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Guest Column: Using a Hybrid Car for Storm Resilience

BY GAYATHRI VIJAYAKUMAR

Storm after storm, including the two nor’easters we’ve experienced in Connecticut over the past week, Mother Nature continues to show us that even though it is critical to focus on energy-efficient building designs and renewable energy systems, we must also include storm resiliency as another component of designing truly sustainable buildings.

While traditional portable gasoline generators are widely available to provide emergency back-up electricity to a home in the event of a power outage, these don’t necessarily scream “sustainable”.

A few years ago, after suffering a hurricane related power outage in Connecticut, I decided to take up a somewhat unique precaution against potential electrical power outages. While I am able to generate 100% of my annual electricity through solar PV panels, it was not cost effective to buy batteries just for the sake of a power outage. I instead chose to outfit my hybrid car to serve as a back-up generator to my house in New Haven.

This approach relies on an inverter, which I purchased from ConVerdant Vehicles*, which happened to be less expensive (~$700) than a standard gas generator. It required a quick and inexpensive (~$100) modification to my car by a mechanic and the installation of a traditional generator transfer switch in my garage, which was done by an electrician (~$500).

In the event of a power outage, I simply disconnect my house from the grid, move my car outdoors, hook up the inverter to the car and transfer switch, and start the car up. The whole process takes me less than 10 minutes. The inverter generates enough electricity (~1,600 Watts) to run the critical circuits in my house, including pre-selected lights, refrigerator, and the electric ignition to the tankless gas water heater, and even a few not-so-critical circuits, like the cable box/modem and TV.

This approach is more “sustainable” since it takes advantage of my hybrid’s efficient engine to provide electricity with half the fuel of a traditional generator, and is much much quieter.

I was not prepared for our first power outage in Connecticut, but we were able to use the gas stove for cooking and our gas fireplace kept the first floor at well over 70F. Being without a fridge and hot water was a challenge though. Now that we have the inverter, being able to provide basic power for three days on just one tank of gas makes me feel good about my home being energy-efficient and sustainable, even during a storm.

*While ConVerdant is no longer selling the inverters, other inverters are available, but perhaps at smaller capacities.

Gayathri Vijayakumar is a Principal Mechanical Engineer with Steven Winter Associates, Inc.

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