Friday, November 17, 2023

Adventures with power stations


Last week I wrote about so-called "power stations", portable battery banks (for want of a better word) that can supply electricity for hours, some of them for days, in the event of a power outage.  They're very useful tools, and if you have any reliance on critical electrical equipment (particularly medical, such as CPAP machines or oxygen generators), IMHO they fall under the heading of essential emergency gear.  If you missed that earlier article, I suggest you click over there and read it before continuing with this one.

I've just had to replace an older Jackery 440 power station.  I bought it about four years ago, and it's given good service until now.  Unfortunately, when I needed a new charger, I learned that the 440 went out of production soon after I got it, and Jackery no longer supplies parts for it.  Sadly, there are no third-party chargers available with the correct plug to fit my unit (despite a couple of them claiming the contrary - I checked).  That means, for want of a simple wall charger, my $500-plus power station is now effectively unusable.  I'm very annoyed about that, because I think it's incumbent upon the makers of relatively costly equipment to retain a supply of essential spares.  If they don't, they're demonstrating a lack of care towards their customers that's almost contempt.  "Sure, you spent your money with us - but that's your problem!"  After telling me that no replacement charger was available, their customer service representative even suggested that I take advantage of next week's Black Friday sales to buy a more modern version from them.  No discount was offered, and no trade-in for my now useless earlier model, either or both of which would seem to me to be basic customer courtesy in this situation.  Needless to say, I bought a non-Jackery product as a replacement, and Jackery is now on my "unreliable supplier" list - a pity, as they're one of the larger manufacturers of such equipment and their products are well reviewed.  Still . . . if that's how they treat their customers, I won't be one of them in future.  As always, caveat emptor.

While shopping around for the replacement unit (I ended up buying an Ecoflow River 2 Max model, as discussed last week), I learned a lot about the current state of the market.  For a start, prices have come down a lot if you shop around (I paid less than half as much for the Ecoflow as I did for the roughly-equivalent-capacity Jackery four years ago).  Also, battery technology has improved considerably, making modern units more efficient and faster-charging (for example, my new Ecoflow charges to full in about one hour, compared to 6-7 hours for the older Jackery).  The software that controls them has also improved, allowing one to specify a slower charging rate (which generates less heat and wear on the battery and cooling fan) and even set the level to which they will charge, very useful for long-term storage when one doesn't plan to use them unless in emergency.  (It's not good to store lithium batteries at full charge, again because of wear considerations.  For example, Ecoflow recommends charging its units to not more than 85% for long-term storage.  Modern systems have made it much easier to avoid such pitfalls.)

The only danger is that, if one specifies a lower charging rate and/or a less-than-full level of charge, in an emergency one might not have access to Internet or wi-fi connections to reset the unit to its base configuration.  Therefore, I made sure to adjust the Ecoflow's parameters back to full power and charge rate as soon as I'd charged it for the first time.  That way, if the power goes out tomorrow, it'll still operate at its maximum performance.  That's a basic precaution that a lot of people don't think about:  but if something goes badly wrong, you don't want to be sitting with a power station that's unnecessarily slow to charge and/or won't hold a full charge.  Not a good idea!  (Another useful precaution is to, every three months or so, discharge the unit under load, then recharge to the recommended level before putting it back into storage.  That way, you're sure it works, and won't be caught short in an emergency.  Some manufacturers even void their warranty if such regular discharge/recharge cycles are not followed - and yes, they'll know, because their units track and record such information, either internally or over the Internet.)

I was surprised to learn how many people spend thousands of dollars buying high-end, high-capacity power stations that allow them to operate major domestic appliances (stove, refrigerator, HVAC systems, etc.) in an emergency.  That's great if you have a large disposable income, but such power systems are very expensive.  One can buy a nice dual-fuel generator and enough fuel for a month (propane, gasoline, whatever) and still save money compared to such high-end systems.  Our approach is to say that, in emergency, we'll heat or cool no more than one or two rooms, and cook over a propane camping stove or a fire, and use a small generator to run our refrigerator and freezer every few hours to keep the food in them cold.  We can keep going like that for several weeks if we have to, and won't have to spend five figures or more on a high-end power station and expanded battery capacity to run the whole house.  Our small power stations will allow us to run a CPAP machine;  recharge cellphones, handheld radios, laptop computers and flashlights;  and generally take care of the basics at an affordable cost.  I have two units, so while one's in use, the other can be recharging off a generator or small portable solar panel - and if one breaks, the other's still there.  That gives me peace of mind.

Also, one can duplicate the performance of a lower-end power station for a lot less money, if that's a factor.  As reader Hightecrebel noted last week:

Anyone even slightly handy can make a battery box that's 75-95% as capable for half the cost of the power stations, but in a slightly larger form factor that is fine for at home. There are videos on Odyssey, Rumble, & YouTube showing how to do it with anything from a plastic ammo can to a rolling toolbox. One guy has a whole Rigid toolbox set with batteries in the bottom rolling box w/ 12v outlets and charger connection, with additional boxes for an inverter or expansion batteries.

I'm planning to build one into a Hart Stack set personally (I like the colors), and it's looking like for around $700 I'll have 2.5KWH of battery (200AH @ 12V), and a 2KW pure sine wave inverter. Took a little time to get the parts for it, catching things on sale and such. Compared to an Ecoflow Delta 2 Max for $1600 with 2KW of power and a 3KW inverter. And mine'll have wheels and an extendable handle for ease of movement.

I agree, you can make your own battery system that way, albeit with the disadvantages that it'll be a lot bigger and heavier than a typical power station (making it less portable if you have to take it with you) and its lead-acid batteries will take longer to recharge.  However, the cost savings may make up for that.  YMMV.  One can also use third-party solar panels to set up a recharging system for your power station, rather than use the panels offered by its vendor;  but again, they'll be bigger and heavier than a portable solar panel, and less easy to take along if you have to "get out of Dodge".  You pays your money, and you takes your choice.  (I wish there were a common standard for solar panels, and connectors, and charge rates, among the manufacturers of such things!  It's very frustrating to try to figure out which panels and plugs will fit which devices, and whether or not the charge rates and capacities are compatible.  The simplest solution is to go with a solar panel setup from the power station manufacturer, but they're often relatively expensive compared to third-party systems.)

Finally, it's worth noting that many manufacturers of such devices are offering Black Friday discount deals on their products.  Some of the discounts aren't as good as those offered by retailers (as I noted about my Ecoflow unit last week), but if you shop around, you may be able to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars off the list prices, which is not to be sneezed at.  (If you want to compare units between manufacturers, there are lots of comparisons on YouTube and elsewhere - just do a search on the name[s] of the unit[s] in which you're interested, and include the word "reviews", and you'll find them.  Here are a few to get you started.)



Trailer For Sale Or Rent said...

I worked offshore, and the ships all had 2 or 3 of everything.
I started a system whereby one job (several months) would use set A, and the next would use set B.
This system was started after having my heart broken one too many times due to a "good" spare failing to start up.

Jim said...

Don't write off your power bank yet. look for a local HAM radio club. radios require power, often portable power in the form of battery packs ,and while less common than it used to be many HAMs still make their own gear. I am fairly certain their will be someone at the club that will be more than willing to make a power supply for your battery bank.

Merlin said...

Peter, if you have the old power connector, I can probably connect it to whatever replacement charging adapter you get.

Also, in looking at a picture of the unit, the charging connector looks very similar to a Dell / HP laptop power connector. (Note: the power supplies for the two types of laptops are not EXACTLY the same. Some subtle but important differences)

It you'd like to communicate a bit more about this, you can e-mail me at motoroladavid2011 @ gmail . com (remove spaces where appropriate).

Rob said...

If you have natural gas heat all you need is the power to run the blower on the furnace, sounds like a homemade power unit would work well for that.

Snake said...

Normal and emergency power systems are in my professional wheelhouse and I wrote up a small essay covering the most important points on solar generators from a recent report I did to my prepper group but it is too big for comments section. So some quick highlights:
1) Solar generators have now reached a price/performance parity with similarly sized home built systems and with fast charging now available they are highly desirable.
2) For home backup use, combine a properly sized solar generator with portable solar panels and a 1500W inverter generator for an exceptionally sustainable emergency power system. Only thing this can't do is your hot water tank or your well.
3) Preferred brands are EcoFlow, Bluetti, and Jackery in pretty much that order. Ignore everybody else at this time.
4) Basic recommended system is 2000Wh solar generator, 400W of solar panels, 1500W inverter generator. This system is super sustainable on a small gasoline supply and easily portable and much more useful if you have to relocate.
6) Inverter generators are on the order of 5X more efficient in terms of watts produced for gasoline used except for sustained very heavy loads. They also have around 10% of the sound signature of a regular portable genset.
7) If you have a well you pretty much have to have the larger generator set with significant fuel supply. Otherwise the recommended system is preferable in almost every use case.
8) If you plan to use your system like Peter has outlined, a smaller solar generator combined with the standard portable generator makes a nice pairing but has drawbacks.

GuardDuck said...

I agree that there's no reason to buy an entire new unit just because the charger doesn't work.

An appropriate plug in unit with the right step down and wattage can be wired up to the existing interface jack. The specs should be listed on the old unit.

If it is the jack that is bad, and it is a of a standard - that can be found and replaced. If it is not standard - the receiving jack in the unit could be rewired to accept a standard jack.

I'd hate to have to replace a $300 functional unit that can be made functional with $20 and an hours time.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I've done this several times before, the first time over 30 years ago.
For the costs involved, it is well worth at least trying.

lynn said...

Supposedly my whole house 38 kw natural gas liquid cooled generator with the automatic transfer switch is good for ten years. It is a Mitsubishi 2L four cylinder inline motor with a turbocharger that starts and provides power to us in ten seconds. It can produce 158 amps at 230 volts, enough to run both of my A/C units (7 tons of a/c), my electric double oven, etc. We don't even know when it is running because it is so quiet.

I am still thinking about building a mother-in-law house on my 1.2 acre lot so it was sized to power that also. It does run on natural gas from our house meter and requires 2 psig of pressure which will be available as long as the natural gas pipeline system does not crash.

jed said...

I'm with the others who've mentioned a little bench time with the right connector is a viable option. You don't mention specifically why the old charger doesn't work, but your mention of replacement chargers makes me think it's not producing power any longer. But this is easy to solve - at least a quick look indicates that, to me.

The diagrams shown at CampSaver show an 8mm coaxial power jack, 25VDC, 4A. No mention of a charge controller, so we might assume the unit has an internal charge controller. This is important. If it does, then all you need is a 25VDC power supply that'll provide enough current. I'm going to guess 24VDC is sufficient too. Those 8mm coaxial connectors are a std. part.

A lot of companies made their stuff "compatible" with Goal Zero. The 8mm coaxial is probably that. Here's one example - not saying this is what you'll need, just to show you what sort of parts are out there.

Polarity is important!

A prepper lesson here is to get some familiarity with basic repair skills, such as soldering, and making electrical connections using various connectors.

RSR said...

APC UPS models with replaceable batteries (primarily for desktop PCs or servers) are best for stuff like WiFi, CPAP, etc., used daily... they clean current, extend life of stuff plugged into them, and have battery backup for a few hours -- just turn off audio alarms in bedroom.

Jackery doesn't support past a half decade since their batteries go bad and planned obsolescence at that age... same for others.

Generators store longer than battery systems and most solar panels. But fuel lasts less long than either. Small scale wind also probably lasts less long than most solar panels, but HUGE for north Texas, provided no hail damage.

So there's a tradeoff with everything here, but personally, I consider the inverter generator plus UPS to be superior to the cost of an electronic power supply unit. I do also have foldable backpack solar panels and smaller battery charge packs good for a half dozen or so phone recharges, and were it not for hail concerns and budget limitations, i'd consider putting aside if not installing larger rigid panels at home.

Good luck!