07 July 2018

Got Batteries?

This afternoon, just out of curiosity, I decided to inventory my battery stash. One of my fears is being caught in an emergency without batteries. Irrational? Ever try to buy common battery types when a hurricane is approaching? Batteries are one of the first commodities to disappear in the panic buying just before a storm, any storm. People who live their lives in a mind-meld with their smartphones never seem to think about how they will power the things when the lights go out. I think most plan to just sit in their cars with the engine running so they can recharge their phone. Until the gas runs out.


I'm not saying you can recharge an iPhone 7 with a handful of AA cells. What I am getting at is that most folks don't plan for disasters. They just react as events unfold, and that reaction is usually fear - fear of being without. That's why you find folks who claim to live a gluten-free lifestyle snatching loaves of Wonder Bread off the store shelves right along with the guy that eats three PB&J sandwiches a day.

The same for batteries. A few years back, the day before an ice storm was scheduled to hit the Atlanta area, I watched a guy in the local Wal-Mart buy the last three 6-volt lantern batteries they had in stock. I asked him what he was planning to run with them and he told me he had no idea, he just wanted to make sure he had batteries - any batteries, I guess. Of course I was the one with two Coleman battery powered fluorescent lanterns that needed those batteries. It was at that moment I realized I needed to:

  1. Switch my battery powered devices such as radios and flashlights to models that used common battery types
  2. Make sure I always had enough batteries on hand to meet clearly planned out emergency power requirements
  3. Find the cheapest and most reliable source of quality batteries

One of the technological advancements of the last decade that made this feasible is the LED (light emitting diode). The LED has revolutionized the portable lighting industry. This means a two AA-cell LED flashlight can put out more light than an old 2 D-cell unit powering an incandescent bulb. The LED is also more energy efficient so batteries last longer and the quality of the light put out by an LED is much better - it's a cleaner, whiter light that does a much better job of penetrating the darkness.

LED technology has also made its way over to portable lanterns. When I got home after my Wal-Mart battery encounter I went on-line and ordered a Streamlight Siege LED lantern to test against my old Coleman fluorescent lanterns. It took about 10 minutes of testing to convince me that the LED lantern was the way to go. The Coleman lanterns got chucked in the trash that night (I didn't have batteries for them anyway) and I've been using the Streamlights ever since.

The Siege lantern comes in a 3 D-cell
or smaller 3 AA-cell version
So over the course of the last few years I've swapped virtually all of my emergency gear over to devices that take common batteries - all my flashlights, lanterns, AM/FM/Weather radios, even most of my handheld Amateur radios and one HF/VHF/UHF radio (Yaesu FT-817) is set up to run on AA or D-cells.

But what about devices like smartphones and tablets that don't take standard batteries? For those I've taken a different approach. Rather than try to keep various power sources on-hand for each type I just have a small bank of 12 volt 32 amp hour golf cart batteries I can hook up to a USB adapter. One of these batteries is capable of charging an iPad at least twice, and a smartphone perhaps half a dozen times before needing to be recharged itself. With several of these golf cart batteries on-hand I feel certain I can keep the phones and tablets running for several days or power other critical devices like higher power Amateur radios.

But do I have enough batteries? That answer requires planning for a likely emergency scenario over a clearly defined span of time. I plan for a weather related disaster of up to 72 hours in duration. If my local government can't get things back up and working even to minimal levels in 72 hours then I'm taking the bug-out option. So knowing all the devices I want to keep working for 72 hours - all my lights and radios - how many batteries do I need to keep on-hand to meet the minimum stockage requirement? I think the number will surprise you. I plugged it all into a spreadsheet and came up with 76 (seventy six!) AA-cells and 22 D-cells. This is the minimum number I need to keep on-hand in the event of a 'surprise' weather event. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Every week during spring and summer someone in the central US comes home from work and in the time it takes to prepare dinner their house is either destroyed or severely damaged by a tornado. It can and does happen on a regular basis. Just ask the folks who live in Tornado Alley. When a tornado is bearing down on your part of town it's a lousy time to run to the store to look for batteries.

Live anywhere near a colored square?
Mother Nature has a something in store for you.
Maybe not this week, or even this year, but soon...

Next, let's look at source. If the bunny on TV - the one with the drum - is to be believed the only good battery is the more expensive battery. The bunny sells a lot of batteries, but what he's banging his drum about isn't necessarily the truth. A number of studies have shown that generic alkaline batteries tend to last just as long in average consumer devices as the more expensive name brand versions. The term 'average consumer device' means things like radios, flashlights, game consoles, etc. There are valid reasons for going with more expensive batteries for high drain electronics like digital cameras, but then you are talking about moving away from alkaline and over to the far more expensive lithium technologies. For the types of devices I'm talking about powering, good old generic alkaline batteries are just fine, thanks. I've found the best source, and the easiest to deal with, is Amazon and their house brand Amazon Basics batteries. The Amazon Basics AA batteries sell for $0.23/cell when bought in quantities of 100 or more. Compare that to $0.40/cell for 100 of the bunny's batteries when bought from Amazon. The same economics apply for AAA-cells, D-cells and other sizes. Some folks bring up the bogey man of 'shelf life'; in fact, the bunny bases an entire ad campaign around the freshness of his (or her? I'm not sure) batteries. The truth is, common battery types like AA's get used for a lot of things around the average household - in clocks, remote controls, alarms, toys, musical devices, etc. Your battery stock will get rotated through regular usage. Just buy the cheaper generics, use 'em, and when your stockage level drops below your minimum, replace 'em.

So there you have it. When it comes to batteries my philosophy is you can never have enough but it's easy to have too little. If you are serious about preparing for likely disaster scenarios take a hard look at the emergency devices in your house and how you plan to use them, then calculate out the number of batteries you will need for a scenario that lasts 48 or 72 hours. That way you won't find yourself at Wal-Mart battling half the town for the last blister pack of the bunny's batteries.


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