Product Reviews: Flashlights

This week let’s take a fresh look at something that you’ve used for your whole life: flashlights (or as my friends from overseas would say, “torches”). Now I’ll admit to having an unusual fascination with flashlights but please read on, because I’m betting you can learn something new about them which is relevant to emergency preparedness.

Instead of trying to review specific models (which would be a hopeless task, as there must be thousands of models to choose from), we’ll look at broad categories. There really are differences, and the differences could be important after an earthquake.

Traditional Flashlights

By “traditional” I mean powered by batteries (typically D, C, or AA dry cells) and using a standard bulb. These are simple, they’ve been around since you were a kid, everybody knows how they work, and you can buy them almost anywhere for very little money. You very likely have a few of those in your home right now, so why do you even need to think about them?

Go grab one of them, whichever one is handiest. Do it right now. Oh yes, and please do it with your eyes closed — if it were light enough to see, you wouldn’t be looking for a flashlight, would you? Got it ready? Now before you turn it on, make a friendly bet with me: Are the batteries dead? If you’re not absolutely sure they still have a decent charge, you’ve just answered my question of what is wrong with traditional flashlights.

Now (assuming the batteries work) turn it on, hold it around shoulder level like you’re looking for something in the dark, and drop it on the hardest floor in your home. Did the bulb break? If even the filament breaks, you’re literally back in the dark again, which is another reason I’m not crazy about these for emergency conditions where your light must work for you.

Because they’re so cheap and simple I won’t ask you to abandon these completely, but there are two big caveats:

  • You must keep a stock of batteries and rotate it regularly. In practice this is hard for most of us to remember to do.
  • You must not rely on these as your only source of light. There is a much more reliable type of light available which we’ll discuss below.

Premium Traditionals

By “premium” I’m talking about the more expensive models that are made of heavier metal and often have high-intensity bulbs. Their extra ruggedness is certainly a plus, but otherwise they suffer from pretty much the same disadvantages as the regular traditionals.

Rechargeable Flashlights

We’ve all seen the flashlights that you keep in a charger, which in turn stays plugged into a wall outlet to keep the battery charged up at all times. This will ensure that the light is ready when you need it, and because you keep it in a special place it also ensures that you can actually find it when you need it, even in the dark.

The only problem is that after an earthquake you may be using that flashlight a lot. What happens once the battery runs down? If the power is still out there is no way to recharge the battery, so now you have a dead flashlight again. If you already have one of these by all means keep it, but for post-earthquake use I cannot recommend that you rely on them.

Battery-powered LED Lights

Recently a lot of small (and not-so-small) flashlights have appeared which run on traditional batteries but use LEDs as their light source. Some models are not as bright as a filament-bulb (although other models are surprisingly bright), but because they draw less current they can last a lot longer on a single set of batteries. This is a good thing, and I use these myself, but for our specific purpose here you must still deal with the inconvenient fact that batteries go dead in storage.

Crank-Powered Lights

Models specifically advertised as “emergency” flashlights, powered by a crank mechanism that you turn by hand, have been available for many years. So long as they are powered by LEDs, these are finally starting to solve the real problem with any battery-powered light. So long as you have enough hand-strength to turn the crank, you’ll have light. A perfect solution, it would seem.

Then again, perhaps not. I’ve tried a number of these, and every one of them has eventually broken when I started using it regularly. Every one. The more expensive models lasted longer, but it seems the physical demands of making a very small generator that can produce enough power requires the parts to be subjected to so much mechanical stress that something always breaks. I really hoped these would be the answer and was very disappointed when they didn’t work out for me, but I don’t want you to waste money on something that might break when you need it most.

Faraday Lights

One of the obscure facts most people forget as soon as they finish high-school physics (if not sooner) is Faraday’s Law of Induction, which loosely speaking states that a magnet moving through a coil of wire will produce electricity. What does that have to do with earthquakes? Well, if you put the coil inside a tube the size of a flashlight, and you slide a very strong magnet (which we’ve recently learned to produce at a reasonable cost) inside the tube, and you connect it to LEDs (which have recently become both bright enough and cheap enough to use for this purpose) to minimize the power required, you have yourself a flashlight that never needs batteries and has only one moving part (the magnet).

These go by various names like “shakelights” or “Faraday lights”, but they all work on the same principle. All you have to do is shake them and they will produce light, even if they’ve been sitting neglected for years. This is exactly what we want for an emergency light, so I heartily recommend them. Because of their cost you probably won’t want to rely exclusively on Faraday lights, but I consider it essential to have at least one (my family has one per person and one per car, which might be a little crazy but I got them when they were less expensive than they are now).

Of course every silver lining has a cloud, and Faraday lights are no exception:

  • Their light is not nearly as bright as that of a conventional flashlight. It is however bright enough so you can walk around without bumping into things, and it’s bright enough to find something that you’re looking for, and that’s really all we need.
  • There are many brands, and most of them that I’ve tried are simply not good enough to rely on. The theory is simple enough but in practice it’s tricky to make one of these work, and most manufacturers don’t get it right — especially when they’re making cheap knock-offs.
  • The ones that actually work are much more expensive than other flashlights (about $30 each).

So which shakelights are good? The only brand I depend on is the NightStar by Applied Innovative Technologies. How reliable are they in practice? I’ve been using several of them for over 10 years, including leaving them banging around under a car seat in the extreme heat and cold of Illinois summers and winters, and in all that time I’ve only had one fail — and I severely abused that one by dropping it about 3 feet onto very hard concrete not once but twice (accidentally of course; I can a bit clumsy at times). They have a smaller less expensive model intended for kids, but I like the full-size (currently NightStar 4) models better.

Some NightStar models (not all; check the specs carefully for the one you’re buying) are also safe for use in explosive atmospheres. While that’s not normally a requirement for most people, you might think it would come in handy if you’re hunting down a gas leak after an earthquake. I suppose that could technically be true, but if you suspect a gas leak and it’s dark, please don’t go hunting for the leak — just turn off the gas!. There are professionals from the gas company who get paid for that kind of thing, so let them do the dangerous stuff.

A final word of advice for parents: If you’re thinking of giving these to multiple small children, think again. A NightStar is so solid that if a toddler decides to clobber a sibling with it, serious injury can result. I had to take them away from my own children until they were old enough to understand why they shouldn’t brain each other with hard objects.

Brackets

A flashlight is of no use if you can’t find it, and finding things in the dark when you’re totally stressed out is not most people’s strong point. This is even more of an issue if you normally keep your lights in drawers or on shelves, and all the contents have been shuffled or spilled or dumped by the shaking. Most lights don’t come with brackets, but I strongly suggest that you buy or make one (look for a future blog post showing how to easily make your own) for each critical flashlight, or at least choose some stable place where you can find it by feel if you ever have to.

You can buy special brackets for the NightStars, but I haven’t had very good luck with those. I’m a big advocate of actually using your emergency equipment in your normal life so that you get familiar with it, remember where it is, and discover any problems while you can still fix them. Unfortunately I’ve found that while the NightStar brackets work fine for a while, under the stress of repeated use the plastic material tends to crack and break eventually (of the six I bought, 3 either cracked or broke outright). There is also a belt holster for the NightStar, but my sample of that didn’t hold up very well either.

Recommendations

  • Get a bunch of cheap battery-powered flashlights, and try to remember to buy a bunch of fresh batteries every couple of years. Don’t just get enough for each flashlight; get several sets for each to keep them running for as many days as you want to prepare for.
  • Get at least one and preferably a couple of NightStar shakelights. Store these in a special place where you can always find them. Better yet, install brackets for them.
  • Use them. Whenever you need a light, grab the NightStar. That way it will be an old friend if and when you ever really need it.