One of the most common, and most interesting, conversations I have with our customers involves accessories. If a person owns a JuiceBox, a Scout, a Recon, an Operator, or a BatPac, they have portable power to do… something.
The accessories you have available will greatly impact the usefulness and flexibility of a portable power system. Our discussion will not be confined, though, to things you can plug into portable power. We will include things you are likely to have (or wish you did), if you are facing a power outage, a camping trip, or an off-grid weekend. Let’s briefly discuss the good, the bad, and the silly.
Lost in the translation
The first rule of accessories for portable power: Whenever possible use DC, not AC. Some of you know exactly what I mean, and are nodding your heads remembering past mistakes.
Remember this: every time you transform or convert electrical energy, you lose some. It is gone, normally in the form of heat and resistance. When you run an inverter, for example, there is a conversion loss when power is converted from 12 volts DC (the battery bank) to 115 volts AC (the inverter output). This efficiency is expressed as a percentage, with 100% being the impossible, but perfect, efficiency.
Most inverters are in the 85 – 90% range. In our JuiceBox G2, for example, we use a commercial grade inverter made by Thor Manufacturing. These are typically installed in fleet and service vehicles, and are made to tolerate abuse. This inverter has an 88% efficiency at full load. This means that if you were running, say, an AC powered fan via the JuiceBox inverter, about 12% of your precious battery power is simply lost in the conversion.
Sometimes, though, using the inverter makes good sense. For example you may simply not have a choice, based on circumstances and gear choices, and having the inverter available can be critically important, despite losses.
Another example is if you need to push power over a distance. DC is a poor choice for long cords, and requires increasingly thick (and expensive) wire to handle distances beyond 10 or 20 feet. AC power, by contrast, suffers very little loss, even over a hundred feet or more. Again, it depends on the situation you find yourself in.
Here is a great example of doing it right versus doing it wrong: If you want to power a laptop, you could simply plug its AC power cord into an inverter. The inverter will lose about 12% of your energy stepping the power up to AC. Then the AC/DC transformer (the little black ‘brick’ on the cord of your laptop charging cord) will lose another 10 or 15% converting that power back to DC! Keep in mind, laptops and desktops are actually DC machines. So in this scenario, you have lost around 25% of your batteries energy to unnecessary conversion.
Instead, with a little planning, do it right: Pick up a charging cable for your laptop that plugs into a cigarette lighter. Now you are going from 12 volts DC to about 18 volts DC, and the losses are minimal. These cables are not expensive, and are incredibly handy. Here is an example from Amazon.
Let there be light
Some of the most obvious examples of useful accessories involve lighting. During a power outage, at a campsite, under the hood of an automobile, or anywhere you need to ‘push back the dark’, light can be a convenience, a comfort, or a lifesaver.
Obviously there are different requirements. Sometimes you need a lantern-type light to light up a large space, sometimes you need a small, bright task light, and sometimes you need to put a shine on the goblins in the back forty with 500 lumens.
Let’s start small, and eat this elephant one bite at a time…
We make a tiny, rugged light that is USB powered, has no moving parts, and is dimmable from very low to a ‘painful-to-look-at’ 1 watt. It is called the Nano LED, and it is a reasonable choice on the ‘tiny and tough’ end of the scale. In fact, there are several village schoolhouses in South Africa that use our Nano LED combined with a BatPac and a small solar panel to hold evening classes and do homework. This is thanks in large part to our friend Chris Witherspoon and his Ears To Our World project.
For area lighting, there are two primary considerations: overhead or tabletop. A good tabletop lantern will cast most of its light sideways and slightly downward. This is important for reducing eye-strain and glare. I don’t understand the physiology behind it, but I know from experience, that having to work around a bright, unshaded light source will quickly make you tired and cranky. Cranky is bad. Cranky causes mistakes.
Overhead lighting is more forgiving. It is generally above your line of sight and farther from you, so unshielded or moderately shaded light sources work fine, and they also reflect off the ceiling (if there is one) to help spread the light. If you are using overhead lighting, consider multiple light sources that are individually less bright. This reduces both shadows and eye strain. Five 1 watt sources lighting a room is simply superior to one, five watt light source.
One of the unsung heroes of personal lighting is the LED headlamp. You can spend anywhere from $2.00 to over $100 on a headlamp, with a corresponding range of quality and performance. A couple of quick comments about them:
You need one. Actually two. OK, three. These devices are so useful they deserve their own post. If you dismiss the utility of even a $5.00 headlamp, try washing dishes, bandaging yourself, or carrying firewood with a traditional flashlight.
There are three unwritten rules about headlamps:
- If you must use one around others, point the headlamp down (most are adjustable) a little more than normal. Others will thank you instead of getting blinded every time you look at them.
- If you are a ‘hat’ guy, and always are wearing a ball cap, try the headlamp fit and performance before you really need it. It will either work for you or not. If not, consider a headlamp that clips to the bill of your hat.
- Everyone looks a little silly wearing one. Yes, you too.
Note: Looking a little silly is good for you. Laughing at yourself is a badge of humility and a sign of happiness.
Two brands stand out in the high quality, higher cost area. Petzl and Black Diamond. I have owned and liked both. I know first hand that certain spooky Operators in the US military, where budgets are secondary to performance, use Black Diamond.
An example of a feature-rich Black Diamond Headlamp.
The same headlamp some of our Spec Ops use. Yes, it is tiny for the money. Remember, they are fitting it below a helmet and above goggles…
An example of a high-end Petzl.
In the more realistic middle ground, I think some of the best bang-for-your-buck is found in Energizer headlamps. It may be because they hope costs are later recouped in battery sales. This is an example of a $20 headlamp that will serve you very well. We have several of these scattered around the homestead and in vehicles.
As with so many things, there is wisdom in redundancy. I would rather you buy five $20 headlamps than one $100 headlamp. Keep one in each vehicle glove box, one in the kitchen junk drawer, one in your go bag, and one in your wife’s purse. Then buy five more. They will find a home, and someday you will be glad they did.
Regardless of your choices, a headlamp should have a pivoting head (up/down), and a red mode (for night vision preservation).
Another realm of lighting is the traditional flashlight. By way of example let me tell you what our family does. At each exterior door of our home and our shop, there is a 3 cell mag light on a wall mount at shoulder height. We live in the country, and a light strong enough to light up a tree line a few hundred yards away is important. I have found it is also important to have an understanding wife when her sense of interior design clashes with my sense of manly utility.
Surprisingly, once the kids get used to putting the light away each time, they will sound like you when it is not there: “Who used the flashlight last? Everybody knows it goes back on the clip!” Parental revenge is rare and sweet.
One flashlight I must mention is the StreamLight Microstream. This is the light that lives in my weak side front pocket, using the included clip to keep it in place. Over the last decade or so, I have lost several, but I have never broken one. Honest Mil-Spec housing and a Cree LED for $16.00 delivered? I would love to find a better light for its size, I just never have.
BTW, with lighting, there is far too much to cover in a single post. The above should be considered a primer at best, and should get you thinking.
Join The Fan Club.
Sometimes, moving some air (even a little) can be very important. A breeze on your face can make the difference in getting restful sleep, it can stop condensation in a tent, or move warm air from a heat source to the rest of a room. A small fan can also keep HAM gear or other electronics from overheating. I originally bought a few of these at a big box store, simply because they were so cheap and I was curious. As it turns out, they work surprisingly well, draw very little power, and the gooseneck is a perfect way to make it point where you want.
We actually use these in our shop. Every bench has one, and our technicians use this exact fan to test USB circuits as machines are being built. As you can imagine, they get a work out. After three years, we have only broken two of them. Surprising quality for what almost appears to be a toy. Amazon link below:
In another life, when I was a live-aboard boater, moving a lot of air without a lot of fuss was important. This fan is an example that gets the job done, with enthusiasm.
Hook a brother up, will ya?
Cables, connectors, jumpers, adapters, and other needful things…
In no particular order:
Anderson to male cigarette jumper cable. Charge your JuiceBox or jump your car from inside. Juice flows both ways, remember?
Anderson to battery clamp. Improvised connections in the field… generators, boat battery, Solar bank, you name it.
Anderson to Anderson patch cord. Join two JuiceBoxes, use as a DC extension cord, charge an external battery, etc. Please note, we make these cables custom, as the wire gauge is dictated by the needed length and the customer’s application.
Our innovative BatPacs are the simplest, most cost effective way to reliably use a common SLA battery. Guess what? They use Andersons. 😉
Please note: we sell many of the cables I mention above. In fact, our Anderson Accessory Bundle, below, has many useful cables conveniently stowed in a cordura pouch. That said, I would love you to make your own. Really. Jump on Ebay or amazon or PowerWerx, and put a small dent in your wallet. Get a proper crimper, pick up a pile of 30 amp Power Poles, buy some zip wire, and sequester yourself in the garage for an afternoon. You will thank me later when all of your DC gear plays nice with each other because you had the wisdom to standardize connections.
Thanks for spending some time with us! I hope this post proves useful for you and yours. It honestly could have been much longer, as there is so much to cover… perhaps there will be a part two.
If you have any accessories that you find particularly useful, please let everyone know in a comment below.
I’ll sign off now… I have stuff to build and cats to herd.
QOD, LOD, TOD:
Quote of the day:
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas A. Edison
Link of the day:
Our friend Hank is the CommsPrepper on YouTube. Informative, real, and very practical videos about communications, prepping, and making messes on the bench. I am honored to call him a friend and a peer, and I encourage you to hit up his channel. Be warned: an hour or two will fly by.
Thought of the day:
Start where you are, with what you have, and do it cheerfully. Doing anything less is futile fist-shaking. We all start this life naked and crying, without shame. let us finish the race well, and stand firm.