Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pondering Power Problem Possibilities

Most people in Western countries take electricity for granted. You flip a switch and the lights come on. Your phone or iPod runs out of juice, no big deal. You just plug it into the wall. If you've done much traveling though, especially visiting field offices, you quickly learn power is something not to be taken for granted. Dirty power and brownouts fry computers and printers. Rationed electricity forces you to schedule when you'll use electronic devices. Natural disasters and government crackdowns shut off power at inopportune times. Many NGOs turn to using diesel generators and power regulation systems to ensure they can operate their offices. But this can be quite costly.

During a crisis, communication is essential. People rely on their cell phones and radios to stay in touch and manage the situation. But what happens if power isn't available for an extended period and the batteries run down? As with any problem, there are a number of possible solutions.

If you have a generator in the office, whether large or small, you can press it into service (just remember a generator requires fuel, and you should have a pretty good idea of how long it will run on your existing fuel stocks).

Solar panels are an option in sunny environments. Small panels are available for charging consumer devices like mobile phones. Some of these products even have built-in batteries that store electricity when the sun isn't shining. (I've had good luck with Solio's products). Large panels that charge lead acid batteries such as those found in cars and trucks are an even better option. Bigger batteries store more juice and can charge more devices, quicker. (You'll need an adapter that converts the direct current of a battery to the alternating current required by a charger.) Rollable panels such as those produced by PowerFilm are portable but are more expensive than rigid panels.

You may have encountered hand-operated crank radios and lights developed by FreePlay; the company has produced a number of different devices for the humanitarian community. They also make a commercial, hand-operated charger for electronic devices. (The hand charger sounds good in theory, but takes a considerable amount of time and effort to fully charge a phone. It's best for getting a few minutes of talk time in. FreePlay used to offer a foot-operated charger that was easier to use, but unfortunately it's no longer listed on their Web site.)

Car chargers for radios and mobile phones plug into the cigarette lighter of a vehicle and provide power from the vehicle's electrical system. There are also inverters available that you plug into a cigarette lighter outlet. These allow you to use an electrical device with the inverter. For example you could plug a laptop computer into the inverter just like you would in an office wall electrical outlet. (Inverters have different power ratings, so be sure the wattage of the device doesn't exceed the maximum wattage of the inverter.)

Finally, one of my favorite power to the people solutions is pedal power. MNS Power offers free plans for building a bicycle power generator. It's not portable, but you can keep electronic devices charged up while getting some exercise and burning off stress in the office.

Remember that different electrical voltages are used throughout the world. Just because you can jam a plug into an outlet doesn't mean your device will run. Pay attention to the voltage and wattage numbers associated with your device and ensure primary and backup power systems will work with them (and not send them to a smoking and burning early grave).



Post a Comment

<< Home