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  • 5 Tips to Make Your Home an Electric Island (But Watch Out for Squirrels)

    Over the last year, experts and journalists have been sounding the call: The U.S. power grid is not secure. The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced in December a $77 million effort to improve utilities’ cyber security. A book released in October by respected journalist Ted Koppel suggested a worst-case scenario for a cyber attack on the power grid could leave tens of millions of people without power for weeks or more, causing mass chaos. USA Today ran a series about the frequency and possible results of power grid attacks.

    So, why aren’t people paying more attention?

    CyberSquirrel Tweet - electricMaybe because squirrels have caused more damage to the power grid than hackers, according to the former deputy director of the National Security Agency, John Inglis.

    He has a point. The small animal world is in a war with the power grid, according to the humorous Twitter account CyberSquirrel. In January alone, more than 45,000 people in 14 states and two countries lost power because of animals, CyberSquirrel reported. Of course, the January 24 blizzard that clobbered the east coast caused power outages for more than 250,000 people. Maybe the small animal war is just a police action.

    Whether it’s caused by squirrels, snow, or hackers, a sudden power loss can be devastating to communications and computing. Having a power source can make a huge difference.

    Microgrid_SOLAR_ Princton University - electric Solar panels contribute to 5.5% of Princeton's microgrid power - photo via Princeton University

    Princeton University’s microgrid is a great example of this. The university has an on-campus power network, called a microgrid, that gets power from a nearby generator and solar panel field. Normally, the university is connected to the surrounding power grid and both takes from and supplies power to that grid. However, during Hurricane Sandy, after power went down to the rest of the area, Princeton’s microgrid was able to disconnect from the main grid and power the campus. For a day and a half, until the town got power back, emergency workers were able to use the university to recharge phones and equipment. The university also set up a hospitality area where local residents could warm up, recharge electronic devices and use wireless Internet service.

    “For a day and a half, we had to generate everything the campus needed,” said Ted Borer, Princeton's energy plant manager, in a Princeton news story. “Now, we can run the campus as an electric island in times of crisis.”

    Here are some ways to turn your home into an electric island, from Ready.gov, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

    • Have a fully stocked emergency kit including food and water, a flashlight, batteries, cash in small bills and first aid supplies.
    • Keep your cell phone and other battery-powered devices charged and have an alternative charging method, like a generator. If you have an electric garage door opener, know how to release it manually.
    • Keep your car’s gas tank full. You can run a vehicle for power, but not in an enclosed space, unless you like carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • If you use a power-dependent or battery-operated medical device, tell your local utility so it can prioritize your home. Have a backup plan.
    • Find out where to buy dry ice. Fifty pounds will keep a fully stocked fridge cold for two days. Without it, an unopened fridge will keep food cold for only about four hours. A half-full, unopened freezer will keep food cold for about 24 hours. Food in a packed, unopened freezer will stay cold for twice that long.

    And watch out for squirrels. Behind those bushy tails and beady eyes, they’ve got to be hiding something.


    - Melissa


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  • Power to the People: Off Grid Power Solutions

    Off Grid HomeLiving on the grid has its perks. I mean, we’ve got practically unlimited access to power so we can take advantage of all our modern amenities – refrigerators, air conditioning, lights, washing machine, Netflix… you name it!

    Despite having access to all this, however, there are some drawbacks. The United States experiences a ton of power outages. And, when the grid goes down, that means you do, too. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why you might prefer to go off grid, but for now, let’s just talk about power.

    Some of the following off grid power sources can be connected to your home in the city, reducing the cost of your power bill and giving you access to electricity when the rest of your neighborhood is in the dark. Some, however, might need a different location. Take that into consideration while reading and see which resources work best in your situation.



    Solar Panel Off GridWhen it comes to harnessing renewable energy, our sun is more than eager to help out. Its rays can be converted into energy to be used for anything you need – assuming you have enough solar panels. But that’s just it! These days, solar power doesn’t have to be an extremely expensive venture. With developments in technology, it has dropped in price and increased in accessibility, which makes solar panels a doable option.

    If powering your home by solar isn’t feasible, there are smaller, more mobile solar panels you can use to at least power your smaller devices. These solar panels can be hooked up to certain power packs, so you can charge then go, charge on the go, or go then charge. Small, lightweight solar panels are great for many circumstances, including hiking, camping, and emergencies.



    Wind turbines power generator on sunset at farmer field off grid

    Before we get too far on this section, might I point out the obvious: Wind power requires wind. I know, I know. I’m a genius for figuring that out. But it’s an important factor to consider when deciding if generating electricity from wind is a viable option. Check your local weather service to see what your average wind speed is in your area. Once you know that, you can then begin to calculate how much electricity you can generate.

    And then there’s the size of the wind turbines. According to treehugger.com, a 400-watt wind turbine is good enough to power an appliance or two (like a washer and dryer). A 10,000-watt turbine, however, could power most – or all of – your house. The more wattage a turbine puts out, the larger the rotors, and the taller the structure. Living off grid, size shouldn’t be an issue. However, if you would like to add a turbine to your neighborhood home, a 100-foot tall turbine probably wouldn't pass city ordinances.


    Micro Hydro

    Hydro Home off gridFirst, look outside. Do you have a source of running water on your property? You do? Great! That means you can tap it for its electrical output.

    One of the benefits of generating electricity using the micro hydro method is its constant output. If your source is good (meaning the water source is constantly flowing), you will generate electricity every single day of the week, rain or shine, day or night. And, because of the constant flow of energy, you won’t need as large a battery bank to store the generated power.

    Of course, if there isn’t a stream or some kind of flowing water nearby, this option just won’t work. But, if you’re in a location where you can implement this method, you’ll be hailing hydro for its constant and effective power supply.


    Battery Bank

    Battery Bank off gridOnce you have a way to generate electricity, you’re going to need a way to store it for later use. The sun won’t always shine, the wind won’t always blow, and your little stream might even get plugged upstream for a bit. Then you’ll be out of power in moments.

    When building your battery bank, make sure you use deep discharge or deep cycle lead-acid batteries. Basically, these battery types will be able to store and produce a heap of energy when needed. An inverter is also necessary to convert that stored energy to something a little more useful. Once converted into an AC current, you’ll be good to power your household appliances, lights, and other electrically-powered machines and devices.

    For more detailed information on constructing your own battery bank, check out this video:



    Backup Generator

    Generator off gridEven though you have renewable energy – whether from the sun, wind, or water – things can still go wrong and you can be left without power. Having a backup is always a good idea. A diesel generator (or other source of backup power) will give you power when the sun refuses to shine or the wind stops blowing for a few days. Sure, your battery bank will keep you powered for a while, but as nothing is certain (especially when it comes to weather), a generator can make up for when your power sources just aren’t collecting enough power for your needs.



    Now, those who have done the work of going off grid know better than anyone the cruel truths that go into this kind of living. According to Bob Ritzman – living off grid in Montana – “living off the grid is not as simple and cost efficient as many people may think.”

    Sure, it’s a great thought to go out there and not have to pay electricity bills, but it does cost money to install the equipment you’ll use to gather that energy. That right there can cost quite a bit. However, once it’s set up, you won’t have to rely on the fragile grid any longer, and that kind of freedom can be worth quite a price.


    Have some tips on generating power off grid? Let us know in the comments!


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  • Know Your Apps, Because They Sure Know You!

    This is a guest post by Eric Brady, a Cyber Security Expert


    Apps to PhoneThe phrase “there’s an app for that” seems to apply to every single facet of the human condition. The abundance of applications available for smartphones and tablets has changed how we do everything from drive to cook to buy shoes to treat the common cold. Over 3 million apps are available for Apple and Android devices, all addressing the world’s hunger for something to do on their mobile devices. Certainly, if you need to eat, think, fix, work, play, find love, or even break-up…“there’s an app for that.”

    What you may not know is that the vast majority of these mobile apps are not developed by the phone or tablet manufacturer, but by independent software developers. Be it a new game, fitness tracker, social media app, or geo finder, your favorite apps are much more likely to be created by a private developer whose goal is not always to help you get through your day. Often they have more dubious ambitions by placing their program on your device. Often these applications do more than entertain and inform—they can also invade your privacy.

    There’s a litany of ways these apps can mine information from your daily life and parlay it into profits for the app developer. In fact, according to a recent survey, 80-95% of the top-200 most downloaded applications employ at least one “risky” behavior during normal use. These behaviors include following you with geo-location, accessing your contacts, using single sign-on—like using your Google credentials to log into non-Google apps, identifying your device by accessing your unique device identifier, employing in-app purchasing, and—perhaps the most profitable for developers—sharing all this information, as well as your chatting, buying, traveling, sharing, and other personal information, with advertisement networks and analytics companies. And all of this done without your knowledge.

    Armed with this information, what are some simple steps that you can take to better protect your privacy?

    • First, keep in mind that there is no such thing as “no risk” when it comes to using mobile devices. The very nature of using a mobile app exposes you to potential privacy intrusions. Therefore, you should weigh the benefit versus the potential privacy risk when installing any application onto your mobile device.
    • Do your due diligence about any apps you download. By the way, non-gaming apps tend to be less risky than gaming apps, and free apps tend to be risker than those you pay for.
    • If at all possible, avoid signing into apps using your Facebook, Google, or other social network accounts.
    • Confirm that the app you're installing requires only the permissions it needs to function. For example, if a flashlight app asks to access your contacts and post to social media sites, run away!
    • Use location services sparingly. Geo tracking is not only a risky set of data to share with strangers, it is also drains battery power more quickly.
    • Examine all your apps to determine if they are safe before downloading. If the app is new or not well-known, search for unbiased reviews of the app to see what others are saying. A simple Google search for “app name – problems” may be beneficial.

    Smartphones are quite arguably the most earth-changing technological development of all time. Few inventions have had more impact on so many facets of daily life for so many billions of people. They make our lives easier and more efficient, helping us stay connected with friends and loved ones, as well availing to us almost all of the acquired intelligence on the entire planet…instantly!

    Of all the information you gather with your mobile device, none is more important than information regarding the very apps you use. Do your homework and practice these simple steps to increase your mobile device satisfaction while decreasing their risk of invading your privacy.


    February - Power Banner - Apps

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