Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alabama Tornado Disaster

As long-time readers know, I lived 100% offgrid for several years. I do not currently, though. At least I didn't until Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at about 1 PM. That is when the tornado disaster began in my part of north Alabama. As I write this, it is just after 1 PM on Saturday, so it has been just about 72 hours. Even those somewhat prepared folks who had a 72 hour bug-out bag are wondering what to do now.
We are doing OK. Here at the new place I do not have my full offgrid setup, nor even a portable generator. What I do have is an experimental DC generator that I put together awhile back for a Youtube video, consisting of a Chinese 10 horsepower air-cooled diesel engine powering an automotive alternator. This is charging a spare truck battery, which in turn is powering a portable 1500 watt Statpower inverter. This has been enough to run the refrigerator for a cycle a couple of times per day, power the satellite Internet transceiver/modem for long enough to check in once a day, keep my laptop charged, power the TV and its satellite receiver for an hour or so each day, keep other assorted battery-powered devices charged, power a few lights, etc. That puts us in far better condition than most people in north Alabama.
When all this started, the reports were that power would be restored within 72 hours. Now they have revised that to one week. Who knows how long it will really last. What if the storms come through again? The power utility spokesman said that even when the power is restored, they will not have the normal system redundancy for several weeks.
I woke up this morning thinking about all that, and wondering if I should perhaps work on bringing one of my serious continuous-duty generators here, so that we can power the water heater and air conditioners. I've decided to hold off on that, because it would take at least a full day of labor to do so. Instead, I have been working on improving my existing setup, switching the portable inverter out for the commercial-grade hard mount inverter I used in my offgrid setup, and swapping out the truck battery for a pair of golf-cart batteries from the original battery bank. They showed only a couple of volts each when I tested them, but I connected the 10 amp battery-charge stator of the engine to them yesterday, and they seem to be coming back to life. If they work OK today and tomorrow, maybe I will get the other six out of storage Monday. That will go a long way toward improving matters here.
I have been shooting some video of the makeshift generator in operation, through a couple of stages of improvement. I don't plan to upload them until the utilities are restored, because even a few minutes of video takes all day to upload with my satellite connection. When I do upload them, I will embed the videos here.
Update: OK, here's the first video, and here's another one. You can go here to watch the original video of the genny.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; a real 60-cycle AC generator head is far, far better than any automotive alternator. Automotive alternators are horribly inefficient and produce very little power for the fuel they consume. I built it not because it makes a good generator, but just to show people what can be done if it is all you have. You can put together a workable generator for minimal, short-term electrical power generation for under $100, especially if you already own a lawn mower from whence to source the engine. In fact, if you have a riding mower, you can add an alternator to it, and still be able to use it for mowing.

Update: since I wrote the above, our utilities have been restored. The news outlet I was monitoring is in a nearby large city. Their utilities are still off, as far as I know. But we live in a different county and our electricity is coming from a different direction, so even though we are in a quite rural area, having a smaller system worked in our favor. This time.
Nevertheless, I put in several hours of work, improving my makeshift power plant so that if the utilities go down again I can react immediately.
Lessons learned:
  • Have a generator. While I didn't totally fail in that regard, I'm really happy that these past few nights have been cool, as I didn't have enough generating capacity to run an air conditioner. I really need to set up one of my "real" gensets here.
  • Have fuel. Again, not a total failure, because I did have a bit of diesel fuel, and was able to pump some out of the tractor to make up the difference. But I used to store a 55 gallon drum of diesel fuel, and I need to do that again. We took a road trip for more fuel to make sure we would have enough. One thing I noticed was that diesel fuel was in far more plentiful supply than gasoline. Also, diesel fuel lasts much longer in storage than gasoline. That should tell you something about what kind of generator you should have.
  • Cooking and heating fuel, too. I had one 20 lb tank of propane and one gallon of Coleman fuel. Also a little kerosene and one bag of charcoal briquettes. And I have the means of cooking with all of the above. Of course, I also have a nearly unlimited supply of dry wood, so I will definitely be able to cook and heat stuff. But I really need to keep a couple of 20 lb propane tanks and my two, 100 lb tanks full at all times, a couple of additional gallons of Coleman fuel, and more kerosene. It is nice to know that you don't have to worry about cooking and heating fuel, especially if this had been a winter event.
  • Food. We were a bit low of food, but we certainly had enough to last a week. More canned goods would be good though, both store-bought and home-canned varieties.
  • Cash. It is a good idea to keep at least $100 on hand.
A few thoughts are in order about the road trip. I was amazed to see no fuel stations up and running on generator power the day after the event, although by the second day I was hearing reports that some local stations did have generator power. But I'll bet somebody drove to Nashville to buy generators.
We took the road trip to buy diesel to make sure we had enough to last at least a week, and to fill up one vehicle. We took a gasoline-powered vehicle, but in retrospect it would have been better to drive the diesel truck and bring back gas and diesel in cans. We thought we would only have to go to the Tennessee state line, which is fairly close, since we had it on good authority that the power was on there. What we didn't count on was that everybody else in north Alabama had the same idea. There was a long line extending down the road from most gas stations, traffic jams in between, and many stations were running out of gasoline (but not diesel, as I mentioned). All of the stations were accepting cash only. Remember where I said it is a good idea to keep $100 on hand? We only had $40 on hand. And there was price gouging. Between the time I pulled up to the pump and when I reached the register after standing in line, the price went up. We got $20 worth of diesel at the new higher price, and saw the tanker truck pulling in to replenish the gasoline supply, so we waited and got $20 of gas, too. Then we headed for the Interstate to find a place that would take the card. We found one, but everyone was sitting around waiting while the station raised the prices. Literally. They made everyone stop pumping, and shut the pumps down so they could price gouge right before our eyes. So we left, with the intention of driving all the way to Nashville if we had to, to conduct a normal business transaction. We found success in Columbia, TN.
So, do I think "there oughtta be a law?" No, but unfortunately, the state legislature is talking about it now. I think governmental price controls are a very bad idea. I just think the consumer should make note of businesses that price gouge, and take their business elsewhere. Permanently. And tell other people about it, too. I don't want to deal with jerks like that anyway, even if the government forces them to set prices at a reasonable level.
But if we were more prepared, we wouldn't have to venture out during the disaster in the first place. And that applies to bugging out, too. Sometimes it is necessary. But it is far better and safer to "bug in", if the situation allows and you are prepared to do so.
By the way, if you would like a small diesel engine like the one I am using in this application, you can get one at this link:
10 hp air-cooled diesel engine
The last time I checked, they had 10 in stock, with free shipping to the lower 48. This is the same company, located in Michigan, that I bought mine from in 2007, and they are still in business. So they are a reliable company.


Kim said...

There may not be a law in TN, but there is one in AL. And the State Attorney General made it very clear on day one that he would prosecuted anyone they found out about.

Of course, in practicality, the lines at the gas stations were ridiculous. I went even further west than you and was able to quickly get anything we needed. But then I believe I started off further west than you.

irishdutchuncle said...

good thing you and yours are un-injured.

it uses an awful lot of generator power to run a water heater, or oven. it will be more efficient use of fuel to heat things directly if you can develop that capability.

the a/c and refrigeration are a different story...

Tracy said...

That is true, except for one thing: in the South you have little choice but to size the genny to power air conditioning. Diesel generators are more efficient when loaded near their max. That being the case, electric water heaters and even ovens help to load the genny properly when it is running anyway. It evens out, especially when you consider the higher price of gas appliances and their associated tank, plumbing and venting..

irishdutchuncle said...

i'll need to size the genny to power air conditioning up here in PA also, if i want to stay married...

if i'm going to drive an alternator with the small gas or diesel engine anyway, i've been musing about driving an A/C compressor at the same time. it might be difficult to make it portable though. (except as part of a travel trailer) i need to run my "sleep machine" and the wife needs her A/C.

has anyone come up with a design for a kerosene heater conversion, to produce domestic hot water?

Kulkuri said...

After reading your post, I have decided to buy a power inverter. Harbor Freight has a coupon for a 2000Watt/4000 Watt peak inverter for $130. I have several vehicles with batteries in them(plan on buying several new batteries for the vehicles and a deep cycle one to power the fencer) that I could use to power the inverter and to charge up the batteries. UP on the Tundra I don't have to worry about A/C, but it would be nice to run a refrigerator and be able to go online with a computer.

Tracy said...

That's a great deal on the HF inverter. A 2000 watt generator certainly won't handle a 4KW surge.
When I bought the Statpower, it was close to $500. Inverter prices have come way down since then. This one has more than paid for itself, though. I had it mounted in my Jeepster for a few years, and used it, among other things, to power an electric chainsaw. That was great, because the chainsaw was ready anytime without having to keep fresh premix in the Jeep.
Irish, I've seen cooktop conversions for kerosene heaters. Then of course there are the old Perfection kerosene cookstoves. For emergency use, I would just use something like that with a huge stockpot. The Asian grocery stores carry stainless steel stock pots cheap, or do like I did and make one out of a beer keg. When I lived offgrid, that is how I heated all my water. Then I washed dishes directly in the stockpot, or poured the hot water in the tub along with a suitable amount of cold water, or poured it in a clean pump-up sprayer for a shower.

irishdutchuncle said...

roger that. i have a big stock pot.

that will quickly get old with the wife and son. (and me too) if the "crisis" goes more than a few days, i'll have to rig up something else.

Tracy said...

I have a small (3 gallon) RV water heater that runs on LPG. They make bigger ones too, as well as some that can run on either gas or electric. That may be a good backup solution, especially considering that a backup water system is a good thing to have too. If the utilities are off, even if the public water supply still works, it may be better to keep it turned off for the duration except to top off a cistern or tank as needed, for two reasons: it removes the worry (in winter) of pipes freezing, and it allows you to pre-treat the water before it comes into the house.
Here in Alabama during this disaster, some public water systems are advising everyone to boil the water before they use it. I'm not surprised, because water treatment plants need electricity too.

Athelstane said...

We have 21 solar panels backed up with a Honda 10KW. I reckon this reveals my age, but I grew up without AC. I have a screened porch with cots and electric fans; all of which worked great during our time without grid power. I recommend solar and I particularly recommend Gulf Coast Solar down in Mobile. They do good work at a good price.