What Makes More Sense: Stock the Supplies or Stock the Ingredients?

choicesI’ve been thinking a lot lately about making more and more of my own supplies. While I’ve made things like toothpaste, deodorant, laundry detergent, and a few other cleaning products in the past, I’ve been contemplating going “all in” if you will, and attempting to make as much as I can. My reasoning is for cost savings, healthier products, and maybe just because I can.

The question here today is: does this make sense from a preparedness stand point? As an example, should I be stockpiling a year or two worth soap or the ingredients to make the soap? And, of course, all of the other supplies we might use such as toothpaste, lotion, deodorant, cleaning products, and so on.

I would imagine the obvious and immediate answer is “yes” because being able to make your own supplies means less and less dependence on others… and I would tend to agree with that assessment. The problem, however, is the fact that you would then need to make your own supplies. And, in an emergency scenario, the last thing you need to be doing is spending time making deodorant. 🙂

So, here’s how I see it…

Advantages and disadvantages of stockpiling supplies

Everything you would need to rely on is already on hand and ready to use, which is a huge benefit when you’re already stressed and likely very busy doing other things such as pulling guard duty, tending the garden, chopping wood, and who knows what else needs to be done. But, this also means a finite amount of whatever we’re talking about. That is, if you only have ten bars of soap on hand to see you through the next year or two then that’s what you’ve got and then you’re in the same boat as everyone else. But, like I said, you don’t have any work to do here.

The disadvantages would be that you (1) have no ability to make more of what you need and (2) probably have no knowledge of how to make supplies. For example, if you know that you can make toothpaste using baking soda as a primary ingredient and you can get your hands on a bag of it but not toothpaste, then you’ll understand that it’s worth your time and effort to procure the bag of baking soda. Make sense?

Advantages and disadvantages of stockpiling ingredients

Here you have the supplies to make what you need. There’s no wondering if you’ll have more soap since you’ll have the base ingredients to make it. Of course, it’s expected that you’ll have a finite amount of base ingredients too (just as if you were stockpiling supplies) but the assumption is that you’ll be able to stock more of the base ingredients (at less cost) so that you can then make more supplies. Another benefit is that oftentimes base ingredients are used in a variety of recipes so you can make many supplies from just a handful of base ingredients (e.g., baking soda, vinegar, etc).

The disadvantages are that you would need to make supplies as needed. Obviously, you’re not going to make a single bar of soap at a time but I doubt you’re going to make enough for a year or two at a time, so there is the need to do the work. And, when multiplied by the many hygiene and cleaning needs that a typical household needs over the course of a year, the work needed to make supplies from scratch will become serious work.

There is some common ground

Certainly, I’m presenting you with an “either/or” situation. In reality, it makes sense that you’re not going to be presented with one option or the other. In fact, it makes sense that you can and should do both. If you have both the supplies you need to see you through a year, for example, and the base ingredients to make more of what you need then you’re in the best position possible to see you and your family through hard times. That, in my opinion, is the best strategy of all.

…but, if you HAD to choose, which would it be?

8 Smart Ways to Save Money on Preps

moneyA buddy of mine sent me a link to this article on how a family of four lives on 14K a year and said I should write a post about it because apparently I’m cheap or maybe just broke (FYI, he’s always been much more frugal than I). Likewise, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on other blogs lately that suggest ways to save money on preps, be more frugal, DIY products and so on and I thought I would throw in my 2 cents.

In my opinion, you don’t have to pay retail for everything you buy nor do you have to live life like everyday Americans (in debt up to their eyeballs from huge house payments, car payments, college loans, maxed out credit cards, etc). I won’t try to mention all of the DIY projects that are out there, tell you how to live on pennies a day, or even give personal financial advice but I will suggest a few ways–most of which should be obvious–as to how you can be smarter about your preps without breaking the bank (in no particular order)…

  1. Buy bulk foods (and use them!) – Look at your local Sam’s Club or COSTCO and if you have a nearby LDS cannery visit them and start buying bulk foods. Then, learn how to use them. Not only will you be better prepared for when times get tough but you will learn to save yourself money day-in and day-out when cooking meals. It’s a win-win.
  2. Shop garage sales, thrift stores – I know it’s the wrong time of year for garage sales but both thrift shops and garage sales are great ways to get good gear at great prices, you just have to be patient. So, with the coming spring make a concerted effort to hit a handful of garage sales this year and come back with a heap of supplies.
  3. Use Google Shopping – Although I’m a huge fan of shopping for my survival gear on Amazon (and occasionally eBay) Google Shopping searches not only these sites but hundreds of other as well… and sometimes finds better prices on specific equipment. Often it’s a long shot but if I can save a few bucks then it’s worth the effort.
  4. Buy Kindle books (instead of hard copy) – I just recently reviewed my first Kindle book and I think I’m hooked. While I know there are obvious reasons to want hard copy books I also see how electronic books will soon become the easiest way for preppers to stockpile information. And because they’re always cheaper than hard copy books (sometimes at a fraction of the cost) you can add to your survival library that much faster.
  5. Create bug out kits that double as vehicle kits – A while back I wrote a post about saving money by combining your bug out bag and vehicle kits that is a way to skip duplicating efforts. I’ve kept both bug out and vehicle kits for many years and eventually I’m going to stop fussing with both and just combine them because it makes economical sense.
  6. Go in on expensive preps with trusted family/friends – I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why this can be a BAD idea but in some cases it might make sense such as going in on a large generator, food co-ops, a desalinator, or whatever else is rather expensive but potentially useful. Of course, then there’s the question of who gets to keep it but I’m expecting that you’ll be able to talk them into your home as being the best option. 😉
  7. Coupon, coupon, coupon – I’m really beginning to be a huge fan of HealthyPrepper on YouTube. Though, I don’t post the majority of her videos, I do rather enjoy watching about her most recent couponing hauls from CVS or wherever she’s been recently. If there’s a way to directly save money on your preps, this is it.
  8. Use technology – We live in a technologically-drive society and, in my opinion, you should take full advantage. I’ve written in the past about how you can use an iPad to download and view hundreds of PDF files that can later be used as a survival library. I’ve mentioned that there are plenty of smartphone disaster apps but there are plenty that can be used to help you save money. I also recently showed how you can download YouTube videos for free using Real Player that can also be used as a part of your survival library.

The point is that there are plenty of ways to save yourself money when prepping. What about your suggestions? What did I miss?

High Yield Low Cost Barter Items

fish-hookBarter items are often discussed as a necessary prep. Generally, I discourage people from stockpiling barter items because you really should be focusing on what you and your family can use and will need to survive… it seems there’s always something that you haven’t bought yet–I know I always have this problem–or that you can buy more of. Only when these needs have been sufficiently met should you really consider barter items because, whether I like it or not, you really can’t expect to have everything one needs to live (and do so comfortably) and so it never hurts to have a few things on hand.

That said, if you’re going to stockpile items for barter then it can’t hurt to get the most “bang for the buck” if-you-will and purchase items that may have  a high desirability and relatively low cost. Precious metals would be the antithesis of what I’m talking about. Just to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t include precious metals in your preps if you can afford to do so as they are the ultimate wealth preserver, but consider about how desirable a gold bar would be to someone who just wants their next meal.

I might also point out that weapons and ammo are not great barter items for the simple fact that you never want to barter anything that could later be used against you! Or, perhaps, don’t barter with people you don’t generally trust.

I’ve also see people recommend bartering skills and/or information rather than finite goods which is a great idea but not what this post is about either. The criteria for this post is that the barter item should be relatively inexpensive to purchase today but potentially have significant use or desirability if that item is no longer available. Granted, this list could get very large and you’re welcome to add your own thoughts in the comments. Here’s a start:

  • Salt (especially for those living inland) – there’s a reason why Roman soldiers were paid in salt! It’s necessary for life and makes a great seasoning.
  • Inexpensive alcohol (such as cheap vodka) – some will do anything for a good drink during hard times and if it’s high enough proof (such as Everclear) it can be used to sterilize wounds and start things on fire.
  • Disposable lighters (and matches too) – the easiest way to start a fire guaranteed.
  • Fishing gear (small hooks, line, etc) – these things get lost, break, etc. An alternative would be netting but that’s not very cheap.
  • Feminine pads – useful for the obvious reason as well as for trauma dressing or gauze pad and plenty more.
  • Disposable razors – personal hygiene will still be appreciated.
  • Spices (anything and everything but especially consider pepper) – there’s a reason why Columbus sailed the seas looking for spices as they turn bland meals into culinary delights.
  • Vegetable seeds – everyone needs to eat and small packets of vegetable seeds could be worth their weight in your favorite precious metal.
  • Sewing needles and thread – clothes may need to be kept in good repair for a lot longer than we’re accustomed to.
  • Fasteners and adhesives (nails, screws, glue, epoxies, etc) – settlers used to burn down their houses just so they could retrieve the nails used to build it before they moved on. Adhesive could prove similarly useful.
  • Coffee singles – it’s a similar need/desire to alcohol for some people. Vacuum sealed they could last quite a while but it’s probably better to store green coffee beans if your interest is for barter.
  • Nail clippers – I thought I would throw one in there you didn’t expect! Again, nail clippers or chew them off… you choose.
  • Chocolate – while not a great item for long term storage, I consider it the third “addiction” most people have (me included).
  • Cooking oils – these could be worth their weight in gold considering that we need fats to survive. Besides, they could be used as makeshift lighting and even as a lubricant in some cases.

Now, there are plenty of other items that could be included as useful barter items but didn’t quite make my criteria of low cost, such as antibiotics, fuel (per gallon, anyway), alkaline batteries, sterile gauze pads,  etc.

What items would you include that I did not?

15 Items You Can Never Have Enough…

It’s time for a “You Can Never Have Enough of…” list. These posts are always fun to contemplate! Here’s my top 15 (in no particular order):

1. Gauze pads (of all shapes and sizes) – Any serious skin wound is going to need more than just bandages and must be changed often. You’re going to want both sterile (for direct skin contact) and non-sterile gauze. Sure, you can improvise but when it comes to someone’s health, buy the gear that’s meant for the job.
2. Fasteners – Assorted sundries such as nails, screws, nuts and bolts, washers, etc. Get a few boxes of quality exterior nails and screws for unexpected repairs or perhaps a necessary project, such as a solar oven or solar heater.
3. Duct tape – I need to get this one out of the way early! If it’s all that MacGyver needed, I’m sure I can make use of a few rolls myself. Use it for minor repairs to making a duct tape cannon (as seen on Mythbusters) and even for putting up plastic sheeting for chemical/biological events.
4. Ammunition (and weapons?) – Do I really need to elaborate? For self-defense, hunting, barter, etc.
5. Cordage (in assorted sizes and lengths) – most of the time I rarely use the cordage I have but it’s one of those items that when you need it, you NEED it. Visit your local hardware store for ideas but paracord, twine and some thick twisted-nylon rope would be a good start.
6. Firewood – Assuming firewood is your main heating and cooking fuel, it’s hard to have too much. At least have the ability to procure and harvest it, including chainsaw, axe, maul, and everything used to keep aforementioned equipment functioning.
7. Lubrication – It’s about stocking lubricants for squeaky door hinges and stuck bolts to preserving metal tools and firearms. Buy WD-40 (or something similar), 3-in-1 lubricating oil, and your favorite firearm lube.
8. Water Treatment (many options to choose from) – It will be a sad day if/when the faucet stops working permanently. 🙁 As such, every drop of water procured (well, usually) should be considered suspect and MUST be treated before consumed. The last thing you want is to die of dehydration from some diarrheal disease because you consumed bad water.
9. Bar soap (really any soap is useful, including hand sanitizers) – Although it is possible to make your own soap, who wants to fool with lye or even go through the effort? Bar soap will last a long time if kept from drying out so just store it like you would your food preps. A few dozen bars will go a long way.
10. Fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane) – You will eventually run out no matter how much you store or how well you ration it. That said, it will be an sad day if/when the last drop of petroleum flows. And be sure to stock the oil and other fluids that keep your equipment running (e.g., 2-cycle engine oil).
11. Bic lighters – The ability to create fire is huge and the ubiquitous bic lighters are the easiest, most reliable way to do just that. Granted, matches are useful too but think about how many fires could be lit with 50 bic lighters? And they can be stored in bug out bags, vehicle kits, or a jacket pocket without thought.
12. Antibiotics – So many diseases, so few antibiotics! Whether you agree with storing fish antibiotics or not, I prefer to have the option rather than not. I guess I could throw in any ingested medication here as well, including Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and plenty more.
13. Buckets – So many uses, especially the 5-gallon homer buckets. Used for storing food and gear, transporting water, gardening, etc. Be sure to include the lids (should have a rubber gasket too) and funnels would be very helpful here too.
14. Books and Reference Files – One person (or a group of people) can only know so much. Considering the wealth of knowledge that civilizations have created, it’s only prudent to have some of it on-hand in multiple forms (electronic and hard-copy). I wrote about resiliency in your survival library here.
15. Multi-Use Substances – I’m thinking of stuff like baking soda, distilled white vinegar, and apple cider vinegar, in particular. These can be used for making everything from household cleaners to toothpaste. Search the “How To” Knowledge base for more info on how to use these products.

What about you? What would you have added that I did not?

How to Avoid Computer “Emergencies” Part 2 of 2

Last week, in How to Avoid Computer “Emergencies” Part 1, I pointed out the need to include a Network Area Storage device (such as this one) as part of your overall computer plan in order to avoid personal data loss, including music, pictures, documents, and everything else.

This week we discuss the other critical aspect to avoid such “emergencies” and that is to avoid the possibility of power surges and power failures. If you’ve ever been the victim of a power surge or lighting strike, then you well know the devastating effects it can have on sensitive electronics such as a computer. I’ve never had this problem and I’m working to keep it that way, here’s how you can too…

In order to minimize the effects of a power surge (and power failure) there are two things you need: a surge protector AND battery backup source. As for the surge protector, you don’t want just any device; the cheap devices that are found just about anywhere are NOT what you want; they are likely nothing more than an outlet expander.

Surge Protection That You Really Want


What you really want is a real surge protection device. This model, the APC Pro-7 SurgeArrest, is what I use for our computer protection. There are other APC devices, including ones with more outlets, protection for coax, network, and phone cables, as well as different configurations for accepting more transformer. You will certainly find one that fits your needs.

There are other manufacturers, but APC is what my computer buddy uses, recommends his clients use, and obviously suggested I use. I’m no computer techie so I don’t fully understand the details, but suffice it to say that the better devices are more likely to do what they’re expected to do: prevent damaging power fluctuations from reaching your expensive computer!

It’s really that simple.

Battery Backup is Important


Equally critical to your computer health is a battery backup unit, such as this one: the CyberPower CP425SLG battery backup power source. It is a 225 Watt device capable of connecting up to six pieces of equipment and is what I bought a few months back. To be honest, the only reason I have it is to protect the NAS from losing its configuration settings which, according to my buddy, can be bad for my NAS. Since I could do so, I also connected my PC tower to the battery backup as well.

If you’re unaware, the purpose of a battery backup is to allow you enough time to properly power down equipment in order to avoid potential damage. Most of the time when the power goes out unexpectedly nothing bad ever happens, though the possibility does exist.

Anyway, since I’ve had the NAS, we have lost power a few times (more so recently), it got unplugged a few times and, since I don’t like to press my luck, I figured it was past due time to do something about it. As luck would have it, the power went out a few days after my battery backup arrived and it worked flawlessly. And, because the NAS can be configured to power down on its own when that happens, everything worked as I expected.

There are other, more powerful and fancier units than this one, which may be worthwhile if you intend to connect computer peripherals (monitor, printer, etc) but since I ONLY have the NAS and PC tower connected, this works fine.

Concluding Thoughts

To me, it makes sense to spend a few extra dollars if it means protecting several hundred to thousands of dollars in expensive equipment. (All total I spend about $65 between the surge protector and battery backup.) Sure, you could file an insurance claim but who wants that hassle and, of course, there is the deductible to pay. When it’s all said and done, you’re just about better off buying a new computer instead of filing a claim.

As with most anything in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. After all, isn’t that what prepping is all about!? 😉

How to Avoid Computer “Emergencies” Part 1 of 2

As preppers we pride ourselves in preparing our families not only for the tough times (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes) but possibly even the unimaginable times (EMP, economic collapse) and we do it with steadfast enthusiasm. What we seem to gloss over in doing so is to also prepare ourselves for everyday emergencies, such as a dreaded computer crash.

Not what you were expecting? Yes, I do consider a computer crash an “emergency” of sorts. Given our society’s reliance on computers and the internet, I figure most people would agree.

Besides malware and internet connectivity issues, one of the more devastating computer “emergencies” is the temporary or even permanent inability to retrieve your personal data due to hard drive errors or, worse yet, a hard drive crash.

“That’s not a problem,” you say! “It’s not like anything on my personal computer is necessary information like business files.” Oh yeah!? Ignoring the presumably hundreds of dollars in operating software and office suites, take a moment and contemplate all of your personal files, pictures, videos, music and more. More importantly, contemplate all of your WIFE’S files, pictures, videos, and music! There’s probably quite a bit there. More than you might realize at first.

A little over a year ago we had one of those “uh-oh” moments with our computer (not the first one either) and after some frustrating moments and realizing that I needed some help, I finally decided to call a buddy of mine who specializes in these problems. After deliberation, he finally convinced me to change my strategy. No more relying on a single computer and lonely hard drive… I had to upgrade my computer preparendess.

Unfortunately for our pocketbook he suggested the “nuclear” route, as I like to call it, which consisted not only of a complete computer rebuild (actually a new computer) but a Network Area Storage (NAS) device as well.

“What in the heck was a NAS,” I asked? And more importantly, “why do I need to spend money on one?”

Long explanation short, a NAS is simply a device that stores data. In this case our personal files, music, pictures, and videos. It is not intended to store or run computer software such as Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office. Just data.

With regards to personal data, why is a NAS more reliable than a regular computer hard drive? The answer is two-fold. First, depending on the unit you purchase you may have anywhere from two to six redundant hard drives that will store your personal data. In fact, it is the NAS’s job to ensure each hard drive is perfectly in sync with up-to-date copies of all your files at all times. Second, the only job the NAS needs to do is it access and update personal files, not operating system files, internet cache, and whatever else goes on in the background. This takes a huge load off of the NAS hard drives, drastically improving their lifespan as well as to lessen the likelihood of a hard drive failure. And, even if one drive did fail there will be at least one redundant drive to save the day.

Re-read that last paragraph if this is your first exposure to the NAS concept. It’s important to fully grasp WHY having one is really a good idea.

But that’s not all that a NAS does, not by a long shot. Depending on the NAS you choose to purchase you may find that your NAS can do A LOT more than expected. Take, for example, the NAS that I purchased (pictured left).

The QNAP NAS TS-259 Pro+ is a seriously cool device. Yeah, I know, I know… don’t let the price give you sticker shock; it’s actually one of the lesser expensive models they make AND has come down in price by at least $100 since I purchased mine a year ago.

Anyway, this QNAP NAS can do a lot if you let it. It can act as a server to your home network for music and movies, stream media directly to your television when properly connected, act as a surveillance station, download files automatically from the internet, act as a website server, and more that I don’t even understand. 😉

The beauty is that the NAS is pretty self-sufficient and requires very little (if any) intervention from you once setup. And, yes, there is some initial setup required as well as the purchase of two identical internal hard drives. At the time I went with 500GB drives, which my friend told me was a mistake. I should have purchased at least 1TB drives for expansion. Eventually I’ll need to swap out my drives for something larger but they work well for now.

After over a year with my NAS I’ve had no problems with this unit. It’s performed flawlessly, quietly, and reliably. Even if you don’t purchase this unit, I firmly believe that a NAS is a must-have for most home networks.

Now, what if a NAS is too costly? What else can you do?

If a NAS isn’t the solution for you right now there are other options that can be utilized to avert such a catastrophe, including automatic online backup services (both free and paid for) as well as manual backup options such as Google Docs as well as external hard drives. While these alternatives are a possibility, they depend on one of two potential failure points: internet connectivity and human action, neither of which will be as reliable as a NAS.

Look for Part 2 to come next week where we discuss the other computer “emergency” topic: power!

Why I Advise Against Generators. And Why I’m Sometimes Wrong!

Normally, I do not advise the purchase of a generator for the simple reason that generators provide a false sense of security, among others. I’m always amazed at how people will run out and spend hundreds of dollars on a generator at the first major hiccup of their electrical grid or immediately prior to a huge blizzard.

In my opinion, most people who run out and purchase generators in such a fashion likely have little else in the way of actual preps. At least initially, this money is better spent on preps you know you’ll use general such as food, lanterns or flashlights, batteries, and so on. Most families could put together a very substantial home emergency kit that will see them through all of their expected needs for at least a week or two for the money they would otherwise spend on a descent generator.

So, exactly what are the reasons I’m against generators? Here’s my list:

  • Cost – Like I mentioned, you could start your preps off quite well with the money you would spend on this single piece of equipment. Several hundred dollars (the cost for most generators) is a lot of money to spend for potentially little in return.
  • Fuel – Depending on the unit you purchase, it likely uses gasoline or diesel fuel. The problem is that this fuel WILL run out at some point in time. What are you going to do when that happens? You’re in the same position you would have been in without a generator!
  • Safety – Generators aren’t inherently dangerous. It’s just that you need to know how to use them properly (that is, how to connect them to your appliances), how to refuel them without burning yourself silly, and—if desired–how to safely connect them to your home electrical system without endangering yourself or maintenance workers.
  • Regular Maintenance –Generators need to be run regularly; they are not meant to sit for years in a box. A neglected generator will very likely become a useless generator precisely when you need it the most.
  • Too Much / Not Enough Power – Generators need to be sized properly to fit your expected needs. Are you purchasing one just for your refrigerator, or will you include a chest freezer, lights, television, the microwave? You need to know the power consumption of these devices and how that relates to the generator you purchase. As such, going out and purchasing one on a whim is not the way to do it.
  • Noisy – Noise attracts attention. If the power is out for a day or two then running a generator during that time is no big deal. If it’s out for weeks on end and your generator is still humming along nicely when you may attract unwanted attention. Granted, there are generators that are fairly quiet, but none are silent; it’s when the surroundings are dead silent that even a little noise will travel a long distance.
  • False Sense of Security – As I said in the outset of this post, generators provide a false sense of security because people assume that so long as the lights are on then everything will be ok. That’s just not always the case.

Since I’ve just given several reasons why I feel generators are NOT a good purchase, there’s no way I could possible recommend one, can I? Well, in fact, I would eventually advise you purchase a generator ONLY after you have your preps squared away. Specifically, only after your family is prepared to live without one. A generator should be viewed as a convenience, not a necessity. It should be a “bonus” item, not a “reliance” item.

That said, there are reasons for including a generator in your preps…

For example, if you or a family member are insulin-dependent, then it would be a wise decision to include some ability to cool a small refrigerator for days or weeks on end. A generator could be a means of accomplishing that (there are others). There are other life-saving equipment that people might use, including respiratory failure ventilators, kidney dialysis machines, infant respiratory monitors, heart pumps, asthma nebulisers, and oxygen concentrators. If this includes you then, yes, generators may prove necessary.

The other major reason I’m OK with purchasing a generator is for the very specific reason of running a small window air conditioning unit to battle the relentless summer heat.

I couldn’t help but wonder what most people would do to cool themselves if their power went out right now. It’s ridiculously hot right now and, since our homes are not designed to be passively cooled, seeking shelter inside will bring little relief. This is particularly true for anyone who is less likely to tolerate the heat well, such as infants, pregnant women, and the elderly, to name a few. In these cases, it makes sense to have the ability to cool a small room.

Solar Panel System Design – My Experience

What was I Trying to Accomplish with this Solar Panel System?

The point to this solar panel system was to allow me to charge/use assorted small electronics in an extended disaster scenario, such as my wife’s Ipod phone, my Ipod, recharge AA and AAA batteries, and maybe some limited use of my laptop. I wouldn’t mind if I could also use our portable DVD player for the kids entertainment but it’s not on my priority list.

My Background

Let me first state that I am NOT extensively knowledgeable in either DC systems or electronics. Everything I share below is what I’ve pieced together in attempting my first solar system experience. Please also understand that the reason I’m sharing my first solar panel system experience is because I had a difficult time myself finding reliable information that explained how to build such a basic DC solar system. I always felt like I had to be an electrical engineer to understand their instructions. Basically, this is my attempt to demystify the process.

The Components

There are several components required to put this system together, here they are…

Part 1: Solar Panel

Obviously there’s no solar system without a solar panel. There are certainly many to choose from, so how do you know which one? From what I gathered, you at least want a solar panel that is equal to or greater than the maximum voltage required to fully charge your batteries, which is about 14 volts.

Long story short, given that you probably won’t get 100% efficiency out of your solar panel most of the time (due to limited sunshine, clouds, poor solar tracking, wrong time of the year, etc) then you want to over-compensate for this problem with a larger panel. I gather this should be more than 15 watts (a common panel size) and so the next largest size is 20 watts, which is what I have.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just buying any 20 watt panel. What you’re really looking for is the output voltage to be significantly larger than 14 volts; this panel, for instance, outputs about 17 volts under load which is just about right (as near as I can tell) to fully charge my batteries. I encourage you to read this on the relationships between amps, volts, and watts to get a better understating of how they relate.

Part 2: Charge Controller

The charge controller is a critical piece of your solar system in that it is the brains of the operation. While I’m sure that smarter people than I have figured out how to charge batteries and stuff without such a device, I wouldn’t have a clue how to do so. Besides, the charge controller makes everything easier, definitely safer, and probably extends the life of your components as well.

So, how does it work? It’s fairly simple, actually. The charge controller has three connections: one for the solar panel, one for your battery (or battery bank), and one for the device you want to use. The best part is once everything is connected you don’t have to worry about ensuring your batteries are properly charged (even overcharging) or swapping battery connections from the solar panel to your output device (the auxiliary plug). IMO, it’s a must have item.

This particular controller is rated up to 10 amps, which is more than adequate for this system as well as any substantial upgrade. If you think you’ll want even more power then perhaps a HQRP 20A Solar Panel Battery Charge Controller is more appropriate.

Part 3: Deep Cycle Battery

I ended up buying two of these batteries (UPG UB1280 Sealed Lead Acid Batteries) with the intention of storing one as a backup. I was trying to be cheap as well as to have some redundancy in the one piece of my solar system that I knew would go bad eventually. Unfortunately, I larter realized that I couldn’t do this and still expect the battery to work when I needed it to. So, I bought one deep cycle battery (12-volt 35Ah wheelchair battery) instead, which gave me more power and was a bit easier to connect because there was only one battery to deal with.

Anyway, what you need to know about solar system batteries is that they MUST be truly deep cycle batteries and NOT the normal SLI (Starting, Lighting, Ignition) batteries we use in vehicles BECAUSE the SLI batteries are NOT meant to be discharged any more than a few percent of their total capacity, which is not at all plausible in a solar system. The way to tell if a battery is deep cycle or not is whether it’s listed as having cranking amps or as having amp-hours; if it lists cranking amps then the battery is NOT what you want. Rather, deep cycle batteries are listed in amp-hours, that is, how many amps of current it can supply in X number of hours. SLI batteries, on the other hand, provide A LOT of power in a very short period of time and are not designed to provide long durations of power.

The battery I bought is rated at 35Ah. In other words, this battery could theoretically supply 1 amp for 35 hours or 35 amps for 1 hour or some combination in between. Of course, the reality is quite a bit different given that you wouldn’t want to discharge your battery below 50% charge (that’s what they say anyway), so I’m limited to something more like 17Ah total for this battery. As an example, if I’m charging my AA batteries using the battery charger I have, and it pulls approximately 4 amps/hour, then I could use this device for about 4 hours before discharging my deep cycle battery to 50% charge.

The other thing you should know is that your solar system battery should be 12-volt if possible. While you could use 6-volt batteries there’s no reason to since 12-volt batteries are just as plentiful and suited for such a system. For more details on deep cycle batteries I suggest you read this battery FAQ.

Part 4: 12-volt Power Outlet and Adapters

Another piece of the puzzle you’re going to need is a basic 12-volt power outlet (a.k.a. “cigarette lighter outlet”). You’ll use this outlet to connect your DC applications to the solar system, so ensure it is fairly rugged because it will get a lot of use.

A few points to consider: You’ll want to ensure that it is an add-on style outlet so that it has bare wires to which you can connect it directly to the charge controller. It would also be advantageous for the power outlet to have an in-line fuse, which I suspect most do. If you prefer, you can also find this adapter at a local Radio Shack like I did, but I think I would have opted for the outlet I have shown above due to it’s–seemingly–more rugged design.

Part 5: Assorted Components

There are a few additional pieces that you need to bring everything together…

Power Pole Connectors

Originally I figured I didn’t need these connectors. To be honest, you don’t “need” them (you could use just wire nuts instead) but they sure do make everything easier, and probably safer too. This is especially true given the expectation that you could be connecting and disconnecting a variety of components (solar panel, trickle charger, etc) multiple times which is A LOT easier to do when you have these. A pack of four red and four black should suffice. Remember, these connectors also make this project safer. I couldn’t figure out how to use them at first, but I found this power pole connector tutorial that made sense.

Primary Wire

You’re going to need a bit of wiring to bring everything together. What you’re looking for is primary wire (a.k.a. automotive wire). For such as system I would suspect that anything between 12 gauge and 16 gauge wire would suffice. (Note that the smaller the number the thicker the wire and hence the more current it can handle without bad things happening. For example, 12 gauge wire is thicker than 14 gauge wire which is thicker than 16 gauge wire). For larger whole-house systems you would want much thicker wire but there’s no need in this system.

I went with 14 gauge wire for no other reason than because I wanted a bit more safety. I also choose to buy both Red Primary Wire – 20 ft. and Black Primary Wire – 20 ft. in order to ensure positive and negative connections are clearly marked. If you prefer, you can easily find this wire locally such as at Walmart, Radio Shack, or an auto parts store. If you think you’re going to expand then just go with 12 gauge wire; you can’t go much bigger because the power pole connectors would accept larger wire.

Replacement Fuses

I would also suggest you purchase packages of replacement fuses appropriate to your equipment. Typically these are tube fuses that are rated between 5 or 10 amps at either 125 volts or 250 volts. I suggest that after you buy your equipment you purchase the appropriate fuses for that component since that’s the best way to know what fuses to buy.

Part 6: 12-volt Trickle Charger

A basic trickle charger is another item that I didn’t think I would want or need until I later realized that I couldn’t just store these batteries indefinitely (disconnected, of course) until I needed the system.

The thing is that batteries are best stored with a full charge. Although deep cycle batteries, in particular, are able to sit for a month or two without fully discharging, it’s just not good practice for any battery. As such, my first thought was to simply charge them periodically using my solar panel.

Unfortunately, this posed two problems. First, I recognized that while I may choose to do this for the first few months, it was inevitable that the newness would wear off and I would probably neglect them and allow them to discharge too far too often. Second, my understanding is that even allowing these batteries to discharge to, let’s say 20% over a month or two, still wears them down and thereby limits their total available cycles and, hence, their useful life.

Since the point in this setup was to have a system that I could rely on if/when I really needed it, a trickle charger keeps my batteries ready to go at a moment’s notice. Again, while not necessary, I encourage you to have one. This Battery Tender Junior 12V Battery Charger I have pictured above got good reviews and I’ve been pleased with mine thus far.

How It All Went Together

1) The charge controller was attached to the battery with heavy-duty velcro I had laying around the house.

2) This bundle of wires will attach to the solar panel (not shown) using the power pole connectors discussed above (and detailed in item 3 below). The solar panel has identical connectors attached to its wiring. Thus, when I want to use the solar panel to charge the system I just plug these connectors into the solar panel connectors and I’m ready to go.

3) These are the power pole connectors. They are designed so that the positive (red) and negative (black) connectors can be attached to each other so that only one, quick connection needs to be made. That’s really nice. I must admit, however, that they were very difficult to get properly attached to the wiring. You will probably need to fiddle with them quite a bit.

4) Although difficult to see, on the right side of the picture I have a single power pole connector attached to each end of the negative (black) wire that goes between the charge controller and the battery terminal. I did this so that I can keep the charge controller disconnected while I have the trickle charger hooked up. Since that will be all the time (because I want the trickle charger to keep the battery fully charged) this connection will only be made when I’m using the solar panel. When the time comes I can quickly connect the two ends of the wire and have the charge controller functioning as it should. On the left side of the image, the positive (red) wire is directly connected from the charge controller to the positive battery terminal.

5) Here is the 12-volt DC auxiliary plug that I can use to connect any auxiliary plug I want, including my battery charger and I-phone charger.

6) These are the connections for the Battery Tender Jr trickle charger mentioned above. It is permanently connected to the battery terminals using ring terminals. It’s a simple connection, positive wire to positive terminal and negative wire to negative terminal.

7)  Again, although difficult to see, this is the quick disconnect for the trickle charger. I would simply disconnect the trickle charger here when I connect the charge controller and solar panel.

My Thoughts and Concerns

I have a few problems or concerns with my solar panel system that are either difficult to remedy, too costly, or I should have know better (by doing more research beforehand)…

No Power Inverter

If you’ve noticed, I haven’t discussed a DC to AC power inverter yet. If you didn’t know, this type of inverter converts 12-volt power (such as your car’s power) to 110-volt power (your house power) so that you can plug in and use/charge equipment that only has an AC cord. My phone is an example because it only has an AC cord to charge it.

While I considered buying one (and I still am) I’ve avoided it thus far because my understanding is that this is quite inefficient because you are wasting energy converting DC to AC by using the power inverter and then converting AC to DC again when you plug the equipment you intend to use into the inverter. Anyway, if I had a bigger system and expected to power a variety of equipment that only uses AC then such a power inverter would be necessary; for this system it is not.

Solar Panel Wattage

My solar panel only produces 20 watts, which means at 17.2 volts (the voltage it is rated to output) the max current it will generate is 1.17 amps. (Note: it’s a simple formula relating watts, amps, and volts: watts = volts x amps.) The problem is that this is roughly equivalent to a trickle charger so it will take a long time to recharge my battery even under good conditions. If I were willing to spend about double my cost for the 20 watt panel I choose to purchase, I could have got a 40 or 60 watt panel instead. Eventually I will need to add another panel or upgrade.

No Redundancy

This is a big problem. As the saying goes: “two is one and one is none”. Absolutely every component of my system does NOT have a backup, so I would be in trouble should any of it fail. I can remedy this but that would be costly, so I’ll just hope for the best.

Time to Recharge Battery

The initial charge using the trickle charger lasted about 24 hours with an initial voltage of 12.1 volts, which I think is roughly 50% charged according to what I have read. I monitored the voltage of the battery over this time and found the voltage varied from a low of 12.1 volts to a high of 14.2 volts and eventaully settled at about 13.0 volts when fully charged. I have yet to use the solar panel to charge the battery but, as I mentioned above, I would still suspect a rather long charge time especially when deeply discharged because the max current of the solar panel is only 1.17 amps, whereas the current of the trickle charger is 0.75 amps. My guess would be about two days of full sun would do it.

Total Cost

When you add up the cost of all these supplies you’re talking between $200-300 dollars for even this basic system. That’s a lot of money to me, especially for something that I can never guarantee I’ll use. And, unfortunately, to add more power will cost significantly more because I’ll have to purchase more panels and more batteries. It’s just not in the cards right now.

Was It Necessary?

This is the big question. Was my first solar panel system worth it? After it’s all said and done I spent about $250 in order to have a basic DC power system that I can rely on to charge/use basic electronics such as a cell phone, ipod, laptop, and to recharge batteries. Honestly, I can’t even use my laptop yet because I haven’t purchased an appropriate auxiliary plug (or power inverter) for it which is another $20-30.

Another question is whether any of these devices would even be usable if there is a lengthy city-wide power outage. After all, should I expect that cell service will work when the lights are out? Maybe. Cell phone companies have been working to make their systems more robust in recent years but there’s obviously no guarantee. The same question can be asked about Internet service. I would expect that the Internet certainly wouldn’t work so my laptop just became a lot less useful to me.

Perhaps the driving force in this solar system was the ability to recharge batteries for a lengthy period of time. Given that the majority of my flashlights, lanterns, and radios use either AA or AAA batteries, this is important to me.

Of course, there is one other option I have touched on: in most cases you can simply use your car’s electrical system to accomplish the very same goal assuming that you have enough gas in y0ur tank (or filled gas cans) to do so. I would suspect that this strategy would work for quite a while if you’re able to make very efficient use of the time you have your car running.

One last option would have been to buy loads of AA and AAA batteries. I probably would have spent significantly less and had batteries coming out of my ears.

So, what do you think? Was it worth it or not at all?