Coping: Life at the “End of the String” ElectriPrepping

Real Life Prepping Time!  This morning’s column will be published in sections due to power outages in our area.

The power went off (inconveniently) just as I was sitting down to write this morning’s column which was going to focus on our pals Gaye and Sheldon (Gaye writes who are taking their ham radio tests this weekend.  I wrote an article for Gaye on programming their Baofeng HandyTalkies using CHIRP software.  It can be read over here.

As you may remember, UrbanSurvival is solar powered.  Out first big investment came in 2007 and that means our battery bank (8 large golf cart batteries) is aging.  The second 8 aren’t far behind.  We keep it up with regular watering, but with the air conditioning on and some other decent loads, battery string #1 decided to give up the ghost about half way through the first run-through on writing this column.

Since the SuperComputer is on a great big backup, I didn’t worry about it – which goes to show you who the idiot is.

Never to be undone, though, I took a laptop (the one from my alternate work station in the house) and fired it up.

Things I’d thought through seem to be holding together for now, but here are some gotchas to consider.

1.  Will I have coffee?

I lucked out on this.  I’d just made 8 cups in the machine, so no issues there.  Had I not, it would had added 20 minutes to fire up the BBQ and set about doing coffee the old-fashioned way.

2.;  Will I have food?

No problems there:  Breakfast lately has been a handful of vitamins and supplements – along with exactly three almonds.

This morning – screw it – a bag of Oberto Teriyaki beef jerky and more coffee.

3.  Will I have Internet?

Yes – and no. 

Yes, the satellite system is up (Excede) but the DSL on one phone line is down (see earlier note about one inverter stack going offline) and the other is in the house for convenience.  So we’re down to one on-ramp to the net and one string of batteries.

Since I don’t know a) how long before power comes back on and b) I don’t want to run out to the power center and keep looking at meters, I will just update this periodically until 6:30.

4.  Is this an end of the world EMP event?

No.  But it certainly does a good job of cranking up the brain cells and gets me back to my marine electrical days when systems that are robust and dependable were (and are) the order of the day.

I don’t like being on emergency power, but that’s where we are this morning.

Sort of like Universe is handing us a pop quiz about survival planning.

Everything worked – and even with an inconvenient backup failing (which means a small fortunate into fresh batteries) it will means that we persisted and prevailed…a good thing and I am sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere…

What lessons, exactly?

1.  When you have older golf cart batteries, you need to periodically do discharge tests and replace them preemptively. I didn’t  because it’s a big expense.  There are a total of 16 golf carts and that can put a hole in the party & entertainment budget for months.

2.  We did the right thing having all three modems/networks are on different power sources.  HOUSEDSL is on mains power.  WILDBLUE is on inverter 2 and battery string 2, WESTELL is on inverter 1/battery string 1.

WILDBLUE is the one that’s up this morning and has survived so far.  Point is, where you need ultra high reliability, and the cost isn’t too bad, spread your bets around so you have power when and where you need it.

3.  Have lots of extension cords and keep them in good repair.

If the power isn’t on in a reasonable time, say 10 AM, or so, by which time the solar should be putting out decent power, we will run an extension from the power center to the fridge in the house.  The freezer is out in the storage room. 

4.  How is the propane?

No worries there!  I just a couple of weeks ago filled up two twenty pounders and a forty pounder.  So that would be enough to make coffee for a while. 

After the small bottles of propane are done, we have 400 gallons of the stuff in our big tank.  And with two rocket stoves behind that, we will not want for heat or fire.

5.  Batteries and flashlights?

We have a place that serves as a bar when company comes over.  (Oilman 2 came by a month or two back, for example).  But when there’s no company around, that’s where all of our flashlights live.

Someone you don’t appreciate when the power goes out – if you haven’t been through it for a while is…

a.  Using the bathroom is a bit different when done by flashlight.

b.  Doing dishes by flashlight is different – and you’ll see the value of solid  high level interior lighting in short order.

c.  Finding things (around the house, like a bag of beef jerky from the prep kit) is a lot easier with light than without.

6.  What about Wireless Accessories

Oh, yeah…THEM!

I came out this morning, turned on SuperComputer and actually believed the outage may have been EMP because a keyboard was on the fritz.  Nope.  Just a low battery.  We’ve become huge faces of the ultra long-life lithium batteries, with apologies to native people of Bolivia.

We always have a bunch on hand.  Amazon has the Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA Size Batteries – 20 Pack for about $35-bucks, which is what’s running the keyboard again.

Just in the past few minutes, the power came on again.  Long enough to run the a/c unit at the house for five minutes.  But then it went off again.

Whatever the problem is, it’s confounding the power crews.

7. When should we start the generator?

Ah…thought about that.  It has diesel in it and is (more or less) ready to go.  (power just came on, maybe it will stay up this time?)

The problem with the generator is that it is a PITA to set up and run.  One thing I’ve been thinking about is getting one of those 10 kW power take off units for the Kubota.

If you’re a city slicker, the PTO is the shaft on the tail end of a tractor that various farm implements plug into.

And that gets us to the problem with farm PTO units.  I don’t know when the last time you pulled a piece of power equipment off a tractor, but it verges on real work.

First, you have to put the tractor where you want the piece of equipment dropped.  Then, you might want to put some 4X4 blocking under it, so it doesn’t go all the way to the ground.  Makes hook up next time a bit easier.

Then you get on the shaft, which has a spring loaded collar on it – it’s greasy and filthy or you haven’t been working your tractor.  Once the PTO shaft is loose, you can tie it up or block in place because when you put the equipment back on the tractor, it’s a pain to try and get things aligned just so.

Then off come three hitch pins big as your thumb and you finally have a “free tractor.”

Reverse the process at the next piece of equipment, backing up just so will take a minute, and then go through the same spasms of effort and flood of curse words all over again.

You should now be on the verge of understanding why I haven’t invested the dough for a tractor PTO driven generator.  They aren’t cheap.  Amazon has the PTO Generator Kit 10 kW (10,000 Watt) 3 Point Carrier and PTO Shaft Drive Line Included listed for a tad over $2,026.

Northern Tool has a 13 kW generator down the page over here for $1,500, but that’s before you get a shaft, mounting kit, or a trailer to drag the thing around on.

Most people (unfarmerly types, if that’s a word) don’t appreciate that when a PTO is pushing out 10-13 kW of power there’s a fair bit of torque involved, so you can just let the genset flop around on the ground.  Wide base or mobile mountain is mandatory and I like the look of the Amazon unit that mounts on a three point rig, because that is designed to pick up the torque issue. 

Not that you’d see a trailer flop around, but I’ve never figured out just how many foot pounds of torque is involved when the house A/C unit kicks on.  It’s a big starting load  because our 6 kW diesel whines, complains, belches out black smoke and just barely won’t get the job done.

A 7-8 kW unit would work, but at long as we’re talking checkbooks and dreams, how about a 10-13 kW unit for a little safety margin?

Also on this kind of generator solution, be ready to pay an electrician ($500_) labor to hook up a transfer switch ($600-$1,000) and then get the right cables to power everything up according to Hoyle.

Even if we popped for the dough, here’s the problem:  We would be in the unenviable position of trying to figure out when to take off the bush hog (a thrashing mower we use all the time…think of it as a five food WeedWhacker).  Doing this kind of labor at night in the rain (invariably when it’s needed) is just not my cuppa tea.

Since we’re having this impromptu refresher on prepping for power outages,  I have to give you my speech about backfeeding and how dangerous that is.

If you EVER hook up a generator in an emergency situation, make triple-damn sure you have isolated your home, ranch, office, or whatever, from the Grid.  In other words, pull the main breakers so you CAN NOT FEED POWER BACK DOWN THE LINE.


It’s also why I love the Outback Grid Interactive system we chose almost 10 years ago.  The beauty of it is that when the grid fails, the Outback system physically disconnects from the line with a relay and that makes backfeeding impossible.

I’ve set ours up so that even when the power comes back up, it will wait a full minute for power to come back on.  I want it to sniff the incoming power really well, and make sure that it’s not just a bump of wires as linemen do their work.

Well, there we have it.

A column on emergency power and I didn’t even plan for it.  The mains power came up about two minutes ago, the inverter/chargers are now refilling the battery banks, and Mr. Ure may put on a fresh pot of coffee.

Nothing left to do but chew beef jerky and wait for the Consumer Price report and wait for word from our airplane mechanic on an issue with wing attach point bolts.

Yeah, the weekend may be on the horizon, but we’re not quite having fun yet.  The power may be back on only long enough so I can find my checkbook and weep.

Good Peoplenomics™ tomorrow:  We talk about Disruptive Technologies that are coming to get us.  If the power stays on….

Write when you break-even


11 thoughts on “Coping: Life at the “End of the String” ElectriPrepping”

  1. Hey, George-
    Next time you face outages and need that cuppa Joe [and who DOESN’T?] try one of those little cans of Sterno wives love to take to buffets. You Jerry-rig a stand by punching a bunch of holes in another can that will fit over the fuel source, light it up and there you go. A can of jellied alcohol burns for about two hours, costs a buck a dollar stores and boils water easily…. or, you can make your own fuel cell by cleaning out an old quart paint can, squish a roll of toilet paper inside and soak it with rubbing alcohol. Light it up and you have a much larger flame that burns cleanly indoors, and the can lid will extinguish it quickly.

  2. I feel your pain, lead acid batteries are a messy PITA, heavy, never last as predicted and, while solar costs have plummeted, batteries prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

    Need to find a high mileage or totaled Tesla just for the pack.

  3. Hope you are soaking those 3 almonds, George. Since you are eating them with your supplements know that the brown peel of almonds contains tannin which inhibits nutrient absorption. Once you soak almonds the peel comes off easily and allows the nut to release all nutrients easily. Soaking almonds also helps in releasing enzymes like lipase which is beneficial for digestion of fats.

  4. First things first:

    Get a bunch of solar garden lights from Harbor Freight – about $2.00 each in packs of 10 when on sale. Leave them outside in bunches and you can bring them into the bathroom or whereever and they will light up for as long as you probably need them.

    Regarding the PTO generator – that’s a fairly easy thing to build yourself with a welder and cutting torch. You may have to buy a unit to go from 540 rpm up to 1800, or you can do it with a belt setup. There are lots of gensets around with bad engines and can be bought for almost scrap. Just set the thing up to run, and make sure to match the load to the power. Setting up a PTO shaft isn’t that hard, and the whole thing can be a fun project in your “spare” time. Set it up for three point and have it set on a frame such that the shaft doesn’t have too much offset.

    As far as backfeeding, I just use heavy guage extension cords for the loads I want to power. This forces thinking about what’s wanted vs what’s needed, and there’s zero chance of backfeeding. I will be installing a fixed solar setup and I’ll just install parallel wiring, so there’s no connection to the grid ever. I may install it on a trailer or skid and make the whole thing portable.

    Regarding rain: I never do rain, unless it’s for a hot date. If it’s raining in the desert, I’ll just wait for the rain to stop and the mud to dry. I presume that the tractor is in a shed, or at least a carport type shelter. It is, isn’t it? Weather does affect tractors, and inside is better. It’s obviously also better to have the tractor running with a generator where it is ventilated, but not wet. A hint here might be to set up a wheeled A-frame inside the carport/garage to help align/lift off clumsy tools such as a bush hog or post hole digger. Ask me how I know….

  5. One other thought: Get a portable welder with a bad engine Miller/Hobart, etc. These have 240 volt output available at reasonably high amps. Just use it instead of a generator for the three point setup. Make sure the generator/welder/whatever stays on the ground when running so the torque is not fully carried on the lift arms, and the hydraulics are slack.

  6. Hey George,

    I have an older Kubota 14hp hydrstatic mower that has gotten to where it is almost impossible to start, Carb issues. But otherwise is still solid and when it runs it’s got plenty of power. I have the sheetmetal and carb off of it now. Carb is easy rebuild. I also have an old army surplus 5kw generator on a blown up 4 lung Wisconsin. The plan is to weld up some brackets and mount the genny sans the dead Wisconsin forward of the front wheels and drive it off the engine output. Goal being to be able to drive the rig to where power is needed on the ranch. I am just not sure if I can get enough rpms from the Kubota to drive the genny even with some creative pully diameters. Should be a fun experiment once the mowing season slows down and the boss quits expecting me to show up at the office.

    Your right exchanging pto equipment is a bit&*.

  7. I bought a 7.5Kw DUCAR petrol genny off ebay, new unit, for 700 Aus dollars. Excellent unit, used many times when our power goes off, runs fridge – 720litre – air con, modem and two computers with ease and the TV when we have wanted it. Seems very stable power, the only thing we have that doesn’t like it is the Nespresso coffee machine; maybe the power isn’t stable enough for that!

  8. If he has to replace the wing attach bolts prepare to faint at the cost of them, We received AD on our Cherokee about Dye checking the Spars and replace all bolts Damn near could of replaced the Air Craft by the time It was over, N5754F.

  9. if you have more time than you do money then test the cells with a hydrometer and empty the battery of its fluids and take your thin grinder and grind the top off of it and pull it out and the bad cells should be evident and you should be able to fix it does it have the trash in the bottom or the cells shorted out then after you fixed it put it back together get some kind of a plastic glue or good that goes around seals it up and you’re ready for another 4or5 years to save 100 bucks or two have a good day

  10. HUPS forklift battery-technology keeps making leaps and bounds-dont know if your battery is damaged or sulfated-there are possible solutions for both problems-also wet cells from att or phone relay stations-they are kind of expensive to buy new but available-smaller that fork lift battery (abt a ton) but same idea 2v cells except in a glass jar…

  11. I used to work on generators for Caterpillar. I replaced a lot of expensive lead acid batteries but never Edison Iron Nickel batteries. I swear they last forever. The power companies and telephone companies sell off their used ones which still have probably enough life in them to out last yours and mine. If that’s not good enough for you maybe you could make your own. Might be worth experimenting with a little. Here’s a excellent resource from “the great” Robert Murray-Smith. Search in Google “Nickel Iron Robert Murray-Smith” you’ll see several videos he’s made on making your own printed plate batteries. He’s a serious genius who makes and shows you how to make graphite Conductive Ink and Nickel Hydride for the batteries. All his videos are great. Another search for papers is “The Edison Battery White Paper Walt Noon” he has papers on making smaller batteries.

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