generator is great. It runs for 10-12 hours on a tank of gas, is quieter than most of the generators out there, and it powers about 90% of our house. It rocks. It also has a six-gallon gas tank, which means while I’m used to buying two cans of gas every summer, those same two cans of gas would last only 16 hours while using the generator. Damn. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Morale

Morale

One of the biggest things I’d never considered in a disaster-type scenario was morale. Certainly our problems were minuscule compared to those who had lost everything, but we were not without some negative emotion creeping into our lives.

Information flow

We had no cell phone coverage for three days. Now I’ve always maintained that cell phones are a luxury, and that most people are far too dependent on them, but what I learned is that we all have come to assume that they pretty much always work. Many people (us included), keep them charged because they’re a great way of communicating in an emergency. Well, here we were in an (admittedly mild) emergency, and the cell phones were out. This made us all feel very isolated in a way that was unexpected. With no TV, no Internet, and no cell phones, we had no source of news. That may sound ridiculous, but remember that I’m a survivalist at heart, so I pulled out the AM/FM transistor radios, only to find that all of the local radio stations we normally listened to were off the air. We felt like we were in a zombie movie, but without the entertaining distraction of being able to snipe rogue walkers of the undead persuasion. (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Light

Light

For millions of years, humans have sought to fight back the encroaching darkness. I’m no different than my ancestors, except that I fight off the darkness far more efficiently than they could have dreamed.

In my home office, I keep a plastic bin filled with chemical light sticks, numerous flashlights, small lanterns, batteries, and a new addition – a small AM/FM transistor radio. All of my gear takes one of two battery types: CR123, and AA. There is a stash of batteries in this bin that is only used for devices in the bin. The important lesson I learned regarding this bin was that we only had enough chem-lights for seven days, and that we really needed a AA-powered AM/FM radio (See the section on information flow in a previous post). (more…)

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Hurricane Lessons: Social, Security, and Final Thoughts

Be Social

I am not a social person, but my wife sure is. Being cooped up in the house with me for two weeks would put anyone on edge, but more importantly, she needed a real community. We had a few hurricane parties at  friend’s houses, and they helped a great deal. Sitting around a table and sharing news was a welcome break from gathering wood and trying to stay warm. The fact that we all gathered at a friend’s house that had a working, hot shower didn’t hurt morale either.

Our local rescue squad also had a pasta night that was a huge hit. It was obvious to me that this was different than any other power failure when I commented that it felt strange to be in a room where I didn’t need to wear a coat. The hour or so we spent in the first aid squad building, with its industrial generator, heat, hot water, and food, was a vacation from the realities of a cold, dark life without power. The more time we spent around other people, the more we felt like the world was not ending. As it turns out, that’s good for morale. Who knew? (more…)

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