Seasonal Reminder-Power Outages: Part 1

November 19, 2016

By human nature; we do not appreciate certain things until they are gone.

The blizzard conditions in the central west area this week reminded me of being prepared for the weather as it begins to change. Hopefully you have not already been effected by these conditions. But, it serves as a reminder that good preparation can ease the difficulty. The items mentioned don’t even come close for those that might be caught in the direct path of devastating weather conditions, but can help the rest of us that may be near the areas.

If you have suffered issues of direct impact, look at  the Disaster Safety site mentioned below as well as the Red Cross for assistance as well as a way to pitch in and help.

Regardless of the weather condition, it most common for it to impact the power grid.  Many times, these conditions can be related to tornado’s, hurricanes, thunderstorms, snow, ice and the list goes on. Several of these type disasters can be devastating especially if you experience a direct impact. Look at the Disaster Safety site for concerns of direct impact. Statistically, secondary effect outages has a broader impact but is typically resolved in a short time frame. A loss of power will impact your life immediately, and you do not have a lot of control on the time or day it will occur.  According to the IEEE standard 1366-1998, the median outage in North America is 1.36 hours per year per household.  In other words, half the households in the U.S. will experience  power outages totaling 1.36 hours or greater. That could be in small segments or one event.   For the purpose of this article I will break down preparedness by duration of loss, 1) 8 hours or less, 2) 72 hours or less,  3) 7 days or less, and 4) Long term. Granted, knowing how long the event will last is the biggest question that none of us really know. However, shorter outages are usually related to severe storms. The greater the coverage of the storm will impact the length of time for restoration. More severe conditions such as hurricanes, tornadoes and long duration storms will all impact the length of restoration.

8 hours or less: An outage of 8 hours can pass pretty quick but having a few essentials will smooth out most issues.

  1. Where is my flashlight? I have dozens of normal flashlights (the kind with no batteries) and one large rechargeable unit. But if an outage were to go beyond a couple of hours I might be in trouble. Use candles for stationary locations throughout the house and save your flashlight for moving around or going outside but keep candles away for other combustible items (curtains, cloth, paper, etc.)  As for flashlights, there has been a recent revolution in small lighting. It’s the LED bulb. The LED uses less than a 1/10 the power of a normal resistance (incandescent) type bulb.   Due to the low power requirements of LED bulbs they can be powered by different sources such as wind up flywheels, super capacitors or rechargeable batteries. radiolightchargerThe American Red Cross has endorsed several, but I like the RF150  that combines an LED Flashlight, radio and cell phone charger. It’s a bit pricey at $30 and up but it is truly an emergency tool that will last for years with little maintenance. This one unit will cover item #1, 4 and 5  all in one unit allowing you to find it quickly or lose everything all at one time. Pretty cool, wind it for a minute and get an hour of service. There are several other choice on the market that cover the requirement.  If you have one or plan to get one, storing it near a window with lots of sun will keep it well charged. Look for my review of this product under techy things.
  2.  Where is the phone number to the Utility?  This sounds simple, but if you don’t have number 1 covered it makes #2 that much harder. If you live in a state where electricity and natural gas  is deregulated, knowing the name or number of your utility companies could be a 15 minute discussion. Locate your phone bill, electricity bill, gas bill, and etc. they should have a number posted; “In case of an outage call this number“.  Make a label, sticker or note and place it on your new emergency flashlight. TIP: You need to call them and report the outage even if you know your neighbor has already reported it. Utilities will increase the severity of the condition by the number of reports (phone calls) logged against the outage. Most utilities can provide you a reasonable status of the condition. The smaller the problem, the easier it is for them to estimate the length of the outage. If you know the outage is wide spread and they continue to be vague on how long, you may need to prepare for a longer outage than 8 hours. Also, continue to check the news on the radio.
  3. I need heat!! In the winter this can be critical, not only for you but your house.  If you have forced air central heating, you’re screwed as you will need both electricity and natural gas  to make the system work. Having a fire-place, oven or bathroom heater  with natural gas will get you through an 8 hour period unless you live in the northern climates.  These little camp heaters have hit the mainstream. With a small propane bottle, you can get about 6 hours of heat on the low setting. For longer duration, with an added hose, you can adapt the propane tank off your gas grill. These units are clean, safe, don’t smell and can be stored for a very long time.  portable-heaterTIP: In the winter, crack open the water faucets to a slow drip in the kitchen and bathrooms (especially those based on the exterior walls) to ensure they do not freeze. Also make sure you have a source of fresh air when using these heating devices as they can consume the oxygen. Even with these devices, the house is going to be cold, so the likelihood of freezing a pipe is greater.
  4. My phone does not work! If you still have a traditional telephone (land line) plugged in the wall it should still work assuming your phone does not require power from a wall outlet, this includes cordless phones. TIP: Always have at least one telephone that is like the one your mother had. Just plugged in the wall, no features,  lights, caller id, just a phone (aka POTS, plain old telephone set). The phone company does a great job of ensuring traditional dial tone, but this does not include Internet service, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) or any other non-traditional, non-regulated services.
  5. Where is my cell phone? Cell phone service is becoming more reliable as the consumer is becoming more dependent on it.  In many cases, the cell phone has taken the place of the POTS.  For the most part, if you use your cell phone sparingly, you can make 8 hours. Besides the unit mentioned in item 1, there are many solar phone chargers on the market, or you can use your car for short duration’s as well assuming you have a car adapter. Since most people keep their phone nearby, you can use a flashlight app to find your flashlight when you first loose power. Don’t use the phone long term for light as it will quickly kill the battery.
  6. Do I have a radio that works? Probably not other than the car. Mine has a battery that will protect the memory of stations and time setting but that’s about it.  You will need a radio like a flash light that does not require an electric cord. Weather specific radios are great, but some music sure passes the time. The radio (news) will help you gauge your needs beyond 8 hours. See item 1.
  7. We have no hot water! Maybe, maybe not. If you have an 1)electric water heater, 2)gas-fired tank-less water heater or 3) some pilotless gas water heaters, you could have limited or no hot water. I have a tank-less water heater so for me its a big NO for hot water. However, I have a gas stove so I can cover the small requirements. With an 8 hour failure, a 50 gallon water heater can cover your immediate needs.

You probably already recognized some items are missing. The list is based on an 8 hour or less outage. For longer outages look at my post for Electrical Power Outages Part II, as  things start to get more interesting as time goes on.

Smoke Detectors For Your Safety

October 24, 2015

smoke_detectorAs we (finally) start rolling into the cooler months, its worth talking about smoke detectors again. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) recommend  that every home have a smoke detector outside each sleeping area (inside as well if household members sleep with the door closed) and on every level of the home, including basements. Floors without bedrooms should have detectors in or near living areas, such as dens, living rooms or family rooms. TIP: Even though we may believe the kitchen and bathrooms should have detectors, in fact these rooms can be a source of numerous false alarms. Depending on the age of the house, smoke alarms may have been installed as part of a security system, or they may be stand-alone. Depending on the brand and style they may be receiving power from the security system, so there may not be a battery at the unit. If this is the case, the battery at the security system may last for several years and should be replaced based on that required interval. TIP: Most security systems will provide a battery alert when they require changing.  Testing smoke alarms associated with a security system may be more involved and you may have to coordinate your test with the security system monitoring/surveillance center. TIP: Smoke or fire alarm routed through the security system are typically an “automatic dispatch” with no confirmation required so consult with your provider. Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Visually inspect the detector
  2. Clean off cob webs from the cover without removing the cover. You can get a can of “air” used to clean electronics  from a computer store that will work
  3. Replace the battery yearly or earlier if the chirp indicator has been active. (Locally powered 9V type batteries)
  4. If you find corrosion (green powdery substance) on the battery terminals, replacement is recommended. TIP: If the corrosion is minimal, try using a Q-Tip dipped in a liquid mix of baking soda/water or Coca Cola to clean the battery contacts.  You must remove all the corrosion and avoid getting the solution(s) on anything but the effected area. After cleaning put a light film of dielectric grease  on the connectors to slow down the opportunity for corrosion to re-appear.
  5. The NFPA recommends the detector(s) be tested monthly. Press the test button which should briefly activate the audible horn. It should reset itself shortly.

Residential grade smoke alarm/detectors are not repairable, if they fail to operate properly through testing, they should be replaced. Limited long-term test data exists, but manufacturers and trade associations indicate the product should remain properly functional for 10-12 years under normal conditions.

Electrical Switches and Outlets

September 17, 2011

light-bulbLight Switches and outlets are taken for granted by providing endless amount of light and electricity at a moments notice. With proper care, these electrical elements will serve you and your house for 20 years or better. 

For the most part, we do not consider these items a problem until they are broken or when failure occurs. However, recognizing conditions than can be resolved today will allow you to fix the issue on your own schedule and ensure adequate safety to you and your home. We all know that failure typically won’t occur until you really need it. So take a look at your electrical outlets and switches today, you may be surprised to find that some of them are starting to show indications of wear that will eventually result in failure.  Replacement or repairing them now will ensure uninterrupted service.

Light Switches: This inspection involves visiting every light switch in the house. Go through each room, one at a time.

  1. Standard Light Switches: Operate every light switch in every room. It should operate smoothly. If it is warm, makes noise, won’t stay in the on or off position or feels mushy, it should be replaced.
  2. Dimmer Switches: There are different styles of dimmer switches,  they include standards/with secondary sliders, full sliders and rotary switches. Compared to standard light switches, it is not uncommon to find dimmer switches warmer than ambient. This is normal. Operate the switch through its full range. It should transition from off to 100% (on) smoothly. Some switches may have clicks or notches in the transition from 0% to 100%. If the light interrupts  or flickers during transition from off to 100% the switch should be replaced. TIPDimmer switches and CFL (compact florescent lights) don’t mix unless the switch and bulb is rated for it. This improper switch/bulb combination may act like a bad bulb or switch. 
  3. 3-way Switches: Are defined as two switches with one light circuit. Either switch on this light circuit should be able to turn the light on or off no matter the position of the other switch.
  4.  4-way Switches: Are three switches with one light circuit. Any one of the three switches should work the same as the 3-way switch and should operate the lights regardless the position of the other two switches.

TIP: If the 3&4 way switches do not operate as described, they could be bad or wired incorrectly. It is not unusual to find a 3 or 4 way switch to be previously replaced and not re-wired correctly. See Wiring a 3-Way switch or Wiring a 4-Way electrical switch

Electric Outlets: This inspection involves visiting every electrical outlet in the house.  Electrical outlets are very durable and can last a life time, however the excessive wear and abuse can cause damage to them.c140_product1

  1. Testing: Test each and every outlet to validate voltage and polarity. Purchase a low cost outlet tester much like the one pictured to the right for this inspection. They are self explanatory in their use. Generally you plug them in the outlet and they will provide a self check set of lights that will provide a go-no-go indication. TIP: Make sure you check both outlets on the receptacle as they can be wired separately.  An outlet can fail a test and appear to work properly. The three most common failures are, 1) reversed polarity, 2) open ground, 3) open neutral, 4) Hot open.
  2. Reversed Polarity: Hot and neutral are terminated on the wrong connectors. The outlet may still appear to work correctly. 
  3. Open Ground: The ground circuit is not complete. This usually happens when a grounded type (3 holes) outlet was used to replace a faulty 2-wire receptacle. TIP: Even though this outlet will appear to be working properly and will not cause an issue when using a lamp, this open condition can create issues with electronic devices such as computers, TV’s or stereo receivers.
  4. Open Neutral: Similar to Open ground.  TIP: Even though this outlet will appear to be working properly and will not cause an issue when using a lamp, this open condition can create issues with electronic devices such as computers, TV’s or stereo receivers.
  5. Hot Open: The outlet will be dead.
  6. Receptacles: 2 prong vs. 3-prong outlets were prevalent in houses built prior to 1965 and without an adaptor, you will not be able to properly use a plug cord with 3-prongs. The NEC code changed around 1965 requiring grounded outlets be part of new construction. If your house was built around 1965 and you find 3 prong outlets or a mix of both and the wiring was not upgraded, the tests performed in item 1 will reveal those problems for you (typically open ground). Even though the receptacles may appear to work properly, ghost problems may occur. If your electrical system is based on a a 2-wire system, 2 wire outlets and adapters yellowstone-0111are still considered acceptable. However, proper grounding for today’s electronics may not be compatible and rewiring your house may be considered.   
  7. Physical Damage: Inspect each outlet for physical damage. If the outlet or the face plate is damaged, they should be replaced.
  8. Warm Outlets: If the outlet feels warm to the touch, the outlet or the wire connection may be faulty. Replacing the outlet should resolve the problem. Purchase a higher quality version of the same receptacle (about 3 bucks) and used the screw down terminations. For more detail testing of this condition, see the article on Warm Outlets
  9. Overloaded Outlet: Most residential outlets are rated for 15 Amps maximum. Installing an excessive amount of electrical devices can cause problems. TIP: In these occasions where you need more outlets from the same receptacle, use a fused power strip. The power strip will include a fused breaker on the device. If an overload occurs, it will trip and protect the wall plug and the circuit from damage.
  10. GFI (Ground Fault Interruption) Outlets: GFI outlets are found in newer (or remodeled) houses. Typically GFI outlets will be found in the kitchen, bathrooms, garage, outside outlets or areas where the homeowner may be exposed to water while using the outlet. GFI outlets look a littleoutlet different and should be labeled as such and will have a self test button. The test button should disable the outlet and expose a reset light or button. Press the reset button and power should be restored. If the outlet does not disable and reset during the test, it should be replaced. In some cases, GFI outlets may be wired together and will cause multiple outlets to be disabled at the same time. TIP: These additional outlets may look like regular outlets but SHOULD be labeled as GFI, but don’t be surprised if they are not. Additionally the controlling GFI outlet may or may not be located in the same room.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Inspect and operate all electrical switches to ensure they operate properly
  2. Inspect and test all outlet using an outlet tester.
  3. Replace or repair the outlets and switches as necessary.
  4. Read my article on Warm Outlets.

Wall Outlets Feel Warm?

September 17, 2011

According to the United States Fire Association (USFA) Electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 485 Americans each year and injure 2,305 more. Some of these fires are caused by electrical system failures and appliance defects, but many more are caused by the misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, incorrectly installed wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t get a comment on the webpage about warm or hot electrical outlets.  Before we get into the guts of the issue, lets define what most (residential) electrical branch circuits are designed to provide.

NEC 210-23  15 and 20 Amp branch circuits: …The rating of any one cord- and -plug connected utilization equipment shall not exceed 80% of the branch circuit rating. Furthermore… the total rating of equipment fastened in place shall not exceed 50% of the branch-circuit. In short, no one plug should exceed more than 80% of the circuit rating and that any stationary equipment (i.e. dishwashers, waste disposers) that constantly draws power should not exceed 50% of the rated circuit. Typical residential branch circuits (outlets, wall switches and fixtures) may be rated at 15 or 20 Amps.  Typically things like window air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators are on their own circuit.

NOTE: This is a very basic description of this code requirement and how it is applied to typical residential branch circuits. There are numerous differences when applying the code to specific uses. Greater detail can be found in sections 210 and 220 of the NEC. 

 The National Electric Code (NEC) was originally developed in 1897. As the housing market continues to respond to new demands and changes in the industry, the Code is continually updated. However, as with most houses, the electrical system installed in the house was designed based on the code of the era and unless the house has had the electrical system upgraded, either all or part of the system is still based on the original design.  The most noticeable change to the average homeowner is that older homes have fewer outlets per room, and for this reason, it can be common to find excessive extension cords and power strips. All of these item place greater strain on a system that may have been designed and built 50 years ago. 

Why is the electrical outlet warm?

  1. What’s plugged in: Things  like  cell phone chargers, computer printers, lawn sprinkler controllers, DLS Modem, video cameras, MP3 players, cordless drills and some small appliance. All these products use a “transformer” (aka: wall wart). Based on what they do (change the voltage input to a different voltage output) will cause them to be warm. Unplug it, wait about an hour and check the outlet again. The outlet should be normal ambient temperature. It is not uncommon to find these wall warts as much as 20 degrees warmer than ambient. However if you find one that is too hot to touch, it should be replaced.
  2. Excessive Demand At An Outlet: As stated above, no one device plugged in to a single outlet (receptacle) should exceed 80% of the rated circuit.  To get perspective, residential grade appliances that are designed to plug directly into a standard (15A) wall plug will normally not exceed 1500W; such as a blow dryer (1500W/110V)/.95=14.35A  ((Watts/Voltage)/PowerFactor =Amps).  With two blow dryers in the same outlet or on the same circuit the circuit breaker should trip (e.g. turn off).  Add in the fact that in many older homes it is very common to find extension cords, outlet multipliers, outlet extenders or un-fused power strips. All of these items can increase the opportunity to overload an outlet.
  3. yellowstone-0111Excessive Demand on the Circuit: Most standard residential electrical circuits are wired in a series where the circuit wires loop through the electrical box, terminate on the outlet, then continue on to the next outlet.  In other words, the electrical current being used by one outlet (on the same circuit) may pass through terminations of another receptacle. If the current is excessive, the outlet may be warm without anything attached at the receptacle.  As part of an electrical design, it is normal  to have at least one outlet in the same room to be on a different circuit.  This allows you to share the load requirement from one room into multiple electrical circuits.  
  4. Poor Electrical Terminations: If electrical terminations (at the receptacle) are loose, or the wires are damaged, this too can cause excessive heat at both the point of use as well as in the circuit described in #2. Additionally, outlets terminated using the spring-loaded  stab-lock on the rear vs. the screw-down attachment can cause excessive heat.
  5. Oversized fuse or breaker:  Typically these values can be compromised in older homes as there are fewer outlets per room, and the circuits are not designed to support all the electronic gear we find in the modern home. Assuming the circuit was installed correctly, the circuit breaker should be the lowest rated item in the circuit and the wire in the wall should be the highest. For obvious reasons, if there was a fault or failure, you want the circuit breaker to fail first. If a breaker was replaced with a higher ampacity breaker, the circuit has been compromised potentially creating a fire risk by allowing higher current levels to pass through the circuit that was designed at a lower level. In this case finding a warm outlet is a warning that the wiring may be operating above its rating.
  6. Physical Deterioration of Plug: Outlet that appear worn, broken, cracked or chipped are all conditions that can compromise the function its function and can create heat at the outlet.

In urban areas, faulty wiring accounts for 33% of residential electrical fires.

What to Do?  Analyze the problem within your capabilities. Some of these suggestions may be beyond your comfort (experience) level, so you may want to contact an electrician at this point.

  1. Identify all the receptacles associated with the warm outlet.  After turning off the circuit breaker use an outlet tester to find all the outlets. Identify the circuit breaker rating found on the paddle of the switch. TIP: Inspect the entire house, both outlets and light fixtures. With the circuit breaker off you will be looking for dead outlets.
  2. Do any of the outlets have extension cords, power strips or outlet multipliers? Ensure the extension cord is rated  for its use.  Replace all unfused power strips or outlet multipliers with a fused power strip  as these devices include a circuit breaker to add further protection. Do not daisy chain multiple power strips or extension cords. Try to de load the outlet by re-associating the plugs to different circuits.
  3. Follow the testing methods as found in Electrical Switches and Outlets. These testing methods will identify any wiring issues that should be resolved as well.
  4. By now, you may have found the problems associated with an outlet, fixture or receptacle. If you still have problems, the outlets may be internally bad, the connections may have deteriorated or may be loose. With the electricity off, inspect the wiring of all suspect outlets. Check for tightness of the screw terminations, crimped or cut wires. You can also perform this test by using a digital thermometer gun with a laser site. Scan the electrical outlet, specifically the wiring terminations,  without disturbing the wiring. The probe should identify the problem by indicating a noticeably higher temperature.
  5. Replace suspect receptacles with higher quality equivalent receptacles using the screw down connection point.
  6. If you still have problems, review the tests found in the Electrical Service Panel post. Perform the tests that apply to the condition.
  7. If you still have problems, the circuit may have been compromised by enlarging the breaker, you may consider hiring an electrician to validate the condition and to correct the problem.

Additional Items to Consider

With over 15% of all electrical fires originating in the bedroom, municipalities have adopted local electrical code requirements that include arc fault circuit interruption (AFCI) circuit breakers to be installed in new construction. These breakers have the ability to recognize an arc usually due to a defective cord appliance or wiring.

One of the newest concern with electrical fires is the fact that many extension cords, plug adapters, power strips, appliances and etc. are coming from overseas areas that use counterfeit certifications. Here in the U.S., agencies such as UL, ETL, CSA are recognized as certified testers of electrical products. Unfortunately, many items are filtering in with fake labeling.  Always purchase name brand products from reputable stores and inspect the product for the safety agency’s certification.

Whole House Solar Landscape Lighting

July 2, 2009

A8Z13B9CA3D5A27CAS4GVOZCAKPXCYCCA5LKGM1CAAHFRGBCANED30CCA6TWYHGCAJBM3P4CACLJ7NMCA7F7M39CARUVRZBCAD43ASACAZ2Y7RLCAFKBJQ6CAQIZF9QCA7PZJM4CA0JRJ0ZCAE87VPSI like the concept of solar lighting but don’t like the choices. Mass marketed solar landscape lighting is pretty wimpy and in its current form will have difficulty competing with traditional low voltage landscape lighting.  Being the Techno-nerd I am, this seemed like a great opportunity to create a centrally powered solar landscape lighting system. By appearance, it looks a lot like a low voltage light system you would buy from a home center, but with notable differences:

Removed: AC Transformer, Incandescent Light Bulbs

Added: 15 Watt solar panel as a power source, 35AH 12 volt solar battery for power storage, and 6- 21 pin LED light bulbs with a MR-16  base (MR-16 base is used in most landscape light fixtures)

The most important addition was the use of LED light bulbs in lieu of traditional incandescent bulbs. Granted, the LED bulbs are not cheap but may last over 25 years running them 4 hours a night. When I started this project I paid close to $20 a bulb. Today, that same bulb sells for about $8-$10.  The light bulbs alone change the power usage from 500 Watts per hour to less than 15 Watts.

Standard 12 Volt AC Landscape Lighting Systems: This drawing is a general depiction of a landscape lighting system including 8 light fixtures with a 500 Watt transformer. In this scenario, using the 80% rule you have 420 Watts of usable power. If you used 50 Watt bulbs you have a budget of a little over 8 fixtures. 


Solar Powered 12 Volt DC Landscape Lighting System: For me, it’s cost prohibitive to build a 500 Watt solar lighting system. By converting the bulbs to LED and reducing the fixture count to 6, I created a similar system using solar power. Granted, the brightness will be good but not near as bright as the 50 Watt incandescent bulbs, but 6 to 10 times greater than the current breed of solar light fixtures on the market today.  If you look at the second drawing, I have removed the transformer, reduced the fixture count to 6, removed the connection to the utility AC and added the solar equipment and battery.


The Design:  The drawing of  the 12 VDC system is very similar to the 12 VAC system. Since I built the system from scratch, I allowed for growth considerations by enlarging the wire and battery sizes. If you are considering converting an existing system, validating your voltage drop numbers may alleviate future problems. Changing the bulb size or the number of bulbs can also alter the calculation, so adjust the calculation and components as necessary.  Here is the design criteria:

  • System controller has a non-adjustable LVD (low voltage disconnect) at 11.7 VDC (per Morningstar)
  • System controller will re-connect at 12.8 VDC (per Morningstar)
  • The CSB 12340 battery can provide 5.88 Amps constant current to down to 11.7 VDC (per their documentation) for 4 hours
  • Each circuit will not exceed 1 Amp of drain (= I in calculation) 
  • Use a voltage drop of .30 looped voltage drop (=V in calculation). Using a .30 will allow the bulbs to operate to 11.4 VDC before the circuit disconnects at the LVD of 11.7
  • The circuits will use 14 ga. (4070 CM) copper wire for each circuit 
  • Using the voltage drop calculator to calculate cable length, each circuit needs to be less than 55 feet in total length. If you need longer cable runs, you can increase the cable size from 14 to 12 or 10 gauge.

You can also use this on-line calculator from Southwire. The calculation is similar but is geared toward an AC circuit. But you can play around with the numbers easier with the calculator.  Because they use % voltage drop in lieu of true voltage drop, use 2.5% to achieve a .30 drop. 

Voltage drop Calculation     (CM/11.1)/I*V=L 

  • CM= Circular Mil area of the cable
  • 11.1= Conductivity factor for copper cable
  • I= Peak Current
  • L= One way cable length
  • V=Allowable voltage drop

 Product Solutions based on Design:

  • Battery: Using the CSB 12340 , I have a total Ampacity budget of 5.88 Amps for 4 hours of run time. NOTE: In an attempt to find a battery locally, the closest match was the CSB 12340 battery.  Since it exceeded my requirements,  would support future growth … I took it.  With the 12340 I have enough battery capacity to support a larger demand based on my 4 hour requirement
  • Solar Panel: This panel can produce 15 Watts or 1 Amp of 12 VDC electricity. Based on the battery, I can enlarge my system by 5 more panels, but with only one  panel installed, this element remains as the limiting factor in the system
  • Wire: One 14 ga cable will allow up to 1 Amp of current for a total of 55 feet. TIP: To create greater flexibility, I ran multiple runs of 14 ga. cable to different parts of my landscape, in lieu of one  (or two) long cable(s). This way, I spread the lighting budget over more than one conductor with separate circuits. Again, this allows me flexibility for growth 
  • Bulbs:  Using the Voltage drop calculator; at .16A per (21pin) LED, I can support 6 lamps over a 55 foot circuit. The LED bulb was a direct replacement for the 20 Watt bulb supplied by Malibu

Parts List:

  1. 200 feet of #14 ga copper landscape wire. Even though the wire looks very similar to lamp cord, the rubberized sheath is designed for outdoor and underground usage. It’s important to use the wire specifically designed for this purpose. I bought this from the Orange Box Store but you can buy this in bulk over the Internet a bit cheaper. As mentioned I created multiple circuits to build the system
  2. 15 Watt Solar Panel. Purchased from Northern Tool Company. The one I chose will allows  up to seven additional panels. Based on my current design, I am at the limit of one 15 Watt panel, so I will be adding at least one more panel to increase my fixture count
  3. 6 Malibu Landscape light fixture. I used the basic $15 fixture from Malibu Lights. Most normal light fixtures are rated by wattage and since I am using LED bulbs the Wattage ratings are insignificant to the project.
  4. Battery Charge Controller & Light Timer.The Sunlight solar light controller from Morningstar is a perfect controller for the application, it includes a charge controller, adjustable timer, low100_0500 voltage disconnect, and it uses the solar panel to determine when to start the lighting cycle. See the MorningStar Sunlight Controller webpage
  5. LED Light Bulbs. LED’s light bulbs are on the cutting edge of new lighting designs. For that reason they are still expensive with limited standards defining their make up and performance. The first round of bulbs cost over $20 each and lasted about 6 weeks. The second set I bought for $10 each have been working for over 6 months. However, the light output has varied with each shipment from a yellow tint to blue even though they are all supposed to be cool white. To date, LED bulbs increase their light output by increasing the number of individual LEDs in the bulb, I chose a 21 pin bulb with a wattage demand of 2 Watts per bulb (new styles are starting to show up on the market using fewer LED’s requiring more power and greater output)

 Innovation Comes With a Price:

 Solar WorksheetHere is a basic breakdown on the cost of the system. Both the copper wire and LED light bulbs were reduced to their current cost. I included a cost analysis on the electricity used for a standard AC derived system based on a 1000 Watt system. So, with a 500 Watt system the savings would be about $86.40 per year with a payback at almost 7 years. I believe the system could be cost-reduced a bit more over time, but it will still not compete in price with an off the shelf system AC powered system. 

The Cost of Operating a 1000 Watt Landscape lighting System:

  1. 1000 Watt used per hour of run time
  2. 4 hours of run time per night, 7 days a week
  3. 12 cents  a Kilowatt,  per hour charged by local electric utility
  4. 1000 Watts = 1 kW
  5. 1000w  x4 hours = 4000 W. 4000W x 30 days =120,000 watts per month
  6. 120,000w /1kWH= 120kWH per month
  7. 120 kWH x .12 cents = $14.4 
  8. $14.40 per month to run landscape lighting or $172.80 per year

 The Completed Solution and Conclusion:  Solar Panel2I started this project about 2 years ago and just worked on it when time and money permitted. For the most part it was fun to put the project together. Overall, I am happy with the results. I used the lamps with a bluish tint (cool white) and it gives the house an interesting look over the warm light found with incandescent bulbs.   Based on the 100_1901calculations, I will be adding another panel soon. By adding the second panel I can add up to 6 more light fixtures.

In comparison, the centralized solar system is superior to the stand alone solar fixtures hands down. It allows the use of all the different fixtures available on the market today as you are not restricted to fixtures with a solar panel attached to the top. Additionally, the battery life expectancy is a bit better than the small AA batteries found with the stand alone units. And even though the centrally powered solar system does not equal the AC powered version 1 for 1, it’s a lot closer in comparison. SolarControl Pnl1

If you are thinking of building your own system and have questions,  drop me a note  at

Make sure and take a look at my update on this project. The prices of solar panels have continued to fall allowing me to increase the size of the system.

Residential Surge Protection Using TVSS’s SPD’s Part II

June 7, 2009

damaged modemAn  analysis commissioned by State Farm Insurance found of 5500 detailed claims, more than half of the loss was related to telephone and electronic appliances.

As we become more connected through smart technology, AC power and low voltage or non-voltage carrying conductors become intertwined through the technology. When you think about it, more and more devices have an AC power cord  and a communications port for the transmission/reception of an external signal (video, DSL, etc.). Known as  “multi-port” equipment (AV Receivers, TV’s Modems, Computers, etc.) these devices add complexity to the transient voltage issue by creating additional doorways into the equipment. As we saw  in the AC Ground and Bonding article, external surges can enter the house as easily through the Telephone line, CATV or Satellite Dish as the AC utility. Studies show, even with a TVSS in the AC circuit, micro-electronics embedded in the equipment have failed due to transient voltages passing through the communications link. According to the same insurance study mentioned above, equipment including micro-electronics such as computers, TV’s, VCR’s and Satellite receivers recorded more significant losses than single-port equipment. This is not news to most of us. However, the point to recognize here is that any incoming services that arrive inside the house on a current carrying conductor (copper wire) has the potential to allow a voltage surge into the house and into our electronic equipment.

To make matters worse, having proper surge protection on the AC service and not on non-power related services may actually enhance the opportunity for a fault to occur in the multi-port equipment through surge current.  This  surge current  can create a  voltage shift  at the secondary-port on the equipment producing damage in the equipment. This voltage shift condition can also be rooted to a difference in voltage potential or ground reference at (you guessed it) the service entrance ground. This is the reason why we have seen more emphasis from the standards bodies (National Electric Code and National Institute of Standards Institute)  on the common grounding and bonding of all the incoming services (Telephone, CATV and Satellite TV) found in a typical residence. For this reason, in 1992 the IEEE  recognized this potential fault condition and coined the term Surge Reference Equalizer. Even though the industry has not really picked up on the term nor have they created a specific standard, the  UL1449 listing for this Class B surge protectors is acceptable for the time being.

 Proper Bonding and Grounding  Remain the Key Contributor to Both the Problem and the Solution

If you have read the four articles up to this point, you may think I am beating this subject to death, but grounding/bonding  remains the key contributor to both the problem and the solution. Complete the 8 point check list found in the AC Service Bond and Ground Part II.  If your house is less than 10 years old, it would be a fair assumption that all the incoming services enter near or at the AC service meter. Assuming all the services are bonded correctly as mentioned, you should be in good shape with the Telephone and CATV. For the rest of us, these services could attach any where around the house this also includes Satellite TV Antennas.  If possible, bringing all of these services within 20 feet of the AC Service entrance and attaching them as mentioned will assist in improving the ground system. (TIP: Satellite installations are typically located where they provide the best signal, bringing the ground termination from AC service entrance is important here as well).

Surge Reference Equalizer

surge protector class b 2At this point, we will assume that you have a good common ground with an equal ground reference. With that said you have successfully reduced the risk to multi-port equipment, BUT, both the IEEE and the NIST support the use of the Surge Reference Equalizer. As pictured, it looks like a typical Class B surge protector, but also has ports for communications ( RJ45 terminal, and threaded CATV terminal. With this type of TVSS there will be a PORT-IN and PORT-OUT set of connections.  Consider a Class B surge protector that includes both communication ports and CATV connections collectively in the same product for home theater equipment, set top boxes, satellite equipment, computers and any other mutli-port electrical equipment.  

Additionally Square D has release a whole house model that includes a Class C surge protector and the connections for Telco and CATV services. Tiered protection is still recommended if you decide to follow the whole house approach. (Square D Model SDSB1175C). NOTE: This method of reference equalizer is fairly new as previous practices supported keeping the services segregated until the point of termination, (CATV, Phone) independently until they reach the point of  use or the device that is common (i.e. TV, PC). As you will note, that is how I built my system. This is still an acceptable solution. 

Additional Choices – Surge Protection for Communication, CATV and Satellite:

Telephone Service: Most wire-line telephone service companies provide surge protection. If your telephone service was installed less NIDthan 10 years ago or has been worked on in that time frame you will probably have a NID (Network Interface Device) at the telephone entrance.  Telephone companies typically use “Gas filled arrestors”. Even though you may not have a NID, you probably have gas arrestors  if your phone  has been serviced in the last 20 years. Gas arrestors replace Carbon arrestors as the gas style will defeat the surge without a long term loss in service as they will self restore automatically. Since I built my grounding system before the Surge Reference Equalizer was readily available,  I placed an additional surge suppresor on my telephone line (Channel Vision C-0410). Much like the Telco provided unit it will disconnect the line in the event of a surge then restore it momentarily. Based on the performance characteristics of a Surge Reference Equalizer (SRE), in theory, I may still have a fault occur if my ground reference is not equalized and my Category A, B and C surge protectors are unable to defeat the surge prior to entering any of the protected equipment.  Since the current UL1449 is the only published document and it seems to favor an AC type failure,  for now, I am staying with my current system architecture using the C-0410  surge protection. TIP: You may have communications and/or video services provided by fiber optics. They will not have surge protection as optical services are unable to carry voltage or surge current.  If you are unsure if you have fiber optic services, the NID will have a consumer replaceable battery pack that you were informed about during the installation of the services.

4EDHICCAOT4EQ5CAS0S8SJCAJTJ6C8CATZJ50ECAZ5INCICAHEAI1MCAUYSD7KCAH7U0MDCAW5L3WSCA19XS37CAG3S3RACAVHVBMWCAXWUAI6CAED0UDWCAI9J2UFCAR71UZ8CA65BE4DCAQB2POKCATV and Satillite Services:In practice, the gas style arrestor  is used in these services as well. Because they use coax as a cable medium the arrestor looks a little different but perform in a similar fashion as the communications arrestor.

Theory vs. Science

One of the difficulties with this subject is it is very difficult to test your solution. To replicate a surge equivalent to a lightning strike is not feasible nor recommended. For this reason, surge protection, TVSS’s, SPD’s and bonding and grounding is not as black and white as we would like it to be and neither are the solutions. As you have seen in this article , there may be multiple solutions to the methods I have described. But overall, the method should still retain the same theme.   I have engineered large systems in multi story buildings and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (not mine) to create the right grounding network  and still had recordable faults, so don’t think you will ever be 100% protected.  

One of the best articles written to date for residential bonding/grounding and surge protection is “Surges Happen”   produced by the Institute of Standards and Technology. This article covers the topic in very simple language and easy to understand instructions.

If you haven’t already, you may also want to read my 4 previous articles; AC Ground and Bonding, Electrical Switches and Outlets, AC Service Bond and Ground Part II, Residential AC Surge Protectors,

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Annually check all your TVSS devices to insure the they remain in the protected mode (LED indicator).
  2. Follow the inspection routines as defined in AC Service Ground and Bonding Network by inspecting the mechanical connections and terminations.

In writing this series, it became apparent that I could not cover the subject in 1 or 2 postings. I hope I kept your attention and it made sense. Feel free to comment or send specific questions to

Residential AC Surge Protection Using SPD’s and TVSS’s

May 31, 2009

lightningNeither the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers) or ANSI (American National Standards Institute) recognize Joule Rating as a means to determine any level of surge protection.

The best way to deal with electrical surges and spikes is to divert them from entering the house in the first place. This is why the external ground system mentioned in Part II is so important. Spikes and surges look for the quickest and shortest path to ground.  Industry Standards recognize that creating a tiered or layered approach to transient voltage  management for your house will provide the best protection, but it’s still no guarantee. Lightning strikes and surges can appear to have their own mind when it comes to seeking ground.  Following the recommendations that I have mentioned in this series of articles will assist in properly protecting  you and your house.

Layered Approach to Surge Suppression

Approaching  surge protection with tiers serves to create layers of  filtering .  ANSI and IEEE acknowledge 3 tiers, A, B and C.  Each level is recognized to provide protection for a defined application. Look at the following drawing to visualize the different tiers and location of the protection device. Class C is located at the service entrance or meter, Class B serves sub-panels and points of distribution (power strips), and Class A provides protection at the source or point of use (POU).


Most whole house residential grade TVSS’s  (transient voltage surge suppressor) use MOV’s (metal oxide varistors) for protection. By design, the TVSS does not absorb the fault but divert it to ground. By doing so, these faults erode the MOV’s over time. For this reason, most high quality TVSS’s include some form of “wellness” indicator or failure alarm (red or green LED lamp). Once the MOV’s are destroyed, the lamp indicator is extinguished or in some cases sets off an alarm. Studies show these MOV equipped TVSS’s can last up to 10 years. Granted, this life expectancy is directly impacted by the number of spikes and surges diverted by the MOV’s. So if you live near me in Texas, Oklahoma or places with lots of lightning, don’t count on the 10 years of life. 

The IEEE  recognizes three classes of surge protection and they all perform a defined task, but regardless of the class, all the surge protectors should meet these standards.

  • Listed  with UL 1449 Second addition (not meets, complies or designed to). TIP: If a product is “listed” with UL, Underwriters Labratory actully tested it for compliance to the standard.
  • Comply with ANSI/IEEE C62.41 as it pertains to the class category (C, B or A)
  • SVR rating of 400V or less (probably the most important rating)
  • Per phase rating of 70,000A or less
  • TVSS shall protect against line to line, line to ground  and neutral to ground voltage transients
  • Include visual indicators (red or green LED) for proper operation or failure of the TVSS
  • Class C & B devices shall operate bi-directional and treat both positive and negative impulses, yielding line control and short fliker ride-through. If the Class A does this that’s good too, but more important in the Class B and C
  • In shopping for a TVSS (aka SPD or Surge Protection Device) look for this information on the box or possibly in the fine print with the instructions.

    Surge Protection Devices come in many shapes and sizes at each class allowing you different choices. If you choose to install a Class C unit, you may have to employe an electrician, otherwise  you can use plug-in modules for the other two levels. 

    Class C Whole House TVSS Suppressors for Service Entrance Applications: Intended to be located at the incoming AC service or AC service panel. For various reasons, there are multiple types and styles for Class C residential TVSS’s. Hopefully one of these styles can be integrated into you electrical system.

    8MLB34CAXTULUCCA683WXWCAZ9RMICCAAJD0LLCA2TBUMZCAJP70R2CAQBLV90CAXW8Z0KCAD3SO8UCAWLMVA8CAW85X0MCA09XOTYCAIKMTBACAXK0BG6CAGJA7AICA11C7C0CAZRGZN5CASXME2QMeter Base TVSS: In some municipalities the utility carrier may offer to sell or lease you this type of TVSS. Other than the fact they will probably want to charge you a monthly fee, I like the meter base style. This TVSS is placed in the circuit prior to entering the house service panel. This allows the TVSS to divert any external surge to ground prior to entering the AC Service Panel where a surge could go through the house instead of the intended ground source.   I spoke with my electric provider but they did not offer this service nor would they allow me to supply my own.

     Circuit Breaker Derived TVSS: With this design, the TVSS is wired into the house AC Service panel. Like most, it is equipped KGXLCICAK8YY0ACA4Y6SENCAT00S0QCA8ILWGGCAI4RG93CAPL7N6JCAIOLQEOCA89V8DICADV5D7SCAFP6C2ZCA6SSVLQCACWP20OCA0IU2YTCARFBJFUCAW6A4B2CABBYFDICAZGFPHTCAIU4OGSwith MOV’s and a state of health LED lamps. These styles can be purchased for both indoor and outdoor applications (indoor model pictured). The key here is to keep the TVSS installation as close as possible to the service panel and the connection wire should be as with the short as possible (6″ or less). For my house I also re-arranged my circuit breakers in the panel to allow me to place the TVSS circuit breakers as close to the incoming mains as possible. This is just a little added work to divert the surge as soon as it enters the panel. 

    QO Breaker TVSSAC Panel Based TVSS: Similar to the circuit breaker design previously mentioned. This breaker style TVSS consumes 2 breaker positions to provide panel protection. The advantage of this type is that it connects directly to the bus terminations in the AC Service panel. The disadvantage is that it consumes two positions and you may not be able to locate one that fits your AC service panel. 

    Power StripClass B  TVSS Suppressors for Distribution and Short Branch Circuits: As a classification the “B” type is recognized to serve electrical sub-panels and distribution, meaning a power strip with multiple outlet with a collection of devices to protect.   The Class B is the most common type found in electronics, computer stores and home centers. You will have numerous to choose from. Just remember to use the criteria listed above to  help with your choice. I would not use the joules rating as part of your decision making process.  Belkin surge protector

      Class A TVSS Point of Use Surge Protection Device for Outlet and Long Branch Circuits:  As a Class A TVSS, this device can either be an individual plug-in module (as pictured) or the outlet itself. I have used both and depending on the application the outlet version can be a better choice when you have limited space, such as behind a refrigerator or Plasma TV. Additionally, I found the outlet style more difficult to obtain and more than double the cost of the plug-in style. They both include the proper operation indicator. 

     By this point you should recognize two major points. 1)  Having proper grounding is imperative and, 2) surge suppression goes beyond point of use (POU) devices, 3) implementing a tiered approach is necessary to protect you and your household adequately. 

    Believe it or not…. there is still more. Next time I will discuss specific surge protection for your CATV and Telephone service.

    You may also want to read: Electrical Switches and Outlets, AC Service Ground and Bonding, AC Service Ground Part II,