For emergencies there are all sorts of hand crank lights, solar flashlights, and low power LED flashlights. There's even a "shake-up" flashlight that uses a shaking motion of the hand to produce the needed power. Or you can install photoluminescent strips for emergency lighting of pathways etc.
With the many natural disasters and recent threats of terrorism, many people are looking for ways to make their families safer in case of emergencies. There are many ways that solar energy can help families get better prepared and achieve a more independent lifestyle. Adequate backup lighting is seldom considered for emergency preparedness, but it can play a key role in easing stress if a power outage occurs during an emergency.
For years the American Red Cross has suggested that all families have an emergency plan that includes food and water storage, first aid kits, supplies, clothing, a backup cooking method, and a 72 hour "mobility bag" in case an evacuation is necessary. They never mention "solar systems" in their brochures, but I believe that solar energy can help any family, on any budget, be safer in the event that there is a power failure or similar emergency. Even a little bit of solar equipment can help families that do not anticipate "getting off the grid" by utilizing a large solar array. In fact, during a black-out a smaller system may be preferable to a larger one.
The value of a light bulb.
Soon after my family moved to Las Vegas I picked up our local newspaper and read about a family that fell on hard times after arriving in town to "make their fortune". The couple had three children and, for one reason or another, became homeless. A Good Samaritan offered their spare camper as a temporary home for this family until the husband could land a job. An extension cord was run two or three hundred feet to supply power for one 60 watt light bulb. At this distance, the 16 gauge power cord couldn't supply enough power to run anything else.
The mother and wife said that this one light bulb helped keep her sanity during the two or three months they lived in the camper. At night she had enough light to take care of the bare essentials needed for the family. She could prepare and clean up dinner, take care of minor child emergencies, and accomplish many other family duties. The kids had enough light to play, go to the bathroom, or read a book during these weeks of inconvenience.
In my preparedness and solar energy seminars I tell this story, because a little bit of safe light can make all the difference between an inconvenience and a disaster for a family.
Most people in developed countries are blessed with constant power on demand and haven't put any thought into what they would do if the power went out for an extended period of time. Their only emergency lighting consists of battery eating flashlights or dangerous oil lamps. We take for granted our uninterrupted electric supply that is completely unavailable to two billion families on our planet.
The answer to the power backup problem for many homeowners is the noisy and polluting gas generator. Back before Y2K, hundreds of people came to my store seeking advice on which generator I recommended for their family in case of a regional power failure. To their surprise I almost always said "none of them", then I related a story a customer told me.
Hurricane Andrew teaches us about generators.
This particular customer and his brother felt the destructing force of Hurricane Andrew in Florida a few years ago. His house was damaged, but not destroyed and they were without power for several months. They powered up their large generator for household use and found that it attracted unwanted attention. They had to stand guard 24 hours a day with a loaded weapon near their generator, whether it was running or not, just to keep it from being stolen. Some of his neighbors had generators taken while they were running. He then said that if faced with another power failure he would NEVER use an attention getting generator for power.
Those who have quiet solar systems with back-up batteries don't have to worry about emergency lighting, but what about the rest of us? When we think of solar systems, we think of tens of thousands of dollars. Many do cost this much but having a small effective renewable light source doesn't need to be expensive. One single 12VDC florescent light is enough light to do necessary tasks at night. The light given off is not what we are used to, but the iris in our eyes opens up and after a few minutes we find that this small amount of light is adequate.
It is much safer to use this type of soft general lighting rather than dangerous candles, oil lamps, kerosene lanterns, propane or "white gas" camp lanterns. The American Red Cross strongly advises that all flame light sources be avoided during blackouts. Earthquakes, winter storms, powerful winds or other calamities resulting in power loss usually are accompanied by fallen objects on the floor of the house that can be tripped over and a resulting fire started. They also cite thousands of home fires during emergencies because candles are left burning unattended or when people fall asleep.
If you are concerned about drawing attention to yourself during a disaster, consider that most light sources are a "point" of light. By that I mean that the light source has a high intensity point. An incandescent light bulb or flame light source has a point of light that can be seen for miles at night. A safer backup light would be a small low voltage florescent light that does not draw near the attention because the light is deflected over a wide area. For more privacy and security, the window curtains can be drawn and no one can tell that you have lighting in your house. During an extended blackout there is danger in being the only one on the block with your house all lit up. It is unfortunate, but predator types will see your lights and will know that you are prepared more than your neighbor. You then become a prime target for robbery of food, supplies, or worse.
Low voltage emergency lighting.
In my new home I am installing a few thin florescent lights in strategic areas to save a little energy and have basic lighting in case of a blackout. A few years ago our family was called out of town on a family emergency and we had three hours to eat, take showers, get dressed and pack our suitcases. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but as you probably guessed, our section of town had a blackout just as we got the phone call. You can probably see it now: Five people all scurrying around the house with flashlights and candles in hand, bumping in to each other and walls, tripping over things on the floor, real pandemonium. It would have been much safer to have low power lighting placed in key locations like the hallway, bathroom, kitchen, garage and bedrooms.
Low voltage (12 VDC) lights come in many different sizes and wattages. Solar energy suppliers have a few of these lights but if you have an RV parts store near, you might find a wider selection. You may want to pick up other 12 volt items, like a receptacle cord with battery clips, or an extension cord, etc. For a small back-up low voltage system, you will need a 12 volt deep cycle battery, a battery box, lights and a way to charge the battery.
If you plan on having one light operating for just two hours a night then a small 5 watt solar panel will do.
If you feel you will have more lighting requirements then larger panels should be considered. Quick, do-it-yourself, plug-in solar panels made by ICP come in many different sizes and make installation for the novice a breeze. Larger panels require a controller to keep the battery bank from overcharging.
Be careful when working with batteries. Make sure that you learn the proper way to maintain, install, and test batteries. We will give you some tips and alert you to hazards about deep cycle batteries in a future article.
Many small solar devices are available that charge up flashlight batteries, cell phones, computer batteries, etc. One handy new device called the iSUN (with battery pak) is great for every day use and valuable in an emergency. It charges AA and AAA batteries with a 110 volt adapter, a 12 volt cigarette lighter or a small solar panel that is included. It also acts as a power source for cell phones, laptops, scanners, or other 12 volt devices.
Something that gets constant use is my 12 volt rechargeable 2 million candlepower spotlight. It lights up the whole back yard, or the back of my entertainment center, in an instant. Most of these spotlights use 12 volts to recharge, so they work great with a small solar system. Other types of rechargeable camping and RV lights are available. Check to see if they use 12 VDC before you purchase them. Most come with a cigarette lighter type plug attachment for DC charging.
For emergencies there are all sorts of hand crank lights, solar flashlights, and low power LED flashlights. There's even a "shake-up" flashlight that uses a shaking motion of the hand to produce the needed power. Most of these gadgets are priced high yet they use little or no battery power. I've used a small solar charged flashlight/radio regularly for years without ever putting in batteries.
By the way, the future is bright for the new high-tech, low powered LED lights. These little bulbs require a fraction of the power to produce the same lumens of light as other bulbs. They are expensive, but they last for decades. Because they require so little battery power, many efforts are being made to get LED lighting in remote villages in third world countries.
Cheap bulb trick.
If you don't want to go out and buy the latest gadget for backup lighting, I've found a neat trick: Take a regular 110 VAC light fixture and replace the AC bulb with a 12 volt bulb, then hook the light to a 12 volt battery. I've done this with work lights, clamp lights, and even hanging chandeliers. Don't forget to change the bulbs if you ever hook the light back up to AC! There are many types of 12 VDC bulbs available and they draw considerable power so you will want to size your system accordingly. An energy saving 12 volt DC compact florescent bulb is available, but it costs ten times more than its 110 volt cousin.
For power outages many people have purchased a portable battery pack that is pre-wired with 12 volt receptacles. Some models include DC to AC inverters so you can operate small 110 VAC equipment. These compact power centers are expensive, but you don't have to build the system on your own. This option usually costs more, but well worth the investment for someone who doesn't want to "do-it-themselves".
Larger solar systems include PV panels, mounting racks, wiring, disconnects, fusing, controllers, inverters, etc. In addition to running lights, larger systems will run other appliances such as TV's, computers, low wattage refrigerators, or communication radios. Make sure that you seek experienced, professional advice and follow all electrical codes when putting together a system. All systems attached to your house require qualified electricians to hook up.
Solar panels can draw attention.
When deciding where to locate solar panels, keep in mind that they draw attention. We always recommend that they be installed flat on the roof of an RV because tilting racks for RV's are bothersome, expensive and raised panels draw attention. When an RV owner needs more power we usually recommend another solar panel. Wind generators are hard to keep hidden, but they are usually positioned on high towers, so most wanna-be thieves leave them alone.
There are many other ways that solar energy can help your family get better prepared for emergencies and achieve a more independent lifestyle. In future articles we will discuss the importance of solar cookers, solar distillers, low power refrigerators, and other solar products. If you are concerned about emergency and back-up lighting, start now to learn about all of the options. Your search will find many ways that solar energy can help your family stay safer during emergency power outages.
This is the first 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Many of the products mentioned are available at Vegas Trailer Supply, ( http://vegastrailer.com.)