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The ways you're about to see below are best used as back-ups or in case of total blackouts, when even the smallest amount of electricity will mean a lot.
Living Off the Grid by Producing At-Home EnergyWhat exactly is at-home energy? The term encompasses any of the alternative ways of producing electric current from pedaling a bike that cranks a generator, to burning wood in a gasifier, to harvesting wave and wind energy.
The methods I'm about to describe aren't truly primitive because you still need alternators, inverters, batteries and so on to capture and then store the electric current; compared to major power companies, though, these methods are primitive. They're worth looking at because you can use them to power small devices such as:
3. DVD Player / Camcorder
4. Stereo / AM-FM Radio
5. HAM / CB Radio Communications
6. Recharge batteries for GPS and Cell Phones
7. Recharge batteries for electronics (flashlights, lanterns, etc.) that can run off rechargeable batteries (you could do this on your annual or bi-annual inspection of all your gear)
8. Home Alarm System (local siren only; the actual alarm company could be offline)
9. Cordless Power Tools with battery packs
10. Grain / coffee grinders
These are all low wattage devices that you can power following a blackout and loss of the power grid. At the same time, specialized low wattage electronics exist depending on your needs that you can also continue to power, whether those are medical devices, satellite communications, or low-wattage heaters.
Television Following A BlackoutFollowing a blackout or loss of the power grid, television may still work in several local regions when television stations turn to back-up power generators to continue to broadcast news. However, if you only have cable or satellite television, and your cable or satellite television company is knocked offline, you'll never know about those local news shows that are still broadcasting.
Thankfully there is a new generation of television antennae on the market that can pick up local news in high definition (if your television is capable of high definition). I personally tried a new generation antennae after purchasing it at a local Radio Shack and was shocked at how clear the picture quality was (though I paid a lot more at Radio Shack than what is currently charged on Amazon for the same antennae). I was told that the quality would be better than cable and that proved to be the case (though bad weather can sometimes cause interference). I chose a smaller indoor antennae that is hung on a window and it has worked great on most days.
For the purpose of getting news following a blackout (or to simply cut ties with your cable company today and get free local channels), I highly recommend some kind of external antennae.
Rechargeable Batteries for Your Lights-Out BoxIf you have a "lights-out box", then you have quite a few flashlights and lanterns that use rechargeable batteries. Let's start by talking about what electricity is and how it works.
How Electricity is CreatedThis may seem a little boring but I'll try to simplify it as much as possible. As you know, atoms are formed by protons, neutrons, and electrons. While protons and neutrons stick together to form the nucleus, electrons (which are negatively charged) have the ability to move from one atom to another. Each time this happens, electricity is created.
Electricity, in the most simplest form, can be created by spinning a magnet(s) through a coil of copper wire. A magnet's electromagnetism pushes electrons through the copper wire and you now have electricity. Check it out in this WikiHow article on creating an electric generator (with pictures) that will power a small light bulb.
Good news for those of us concerned about a loss of the power grid or interested in living off the grid today: Primitive electricity is really a simple concept.
Next We Build an Electrical CircuitIf you're going to do any of this completely from scratch, you'll want to build an electrical circuit. Circuits are nothing more than electronic components (such as resistors, batteries, voltmeters, transistor, diodes etc.) that are interconnected using wire. You can read more about this here. There are kits for putting together simple circuits and books that make it easy.
A good analogy is to think of circuits as the blood vessels and organs in your body. Your body is electrically charged, by the way, that's why you can get electrocuted from an accident with high voltage. The vessels are the wire, the electric current is the blood and the various organs are the various interconnected components.
How is electricity harnessed to power devices? In short, it happens when electrons start moving through this circuit. The source (such as a battery) is the one that begins to push the electrons through the circuit when you turn on the switch (in your flashlight, for instance). The good news about low wattage electricity expirements is that it's not enough voltage to harm you.
Speaking of which, the electrical wiring, the blood vessels, if you will, need to be made of highly conductive metals such as copper or aluminum and you'll want to understand what a resistor is in an electrical circuit (among other things) -- most devices require a certain voltage and electrical circuits help regulate how much energy can flow to a device. If that seems like a lot to learn, well it can be, it just depends on how complex you want to make things.
If you want to keep it simple, the good news is that many devices (solar panels, wind turbines, etc.) have been created to do all the work for you, so there's no generator or electrical circuits to build.
How can you create electricity from other sources of energy, such as mechanical energy? You have to have a source, such as fuel (coal, natural gas etc.) wind, waves or solar power. All of these sources can be harvested, converted into electricity and then stored for later use.
#1, #2. How to Create Primitive Electricity from Wind and WaterNow, to create electricity, you have to have a source such as wind, flowing river water (rapids), or even ocean current that in turn will crank a small turbine or spin the blades on a simple wind turbine. That movement then spins a device that spins the magnet(s) within that coil of copper wire; faster speeds and larger coils and larger magnets produce higher amounts of electricity. Before you know it one day you've built a small power plant or small hydroelectric dam!
For the rest of us not quite capable of that kind of engineering, let's keep our electricity projects simple for now by capturing the electricity we are producing and storing it in batteries, to be converted into electricity for later use.
Here's another WikiHow article for you: How to Produce Electricity from a DC Motor
This DC Motor saves us a number of steps. With a DC Motor all we need is a propeller or fan blade and the motor works as a generator; wired to a large battery, or terminal of automotive batteries, we can now store electricity capable of powering several devices on an ongoing basis.
As long as we have wind, or rapids, our electricity problem is solved.
#3. Steam Can Also Create ElectricityBurning fuel such as coal, natural gas, etc., is used to boil water (in boilers), creating steam (like a tea pot but on a much bigger scale), which in turn spins the turbines that produce electricity, just like those rapids mentioned above. (Read more)
Using Coal to Produce ElectricityCoal works like this: It's heated inside generating units that form the power plant. They first grind it into a fine powder inside pulverizers, then it reaches a boiler where it is heated to very high temperatures. The water that's also inside the boiler turns to steam, thus creating thermal energy. Thermal energy is then turned into mechanical energy by sending it to a series of turbines which start moving. The last step is to convert mechanical energy to electricity by means of a generator.
#4. How Solar Power WorksSolar energy is also very interesting. In short, the photons of light coming from the sun hit the solar panels made of silicon, releasing electrons. These electrons are then harvested to create electricity.
To live truly off the grid, consider taking advantage of the leading low wattage solar panel products on the market; if you live in an area with decent sunshine, spend the next few months investing in multiple portable solar panel units.
If you can afford it you can always invest in a larger unit, though in a loss of the power grid your larger unit may attract attention from unsavory folks in the area (unless you can figure out a way to keep it out of view from passersby).
Each solar power unit you add to your collection means more devices can be powered in the end. With some backup battery units, it also means more energy can be stored for later use. Though you may not be able to power high-wattage devices like a freezer, clothing washer or dryer, kitchen oven, or microwave, you should have most other devices covered with an investment in solar panel units.
Ready to Go Solar Power SystemGo Power! Solar Extreme Complete Solar and Inverter System with 480 Watts of Solar
If fumbling with wires, inverters, battery packs, and operations manuals is not your thing, a complete solar power system is ready to go out of the box, but does come at a higher price tag. If you invest in one of these higher priced models and start using it today to power part of your home (not all of your home, just part of it), the investment can help pay for itself over several months of saving on your electric bill. Then, in the loss of the power grid, you will have plenty of power, 480 watts for example, which is plenty to power most low to moderate wattage devices for an ongoing period. You'll have lights, television, radio, communications, home alarm, and many other electronic devices covered.
Can Magnets Create Electricity from Perpetual Motion?Another (yet somewhat controversial way) is the use of magnets. Magnets have two poles, as you may recall from high-school, and that's enough to create energy. The problem is, they lose potency in time and, although you can replace them with new ones, there hasn't been any company that was able to deliver such a device.
There are plenty of websites out there that may promise to make such a generator inside your own home for little money but a few of them may be shady to say the least and only out to rip people off.
We won't talk about them in this article as I have yet to see such a working device from a credible source. Not to discount the possibility though of a "magnet motor"; in theory, it is possible to use magnets to create perpetual motion, but, to date, no device appears to have made it to production yet.
What Is Perpetual Motion?Perpetual motion is what happens when river rapids spin a turbine at a hydroelectric dam; as long as their is flowing water, the blades on a turbine will spin, and electricity is generated. That is the same idea behind a wind turbine; as long as their is wind to spin the blades, the wind turbine will produce electricity on an ongoing basis.
Wind Turbine vs WindmillDon't confuse a wind turbine with a windmill; a windmill also captures the power of the wind but is used for other actions like pumping water from a well or grinding grain. Wind turbines on the other hand solely create electricity. (Read more)
How Can You Generate Free Electricity?Ok, let's see some real ways to create electricity off-grid.
#5. With a Bike and an AlternatorThere are many ways to do it, some involving a generator, others involving an alternator. The first one I'd like to discuss is using a bicycle (literally any bicycle will do), an alternator and an inverter to generate free electricity.
The reason this is my favorite is because of its two main advantages. The first one is that you can do it inside your own home. You just mount the bike on a wooden structure and hook it up. Your kids can be put to work as well!
The other big side benefit is that you get to lose weight, get in shape and give your legs a workout. As you know, fitness is an important part of prepping regardless of whether you're bugging in or out.
So how do you do it? This video explains it pretty well, though I highly recommend you find an electrician to help you do it. The advice given in the article is for information purposes only, of course:
Here's what you're going to need:
A standard bike (an exercise bike will also work)
A 12V battery pack
A 350 watt power inverter
A car alternator
A few pieces of wood and some screws to mount the bike (an exercise bike is already mounted in place, thus has an advantage in this regard)
A digital multi-meter to see the power output
Finally, a switch mounted on the bike that's used to bring power to the alternator after you start pedaling but needs to be stopped after a few seconds to avoid the batteries from overheating (yes, power will continue to be generated)
Producing Electricity with an Exercise BikeDo you really need an actual bike to do this? Not really. There are plenty of projects that show how to do this with stationary bikes. This video, for instance, shows a gentleman hooking up a cheap exercise bike to an alternator, which is hooked to an inverter (for transforming DC to AC) which, in turn, is hooked up to the power grid.
Why would you want to put current back into the grid? One, because you'll end up paying less for electricity and two, because in some countries and states it's actually illegal to use your own electricity directly (proof 1, proof 2).
Ultimately, your goals should be to prepare as well as lower your electric bill; so even if you can't break free from this obvious monopoly, you can get really close to doing it.
Products like K-Tor's Power Box with Pedal Generator can provide up to 20 watts of power that you can store in a 12-volt battery, but if you have the time to do it yourself with an actual exercise bike, 12v battery pack, 350 watt power inverter and a car alternator, you can crank out higher watts and store it for later use.
#6. Water WheelsThe cool thing about water wheels is that they can work 24 hours a day and you don't have to do a single thing. The only problem is, you won't be able to generate enough to fit most people's needs. Still, this can be something to play with if you have a creek or river on your land (many preppers in search of a bug out location are looking to have one).
Now, you can still use a water wheel for things that don't require that much power, such as lighting up perimeter defenses, charging your phone or rechargeable batteries or heating up your bath water (which, in our scenario, it can also come from the river).
All in all, water wheels are fun and provide some undeniable benefits. If you're thinking about making one, here's a video that explains what they are and how they work.
Making a Wind TurbineThough we mentioned the wind and river rapids above already (#1 and #2 in this top ten list), let's take a moment to discuss wind turbines as these work on the same concept as water wheels: Movement from an exterior force is used to create electricity.
If you live in an area with strong winds, you probably thought about installing a small wind turbine in your backyard. Now, there are several ways you can do this, depending on how much work you want to do yourself. Of course, the more power you want, the bigger and taller the construction needs to be. Keep in mind that the voltage released by a small turbine is going to be considerably less than what you'd get using a bike and alternator. The more output you need, the bigger the blades and the final construction need to be.
Speaking of which, the blades are the trickiest. Most people are probably going to choose to buy them instead of making them from scratch. You can find many of these blades for sale online or even a complete wind turbine system for your backyard.
Now, if you don't want to spend 70 to 100 dollars on blades, you can make your own out of wood. This video shows you how: How to make wind turbine blades
Should you make them? Probably not. Keep in mind that carving them is not an easy task. Even if you're an ace at woodworking, you still won't get them nearly as efficient as the ones from the store and 80 bucks is not a fortune. For that amount you're also going to get a hub and all the nuts and bolts to install it on a turbine that you purchase separately or you make on your own. Plus, keep in mind that rain and snow will damage the wood so, at some point down the road, you'll have to make new ones.
Watch this two-part video on how to assemble these blades and connect everything to a treadmill motor.
Now, if you're looking to make a wind turbine from scratch, here's another step-by-step guide with full instructions. Only problem is, it's not video so you'll most likely need to do further research to make it happen. Still, this is a pretty detailed guide and a must-read if you're looking to build your own wind turbine.
#7. Gasifiers That Run on WoodGasifiers have intrigued a lot of people lately, and this is because they have certain advantages. The main one is that they work by burning wood. Wood pellets are an ideal fuel source because they burn pretty clean, but you can throw anything in there if you have to.
Gasifiers are not as trivial to build as some of the other devices mentioned in this article. Here's a 20 minute YouTube video showing one that's been modeled after FEMA's gasifier plans (which is available here in PDF.
You can see that the man in the video used a lot of parts to make his, including an ammo box, lots of pipes and pipe fittings but the entire thing cost about $300. Not a lot, considering that it can power an 8 horse power motor.
There's also an added benefit that some people who built this have taken advantage of... Gasifiers tend to heat up so you can use them to heat up your home in addition to creating electricity.
#8 Biogas GeneratorsBiogas generators are another prepper favorite because they work with scraps. If you're living on a farm, then you'll have plenty of waste on your hand: manure, food scraps and even green plants. As the waste decomposes in a chamber, it generates methane and carbon dioxide. This is called anaerobic biomass digestion.
Now, at this point you can use the gas for your cooking needs or you can take it one step further and convert it into electricity. Unfortunately, you can't convert biogas directly into electricity because it's not clean enough so you first have to use it as fuel for a combustion engine which, in turn, will power the generator.
You can see how to build a basic biogas generator here
#9. Wave EnergyHarvesting the energy of waves is the most exciting of all. It's a bit tricky to build the system but, if you live near the ocean, this is something you may want to experiment with. The sweet part is, the raft I'm about to show you works even if you're on a boat and decide to bug out to sea. Now, this won't power your boat but it should generate enough electricity to charge your phones and laptop.
There's a step-by-step guide to making one right here. In short, you will need a raft (made of wood and plastic water bottles), a 1 meter metal ruler to which you attach a couple of magnets and a coil of wire. As the waves cause the entire raft to move, they also move the magnets between the coil, thus creating electricity.
According to its makers, the output of this device is only 5V but that's enough to recharge your batteries.
#10. Hand Crank GeneratorsK-TOR Pocket Socket Hand Crank Generator
Probably the cheapest and easiest to use on our list, a hand crank generator is truly portable electricity when you need it for powering low wattage devices, up to 10 watts.
Safety Precautions for Off Grid ElectricityThis article wouldn't be complete without some sound advice about protecting yourself when working with electricity. Fail to obey its laws and you risk getting electric shocks or, even worse, electrocution, which refers to the actual death from an electric shock.
First thing's first: Be very careful when working around water, the water mill project in particular. Wet hands, even sweaty hands, and working with electric current near a body of water should be avoided. Though most of the methods for off grid power are lower voltage, anything is possible once you start working with generators, inverters, and alternators with the goal of higher watts.
Next, use protective equipment. Wear insulating gloves that are specifically labeled for working with electronics. Better yet, stock up on them because they might be hard to find post-collapse. Wear safety goggles, too. Many of them have are good against other things such as debris, especially if you find yourself clipping and splicing wires at some point in your projects.
Last but not least, make sure all the equipment you work with is in good condition. Frayed wires, gloves with holes in them, they can literally shock you. As an extra safety precaution, be sure to ground your circuit, just in case the insulation fails.
Final Lessons in Off Grid EnergyUnfortunately, making your own energy at home is still not as effective as buying it from a power company. The options outlined here can generate electricity in small amounts and/or for short periods of time. You can rely on them in case of a blackout or a power grid failure but they aren't able to power your entire home.
The only way to make these tools offer you more electricity is to either make them bigger, more efficient or both. And that requires research, talking to people in the industry, and trial and error.
Of course, the motivation for the average Joe may not be there but, for a serious prepper, the effort might pay off. If the nation plunges into darkness, you'll be one of the few who'll benefit form electricity... and then you'll have other problems, such as protecting your generators from looters. One problem at a time, though.