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.

Product Review Eton FR150 Radio/Flashlight

January 30, 2010


On average, electrical consumers experience 120 minutes of power outage per year.

 If you read my post on Power Outages you already know about dealing with short power outages. I mentioned the Eton FR150 Microlink combination Radio/Flashlight cell phone charger device. I decided to invest the $30 to have something dedicated to emergencies only. If you follow the policies of the American Red Cross, you need more than a radio as they recommend assembling a kit of supplies to be stored for such emergencies. The FR150 was my first step. I purchased mine from REI, but have seen them at Electronics stores as well as various on-line sources for about the same money. 

I liked what I read about the unit and figured it should meet most of my needs. The FR150 will  provide you a AM/FM/Weather-Band radio, LED flashlight, a generic plug-in for a cell phone adapter and solar charging cell on the top of the unit.  In concept, I like the fact that it uses a long life  NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride)  battery that can be charged in 3 different ways; 1) A USB plug, 2) solar cell, or 3) hand crank. The NiMH batteries are used to hold the charge.

Fit, Finish & Look: The product comes in several colors (Redcross red, black, yellow and green). The FR150 has a fresh look and a bit techy. In green and yellow it is translucent allowing you to see some of the electronics beneath the cover.

Size: The product was a bit smaller than I expected and later found this to be a disadvantage.  I took this picture by a soda can so you can get perspective. The good news is that it can be easily stored. I keep mine in a drawer next to my PC, where I leave it plugged in to the USB port for constant charging. Even though the PC is not on all the time, it should keep it100_0417 well charged. The dial and labels are easy to read with light but nearly impossible to see in the dark. I found the knobs (tuning and volume) slightly small and it may be difficult to tune in a weak station as the frequency dial to knob-turn-ratio is a bit quick causing you to pass through the frequencies even while turning the knob slow. 

Battery Characteristics:NiMH batteries are rechargeable and are typically known for their quick recharge time, ability to hold a charge and expected life cycle.  It should last for at least 3 years assuming you keep the unit in-doors in conditioned space (air-conditioned). If you keep it in a garage, attic or the glove box of your car, expect the battery to go bad twice as fast. If you live in colder climates, they could last longer. TIP: Most battery technologies baseline performance expectations using  77F.  In other-words, if a battery product claims a life expectancy of 1 year from date of purchase, its all based on the battery remaining  (on average) at 77F.

Performance: The manual recommend the unit to be initially charged for 8 hours. 

  • Radio & Flashlight: I ran the radio with the volume at level 5, after 8 hours the reception became scratchy, I turned the radio off and the flashlight on and found it continuously usable for 11 more hours for a total of 19 hours of continued use without any additional charging.  Since the flashlight uses LED bulbs, it consumes very little electricity. During  a recent outage I got to use it in a real life situation. Even thought it wasnt totally dark, I found it difficult to distinguish the volume from the turner. So without thinking I could change the station in lieu of adjusting the volume.
  • Flashlight Only: With the LED bulbs, the flashlight will produce usable light for over 20 hours before needing a charge. But remember, you can easily wind the charger and regain the light strength. I could easily see using the light for some limited room illumination by reflecting off the ceiling, however, with the charge connectors and a less than flat surface on the back, it doesn’t really want to sit flat with the light aimed at the ceiling.  It was still usable in that position, but a little movement or bumping it could cause it to fall over.
  • Cell Phone Charger: I did not test this feature

After an event, plug it in or set it in the sun to regain the full charge.

Accessories: Not really, but I didn’t know what else to call them.

  • The FR150 includes a wrist strap that allows you to carry the unit much like a hand held camera.
  • USB outlet. You will need to supply the cord. USB on one end with digital camera plug on the other. I had an extra one, so I just keep the cord/FR150 plugged in all the time.  
  • The unit includes a patch cord that provides a generic power plug for a cell phone charging adaptor. Eton provides you a mail-in card to order, at no charge, for you to order one connector. This is a pain in the butt. I got lucky as I uncovered a cheap little AA battery cell charger I picked up at a trade show that had every adapter known to man as part of the package. If you are like the rest of us, within your household you probably have multiple different charger needs. If I were you, I would hold out until you run across a similar opportunity or find something at a dollar store for adapters otherwise additional adaptors may cost you about $10 each.

Overall Impression:I found the product to deliver as promised as a good product for use in emergencies and non-powered applications, such as camping or hiking. I liked the styling and choice of colors. The radio performance is about like the little pocket radios we used as kids, so beyond an emergency, I will stick with an Ipod for music. However, the flashlight performance was great. This is primarily due to the LED bulbs and its ability to be recharged without a plug. Just for that fact alone, having one in your car as well might not be a bad idea either.  The biggest disappointment was recognized during a power failure. All the radio features were difficult to distinguish in the dark. Since the flashlight and the radio is in the same unit, you just have to feel your way through it. So on a simple 1-10 scale, I’ll give it a 5.  If I were buy another one today, I would look for a  unit with large control knobs and possibly  illuminated dials.

Take a look at my recent article on Power Outages Part II for additional hints and tips.

Electrical-Power Outage Part II

January 16, 2010

The median length of a power outage in North America according to the IEEE is 1.36 hours per year per household.

I am not sure about the legitimacy of that statement but would believe that number is supported by the Power Utility industry and may only reflect a failure based on a given location in the grid. For me, I know I have seen numerous outages greater than 1.36 hours in my life time and will probably see quite a few more. 

In Part I we looked at power outages that last 8 hours or less.  As long as you continue to be comfortable, and have got the 7 items resolved in Part I, and you want to tuff it out, here are the next set of items to consider: 

 FEMA provides  a great food and water brochure to start with. Use this as your guideline for food, water and storage. Using up all your perishable food should be first then work on the frozen food. Hopefully you can still cook food, if not, having a camp stove is a good idea. If you don’t keep much food at home you may want to consider one of these two options;  1) collect all the necessary items to package together a 3 day emergency food kit. If you are not sure what to include, check out this list from the University of Maine.  If you just want to have something, but don’t want to be real choosy,  2) look at this kit from Costco, put it in the closet and forget about it, it can be stored for 10 to 20 years. From the looks of it, I would never raid it just for convenience. It will also be well sealed in this rodent proof container. 

Besides the food issues, look at this basic disaster supply list. It’s important to remember, collect the supplies and forget they are there. You do not want to rely on them for day to day uses as they can easily disappear. TIP: LED flashlights use very little power, include at least one in your kit.

Staying in the home in lieu of going somewhere else or a hotel is a personal choice, but you must be prepared. Food, water, and staying warm or cool (in the summer) will impact your decision. To stay put for 3 days the FEMA  “Are You Ready” document mentioned above covers the basics quite well. Here are some additional considerations.

  1.  Stay aware of situation: Use your radio to keep up with weather reports and local conditions. This will help you decide when it is time to leave, if you have to.
  2. Standby Generator: If you live in an area with regular  power disruptions, you may already own an AC power generator. Adequate fuel and fuel storage is important and should be on your list, but since gasoline can go bad, it will need to be changed out regularly. If your generator is portable, a good lock and a chain is recommended.  Desperate times bring desperate actions, someone may believe their need is greater than yours and decide to borrow your generator; indefinitely. Emergency generators are typically sized to support the important items such as; minimal lighting, refrigerator, electric heat and possibly air conditioning (summer time only).
  3. Fun: If your basic needs or covered, boredom may set in. Having some games or cards in your kit will help a bit.

Having a power outage greater than 3 days can define the criticality of the situation. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornados and the like can frame the situation well beyond 3 days. At this point you may believe it is time to go to Plan B and seek out public assistance that may include food and shelter (3 hots and a cot). Officials may be directing you to leave the premises.  Before you leave the house, review this list and accomplish what you can:

  1. Turn the water off at the street
  2. Turn the natural gas off at the meter
  3. Turn off all the electricity. Turning off all the breakers at the service panel will ensure everything is off.
  4. Leave a note at the door as to where you have gone. Take caution on this one as intruders may see this as an invite. On the other hand if public officials eventually call for an evacuation and they think you may be in the house, they will break the door down to find you.
  5. Close, lock and secure the house as best as possible
  6. Take what personal item you can. Looting may be experienced during these long term outages, but hopefully you have insurance…

Good Luck

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.