When the Power Goes Out, There Are Alternatives : The quake brings the concept of sustainability home. From generators to flashlights, here’s what to look for.


Sustainability has become an important environmental concept, especially in business. The idea of getting by without over-dependence on outside resources can be seen in manufacturing and agriculture. In the steel industry, for example, more companies are recycling steel rather than depending on scarce ore, while newspapers such as this one are using more recycled newsprint instead of virgin stock.

The Northridge earthquake seems to have brought the concept of sustainability home to the consumer.

“Everybody wants to be self-supportive,” said Ron McKee, manager of a Home Base store in Simi Valley. He reports selling many home generators, “not mostly the little $300 ones for three or four bulbs, but more often the big ones at $800 that generate 3,500 watts.”


Of course, having your own generator isn’t the perfect antidote to a power outage from a quake, fire or flood. You need gasoline. McKee recommends keeping a five-gallon supply near, but not in the generator, as petroleum left standing in a machine will gunk it up. He even recommends rotating the five-gallon gasoline stash regularly--use it in the lawn mower and put fresh stuff in the container.

A product that gets closer to the sustainability idea is being marketed nationally by a local firm. Solarmode, in Oxnard, is marketing an emergency “preparedness kit” that provides electricity day and night--from the sun.

Trevor Hewson, owner of Solarmode, didn’t suddenly decide to capitalize on the quake; he’s been selling “self-maintaining” equipment for years to camping and RV enthusiasts and homeowners who want to have electrical backup systems that don’t require gas or batteries.

Hewson said his kit includes a compact photovoltaic solar panel, which sucks up the sun’s energy even on overcast days; a power pack, which stores the resulting direct current in rechargeable batteries; an inverter, which converts the direct current to run your TV or appliances, and a pair of energy miser fluorescent lamps, which provide bright light for extended periods.

“I use a setup like this when I go camping--for lights and the radio,” Hewson said.

Asked how bulky this $300 kit is, he said it would fit into a shopping bag. Theoretically, with one of these rigs, you can enjoy a modicum of normalcy in your powerless home even if Southern California Edison took forever to repair the power lines.

For a less pricey dose of peace of mind--and something so environmentally correct that you’ll want to brag about it at Sierra Club meetings--you might consider getting a Dynamo & Solar AM-FM receiver. With this $29 gizmo from Real Goods, a Northern California mail-order company, you can even survive a long-term solar eclipse. Just turn the crank for a minute to hear 10 minutes of disaster news. Or three minutes to hear an entire Beatles’ album. Otherwise, pray for sun and when you get it, stick the radio in the window.


Real Goods has a wide selection of equipment that allows you to carry on a “sustainable” existence, including a mysterious thing called a Five Gallon Solar Shower.

My wife guessed that it must be something like the water-filled garden hose she used to leave lying in the sun to provide hot showers on camping tips. Indeed, the $12 Real Goods’ item uses similar sustainable technology, but provides more showers at a time.

If you think shower talk is frivolous and beside the point, consider the results of my informal poll of local outlets of hardware chain stores. When I asked representatives from both Ace and True Value to tell me the No. 1 post-quake-related purchase, they said it was equipment to reconnect or strap down home water heaters.

“Copper flex pipe became our hottest seller--2,000 a day,” said Jeff Arenson, who monitors supplies for all True Value stores in our area.

Both chains report heavy post-quake sales in the appliance that is the perfect example of earthquake preparedness, sustainability and environmental consciousness: Black & Decker’s line of flashlights that are kept plugged into a home electrical outlet for emergency use.

Each contains a battery that, because it is constantly being recharged, is always at the ready. In the event of a power failure, one model switches itself on so you can see where it is.



* FYI: Electrical products that make you energy-independent in the event of power blackouts are available at local Ace, True Value and Home Base outlets, also at Solarmode in Oxnard 382-8318 and Real Goods in Ukiah (800) 762-7325.