Several months back Ted Koppel released the book, “Lights Out”. His book explores what it would be like to have a nationwide electrical blackout for a lengthy period and the result of an in-depth look into the vulnerabilities of the nation’s power grid. More than one reviewer called the book “scary”!
I have written a few times on the loss of electricity and how to survive a grid-down, experience. I own a backup generator, but they require fuel. It is neither practical nor safe to store the amount of fuel needed to see one through a lengthy power failure. I have calculated I have enough fuel on hand to keep my refrigerator and freezer running until the food contained therein is depleted.
I have always thought solar energy was cool, but here on the Southern Oregon Coast, sometimes our days are “sunlight hindered” if you get the hint. I have had some free time on my hands recently and stumbled across a set of online plans for a solar generator I thought was not only practical, but affordable. This unit is portable, self-contained and capable of light duty usage.
I based my unit on a Plano toolbox, available at most hardware stores. The toolbox is built from heavy-duty plastic and seemed big enough to duplicate the plans I had seen online. I ordered all the components from Amazon.com and in a few days the parts began to arrive. In true “Tim Taylor” fashion I didn’t precisely follow the online example in that, instead of a 10 watt solar panel, I ordered a 20 watt unit. After all it wasn’t that much more expensive and we all can use more horsepower. Right? Instead of one, 12 volt, 18 amp, sealed lead acid battery, I ordered two. Increased storage capacity you understand. Then I added a 500 watt inverter and a solar charge controller. I also added a 12 volt plug-in that looks like a cigarette lighter receptacle and a USB receptacle. Those I mounted in the lid of the toolbox for ease of access.
After spending a few hours in my shop and three days sitting cross-legged on my living room floor, I have all the pieces assembled and wonder of wonders: It works!! Lights light up and when I plug my cell phone into a USB port, the phone goes “ding” and it charges.
As an interesting side note, I plugged a 60 watt floor lamp into the inverter. The inverter has a readout that lets you know how many watts you are pulling. The readout boldly proclaimed, “60 watts”. I unscrewed the incandescent bulb and screwed in an LED bulb, the display: 3 watts. Besides the light is brighter than the regular bulb. So if you’re agonizing over spending the extra for LEDs, go for it. They will easily pay for themselves in time and (I haven’t tested this yet) but they seem to last longer than either the compact (spiral) fluorescents or the old school incandescent bulbs.
Please know, this won’t power up your microwave, blow dryer or any major appliance. It will keep your phones charged, your laptop, tablet, toothbrush, bluetooth speaker, goTenna, battery operated power tools and nearly any other rechargeable device in your inventory.
My total cost was in the neighborhood of $200.00. I picked up all my wire and connectors at the local hardware store. For now this is a work in progress so I will undoubtedly keep fine-tuning for a bit longer. Also understand, I am not an electrician, but if you have questions about how I did it and where I got the plans, send me an email at email@example.com. Dave Robinson is the Postmaster in Bandon, Oregon, and the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us,” available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.