It is not fun being without air conditioning in the summer. Several years ago we had our house unit go out on the hottest day of the year. It was 126 degrees F in the shade and even hotter in the house. Fish were dying and we were miserable. After searching for two days I finally found a window swamp cooler that got us by until we could get the house air conditioner fixed.

Solar Heating,Cooling & Refrigeration - Using The Sun For Emergency Preparedness

Michael Little | Vegas Trailer Supply

Solar Heating

It is not fun being without air conditioning in the summer. Several years ago we had our house unit go out on the hottest day of the year. It was 126 degrees F in the shade and even hotter in the house. Fish were dying and we were miserable. After searching for two days I finally found a window swamp cooler that got us by until we could get the house air conditioner fixed.

My family lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, bordering the Mojave Desert, a relentless, hot region that includes Death Valley. After visiting the black asphalt covered downtown area called "glitter-gulch" a few times, my Dad always said that Las Vegas is the only place on earth that gets hotter at night. If the power ever fails in the summer months for a long period of time, people around here will be dropping like flies, or evacuating Sin City in droves. It is too hot to live here without the cooling effect of air conditioners.

The same can be said for those living in cold climates. It would be rather severe if families were to loose their heat source during a cold snap. Loosing power due to natural or man-made disasters affects us in other ways, not the least is our refrigerator. Not only do refrigerators keep our perishable food cold, they also store important life-saving medicines.

The sun can help us with these three important needs in emergencies, but in order to prepare adequately, some thought needs to go into what options we have and what steps we can take. In previous articles published on we discussed using the sun for emergency lighting and cooking. Today we will briefly discuss how to use the sun for heating and cooling our environment and ways that the sun can help keep our food and medicine cold.

Thermal Solar Energy

We all know that the thermal effects of the sun can heat our houses. Solar energy has been used to heat habitats for centuries and we do not need to go into depth about the sun and heating at this time. Passive construction, Trombe walls, thermal mass storage, home-made devices, greenhouse additions, and scores of other methods use the sun to capture heat. I recommend reading 'Fuel Savers, A kit of solar ideas for your home, apartment, or business' by Bruce N. Anderson. This book contains many ideas and projects about capturing heat from the sun.

Here in the desert, or anywhere the sun shines incessantly in the summer, we know that water in a black hose or pipe gets hot. No rocket science here. There are at least 65 different solar water heater manufacturers in the US, so information on heating water is readily available. What many may not know, is that many of these systems use pumps, controllers, timers and components that use 110 volts AC to operate. In the event of a grid power failure, these systems, unless modified, will not provide the needed hot water.

Using new technology pumps which are hooked to a small solar panel, homeowners can be free from utility power to obtain hot water. A new line of 12 volt pumps, called El-Sid are available in various wattages as low as 3.5 watts! This means an inexpensive 5 watt solar panel on the roof will turn the pump on in the morning, and off at night when the heating effects of the sun drop below the horizon.

In addition to heating water for bathing, solar water systems can be used for zone heating. Metal pipes that circulates hot water are installed underneath the floor. Special check valves, and fittings must be used for zone heating and heating water in cold climates. Find a professional to "hook you up". Solar water systems have been sold for years, but the system I like is sold by Solar Development Co.


Cooling with the sun is a whole different matter, and there are NOT a lot of products or systems out there that will effectively cool homes inexpensively. Though there has been a lot of research over the years on using solar for cooling, most are expensive, too large, and too theoretical. Most books on 'Solar Heating and Cooling' have only a small chapter on cooling and give no real good advice for the average person. Many areas of the world have basements or underground rooms that use natural cooling from the earth. We don't have that luxury in Las Vegas because most homes don't have basements. There are a lot of ways that you can construct your home for passive cooling, but most of us aren't going to run out and build a new house. A resource for those of us who need less expensive ideas, is contained in the book: 'How to Live without Electricity and Like it' by Anita Evangelista.

The problem with cooling is POWER. It takes a lot of it. Even homes that have large $30,000 solar systems that sell power to the utility (grid-tie), can not produce the electricity needed to run home air conditioners in the summer. AC's take too much power. Even whole house evaporative coolers draw more electricity than most solar systems will produce. So, we have a real problem on our hands if the power goes out.

It is not fun being without air conditioning in the summer. Several years ago we had our house unit go out on the hottest day of the year. It was 126 degrees F in the shade and even hotter in the house. Fish were dying and we were miserable. After searching for two days I finally found a window swamp cooler that got us by until we could get the house air conditioner fixed.

There are small window solar run evaporative coolers that are available but they only cool very small rooms like a bedroom. Enough to get by though. They are specially designed to run on a 50 watt solar panel. We have sold several of these units and our customers all love 'em. If you have enough PV wattage, you can hook these 'swamp' coolers to batteries to run during hot nights.

In an emergency there are small 12 volt portable swamp coolers called "Swampy's". These units come in different sizes and plug into a cigarette lighter. They draw a lot of power and will not cool an area, but it will cool off grandma temporarily in an emergency.

The problem of emergency cooling, if there is no utility power, is a very real concern of many families. Large noisy generators are all that will run compressor air conditioners. Though conceivable, solar isn't practical. You couldn't buy enough solar panels to do the job. The future looks bright on this topic because of the fast developing science surrounding 'fuel cells'. The down side is that it may be ten or twenty years before we see them used for the high power requirements of homes.

There are a few things you can do to soften the harsh heat of the desert, but most of them involve time and money. You may want to consider better insulation, solar attic fans, ceiling fans, low-e film on your windows, basements, shade trees, etc. There are many steps that you can take to lower the temperatures in you house, and lower your air conditioner utility bill at the same time.

Trees for Cooling

In 1991 I conducted a seminar discussing cooling in the desert in emergencies where I told the audience to plant shade trees. They laughed at my suggestion, but had they planted the right shade trees twelve years ago, their houses would be 20 or 30 degrees cooler by now. I learned from The National Arbor Day Foundation that there is a quick growing tree variety that will effectively shade an entire house with one tree. It may take several years for the small trees in my new yard to do much good for us. I have probably over populated our little yard with trees, much to the chagrin of my family. Oh well, I want a lot of shade here in the desert.

Recently I have found a new low voltage, low wattage (1.2 amps @ 12 VDC) ceiling fan that will be a great addition for those with 12 volt systems in their RV's, homes or cabins. As you know, ceiling fans don't draw a lot of power for the cooling effect that they produce, and now there are 12 volt models available in a variety of colors.


The problems of power as it relates to air conditioners, also applies to refrigerators. Our normal kitchen refrigerators draw more power than most solar systems provide. There are special super energy saving refrigerators like the SunFrost and Conserve that can be easily hooked up to larger solar systems and it is rumored that big appliance manufacturers like Maytag will be making similar models soon. It will be good news when these appliances become mainstream, as refrigerators typically draw more power than any other appliance in our home except the airconditioner. Super energy savers like the Conserve unit are a bit more expensive and they still need about 200 watts of PV solar power, eight golf cart batteries and a 1000 watt inverter to operate. This can get costly, but it works.

Often those off the grid who want to have a refrigerator use propane powered units similar to the ones we sell for RV's. There are several types available, but keep in mind that an RV unit requires a constant 12 volt supply to run the electronics in the refrigerator. There are a few free-standing 110 VAC / Propane units available. Some of you may even remember the old 'Servel' that ran on kerosene. These kerosene and propane units are available but hard to find as they are mostly sold outside of the U. S. We plan on carrying the full line of Servel refrigerators in the future, but I can't wait to tell you of a new refrigerator that uses new compressor technology that draws hardly no electricity at all.

But first let me tell you that most small portable units on the market may not be adequate for your needs (to keep food from spoiling or medicine cold enough).

There are several inexpensive, small, 'heat sink' type chest coolers on the market, but they only get 30 to 40 degrees F below ambient temperature. They may not get cool enough to protect your supplies. Cool enough for beer or soda, but not for milk. Our customers are not usually happy with the smaller propane RV type refrigerators, and real 'compressor' type chest refrigerator/freezers draw a lot of power (usually 4 to 5 amps @12 VDC). Most 'dorm fridge's' available at discount stores use similar high power draws at 110 volts. OK for short outages, but not practical for longer utility disruptions or life off of the grid.

OK, I am almost ready to tell you about the revolutionary new refrigerator that will solve all of your refrigerator problems. But first, let me explain that all of the refrigerators mentioned above, and all of the refrigerators you have at home, are built for two reasons: 1.) To keep food cold, and 2.) Convenience (easy to get the milk out). But when it comes to energy saving, their design is flawed. When you open the refrigerator or freezer door to get food out, what happens? The cold falls out. Yep, lost cooling, and lost energy. But, if you had a door that opened like a chest what would happen to all that cold air? It would stay put.

Super Energy Saver Refrigerators and Freezers

That's the idea of the new super energy saver refrigerator and freezer line called the SunDanzer, it opens from the top. Even better, the electricity it uses to operate is peanut's compared to all other refrigerators or freezers. Are you sitting down? How does 8 watts at 12 volts DC sound? Remarkable? Yes, it is.

These new units are designed by a former NASA employee who used NASA technology to make the most energy efficient refrigerator or freezer made. There are two sizes of battery refrigerators and two sizes of battery freezers available. There's even a smaller refrigerator that hooks directly to a solar panel without using a battery. This fifth unit is great for medical clinics in third world countries that don't want to mess around with batteries.

The SunDanzer line has thicker insulation than anything I have seen, but the reality is, they all draw more power to cool as the surrounding (ambient) temperature gets hotter. You can see their actual draw by downloading the Residential System Sizing Chart (it is a pdf file so you will need Acrobat Reader to open it).

In mild climates the smaller refrigerator will take approximately one 75 watt solar panel and one or two batteries (deep cycle or golf cart) to operate. In hotter climates it may take a 100 watt panel to keep up. The larger refrigerator and both freezers will need more panels to keep cold. We tested the smaller refer in Las Vegas and it works great!

So, now we have a relatively inexpensive way to use the sun to keep food and medicine cold, and the over-all cost is about one third the cost of systems we sold in the past. Now we have a cost-effective way to use the sun to achieve a more independent lifestyle. The only draw back is that we have to get our milk out of the refrigerator in a different way than what we have done all of our lives.

Change is Good

Recently, I showed several solar devices including the SunDanzer refrigerator to visitors at a Log-Home show in Las Vegas. About half of the people who inquired about solar energy said that they didn't want to change a thing in their lifestyle. Others said "cool, I can do that". Hey, change isn't always bad. I remember watching a show on HGTV about a couple who went completely off of the grid. They mentioned that they had to change their lifestyle a little, but actually, most of it was for the better.

Last year we had a customer complain several times that the two 110 watt solar panels we installed on his RV were not working. He returned eight times to get his system checked, and each time we said that it was working fine. We finally found out what the problem was: Each morning when he arose, he turned on his 32 inch color TV and turned it off when he went to bed. I am sorry, but this is not a solar-friendly, energy-conserving lifestyle. He couldn't fit enough solar panels on his motorhome to keep up with that energy draw! I am afraid that if one is not willing to change a little, then using solar is going to be very expensive indeed.

Independent Living is Preparedness

Solar energy can help us in many aspects of emergency preparedness. In past articles we learned about emergency lighting and cooking. Now we see how the sun can help heat our water and homes, provide a little cooling and keep our food cold during power outages. Next we will address using the sun to pasteurize, purify and distill ANY water for drinking purposes. When you think about it, independent living is preparedness. By becoming less dependent on others for food production and energy generation, we are more prepared to handle any emergency that arises.

This is the third in a series of six articles concerning solar power and emergency preparedness. Mr. Little has sold solar energy products for 21 years. He is the manager of Vegas Trailer Supply in Las Vegas Nevada, and conducts free solar living and preparedness seminars at his store. He can be contacted by email at: More information on using solar for emergency preparedness, mitigation and recovery is available at: You can also visit a blog about using Solar for Emergencies at:

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