As hurricane brews, how to stay connected

Spare batteries are a must for staying in touch

Anyone living off the grid develops much better-than-average skills at surviving during power outages and natural disasters. Here are a few words of advice on battery maintenance and staying connected that may be useful to those in Tampa or New Orleans over the next few hours or days  –

After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on safety and security initiatives to ensure cell service is available as long as the cell towers are still standing, so an empty battery will likely be the first challenge to keeping in touch and keeping informed.

Battery tech and capacity has failed to  improve or even kept pace with modern electronic technology  and the problem is particularly acute with the latest smart devices . And everyone is carrying more of these devices, which means more batteries. Smart devices do 20 times more than cellphones used to, but they also draw 20 times more power.

The result is a much shorter overall battery life per charge due largely to all of the extra stuff that smartphones and iPhones have built into them. Regardless of which smartphone you have, when the power is out, you are going to want to make its charge last as long as you can. There are a number of ways that you can accomplish this with a little care and planning.

The most obvious first step is to carry a spare battery. An extra smartphone battery (eg spare battery for HTC phones) should only cost $5 plus postage. The earlier iPhones do not allow battery swapping but most other smartphones do, and the iPhone 4 has the option of an extended battery in a protective case.

In a slightly larger pocket you can fit a larger, more powerful portable Lithium polymer battery that you use to recharge your device when neccessary. The Anker Astro 3 is a good example.  you can plug any phone or music player into its USB ports and it holds enough to completely charge a phone battery at least ten times. because it has dual USB chargers you can refresh both your phone and your camera or netbook simultaneously.  Then you plug the Astro3 into a wall or a solar panel the first chance you get.

Next suggestion – turn off the device when you are not using it.  It will continue to search for a signal even if it is in semi-sleep mode and that uses juice.

For convenience, smartphone makers have configured the devices out-of-the-box with the most commonly used features enabled, regardless of whether the consumer actually needs or wants those services.

This means your smartphone automatically connects to your cellular service using a combination of GSM and 3G, seeks the closest open Wi-Fi connection for data, and continuously announces its existence to any nearby Bluetooth and IR-aware devices. Call notification settings are configured for both ringer and vibration modes, and the back-lit screen is set to bright, with a colorful background image. All of that conspicuously consumes your battery charge.

Transforming your device for efficient battery usage starts with simple adjustments:

Turn off the vibrate notification and lower the ringer volume; Turn off screen back-lighting or lower its intensity; Set the timer to automatically dim or turn off back-lighting after 15 seconds of non-use; Set the background to blank or an all black image; Turn off Bluetooth, IR, and Wi-Fi networking; Turn off all push services to prevent your phone from polling for them; Disable GPS for everything except emergency localization; Replace the 3G connection type with GSM.

Many smartphones come with a power-saving mode built in, but the user has to turn it on. Do that. And, finally, follow stricter discipline, keeping your calls as short as possible, making only necessary calls, and allowing unimportant calls to go to voicemail.

It’s a good idea to have compact emergency preparation kits at home and in your car. One add-on worth considering, and easy to do, is a personal power management kit to keep your personal electronics functional during extended power outages.

Alternative and green power sources for your emergency preparation kit can also be used in other situations — camping or a day at the beach, for instance.

Portable solar power has come into its own in recent years, and the consumer market is dominated by two companies: Goal Zero and Go Solar.

Each offers a range of devices that include solar panels, inverters and lithium-ion batteries to store the power. The top of the range isn’t cheap, running to several hundred dollars, but the power generated is impressive.

Goal Zero’s Extreme 350 Explorer Kit is so beefy that its 400 watt inverter is marketed by the company as “a wall outlet in the wilderness.”

A similar product from Go Solar, with a 40-watt capacity, also includes a jumper-cable connector that can charge a car’s battery.

And there are even smaller solutions to be used on the go.

Ohio’s Tremont Electric makes and markets a device called the nPower PEG — widely considered to be the world’s first passive human-powered charger for hand-held electronics, using kinetic energy from motion.

Tremont says that the PEG is compatible with over 3,000 hand-held devices, and in addition to taking a charge from physical motions like walking, hiking, running, and biking, its storage battery can be charged by plugging it into an outlet or the USB port on your computer. The internal battery holds its charge for up to 100 days, and in your bag or pockets, moving and harvesting kinetic energy, the PEG will continue to stay charged beyond 100 days.

Green energy company K-Tor, meanwhile, specializes in hand- (and foot-) cranked charging systems of a type that has existed since World War II.. K-Tor’s Pocket Socket is a hand-cranked generator, smaller than the average shoe, that provides electrical power on the go, through its built-in outlet that’s just like a standard wall outlet. The company’s upcoming Power Box works in a similar fashion — you plug a device into its standard two-prong outlet and then use foot-pedal power to generate the juice.

While none of the above products alone offers a full solution to emergency and portable power needs, when you combine two or more, you easily reach the point of fully sustainable

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