What if the Lights Go Out Here?
November 2, 2012 6:27 AM   Subscribe

With the power out in downtown New York, I'm wondering what devices I should buy against the next blackout / ice storm / zombie apocalypse to keep my electronics going.

Should I get a solar charger for my USB devices? Is there a plausible charger for a MacBook Pro? Are kinetic chargers any use? I'm in an apartment building, so a generator seems out of the question.

What do you recommend to keep the lights on and the devices charged in the event of a power outage?
posted by musofire to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Mophie cover for my iPhone. It's awesome - holds two full extra charges in the battery enclosed in the case. When the phone dies, you throw the tiny switch on the side of the case and it charges the phone. Can get me through several full working days without plugging in.
posted by jbickers at 6:41 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

It depends on what you're trying to protect against, and how much you're willing to pay. If a blackout lasts longer than, say, a week, you're not going to be able to do much with the Macbook Pro without relying on a generator. For the USB devices, you can get away with solar charging (at least on the phones; not sure about an iPad or other high-powered USB devices), but you may be stuck in one place for a while as the device charges. And, it can be cloudy.

The Morphie (and similar things from Duracell) that jbickers mentions gives you more reserves, like filling up a bathtub with water. That may be good enough for a given blackout duration.

If you can't run a generator, one other thing to consider is a car, which, surprise!, has a generator in it. Just get the correct converters, and you can (expensively) charge your devices while making a run to Costco to pick up supplies. Some cars have 110-volt outlets in them, so you may not need extra converters.
posted by chengjih at 6:54 AM on November 2, 2012

I've got a thing about the size of a boombox that has a battery and inverter, and can charge from wall or car. it's great and I can use it to charge stuff as well as run a radio etc.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:58 AM on November 2, 2012

There was a similar question yesterday (which was more about full-on disaster preparedness, but does have info on electronics chargers and the like) that might have some good leads.
posted by bcwinters at 7:09 AM on November 2, 2012

I would not worry about your Macbook, since it's a power hog and requires a router-based internet connection to be useful in most cases.

For you iPhone, I picked up a couple of these battery packs at discount a while back, and have gotten plenty of use out of them. They won't last as long as the Mophie, but they provide about the same amount of juice and are half the price.

You probably don't have a car, but if you did I'd suggest a USB-car lighter converter for charging.
posted by mkultra at 7:13 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard people saying that solar chargers they bought didn't work, or didn't supply enough power to be worthwhile. (Keep in mind that if there is a storm the weather likely will not be that sunny!)

Realistically, you don't want magical tools to make electricity where none exists. You want things that don't rely on plugged-in electricity. Battery powered or hand-cranked radio. Non-electronic land line phone. Travel alarm clock. Flashlights. Choose models with easily available batteries (AA and AAA). A few of those emergency battery extender gadgets for cell phones wouldn't be a terrible idea.

Without a generator, you have no realistic hope of keeping the lights on. And even with a generator, you have to be careful about power because they run on gasoline and you have to have a reliable and safe supply of gasoline to keep them going long term. I went through a hurricane in a house with a generator, and we reliably had ceiling fans, power for essential electronics, and lights in the bathroom to pee by. It's not all "Woo! Endless power 4-evah! Let's have a LAN party!"
posted by Sara C. at 7:22 AM on November 2, 2012

1- Make sure you have fast chargers for your devices. Most things charge over some kind of USB connector, and they will default to 500ma unless the charger is "smart" and tells the device it can give more. This means that you can charge your phone up in 15 minutes rather than 3 hours. Especially if you have to resort to sitting in your car or grabbing a free spot in a shared powerstrip.

2- If you do have a car, buying a good inverter might be a better strategy than buying car chargers for all your stuff. An inverter will let you plug any AC adapter in, where you'd have to keep buying car chargers (and cigarette socket splitters) for all your different stuff.

3- I'd like to see a better selection of people-powered chargers. That seems like the best solution in a natural disaster where not much else can be guaranteed. Throw some LiIon batteries into it and let it stay plugged into the wall to keep them topped off. When the power goes out, you have ample storage which you will be able to replenish at your leisure, and then charge the devices at their leisure. The little ones seem inconvenient- when you need to make an important call, having to crank a little thing is the last thing you need.

Perhaps an attachment for a bicycle, like they used to have to convert a road bike into a stationary might be a viable option too. One person pedaling for a half hour can probably store up quite a bit of energy.

I live in a condo, so what I have is an old UPS with a shitload of batteries hanging off of it. Its purpose is more for protecting my computers and stuff from unclean power, but I can get some pretty good runtime out of it if I just use it for phone charging and keeping my router up.

If you do buy one, make sure it is one that can be powered up without utility power. Mine isn't (because it was free) and that's inconvenient. When the power is out, I'd like to have the ability to turn it off to save battery power, and then turn it back on for a few minutes when I need to charge something. (Because it uses a significant amount of power just being "on", even if it isn't powering anything.)
posted by gjc at 7:31 AM on November 2, 2012

If you have your own home, AND you have natural gas, a natural gas-powered generator is what you want - it should be an "essential circuit" model, to keep the kitchen power on, and have an auto-switch so it will kick in even if you're not home when the lights go out. It will also run on propane, so keep a spare tank handy in case gas supply is interrupted. (Generally, natural gas supplies are good when the power goes out in an area, and propane is easier to procure than gasoline in case it's interrupted.)

Not so good in NYC, so if you have a bike, look into this.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:56 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A power inverter and a car battery? Smaller and cheaper than a generator.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:16 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

If anyone plans on using their car to charge electronics, make sure you have an extra fuse for your car that controls the AC adapter cigarette lighter deal. If I plugged my old GPS and anything else in at the same time it would blow the fuse.
posted by marxchivist at 8:18 AM on November 2, 2012

We rent a rowhouse in DC (else we'd have mounted solar panels on the roof), and here's what we've used to keep things going.

* CyberPower CP1500AVRLCD UPS to allow graceful shutdown of the Time Machine, LaCie 5Big, modem/router, and iMac.

* Laptops are put to sleep once all essential work is backed up, but they can be recharged from the Powergorilla/Solargorilla combo.

* A Duracell Powerpack 600 keeps LED lanterns/headlamps, fans, et al. going. It can be recharged using the Solargorilla.

* A Minigorilla and Powermonkey Extreme charges tablets, smartphones, and mobile hotspots on the go.

Sans UPS, this is the kit I also use to run a timing/scoring stand while off-grid for race weekends.
posted by evoque at 8:23 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a small charger, made by energizer that is good for charging my iphone, etc. It cost about $50 and I got it at best buy. Definitely useful and I keep it in my purse all the time for topping up my phone's charge.
Just wondering though, did all of you guys in New York still have cell and data service during the storm? Will I expect to have service if the whole grid goes out?
posted by photoexplorer at 8:26 AM on November 2, 2012

Manhattan below 34th street lacks cell and data service in addition to power.

During Katrina, cell service was out, but SMS was getting through. This was before most people had data plans, so I don't remember about that.

Certainly it's not worth being over-concerned about having a fully powered cell phone during a disaster like this. It's good, but it's not vital on the level of a flashlight or a land line.
posted by Sara C. at 8:31 AM on November 2, 2012

I'm definitely checking this out when the budget is looking better. Of course, I'm probably in a much more rural environment than you, but charging station + tea = win.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:11 AM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh my God, that's wonderful. Boiling water for tea and charging my devices all together in one package?? WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF WONDERS. (Yes, this made me squee a little bit)
posted by rmd1023 at 11:24 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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