Observations on emergency lighting options

During Typhoon Ondoy, our condo unit was without electricity for almost three days. Although the building was fitted with backup generators, all power was diverted to essential services like elevators and common area emergency lighting.

On the day after power was restored, my wife and I visited Ace Hardware in SM Makati to pick up some supplies and were greeted with a crowd of people panic-buying emergency lighting products. By the time we’d arrived in the early afternoon, Ace Hardware’s stock was almost gone. I could only imagine that those poor people had been caught out without lighting during the brown-out and were desperately trying to rectify their mistake. Of course, by then it was too late because Metro Manila had already started to return to normal.

Fortunately, we’d stocked up on a wide range of emergency lighting long before so although we still had to deal with the heat, at least it didn’t have to be in the dark. The picture below shows a few of our emergency lighting devices.

A selection of emergency lighting options

These range from plug-in rechargeables to hand-crank, D-cell, AA-cell and CRE123 powered lights. A few are multi-purpose devices that also include fan, radio, clock and cellphone charger. The lighting elements ranged from incandescent light bulb, LED and CFL.

What I learned

  1. Don’t wait until the emergency itself to buy your kit. This is so obvious but judging from the crowd in SM Makati’s Ace Hardware, many people did just that. Like them, you’ll most likely end up scrambling after a dwindling supply.
  2. By far the most useful technology combination for area lighting turned out to be LED lights with plug-in rechargeable power source. (In the picture, these are the white box-shaped lamps made by Akari and Omni). They were labelled to last between 20 to 120 hours on a single charge and they kept going throughout the three-day power cut.
  3. For spot lighting, an LED flashlight with CRE123 battery turned out to be the most convenient. (This is the small black flashlight in the picture, a Fenix PD30.) It provided a very bright light with long running time in a tiny package.
  4. The CFL lights were pretty much useless for anything more than a short-term brown-out; although they cast the most pleasant ambient light, they only lasted a few hours before giving up.
  5. I didn’t bother with the hand-crank light at all. Perhaps it would have been useful in the most desperate case when all other lighting options were exhausted. In this case, I had many other better options.
  6. The cellphone charge feature on one unit turned out to be very useful.
  7. The incandescent bulb lamps were far outclassed by all other LED units. With the low price and ready availability of LEDs, I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to buy an incandescent bulb flashlight or lamp.

Of all the models, the one that most suited the purpose of emergency light was the Akari Rechargeable Emergency Light (model AEL 969) which I bought for approx. Php1,100 at Office Warehouse. This included an AM/FM radio, mobile charger and allowed to you switch from four LED (120 hour run time) to 28 LED (50 hour run time).

A few weeks after Typhoon Ondoy, I tested the unit again as I was curious to see how long it would last on a full charge. It ran for almost 5 days before discharging.

I’ve been told that in emergencies, it’s best to have a light that uses a common power source, such as standard C-cell or AA-cell batteries. The reasoning behind this is that their batteries can be stored for longer and it’s easier to find replacements; proprietary rechargeable power packs, on the other-hand, need maintenance and are heavily dependent on a power supply to keep them charged.

I do generally agree with this and will always have a few standard flashlights in my kit. However, my experience during Typhoon Ondoy shows that in all but the worst-case scenarios, things would most likely be getting back to normal by the time your rechargeable LED light starts to run down.

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6 responses to “Observations on emergency lighting options

  1. Nathan L: thinking of buying a portable generator set for emergency after reading this. my present gen set is very big and i need help starting it.

    anthony: ‎@Nathan, do you have any tips on selecting a generator set? What should we look for?

    Nathan L: for your home use, go for the light weight portable, regular gasoline fed, but if there is portable diesel gen set, it is better since it is safer to store. i base that to my knowing you use it in your condo. there is no particular brand but i suggest go for known brands like ROBIN, HONDA, COLEMAN, avoid the chinese brands, they maybe cheap but easily conks out. make sure there is proper ventilation where the gen set is placed when it is running or in use.

    Nathan L: home depot or the like is the best place to see one.

  2. I suggest investing in a good headlamp as well. This will be very useful for those times when you need to work with both your hands. Look for those with 2 or 3 power levels so you can select the needed lighting and help conserve battery levels. There some models that offer point and flood lighting capabilities as well red light and flashing modes. I have a Petzl Tikka XP2 which I use general for hiking and backup for my emergency kit.

    I would also look into a flashlight or two that has 2 or 3 power levels so you can adjust the light output.
    Frankly, sometimes all need is a just a little light (10 lumens or so) just to see the key hole in the dark. Fenix and Surefire are recommended brands. The Fenix E01 and LD20 are among the mostly recommended models.

    1. I’ve tried the Akari AEL 969 on an older iPhone 3G and it does charge it. However, it doesn’t charge an iPad and I don’t know about the new iPhones.

      The key seems to be the input amperage of the charger. The original iPhone 3G charger with input amperage of 0.15A worked fine but a Belkin charger with input amperage of 0.5A had problems. To find the input amperage of your charger, look somewhere underneath and it should say something like ‘Input’ and ‘Output’ with AC, DC, Watts, V, etc. The figure you need is under ‘Input’ and measured with ‘A’.

  3. IMO chem lights are an outdated technology that are almost half a century old and now only good for specific applications (mostly military or industrial). They they solved some problems of incandescent bulb flashlights (e.g. fragile bulbs, leaking batteries during storage, low-output glow). However, that before LED lights.

    Now with LED you can have huge versatility. Ultra-bright high intensity lighting; low level lighting the size of a coin that can keep for years; room lighting that will last a week of continuous use; cheap re-useable blinking markers; etc. etc.

    Military use chem lights all the time for specific applications (e.g. IR marker lighting, sparkless/flameless light, disposable signalling, etc.) However, the individual soldier doesn’t have to _pay_ for them so they end up using them for whatever.

    When you buy them yourself as a civilian, you’re loathe to break them open unless it’s a real dire emergency. In the end they just get expired without use. Why use a disposable chem light when you can just grab a cheap re-useable LED?

    [Note: This comment was a reply to a question on another forum.]

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