Charging Cell Phones and Small Communication Devices in a No Power Situation

I was talking to someone about all the conversion to digital that happened a while ago with TV, cell phones and what have you. I was explaining some of the reasons for it and the topic of what would we do if the power went off came up.

It’s true that land lines, cell phone towers and such all run on heavy-duty battery backups, or are supposed to in the United States. So they’ll probably be up for a while after grid power goes out.

The massive blackout is a good thing to be ready for, but being able to deal with life’s smaller power problems is far more important in my opinion. If you can deal with your friend forgetting his charger on a road trip, you can deal with a three-day long power outage too.

I’m going to go into a few methods of preparing for this problem in a relatively inexpensive way.

NOTE: Before I go into it I think it’s worth mentioning that I am a huge fan of Jack Spirko and The Survival Podcast. He’s got some great shows with a guy named Steven Harris who does a lot of non-crackpot, practical ways to be prepared for emergencies like I’m talking about here. He talks about generators, solar power, and all kinds of stuff so go check that out. Mr. Harris’ website is solar1234.com. You won’t see anything on perpetual motion machines, or cars that run on water there, so he’s pretty skeptic friendly. I’ll link to the shows where he talks about this stuff. It’s honestly not that hard to carry out.

Here’s Steven Harris on Large Scale Blackouts, this stuff is relevant to this article:

Steven Harris on Dealing With a Large Scale Blackout – Part 1

Steven Harris on Dealing With a Large Scale Blackout – Part 2

Ways to Keep Your Devices Charged With No Grid Power

So the big thing most people get freaked out about is keeping their cell phone charged during a power outage, or some place that doesn’t have power. Well if you have a car, or access to one, this is not a problem at all. Your car can generate a lot of 12 volt power on one tank of gas. I propose the following kit to make use of this. It’s useful in just about any situation, emergency or not. I have used this stuff more on road trips for friends who’ve forgotten a charger, or needed power for something and we weren’t around an outlet than I have in an emergency.

Most cell phones and small electronics like tablets, cameras, MP3 players and so on are USB powered, which means you can plug them into basically powered USB port and they’ll charge. You don’t need a wall adapter to take advantage of this. Other things like laptops need an AC adapter to work, but don’t really draw that much power.

You need to get three things now, a car inverter that has at least one AC outlet and a USB outlet on it, a regular 12 volt USB car charger, and a few spare USB cables for your devices. You do not need a huge thousand watt inverter to keep a cell phone or most small electronics charged. Usually a 175W to 500W inverter is fine.

Here’s a quick list of the stuff I talk about below to keep around either in your car, or on your person when travelling. I’ve used either the products below myself, or ones much like them. Please read the descriptions of this stuff in the article so you know what it does and why you should have it.

Aaron’s Cell Phone Charger Car/Travel/Everyday Kit Checklist

Total cost: ~$65 for primary components, roughly ~$90 for everything. It can definitely be put together for cheaper.

 Inverters

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Duracell DRINVP175 175-Watt Pocket Inverter with 2.1-Amp USB Port – This one is small and will work for even small laptops.
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Black & Decker PI500BB 500 Watt Power Inverter – This is a little beefier car adapter, works for bigger electronics.

I didn’t post prices because they tend to change over time on Amazon, but both these devices cost around $40. The Duracell is a good one if you switch cars a lot, the Black and Decker one is what I’d throw in the glove compartment or trunk and keep there. I recommend that you look for an inverter with a cord, not one of those one piece units that plug directly into the cigarette lighter. All cars are different and I’ve found more times than not that the plug simply isn’t long enough, or the outlet is in an odd place.

Either of these products will cover both AC power needs for most electronics, as well as provide USB power for your cell phone. It’s quite possible to plug a laptop, GameBoy, or other small device  into the AC outlet, and your cell phone into the USB and charge/power both at the same time. You might check your laptop’s power supply and make sure it is 90 watts or below if you do that with the Duracell inverter. Most are, but a few older laptops use monster power adapters and might need something bigger than the Duracell.

USB Car Charger

I highly suggest having a little USB car charger around at all times as well. My reasoning is that most small devices will happily charge with just a USB cable, you don’t need AC power. Also USB cables are fairly cheap, and USB power is universal. This type of charger is very small, and will go in a backpack, laptop bag, or purse.

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AmazonBasics Dual Port USB Car Charger – I’d get this one or one like it with two ports, that way you and your passenger can charge something at the same time.
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Belkin USB Car Charger – This one is tiny, I used to carry this one in my backpack.

 

 Cables

Most small electronic devices come with a USB cable to hook to your computer. This will almost always charge the battery of the device too. What you may not realize is that most of these cables are common cables that can be used on a lot of devices. The few that aren’t can be purchased from the manufacturer or third-party for very little cash. Here are three major types. They can all be picked up at  Wal-Mart or Target. You probably have a ton of them around already. If you do, test to make sure they actually charge the device (a few crappy manufacturers make data only cables to cut costs) then throw a spare for each device into your kit.

iPhone/iPad/iPod – These are proprietary cables from Apple, but there are dozens of third-party products out there. I like Belkin Cables.

Android Cables/Micro-USB – These are standard micro USB cables. Practically all Android devices use this same cable. Android phones, Amazon Kindles, Android Tablets, and tons of other devices use it.

Mini-USB Cables – This is a very common cable as well. USB hubs, cameras, and tons of other devices use this one. You probably have a few of these around already.

Other ‘Proprietary’ Cables – A few of the weirder cables out there aren’t really proprietary, they’re just uncommon. For instance, Olympus cameras use a somewhat different looking USB cable. They aren’t the only ones that use it, but they use it the most. You can typically get the weirder ones direct from the device manufacturer for cheap, or do an Amazon search for your device’s charger cable and several options will pop up.

Now I completely understand not wanting to carry a bajillion cables. I have come to prefer shorter cables that have ends for more than one device. They take up less space, and won’t get tangled with each other so bad in your kit. So I recommend something like this to keep with your USB car charger:

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Innergie Magic Cable 3-in-1 – This thing will cover practically any situation you could get yourself into.

This thing will cover most devices. It has an Apple plug, a micro and a mini USB plug. There are some more universal adapter kits out there but a lot of them don’t have the Apple plug. What they do have going for them is that they are longer than the one above (it’s only 7.8″). You fix that by throwing a USB extension cable in with it. You have to be careful as many of them are just data transfer only, they don’t power the devices. A good USB extension cable can be had online for $5. Here’s one example, you can get them in just about any length though.

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AmazonBasics USB Extension Cable- This one is a meter long (~3 feet). Good thing to have around.

If you get the above items, you’re good if you have access to a car, or even one of those battery jumper devices, you can keep your stuff charged. The idea here is that your USB powered devices can be plugged into the USB port on the inverter, or USB charger, and you’ve got some universal cables to cover if you forget to get your normal car charger. This is also helpful if your passenger doesn’t have a charger either. This works for anything that uses a USB cable for power.

If the device requires AC power to charge, like a laptop, gaming device, or any number of other devices, you use the AC outlet on the inverter. That covers just about every other kind of small electronic device, including battery chargers.

 

  Ways To Keep Your Cell Phone Charged With No Grid Power or Car

So, if you don’t have a car, or are out of gas, the above options suck. While they are portable, and fairly universal, you might be in a more desperate situation and you need power. The solutions to this problem are also fairly inexpensive.

The first thing you need to do is know where you’ll be at beforehand and what kind of energy source you have available. Where I live, we get a lot of bright sunny days even in the winter, so solar panels are actually a good option. We also get wind, but I couldn’t find any small wind powered devices that didn’t look crappy.

Solar Panels

Solar panels are pretty useful around here, but might not be so useful up north, and good ones are expensive. The coolest solar chargers are from Voltaic Systems. They are backpacks with solar panels and battery packs in them.

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Voltaic Systems Fuse Solar Charger – This one is a PRIME eligible product. It comes with a battery pack. It’s basically just a solar panel you can attach to things. It runs about $130.
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Voltaic 1010 OffGrid Solar Backpack – This is the one I want. The panel is removable (I think it’s basically the Fuse panel) and it comes with a battery back. I can’t imagine anything better here in this part of the country even if it didn’t go in your car.

There are many other solar options out there that work just fine. I just happen to like the idea of the backpack above. What you need to keep in mind is anything with a solar panel needs the battery pack to go with it. The panel charges the battery pack, the battery pack charges your device. It’s also worth mentioning that solar panels can take a long time to charge the battery pack, so you won’t be able to just straight up run your phone off the panel.

Honestly these aren’t actually necessary, but I think they are a good idea to have if you can afford it.

Other Solutions

If you don’t have good sun year round, very little wind and not much of anything else, or just can’t afford the $230 backpack, there are several better options in my opinion. My first choice is actually the simplest of everything I’ve shown here. It’s basically a device you stick a four AA batteries into, and gives you up to 8 hours of power for your USB powered device.

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Verbatim 97928 AA Power Pack Charger – Works with any AA battery, you could easily rig something up to make it work with C or D cell batteries. This one is $15. There are some cheaper $5 models out there, but I have a lot of trust for the Verbatim brand, and I saw a lot of bad reviews on cheaper ones.

I like these chargers just because of the flexibility. You don’t need to charge the charger for it to work, and AA batteries store for a LONG time.

The last suggestion I have is one I’ve never actually had to use, thankfully. This is the last-ditch, emergency method for getting a charge. There are a lot of those hand crank flashlights with cell phone charging ports on them.  The huge drawback here is you have to crank them for a LONG time to get a decent charge. This seems to be one of the better reviewed ones:

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Etón American Red Cross CLIPRAY ARCCR100R_SNG USB Cell Phone Charger with Hand Crank LED Flashlight (Red) – Lots of good reviews on this one. It’s basically a flashlight with a hand crank for power and a USB port. It’s pretty small and endorsed by the American Red Cross apparently.

Honestly, this next one would be my personal choice. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s got a radio, flashlight and a small solar panel in addition to the hand crank. You can also charge this thing up through a USB port on your computer or other charger. Seems to be incredibly versatile and a lot more useful in an emergency than just a flashlight. It’s also pretty small.

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Ambient Weather WR-111B Emergency Solar Hand Crank AM/FM/NOAA Digital Radio, Flashlight, Cell Phone Charger with NOAA Certified Weather Alert & Cables

Wrap Up

Most of the stuff I’ve talked about here are more for minor emergencies, short power outages, simple absentmindedness, or getting stuck on the side of the road in the desert. Basically stuff that can happen during normal day to day life.

The first three items in the checklist up top are the priority items you should get now. I’d appreciate it if you ordered it on Amazon through those links, but you can get every one of those things at your local Wal-Mart/Electronics store if you look around.

After you build the car kit, look at getting one of those AA battery powered chargers, then add the hand crank radio I mentioned above. Those five items will keep you covered in just about any situation you’d run into.

I will be posting a couple of articles soon on building both a more robust emergency kit, and for what you should take with you when you travel either abroad or domestically.

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