Little Experiments on the Cheap


Part of my ongoing plan to create a more resilient and adaptable life includes finding alternative ways to satisfy daily needs with simple affordable work-arounds. I want electric lights at night and I want to charge my cell phone and small devices even if the power goes out in a storm. This little $80 portable foldable solar panel does the trick. I placed my wallet next to the folded panels for scale. The package is the size of a book.

I was able to charge three battery bricks in a single sunny afternoon. My cell phone charged up super fast. And my usual five watt LED light bulbs ran for days on a single battery brick as usual. Once the batteries were topped up all sorts of devices could be charged after dark or on short cloudy winter days. This system is cleaner, safer, more convenient, and more versatile than candles or oil lamps – and more reliable than flash lights that have been sitting in a drawer for ages with dead batteries.

In the absence of running water a simple pitcher and bowl do many of the things associated with a modern bathroom. It’s possible to wash your hands and face, wet and comb your hair, brush your teeth, and shave with a tiny but adequate amount of water. A washcloth would also allow for light bathing of the body if need be. These are the kinds of low tech options that cost almost nothing and can be implemented almost anywhere. If done right it can also be perfectly elegant.

A bicycle or two in the garage is there for pleasant rides in the park as well as pragmatic transportation if the car should ever be unavailable. It helps to live in a place where it’s physically possible to get from Point A to Point B without a car, but even most auto dependent suburbs are quasi navigable by bike if you’re really in need. Panniers for carrying bits and bobs are helpful as are night lights for safety.

I want to compare and contrast these things to what often passes for “green” or “ecological” strategies. I once gathered the people in my building around the kitchen table and asked them to consider adding insulation to the whole building envelope in a coordinated fashion. I paid an expert to assess the things that could be done quickly and inexpensively, the things that would be slightly more involved and a bit more pricey, and the super deluxe version of ultra insulation. The simple “low hanging fruit” package would have been $3,000 divided by four apartments ($750 each) or eight inhabitants ($375 each.) No one was interested in lower gas and electric bills for the next few decades by way of insulation.

But shortly afterward one of the guys upstairs installed $13,000 worth of solar panels on the roof, attached an electric charging plug to the garage wall, and bought a Tesla. If the grid should go down so do the panels on the roof, although I suppose people could use the Tesla to charge their cell phones…

Spot the difference?

This piece first appeared on Granola Shotgun.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.