New Jersey is off to a bad start in terms of hurricanes this decade. Irene flooded a lot of the state, Sandy took my power for 10 days, and in June this year we’ve already had frequent heavy rain due to tropical storms that didn’t even reach Category 1.
Disclosure: All of the Amazon links in this post benefit me if you use them.
Last year I was able to ride out the power outage with my Portable Power Supply and the dumb luck that the main road with convenience stores got power long before I did. My parents got through with the dumb luck that the town chopped down the trees in their front yard for a sidewalk, giving them just about two weeks worth of wood. It’s also fortunate that my girlfriend drives a Prius, so at 48MPG and theoretical 600 miles to the tank we weren’t rationing gas with the same ferocity as say, an M5 owner with 16MPG and 200 mile range (but twice the acceleration).
Unfortunately for me and many in the state, we don’t have a driveway, or a yard, or a fireplace, because we live in a multiple unit apartment complex, so I’m not eligible for a generator which is your best bet for making things feel “Normal” if you and your neighbors will tolerate the noise. If you are thinking about a generator, buy it now. Don’t wait for the storm. These are big ticket items that will get several hundred dollar markups as storms approach. If you’re getting 1KW peak per $100 of price you’re probably getting a fair deal – for gas at least. Think carefully about the fuel you pick. There may not be lines for diesel or propane but unlike gas there might not be as frequent redeliveries of such. If you have access to biofuel (bio diesel) I would go with that.
The portable power supply referenced earlier (I’m just going to call it the Brookstone since mine is branded from them) is a bit expensive and somewhat overkill for what it actually offers, so when I discovered mine’s battery was “dead” I set out to build a replacement. One the inside, the Brookstone is a 12V/12A battery, an inverter, a dynamo, some LEDs, and a display. I wasn’t able to find a 12V/12A battery on Amazon but I was able to find a 7 Amp battery which conveniently also comes with a AC charger with automatic shutoff. Since I consider dynamo’s impractical even in emergency situations I bought a small solar panel from the same brand to try out since my apartment gets decent sunlight. I don’t expect the solar panel to be particularly practical either but if it helps cut down the time plugging the battery into the car or mooching from someone who has power/a generator I’ll take it. If you don’t have even temporary access to power, larger panels and batteries can be found, and doubling up works too (just make sure everything is 12 Volts).
To get to actually use the battery for something useful, you could wire an Inverter or some USB ports right on it, but I went the modular route and installed a standard car power socket and use it with an inverter intended for a car. The one I have linked has 3 AC ports, a USB port that can only charge phones, and a passthrough 12V power port.
You’ll have to do a small amount of math when figuring out what your actual maximum wattage is. Inverters are limited for whatever they say they are but won’t be able to achieve it if your battery is too small. In the case of the 7 Amp battery I have listed, 7 Amps x 12 Volts is 84 theoretical peak watts. Not nearly enough for a 15″ MacBook Pro, but plenty for an 45 Watt 11″ Air, 10 Watt iPad 4, an iPhone 5, and an iPad mini all at the same time (using bricks for the iPads and the iPhone plugged into the USB).
Speaking of iPads: get into the habit of buying your iPhones and iPads on different carriers from each other. Data will be more important as the cell networks overload due to unpowered and damaged towers and having an iPad on a different carrier than your phone is a redundancy if you get one on AT&T and one on Verizon.
When it comes to lighting, stay away from anything with an incandescent bulb or C or D sized batteries. Incandescent bulbs are technically more efficient heaters than lights and need to be replaced. C and D batteries start disappearing from store shelves during the first 24 hours. Personally, I’m using my own LEDs (also available in warm white). These Ultra-Bright LEDs are brighter than most flashlights when connected directly to a fresh brand-name 9 Volt battery. As the voltage drops after the first night, they’re still several candle power and safe to leave on fairly continuously (although constant use of some 9 Volts may cause them to bulge, so keep an eye on them). Remember that LEDs require a certain voltage so when you’re wiring them together they have to be in parallel. Also, use a resistor if you’re using normal LEDs. When the NiMH batteries from earlier lose their ability to be 12V and can’t power the inverters anymore, they can still be used to power LEDs for quite some time.
There’s one other product I’d like to discuss. This hand held solar, crank, or AAA powered digital radio flashlight and USB charger looks like a good idea and after testing a few I’d say this one is the best one, but it’s far from perfect. The dynamo and solar power do in fact work, but the supplied NiMH battery is very small (one advantage this particular model has is that the rechargeable battery is socketed so you could theoretically have multiples). What I like about this particular unit is that is can also operate on AAA batteries which are easy to find while everyone’s buying Cs and Ds. I also like that the radio and tuner are fully digital so when both AT&T and Verizon crap out you still have SOME form of weather updates. I’d recommend it for your less tech-savvy friends and family who aren’t in the budget range of the Brookstone. But it and all other things like it are fairly terrible because NiMH batteries that small are pretty useless. After draining and charging mine once the batteries no longer had a high enough voltage for the internal battery meter (a 3 part LCD, not exactly the most informative) so show as anything other than dead. Luckily the unit still works with its “dead” batteries. The light is only bright enough to navigate around a dark house, but isn’t even bright enough to look for things in the trunk of your car. The buttons are easy to push accidentally so it’s best to store it with the battery disconnected.
More important than all this though is being on good terms with everyone you live with, especially your pets. Tempers run high once the novelty of life without electricity wears off and you may need to snuggle if your heat doesn’t work (surprise surprise, your fossil fuel water heater is controlled by an electronic thermostat!).