Charlie Karchner, Jordan Williams, Dave Ecklund and Austin Yaletchko discuss their backup power accessibility project.

Powering through a challenge

When the power goes out, for most of us it’s an inconvenience of losing something we take for granted – the ability to turn on a light, make a pot of coffee or watch TV. But for people with disabilities, power outages can be much more serious, threatening their sole means of connection and information from the outside world or hindering their ability to breathe.

Engineering students devise backup power solution for those with disabilities

When the power goes out, for most of us it’s an inconvenience of losing something we take for granted – the ability to turn on a light, make a pot of coffee or watch TV. But for people with disabilities, power outages can be much more serious, threatening their sole means of connection and information from the outside world or hindering their ability to breathe.

Considering the reliance on electricity that people with disabilities face, a team of students from Penn State Hazleton was tasked with designing a backup power accessibility project that would help the consumers of ARCIL – the Anthracite Region Center for Independent Living – in the event of a power outage. The project needed to be able to power devices while being reliable, easy to use and cost effective.

Dave Ecklund, Charlie Karchner, Jordan Williams and Austin Yaletchko were intrigued by the prospect of working on a project that would help others. They began researching types of alternative power that could be used, the viability and cost of each option, laws and tax incentives and deductions. They also learned about ARCIL itself: its mission to enable people with disabilities to live as independently as possible, the assistance it provides and what devices its consumers use that require power.

“My brother has autism and Down syndrome and relies on his iPad to keep him focused and calm,” Williams said, listing tablets as types of devices that a power outage could impact.

Electronic devices provide necessary functions for people with physical, intellectual or audiovisual disabilities. Cell phones and televisions can provide critical information for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Radios or screen readers can do the same for those who are vision impaired. Someone who suffers from sleep apnea may rely on a breathing machine that requires power.

“Blackouts and emergencies are already stressful times. But people with disabilities may rely on their devices for almost everything they do. Almost everyone could benefit from this product in some way, shape or form,” said Ecklund.

To devise the best solution for a power outage, the students worked with ARCIL Executive Director Denise Corcoran, talking and meeting with her as they developed their ideas and fine-tuned the project.

“There was a lot of communication between us throughout the project. They even came to our holiday party and met our consumers to talk to them about their ideas,” Corcoran said. “From the start, they were definitely on the right path. They had known people who had disabilities and had done a lot of research on their own,” she said.

The design the students came up with uses a solar panel that powers a battery from Goal Zero, a company that works to create portable, sustainable power solutions. The Goal Zero lithium battery is less likely to need charging over time and is more lightweight than a lead-acid battery. It is portable and can power a large capacity, particularly personal communication devices. It was also one of the most cost-effective solutions the students researched.

“We wanted to balance price with viability and make it as affordable as possible,” Ecklund said.

Patrick Keller, marketing director for Goal Zero, said, “Goal Zero is thrilled to see the students’ initiative and focus on giving back to the community. A foundational component of Goal Zero’s business model is giving back in the form of empowering people everywhere with sustainable, well-designed power solutions. We look forward to working with ARCIL in the future and are excited at the opportunity to help people gain access to power solutions that can improve their comfort, safety and quality of life when the grid goes down.”

Associate Professor of Engineering Joseph Ranalli, who advised the student team, said, “I liked this project because it let our students use their alternative energy expertise to serve a public need by assisting individuals with disabilities. There's a really great need for this type of device and I think it was a great idea for the students to incorporate renewables into their solution. One of the major upsides of alternative energy systems is that they can provide independence from the grid, and that's the feature that the students leveraged here.”

At the end of the project, the students provided a prototype to ARCIL along with supplemental materials to help them understand how to operate the device.

“We wanted to give them the data to make their own devices,” Yaletchko said.

The four students graduated this May from Penn State Hazleton and believe the project will be beneficial to them as they pursue careers in engineering using alternative power sources.

Ecklund said, “We’ve learned context and empathy by working on this project. Engineers are often seen as cold and logical, but this project gives our work a human factor that can seem to be missing from the engineering profession.”

Yaletchko said, “Throughout school, we’ve always been given a task and how to do it, but with this we got to lead ourselves to our own conclusions after diving in.”

Karchner agreed that the research and conclusions were a valuable part of the learning experience. “We learned how to analyze someone’s needs and do something to fit their needs. We learned how to conduct research on our own based on that. I liked being able to work with an organization close to us and learning more about battery solar panel design,” he said.

Corcoran said she was impressed seeing what the students came up with.

“We’re already looking at having our consumers work with the equipment. The students were very informed and very concerned with our consumers and what our center does. They took the time to come and meet with our consumers and were easy to work with, handling much of the information and making contacts on their own. I would definitely like to continue working with them and other students at the campus in the future,” she said.