Although I’ve tried to continue to follow the Boy Scout motto to be prepared throughout my life, planning for emergencies has always been one of those activities that’s easy to put off for another day. We have basic first aid supplies and occasionally speak with the children about what to do if the smoke alarms go off, but I’ve tended to regard much beyond that as an activity that can wait for another day.
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Events of the past 20 months shifted those priorities, from the obvious circumstances surrounding COVID-19 and the 2021 Texas power crisis. Just as the entire world was dealing with a pandemic that had many workers turning their homes into offices, a widespread power outage impacted thousands of my colleagues. All of the teams I was managing at the time had someone in Texas that was impacted by the outage, and I heard stories of everything from the challenges of keeping home offices powered and productive, to more pressing concerns about spoiling food and keeping children warm at night. Ubiquitous smartphones went from an amusing distraction to a critical means of getting news and information, and an inability to keep these devices charged presented risks far greater than social media withdrawal.
It’s easy to get caught up in visions of zombies and overzealous doomsday preppers when thinking about emergency preparedness, but an extended power outage is a far more likely scenario that would have real and significant impacts on our work and personal lives. Heading into another hurricane season seems like a good time to talk about battery power backups.
In an effort to reactivate my inner Scout and be prepared for this scenario, I reviewed three different battery-based home power backup solutions (and one emerging category) that are worth considering for you and key team members. These power banks are essentially giant batteries that can be charged every six months and otherwise sit in a closet without the concerns that generally accompany a gasoline or natural gas generator. Each unit can be recharged through a standard wall outlet, vehicle 12V outlet, or even solar panels, allowing for recharging even during an extended outage.
These devices are much quieter than a gas generator when in operation, running nearly silently when providing DC power output (USB outlets) and spinning up a fan that varies based on the load when providing AC power (traditional wall-style outlets). There’s no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning that accompanies a gas generator, and they can be used inside just as easily as outside since there are no exhaust fumes.
The light option: Jackery Explorer 1500
The Jackery Explorer 1500 is the Jack-of-all-trades of the bunch, striking a balance between a reasonably capable 1,530Wh of capacity in a relatively mobile configuration that weighs in at just over 35 lbs. The giant-lunchbox format of the device makes it easy to store and carry from room to room. This is helpful in an extended power outage where you could place the device in a home office or kitchen during the day, and relocate it to a bedroom in the evening. This also keeps the Jackery 1500 small enough that it’s relatively easy to take car camping or tailgating.
With two standard USB ports, a USB-C port that will happily charge a MacBook or other USB-C laptop, and three AC outlets, the Jackery provides a good balance of portability and charging options. The device will charge a modern smartphone more than 100 times, a laptop 5-10 times, and even run a blender for 19 hours straight.
Recharge times are a bit over four hours from the wall outlet, and vary a bit from solar depending on how many panels you connect and how much sun is available. Jackery does have compatible solar panels called the Solar Saga that fold into a flat and easy-to-carry and -store format.
I also give the Jackery unit high marks for a display that provides just the right amount of information at a glance, indicating current power draw, power input and times until the battery is fully charged or fully drained. My main complaint about the Jackery is the lack of USB outputs. In an era where a family might have 2-10 smartphones and other small USB devices, 2 plugs simply aren’t enough. You can partially rectify this shortcoming by putting a 2-port USB car outlet in the 12V port or using an AC outlet for a multi-port USB adapter, but that assumes you’re not using that port for something else. In our case, we have a 12V portable cooler/refrigerator that we use for camping, and would likely use in an emergency as well, so to get more USB outputs would require sacrificing a valuable AC outlet.
The other minor shortcoming is that each group of power outputs is individually controlled by a button that’s accompanied by a small green light to indicate that it’s on. Perhaps it’s just me, but on at least a half-dozen occasions, I’ve plugged an additional device into a different port and forgotten to press the button to turn that specific output on, only to realize the device hasn’t received any power later on.
The medium option: Bluetti AC200P
The Bluetti AC200P takes everything from a unit like the Jackery 1500 up a level. There’s an additional 500Wh of battery capacity, four USB ports, one USB-C port, six AC outlets, two wireless charging pads, and a variety of DC outlets that allow the device to power everything from a 12V cooler to an RV.
Adding this much capacity comes with an additional cost and weight penalty, with the Bluetti tipping the scales at just over 60 lbs. The unit is shaped similarly to a cooler, with handles on each side that still allow it to be carried from room to room or on a camping/tailgating trip, but it’s a bit more cumbersome than the lighter Jackery. However, there’s no way to avoid the simple physics of more capacity and capability requiring more mass.
In exchange for the weight, the number of ports on the Bluetti should satisfy larger families or a remote worker with a significant number of devices. The addition of the two wireless charging pads on top of the unit is brilliant. When testing this device and simulating a power outage, it was incredibly useful for my wife and me to drop our iPhones on the charging pad and retrieve them as needed. This kept the USB ports free to charge devices ranging from headlamps and lanterns to tablets to keep the kids entertained.
While the rounded box format isn’t the most exciting, it makes the device easy to store and pack, and allows it to serve as an ad hoc table of sorts during a power outage, with the flat top naturally accommodating phones and other devices.
The Bluetti has detailed information on its color touchscreen, yet doesn’t include key details on charge or runtime remaining, which is a glaring oversight. The inverter that powers the AC outlets also seems to have a lower peak output than the Jackery, despite the additional three AC outlets. I tripped the internal protection circuits with a coffee maker and griddle in an attempt to simulate cooking a hearty breakfast while running on backup power.
The large option: Ecoflow Delta Pro
The largest option, the 99-pound Ecoflow Delta Pro, is also the most interesting in that it’s designed to be part of a larger home power backup ecosystem. While the Jackery and Bluetti both accommodate a variety of solar panels, AC and DC charging, the Delta Pro can connect to additional battery packs, a forthcoming gasoline-powered smart generator, a smart interface to your home’s electrical system, and even a multitude of solar panels on tracking motors that supposedly follow the sun for optimal power generation.
The Delta Pro is the first piece of this ecosystem, and the other components are not yet available. However, once they arrive, the Delta Pro can serve as the foundation for an expandable whole-house battery backup similar to a Tesla Powerwall. Bluetti has also launched a similar product in the EP500P, and these types of products provide an interesting option that combines a degree of portability with the ability to power an entire home versus a fixed whole-house setup like the Powerwall. Ecoflow informed me that the additional parts of the Delta Pro system will be rolled out in the coming months, targeting an October 2021 release for the additional components.
The Delta Pro has a clean design, with the most useful USB and AC plugs located in front of the unit. At nearly 100 lbs., it’s not something you’d frequently move around, but there’s a built-in handle that allows you to flip the unit up and wheel it around like a rolling suitcase. Like an overloaded carry-on, it’s still not particularly easy to move up and down stairs, but it rolls well on a flat surface, and is certainly better than attempting to carry the device.
The screen is similar to the Jackery, with prominently displayed critical information like power draw, power input and remaining runtime. There’s also a companion app that connects to the unit over Wi-Fi, providing additional detailed information about power use on each individual port, as well as a variety of useful configuration options ranging from display brightness to an ability to set the maximum charge level.
In addition to the largest battery and highest cost, the Delta Pro also has the most powerful inverter, and it was able to power my coffee maker and hot plate without tripping the internal circuit breaker. The device itself, documentation, and app were the most polished of the trio, and with the simple layout of front panel that hides the more esoteric DC outputs, the Delta Pro is probably the easiest unit to operate and the one I’d trust my family to operate if I were unavailable.
I did experience some difficulty connecting the unit to my Wi-Fi network in order to check for firmware updates, although my Wi-Fi is sometimes finicky. Perhaps my biggest concern with the Delta Pro is that if you’re looking for a whole-house backup solution, you’re placing a bet on the company producing the other components of the system, which aren’t yet available. The Delta Pro is an excellent, if expensive, standalone power station, but would be far less effective at powering an entire house without the rest of the components.
The emerging option: Your car?
I love using large, portable battery banks like the three aforementioned units for disaster power backup, remote work away from power, and even the occasional tailgate party. They’re nearly silent, and they eliminate many of the risks and maintenance challenges associated with a fossil fuel-powered generator while providing green power through solar charging. However, batteries still can’t rival fossil fuels in terms of energy density.
I recently purchased a Ford F-150 Powerboost, which includes what’s effectively a 7.2kW generator with four 120V AC outlets, and one 30A 240V outlet in the bed of the truck. On a full tank of gas, the truck should be able to provide full electrical output for 32 hours. What’s even more interesting is Ford’s upcoming Lightning electric truck, which can effectively turn itself into a gigantic battery and feed energy from its batteries back into your home through a special charging station and interface. While Ford is one of the first to do this trick, they are undoubtedly not the last.
As our energy grids evolve, you may find yourself with an interesting combination of solar, power banks, the grid and even your daily driver providing reliable electricity whether the grid is up or down. As the preponderance of the workforce continues to work remotely and away from office-based infrastructure, one of these power backup solutions might be right for keeping your home workers productive and reasonably comfortable even when the grid is down.