Twelve Volt House
This isn't a post so much as a request for thoughts and pointers on the tradeoffs between power grids, batteries, capacitors, and off-grid power.
Back in 2012, like a lot of New Yorkers, my family lost power to our apartment during Hurricane Sandy and, like a lot of New Yorkers, communications was one of our key concerns in the immediate aftermath. Our straits were not dire -- carrying water up 14 flights of stairs was as bad as it got for us -- but we wanted to check in on friends and family nearby, and alert the ones far away that we were OK.
We had a mix of communications options -- phone, SMS, internet tools -- and unlike the 2003 East Coast blackout, the telcos did a good job of keeping their grids up (except ATT.) Even given the improved availability of basic connectivity, however, we suffered three communications setbacks.
The first was our house phone, from Verizon (via FiOS, their 'fiber to the home' offering.) When Verizon installs a phone jack that works over FiOS, they also bring in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which is a big battery that keeps the fiber optic router working and supplies the power needed to ring an analog phone and keep a call connected.
A little after 8 pm, when the storm surge topped the ConEd wall on the East River and blacked out lower Manhattan, that UPS kicked in just fine, keeping us all connected for the next 8 hours while we slept...and then woke us up at four in the morning to the sound of its "I'm dying" beeps, leaving us disconnected for the next five days.
The old phone grid was more robust against power outages, because the telcos ran their own power grid to supply the power needed to operate the copper landline infrastructure. This was needed in the places and decades when blackouts and brownouts were frequent and short. Today, blackouts are not frequent, but nor are they short. Verizon engineered its UPS for 8 hours of service, but both times large swaths of New York lost power in the 21C, the outage lasted far longer. We've traded frequent inconveniences for occasional catastrophes.
The second failure was our wifi router, which was not connected to the UPS, and was thus immediately disabled. This is so even though the core electronics only requires 5 volts, because for decades, we've decided that the easiest way to get a steady stream of 5 volts is to step down the current from a wall socket generating 24 times that.
And the third failure, worst of all, was our phones. Unlike the UPS, the wifi, or even laptops, phones are engineered to have far better battery life than any of those devices, especially in conditions of occasional use. And yet, like the wifi router, the way we keep that small piece of electronics running is to plug it into a power grid optimized for running air conditioners and drying machines.
Since the various mobile phone networks and our piece of fiber were still up and running, the communications problems we had after Sandy were entirely about the lack of charging options.
This is stupid. In an emergency, communications is more important than almost anything else except water. In the week we had no power after Sandy, we missed our air conditioner but we needed our phones. When our phones all died, I would scoop them up along with a powerstrip and tramp down the stairs (the same trip I had to make to get a bucket of water.) I'd take the phones to a place that still had power and plug them all in to charge, and then take them back upstairs.
The problem behind that problem is that our regular power grid is overkill for our communications needs. The grid has been so good for so long that we've never really developed ways of reliably powering 5-volt devices or re-charging 5-volt batteries other than plugging something into the wall that is purpose built to prevent most of the available energy from flowing into the device.
We need to re-think this, because more disasters are coming, and communications always matters. When the power goes out, almost every communications tool you need most runs on 12 volts or less. And yet without the high-power grid, all our low-power stuff grinds to a halt.
When the power goes, the loss of things that really need 120 volts -- your refrigerator, your TV -- are a drag, but the loss of things that only need 12 volts is a threat. We need our communications devices engineered with Aux Power In, and we need a bunch of options, from car batteries to hand-cranks, for keeping ourselves connected. When we lose our 120-volt houses, we need new ways of generating enough power to keep our 12-volt houses going.