Originally posted on December 4, 2012 at 12:55 AM

In the wake of Katrina and other hurricanes, reinforced by the widespread meteorological disasters this Fall, people are talking again about emergency generators and other survival technologies.

Back in 1999 when the Y2K was looming I had a conversation with a friend who told me he was going to buy a generator and some canned food. I told him generators consume around a quart of fuel per hour so just buying a generator and trying to plug one’s house into it was hardly a solution. He asked what he should do then and I began talking about charging batteries to be used for modest lighting, communication and the like. I told him to examine the hook-ups on his car battery and he’d get an idea how to hook it up to a generator-powered battery charger. My friend said he didn’t really have any idea what I was talking about. The scary thing about that was my friend at the time was a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry and I guess I sort of assumed those folks would have some basic techno-survival skills. (Evidently not.)

For those who want to build a generator-based power system you should keep several things in mind.   First, though generators often have a battery-charging circuit available they are often not all that efficient in terms of gas consumption. It’s generally better to plug in an off-the-shelf battery charger (10 amps or greater) to your generator to charge a battery. You can do other stuff like run a couple lamps, a radio, a laptop while you’re charging your battery.

A deep-cycle storage battery (ask your automotive department person) holds about one kilowatt hour of energy. You can get a lot of stuff done with 1KWH if you use low-energy bulbs, a radio instead of a TV and shut things off when not in use. There are a lot of DC (Direct current or batterypowered) devices which will run right off your battery though some of them will require some voltage regulation. In general it’s easier and probably cheaper to buy a little Inverter from Radio Shack or Walmart again in the auto section, which can hook to your battery and will make household-type current.

The problem with generator systems is though they throw off a lot of heat, the heat is usually made unusable for winter survival purposes because the exhaust port tends to put carbonmonoxide and gasoline fumes wherever the heat goes. Spending a quart an hour to keep wam isn’t too terribly expensive but running a generator around the clock just for lighting and communication is preposterous.

As an alternative I’ll suggest survival-minded folks investigate a propane heater with a 5-galloon tank and a propane light and cooking burner. You’ll need some ventilation in the room you’re heating but you’ll be able to stay warm and even heat some wash water on the cooking burner. For laptop or radio power get a storage battery with a plug-in battery charger (a low-powered one is fine) along with one of the inverters previously mentioned. Top up your battery every week or so. A system like this will give you a decent prospect of surviving in Winter for a few days without outside assistance. In a couple of days I will write some more about energy in general and how we can help ourselves survive on a more long term basis.