Of everything I brought with me, my favorite possession during the burn was definitely my blender bottle. I actually got it for free from Soylent when I first started but they are just a few bucks on Amazon. (I took the mixer ball out before heading to Burning Man.)
I found that this was the perfect drinking vessel on playa. It doesn’t hold flavors between drinks. I dropped it many times and it never came open. It snaps easily to anything with a carabiner. And it rinses clean with no hassle.
The two-tent strategy was a complete failure. If anything, it just made it hotter in the mornings, and it was way too big. I felt like I was hogging half the playa with my set up.
I’m very glad that I brought my own power in the form of a battery. I didn’t need any grid power the whole burn. I will certainly do this again, though I may get something bigger because….
I want to bring a swamp cooler next year. I have plans to build something very efficient and solar powered. 😀
Having a self-inflating mattress was nice, but I think I’d rather just use a cot. Topping off the mattress pressure every night was a hassle and made me feel like an obnoxious neighbor. Also it takes up a lot of space, and I don’t like the squishiness. I would prefer something firmer next time (Like a cot).
As is a common theme on my blog, I feel like I brought too much stuff.
I think I will ditch the mattress next time, and both tents. Instead, I want to do either a Shiftpod 2 or some kind of stealth trailer. Everyone had a lot of positive things to say about Shiftpods, and I have never heard anyone complain. Also, the fact that they are impossible to find used tells me that their owners like them.
Elon Musk famously came up with the idea for Solar City while at burning man, observing the ubiquitous microgrids which power the temporary city. Every home should work this way, he reasoned. At Burning Man, each city block has many microgrids. They range from very small to very large, and they take many forms. There are also several online communities devoted to discussing issues related to these microgrids at Burning Man.
Incidentally, nearly a hundred billion dollars of venture and philanthropic funds are slated to be poured into the development of microgrids to electrify the developing world in the coming decades. Throughout human civilization, we are seeing a rise of microgrids taking over the work traditionally done (or not done) by larger civic grids. Building civic grids which power large areas is enormously expensive and very technically complex. Many governments in the developing world are not able to do this. Maybe people simply choose to manage their own resources and live off grid, more sustainably. There are any number of reasons why a microgrid is the best solution to power needs in many situations.
Burning Man offers a unique and valuable testing ground for this technology which fosters innovative solutions for this important problem facing humans everywhere. I have an interesting perspective on each of the three types of microgrids I will explain in this post.
A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources and loads that normally operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional wide area synchronous grid (macrogrid), but can also disconnect to “island mode” — and function autonomously as physical or economic conditions dictate.
In this way, a microgrid can effectively integrate various sources of distributed generation, especially renewable energy sources, and can supply emergency power, changing between island and connected modes.
For our purposes, I will define a microgrid as a system for powering multiple devices which may use batteries to temporarily store electricity, and which can draw power from many types of sources including generators, solar panels, or other grids. We will see that this definition allows us to consider lots of interesting examples.
My Experience With A Neighborhood-Scale Microgrid
At Burning Man, I camp with Comfort & Joy. We have an area approximately the size of two city blocks where over 150 people live throughout Burning Man. We are also visited by many thousands of people who participate in our events and community spaces. We have a relatively complex challenge with our microgrid. We need to power many large performance art projects, a gym, an air-conditioned cuddle dome, several event and community spaces, two sound stages, two instant-hot showers, and a full commercial kitchen including several industrial freezers and refrigerators. This is no small feat for a microgrid!
The infrastructure is pretty straightforward. A large rented 45kw diesel generator is the primary power source. (This is about four times what we need, but it’s what was available on late notice after our original rental company backed out.) The generator runs to several spider boxes which distribute the power around the camp through standard extension cords and plug-in strips. We had over a hundred tents, and each one had power running directly to it.
Most Burning Man camps have microgrids which work in much the same way as ours. Some camps have many RVs which need higher loads and more spider boxes to distribute power, but other than that, this layout is essentially the standard format for the neighborhood-scale microgrid, both at Burning Man and the world outside.
In the future, the biggest potential improvement would be adding batteries and a renewable energy source such as wind or solar. This could replace the diesel generator as the primary source of power. It would mean becoming less reliant on polluting fossil fuels, and less reliant on the generator as a large single point of failure. Many camps are already using hybrid-diesel/solar microgrids like this.
The Home-Scale Microgrid
Comfort and Joy is an example of a camp with a microgrid about the size of a city block. What this means is that I have a tent with all my stuff inside, and an extension cord running out to our neighborhood-scale microgrid. I plug into that to get power. In turn, I use that power for my devices, costumes, lights, to inflate my mattress, etc. This is an example of a home-scale microgrid (or in this case tent or RV).
Many camps are less organized, and have no neighborhood-scale microgrid for campers to plug into. In those cases, each tent or RV will often have a generator, wind turbine, or a few solar panels to provide power. This power is usually stored in batteries, and then used as needed. This is analogous to off-grid tiny homes or cabins. In fact, many tiny homes make the trek to Burning Man already including their own home-scale microgrid.
Storing electricity is a challenging problem. Most people try to use lead-acid batteries such as car batteries or deep cycle batteries. These have many disadvantages. Setting them up and using them is technically complex and often counter-intuitive, especially if the microgrid is using more than one battery. Lead-acid batteries will also require almost a day of solid charging to get to full capacity. This just isn’t possible if your power source is solar or a generator. Both will always face interruptions due to dust, leaving your batteries uncharged.
A better way of storing electricity is with lithium batteries. These are the same types of batteries found in cell phones and laptops. They charge very quickly and provide a much simpler solution to the problem. The downside is that they can be slightly more expensive, but luckily there is a whole industry around products that solve this problem. The big player is Yeti with its GoalZero Lithium battery packs. Products like this make home-scale microgrids a cinch. Lithium battery packs like this will accept power from essentially any source: solar panels, generators, standard electrical outlets, or car cigarette lighters. They store a lot of power very quickly. Then they let you use it via USB ports, standard electrical outlets, or even via cigarette adapters. These products are a very good solution to the power storage problem. In fact, I ran my entire burn this year off of one of these without using any other source of power such as generator or solar. One big battery was more than enough for all my needs.
Keep in mind there are tons of cheap, excellent alternatives to GoalZero products. Pictured below is the one I am using, the Poweradd ChargerCenterⅡ 370Wh. It is essentially exactly the same as the Yeti GoalZero Lithium 400, but less than half the price. It still has a standard 120 volt outlet, plus USB ports, and it can still accept power from essentially any source: generator, solar panels, or car cigarette adapter. I am using USB-powered christmas lights for interior lighting in the tent. USB is an excellent way of powering things. It is designed to use very little power while accomplishing the same things. This box on a single charge can power those lights for the entire event while also recharging my cell phone hundreds of times. I’ll also use this to power some small speakers for BMIR radio and Spotify.
Using USB Is MUCH Better Than Using 120 Volt
Any time we step power up to 120 volts, there is waste. In fact, there is a lot of waste. I the past, I brought a charged car battery to Burning Man which I hooked up to a cigarette lighter socket. I used normal car accessories for all my needs. I even had an inverter to get 120 volts, but mostly I stuck to cigarette and USB connections. Plugging my cell phone charger into an inverter running off of a battery was enormously wasteful. The power savings is huge if you stay at 5 volts (USB) or 12 volts (Cigarette Lighter) instead of going up to 120 volts and then back down to USB through a phone charger or something like that. Just run a car charger straight off the battery!
USB-powered versions of many common electronics are available and they use less power. An essentially identical string of LED christmas lights which plugs into the wall will use a lot more power than one that plugs into USB. More on that in the next section.
The Mobile Microgrid
At Burning Man, every person simply must have a bike. The city is vast. There just is no way to get around without a bike. Because of many hazards at night, everyone is required to cover themselves and their bikes in lights. This prevents many types of dangerous accidents, but it also poses a problem. My first burn, I brought a bunch of Ikea AA-powered Christmas light strands. These worked great, but I went through a half-dozen AAs each day. This is very wasteful, and there is a simple alternative.
You guessed it, USB! This is an amazing and far superior solution to using AA batteries. A simple solar battery pack turns your bike into a mobile microgrid. Just one strand of $7 USB-powered Christmas lights is very bright and can run for weeks off of a battery pack like this. I ended up using two strands just for fun. Having all this power available on your bike also means you can add other cool accessories like bluetooth speakers or plasma balls and of course it can also recharge your devices. A USB-powered microgrid on a bike is more sustainable, more flexible, and less stressful than trying to swap out moopy batteries several times a night.
This year, I have changed almost all my gear. For the first time, I have my own complete microgrid and a double-tent. I also replaced almost all non-rechargeable devices. This year, my burn will be far more sustainable and very low stress. My gear list makes all that possible.
Home Sweet Home v2
This pic is from my beta burn. I will update the photo after the real burn. Click here for a video tour of the tent! You can see a fold up table to the inside-left, and behind it the smaller tent housing the mattress. One unexpected positive with this tent is the way the tent material hangs inside the fiberglass superstructure. This means that a tarp draped over the tent is several inches away from the tent material, providing airflow in between and very effective insulation from sunlight and heat.
Having a double tent was a major priority in order to delay morning sun and heat from reaching me as I desperately struggle to sleep in. I also wanted to maximize my energy independence and improve over my previous
Big Tent: This provides shade and shelter from the elements. Everything but my bike goes inside. It is secured by rebar wit tennis balls on the ends of each for safety.
Smaller Tent: This is a smaller tent made of dark material which fits snugly around the mattress. It goes inside the larger tent. This small tent provides a dark space for sleeping which is protected from dust and slows the heat from getting to the sleeper.
Self-Inflating Mattress: This is SO handy. Last burn, I had one that needs to be inflated by hand. At some point, it got a slow leak which required constant work to keep it inflated. Eventually we just gave up and slept on the ground. Never again! Just flip the switch and it’s back to 100%!
Two Coolers: These were on sale for just $15 a piece. Each one holds 72 cans!
Two Chairs: I can’t find a similar deal today, but when I bought these two fold-up camping chairs, they were $5 each!
One Cot/ Couch: I got this for free, and I think it will make a great couch or guest bed.
USB String Lights: For energy efficient indoor illumination. These are pretty bright and can run off of a power bank for the entire burn.
Power Source: I have my own microgrid inside the tent running off of this power bank. It can supply almost 400 watt hours which should be far more than I need for the entire burn. It is comparable to the Yeti 400 Lithium which is more than double the price.
Stove/ Dishes: This kit is so great. I really really like it and it was so cheap. It includes two small pots, a pan, a stove, silverware, a bowl, a sponge, and a carrying pouch. All of this is less than $30. I bought the giant fuel container from REI for $5. It has lasted me several years and still feels pretty full.
For food, I picked up a bunch of meals ready to eat including all of these below. I bought these before learning that my new camp, Comfort and Joy provides meals for campers. I anticipate sharing many of these meals I bought with neighbors and other friends.
I decided to try to get rid of as many battery-using devices as I could. The solution seemed obvious; USB!
Roadmaster 26: This is the same model bike I took to the last burn. They have proven very versatile and reliable. And they go back to Walmart after!
USB Bike Lights: Two strings of these lights run to a dust-proof power bank in the basket. This is able to run the lights for weeks on a single charge, and it recharges via built in solar panel. This technically makes the bike a microgrid in its own right!
Shelf: I added this shelf to the back of the roadmaster. It allows a milk crate to rest comfortable on the back. This makes it a lot easier to bring beer and snacks around with me on the playa.
Front Basket: I added this basket to the front of the bike. While the back basket is great for food and drinks, the front is great for thinks like the power bank, the lock, spare tubes, tools, etc. You don’t want to find yourself in need of these things and not have them handy!
Other Accessories: I found a kit for under $20 at Walmart which contained a lock, pump, bicycle bottle, headlamp, tail light, and a bell. These kinds of kits are usually available and well worth the $20.
Every year, Burning Man holds a contest for the many official stickers they will print and distribute related to the theme. This year’s theme is I, Robot after the book by Isaac Asimov. I took my inspiration from the cover art for Asimov’s sequel to I, Robot.
This is the design I created and submitted. I have not heard back yet but I am hopeful!