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.
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!? 😉
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?