The Invaluable Asset of Energy: As Preppers we have all not only imagined that we can be suddenly been thrust into the position of protecting and providing for our family in a catastrophic situation, we have seen it on the news and some have experienced it too up close and too personal. What are the first things that come to mind? Safety, protection, food security, a low-key hideout maybe or hunkering down; those are probably some of your top priorities. But once you get that hideout secure and stocked with food, then what? What about running water, heat, and electricity for the basics of survival? If things go bad quickly, do you really want your fortress dependent on the grid?
If you’re a regular visitor to this site, chances are the above scenario is a thought that has crossed your mind many times before, and will many times again, as we rethink and updates plans, taking into consideration new technologies, or tried and true solutions that need to be refreshed. You may even have a good plan in mind of exactly where to go and what to do. As a part of this on-going planning you might consider a solar photovoltaic (PV) system with Nickel Iron battery energy storage. We like this because the nickel–iron battery is a rechargeable, having nickel(III) oxide-hydroxide positive plates and iron negative plates, with an electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. Wikipedia
Maybe you see yourself and your family hunkered down in a private bunker somewhere in the unforgiving Mojave Desert, or your home in Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert, or at the edge of the Outback down under. Your daily temperatures can easily get up to 120º F, maybe even 130º, your roof certainly will. Of all the things you need to worry about keeping cool (most importantly your loved ones and your supplies) your battery system shouldn’t be one of them. This is a big plus if you live in the desert southwest, where temperatures approaching this are normal 7 months a year, and I have been boiling in Toronto in August.
Maybe your plan is to retreat into a snowy forest, shrouded in dense tree cover high in the Rocky Mountains. There you might have better access to hunting game as a source of food, but you can also regularly expect daily low temperatures in the Winter to dip into the single digits and sub-zeros. Again, in this kind of climate, your focus should be on keeping the family warm, not your support systems. I have been to Wyoming skiing in February four times in mys life and have never experienced a temperature above 5º, but have experienced as low as -25º.
At either extreme, and at every climate in between, a Nickel Iron battery can hang right there with you. Its battery chemistry and hardware are capable of both charging and discharging in temperatures as low as -30º F (-35º C) and as high as 140º F (60º C). This range of functional operation means you have the ability to harness solar energy and utilize it reliably regardless of where you live. I’m sold.
For years the standard battery for solar energy systems was lead acid. The lead–acid battery was invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté and is the oldest type of rechargeable battery. Wikipedia
For standby applications such as occasional emergency backup on a grid-powered home, a lead acid battery might work. But even then, you better hope you don’t need too much power throughout the day for things like lighting, refrigeration, heating, and many other critical survival needs. Need to use it daily at 50% depth of discharge (DOD) or more? You likely won’t get more than 1,000 charge and discharge cycles out of your bank. Need a little more juice, say 80% DOD? Have fun replacing the bank after the first 200 cycles. That’s less than a year if you’re using it every day.
Now remember those climate extremes for you and your family’s backup bunker? Well, a lead acid battery might work for a while in the Mojave, though if the temperature exceeds 122º F you’re going to be in trouble. When charging, the lead acid can handle temperatures as low as 4 below, but when discharged it can freeze at 32º F leading to permanent damage. And if you have a whole bank freeze, you better hope you planned ahead with an extra bank or two in nearby storage, that has been heated.
Not only can the Nickel Iron battery handle those temperature extremes, its cycle life at a high depth of discharge is unbeatable. At 80% DOD, the Nickel Iron battery can go for 11,000 cycles and up if well-maintained (which we’ll get into in a second). The effect of this is twofold: for one, you are able to utilize more of the solar energy you’re harnessing every day; and two, even with this bonus daily juice, your Nickel Iron batteries will still last over 50 times longer than lead acid ones. This means decades of reliable solar electricity to help keep your food refrigerated, your security alarms armed and your family more comfortable.
The main drawback of the Nickel Iron cell lies in its maintenance requirements, though even those are easy enough to mitigate. It needs to be watered with distilled water every few months and needs a liquid electrolyte replacement every ten years or when you notice a loss in energy capacity.
The watering is not much of a problem these days. Water deionizers are readily available, as well as watering guns to cut down on the time and even fully integrated watering systems that can attach to each cell and fill up to the perfect level automatically in a few minutes.
The electrolyte replacement process is more involved, but still a viable option for the life of your battery bank, even in a crisis. Some Nickel Iron manufactures will sell you extra electrolyte in its dry, powdered form (which is then mixed with water to become the liquid electrolyte solution that will actually go into the cells); then all you need to do is store the powder properly and forget about it until that ten year mark comes around.
Think of this part like storing powdered eggs: the more air and water-tight the container you store it in, the longer it’ll last. It reacts with moisture from the air, so it might not be 100% as good as new when you bring it out a decade into the future, but if stored well it should retain its chemical properties enough to do the trick when the time comes.
In Edison’s mind, the ideal battery would also be “durable, light in weight, and sufficiently strong to stand the abuse, carelessness and negligence of a bustling world.” Thomas Edison, riding the wave of the second industrial revolution, envisioned his batteries in use in a world of ever-increasing prosperity and technological advancement. The “bustling world” Edison had in mind likely wasn’t one where the battery’s users had to worry about dire circumstances in the event of extreme weather, governmental fallout or economic crisis. He may not have known that such events would become more and more viable in the century ahead.
The good news, in light of the catastrophic possibilities ahead of us when things go wrong, is that Nickel Iron batteries are ready and should be considered a part of your planning.