As most of us unfortunately know, 2011 was a difficult year with people throughout the United States being hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other severe storms and natural disasters.
With hurricane season basically over, it’s time to prepare for winter storms and blizzards. So, it’s a good time to update your home and automobile “Emergency Preparedness Kits.”
We live in the Northeast where millions lost power twice in recent months: first from Hurricane Irene and then from an early winter storm.
While many people saw the power come back on within a couple of hours, hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity, cable and/or phone services for several days.
During these difficult times, both local and national news organizations pointed out that FEMA and state emergency agencies recommended using solar chargers, particularly to maintain communications. Here’s a discussion of what to look for in solar chargers / portable solar panels and solar emergency lights and flashlights. We also include a FEMA-developed list of items recommended for a simple emergency kit.
Basic Emergency Kit Recommendations
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a website, Ready.gov that provides great information on what should be included in home or office emergency kits. It’s also a great idea to keep emergency kits in automobiles in case you get caught in a storm, stuck in a remote area, or if events require you to leave your home very quickly.
Below is FEMA’s list of what should be included in a Basic Disaster Supplies Kit. Please visit the site noted above for other items that you should think about including in your own home, auto or office Emergency Preparedness Kit.
“Basic Disaster Supplies Kit...A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:
- Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
- Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Manual can opener for food
- Local maps
- Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger…” (source: Ready.gov)
Along with powering cell phones, smart phones, satellite phones, many solar chargers can power laptop computers, GPS navigation systems.
Other commonly used electronic gadgets that solar can power include wireless routers to keep you and your family “online” during power outages and digital cameras, so you can document damage!
Some solar chargers/portable solar panels can even work for items normally charged through an electrical power outlet.
With the right accessories, some solar chargers work with “rechargeable” lights, radios and other traditionally powered products including digital cameras, and portable games that can make life more comfortable during power outages, particularly for restless children.
Emergency Solar Lights and Solar Flashlights
Like any solar powered product, there are many different types of solar flashlights and lights for emergencies. Again, it’s up to the consumer to pick what is best for their needs and budget. Generally the cost of the latest products is more than older models. But the new ones are generally the most reliable and, in the long-term, the best investment.
Since the daylight recharges the light and not a utility company, solar lights are great during power outages. You can turn the product off during the day and let it sit outside or sometimes in a very bright window.
Things to look for when choosing emergency solar lights or flashlights include:
- The level of light emitted by unit;
- How long the solar light works on a single charge; and
- How long the solar light will retain its charge when unused (like when it’s stored in an emergency kit).
Light levels vary greatly among solar products and you usually get what you pay for. We like “Two-in-One” products in particular: these have different “heads” that can be fixed one base and can serve as long-lasting bright flashlights or strong spotlights that stay continuously lit for shorter periods of time.
Different lights run for different lengths of time on a single charge. This should be noted in the product’s description. Often the longest running and strongest solar lights cost more than alternatives because the technology is newer.
The other thing to look at is how long and how strong the solar light will retain the energy it stores from the sun. Many newer solar flashlights and solar emergency lights can retain up to 80% of their charge when fully charged and then stored for 12 months. This means that if you fully charge the item and then put it away until an emergency, it is going to reliably provide light for a significant period of time.
Don’t Forget About Regular Outdoor Solar Lights!
Some outdoor solar lights also are helpful during emergencies. Unlike alternatives such as kerosene lights or candles, they pose no risk of fires and produce absolutely zero carbon monoxide.
When high winds are predicted, many outdoor lights (particularly those not secured to a building, wall or post) should be taken indoors anyway, so why not keep them where you can put them to use if you lose power?
Indoor solar reading lights are great and there are several “portable solar lamp posts” and solar lanterns that can easily be taken indoors! Solar shed lights can be used inside your home by putting the cable outside and the fixture inside.
For houses, we recommend opening a window just enough to accommodate the cord. Remember: you can easily move the solar light to another room when it starts to become dark.
What to Look for When Selecting Products
When you are shopping for any solar powered product, keep in mind that solar technology continues to advance very rapidly. And usually, the best products available carry a higher price tag. Does this mean that the lower products aren’t any good? Not necessarily.
Here are some things to think about when you decide which products to use.
Batteries: Always Use Correct Battery
Many solar products with the smallest price tag are priced use older technology and older batteries, such as NiCAD rechargeable batteries. Remember that electronic devices MUST use the battery for which they were designed.
If you replace a device’s battery with a type or strength battery different from what originally came with the product, the product will be destroyed. This isn’t because of marketing in any shape or form: it’s due to basic scientific principles.
Solar items that use NiCAD batteries are usually older models with dated solar technology. Most products work just fine, but the cost of replacing NiCAD in a couple of years may be more than the item itself.
NiCADs work great for simple accent lights, but they are not a great choice for solar chargers in particular.
Products that use Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries generally are state-of-the-art products. Li-Ion batteries are particularly good for rechargeable items because of the way they store and discharge power.
The majority of good solar items on the market today use the NiMH batteries, which are better than NiCAD from technical perspectives and also non-toxic. NiCAD batteries need to be disposed of as “hazardous materials.”
Viewed by many experts as an “interim step” in solar battery evolution towards Li-Ion batteries,” NiMH batteries and the products that use them are usually less money today than Li-Ion batteries or solar products that use Li-Ion technology.
Since batteries for solar powered items usually last for two years, use your own judgment and budget requirements.
For example, Li-Ion batteries are the most expensive today and can be more difficult to find. But, two years from now, they are likely to be far less expensive and easier to find than NiCAD batteries.
In general, small solar lights or gadgets that use a monocrystalline solar panel are the best . But, many solar products (particularly those for use with emergency products) use “Amorphous Solar Panels.”
Amorphous solar panels use different components from mono or polycrystalline panels. Most amorphous solar panels have a great feature, particularly for emergencies: they often can charge during cloudy weather or when located in moderately shady places.
Options for Charging Electronics/Accessories
Our solar lighting store carries many solar chargers and we continue to add and remove products as technology changes. Two solar chargers in particular appear very similar, except for the cost. The one that is more expensive, however, can be used safely to charge a wider variety of non-solar products.
It includes accessories that allow the product to charge items that use AC/DC current, CLA (cigarette light adaptors), USB cables or “car battery charger clips.” So, instead of plugging your rechargeable device into your car’s cigarette lighter, you simply plug the device directly into the solar charger. Simple, easy and safe.
More expensive solar chargers also include technology that protects electronic devices from over-charging. This may or may not be noted in the product description, so if you have any questions, call the merchant selling the charger and ask them.
Always Follow Advice from Local or National Authorities
In any emergency situation, you should track and comply with any emergency alerts or warnings from local authorities! The best emergency kit in the universe won’t keep you safe in a place that is in imminent danger. Along with evacuation notices, local and national authorities often broadcast “Stay Away” notices, or warnings to stay off of the roads.
Of course, if you have no power you may not hear these notices. This is one important reason why solar chargers and solar products are great tools during natural disasters and severe storms. Solar power means you can keep in touch with the outside world regardless of whether electricity is available or not.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst!
Everyone hopes that 2012 brings better weather and less natural disasters than 2011. Even so, The Farmer’s Almanac says the coming winter will be a rough one.
We hope this article gives you some ideas on how to prepare now so that you and your family are safer during a power outage. Even if you live in a warm climate, remember that storms and other disasters happen far too often.
We hope that you take the adage “Better Safe than Sorry” to heart and consider solar products as an integral part of your Emergency Preparedness.
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