Winter energy challenges

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The erratic weather this winter has created some amazing sights and sounds. Warm weather melts the snow and ice, only to be followed by an intense drop in temperature, which refreezes water in the ground, creating explosive, earthquake-like sounds.

With the intense cold, the water pipes to our outside hydrants have frozen, forcing us to carry 5-gallon buckets of water to our menagerie of chickens, ducks, guinea hens, alpacas and horse. While we have a heat tape on one of the hydrants, it, too, has frozen. We are concerned that the underground water lines might have frozen as well. The last time that happened was in the severe cold of the late 1980s.

At times, we have filled the bathtub with water to have enough for the next day’s supply in case of an electrical outage.

Considering the frequent icing, the water walk is somewhat treacherous. But since we burn wood, we have ashes to scatter to provide surer footing. Metal pull-on boot spikes and Yak Trax also help provide better traction.

So far, the electric grid has functioned, although ice storms are known to bring down power lines and disrupt service. In that case, we have a solar PV system with battery backup sufficient to power the furnace and well pump and operate the refrigerator, microwave, some lights and computers.

With a wood fireplace insert in place and a wood stove ready for use, we need not be concerned with being unable to heat our home. We have not yet needed to use them, as the basement wood furnace with an electrically-powered blower has been fully functional.

When the electricity goes off, gas furnaces and heat pumps no longer provide heat, unless other sources are in place. Some people have installed backup electrical generators so they can continue to heat their homes during an outage. Generators range in size from 3kW to 20kW, depending on the amount a homeowner is willing to spend and the size of their electrical demand. It is estimated that an 8-12 kW generator could power an entire house.

Others have chosen to have smaller generators located outside the home to avoid fumes in the house, available on a standby basis. People have targeted their gas furnaces with the smaller 1-2kW systems to provide enough electricity to ignite the gas and keep the pumps running.

An outlet can be installed near the furnace and an appliance cord attached to the furnace that is plugged into the outlet. If a power failure occurs, the furnace cord can be unplugged and then plugged in to the outlet at the end of the extension cord from the standby generator.

The size of generator needed requires knowing how much electricity the furnace will demand, both at its rated capacity and the surge watts needed to start the motor, which is higher than the operating watts. Appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, sump pumps, water pumps, heat pumps, dishwashers and toasters all require a surge of electricity at the start.

With planning, families can remain warm and dry, even in winters like this one.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair.

From the Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 2014, issue

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