Prepping 101: Solar Generator Basics – Harbor Freight Kit Review

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The solar starter kit from Harbor Freight is $189, and it is a great way to understand the basic components of a solar power kit.

The solar starter kit from Harbor Freight is $189, and it is a great way to understand the basic components of a solar power kit.

It boggles my mind when someone proudly exclaims that they are free from worry should a disaster strike, because “I’ve got a generator!” That’s great for a hurricane or a blizzard, but what are you going to do if there is a real collapse and your fuel runs out? Did you, in fact, just waste a whole bunch of fuel, which you could have used for cooking for the foreseeable future, to keep a week’s worth of food cold in the fridge? Gas, diesel and propane generators are a complete waste of time in a survival scenario. The only real long-term reality for anything electric is solar, and maybe wind if you live in a windy place. We’ll get to wind generators in a future article, but most of the fundamental concepts that apply to solar apply 100% to wind as well. We decided to use a very basic $189 solar kit from Harbor Freight to explain the basics of solar, and it is also a really cheap place to start.

What stops people from getting into solar is a complete confusion over the components you need and how much electricity you get out of those components. Deceptive online solar stores throw big numbers around, like 5,000 watts, similar to what you’d get from a small gas generator, but even lower numbers like 1500 watts can be deceptive. Watts, amps, volts! It can all be very confusing. When you try to figure out how much electricity the kit makes, the numbers can bog you down.

A regular deep-cycle battery will work for solar, as will a standard car battery. But these 100 amp/hour batteries are made for long-term power storage and constant drain and recharge. They are bruisers, almost 70 pounds each. They cost roughly $200-250 each.

A regular deep-cycle battery will work for solar, as will a standard car battery. But these 100 amp/hour batteries are made for long-term power storage and constant drain and recharge. They are bruisers, almost 70 pounds each. They cost roughly $200-250 each.


The electrical measure of the “watt” is the most convenient capacity measurement of electricity because it is always the same regardless of the voltage, and this is important because solar panels produce 12-18 volts. Household current is 115-120 volts, and it is a different kind of current than what is produced by the panels. Solar panels produce direct current, or DC, and your microwave, refrigerator and lights run on alternating current, or AC. The other term you’ll hear is “amps,” but amps change as voltage changes, as I’ll explain. Anything given to you in amps can easily be converted to watts.

Wait, don’t let your eyes glaze over at the boring details! You get watts very simply by multiplying voltage x current, measured in amps. So 12v x 1 amp is 12 watts. 120v x 1 amp is 120 watts. As you can see, when it comes to power consumption or generation, amps can be apples and oranges, depending on the voltage. Buying solar can be confusing because both amps and watts are used for many of the components, so you find yourself having to do the math in your head to try to figure out what you are actually buying.
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  • The solar panels. – We all know what these are, but they come in tons of different shapes and sizes. A solar panel is usually rated in watts, and they produce usually between 12-18 volts. So if a panel is 12 volts, and you see it advertised as a 50 watt panel, that means that at peak production and optimal output it produces roughly four amps… at 12 volts. If you look at the back of your 50-inch flatscreen TV, it will probably say that it uses 250 watts, but remember, that is at 120 volts. So it uses roughly two amps. See, this can be confusing. If they were the same voltage, the panel could power the TV set’ but in real life it only provides about 1/5th of the power required. In practice, panels don’t run at full rating almost ever, so more likely, in order to power the TV for one hour, the solar would have to work at partial power for a full day. That is why all solar system have a storage battery, or batteries. The battery allows you to collect up electricity from the sun, then use it for higher drain devices.

    There are, for the record, two types of solar panels, single crystalline silicon, polycrystalline, and amorphous. Generally the single is thought to be better, then the poly, then the amorphous. The single produces the most power for their size. Then the poly, and the amorphous are the largest for how much power they provide. But amorphous panels tend to give you more power under non-direct sunlight.

    The poly Harbor Freight panels are rated at 15 watts each. There is a note in the directions that for the first four months of service, polycrystalline panels often lose 20% of their input power. Combined, the system is rated at 45 watts. I doubt that in full sunshine it hits 30 watts, so if you want to watch the big flatscreen, it’ll probably take you several days of full sun to store enough power for one hour. Small TVs use less power of course, but you get the point. Panels can be wired in parallel for more juice, and that is what most kits will do for you. This kit comes with a three-way splitter with internal parallel wiring for the three 15w panels.

    The charge controller is an integral part of any solar system. It stops both an overcharge and an overdrain. The 4amp Harbor Freight controller is really more of a toy to run lights and charge phones. I

    The charge controller is an integral part of any solar system. It stops both an overcharge and an overdrain. The four-amp Harbor Freight controller is really more of a toy to run lights and charge phones. I

  • The batteries. – All batteries are not created equal. I’m sure you have heard of deep cycle, or marine batteries. These are meant for long-term storage of electricity, where you might not come back to use the battery for a while. They will lose their charge slower than your average car battery, but they are still not the ideal battery for solar applications. The solar stores sell batteries that are rated in amp/hours. Harbor Freight sells a 35 amp/hour battery for $69.99, but I chose to buy 100 amp/hour batteries from a proper solar company for about $250 each. They are rated to last 10 years, and I am in no way endorsing them, because I have only tried them for function as of yet. We also bought some Lithium Iron Phosphate(LiFePO4) batteries to try as well, but they are $600 each for the same 100 amp/hours. This is still a relatively new technology and the 12.8v battery is really 4 cells strapped together. We will be back with a full review of both of these batteries in the future.
  • The charge controller. – This is a piece of gear that many people overlook, and it is one of the reasons why starting with the Harbor Freight System is so useful. The charge controller that comes with this small system controls both the inflow and outflow of current. If the battery is fully charged, the charge controller cuts the electricity off coming from the panels so as not to damage the battery. If you are using the electricity from the battery and the voltage drops too low, the charge controller cuts off the current going out, so as not to permanently damage the battery by draining it too low.
    This power inverter from BJ's is overkill for this charge controller, but directly connected to the battery, its 400 watts handily powered a 50" flatscreen for hours.

    This power inverter from BJ’s is overkill for this charge controller, but directly connected to the battery, its 400 watts handily powered a 50″ flatscreen for hours.


    Charge controllers are rated in amps, which you would assume means that they can handle their rating both in and out. The Harbor Freight charge controller that comes with this system is rated at four amps (at 12 volts=48 watts). My refrigerator runs at 10 amps (at 115 volts=1100 watts), so even if I had a lot of batteries and panels to support that much electricity, this charge controller wouldn’t work. For charging phones and tablets, and running 12v fluorescent and LED lights, it is fine though. The kit actually comes with a multicharger, ports for 3v, 6v, 9v and USB, plus two sockets for included 12v lights. Harbor Freight sells a 30amp controller, but at 12 volts (360 watts), that will not even power the fridge. I put the 250-watt TV on this controller just to see what would happen, and it did clip the power so that the TV couldn’t run. The same inverter, directly connected to the battery, powered the TV for several hours.

  • The power inverter. – When you see an advertisement for “3000 Watts” or any high number in a solar power system, usually they are referring to how large a power converter comes with the system.  As you can see from the pictures, I paired the Harbor Freight system with a 400 watt converter that I bought at BJ’s, but it is way overkill for this solar setup.  At 12 volts, it would need the 30 amp controller at least. The power inverter merely takes DC power and turns it into AC, while upping the voltage from 12 volts to 120 volts. You have probably used a similar inverter in your car to power a laptop, and many cars have them built in these days. The difference between that inverter and an inverter meant for solar is the capacity. I was not able to power a really butch Dell laptop from my car’s inverter, and its power pack only ran 1.3 amps, which is under 150 watts. Inverters get expensive in the high numbers. There are some very expensive electronics and cooling elements when you get up into high-power handling.

    Also note that you don’t absolutely need an inverter if you plan in advance to use 12-volt lights and appliances. This is a good idea, because an inverter is just a transformer, and transformers as a rule eventually fail. If there is one point of possible failure in a solar system, it is in the inverter. And having a backup isn’t always the answer. You could blow your inverter without realizing that you have a short in an appliance, then burn another one right after it. The answer is 12-volt lights and appliances, and we hope to cover that in a future article.

Ebay has become a clearinghouse for solar systems because solar is such a small market, and Google Adwords has been dominated by a few select companies. Now that you know what to look for, no matter what your budget, buying solar should not be so confusing.

Ebay has become a clearinghouse for solar systems because solar is such a small market, and Google Adwords has been dominated by a few select companies. Now that you know what to look for, no matter what your budget, buying solar should not be so confusing.


Ebay has become a clearinghouse for solar. You can buy kits or individual components, and there are very good buys on brand name bulk components. For instance, you can buy 16 100amp/hour batteries for $3199, shipped nationwide. Just remember that your charge controller has to be able to handle your outflow, the same as your inverter. Make sure you look at the numbers on all the stuff you are getting. Just because something is sold as a package doesn’t mean the components go together.

This Harbor Freight system is not totally pathetic. For the money, it isn’t a very expensive way to keep your home lit indefinitely once the power goes out for the foreseeable future. Most small laptops run in the 60 watt range, so this system would probably keep up with them. You can’t get into a solar system for much cheaper than this, plus the cost of the battery. This system is underpowered for most household devices and isn’t worth an inverter. But if you managed to charge up your battery over the course of a week or so, you could always skip the charge controller and put the inverter directly on the battery. Just do the math so you don’t use much more than half the amp/hours.

What can you power with solar? That depends on how many square feet you have to put your panels, and how much money you want to spend. You won’t be able to heat your house in the north, or cool your house in the south with solar, unless you plan to spend tens of thousands and make your house stand out like a signal mirror to passing aircraft (no thanks). You also probably can’t count on solar to cook your food, or run your washing machine. There are 12-volt small refrigerator freezers though, and don’t discount the value of lights. If you had to decide between $250 worth of flashlight batteries or this system and the $70 35 amp/hour battery, I would choose the latter. In our next installment of solar, we’ll be testing a much more robust system in the 1800 watt range. Summer is here and hopefully it will mean a lot of sunshine, if Yellowstone doesn’t erupt of course. Gulp.

{ 37 comments… add one }
  • tom July 1, 2017, 8:03 pm

    For those that can buy a lot solar panels generators and worried about power shutdown long term or just prepping getting old bicycle couple old alternators that still work fan belt you can pick up for free and some old car batteries wire 12 volt lights and whatever you’re using Rig alternators up on your bicycle and peddle them like they did during World War II and Korean War with Hand with crank generators charge your battery and you’re good to go in the lights are out no gas no solar panels and learn to cook on a wood stove you’ll do just fine

  • julane jazzique January 28, 2017, 6:39 pm

    Hi
    Can anybody suggest in terms a 5 yr old could follow what to purchase if building a solar generator if that is less expensive then buying one.
    I’ve been reading reviews on other sites, seems most don’t Power more then a lightbulb from the comments.
    We have LED lights, which I think use less power, could be wrong. A well had a 2500 gal holding tank installed next to the house, hot plate , small fridge and a separate small freezer for times of power failures.
    We have a Honda 8000 generator, but if all hell breaks, then no gas as stated in the comments.
    My husband and I are retired, limited income . We are both handy, my best friend is an electrician so have that as help also.
    Thank you in advance for any list of items to buy to make one. Or recommend a solar generator please.
    Really appreciate any help.
    Cheers

  • julane jazzique January 28, 2017, 6:24 pm

    Hi. I just started researching solar generators.
    I have a Honda 8000 excellent generator and have the electoral panel with a separate power cord to run things off the generator. And of course turning off the main panel first.
    In terms a 5 yr old could understand:-) can anyone tell me what solar gen they’ve purchased, that runs more then a lightbulb:-).
    I’ve read other review pages. They list some generators, I go the sites, and all of them seem $$$$$ and really doesn’t run much.
    I have a small fridge and small freezer for this purpose if all goes to Hell.
    I remembered I have a hot plate, not sure what amount of power it runs on.
    Wood stove. LED lights, and a well w a 2500 gal storage tank.
    I would think not much more is needed .
    Can anyone help me out with what to buy please.
    I read the numbers volt watt etc. I instantly forgot so if the watt volt the wave thing were included in your recommendations, I’d greatly appreciate.
    I’m very creative, building things or fixing things I inherited from my dad, my husband can also build, my best friend is an electrician, so if building one would be better and less $$$ retired on fixed income folks here.
    A list of what to purchase would be so appreciated, seriously. My husband is handy, but like me , solar is a new thing for us, so simple terms please 🙂
    Thank you in advance for any and all help.
    Cheers

  • Maria August 25, 2016, 5:46 am

    You present a good case here. What if it really happens? When some apocalyptic disaster happens and fuel becomes more scares than ever. Wouldn’t most of the generators become useless?

  • reggy August 9, 2016, 12:10 am

    IMHO the HF solar system is not a good deal. It is very expensive in terms of $ per watt. The charge controller looks high tech but it really just disconnects the battery if the terminal voltage exceeds about 15 volts. It makes no attempt to do a proper 3 phase charging cycle. Also, if I remember right the low voltage cutout is way too low for not damaging the battery if you allow things to run until the low voltage cutout cut’s out. The 12V lights you get with it are a nice touch, but cas value wise, not worth a lot.

    IMHO if you want to go solar, you can build an HF type mount out of PVC for a few bucks and look on line and find panels that are more like fifty cents a watt than dollars a watt. I have had great luck with the battery tender module that goes for about $30. This module will do a proper 3 phase charging cycle and it uses some kind of high frequency that attempts to keep the battery plates in physically good condition.

    Inverter wise, it all depends on what you are doing with your power. If you are running lights or most motor driven tools most any low end inverter will be fine. For computers and electronics I would use a modified sine wave inverter. If you are doing science or instrumentation you probably want a true sine wave inverter, but be forewarned that these are both inefficient and expensive. However they are the only ones that don’t also cough out a lot of high frequency noise on your power.

    My favorite emergency back up device is a little 1.2KW 2 cycle generator that I picked up from Harbor Freight decades ago. I follow a few simple rules with it (always use the nest gas I can get, always use the best 2 cycle oil I can get, always mix it just a nats ass thicker (usually 32:1 same as my chainsaw), get it off the choke as fast as I can, and always turn the petcock off and remove the load and let it sputter to a stop when I am done with it.

    1.2KW is enough to run out 65″ plasma TV, our sound system, both of our notebooks, the internet router and modem, and a couple CFL lamps. 99% of the blackouts we have here are under a day and we miss entertainment the most. If it lasts longer the same little generator can run the fridge or freezer (until the compressor kicks out, than move it on to the next thing) It can run our deep well pump (220 pump but it works OK off of 120 though not as well and I am sure it gets warm, but it is also submerged in cold water). We use vent free heaters already so we good heat wise. I have larger 4 cycle generators but I keep gong back to the little ones. I have also built a lot of things “off grid” with the little guys. Run a saw pretty well if you don’t push or bind it and will run a small compressor for an air nailer. The thing I like most about these is there are no maintenance points. No filters to clean or replace, no oil to change. And they just keep on going and going. They also have a 12V DC output for charging your batteries so you can use them in conjunction with a 12V solar system if you like.

  • Thomas Williams August 2, 2016, 1:30 am

    I have been thinking about your comments of disdain for generators, and for me a week’s worth of generator power would mean two days to think they’ll get this fixed soon (depending on what I heard on the news), and five days to frantically can or dehydrate all the food in my freezer.

  • David July 31, 2016, 9:56 pm

    Been prepping for maybe 5 years. Been all around the net. Your blog is the most comprehensive and yet still digestible for beginners. I feel like you need to bill me for all I’ve learned from you. Thank you kind sir.

  • Rollin Hetwall February 22, 2016, 5:17 pm

    777 order out of chaos

  • george June 22, 2015, 3:15 pm

    last time I checked batteries used sulfuric acid, don’t put hydrochloric acid in them ! he he !

  • Allen January 4, 2015, 9:24 am

    Wow. Just kinda stumbled up on this site. Boy sure does make a person think about what it really would be like. I’m a hunter and we eat what I kill. And I like guns and stock amo every chance I get. But sounds like I need to be really thinking a lot further than that. I do have a couple of older campers and 1 older motor home as well as new camper and a horse trailer that has full living quarters. Sounds like I have a lot of useful stuff. Best thing I got outta of all this, is that seeds and a way to get water from my well. Glad I took time to read all your post. Thank you all!!

  • Pierce Stratton December 6, 2014, 11:58 am

    Great article and I love your choice of battery. We just took a house off the grid with a VMAX 20 battery bank using their Vmaxslr125 AGM Deep Cycle 12v powered by a 5 panel ECO-WORTHY 800W complete solar kit.

    On of the great things about these low gas prices is that it is driving down the cost of solar panels. I can’t say for certain inverters or batteries are falling in price but it seems like it. Might just be because the cheaper panels make the grand total that much smaller.

    Nice post and blog you have here!

    Pierce

  • What I know August 30, 2014, 9:23 pm

    Northern tools has better selection of solar panels!!!!

    They are better and cheaper!

    Northern has a lot more panels and a better selection

    they have more panels that dont need regulator to work on the battery!!

    harbor fright store’s rip’s off people, in my area, they sell all of the solar stuff in component sets!

    You have to buy the panel ($30 to$300), then you have to get regulator ($35), the wiring harness ($15), and whatever
    else you need to get the job done, at a cost!

    If you want a 1.5 to a 5 watt panel and the required regulator, and you be right at $100 very quickly!!

    You can go to NORTHERN TOOLS, and buy that same size, panels, 1.5 TO 5 WATT for $20 to $40,
    and you dont need a REGULATOR, to run these panels, they just need to be hooked up.

    The bigger panels seem a better bargain too.

    Better made also!

  • Oldscout June 16, 2014, 7:41 pm

    This sniping is detracting from the intent. Adding info to a incomplete statement helps. Ridicule doesnt. Overlooking the powerloss,inefficiencies of ,inverters their proper connection and need to verify the quality of their output wave signal are major oversights. I will concur that being able to sustain a pre disaster 120/240, as far as i know only very shallow well pumps run on less than 240-220v, life is doable for several months with rationing for a lot of people. EMP can b covered for this as well if also take the appropriate steps. It would only apply to devices that u had stored pre emp in a proper faraday enclosure. All of this involves a lot of prep and beer,vacation,toy,fun time and money as well as labor and some skill which can b aquired
    Longterm low budget limited stealth prep seemed to b where this article was headed though.

  • Bob June 16, 2014, 3:17 pm

    Transformers do not wear out, they are wire windings. Inverters are much more than transformers and some generate a better sine wave than others. Inverters use power to make the conversion are best avoided if possible. They work much better connected directly to a battery. Most items can be run on DC. You’re automobile is a great generator. You have drinking water in your water heater. These articles are cute but obviously there is some mus-information. Solar panels can be used without a controller if you use an ammeter/voltmeter to avoid over charging the battery or powering the panel.

    • Paul Helinski June 16, 2014, 5:12 pm

      Oh geez thank for the tip. We’ll have to remember that we can always just check the meter manually instead of buying the cheapest part of the system and make life easier lol. Please keep a journal of you living off the 50 gallons of water in your hot water heater, then trying to rig your car to power your well. You are actually the cute one, and your name spells the same thing both ways too. You are my hero!

      • ranchdude January 1, 2015, 1:49 am

        Wtf is your problem? Inverters are not transformers. This artical is flawed in content, facts, spelling and in grammer. Inverters are solid state converters. Some may have transformers in them but transformers fail less often than most electronic components if not used beyond their ratings. And Bob makes some good points and valid corrections. In a pinch your cars alternator and battery are a nice power system to power an inverter to use your water well pump long enough to get enough drinking water run into a tub for a full days use in a very short time. This is inexpensive and very easy to set up. If you aren’t driving your car and staying put you can power your well for months on a single tank of gas. Also the charge controller controls the charge to the solar batteries it doesn’t control the drain or provide AC power. If it does then it has an inverter built in to it. Otherwise you still need an inverter for AC power. Most inverters these days have a low voltage shut down so you don’t need monitor the 12v drain constantly. BUT you still better have some kind of meter to monitor your batteries charge and manually troubleshoot things when they go wrong and not just rely on the controller. Fact: charge controllers break down just as easy as an inverter… if you don’t manually monitor your system you’ll eventually be working in the dark.

      • ranchdude January 1, 2015, 1:50 am

        Wtf is your problem? Inverters are not transformers. This artical is flawed in content, facts, spelling and in grammer. Inverters are solid state converters. Some may have transformers in them but transformers fail less often than most electronic components if not used beyond their ratings. And Bob makes some good points and valid corrections. In a pinch your cars alternator and battery are a nice power system to power an inverter to use your water well pump long enough to get enough drinking water run into a tub for a full days use in a very short time. This is inexpensive and very easy to set up. If you aren’t driving your car and staying put you can power your well for months on a single tank of gas. Also the charge controller controls the charge to the solar batteries it doesn’t control the drain or provide AC power. If it does then it has an inverter built in to it. Otherwise you still need an inverter for AC power. Most inverters these days have a low voltage shut down so you don’t need monitor the 12v drain constantly. BUT you still better have some kind of meter to monitor your batteries charge and manually troubleshoot things when they go wrong and not just rely on the controller. Fact: charge controllers break down just as easy as an inverter… if you don’t manually monitor your system you’ll eventually be working in the dark.

  • houston June 16, 2014, 11:49 am

    You talk about lifespan for batteries, but what about the solar panels? I assume they don’t last forever, right?

    • Joe K June 16, 2014, 12:14 pm

      Solar panels lose around 20% in 25 years, that’s when they lose the most. But the newer panels haven’t existed long enough for 50 year calculations.
      I recommend sunelec.com as the lowest cost supplier out there. I bought a Honda 2000 generator from them, and plan to get my solar supplies from them. Visited their office/warehouse a couple years ago. Customer service can be spotty.

  • Sam Riddle June 16, 2014, 8:49 am

    Also, if you really want to get creative, something I’ve wanted to do is attach a radiator fan blade to an alternator for a small wind mill… I think it would be cool to read a good article on American Ingenuity along these lines…

    • Ken June 16, 2014, 10:28 am

      It is a cool idea, but that is all it really is. Unfortunately alternators, unlike generators. need an electrical source to energize the electromagnet to generate electricity. One other disadvantage to alternators is that for generating a truly useful voltage the alternator must be spinning at around 2000 rpm. A radiator fan might reach that in a hurricane, but not under normal conditions. A better option would be to find some old treadmill motors that are designed to turn at lower speeds and use them as you generator. The use of a bicycle wheel with PVC blades will work as your turbine. Take a 6″ dia. piece of PVC about 4′ long and split it into 3 pieces lengthwise, the curve on the pipe sections will approximate an airfoil giving you better performance.

      • Doc June 16, 2014, 4:57 pm

        A bicycle hooked DIRECTLY to a GENERATOR (LARGEST back wheel you can find via V belt to smallest wheel for GENERATOR —> battery) will generally give you (rule of thumb) 1 hour of small TV per hour of peddling in your highest gear, or 2 hours of peddling for a medium sized TV (but remember – there won’t be no stinkin’ TV– if YOU are screwed, so are they) – you might want to think about keeping an ’emergency’ radio in a Faraday cage for ‘just in case’, and get your self a good multi-band receiver that takes a 12VDC input (in a Faraday cage), or get your HAM license and learn a little bit about electricity – the ARRL handbook is never a bad thing to have around the house for a quick reference). I am not telling you what a Faraday cage is, because Wiki will learn ya better than anyone can explain it to you, and you’ll also know WHY they work and WHY you might want to build a couppa a few of them.

    • TEN/6 January 14, 2015, 3:10 pm

      Sam,
      Your note about using a belt on the fan to power a saw reminded me of a neighbor when I was a kid so this might be of some interest. I realize your postwar ages ago but I just saw it now. I might be a little hazy on this – it was 40 yrs ago – but I think you’ll get the gist. Anyway, an old French Canadian neighbor built a ramp for his old truck. It was a vehicle that he kept around and it wasn’t licensed, he just used it around his property. He used to drive his truck up the ramp and somehow – this is the hazy part – he had a rubber belt which may have been from the tire retread place – I know, does anyone even do that anymore? – and that belt went over a powered rear tire. The tire remained on and the belt turned when the engine accelerated. I recall it being on idle mostly. That belt was attached to a saw which was on a table and he used to cut wood by using his truck powered saw. I wish I had more than just a mental picture of it but I think you get the idea: Use existing power to run the saw. Nothing super sexy but basic yet effective. He cost wood at least a foot in diameter but that would depend upon the saw blade etc. Hope this helps.

  • James Kastelz June 16, 2014, 8:32 am

    The Jacobs company has been building wind generators for a long time. Early Jacobs’ machines included one taken to Antarctica by Richard Evelyn Byrd and installed (at Byrd’s ‘Little America’) in 1933, running until 1955. These generators experience the worst environmentalists imaginable and keep on running.

    • Doc June 16, 2014, 4:30 pm

      I had an early 1930’s Jacobs’ rebuilt in the mid-1970’s and powered a very nice 12 VDC system that kept my house lit very well using simple tail lights from a regular 12 volt car — and 4 years later when I was done with my studies and moved, the Jacobs’ was still powering the cabin ~8 years later when I went back to visit. Modern wind generators use FAR better (rare earth) magnets and are about 1/10 the size. And put out 10x the power.

      TO ALL OTHERS: You DO need to make the distinction between a GENERATOR and an ALTERNATOR.

      Right now I power LED lights from my truck when I’m out and want light other than fire around my campsite. Too bright? – use a rheostat to dim them. If you are talking EMP, let me ask a simple question: WHAT refer? Freezer? TV? Radio? What Internet? Without a Faraday cage they are all gonna be toast. Also, you ought to learn how to repair an Alternator – it’s easy if you learn how, GENERATORS won’t have problems, but your out-put is going to remain FAR lower than an alternator. PLAN for a 12 VDC (Volts, Direct Current) system. The Military uses 24 VDC, and no, the 24 VDC won’t power a 12 VDC device, but it WILL start a nice fire if you leave it plugged in and it shorts without blowing a fuse.

      Also, a ‘Inverter’ (DC—>AC) sucks energy; turning 12-24 VDC into any kind of 120 AC will take MORE power (energy) than what the device uses alone (because the inverter ‘steal’s it). Often you don’t get a pure ‘sine’ wave with an inverter, you get a ‘square wave’ that can damage some kinds of sensitive equipment (read some computers), so you won’t have internet (EMP: WHAT Internet??) but you might be able to play games if you don’t burn your computer out. — So an ‘inverter’ is a nice idea if you didn’t plan ahead. Or are going to have a HUGE bank of batteries. Most people don’t know how to live simply any more.

      If you are a SHTF/SOLAR EMP thinker, and are in a large city, remember you won’t have a vehicle that works unless you drive an OLD Land Rover, Willy’s, Jeep or F-150 (or Apache PU) that’s not filled with electronics (you won’t have a radio but you’ll have transportation). So you might want to think about some kind of get-a-clue seriousness that makes common sense.

      And no matter HOW ready you are, batteries DO die and things DO break, I’d suggest that Water purification would be a good skill to learn, along with how to REALLY jerk any kind of meat or veggie, and pickle ANYTHING you can. (And, guys, big game is the first go to — I drive a LOT in the desert so I have no illusions — you’ll be eating rodents and birds, get used to the idea, and big guns ARE fun, but an accurate .22 LR or .17 anything along with a long barrel shot-gun will be your best friend.) Can’t garden?, — this summer would be a good time to start learning — seeds will be your fourth best friend (clean water, immediate food, a SENSIBLE firearm, seeds). If you are serious. Otherwise, playing is fun too. — NO, really, it IS!!!!

  • John Butler June 16, 2014, 7:59 am

    I’ll keep my generator because solar don’t work without sun light! The sun doesn’t shine during most storms. A wind turbine is known to get damaged in very high winds too. Rather then beat up or promote any one emergency device, the fact is neither generator, wind, or solar is a do all for every issue that can arise. No doubt solar and wind is for long term fuel needs, but then again, we would have to be talking apocalypses??

    • Larry June 16, 2014, 9:57 am

      Good call. Making fuel would be easier than maintaining a solar system…

      • Joe Valentour July 16, 2014, 12:30 am

        Perhaps Paul will research gas and diesel production!

        • John February 24, 2016, 5:37 am

          then solar industry will die!!!
          heard that china makes solar tech become popular,
          …seems solar in america are only for cellphone chargers
          hhaaha

  • SmokeHillFarm June 16, 2014, 5:58 am

    Not being blessed with a large income (retired E-8 pay, from the 80s when base pay was rather low) — I can’t afford the really expensive batteries I’d like to. However, it occurs to me that for the small electric usage I plan for — mostly recharging flashlight batteries when my large stash finally gives out, minimal lighting with old-style auto bulbs, retrieving prepping info & data from my laptop), a couple of auto or tractor batteries might well last me for years, if carefully managed & charged.

    Ideally, I’d get them “dry,” store them in a moderate temperature away from moisture, and only add the hydrochloric acid when I finally need them. Initially, I’d just use the existing 12v batteries from my three vehicles, my big tractor, and two diesel mowers, after the diesel & gas run out …. probably keeping them on a trickle charger for eventual use (or if I am able to scrounge fuel for the vehicles.

    What I am NOT certain of is whether I can stretch the shelf life of “already in use” batteries by dumping the acid mixture into another container (glass? plastic?) and storing it separately. Seems like it might help, and obviate the need for trickle charging. My chemistry & physics are far too limited to help me much on this question, so if anyone knows this it would be GREAT info to pass on to the Prepping Community.

    Also, if an EMP occurs, it’s likely that there will be lots & lots of dead vehicles everywhere whose batteries can be scrounged for future use, if we know the best way to handle them for storage. The more of them we use, the longer it will be before we have to finally fill & charge up the new fancy batteries.

    Another thought …. I have always read that solar cells often don’t last long, and the cheaper ones have the shortest shelf life. Sounds like we should avoid the 110v inverters as much as possible & use strictly 12v whenever possible, and arrange the panels so that we can remove dead ones easily and only lower our charge recovery times. I have a small laptop-sized inverter and one large one (1800/3000 watts) that I use in my tractor or truck for running drills, saws, etc. Since I heat with wood and only keep a year’s supply of firewood, I have two electric chainsaws, hence the big inverter when I’ll need to cut my own firewood instead of ordering its delivery. I also keep several spare chains, lots of bar oil & several chain files. I’m assuming that my gas-operated chain saw will run out of fuel or fail to start eventually. I also kept my axes & hand saws, but I doubt that I’m still capable of turning trees into firewood on any practical scale, since just stacking it & carrying it in is getting tougher as I approach 70.

    If anyone has thoughts about which type of solar cells are the most reliable in the long term, or how simple repairs might be done to them (if it’s possible), I’m sure we’d all be grateful. My guess is that the Harbor Freight or other low-end solar cells are of dubious quality, but I suspect that most of us are going to be stuck with them for financial reasons.

    One assumption I’m making is that exposure to sun & temperature extremes will shorten cell life, so we are better off using the MINIMUM number of cells & keeping the rest in the closet as spares,, or to add for occasional heavier draws (like for my electric chain saw).

    This is a great basic article, very helpful, but expanding it to cover some of these questions would no doubt be very useful for most of us.

    • Sam Riddle June 16, 2014, 8:45 am

      A great place to look for Solar Stuff (inverter/charge controller/Batteries) is an old RV great place to salvage stuff even Refrigerators are three way (propane/AC/DC) – Small Oven for cooking. It’s the first place I’d go in a pinch! BTW, hot water heater is the biggest energy eater (RV Water Heaters are another great choice)… You get the picture…

      Sam
      12 Navy Vet

      • palomarbob May 31, 2016, 1:39 pm

        [ old RV great place to salvage stuff even Refrigerators are three way (propane/AC/DC) ]
        only pre 1962 rv’s have true propane powered refrigerators (no 12v needed)
        my last rv only 11 years old needed 12v@ 17a to run on propane [200wattts] it is the way they are designed now
        when the battery goes flat the flame turns off (always at night & wake up to warm refrigerator)
        [fix by cutting 12v wiring power & putting hole inside the control valve keep flame on]
        [or just install 2k of solar & batteries to run on electricity]

    • romney June 16, 2014, 10:12 am

      Also, if it is war, anarchy, martial law, etc. that shiny object in your back yard or on the roof will be a priority for scumbags to steal or destroy with a air rifle. Kind on like cooking your food on the grill. The smoke and aroma is a flag for stealing your stuff. It is true about the generator being an issue. Survival in any circumstances is extremely tough even if prepared and knowledgeable. For low or middle income people it is worse. You may what is coming (I doubt it), but you can’t afford to get it. Joining more people together would help, but most people don’t even think about it even if told. America is SOFT and VULNERABLE and APATHETIC…….and GONE!

    • Herman June 16, 2014, 10:36 am

      I must say that this is a very poorly researched and written article. I started 3 years ago studying solar electric generation systems and although it is a little heady, it is not rocket science or wiring a house, and most people can get it with a little training and study, which it is obvious to the trained that this author did not do. It is a very simple and understood sequence; solar panels to charge controller to batteries to the inverter. This author was trying, and eluding to, hooking a 120V TV to the controller! Clue #1! Only someone with out training would do that! Most charge controllers have a load connection that is only for direct 12 V connection, like a 12 volt receptacle that draws through the controller from the battery. He obviously confused the controller with the inverter, which if he went from the Charge Controller to the say 2 75 AMP batteries, with a 4 Amp charge from the panels through the Controller, the batteries would be fully charged during the day even in low light! Plug the TV into the INVERTER, like you are suppose to and waa laa you can watch TV. Most folk in survival situation use power for about 3-4 hours a night. Cooking during the day Maybe and Micro Wave Maybe or Table Top Cooker maybe; all work fine from the inverter and remember; everyone who has a solar generator should or would have 12 volt appliances which you can get on line. Remember one word; REFRIGERATION! It’s not the only thing but the first thing, and you can keep your fridge working with the system. I have a smaller under the counter (Hotel) unit and can transfer food to it or my small 12V cooler as well. Oh by the way, I have a 300 sq ft tent for camping and I could camp for weeks or months with my unit and if the SHTF and I go deep cover, which we are prepared for (sensible prepper), I could live for years on our system and our plan.

      I think if you are going to write something you should have someone who has the facts and education to do it!!

      • Paul Helinski June 16, 2014, 10:59 am

        Oh look the medicated masses speak. Soooo, water wouldn’t be your top priority for using the electric that you generate? What exactly do you plan to refrigerate using all that power? If you kill your armchair I don’t think it needs refrigeration. It will taste yummy with prozac pills though.

    • Henry Bondurant January 1, 2015, 8:00 pm

      The death of ALL wet cell batteries is sulfation. Draining a battery of its electrolyte will actually cause an increase in sulfation. Once the lead has a coating of sulfate on it, it turns a white color, the electrons cannot pass thru it and the amp hours you once had, will no longer be there. There are small trickle chargers made that will keep a battery up. All batteries discharge during time. With a car battery, the normal rate is about .09 volts per day. As time increases, this tends to speed up to about .15 volts per day after 20 days. I have a hunting shack that I keep a 12 volt battery in to power 2 LED lamps and a UHF emergency radio. I bought a small charger from advance auto which is made to keep your battery up when parked at the airport for a long spell. Even deployed troops use them to keep a battery up when deployed.

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