Home Power Category

Sunday, January 12, 2014


EBook readers and many other small electronic devices can be charged/powered by AA batteries using external power packs like these, available at Amazon and from other Internet sellers.

[JWR Adds: And of course there are a plethora of photovoltaic AA battery chargers available. Well-prepared families should have the ability to charge size AA, CR-123, and 9-volt NiMH batteries without grid power. Those batteries will all prove crucial for operating short-range communications, night vision, smoke detectors, intrusion detection, and other gear.]

Also, the DIYBookscanner web site has some resources for book scanning using inexpensive digital cameras and free software.

Regards, - R.L.H. from Ohio

Friday, January 10, 2014

When I am looking for electronics for my cabin that is so far back in the woods it is cost-prohibitive to get grid power, I look for certain things: Low energy use, flexibility of use,and a long service life.
I don’t have a lot of extra room in my cabin but I love to read, so I have an e-book reader. Several years ago, I bought a book scanner and scanned in most of my books to make them e-books. Some people say this is a legal gray area but I have no moral qualms about format shifting an item that I have purchased.

So I have quite a large number of e-books to read, but without an electric outlet most of the e book readers out there will go dead within in a week or so of use. Also, due to the format of my scanned books, they take up quite a lot of space so I need a e-book reader that would take removable memory like SD or micro-SD. Also, I wanted replaceable common batteries like AA or AAA.

The closest thing I have found to my dream product for my cabin is the ECTACO jetBook LITE. It takes SD cards and uses 4 AA batteries. I would like it even more if it had an e-ink display that uses less power, but it is still closest thing to my dream reader I have found. The device reads most of the common e book formats like .pdf and .epub, plus several others. It will show a couple of picture file types such as .jpg and .gif in black and white which comes in handy for maps and screen shots I wanted to save from my home computer plus family pictures. It will run over 20 hours on one set of rechargeable batteries. There are several place online to get free e-books. Most of them are older out-of-copyright books but some nice free ones can be found on Amazon.com and web pages can be saved for offline reading. I bought e reader for less than $60 and it allows me to have most of my at-home library to read when I am back in the woods.

Another similar device that I really enjoy and find endlessly useful is the Wiki reader. It is about 3-1/2 by 4 inches square and holds all the text of Wikipedia, all the text of Wikiquotes, all the text of Wikidictionary, and a huge number of free books from project Gutenberg. All of which runs for months on two AAA rechargeable batteries. To get all of this on the machine, I had to upgrade the micro SD card and download the files for free. This device only cost me $20 on a deals web site and it is great. Recently I was trying to remember how to find the diagonal of a square for laying out the footprint of a out building. Geometry was a LONG time ago for me. Five minutes of playing with my wiki reader and I found Pythagoras's constant 1.414 and away I went. One night my wife and I were discussing history and wanted to figure who the last non-Germanic monarch of England was. It took about 10 minutes to find that out. Sometimes when I am alone at the cabin and don’t want to read a full book or listen to music I will read wikiquotes. Everything from great minds to television shows are in there. Fore example, I really love the Firefly quotes for light reading.

The one downside to either device is they don’t waste their batteries on light so after sundown you need a light. I prefer a head light that uses double a batteries so I don’t have to keep as many kinds of different cells around and since I recharge them, I usually have extras just waiting. A good solar battery charger is really important for my non-paper information needs. I couldn’t find one quite like what I wanted, so I found a nice battery charger that would charge AA and AAA off 12 volt and use either the solar cells for my cabin or the accessories plug in my truck when I have to go out.

The final electronic item that I use at my cabin is a RCA Lyra RD1028 MP3 player. It lets me listen to my favorite music and audio books, plus old radio shows. There are a ton of free non-copyright music and radio shows for downloading on the Internet. This device runs up to 20 hours on 1 AAA battery and takes, again an sd card so I have 6 different cards of audio books and music to listen to. It doesn’t have its' own speaker, so I had to buy an external speaker and amplifier that runs on – you guessed – AA batteries, but that was a small price to pay. This way if I am working on my land I can put the player in an arm band or even a shirt pocket and use the ear buds. Then when I come home to the cabin, I plug it in and listen to a book or radio show.

All of these devices run on commonly-available batteries that can be purchased as one use or rechargeable. They also all use the standard SD or micro SD cards, so I can expand my collection all the time. They are all fairly cheap although some you must now purchase used. I find they are more useful in an off-the-grid situation than a smart phone or tablet or non-replaceable, non-expandable e-book reader. Since we now live in what's been dubbed the information age, you can find a lot of free or cheap content to listen or read so you don’t end up bored out of your skull arguing with yourself.
So in short I look for devices that use replaceable common batteries. Expandable memory in the from of sd cards is very desirable. The ability to easily afford redundant back up with tech that is a few years old but still function wonderfully. If other people have devices other than the ones I mentioned that would fill this bill please let us know.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


While it's true that Anderson Powerpole connectors can be soldered, this is usually not a good idea, for several reasons:

1) Soldering is weaker than crimping because it interposes a soft metal-- and possible air voids-- between the copper of the wire and the copper of the terminal. A properly crimped connection places the wire in compression and the surrounding terminal in tension, ensuring a mechanically strong joint.

2) Soldering adds resistance to the connection. In a properly crimped connection, there are no gaps at all between the wire and the terminal. However low the resistance of solder, it's higher than nothing. In the extreme case, soldering is completely unacceptable for joints in lightning protection systems, since the high current of a lightning strike will hit the extra resistance of the solder, vaporizing it, producing a small explosion and sending the current in search of a better connection to ground-- for example, through your radio equipment. Crimping and welding are the only acceptable options for those connections.

3) Soldering degrades the long-term reliability of the connection. Some types of solder and flux can trigger chemical changes that will embrittle copper wire. Solder also has a different thermal coefficient of expansion than copper, so over time, heat cycles create stress at the surfaces of the wire and terminal that can produce microscopic cracks and eventual separation. I've found soldered connections in old radios where the wires were physically loose within a visually perfect and undisturbed sleeve of solder.

4) Soldering degrades the long-term mechanical strength of the wire itself. When solder wicks up into stranded wire or around solid wire, it makes the wire stiffer. The last point reached by the solder becomes especially likely to kink and break because the transition from the soldered section to the unsoldered section concentrates bending stresses at that point. As with any stress concentration, this can lead to wires being broken by relatively mild stresses, including simple vibration. Stranded wires will die faster than solid wires, one strand at a time. I've also found many soldered connections where the wire was broken off INSIDE the insulation, right at that point, leaving soldered strands on one side of the break and loose strands on the other.

Because of this tendency for soldering to create stress risers, wires that have been soldered to Powerpole contacts should have a cable clamp installed at some distance from the connection to prevent the soldered joint from flexing. The Underwriters Laboratories (UL) standards require such clamps, as Anderson Power Products notes on its own web site, and when I was doing this kind of work, military and aerospace connectors were not allowed to use soldered contacts at all.

In amateur radio and similar applications, Powerpole connectors are almost always used with unsupported stranded wire, and high-quality crimping tools will absolutely give the best results. (And the same is true for ring and spade terminals, butt splices, and similar connections. Crimp all of these, don't solder.)

On the other hand... in an emergency situation, considerations of strength and long-term reliability can be ignored. In my vehicle emergency kit, I carry a small butane soldering iron and solder rather than crimping tools to go with a small assortment of electrical terminals. - P.N.G.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

To say that I’m a neophyte in the electrical world, or as we say here in Alaska a “Cheechako”, is making a big understatement.  So, a couple years back my co-worker and friend got me into Amateur Radio, also affectedly known as Ham Radio.  I studied my ARRL Technician book and passed my test, but it just barely rattled what I had in my head 20 years ago from my only electronics class I had back in High School where we studied Ohm’s law, identified a resistor, and made a strobe light.  So, I’m on a big learning curve. 

I searched around and studied lots of reviews and settled on a nice hand held radio, a Yaesu VX-6R.  It works great for VHF and the 2M repeaters that I have in my town.  As with anything, you always strive for bigger and better!  Must be the Tim “The Toolman” Taylor gene that all guys have (emphasis on the Toolman grunt)!  So, I’m studying to upgrade my license from a Technician to General and get into HF.  Not only am I doing this to get more into my hobby, but I feel this is part of prepping that is just as important as beans and bullets.  Besides studying to upgrade my license, I have been assembling gear for my “shack”.  Again going around the net (great review site for Ham related stuff is www.eHam.net) and talking with fellow Hams, I decided to get a radio that is not only good for a base station, but mobile.  I ended up getting another Yaesu, a FT-897D.  That turned out to be the easy part, the rest of the gear list is probably going to be never ending and always changing.  This brings me to what I wanted to write about, the Anderson Powerpole.

From what I read and have experienced so far is that the Anderson Powerpole is the gold standard for 12VDC power connection.  There are probably people reading this and saying “Whoopee, who cares about connecting wires”!  I was there too at one time, being upside down hooking up trailer lights by twisting 2 wires together and wrapping them with electrical tape.  The genius with Powerpoles is not only the ease of installation, but the mobility and adaptability of this product.  One of the best features of the Powerpoles is that they are genderless, no male or female fittings.  One reviewer called it a hermaphroditic plug.  Because of that several emergency groups like RACES and ARES make Powerpoles a standard for equipment so everyone has the same ability to hook up all their equipment into various power sources.

So, I went to Powerwerx and bought several sets of Powerpoles, a roll of 12 gauge red/black zip cord, extra clips, a RIGrunner (more about that later), and a few other sundry items.  A set of Powerpoles are 2 plastic housings, one red and one black (for positive and negative wires), 2 metal clips, and a roll pin.  Now came the important question, to crimp or solder?  Well, I tried both and found that solder worked the best foe me.  I didn’t buy the fancy crimping tool for the Powerpoles and ended up deforming a couple of clips, and deformed clips won’t fit into the plastic housing.  The lockup for the clip and housing is very precise.  Same with over soldering the clips, if you have a blob of solder on the outside of the clip, it won’t lockup, but at least one can correct that easily.  There are several great sites for assembling Powerpoles like from the Powerwerx web site and Youtube.  What worked for me was to put the zip cord, whoa what is zip cord? It’s basically just like the power cord on your lamp at home, two wires side by side, but in this case they are red and black and can be pulled apart if need be.  So, zip cord in my vise straight up and down, and a great tip.  RED on RIGHT!  It will help keep the poles in alignment.  Place a clip, straight on top, with the “tongue” away from you.  I stripped off about an 1/8 of an inch more than needed to wick the solder, bottom up, into the wire.  Let it cool and click into the plastic housing.  Now after getting both housings done, you will notice that there are tongues and grooves in the sides of the housing.  If you want, you can take the red and black housings and join them together to make a “plug”, and to make it lock up just push in the roll pin in the hole provided by the joining of the two housings.  Again there are awesome videos on Youtube showing how to assemble Powerpoles, both crimping and soldering.

Now I mentioned a RIGrunner.  This is another little gem I discovered in this adventure produced by West Mountain Radio that uses Powerpoles in a central power distribution box.  Basically it’s a little metal box with several Powerpole connector outlet stations (the number dependent on model) that uses standard ATC fuses like in your car.  All the stations are the same, both input and output.  All you need to do is attach a power source like a 12v battery and your equipment like a radio and antenna tuner and you are in business.  Make sure to use the proper fuse with what is coming in or out.  I have a 40amp fuse for the power in and 20 amp fuses for my radio and tuner.  The model I got also included two USB charging ports for phones and pads.  So, what does all of this do for me?  Well, I have a very clean and safe setup for my “shack”.  All my power cords are in plastic housings, ran through a box with fuses, and are very adaptable and mobile.  Adaptable?  Let me explain.  My current power source for my radio is a box that plugs into a standard wall plug, so it converts 120 VAC to 12 VDC for my various equipment.  If the power goes out, then what?  I made a few adapters with my Powerpoles. I got a set of battery clips from Radio Shack, just like the ones you see on battery chargers.  At the end of the wires I installed a Powerpole set, so now I can use a 12VDC battery from my truck or camper.  I also got both male and female cigarette lighter plugs with Powerpoles on each end to either attach to a battery or insert into an existing adapter.  I also made a six foot extension cord.  The amount of adapters is dependent on your imagination.  You can set up inline fuses, filters, splitters, and so on.  Mobility?  I picked my radio just for that.  So, let’s say its bug out time.  All you need to do is just pull plugs and go.  I have most of my adapters in a canvas bag and pelican case for my radio.  So, aside from my antenna and coax, I could be unplugged and ready to go in a couple of minutes and have the ability to hookup to just about any 12VDC source.

Well, there are probably people out there saying “what good is that for me”, or “I’m not into Ham Radio”!  Let me expand on that.  I just recently moved from one place in Alaska that measured snow in feet to another place in Alaska that measures rain in feet.  Now driving on snow isn’t that bad, driving on ice is just plain horrible.  There is no steering out of it, or braking.  It’s just hold on for a terror of a ride, which happened to me on my little hill of a driveway.  So, I grabbed a few bags of salt and did my best impersonation of Johnny Appleseed and hand tossed out all the salt.  That wasn’t very easy or efficient!  So, after rummaging around the garage and shed, I found a hand held/hand cranked grass seed broadcaster.  That worked a little better, but still wasn’t what I was looking for.  So, I remembered seeing an ATV mounted broadcaster once on a hunting show.  They were putting in food plots for deer, and why wouldn’t that work for salt?  I found a not too expensive one on Amazon and placed my order.  In about a week I got my seed broadcaster, and I put it together.  Now when they said universal mounting, they were being very liberal with that statement, but I got it together.  This is basically a tub with a 12VDC motor that spins a segmented disk around and you control the spread by the size of the adjustable hole by the hopper.  Now came a problem, the power hook up was with a 12VDC cigarette lighter, and I don’t have one on my ATV.  I pulled off the seat and looked at what was a standard motorcycle battery, so I came up with a solution.  I cut a length of zip cord and soldered on battery connectors and bolted them to the battery.  I installed a set of Powerpoles to the other end that terminated right near the edge of the cowling and ran it under the seat near the engine zip tying it to the frame.  I also used some heat shrink tube near the Powerpole plug and zip tied both ends to give it some tension relief.  So, it’s all protected somewhat from the elements.  I made another female cigarette adapter with a longer piece of zip cord and now my problem is fixed.  Yeah, I know, not the most efficient, and I could have gone direct to the battery!  Tell me, who doesn’t have at least a couple of items that run on a cigarette lighter?  With this set up I can use my salt spreader in the winter and then take it off during hunting season without a huge hassle.  I also gained another 12VDC power source for my equipment.  A couple of tips, I bought some end caps to seal up the plug when not in use, a great item!  Also, a clip that locks two plugs together, so that they don’t rattle apart.  Another great item!  I just want to mention that I have no affiliation to any items, businesses, web sites, and nor do I receive any compensation.  Just one man’s opinion about a great product.

I hope this Cheechako in the electrical world was able to show you a great little component that I consider to be the equivalent of duct tape.  When I first opened my box and saw the bag of Powerpoles my first thought was, “what is this, Legos?”  Well it’s just like Legos, they snap together and with a little imagination you can build just about anything.
73, - Dan from Alaska

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The faceless “bureaucratocracy” strikes yet again, threatening to condemn an off-grid homeowner for allegedly violating an “international property maintenance code” due to lack of running water and electricity – even though neither utility is specified in said international property maintenance code.  How does an international code apply within the confines of an incorporated entity like the City of Cape Coral (which has its own building codes adopted pursuant to its own ordinance procedures)?  And now the city has graciously indicated that, if the homeowner can prove she can “sustain herself” without these utilities, they “might be able to reach a solution”.  So, in the mind of these bureaucrats under the auspices of some inapplicable international code, the burden is on a woman has been living without water and electricity to show that she can continue to live without water and electricity to the satisfaction of the bureaucrat - or she will lose her house. 
From a purely public policy perspective, this regulatory taking is disturbing to say the least. 

Sincerely, - Hunkajunk

Friday, December 13, 2013

The ice storm that hit north Texas this past Thursday was forecast at least four days in advance, if not longer, but when it hit  apparently just about everyone was taken by surprise.  Drivers on I-35 north of Denton were stuck for so long they eventually abandoned their cars and sought refuge in local churches.  There was talk of sending in the National Guard to rescue them before that.  These people had days of advance warning about the weather but chose to drive anyway.  (Many of them apparently on their way to a rap concert in Dallas.)  Imagine the conditions if there had been a sudden emergency or disaster. 
The town we live in has one grocery store, and it was out of milk and bread by Saturday afternoon.  As of Monday afternoon, they still had no milk but had received a bread delivery.  When I say "no milk" I mean the liquid refrigerated stuff that is kept in dairy cases.  I walked over to the baking supplies aisle, and lo and behold, an entire stock of canned and boxed Tetra-Pak milk, untouched.  The shelves of powdered milk were well-stocked, too. Either things weren't bad enough yet, or people just aren't aware that there is more than one way to buy milk.  I already had a couple of liters of the Tetra-Pak milk at home, and plenty of canned milk, but I picked up a few extra just in case it takes longer than expected to get the highways clear and the trucks through. (Two of those cans of evaporated milk turned out to be expired.  Need to work on that can rotation!)
In addition to being stripped bare of milk and bread, the frozen pizza aisle was decimated, there was no chicken and no beef left in the meat section.  The store was completely sold out of Coca Cola, but there was plenty left of the other brands.  The canned soup aisle was pretty bare as well.  There was very little bottled water left. My husband and I made sure to note the items that sold out first so we’ll remember to stock up on any of those that we use regularly in our household.
The doughnut shop near our house had plenty of small bottles of milk, and there was milk available at the convenience stores we looked into during the few forays we made outside the house.  Those convenience stores were selling milk for four to five dollars per gallon.  In our area a gallon of non-organic milk is normally less than $2.50.
The groceries that were still in abundant supply as of yesterday afternoon were the things that take a little work to turn into food: flour, sugar, rice and pasta.  There were plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section.  One takeaway for me- I need to become more proficient at making my own bread so that it becomes as easy as scrambling an egg is.
At one point in the weekend, there were over 250,000 people in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area without power.  We were lucky that our power never went out, but if it had we had plenty of firewood, oil lamps and candles on standby.  I would like to think that our neighbors had similar supplies laid in, but I would be surprised if they did. We lost power one night last summer and our house was the only one on the street with candle light flickering inside it.  (Some blackout curtains are on our list for future purchase.)  
I stayed home with our five year-old daughter because schools were closed and I was told to “use my best judgment” as far as driving in was concerned.  We made a fire and played with toys while listening to the audio book of “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  When my husband came home and said there was no  milk left at Kroger, our daughter said, "oh, no, now you're gonna have to give me hot water to drink!"  We took this opportunity to explain to her that this is the reason why Mama buys boxes of milk and puts them away in the closet.  We do it because we love you, we told her, and because we don't want you to go without milk just because there's an ice storm.  We went on to explain that people had known this storm was coming for days, but that most people waited until the last minute to go to the store and get the things they would need.  We advised her to remember this when she's older and act ahead of time so she doesn’t have to panic at the last minute.  Our little girl tends to listen and pay attention to us, so we hope she’ll remember this as she gets older and takes our advice about preparation and self-reliance to heart.
Everyone makes jokes about how Texans freak out when a quarter inch of snow falls and how no one around here knows how to drive on ice or snow.  That’s true because this hardly ever happens around here.  Weather like this has become more common in our area over the past few years, though (see Super Bowl XLV), but no one seems to have decided to anticipate or plan for it, especially TxDOT, who as of yesterday, still had crews stuck all over the state, rather than working on clearing roadways.  I saw crews sanding our local town streets for the first time this morning- six days after the storm first hit.
What I’m taking away from this six-day-and-counting inconvenience is that most people don’t plan and they won’t prepare. This would have been a relatively minor weather event if it had happened in another part of the country where municipalities are more prepared in general.  I’m sure readers in more northern parts of the country will be chuckling and shaking their heads at the site a big chunk of Texas brought to a standstill by a few inches of ice. This experience has driven home the need for us to be more prepared, to bring in more supplies, to be ready for whatever may come. This ice storm has also provided us a good opportunity to teach our daughter about being prepared and being self-reliant without scaring her.
It also showed where some holes in our planning and preparation lie.  While he was clearing ice from our driveway, my husband slipped and fell.  He landed on his side and luckily didn’t break anything.  If he had broken a rib or some other bone, we could have had quite a wait for an ambulance and/or faced a dicey trip to the hospital. This is one area where we need to make plans for the future.  What would we have done?  What other contingencies do we need to plan for? 
We cut down one old, dying tree just a week before the storm but there is still one tree that overhangs our roof.  This tree, too, may need to go for safety’s sake. Falling trees and now falling ice have done a lot of damage to buildings and cars in this area over the past couple of days.
As I noted, we never lost power (or haven’t yet), but if we did, can we be certain our fireplace would have kept at least part of the house warm enough?   We’re planning on adding additional insulation to one room in particular so we’ll have at least one room that we can keep snug and warm without electricity.  I’m certain we need to add more candles and oil lamps or lanterns to our stores, as well.  If our power had gone out Friday like it did for some, and was still not back on, as it isn’t for some, we would certainly burned through our supply right now.  I doubt, too, that the small supply of Sterno and Stoves in a Can see us through a five-day power outage.
We don’t let our daughter play on the computer much, so she’s not one of those kids who can’t function without electronic media to distract them, but she does enjoy listening to audiobooks and watching DVDs. We played “school at home” to keep her in school/learning mode.  Putting seed out for our wild birds and then watching them eat kept her entertained as well, but in an extended power outage, we might have had boredom and cabin fever to deal with on top of everything else.  We’ll need to stock up on more coloring books and puzzle books and look into a battery-operated CD player for her.
Our pipes did not freeze, but if they had, would the water we have stored lasted for six days?  I believe it would have, but we do need to store more water and purchase additional water BOBs or other means of water storage in case of long outages in the future.
The real problem in my mind though is what we’ll do if a summertime storm or other disaster, manmade or not, knocks out power for extended period of time while it’s 100F outside.  That would be a much more serious problem.  It’s always easier to get warm in Texas than it is to stay cool, and judging from TxDOT’s lackluster response to our icy highways and overpasses, and the fact that there are still people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area without power we’ll likely have no one to turn to for help except ourselves- as if we didn’t already know that. Thank you for considering this piece.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dear Mr Rawles,

Mr J's submission makes interesting and useful reading, however I would like to add a few observations on the subject to possibly aid the decision making/wallets of people who are building/upgrading photovoltaics systems.

- Batteries: if at all possible get used golf cart batteries that have been properly maintained. Around here they get recycled for a $25 core charge which is easy to beat. My deep cell batteries are now 4-5 years old (2 seasons in various golf carts and 2.5 years in my battery bank. They are in like new condition as they take really well to charging with photovoltaic panels. The biggest enemy of deep cell batteries is repeated fast discharge / too deep discharge cycles. The smaller your bank the more likely it is that your batteries will be subject to these.

3 batteries delivering 300Ah may sound like a lot of power but isn't. If you are pulling a 500W load @ 85% efficiency, the batteries must deliver (500/.85)/12.5 = 47A. That is 16A each, while their safe discharge rate (C20) is about 6A (114/20). If the wiring in the bank is not ideal, 1 battery may even have to provide half the load (see last year's submission on photovoltaics for details). This is the real reason why batteries don't last in small banks. I know this sucks but if you think Wal-Mart won't be there to provide cheap replacement batteries in 2 years, one needs to pony up now and get as big a battery bank as one can afford. On the bright side: a basement full of batteries beats getting bailed in ....

- 24 volt systems have certain advantages as stated in the article. However when used with photovoltaic panels you will need to create a serial-parallel setup of panels to charge them. This isn't a big deal for a static installation but less than ideal for small portable systems. Personally I decided to go with 12V on all systems because I don't want to deal with multiple voltages. Furthermore 12V tools, lighting, etc. are plentiful but 24V or 48V units are harder to come by.

- Though its true that larger panels are cheaper per Watt; they also are less mobile which may or may not be a problem depending on how you plan to ride out the storm. My setup includes 95W, 60W and 15W panels so I have more options. Even 1W panels are useful for charging phones, rechargeable batteries, trickle charging car batteries, etc. Our lawnmower uses a 5 yr old motorcycle battery for starting. Last year we had some starting problems with that battery toward the end of the season, so this year I hooked it up to a 1W panel that was shaded by a roof overhang. Never had a problem all season and, to my surprise, at the end of the season the battery showed a resting voltage of 12.8V. Don't overlook these little things - you need reliability first and foremost.

- Mr. J. got a pure sine wave inverter which is great if you have the money for it, but it isn't really needed unless you run sensitive electronics like medical equipment. Power tools and consumer electronics can handle dirty power supplies up to a point. Having said that, I agree with Mr. J. that its quite possible for your power tools to sound 'raw' and feel underpowered. I believe this is due to the size of the inverter being used; most likely the number/size of its capacitors is inadequate to sufficiently smooth out the inverter's stepping at higher load factors. I have 300W, 1000W, 2000W and 2500W inverters at my disposal. The 1000W unit really causes trouble with medium size power tools (rated @ 500-600W) but on the 2000/2500W units, the same tools sound/behave like they are running on power line supply. So, for the same money I prefer to get twice the size inverter even if its modified sine wave.

- Another note on inverters: though its always good to be careful with your wiring, there is no need to get obsessed about it. The inverter's micro controller monitors the outputs and will shutdown the inverter at any sign of trouble like shorts. And it reacts a lot faster than a standard fuse or circuit breaker. This is a key difference between inverters and generators or power line supplies where only passive components stand between you and possible disaster. Sticking to the manufacturer's installation guidelines should be sufficient.

- My system is stand-alone so I don't need transfer switches and the like, but I will add my voice to JWR's note: be very careful with male-to-male wires and other un-standardized solutions. You do not want to come home to find your precious inverter has blown its mosfets (or did something far worse) because someone plugged that cable in the wrong outlet. The second danger is that you will make that mistake yourself because after being half awake for a few nights you will not be thinking as clearly as you like to believe. How seriously do I take this? Some of my circuits are monitored by micro controllers. If I flip a switch the controller will go through a checklist to see if my request can be executed under the circumstances without causing harm to the system, if not I just get a blinking light.

- I can see someone topping up their batteries with a car's alternator in a pinch. However using a 14.4V alternator to run an inverter to run a battery charger to charge a 12.6V battery doesn't sound particularly efficient. Expect to lose 15%+ on each step. Why not buy the heaviest starter cables you can find and make a direct battery to battery connection? The thing is that being inefficient is not a big deal when gas is plentiful. Once you are going through your last tank, a person may feel different about it. If at all possible try to take such scenarios into consideration when designing your system's layout. At the end of the day you are going to find something will limit your system. The question is: can you live with that bottleneck? If the answer is 'no'; well, there is still time to do something about it.

I hope my notes will be of help for some of you. - D.P.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dear JWR:
This might have been thought of before, but I just stumbled into something called LED strip lights. Here is a sample.

They come in 15 meter rolls, are about 1/2 inch wide and have 300 individual LED lights. They can be cut into segments between every third light. They run off of 12 volts DC and are actually rather bright while using little electricity. If you purchased one of those little strips the reloading companies sell to mount inside the press so you can see what's going on, it is probably this stuff. There are several versions. Some have 150 light and some have larger LEDs that put out more light. There are several colors available including multi-color ones for holiday lighting.

I'm seeing a lot of possibilities for emergency use. A strip with six LEDs on it will light most of the rooms in my house well enough to get around in. It will also provide enough light to read by if placed close to the book. It isn't the most pleasant light, though I haven't sampled the other color variants, but it beats no light. I took a battery holder that holds 8 AA cells I got at Radio Shack and made a portable light for about $4 plus the cost of batteries. It isn't elegant, but it sure is cheap. If I'm doing the math right, a strip of six LEDs are using .02 AH, so those eight AA batteries should provide several days of run time.

You could probably improve the quality of light with lens or diffusers.

I just checked it outside and if placed about seven feet in the air, a strip of six will light about a 20 foot in diameter circle reasonably well. It's not a floodlight, but if you are in a darkened house looking out, you will be able to see what's out there.

It also seems to run well on NiMH rechargeable batteries . A solar charger and some rechargeable batteries should be able to keep you in light for quite a while. I'm also sure the more innovative can come up with better ideas for implementation.

Should you want to post it, I trust, of course, that you won't use my full name.

Thanks and God Bless. - T.M.G.

JWR Replies: Although LED light strips and tubes have been mentioned before in SurvivalBlog, this topic bears repeating.

If you buy either red or blue LEDs, then they won't spoil your eyes' natural night vision, for when you step outdoors.

My favorite suppliers for LED lights is Creative Lighting Solutions, a small company launched in February of 2007 and based near Cleveland, Ohio.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mr. Rawles,
I've just listened to another interview you gave, and noted yet again that you consider light control of utmost importance.  I have several suggestions from the fabric store.  There is a material that really does work perfectly for light control at a reasonable cost (helped by the readily available Joann Fabric Store - also online - 50% off coupons): drapery lining material referred to as 'blackout' fabric.  A common brand of this fabric is Roc-Lon, if searching Joann.com online for it. 

Another fabric I've worked with is the Warm Window insulated shade system (www.warmcompany.com and also carried at most Joann Fabric stores).  This system uses multiple layers of fabric which not only produces a blackout effect but also provides a vapor barrier and a nice layer of insulation for windows.  This fabric can be used to make something like a balloon shade, which can be raised and lowered according to need without removing/disassembling anything.  They look great, as this fabric is covered with an attractive fabric of your choice.  I've made these myself and they do work incredibly well.  This system (check the web site) recommends sewing magnetic tape into the outer edges of the shade and putting magnetic tape onto the edge of the window where the fabric should meet to form a seal.  I'm trying to think of something other than magnets as they may not last as long as you need them or be 'my-life-depends-on-it' strong.  The fabric is kind of expensive, but it doesn't scream 'prepper', looks good in any home, and adds insulation value to the window every single day.

Both these fabrics are ideal also for those who need total darkness to sleep or trying to sleep during daylight hours.  These fabrics are vastly superior to any other kind of blackout fabric attempts such as window quilts that just use multiple layers of heavy fabrics.

The Roc-Lon blackout fabric is light enough to be held up on the interior of a window casing by an el-cheapo tension cafe rod.  For those who would like to try this fabric but are not sewers I have used safety pins to fasten the top of the fabric to the tension rod (top and bottom rods can both be used - fold a bit of fabric around the rod then pin into place at roughly 3-5" intervals) and then removed/replaced each morning/night.  This would be an inexpensive way to test this fabric for yourself.

For those who don't sew, go to a fabric store to look at the fabric for yourself; then ask if the sales staff know of a local person who would make these up for you.  A local fabric shop likely has many, many business cards from local seamstresses who are experienced and looking for work.  Since it's not obviously 'prepper', there's no loss of OpSec.

Good luck to us all, - Lilia

Hello Sir:
I suspect this may have gone unnoticed by most, but as a former electrician (12 years in the trade) this passage caught my attention:
"I saved some money by making my own connections and crimps. The 00 wire was too thick for my wire strippers, had to use a separating disk with my Dremel tool."
Let me cauthion readers that stripping wire this way is a bad idea. Likewise, taking a box cutter (razor knife) and scoring the insulation in a ring around the cable is also bad. Stripping wire this way tends to cut slightly into the copper making a weak point with increased resistance. Under heavy load, heat is induced which can cause failure or fire. The "scoring" of the wire cannot be seen, as it is usually hidden by the border of the insulation. Try it, then strip the wire again a couple inches back and you will usually see the copper has been damaged at your original cut.
The proper way to strip insulation is to use the proper sized wire strippers, or in the case of larger wiring you can use an electricians knife (or similar) to shave the end much like you would shave the bark off a stick or sharpen a pencil.
Thanks for keeping us all informed, and for all the hard work and research you put into your blog and interviews. - Mark V.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Re: Gary D.'s piece on generator use. Good article; I've learned a few additional things over the years about generator usage which your readers may find helpful.

Power cords - usually, they're undersized for the load. There are different American Wire Gauge (AWG) specifications for current carrying capacity:

16 gauge - 12 amp maximum for 25 ft, 3.4 amps for 100 ft.
14 gauge - 16 amp max at 25 ft, 5 amps at 100 ft..
12 gauge - 20 amps at 25 ft, 7 amps at 100 ft.
10 gauge - 30 amps at 25 ft, 10 amps at 100 ft.
 8 gauge  - 40 amps at 25 ft, 14 amps at 100 ft.
 6 gauge  - 65 amps at 25 ft, 22 amps at 100 ft.

The smaller the gauge number the larger the actual diameter of the wire and the greater its current carrying capacity.

Large AWG weather resistant copper-conductor cable (8 gauge, for example) will be expensive. 100 feet of 8-3 SO (three 8 gauge conductors, weather and oil resistant sheath) will cost between $200 and $250, but it will carry a lot more current safely than "home center" extension cords.

Twist lock connectors, especially female connectors, are expensive. Use them anyway - they won't partially disconnect due to vibration or being bumped.

Use high capacity cable as a primary feed, and build a multi-outlet box on a short, lower capacity cable to connect to it. Mine is a 4-gang steel box with duplex receptacles on a 15 ft 10-3 cable with a male twist lock connector to connect to the 8-3 cable.

Do put a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) receptacle into your multi-outlet box, and wire it to provide protection for the outlets. My 4 gang box has the GFCI, which also protects 2 of the remaining 3 receptacles. One receptacle is not GFCI-protected for those instances where there may be equipment with internal circuitry that frequently trips the GFCI. That one duplex receptacle is red to identify it as non-GFCI protected, purchased in that color from an electrical supplier.

An earth anchor, designed to anchor garden sheds to the ground, permanently installed, provides a place to chain and padlock your generator. Your local utility can sell you one of the big ones they use to brace power poles if you need a bigger one. Dig a shallow hole with a post hole digger to install it, so when installed the loop is just below ground level. Put a lawn irrigation system valve box around it, flush with the ground. Your lawnmower will thank you.

Use the earth anchor as the ground connector for your generator. An inexpensive auto jumper cable with large clamps can be used to connect the generator frame to the anchor if there's no ground lug provided on the generator. Remove the paint from the generator frame where you connect the cable clamp to get a good connection.

If you're building, or doing major remodeling, put in one electrical circuit that feeds one outlet in each room. If possible, put each room's ceiling fans on this circuit, too.  If you have, or are installing a transfer switch, put this circuit on it. This allows easy distribution of generator power to each room.

It's handy to have one or two convenient outdoor receptacles on the transfer switch in case you need power outside.

Put in another dedicated circuit with 2x3 (duplex receptacle-sized) outlet boxes in the ceiling in strategic places (hallways, kitchen, bathrooms, etc.) Control this circuit with either the breaker in the transfer switch box and/or 3-way (or 4-way) wall switches in case you need complete dark. Install Pass & Seymour or Cooper Wiring LED night lights in those boxes; the night lights draw almost no power, and provide just enough light for navigating around the house and for target identification, and are safer than candles.

Even quiet generators make noise. Put sound absorbing foam on two pieces of plywood, 4 ft wide and long enough to extend past your generator a foot or so at each end. attach the long side of each to a 2X4 with hinges so they can be placed as an A frame over the generator. A 4ft x 4ft piece covered on one side with sound absorbent can be placed vertically several feet in front and behind the A frame. I attached pieces of 1/2" EMT (Electrical Metallic Tubing) to mine, to act as stakes. Leave room for ventilation, and if more air flow is needed for cooling, plug a fan into the generator, set to blow air through the A frame cover.

If you're using a generator to power your well pump, replace the small pressure tank the builder put in (probably about a 6 gallon draw down) with one or two larger tanks. I put two 46-gallon draw down tanks in parallel; when water is needed, turn off all circuits in the transfer switch except the well pump, then turn on the well pump. It will run for however long it takes to fill both tanks, and you'll have 92 gallons to use before needing to turn the pump on again. In day-to-day use the pump won't start/stop as frequently, making the pump motor last a lot longer.

Talk to your well driller or plumber who understand wells about a second, smaller well pump. It is possible to install a second pump with a check valve between it and the delivery pipe to the house. In day-to-day use the 1 HP or 3/4 HP pump supplies routine needs, in a SHTF situation the 1/8 HP - 1/4 HP  pump draws a lot less current, allowing a smaller generator. A smaller pump will need to be installed higher in the well and electrically on its own circuit, and it will deliver less volume, usually at a lower pressure, but 2 GPM at 25-30 PSI beats 0 GPM at 0 PSI. And, "two is one, one is none." - Nosmo King

I really enjoy reading the articles contained on your blog and wanted to mention a few items related to the subject above. As a person that lives on generator power 24/7 I wanted to contribute to the conversation.

Gary wrote a wonderful article and I wanted to add a few things. The first thing is that not all generators are rated for continuous use and most of the "off the shelf chinese models" are only rated occasional and should only be used in light duty situations. The small "suitcase" style generators definitely have their place and the quiet Yamaha and Honda powered ones are the cream of the crop but I wouldn't want to depend on one for the long term.

If you are mechanically inclined, don't rule out purchasing a used "take out" generator from an RV, some of these can be had for a real bargain and can be found in junkyards, on Craigslist as well as other places on the web. In addition to having multiple fuel options available, these units are 4KW and above and can be easily run from a gas can, propane tank or other external fuel source. The smaller units (4KW) can be easily mounted to a garden wagon for portability, the downside being having to have an electrician wire up a junction box.

When you purchase or even if you presently own a portable generator take a good hard look at the connections on the panel. Have adapter cords made for any twist lock or RV style outlets so that you can fully utilize the power from the equipment, RV style adapter cords and plugs can be purchased from most camping stores or even Wal-Mart.

Lastly and probably most important, make sure the generator is grounded whenever it is in operation. - B.I.

That was a great article on generators by Gary D.

As he points out, noise is bad, but it can be mitigated. There is a good method described over at the Alpha-Rubicon site. Best Regards, - Don in Oregon

I have no argument that accidentally “backfeeding” power from a generator (even a small one) through a house outlet-to the electrical box, and to the power grids can hurt or kill a utility worker, but it will also burn out, the portable generator in question within 10 seconds. The gas engine will be fine but the generator half of the machine becomes useless. This fact is not often reported. - Bob M.

With two recent posts on operating a generator and alternative power systems, both of which mention transfer switches, I thought it might be valuable to again mention a device that might be of interest to your readers. The Generlink device is an alternative to a transfer switch at lesser cost and more versatility in operation.  Regards, - Keith  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A couple years back I wrote a piece for SurvivalBlog about alternative energy in the suburbs.  I described a strategy for dealing with a potentially prolonged blackout in suburbia.  Essentially the plan is to keep a low profile, by camping in my grid tied, stick built, difficult to defend home.  This was accomplished by shrinking our energy footprint by using a well-insulated basement, propane heat and small scale solar to primarily power DC appliances.  The article is still available in the SurvivalBlog archives.   It is a sound strategy, well within the reach of most suburbanites and could keep many people safe especially if the grid went down over the winter.  If you have any interest in this topic I suggest you read it.

Its two years later. God has seen fit to allow me to not only live, but to prosper a bit.  I have used this additional time to add additional capacity to my home’s PV system.  Power outages are now a minor inconvenience.  

In this article I will guide you on how to make your suburban home livable beyond “camping” during an outage using alternative energy.  It has been personally tested. A step by step would be a very long article, but this over view can get you going.

The point of view is not just as an alternative energy hobbyist, but as a resilient, suburban prepper.  A guy, who is very motivated to avoid large, angry, scared crowds, like the ones at gas stations after Superstorm Sandy trying to get fuel for their generators.

This upgrade was a financial stretch, about $2,800, and took me about six months to construct.  I will describe where I did and did not cut corners.  For brevity, I will only give a brief summary of each component of a PV system.

Without grid power, I can do some laundry, (washer, but not dryer), run the fridge and furnace enough for them to do their respective jobs, and have hot water.   I can do this quietly for a long time.   The system runs when the grid is up to lower my electric costs.  The hitch is that this is a small, relatively inexpensive system, so I can only do one thing at a time and I have to actively manage use.

Financially, this is may not be a  good investment in a traditional return on investment model, although it could add some resale value to the house; it will take many years before savings on my electric bill pays off this system.   Staying in my home and avoiding mobs is priceless.

Investments in energy conservation have a much higher return.  Energy efficient appliances and weather proofing/insulating also make small alternative energy systems viable by lowering electric and heating requirements.

This is still a work and progress - and your mileage may vary.

Equipment Summary – I used ground mounted DM Solar 145 panels, a used Outback FM 60 charge controller, Wal-Mart marine type 29 deep cycle batteries, a Samlex 3,000 watt, 120 volt inverter, and modified cord set to allow a 120 volts inverter to work with a standard 240 volt transfer switch.

Here are the details-

The transfer switch

My earlier PV system, I had small inverters to convert DC to AC power to run a few very small appliances.  Whenever possible I utilized DC appliances (fans, my RV style cooler, battery chargers etc.).  There is certainly a limit as to how many DC gadgets one can utilize
Central to my upgrade plan was a transfer switch. The transfer switch allows you to isolate certain circuits from the grid.  Your power source whether gas generator or alternative gets plugged into the transfer switch, and when the switch is engaged, electricity runs through your homes wiring to the selected circuits.  They are designed so that electricity cannot back feed into the grid and injure utility workers.  Transfer switches are safe and eliminate most extension cords.

I purchased a Protran 8 circuit transfer switch made by Reliance from a big box hardware store.  The cost difference between this model and larger units in not large, but I wanted to limit the temptation of overloading the system and keep the costs as low as possible.   The transfer switch is generally placed inside near the circuit breakers. There were some key differences between this and a typical installation.  Most transfer switches are designed for 240 volts and come with two plugs for the power source.  One is on the switch and the other is wired some distance in an outlet box, generally outside for the generator.  I had the 2nd plug placed in an ideal place for a gas generator and the wire run but did not have the final connection.  The plug on the transfer switch was completely wired.  If a conventional generator was called for, with 20 minutes of work the outside plug could be connected and the inside plug disconnected.  Conversely, less than ideal, I could also run an extension cord through a window to connect a generator to the transfer switch.

I opted to have only one plug wired to avoid any possibility of a situation where power is feeding in from two sources.  While I totally understand the system, if I am out the picture, I want to make it safe as possible for those remaining.

Picking the circuits requires some careful thought.  I picked my furnace, refrigerator, whole house fan, power vent for gas hot water heater, a few choice outlets, and an ejector pump for the basement bathroom.

I purposely avoided any lights.  Lighting requirements are easily met with rechargeable LED lanterns, and flash lights.  The clothes dryer, microwave and central air conditioning are out of the question due to the load requirements.

Picking the electrician also requires some thought.  Many have little understanding about alternative energy.  I ended up with a guy I know from the rifle and pistol club.  We have similar political views, but he lives some distance away.   I kept my preps out of site while he was around.

Special Power Cord
My inverter (more on inverters soon) produces 120 volts; my transfer switch, like most, is set up for 240 volts.

The step here is to make a special cord that has a 240 volt plug on one end, and a 120 volt plug on the other.  The cord is wired so that only one leg of the 240 volt is utilized.  The transfer switch is only using ½ of its potential, but that’s the tradeoff for using a small PV system and is enough to keep what I need running.

[JWR Adds: If you ever fabricate any sort of "male to male" power cord or "220 to 120" cord, then you must consider that it might be in the hands of a friend, neighbor, or relative (for example an heir, after your death) with less electrical knowledge than you, and they might end up hooking it up to a generator and inadvertently back-feed the local power grid and put utility workers at risk of electrocution. It is far, far better to pay an electrician to install a more elaborate transfer switch. But at the very minimum, be sure to attach permanently laminated safety wording tags to both ends of the cord!]

You need to know what you are doing to make this 240/120 cord, beyond the scope of this piece to describe.  Your electrician can do it, or you can order one from the Internet, I used nooutage.com for my backup cord and my electrician for the primary.  Improperly wired cords can be very dangerous, get qualified help if needed.

With this cord, my inverter is compatible with my transfer switch.  There are two ways to avoid this special cord, either a 240 volts inverter (way out of my price range), or a 110 transfer switch (limited choices, as most are designed for docked boats.)

The inverter

The inverter takes DC power from your batteries and converts it to AC power for your appliances.  Significant power is lost during the conversion.  DC appliances are more efficient in that department. There is plethora of inverters available, I don’t have enough space for a complete discussion, but what follows are some of the main points, type, size and outlets.

Inverter type
– pure sine wave or modified sine wave
For putting electricity in your household wiring, a pure sine wave inverter is needed.  Cheap, modified sine wave, inverters make “dirty” electricity, and they have their uses. If you use a modified sine wave (MSW) inverter then you may damage your appliances, at which point the MSW inverter may not seem like such a bargain.  More likely than actual damage is that your Energy Star-rated efficient appliance won’t run properly or run at all.  (Mine are erratic with a MSW.  I ended up with a Samlex 3000 inverter, made in Canada.  I have no idea if they are the best inverter, but the cost seemed comparable.  What sold me on Samlex is that when researching, I promptly spoke with knowledgeable people from Samlex, who spent the time to thoroughly answer my questions.  You aren’t going to get that from China.

The 2nd issue is size.  The size of components could be a complete separate article; a "Kill-A-Watt"current measuring device is invaluable to calculate demand.    My transfer switch will take up to 5000 watts, which is adequate for most homes.  Plan on at least a 2000 watt inverter for a suburban home for this type of system.  Inverters are not a good place to cut costs, buy the largest and best according to your system and budget.

The 3rd issue is the outlet.  Many inverters have outlets that are GFI protected, which is an excellent idea when running many individual appliance through an inverter.  I do not have space for the details, but GFI outlets from your inverter (or gas generator) to your transfer switch may cause breakers to trip due to floating/bonded neutral issues. From personal experience, If you want to use an inverter through a transfer switch, or to appliances like gas heaters, you can avoid some annoying problems by having at least one outlet not GFI protected.  I have read of a dangerous workaround of removing the ground prong from the cords instead – don’t do it.  A safer, but expensive work around is to use a 1:1 isolation transformer that eliminates the floating neutral problem.  Best is to have at least one non-GFI outlet.  Inverters are not a good place to cut corners.

PV Panels-
I saved money here, by buying Chinese panels.  There are all kinds of panels out there, with their associated opinions.  I went with DM Solar which seemed to be the best tradeoff on price and quality. Panels are highly vulnerable, and I wanted to limit my cost exposure.  Time will tell if I made a good choice, but so far so good.  Again, sizing of components could be its own article, but 400 watts for a system like this is a good start.

PV Placement- Trade Off between OPSEC and Sun

Panels need to be placed where they can get some sun.  There is a tremendous amount of information available about proper placement.  My problem as a prepper is to balance these issues with opsec. Roof mounted panels are safe from minor vandalism and can get good sun exposure.  The problem is that they are proclaiming from the roof tops that this house has PV power.   The other issue is taking them down if I need to relocate or hide them.  I opted for ground mount.  I can easily access them for movement (as can looters).  You might want to keep them in storage and prop them up against a south facing wall when needed.

My solution was to use ground mounted pole system, placed in a fairly sunny, south facing, inconspicuous corner of the yard. I can move them for more optimal placement or bring them in if things are unstable.  

For the actual mounts, I went with an US based eBay seller, "markp-017"7.  He uses what appears to be a modified satellite dish mount, at a reasonable cost.  I only purchased the basic mount and made the frame myself from pressure treated 1x4.   The mounts fit standard fence poles; I used 4 foot pieces, mounted in a 5 gallon bucket with concrete, buried 2 foot deep, so the panels are only about 2 feet off the ground, low profile helps keep them out of casual sight.

[JWR Adds: A mount like that would be insufficient in a high wind area--or even in a normal wind area if there is a microbusrt. The larger an array, the more that it acts like a sail. I would recommend using mount with Schedule 80 steel pipe for the post(s). The amount of concrete that you pour around the posts depend on the anticipated wind loading and your local soil. I generally err on the side of over-engineering these projects.]

The mount is capable of holding 4 panels, but when I tested a 4 panel prototype, it was too heavy to lift by myself, so I ended up with 2 panel mounts.

The other issue with placement is distance.  The placement needs to be inconspicuous; they may need to be some distance from the house.  This means increased wire costs and DC line loss.  Wiring the panels in series instead of parallel lowers the amperage and line loss and could be a good solution if the panels are evenly lit and the charge controller is compatible.   Another possible solution is double lines, when I buried my lines in a PVC conduit, I used a size large enough to allow future lines.

Charge Controller
Charge controllers regulate the amount of charge the PV panels deliver to the battery.   This topic could easily be its own article.  They are sized by amps.  Try to buy a unit larger than the output of your PV panels for a margin of safety and to accommodate future expansion.
To save money, my backup controller is a no-name, Chinese unit from eBay.  I tested it for few days, and then put it back in its box, inside the Faraday cage, where it sits with all the other backup electronics.  It was a fraction of the price of an American made unit.  I hope I never end up using it, but it does work.

The more sophisticated charge controllers are capable of more efficiently charging your batteries and can help compensate for less than ideal PV placement.  As mentioned, the better ones can work with panels wired in both series and parallel, and battery banks of either 12 or 24 volts.

A good strategy may be to buy a quality US charge controller, right after a new model has been introduced.  I purchased a used Outback MX60 MPPT.  Its priced drop considerably when the new outback model was released.  You could save some money, buy using an appropriately sized, inexpensive charge controller from China until a higher quality unit can be purchased.  The original could then be saved as a backup.

Batteries 12 or 24 volt
If one were starting from scratch, you could make a strong argument for a 24 volt system, if I were to start again; I would go with 24 volt system.  I stayed with 12 volt due to legacy issues with my previous PV setup.  Research it and make the best choice for you.

[JWR Adds: I concur that a higher voltage system with a larger number of batteries cabled in series, or in series-parallel arrangement is the best option. A typical starter system would use four 6 VDC batteries cabled in series, connected to a 24 VDC inverter. If more batteries are added latter (typically in increments of four), then the cabling can easily be switched to a series-parallel pattern.]

Battery bank
Deep cycle batteries used in alternative energy are rated in amp hours.  Another topic worthy of a separate article.    Batteries are a budget issue, they are expensive, and it’s problematic to add additional batteries later on.

The amp hour requirement could be met with fewer, larger batteries, or more, smaller batteries.   It’s less expensive to go with fewer, larger batteries.  Less wiring costs and the batteries are less money per amp hour.  The down side to larger batteries is that they are heavy and that moving them during a relocate could be even more difficult.

I cut corners on the battery bank, and utilized type 29 marine batteries from Wal-Mart.   Marine batteries are a hybrid, probably not a good choice for a larger, totally off grid home.  I purchased three, 114 amp hour type 29 batteries for $108/each with a two year replacement policy, less than half the cost of a conventional deep cycle battery.  I am not sure what the future will bring, but I am pretty sure that if both I and Wal-Mart are still in business in two years, there will be a visit to exchange batteries.  Every two years after that as well. 

[JWR Adds: Abusing a warranty policy by returning a battery that still holds a charge would be unethical. Be honest, folks and only return goods if they are defective or if they have truly failed within the warranty period. Back when I lived in California, I was sickened by hearing some of my neighbors brag about how they had worked the system to buy gear to use on a short duration camping trip and then returned the items for a full refund, under lenient store return policies. Abusing a warranty or return policy is tantamount to theft.]

Additionally, although I am not a complete novice, I do not have extensive experience with battery banks, if I trash my batteries it’s not as painful with the Wal-Mart type 29’s as it would be a better quality deep cycle battery.  You can make your own choices about type and size.  My opinion is that for a suburban homes’ backup system the range of 300 amp hours is adequate.  Cheaper batteries do not hold a charge or last as long as higher quality batteries.

Wires and Fuses
Wiring holds all this together, fuses help keep it safe.  On the advice of the Samlex engineers, I got thick AWG 00 wires to connect batteries and inverters; I also followed their recommendations on fuses.  Was an expensive one time hit, but thicker gauge wires are safer and more efficient.  I would advise following your inverter manufacturer recommendation on fuses and wires and not cut corners here.
I saved some money by making my own connections and crimps.  The 00 wire was too thick for my wire strippers, had to use a separating disk with my Dremel tool.   I could have safely used smaller gauge less expensive wire had I used a 24 volt system.  The wire for the PV panels was 10 AWG and much easier to handle.

Not Enough Sun
Many off grid homes use a generator to make up for shortfalls in sun light; I have that consideration in addition to relatively small hour amp size to my battery bank.  My solution is to use car and truck as a backup generator.  When I had the wiring for transfer switch, I also had a 10 gauge extension cord placed with an outside outlet that runs to the battery bank/inverter area of the basement. 
An inexpensive MSW 1500 watt inverter from Harbor Freight is connected to the vehicle with an AIMS inverter and alligator clamp and a Scoshe fuse.  I don’t think it’s feasible to go much beyond 1,500 watts with a car inverter system.  The vehicle must be idling for this to work.   I can park in the driveway "nose in", but near the house [with no risk of carbon monoxide intrusion], with the vehicle’s doors locked, and with a steering wheel lock, to help deter theft.  The car inverter/generator is probably less efficient than a generator, but quiet and less conspicuous.  My truck can idle for a long time on a tank of gas.

With the electricity from the car generator, I can charge my batteries with an inexpensive Schumacher battery charger, don’t buy larger than 15 amps.  I would not recommend this type of charger to maintain the charge of batteries, but it seems to be okay for bulk charging.  I can also plug appliances into the outlet or use my modified cord sets and send electricity through the transfer switch. I need to careful what I run due to low available wattage, MSW electricity and the GFI issue.  The fridge work and ejector pump work ok, but not the furnace or hot water heater.

Separate PV systems
I alluded to having previously assembled a smaller PV system.  It is still in place and running nicely, powering my alarm system, router, television cables box and a few other odds and ends.  In a pinch, I could use the old panels and controller to charge my newer battery bank, or my old battery bank with the new inverter and transfer switch.  Not a good idea to charge both banks simultaneously with the same charge controllers, but I can connect the banks for extended run time.  My opinion is that for a prepper, separate standalone systems are a better, more robust strategy than one larger one.  Nothing I have described here interferes with having multiple running systems.

In Closing
I have attempted to give a guided overview of a small PV system, just large enough to run household appliances, that is a resilient option over a traditional generator.   This seems to be a segment of the PV market that is over looked.  While maybe not a beginner system, it can be assembled and installed by a home handyman with relatively little professional help.  I feel it has utility in both TEOTWAWKI or in simply smoothing out the bumps of life when there is a short term power outage.  The Yahoo Groups 12 VDC Group was invaluable in this project.  I have no commercial interest in any products mentioned.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Those of us who plan on "bugging in" during  upcoming times of uncertainty realize the need to plan for possible extended power shortages or blackouts. These preparations can range from a total separation from anything electrical or electronic to a series of sophisticated alternate power sources designed to completely power a survival location up to pre-blackout levels.  Based on the questions frequently asked by members of the survivalist community in numerous forums, the most common item of interest for the temporary generation of power for daily living seems to be the portable generator. Some of the most frequently asked questions are in the area of the selection and use of these generators for SHTF situations. Hopefully, the following may be usable for some of you as a guide in the selection of a generator best suited for your needs.

First of all, we need to realistically evaluate what it is you need a generator for. Yes, you can buy a generator large enough to run an entire household and a small farm and power everything all at the same time. This involves, however, a larger, noisier and less fuel efficient generator which, incidentally, costs more money. If none of these factors are a problem for you, buy the largest most expensive generator you can find and have it permanently installed. If, however, there are considerations as to noise, cost, and fuel storage, we might take a second look at our actual needs. Some things can be more cost effectively handled by other then electrical means such as cooking (propane stoves, wood stoves), heating (wood stove again, propane and kerosene heaters), lighting (candles, propane and kerosene lanterns, LED flashlights), etc.  What we actually need to look at is not only our electrical needs but all of our needs with regard to anything that requires energy in general whether that energy is gasoline, propane, firewood, kerosene, solar panels, battery power, etc.

Start by doing a complete inventory of everything in your bug in location that requires electricity. Make a list of the items followed by the item's electrical requirement. This is usually listed somewhere on the item on a plate or label attached generally in the area of the electrical cord or connecter. The power consumption is listed in watts. Write it down and we will deal with what the figures mean a little later. A better choice is to buy a "Kill-A-Watt"current measuring device which measures the actual amount of power used by a device. These sell for about $20. They provide a much more realistic picture of the device's actual power consumption. The meter comes complete with simple, easy to understand, instructions which give you consumption figures in either amps or watts. As is often the case in life, you might  find a difference in actual power consumption vs nameplate consumption. In my experience, the charts sometimes supplied by generator manufacturers listing power consumption for common household items often list wattage figures much higher than the actual value.

Next, sit down and review the list of electrical items that you have and realistically evaluate what it is you will need in a severe blackout. If you are fortunate to have your own well and electrical pump, water, of course, is a priority. You might consider scratching off the three big screen televisions, the video games, the stereo set, blenders and cappuccino machines , all but a couple of lights and items on your list such as coffee pots and microwaves that draw large amounts of power but that there are substitutes for as mentioned above. Heaters consume large amounts of electricity and are generally not cost effective items for use with a generator. Realize that you do not have to supply power to all of the remaining items on your list at the same time and for the same periods of time. Realize also that items with motors such as freezers and refrigerators require large amounts of power to start up but only for a few seconds until they reach a normal speed. A 2000 watt generator  can supply power to a number of devices totaling several times it's rated power if care is used to cycle the items at different times and for only as long as the device is needed.  With planning, for example, there is no reason to have the well pump come on at the same time as a freezer and a refrigerator are running. Yes, you may be able to watch a little TV or use the microwave after the water is pumped and after the freezer and frig have shut off. Remember, the longer you run the generator, the more precious fuel you use and the longer you generate noise which may create OPSEC issues for you.

My first generator, bought in the 1970s, was a large, contractor type generator mounted on a tubular steel cradle and rated at 5,500 watts. With care, it would run all of the necessary items in my 1,500 square foot house occupied by my wife and I and our five boys.  I replaced the old, worn out 220 volt water pump with a newer, high efficiency 120 volt unit so as to use all of the circuits in a transfer switch as will be explained below. The generator was large and  noisy and could be heard in the quiet mountains for a mile and gulped gasoline at the rate of five gallons a day. Generators of that type continue to be popular and represent the best value for the dollar in terms of the  power that they will produce compared to their initial cost. Quality varies considerably among generators of this type and, if you have to buy a modestly priced generator of this kind, be sure to check it for proper functioning regularly and maintain it frequently. Get a service manual for it and stock spare oil and spark plugs. Off brand cradle type generators can often be bought  new in the area of 10 cents per watt while inverter generators can sell for as much as 50 cents per watt.

My second generator is a smaller, much quieter, Honda inverter generator which, after careful planning,  accomplishes the same thing that the older generator did with the exception of the well pump. My third generator is a small Yamaha inverter generator bought so inexpensively at a yard sale that I could not pass it up and, besides, "Two is one and one is none."  My fourth generator is installed in a motor home and is rated at 4000 watts and is somewhat quiet but not as quiet as the Honda and consumes more fuel.

The next step, after putting a very sharp pencil to the list of items that we really do not need to run from a generator, is to decide how to power the remaining  items. The easy way, particularly if you are not electrically inclined, is to simply buy several extension cords long enough and heavy enough to reach from the generator that you will place outside, to the individual appliances. This allows you to plug and unplug various items as needed but is not very convenient at a time when your attention might be needed elsewhere. This may be the only option if you are a renter as it involves no modifications to the property. The second way is to simply turn off the main circuit breakers going into the house and wire the generator into the main panel so that you can use the branch circuit breakers to shut individual items on and off. There are so many things wrong with doing this that I will not describe the process further and you do this at your own risk including the risks that you may back feed the lines and electrocute a repairman trying to restore power and that your insurance company may refuse to honor any claims generated as the result of any fires caused by this. DO NOT consider hooking up your generator in this manner!

Another way to hook up a portable generator that is often mentioned is to make up an extension cord with plugs on both ends and simply plug the cord from the generator into a convenient outlet in the house after disconnecting the main power source. Again, this is a great example of what NOT TO DO and is mentioned here only to point out that the idea is dangerous and will not provide the desired results.

The best and only safe way to connect a portable generator to your house wiring is through a device called a transfer switch. One type transfers your entire electrical panel from your main power source to your generator. You then use the branch circuit breakers in your panel to turn individual items in your house off and on. The disadvantage of this type of switch is that you have no indication when regular power has been restored since your house is completely disconnected from the main service. Transfer switches of this type can be found for as little as $150.

The second type of transfer switch allows you to selectively transfer a limited number of  branch circuits in your house from the main source to the generator. This type of switch often comes with meters that allow you to balance the load on the generator and circuit breakers that protect each circuit that you have transferred. In my opinion, this is the preferred set up. At the time of this writing, at least one quality switch of this type is available on the Internet for about $240. The cost of either switch would be partially offset by the cost of quality, heavy duty, extension cords as needed in the first option noted above. Installation is relatively simple and can be done by anyone familiar with electrical circuitry. The instructions that come with the switch are easy to follow. Be sure to follow any applicable electrical codes and local ordinances. This type of transfer switch has the further advantage that the circuits that are not transferred through it will become active when power is restored, thus notifying you that regular power is available.

Transfer switches of the second type noted above are typically available to handle six or ten of your house's branch circuits if they are used for 120 volts only. Adding a 240 volt device to the switch requires using two 120 volt circuits. 240 volt appliances are usually clothes dryers, HVAC units and possibly water heaters and stoves. Smaller, more fuel efficient generators are often not available with 240 volt outputs. In the case of Honda or Yamaha inverter generators for example, it is necessary to purchase the 6500 watt models in order to get a 240 volt output. For this reason, it may be best to consider alternatives to the 240 volt appliances and to wire transfer switches for 120 volts only. If you have to have 240 volts for, for example, a well pump, your choices may be to A) change the pump to a 120 volt model B) Buy a relatively inexpensive  contractor type generator with a 240 volt output  or C) Buy an expensive 6500 watt inverter generator.

Before we go any further, realize that you will have to place the generator outdoors while it is in use. No, an attached garage [with the main door open] is not good enough. OUTSIDE! Any generator will produce carbon monoxide gas when running and that gas is odorless and deadly. In addition, air should be allowed to circulate freely around the generator, particularly the more powerful ones. Consider the need to secure the generator against theft, particularly when your neighbors learn that you have power while they are losing valuable food as their refrigerators sit idle. When in use, I fasten my generator to the frame of my SUV with a piece of logging chain and a large padlock.                         

Before selecting a generator, now may be the time to consider replacing any older appliances that are nearly worn out or ready for replacement with newer, energy efficient units. Within the last few years, I have bought two different  20 cubic foot upright freezers that, after starting up, draw only 140 watts each! This is an astonishingly small amount of power considering the volume of food that can be stored in an appliance of  this size and, after start up, represents less than 10% of the power available from, for example, the Honda EU2000 generator.   

As we mentioned, it is not necessary to run everything at once or for the full time that you have your generator running. Establish a schedule for when you will activate each of your appliances and find gaps in that schedule when you can operate luxury or optional items. If, for example, your family customarily eats dinner at 6:00 pm, you might schedule 2 hours in the morning for powering a freezer, two hours in the afternoon for your refrigerator, two hours after dinner for pumping the next day's water and for the evening bath and use the two hours around dinner time for the microwave. Small items like lights  can be used concurrently with those items and you might be able to have several hours of "unscheduled" electricity generation for television and security cameras as well as power to charge laptop and cell phone batteries. With a smaller inverter type generator, you might be able to do all of this on just over one gallon of gasoline. Use the list you have made of each device's power usage  and do the math. Remember to account for the surge current necessary to start any appliance with a motor and double the running wattage of the device to account for this.

Regardless of which type of transfer switch you choose, you will want to identify
which of the circuit breakers on your electrical panel controls each device in your home. Number each of the circuit breakers. My house has, for example, 20 of them. Go through your house and turn everything on. Every lamp, radio, fan, appliance, etc. Then go out to the circuit breaker box and flip all of the breakers off. Turn them back on one at a time and list all of the devices which are energized by that breaker, possibly with the help of someone inside the house. A small handheld two way radio makes this job much easier and should be on your prep list anyway. Create a list of each item for each breaker so that you later know which breaker to use to turn something on or off. Return everything to normal, of course, after you have been able to match everything to a particular breaker. 

After all of the above, sit down and pencil out a schedule for the items that you need to actually run from a generator and the times of the day that you need to run them. Most refrigerators and freezers will need power for only about two hours a day to maintain their normal temperatures if their doors are opened as little as possible. Schedule about one hour in the early part of the day and one in the evening. Your mileage may vary depending on the age and condition of your appliances. Inexpensive thermometers are available for refrigerators and freezers which allow you to monitor their temperature and adjust their power scheduling requirements accordingly. List the items starting with the item using the most power down to the smallest items, generally things like table lamps or ceiling fans. Establish a schedule that allows you to run the largest items at different times and the smaller items concurrently with them. In my home, I am able to run a refrigerator, two freezers, a microwave, a security system, a coffee pot, and countless lamps and battery chargers on a 2000 watt generator with power to spare. I have installed a six circuit transfer switch in such a way that the following items can be connected in sequence as necessary:
                  Circuit #1……..Freezer #1, ceiling fan in front room
                  Circuit #2……..Front room outlets for security cameras, TV monitors
                  Circuit #3……..Freezer #2, garage florescent lights, work bench
                  Circuit #4……..Kitchen outlets including refrigerator, microwave, light
                  Circuit #5……..Kitchen and dining room lights and ceiling fan, outlets, coffee pot.                                        
                  Circuit #6……..Bathroom outlets and lights

In order to keep the power consumption down and avoid running everything at once, I have only to use the individual switches on the transfer switch panel to turn their respective circuits on and off per schedule or as needed.

The only items that I cannot run using this setup is the clothes washer and dryer, the HVAC unit and the electric stove. I might actually be able to power the clothes washer if something else was turned off but, since this is not a priority, I have not pursued this further. Unplugging the generator from the transfer switch and running a heavy duty extension cord to an item requiring only occasional use would allow something such as a clothes washer to be used as long as the rated power of the generator is not exceeded.

As far as the best generator for home use is concerned, the new breed of inverter generators beat the older "contractor" type generators by a mile. The inverter generators are quieter and much more fuel efficient, both of which are critical factors in a SHTF situation. If storing gasoline in any quantity is prohibitive, the internet lists several businesses that can provide conversion kits for most popular generators that allow running off of natural gas or propane. Inverter generators are available in sizes ranging from 1,000 watts to 6,500 watts. The smaller the generator for the job, the quieter and more fuel efficient it becomes and the less expensive it is. Honda and Yamaha make quality generators of this type and other manufacturers are on the market with similar items. Some manufacturers also make coupling devices which allow you to interconnect two inverter generators at once to provide double the power when needed.

In summary, consider budgeting for a transfer switch if you want a convenient, more flexible home system or some good, heavy duty extension cords if you rent or are prohibited from making modifications to your house' electrical system. Extension cords with at least 14 gauge wire are preferred with 12 gauge being even better for large items. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the wire. Although more expensive, consider an inverter type generator knowing you will use considerably less fuel and attract less attention. If you do have to buy a "contractor type" generator, buy a quality, brand name product with the best guarantee possible and test and maintain it regularly. Consider a good generator to be a long term investment the cost of which will be amortized over a period of time. This is not an area in which it is wise to try to save a few dollars only to watch the last of your food spoil in a freezer that you cannot power when a generator won't start or run.

Those of you that have already installed generators and have done their homework on this subject might find the above somewhat basic but, judging from the inquiries I see on various forums, this information may be helpful to several of us out there who have not yet prepared for the inevitable blackout or brownout following a disaster.

Prepare as if your life depended on it and be safe.                      

JWR Adds: See the many warnings that have been posted in SurvivalBlog about power grid backfeeds. The only safe way to set up a generator at a house that is tied to grid power is with a proper isolating transfer switch. The lives of power company linemen depend on it!

Friday, October 25, 2013

In this, the third installment of the chronicles of my preparedness journey (#1 The Secret Prepper and #2 Selecting a Retreat), I hope to share with you the improvements I have made in my retreat home.

I have found in the last couple of months that owning a second home is a monstrous headache.  If you only own one home just imagine everything that can go wrong and multiply it by a factor of two to the exponent of Murphy’s Law.  Or worse… my liquid asset value has fallen victim to the inverse square law: The amount of money I now have is inversely proportional to the square of the amount I remember spending.
Current $ Amount  = Original $ Amount x   Funds I remember spending2
                                                                       Funds I actually spent

Head hurting yet?  Me too.  Good thing I have a background in mathematics and some education in basic engineering.  I strongly recommend that if you plan on being self-sufficient, you learn the basic principles of engineering.  That and pick up some additional skills like carpentry, masonry or welding.  A great way to do this is to volunteer with charitable organizations that build or remodel homes.  If you play your cards right you’ll make a friend who’s in a trade and he’ll teach you.  But I digress…

With some hard work and good fortune, my retreat home will be my primary place of residence as well as my work location.  I can make any changes to the house that I feel will improve its safety and functionality, but if they are completely visible or unappealing the power of veto will be exercised by the C.F.O. (my wife).  That, and OPSEC will be compromised by said visibility.  With that in mind I started looking for what needed improving so that I could fit it into the renovations that had to be done.  I decided on tackling emergency power and security.

Emergency Power:

One of the things I have quickly learned is that power goes out somewhat regularly in the middle of nowhere.  There simply is no modern infrastructure and what power lines run to my home need to traverse dozens of yards of old trees to get from the road to my abode.  The result: Wind blows hard, lights flicker.  Wind gusts heavily, lights go out.  It’s rather annoying but at present only an inconvenience.  Come TEOTWAWKI it will be much worse since there may be no return to power for some time.  At this point I can’t afford to buy a PV power system so I thought about alternatives.

I had decided early on that I wanted to make an effort to utilize every form of alternative power I could.  Having a stream running through my property affords me the opportunity to build my own miniature hydroelectric power plant.  My biggest problem is that the stream on my property is located too far away to make a direct feed work.  That turned out to be an easy fix: a wheel barrel, elbow grease and some car batteries suit just fine.

Building my micro hydro-power plant:

I tried several variations on my generator, using materials like wood, plastic and metal.  I started with metal for the frame and quickly learned that I have no business whatsoever using welding equipment.  Know thyself, and know him well… lesson learned (ouch!).

Then, I tried to use PVC since it’s fairly inexpensive and easy to work with.  I worked up a great model, until I put it in the water and it floated away.  The frame and paddles were too light, and so I mixed in some wood and plexiglas.  The combination of PVC framing, wood paddles and plexiglas wheels seems to work well.  I also added some gravel into the bottom of the PVC framing for additional weight to counter the streams current. It’s only a few inches deep at the point where I’ve decided to place this but because it’s at the base of a drop the water really moves.

The design itself was fairly simple:

First I made two 18” high triangles with 3 inch PVC pipe.  At the bottom corners I used 60 degree elbows, at the top I used the same but modified it with a 1½” hole and inserted the plastic ring from a roll of scotch tape.  It was a tight fit, which I additionally secured with a thin coat of epoxy so it wouldn’t wear loose after I added the axle: A 1” wooden dowel.

I then built my water wheel, thinking of an old steamboat’s wheel.  I cut 2, 24” diameter circles out of ¼” Plexiglas and cut a hole in the center for the 1” dowel.  After, I cut a total of 19, 2’ long 1x4’s for the paddles and coated them liberally with water seal.  (One situation where being liberal is a good thing.)  The circumference of a 24” diameter circle being 75.4” [C=D (pi)], I added 19 paddles at 4” intervals, which works out to 76”, so one of the paddles is slightly off.  I screwed the paddles straight out protruding 1” past the circle, for only one side.

The circle with the paddles was laid flat with the open side up and the opposing circle was placed on top allowing me to fasten it to the paddles.  At this point I added the water wheel to the triangle frame by lying one half on a table and lining up the wheel to the hole at the top of the triangle.  I inserted the dowel allowing it to extend past the frame by several inches.  I then placed the opposing half of the frame on top and stood it upright.  It bears note that the dowel was a tight fit, and I needed remove it and sand it down a bit.  Then I added graphite lube (it’s just what I had handy, no other reason for the choice) to get it to turn.  I hand turned it several dozen times and all was well.

The dowel was secured on the outside (water facing) half of the frame by drilling a hole through it to allow me to add a locking cotter pin.  The opposite end of the dowel was similarly secured with a cotter pin, but additionally I afforded this side an extra 6 inches onto which I secured a bicycle wheels rim, also secured with a cotter pin on the outside.

I placed the waterwheel in my chosen area and above it fabricated a wooden platform (treated with water seal) that spanned the narrow section, securing it with heavy stones at the base of the legs.  I mounted the alternator atop that, with the wheel of the alternator exposed over the side directly above the bicycle wheel.  Then I used an alternator belt to connect the alternator to the waterwheel.  (I had previously used sandbags to redirect the water to make this easier)

From that point, I wired the positive and negative ends of the battery using wire I salvaged from an old car at a junkyard. The wire needed to be spliced with another set so that I could lay the battery on a platform on the side of the stream.  After testing the system I built a housing for the alternator and the battery.

What I found is that, while not optimal, this set-up works fairly well and generates enough power to re-charge the car battery in just a couple of hours in relation to how fast the stream is moving (depending on the rain).  I plan to build a new one as time permits with an extended dowel that will allow me to mount the alternator on the bank of the stream.

[JWR Adds: For any reasonably durability, I recommend a commercially-made microhydro Pelton Wheel.]

I am currently using this to power my CB radio and as a power source for an emergency water pump.  I have only 3 batteries at the time I write this and plan to buy more to build a battery array, once I find the “perfect” design.  I also intend to apply this to an old stationary bike for use indoors.


My future home/retreat location, though on a dead-end tertiary road, is far from un-assailable.  I imagine that if a refugee group managed to get as far north as I am, they’d be somewhat knowledgeable of wood lore.  They could stumble upon my location while hunting, or simply by trying random roads to see where they lead.

A road approach seems to me to be the most likely so I decided to address that first.  I have a paved driveway that extends to the road, but runs over a pipe that funnels water run-off from higher up the mountain.  That pipe needed replacing, and so I dug it out and left the ditch.  Across it I placed a large steel plate, the kind you would see a road construction crew using to cover a large hole in the road.  I bartered some manual labor for this.

The plate came complete with a ring attached to one end.  I plan to hook a steel cable to this and use my truck or quad to pull this plate into my driveway and off of the ditch when security seems like it may become an issue.  Then in the recently evacuated soil I will, when the time seems right, dig holes and transplant bushes from further back on my property.  I will also spread grass seed there and back it up with smaller transplanted trees.  This way I can close off my driveway with a barrier while simultaneously camouflaging it.

As for the possibility of approach from other directions, well…  there’s only so much I can do to prevent that beyond regular patrols.  I’ve also looked for locations where I might maximize the use of various boobytraps [for an absolute worst-case situation.]  I realized that if a person were to get close enough to my home to fire upon it, my “contact” security would need a measure of home hardening. 

In my first submission to SurvivalBlog I wrote about “The Portcullis”; a method of closing off and hardening large glass doors on the deck of my primary residence.  I have decided to utilize this method in the walls of my retreat home, which is a ranch.  I needed to re-sheet rock the interior walls, so after the demo was completed I added sub-flooring from floor to ceiling around the windows, and floor to a height of four feet everywhere else.  Before adding the subflooring I insulated the exterior walls and added a layer of construction grade plastic sheeting to compress the fiberglass roll just a bit.

Then, as I added the subflooring I filled the spaces between the studs behind it with gravel.  The sheet rock I used to finish the job was 1” thick.  The overall thickness of gravel was a scant 2” after somewhat compressing the insulation. Between the wood siding, the exterior insulation, the subflooring, the gravel and the 1” sheet rock I have more protection then I was previously afforded.  That and it’s invisible as well.  If signs point to imminent danger, my family and I can always fill our sandbags and stack them strategically around the windows, doors and other firing ports if needed.

That is all I have had the finances and time to handle as of now.  I hope that when cash becomes available I can make additional modifications.  For now, it’s just paint and Spackle.  Hopefully this can give those of you out there without brick homes some ideas on how to secure/harden your home.

A quick note on booby-trapping…

I feel that this is an integral part of any TEOTWAWKI security plan.  However, the use of such devices should be weighed against the risks posed by having them in place.  I have made the decision to pre-manufacture a variety of “gifts” for unwrapping should any aggressors come seeking to force my generosity.  These devices will be placed in pre-determined locations should that level of security become necessary.  Before placing any form of traps walk your perimeter and determine places where there are holes in your security that you may not have the ability or manpower to fill. 

Also consider how you would approach your retreat if you were ill intended.  What would you use for cover?  Well that’s a great spot for a trap.  Have a blind spot?  Well put one there too.  Just be sure you have these spots marked on a map before you put your added security measures physically in place.  It wouldn’t do to have to try to remember where they go when they suddenly become necessary.

My final note on security is related to walking the perimeter and mapping traps.  While you’re out there, you should also measure out the various distances of landmarks relative to your retreat.  Fill out a range cards for each window, door or gun-port and place it at the associated position you will be using.  It will save you the guesswork later on, and the time saving could also be life saving.

Until next time, keep in mind that a physical structure is not our only shelter:
2Samuel 22:3-4
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.  I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.
Be ready My Friends, the clock is ticking.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I heard you in your recent interview on the SGT Report podcast talking about [the need for] interior blackout material [to stop light from escaping windows when the power grid is down.]    What is the name of the material and tape and where can I purchase it? Thanks, Paul Z.

JWR Replies:

You will find the information you need in these archived discussions in SurvivalBlog. Also see this theatrical supply company, and specifically this blackout fabric and this blackout tape.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Captain Rawles,
I saw the disagreement from the former natural gas industry gent located in Texas about your grid assertions as they relate to potential natural gas outages.

Two years ago in Northern New Mexico there was a multi-day natural gas outage to 30,000 homes and it was due to precautionary measures from Texas, caused by rolling blackouts.  New Mexico made the decision to keep the population centers pressurized since it would be more difficult to get the pressure back up in those areas compared to the smaller yet more remote pipelines in the northern part of the state.  I have friends in Taos, New Mexico that confirmed this for me. - G.P.

Mr Rawles -
You wrote: "Most residential refrigerators normally draw around 12 amps, but the peak load (on startup), expressed as Locked Rotor Amps (LRAs), can be substantially higher."

That might be true for older refrigerator designs, but is not true for at least some modern refrigerators. We have a large Samsung French door style refrigerator that draws (annual average) only 60 watts. When I read the specifications I could hardly believe it so I ran the fridge on a Kill-A-Watt meter for a couple of months to confirm. Running power
(compressor running) was 120 watts and the VA (what you want to use for sizing an inverter) was 180 VA with the compressor running, but the average over time was right where they claimed at 60 watts. To put this into Amps, the running current is 1.5 Amps, and the average is around 0.75 Amps.

This is not some tiny little fridge but a very large 28 cubic foot model with water and ice through the doors, LED lighting, and lots of nice features.

I am currently building a dedicated solar electric system which with a little bit of luck will allow me to take this fridge totally off-grid. - R.R.

Dear James,
I've been repairing refrigerators for several years. It's true, they do need a bigger [current] than you think compressor to start. One thing I haven't actually tried, but makes sense. There is a compressor hard start kit, which is often used by us repair guys, when the factory supplied compressor start relay goes bad. The hard start kit contains a big start capacitor, which helps with torque. Now, does that reduce the inrush starting current? I'm not sure, but it would appear so.

If your existing generator isn't quite big enough to start the refrigerator, might be able to call a refrigerator guy, and ask to have a hard start kit put on. Or buy one online, you are electrically minded.

One of the readers writes about "locked rotor current," (LRC.) Most of the literature and such that I read, talks about Locked Rotor Amps (LRA.)

Thanks for discussing the subjects few others want to get near. - Regards, C.A.Y.

Hello JWR,
My experience with a 2 kilowatt generator (a Yamaha EF2000iS) avoided all the study of LRA requirements.  Using extension cords and a through-the-wall connection, the little Yamaha runs two full-size refrigerators, a small chest-type freezer and a pellet stove most of the night on a gallon of gasoline.  Readers may be interested that the bearings in the Yamaha are rated for twice the life of the bearings in a Honda. Best Regards,  - D.H.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thank you for letting your readers know about [public utility] natural gas system compressor stations. I, for one, was was blissfully ignorant about them, and had just assumed that natural gas was "always on." So, now knowing that, I can now see that a tri-fuel generator that can quickly be changed to propane or gasoline would be best. Thanks also for mentioning the capacity limits of generators. That I was aware of, but I hadn't ever looked at the specs on my GE refrigerator/freezer. Now I can see that I need to do a "load budget", to determine what I can leave plugged in, and not bog down my generator. (It is a 3 KW, and all those lights in the house add up a load, real quick.) - Curtis N.

Mr. R. -
Regarding residential refrigerators and generators - I've tested a few, using a Kill-A-Watt and the Belkin Insight Tester and a test rig I built to use a clamp-on type multimeter. I've measured startup demands - locked rotor current (LRC) - and run current on the last 2 refrigerators I've bought, and on several owned by friends. I found that LRC averages between 1200 and 1400 watts, depending on size and design. That's about 10-12 amps (NEC - National Electrical Code - specifies that circuits be sized to use no more than 80% of the circuit's maximum capacity, so a nominal 15 amp circuit should never have to carry more than 12 amps, which is why refrigerators are on dedicated 15 amp circuits). The formula, BTW, is AMPS = WATTS divided by VOLTS. Or, WATTS = AMPS x VOLTS. Use actual measured figures for computation. For example, the utility-supplied voltage in my current house is consistently between 120.2 and 120.4 volts. My Honda EU3000i generator varies between about 114 and 122 volts depending on load.

Run current on every fridge I've tested - ranging from 18 cu ft to 26 cu ft - settles in well under 200 watts after 2-3 minutes. My old Amana 25 cu ft side-by-side consumed only 141 watts after 3 minutes, my new Samsung 26 cu ft consumes 155 running watts.

Fridge tip - outfit called ACU-RITE makes a wireless fridge and freezer thermometer, about $30 at Amazon.com. Put one of the sensors in the fridge, the other in the freezer, the display unit has a magnet to stick on the outside.  I suggest sensor placement near the warmest part of each. Experiment to find where that is. I tested my old Amana by setting the freezer control to "coldest" (which turned out to be -14 F) and adjusted the fridge to 33-34 F on the top shelf without freezing stuff below that shelf. Give the fridge 18-24 hours between setting changes to stabilize internal temperature. I then unplugged the unit and monitored temps. Without the doors being opened I found that the fridge rose to 46F in just under 6 hours, and when plugged back in took not quite 3 hours to get below 40F after cresting at 49F. The freezer never went above +5 F. On this basis I figured I could put the generator on other tasks for 5 hours at a time.

I experimented with [supplemental] external insulation, from blankets and quilts to rigid foam. Best results were with 2" thick polyisocyanurate sheets (Dow calls their version "Tuff-R") which have an R value of about 6.5 per inch. Using an infrared thermometer I found the weak spot in fridges is the door seals followed by the door itself, so I cut the side and top panels to overlap the door edges. To insulate the doors you'll have to remove the handles. Securing it with duct tape, and sealing the sheet edge joints with duct tape, insulating the back (above the opening for the compressor and related hardware), both sides, top and doors, I got another 3 hours after unplugging before fridge temps rose to 45-46F. - Nosmo

Mr. Rawles,
I don’t know where you got your information that the ‘norm’ for natural gas pipeline compressor stations is electric powered. As a former pipeline CEO of a large pipeline system and still a consultant to the industry (therefore I believe that I have some basis in fact) I would suggest at least on the inter and intra state pipeline transmission systems as well as the majority of gathering systems the compressor stations are powered by natural gas (taken from the pipeline that they are compressing). Only in recent years has there been any real shift to electric drive compressors and those are typically only in areas of the country that are EPA challenged, i.e. they are considered ‘non-attainment’ areas regarding air quality and as such permits for new equipment is difficult to obtain if they are gas fired.
[The EMP and grid failure risk that] is relevant is most of the control systems [for natural gas pipelines] are run on grid-supplied power and the vast amount of these controls are digital in some form or fashion these days. Thanks, T.C. in Texas

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thanks for the information you deliver every day. I have recently gone on Social Security Disability and have some money to further our preps. My wife and I will hunker down in place, that being said, we have done what we can to make this as easy as possible. We can heat our home without electricity, but still need a solution for limited electric needs in the event of power outage. We are looking at the Honda EU2000i portable generator with the multi-fuel upgrade. In our years here we have never lost our natural gas supply, but have often lost our electric power. We propose to hook the genny up to our house gas supply, ready to go into service when the lights go out. 15 amps of 110 AC plus the 12 DC power would be a great addition to our supplies. Given we have beans, band aids and defense, this is a big purchase at $1,200 or so. I'm looking for advice.
Thanks, - Michael From Pennsylvania

JWR Replies: That is probably a decent solution, but only if your local gas utility provides natural gas via local wellhead pressure (possible in Pennsylvania, given your oilfields) or if they supply remotely-sourced gas via natural gas-powered line compressor stations.  If they use grid electricity-powered compressors stations (which is still the norm), then the gas pressure could stop after a couple of days of a power grid failure. But if they use natural gas-powered line compressors FROM END TO END, then you'd be fine.

You need to call your local utility and ask for a subject matter expert to talk to, to be sure. DO NOT settle for "happy-happy" front office assurances of system reliability and continuity. You need to talk with an engineer who knows about their set-up, first hand.

The second issue is the requisite size of your generator. Most residential refrigerators normally draw around 12 amps, but the peak load (on startup), expressed as Locked Rotor Amps (LRAs), can be substantially higher. Your generator needs to be able to handle that LRA load. You will need to research the LRA rating of your particular refrigerator's compressor. Here is an example: (Click on "Specifications.") This is a typical modern 23-cubic foot refrigerator that draws 8.5Amps when running, but the Minimum Circuit Required is 15 Amps. The latter reflects the LRA requirement.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mr. Rawles,

Thank you for a great blog site.  I'd like to share some techniques we use every day at our off-grid homestead that would be applicable for grid-down living

With 280 watts of solar panels in the southern plains, a good Xantrex controller, three marine deep-cycle batteries and an inverter we power a 9 cubic foot freezer-turned-refrigerator fitted with an analog temperature controller, a portable dvd player used nightly for movies and documentaries, 1 to 3 small fans in summer, a netbook computer, and a couple of compact fluorescent lights along with charging cell phones and cordless tools and even running a sewing machine on sunny days.

In our experience a homemade composting bucket is the best choice for human waste disposal and if properly constructed and maintained can even be kept and used in the house.  An outhouse works but I have yet to visit one that was particularly pleasant (read – I usually come out blue in the face or gagging.)  Chemical toilets are just plain gross as well.  Separately-collected urine makes a great garden fertilizer. [JWR Adds: Readers are warned that the risks of using composted human feces for garden fertilizing far outweigh the benefits.]

We have used a bio-sand or slow sand filter for water filtration exclusively for several years.  They are used the world over and work well for biological contaminants.  One can be constructed for $100 or less.  Ours is housed in a plastic 55-gallon drum. Plans and information are available on line.  Google “bio-sand filter”

Off-grid clothes washing is much facilitated by pre-soaking clothes for an hour or so up to overnight with 1/2 cup ammonia added to the water (if adequate water supplies are available.)  Ammonia is a great clothes cleaner and really cuts grease plus it takes much less water to rinse out.  Gray water containing ammonia seems to cause no harm to garden plants.  Borax, on the other hand, can kill or damage plants.  The little pressure washers, plungers and other gimmicky laundry aids have been a waste of money for us.  A washboard, a scrub brush (for jeans) and elbow grease will get clothes clean just as easily.  In a long-term grid-down situation lye leached from wood ashes will clean clothes. One thing to remember in considering SHTF clothes washing strategies is that without adequate rinsing clothes both stay dirty and attract even more dirt from the soap trapped in the fibers.  It may be that an ammonia/water or lye water soak and one quick rinse is the best option.  Bedding can be freshened between infrequent washings by hanging it in the sun and the breeze.

Five gallons of water is easily enough for a bath even for a woman who wants to shave, condition hair, etc. For example: wet down a little, wash hair without overdoing the shampoo, wash body, rinse.  Apply conditioner (again, don't overdo it), shave and scrub feet and nails with the water that's accumulated in the bottom of the tub, rinse again.  You're done in 5 gallons and most likely will have a little water left for a final rinse of the rag.  An oval, shallow black poly stock watering tank makes a great bathtub that even a child can move and empty. - Judy B.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

(Level II Scenario, continued)


For me, a 1,000 Gigawatt generator is not needed. Just 12 volt deep cycle storage batteries and a photovoltaic panel to charge them up, along with with a homemade generator from a lawnmower engine fan belted to a Chevrolet car alternator will be enough to power some communication electronics and spot lighting.  Deep cycle batteries are preferable to regular 12 V car batteries as they last much longer, but car batteries will certainly do in a pinch.  Incandescent lights need more power than fluorescents which need more than white LED arrays. Do some experimenting.  Another way to generate electricity is by turning a DC motor into a generator.  A DC motor accepts a DC voltage, from a battery for example, applied across two terminals and translates that energy to a rotary mechanical motion that drives whatever the motor is hooked up to, (a cordless drill, a kids play jeep, whatever).  A generator is the exact same motor, except instead of applying a voltage and harvesting a rotary force, you apply a rotary force and harvest a voltage.  All you do is hook something to the motor shaft, a bicycle, hand crank, a water or wind wheel, and turn it and a voltage is generated across the same two terminals the battery was previously hooked to.  Pay attention to polarity.  The motor should have a plate on it indicating what amount of voltage and amperage it will generate.  As you put the generator under a load it will become harder to turn, the result of a phenomenon called back EMF.

I don’t know much about big generators.  The options are basically gas, diesel or propane.  Diesel appears to be the best option.  Gas is more dangerous to store than diesel and the diesel generators last longer under a sustained usage (lower RPM).  Propane may also have problems lasting due to top end lubrication (I’m not sure about that) but propane is the easiest to store.  A generator could be used sporadically, say a couple hours a day to keep the refrigerator cold or run appliances.  If you do store gas or diesel, treat it with preservatives while it is fresh, at the beginning of the storage cycle, and store it in a safe manner.

There are a lot of electronics that could be harvested from a car, 12 Volt lighting, batteries, radios, CBs, meters and gauges.  Not to mention the metal to fabricate tools, hydraulics to provide motive force, petroleum products, the motor, the wheels and tires, transaxles to translate a rotary force 90 degrees, seats (what Southern abode is complete without an old car seat gracing the front porch?).

We have pretty well considered water; (did I just say well?)  That's the next step in a more permanent water supply:  a well.  It is certainly possible to hand dig a well, but before attempting to do that, you should find out how to go about it because a well cave-in is nothing to be ‘cave’alier about.  The best bet is to have the well dug by a professional; don't forget to have a way to get the water up without electricity, or have a generator.  Research how to locate a well with regard to septic systems, water table etc.

Lighting is also covered by using Kerosene lamps and /or rechargeable solar powered lamps.  Have spare wicks, globes, bulbs, switches, and plentiful fuel or energy.  Even if using Kerosene lamps, it would be wise to have a more concentrated, focused, portable, powerful method of lighting available to use when needed.  Of course, a flashlight fills the bill quite nicely.  Have some way to use rechargeable batteries. 

For more permanent ways to dispose of bodily waste, I reckon the most lo-tech is the good ol' outhouse.  Dig a pit about 6-8 feet deep, build a portable house to cover it and provide privacy.  When it gets near full, cover the last few feet with dirt, dig a new hole and pull the house (built on skids?) over to it.  Lime might be used to keep the smell down, another exciting topic to research.  Other options are methane digester toilets, burning the waste in 'honey pots" or using the existing septic system by hauling in flushing water by hand.  The latter option is probably the easiest and less damaging to the water table than an outhouse, non-potable water can be used for flushing.

Washing dishes in a water conservation mode can be done by using the following process:   1.) scrape the loose food of for the dogs to eat or to compost for the garden, 2.) fill one sink with water and some soap, 3.) fill another sink with water and a 1/4 cup of Clorox, 4.) Wash the dishes in the soapy water, 5.) rinse/disinfect in the Clorox water and 6.) set out to drain or towel dry.  Dishtowels will be worth their weight in gold; I suspect the cloth could be purchased fairly cheaply and towels cut, and hemmed, from the roll.  If need be, recycle the water through a distiller or use it to wash something else.

Washing clothes will be a chore.  I guess a big washtub or two and a washboard is the way to go, hang em up on a clothes line, it's been done before.  Another option is to cut a hole in the top of a five-gallon bucket lid and agitate using a (clean) plunger, kind of like an old-fashioned butter churn.  A clothes wringer would be cool (A large industrial mop bucket with a wringer might suffice).  Speaking of which, study up on ways that these common things were done before electricity, read books on pioneers that kind of stuff.  Figure out how to make soap or stock up on enough to hold you over for a year or two, just in case, God forbid, a collapse drags on that long.

Trash disposal will be non-existent in a survival situation.  Around here if we miss one trash day, it starts to pile up something fierce.  Over the long term, this could be a serious health hazard.  Trash piling up will smell, attract rodents and flies, and encourage disease.  On the bright side, there will be less packaging to be disposed of since most new production will be home generated, food and such.  None the less, have a sanitation plan.  Separate trash at the point of origin, paper and combustibles in one can,  biodegradables in another, glass and metal in a third.  Burn the combustibles, compost the bio-degradable, and bury or pile up the metals and glass.   Re-cycle everything possible.  Keep the area cleaned up from trash blowing into the yard.

Bathing could be accomplished by heating water on a stove and pouring into a tub or maybe by constructing a solar shower outside for summer use.


Communications could be clutch.  Try to cover as much as the spectrum as possible.  Get a short-wave radio, or Ham transceiver, covering at least 15 kHz to 30 MHz; a police/fire scanner covering the local emergency bands, an AM/FM radio, CB radios, and a television.  Have the ability to power all these with a 12-volt battery.  A Ham rig would be cool to enable two way conversations.  The shortwave should cover the upper and lower sidebands as well as CW signals.  The police scanner will be useful if there are riots or civil unrest.  CB radios, especially ones with sideband channels, can be used for personal communications, maybe one base station and 2 or 3 handhelds, all with rechargeable batteries.  Avoid having an 'antenna farm' outside your house so as not to draw a lot of attention.  Point to point communications in the form of intercoms, sound powered phones, hand, mirror, and semaphore signals could also be used.


If the gasoline is flowing, well and good, if not, it’s back to bicycles, horses and feet.  Make sure the car stays tuned up, has good tires, a full tank of gas and is in good working order.  Stock up on spare parts, water pump, alternator, fluids, and plugs, et al.  You can build an 'Urban Assault Vehicle' with winches, heavy-duty bumpers, and extra gas cans and all that stuff if you are so inclined.  Having a couple bikes handy might be a good thing.  Spare inner tubes etc, etc. 


The immediate concern regarding education is knowledge gained before problems occur.  Learn how to do stuff, study farming, gardening, carpentry, blacksmithing, medicine, cooking and preserving, stone masonry, weaving, trapping, hunting, fishing, metal working, electricity, plumbing, the list goes on and on.  Pick one or two things to get really good at and cross train in the others.  Gather information, books, magazine and Internet articles to keep as a reference library.  Don't neglect classics and light reading. And the three R's, reading, 'riting and 'rithmatic.   Set up schooling for the children if the schools shut down for a while and train constantly in as many sufficiency disciplines as possible.  Have school supplies available.


Picture yourself in a shelter with four young kids and no crayons; picture yourself climbing the walls.  Games, books, coloring books and crayons, lots-o-paper and pencils (exactly how would you go about making a pencil anyway?) textbooks for higher education, radio, outdoor activities.  Have fun.

Government Relations

A real wild card, chances are they won't be prepared (in a good way) for a serious societal emergency.  Of course with the current bunch of crafty, disingenuous, lying, cheating, stealing, power mad, constitution stompin' yahoos in Washington, that won't matter as they are likely to make a power grab (for the good of the people, don't you like children?) using the various Executive Orders surreptitiously signed into law over the last few decades.  "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."  Yeah, right.

As far as self-government goes, pick a leader, establish a legislative and a judicial body is one option, follow the US Constitution; another might be to set up a system of Judges like the early Hebrew people had in the Bible.  Definitely something to think about.

Local Area Relations

That would be your neighbors.  Help them get informed about survival in general, if not your plans specifically.  If your neighbor has his own food supply, he won't be knocking on your door for a handout when the SHTF.  This is where it gets a little confusing.  If someone is doing a full combat assault on your house, hey lock and load, ready on the right, ready on the left, commence fire, not a real moral dilemma; but, if your neighbor, your beer drinking buddy, and his extended family are starving next door and you've got some food stashed back, but not really enough to hand out willy-nilly without endangering your own family, then what?  One possible solution would be to store a lot of extra bulk foods, (corn, beans and rice) to be able to share liberally, also within your group, if you hand out a meal, someone within the group fasts for that meal for a net loss of nothing, as long as no one fasts excessively.  Maybe a combination of both, even so keep an ultra low profile, maybe leave a bag of groceries on the front steps at night.  If the food is distributed openly, the person receiving it can hoe in the garden or chop some firewood to help out.  Help as much as possible within your neighborhood and community.  Try to form supporting groups of people that have diverse skills and knowledge. 

Job Security

If your job goes under due to societal issues, you will need an alternate career until everything gets back to normal.  Gather tools and supplies to accommodate a backup career.  Try to focus on something that 1) you know how to do and  2) will be in demand.  Some job where the work came to you rather than you going to the work would be desirable.  Something like a produce stand would be ideal or battery charging station, just a thought.

Bugging Out

Bugging out, aka leaving your home base, without a clear destination that is able to absorb you and your family, is just another way of saying: refugee.  Refugees are helpless and totally dependent upon the vagrancies of whatever group takes control of them, be it a government or an armed band of thugs; or both as happened during Katrina.  Forget bugging out to the forest with a .30-30 and a backpack; it won’t work.

Have a secure bugout location in mind before you leave.  Bring what you can: weapons, ammunition, food, medicine, seeds, tools, blankets, camping gear, pots and pans, functional clothing and footwear, candles, lighters, whiskey, kerosene lamps, Clorox, soap, detergent, towels, gasoline and kerosene (keep your vehicle gassed up).

Be prepared to take back roads as the interstate system might be shut down.  Travel with a group if possible and keep a well-armed presence.  Have actual paper maps; don’t depend on the GPS system being up and running.  Beware of roadblocks.  


Level III Scenario

I guess I really don't know what to say about this type of scenario.  Lock and load.  Pretty much like a super level II scene.  Sort of like the movie "The Postman" without the happy parts.  Who knows?


Do not be dismayed by the prospect of societal collapse; take precautions but don't freak out; it won't do any good anyway.  If I were to guess about the potential for a societal collapse, I would say probably a mild level II scenario with more inconvenience than danger.  The foregoing text dealt with a more severe level II with the premise that is would be better to be over prepared than under, "better a year too early than a day too late", as the saying goes.  Which is good advice, don't wait until it is too late to start preparing, it may be too late by then to get many items.  Get the bulk foods first and secure drinking water now, then start in on the other items.  Gather together with family and friends to prepare; plan on congregating together if it gets hairy.

At times this paper takes on a Christian evangelical bent.  I don't apologize for that.  If you aren't right with God, you need to get right.  All you have to do is realize that you need God in your life and ask Jesus into your heart.  Matthew 7:7-8 says:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

Self-sufficiency will give you a peace of mind regardless of the actuality of an emergency taking place.  You don't buy car insurance planning on getting into a wreck, but you buy it anyway for the peace of mind and the protection afforded in you do have an accident.  Use the same approach for “collapse insurance”.  You can probably do everything mentioned in this paper for the amount of money you spend on insurance in one year, and to a large extent, these are one time expenditures not re-occurring expenses.  Better safe than sorry.  But, put your trust in God.

This reminds me of a joke: A guy dies and goes to heaven and Saint Peter says:  "We have a point system to get into heaven, it takes a hundred points to get in the door, tell me about your life."  "Well", the guy says "I was a preacher for seventy years and led many hundreds of people to know Christ the Savior."  Saint Peter says "OK, that'll be 3 points."  The preacher says "I started a soup kitchen in my town and fed many homeless people every day with my own money."  "4 points" says the Saint.  By this time the preacher is getting a little nervous.  "Okay...I operated an orphanage in my home and kept dozens of children there for the last 40 years."  "Ummm, 3 points" says Saint Peter.  "Now wait a minute", explodes the preacher, "at this rate, the only way I'll get into heaven is by the Grace of God !"  "100 points!" says Peter throwing open the Pearly gates.

2 Timothy 4:7

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

to be concluded later this week, with some appendices.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

All sources of preparedness information stress the importance of water. Without water everything else is put at risk. You cannot drink bullets, beans do not have a lot of moisture and sucking on a bandage will not help.

The ideal situation is to have some form of safe running water on your property. But what if you don't? Hopefully you have a well, but if your electric goes out your pump will not work. A hand pump will work, but it takes a lot of energy to get that water, and then you have the situation of Operational Security (OPSEC) while you are pumping that water and hauling it to the house.

About a year ago I started seriously investigating an alternative source of water. I looked at hand pumps but at my age of 70 that did not seem a practical solution. I also looked at windmills. In our area of the country windmills are a viable option and have been used successfully for years. But the location of our well is very close to the house and with the trees around here I did not believe that was our solution. If you have a well and the wind conditions, a windmill is something to consider. The costs are about the same as a solar system with less maintenance costs. Around the country there are windmills that have been pumping water for 40 or 50 years. Literally millions of head of cattle are provided water every day by windmills, and they are not the great big windmills being used today to generate electricity.

After much research we decided that for us the solution was a Solar Powered water pumping system. 

In our situation we live on top of a hill, there is no running water on our property or even nearby. But we do have an 180 foot deep drilled well. This works fine most of the time. But after one 500 year flood that wiped out electricity for many days, and tore out most water lines around the area, that got us thinking. The flood was so bad that it flooded the electric substation to a depth of 10 ft. All roads in every direction from our house were under water for a period of time. We live 10 miles from a small rural city and have the availability of city water, but do not use it. Our two closest neighbors are on city water and we were able to help them out because of our well and a generator. I called the local water department and asked if they had generator back up to be able to run the system and pump water, they do not. Most smaller cities do not have generator back up for their water systems.

 Then add in three tornados that happened in the area that wiped out electricity, we got to worrying. One tornado touched down just a quarter of a mile from our house and wiped out all electrical systems (including ours)  for about 6 miles. The second tornado touched down close to our sons house and wiped out 30 large trees on his property but luckily he house was not damaged. But it tore out the same electrical system as the first storm.

All of this was in a four year period, and we live in an area that has not been known to be flood prone or tornado prone in the south. Things can happen anytime and anywhere.

Recently I pulled the 220 volt AC (VAC) pump out of the well and installed a solar system that consists of a 1000 gal. approved plastic water tank partially buried, solar panels, two pumps and the control equipment necessary.

The water tank is 7 ft tall and has a diameter of 5 ft. We dug a hole two and 1/2 ft deep and 6 and 1/2 ft in diameter. This  had two purposes, the first to get the bottom of the tank below the freeze line and second to put the top of the tank at a height that will allow me to look down into the tank for inspection purposes. I put in a 6 in layer of fine sand for the tank to sit on and made sure it was level and well compacted before putting the tank in the hole. After installing the tank I filled in around the tank with fine sand. We installed the 2ö water outlet of the tank 4 inches above the bottom of the tank so that any sediment that might be pumped into the tank would settle and we would not be pulling that into the pumping system. The inlet to the tank is installed above the maximum water height of the tank so that when filling air would be introduced into the water on a continuing basis. We also installed a float switch in the tank that automatically shuts off the pump when the tank is full and adjusted it so the pump comes on after 100 gallons of  water has been pumped out.

 I also built a 10 ft by 12 ft building over the well head after putting the tank in the ground. After the building was finished the top of the water tank  is four ft. above the floor. This gave me a place to put the solar panels very close to where they would be used and also the equipment is all inside and out of the weather. We insulated the building in order to minimize the freezing potential. The 1,000 gal water tank is refreshed with 56 degree water from our well and will go a long way to keeping the building above freezing in most weather conditions here. With the 10 by 12 ft building I have enough roof space left to add six more solar panels in the future to bring some solar power into the house.

Our system is a two stage system. The Solar well pump is at 180 ft depth. That pump, actually pumps 1 gallon per minute into our 1000 gal storage tank. I know that does not sound like much, but over an eight hour day that is 480 gallons of water.  The pump is not on a battery system it is controlled by the sun, when the sun shines the pump is working. It even pumps a little bit of water when it is cloudy. I installed a float switch on the pump, so that when the tank is full it stops the pump. As it turns out we had a day that was cloudy all day and the water level was down to the point that the pump came on, by the end of the day the tank was again full, even with our water usage and no sun to speak of.

Solar systems are standard in 12 volt DC (VDC) and 24 VDC with some available in 48 VDC. The general rule of thumb is the higher the voltage the less the amperage draw. I elected to go with the 24 VDC system. This required two 12V batteries hooked up in series to provide the 24V backup for the pressure pump. The pump runs on 24 volts which draws less power than the 12V pump would, and the battery power lasts twice as long in a no sun situation. By opting for a 24 volt system the wiring was simpler.

The second stage of the system is an additional solar panel that charges two deep cycle large batteries, purchased from our local auto parts store. This powers the pressure pump that supplies normal water pressure to the house. Our water pressure to the house is the same as it was on the old pump and the volume is also the same. Our old system had a pressure tank in the basement, I installed a second pressure tank in the well house, this keeps the pump from kicking on so often.

I have tested the pressure pump system by disconnecting the power source and letting the system run on just the batteries with no charging. After five days the batteries still had more than half a charge. So I am confident that during a cloudy rainy period the water system will still work. Even on cloudy or partially cloudy days there is some charging going on.

We measured our water usage over a two week period of time, using our normal living pattern. We did not try to conserve water during this period. Our average usage of water was 80 gallons per day. The 1000 gallon tank would provide about eleven days of water if we had no sun, and more than twice that time if we were in a disaster situation as we would be conserving water.

When I first started investigating this project, all of the information seemed a bit overwhelming. I got a book titled Solar Electricity Handbook. (Mine is the 2012 edition, bit there is now a 2013 edition available.) It is written in plain English and easy to understand. I also got on the internet and searched for information and called many suppliers and manufacturers of equipment. Most of the suppliers were able to email me their installation manuals and spec sheets before I bought anything.  After all of that it made more sense and was really not that difficult to come up with a plan. I have a tendency to overbuild on projects, that's just me. In designing this system I increased the solar capacity by about 25% to give me some extra supply in the winter when the sun is in a different position and the days are shorter. After one year, we will evaluate the situation and I will look into adding some low voltage lighting to the system.

In a project like this you need accurate information whether it is a do it yourself project or a contract project. Solar energy for home use is a somewhat new technology and there are a lot of people out there that claim knowledge but really don't have that knowledge. Do your homework before hand and it will save you problems in the future. In evaluating this project I selected products that have good ratings and a history. In estimating your solar power needs it is important to remember that your pumps will only be running for short periods of time each day, so you may not need as much power as you think.

When planning a solar project it is very important to take into consideration sun and shade. The solar panels must face a southerly direction. I set up a wooden panel over the well when I started this project to see exactly where the sun would hit the building, for how long during the day and how the nearby trees would interfere with the solar panels. This resulted in some tree trimming that in my particular situation will be required about every two years. This is not a big project for me, it can be done with a pole saw from the ground. Shade is a killer for a solar system, so plan accordingly. Before you start make sure that trees or buildings will not be a problem. If they are you can move the system to another location and just have a little more plumbing work to do. Depending on your situation it may be a better idea to remove a couple of trees, you have to judge for yourself.

The estimated life of the solar panels I purchased is 20 years. The estimated life of the pumps are 15-20 years and both pumps can be rebuilt. The estimated life of the batteries is five years. I selected batteries that are both deep cycle and deep charge commercial batteries. Even with that the cost was just $100 each. I purchased kits to rebuild both pumps after getting the system up and running. That way I know that I have the parts available instantly, no matter what happens.

This can be a do it yourself project if you are careful, have a little background in plumbing and electrical work. If you don't have the necessary background then you can hire a professional. Before hiring a professional, do your homework so that you do not spend more than you need. My background is in industrial maintenance, where I had to deal with AC and DC power sources,  so that made things easier.

A word of caution is needed here about dealing with DC power. An understanding of electricity both AC and DC is necessary for a do it yourself project. Most people understand that high voltage power lines can kill you. Low voltage can also kill you. Voltage does not really kill, it is the amperage that does the job. A stun gun may have as much as a million volts or more, but just enough amperage to give you a good jolt. Solar panels can put out high levels of amperage. If you do not have the background, get professional help. I have a friend that is an excellent electrician and has the capability to wire industrial systems correctly, but has no experience in DC or solar power. He would not attempt a solar systems without gaining more knowledge on DC power.

We also have 600 gallons of water barrel storage that could be used for flushing toilets etc. The water barrel storage is set up easily catch rain water if necessary. Right now the barrels are filled with our well water and are located where they can easily be reached and if necessary some can be moved into the basement. They are treated with a mild bleach solution and the plan is to empty and refill them on a six month basis.

With the system installed and running successfully we now have peace of mind about our water situation. This also gives us the opportunity to share the water with neighbors when  the need arises, all of them are on city water. I have convinced our next door neighbor to get some water barrels and keep them full. If the need arises I can help refill her water barrels.

We do not have a specific type of disaster we are preparing for. Just any type of disaster, sort term or long term. An EMP is one of those possibilities. So I purchased additional solar controllers for the system. These items are kept in our small Faraday Cage container along with an emergency radio, hand-held short wave radio, laptop computer so that I can even refer to the SurvivalBlog Archive DVD when necessary.

I ended up purchasing all of the solar equipment, including the pumps from Northern Arizona Wind & Sun, Inc. The reason being is that they were knowledgeable, helpful and spent a lot of time answering my questions and making suggestions. There were able to provide instruction manuals before I purchased anything. I am not in anyway connected with this company, I was impressed with the service and quality of information provided.

We will give this project some more time to make sure it works as planned, then I plan to add to the system to provide solar power to two freezers and one refrigerator with a few low voltage lights thrown in for good measure. For anyone that has been without power for a few days, you know what  pain it is to keep food cold or frozen with a generator, that needs gasoline that you might not be able to obtain.

As a side note: I hired a local person to build the well house. Turns out that as a child he grew up on this very property. He lived in a house that was on the back of our property which has since burned down. He related to me that his grandfather lived two doors down and seemed to be somewhat eccentric as he was a prepper before there was such a thing. He generated his own electric by means of a windmill and had battery storage in his basement. He had a 500 gallon underground gasoline tank, a water well with pump that was powered by the electricity generated by the windmill. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman.  Had a large garden and they canned most of what they got out of the garden. When he retired 25 years ago he sold the place and moved to Montana to be self sufficient. What did this man know that we are just learning?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

For  those of you planning on bugging out with a knife and a backpack when the SHTF, read no further because nothing in this article will be of value to you. For those of us who, for one reason or another, have to plan on bugging in, this might serve as a reminder to stock some cheap but necessary items that you may not have considered. Judging by the number of survival threads and articles that I have read, a number of us plan on maintaining, if possible, some sort of energy source should EMP, flood, hurricane, terrorist act or other event disrupt our electric service. At times like this, we can expect blackouts, rolling blackouts, brownouts, surges, peaks or other electrical gremlins to occur. All of these things place stress on electrical and electronic devices and the components designed to protect them; fuses. In addition to blowing out, fuses wear out. This is most common in devices that draw large amounts of power and are switched on and off frequently such as home HVAC units.  Heavy current flow through a fuse generates heat and the fuse link expands and contracts with the temperature change until metal fatigue finally takes its toll. Take inventory of all of the electronic and electrical devices around your bug in location and you will be surprised at the variety of fuses necessary to keep things running. Yes, I know, you can often bypass fuses to keep something running in an emergency but you also bypass the item designed to keep the device from burning out or malfunctioning, possibly when you need it most. Fuses are low cost items that are readily available during normal  times but that is not what we are talking about, is it?

Start by examining the service entry box at your house. If it is an older house, it may still be wired with screw-in plug type fuses. Modern electrical devices cumulatively draw more current then these systems were designed to handle and you are probably already accustomed to occasionally replacing some of these fuses. It might be wise to accumulate a large supply of those fuses in advance in the event a trip to the local hardware store is not wise in the future. If your house has a panel of circuit breakers, examine it closely to see if all of these breakers are rated at 25 amps or below and, if they are, the panel will also contain a pair of large cartridge type fuses, often concealed behind a large Bakelite handle which also serves as a disconnect device. A spare pair of these fuses is a cheap investment. Remember, brownouts and surges can stress components to a level above normal.

Start closely examining the instruction books and manuals for the various types of electrical and electronic equipment that you own. If you are so talented, open up the devices and examine them carefully for fuses which are often placed somewhere in the device close to the power input source. These fuse devices are not generally meant to be user serviced but, in an emergency, might allow you to retain the use of a critical device. Some of these may not appear to be the normal type of fuse that you are accustomed to seeing but may quickly disable the device in the event of a power surge. Enlist the help of a knowledgeable friend if you are not comfortable doing this. The circuit boards will often be marked with numbers identifying the parts and fuses are often designated with numbers such as "F101" etc. I recently opened up a 2000 watt power inverter to find that it contained eight 250 watt inverter modules, each with its own 40 amp fuse! If this inverter were to be overloaded or subjected to an extreme power surge, it would be possible that these fuses could all blow out in sequence as the remaining modules each attempted to assume the load vacated by the first module to blow out. Don't forget charge controllers and  the inline fuses in the connecting wires of 12 volt radios, scanners and CB sets. Also, closely examine the cigarette lighter plug  which allows you to run some devices off your vehicle's electrical system for a cartridge type fuse behind the tip of the plug. The very popular Maha MHC9000 charger often used with Eneloop batteries has such a fuse in its 12 volt cord as does the charger for my 2 meter ham radio and the vehicle charger for my Craftsman power tool batteries. I have also seen cigarette lighter plugs which use miniature blade type fuses inserted into the side of the plug.

By the way, if one of your power tool batteries suddenly goes "dead", particularly after you have stalled or overloaded the tool, open the battery up. Inside, you may find a small strip of metal that is used to interconnect the individual cells in the battery and see that there is a melted gap in one part of the metal. That is a fuse! You can make an emergency repair and continue to reuse the battery by carefully soldering a small piece of copper wire across the gap. Try to avoid using too much heat while doing this and use a good grade of rosin core solder. Scraping the metal for a clean surface in advance often helps the solder to adhere to the metal.

Last and certainly not least, check your owner's manuals for a complete listing of the fuses used in your vehicles. Many modern vehicles contain more circuits than your house and use a wide variety of fuses. A large kit or selection of those fuses would be a good investment. Harbor Freight sells assortments of the common sizes of blade type fuses at reasonable prices. If you have a RV equipped for bugging out, don't rely on the owner's manual to tell you about every fuse hidden in the vehicle. Trace the wiring for everything that connects to either the incoming AC power, the onboard generator if so equipped, or the "house" batteries for inline fuses as well as any fuses installed in fuse panels or blocks. Some RV refrigerators have fuses hidden inside them. Again, a knowledgeable friend may be very helpful. The Ford chassis used as the basis for my class B motor home has a master fuse block located under the hood and a second fuse block beneath the dash and they each use different sized fuses. The coach itself has fuses in the inverter/charger unit and large fuse links in the battery bay. Again, trace the wiring.

Fuses may seem like small, unimportant items but remember, "for want of a nail, the shoe was lost………..". You can't have too many fuses as some problems may be reoccurring until the fault is located. Be safe, be prepared.  - G.L.D.   

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mr. Rawles -
I have been living with a CPAP for many years now, and am one of the persons for whom it has worked very well. I also know how bad things can be after not having my CPAP for three days when an airline lost it. After three days I was almost totally non-functional and was ready to lay out the $2,000 out of my own pocket to get a replacement machine. Fortunately my machine was found by the airline.

More recently I had 3 nights in 2 months where power outages deprived me of the use of my machine. I determined that I needed to find a way to get my CPAP off the power grid.

The first step was to measure the actual power drawn by my machine. Using a Kill A Watt monitor I learned that my machine used 27 watts of power. This of course could vary with the pressure setting, and model used.

I then found a 55 watt solar charging system on sale at Costco for $200. The system came with 3 panels, mounting frame, charge controller, and 200 watt "modified sine wave" inverter. I added a 125 A/hr deep cycle battery,
battery case, and some 10 gauge wire. Since my CPAP did not have a DC power option, I could not run it directly from the battery. The AC input, however, was a "universal" design which can accept any AC voltage from 100
to 250 VAC without switching. Such a universal power input has no problem dealing with the less than ideal power from the "modified sine wave" inverter. If my CPAP had just a conventional 120 VAC power input then the
use of a "true sine wave" inverter might have been needed.

This system worked fine to run my CPAP all spring, summer, and fall, but come winter with shorter days and more clouds, it could not keep the battery charged. I needed to supplement the solar charging system with a AC powered battery charger.

The next year I purchased another identical system, and hooked two of the panels to the [batteries for the] CPAP system. The charge controller supplied with the systems could only support 5 panels for about 91 watts of power in peak sunlight. This expanded system worked great all this last winter.

After the success of my off-grid solar electric system, I now have a separate system for my ham radios, and am building a larger system to power our refrigerator.

It is quite possible and not that expensive to build an off-grid solar electric system to power relatively small loads like a CPAP machine. Like everything else in preparedness, it is better to build and try your preps now, while we still have the support infrastructure to allow you to make mistakes and correct them. - Suburban R.

JWR Replies: Many thanks for giving us the details on how you made your system work. Having separate system provides redundancy. And keeping them separate will help prevent an accidental deep discharge of your system. (This typically happens when an appliance is accidentally left turned on.) Having separate systems also gives you some redundancy because of equipment failure. You could fairly quickly reconfigure your ham radio power system into a power source for our CPAP. Something as simple as just a broken power cord could deadline a system, so buy spares for all of the crucial parts. Remember: "Two is one, and one is none!"

From what I have read, the motors inside most CPAP machines run on DC voltages. So for someone to run a DC to AC inverter, only to feed your machine's 120 VAC input jack (or cord) which is then in turn transformed back into DC is grossly inefficient. So I recommend this to anyone who is dependent upon motorized medical equipment (such as a CPAP machine or an Oxygen Concentrator) with an AC input: Do your very best to replace them with a unit that has a 12 VDC power input. If you contract with a medical supply company, or a care facility, or there is a medical insurance company involved, then this might be more complex. DO NOT overly complicate the process by telling them all about your alternative power system (or your plans to get one.) That will just confuse the situation. Simply tell them that you need a system that is compatible with power available from a car cigarette lighter. THAT is something simple they will be able to understand!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I wanted offer some praise to J.J.S. and is thorough submission titled Heating with Wood 101. I'm following his lead and wanted to offer your readers some additional ideas on wood processing with some stealth after TSHTF. Running a 50cc chainsaw and a 34-ton log splitter is all fine and dandy when there's no one around meaning to do you any harm but its completely inappropriate in a TEOTWAWKI situation. If you are lucky enough to have a renewable energy source its advisable to switch to electrical tools because they are so quiet. Either of the big box stores carry electric chainsaws and electric, 5-ton log splitters at reasonable prices. I've also found that they have a semi-professional grade chain sharpener that'll make the teeth on your chain look like a mirror when sharpened. While the 5 ton splitter isn't going to split 3 foot diameter pine trees like a gas one will, it will go through the same wood once you quarter it with a maul. Just add a bit of oil to the maul on the splitter and it'll do just fine. Here are quick links to the three products I recommend:

Regards, - Gilpin Guy

JWR Replies: I appreciate your advice, but the brands that you mentioned are mostly made in mainland China. (See my many admonitions about China's laogui prison factories.)

The WORX brand tools and their batteries are all made in China. One alternative: I have a Makita 14-inch electric chain saw, and I've been quite happy with it. To the best of my knowledge, those are still made in Japan.

The Task Force brand tools (a house brand of Lowe's) are also imported. Many of those come from China. An American-made alternative that is more powerful (16-tons of force) is produced by Ramsplitter. As electric splitters go, these are fast and powerful. Another American-made electric splitter is the 10-ton dual-action splitter made by DR. Unlike a typical gas engine splitter, most electric splitters cannot be heard from more than a short distance away.

The Buffalo Tools brand products are made in China. An excellent American-made alternative is made by Silvey. Unlike the cheap imported chain grinders, these cut a precision square notch.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dear Mr Rawles,

This letter is in response to the piece on using photovoltaics to charge batteries by C.K.. I feel I should spend some time discussing some potential problems with charging Lithium Ion ("Li-ion") batteries the way C.K. proposes. However first a few general notes.

- I am all for scavenging if you know what you are doing like some of us. But 'newbies' are better off not trying to disassemble anything more complicated than a desktop power supply for safety reasons as JWR pointed
out. I should add that the process that causes the 'bounce' after discharge also keeps some capacitors charged much longer than you would imagine possible.

Secondly if you only need some diodes or resistors, you can buy a batch of 100 for a few dollars on-line which will give you a lifetime supply. Just look for vendors with a 99%+ positive rating and 10,000+ feedback. If you don't like eBay et al., try Aussie firm Futurlec. Your spare parts will come in handy someday when we realize we cannot afford to throw everything away.

- I have no problems with C.K.'s instructions and wouldn't have bothered to write in if he had used NiCd or NiMH batteries because they can handle
some degree of overcharging, which is bound to happen in his setup if you are shooting for full capacity. For NiCd and NiMH the rule of thumb is that if they start to feel warmer than ambient temperature, they are either full or you are charging them at too high a rate. So even if you have no voltmeter handy, you can have a pretty good idea what is going on. And if you charge them in a solar charger, make sure the batteries themselves (and their housing) are shaded because heat from any source degrades battery life expectancy rather quickly.

- Li-ion cells, on the other hand, cannot cope with overcharging without some form of problems popping up. A 3.7V cell should not be charged to a voltage higher than 4.2V. Prolonged charging above 4.3V destabilizes the cell and causes CO2 to be formed inside it. The charging current will be automatically cut off if the cell's internal pressure rises to 200 psi. However this doesn't immediately stop the chemical reactions and if pressure rises to 500 psi the cell starts venting the CO2. Depending on the exact circumstances, thermal runaway may occur and the cell can burst into flames.

- Charging current isn't a big issue with Li-ion as it can absorb large initial currents and when the cell reaches capacity it will throttle that current anyway. Of course for charging with solar panels this is a problem because it will cause their output voltage to rise which is exactly what we don't need.

- Li-ion cells cannot be trickle charged; they must be disconnected once full because constant charging causes metallic lithium plating which can compromise the safety of the cell.

- 3.7V Li-ion cells need to be charged for 3 hours at 4.2V to reach maximum capacity. Shorter charge times and/or lower voltages lead to reduced charges (= shorter runtime). Consumer products chargers usually are programmed for maximum runtime, but if you can live with shorter runtime between charges, its better to charge at a lower voltage which will give you a longer useful battery life.

- The 3 hour time frame is predicated on the fact that your charger can deliver 0.8C to 1C of current for the first stage of the charging process (i.e. until the cell reaches 4.1V). If your cell is rated at 2000mAh (=2Ah), then 1C = 2 Amps. For large battery packs that means a lot of amps. Lower maximum current is actually beneficial for the cell but requires a longer charge time.

- Taking all of the above together, I would say that charging Li-ion without a good deal of checking voltages can be rather tricky. This is exacerbated by the large variance in the output of a solar cell related to its angle to the sun, cloud cover, etc. Please keep in mind that just because charging a cell works fine once or twice doesn't mean its safe. A lot of the damage done by overcharging Li-ion batteries is cumulative because the chemical processes involved are irreversible. That is, your battery may kill itself (or worse) after ten trips to your solar charger.

- If you are a new or wannabe tinkerer, I would say make small panels that can deliver around 10V-12V (open circuit) and 1 Amp. If you connect that to a 7.4V battery pack (= multiple cells), its unlikely you will seriously overcharge the pack unless you leave it out in the full sun for several days. If you want to use large panels: do yourself a favor and buy a commercial 12V Li-ion charger.

- For dyed-in-the-wool tinkerers there is yet another solution: you can build yourself a small charge controller that drives the charge current to near zero as it approaches a preset voltage. Its parts list contains 6 items and its fits on a square inch if you are really pressed for real estate. What you need is: - 3 metal film resistors (1% tolerance - 2x 10K and 1x 3.9K) - 1 zener diode (6.2V - any wattage is fine - other voltages work too but require different resistor values) - 1 op-amp (rail to rail switching - I use a CA3140) - 1 solid state switch (power MOSFET or transistor with high amp rating - I prefer IRL7833)

The circuit works very simple: the zener diode creates a reference voltage for the op-amp. The op-amp compares the battery voltage to this reference voltage. If the battery voltage is lower it closes the switch and if the battery voltage is higher it opens the switch. One of the 10K resistors limits the current through the zener diode and the other 2 resistors form a voltage divider that maps the battery voltage to the reference voltage range. To calculate the proper resistor sizes for the voltage divider use the following formula (this formula only works if your base resistor is tied to ground): resistor size = target voltage / reference voltage * base resistor size - base resistor size

A 6.2V zener diode gives a 6.1V reference voltage when fed through a 10K resistor.
Targeting 8.4V (2x4.2V) while using a 10K base resistor gives us: resistor size = 8.4/6.1*10K-10K = 3.77K.
I would use a 3.9K resistor here because wires and solder joints have small resistances too so the voltage measured at the battery tends to be .1V - .2V below the charge controller's calculated target voltage and you quickly lose a lot of capacity if you charge Li-ion at voltages below 4.1V. The narrow band of target voltages (4.1V-4.2V) is also the reason to use metal film resistors. Carbon type resistors can have tolerances between 5% and 20%. Putting those numbers in the above formula quickly points out its a waste of time building the charge controller with those.

- The circuit uses a common ground for batteries, solar panel and other components; so all ground references must be tied together with the negative leads of the solar cells and batteries.
- IRL7833 pin 1 (left most pin if front facing) connects to op-amp pin 6
- IRL7833 pin 2 connects to solar panel positive lead
- IRL7833 pin 3 connects to battery positive lead
- op-amp pin 1 not connected
- op-amp pin 2 connects to voltage divider center position (between
- op-amp pin 3 connects to positive side zener diode (where the band is)
- op-amp pin 4 connects to ground
- op-amp pin 5 not connected
- op-amp pin 6 connects to IRL7833 pin 1
- op-amp pin 7 connects to IRL7833 pin 2 / solar panel positive lead
- op-amp pin 8 not connected
- zener diode positive side (band) and op-amp pin 2 connect to battery
positive lead through a 10K resistor
- zener diode negative side connects to ground
- voltage divider = battery positive lead -> 3.9K resistor -> 10K resistor -> ground

Heat sinks:
For very low currents (< .5A) your solid state switch doesn't need a heat sink. For currents up to 2 amps a small heat sink will do (think soup can lid). Beyond that you should look into using an aluminum heat sink. If you really want to go overboard (the IRL7833 handles 250A): seal your circuit in a peanut butter jar full of vegetable oil and submerge it in a brook - you now have a near infinite heat sink.

This controller's output is not an ideal match for Li-ion batteries but comes close enough to the requirements that you can leave it out in the sun all day without endangering your batteries. Though in sunny weather I would think 4-5 hours charging time is plenty if your solar panel is adequately sized. Most likely you will notice the batteries charging somewhat slower during stage one and converging close to the ideal curve during the saturation stage of the process.

With a volt meter it may look like this controller acts as a variable resistor but it doesn't. Connecting it to an oscilloscope shows it to be a real pulse charger (your batteries will thank you for this!) with variable duty cycle and operating frequency. A 12V version of the controller connected to an old motorcycle battery ran at around 300 kHz while topping up the battery. Its duty cycle was mostly determined by the amount of power absorbed by the battery at any given time.

- For advanced tinkerers: you can replace the op-amp with a micro-controller, omit the zener diode and add a circuit to deliver the proper voltage for the micro-controller. Read the battery voltage through the voltage divider. Again the use of metal film resistors is crucial here. The charging algorithm for Li-ion is very simple and straightforward to program but you may have already realized that from reading the points above.

And finally if you want lots of info on all kinds of batteries: spend some time at BatteryUniversity.com. Regards, - D.P.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I'd like to discuss some practical aspects of power tools. Some posts in the past have been mentioned about them but I am going to discuss making solar power tools. And not just buying the pieces and making them (which you could do if you wanted) but actually making them from salvaged “junk”.
I’ll be the first to admit that while I love and own all types of traditional (non-electric) hand tools, using them does take considerably longer and more effort than the powered ones. (Not surprisingly).
My background is that of a professional tinkerer, and a trained marine and environmental biologist. I have tinkered with electronics since I was a small child and while no expert (and welcome corrections (there is much I don’t understand)) what I know is from first hand tinkering and reading.
As a professional scavenger I have come to realize that we live in an incredibly wasteful and unsustainable society on many levels (no surprise to most readers I am sure). Over the years I have found drills, reciprocating saws, circular saws, chainsaws, and all types of other power tools thrown away for various reasons. You just have to keep your eyes open.
The project I am going to describe was one in which I took an older Black and Decker 7.2 volt NiCd battery powered drill (that I found in someone's trash), and turned into a lithium ion solar-charged drill for free. This project can be adapted to almost any brand, voltage, or type of battery powered tool.
Tools and supplies needed:

  • Voltmeter/multimeter
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder
  • Flux
  • Wire (decent gauge, larger than 3mm, preferably braided)
  • Diode (at least rated for 20v)
  • Some type of male/female plug with 2 leads
  • Photovoltaic (PV) panels (5-10 volts (peak) more than the total battery voltage.
  • A battery-powered tool of some sort
  • Several lithium ion computer batteries. (Non-Apple.)

This project assumes the reader has basic soldering knowledge and basic electrical knowledge, if not there are plenty of how-tos and tutorials online.
Diodes can be scavenged from almost any types of old junk electronics whether it’s an old television, old computer monitor, printer or many other types of “junk” electronics. Many diodes have numbers on them, just type them into an Internet search engine and you can usually find the power it is rated for. Unsolder it and you’re ready to go.

[JWR Adds This Warning: Use extreme caution whenever cannibalizing parts from any high voltage electronics such as televisions. Most of these include high amperage capacitors which remain energized with a potentially lethal charge, even when the electronics are powered down. (And in fact even after discharged they can even "bounce" building up a new charge, unless they are shunted.)]
The same goes for scavenging male/female plugs, it can be the circular types used for plugging an AC adapter into electronics, the square type or anything really that you can plug together and has at least two leads. Adequate wires are easy to find in most electronics, just keep your eyes open.

[JWR Adds This Caution: I recommend using dedicated DC connectors with red and black polarity markings, such as Anderson Power Poles for all of your DC lights and appliances. This minimizes the risk of confusing the correct input voltage an type. You may know how it is intended to be used, but friends and relatives might be confused by a familiar-looking plug and do a Very Bad Thing. Inadvertently applying 120 VAC power could cause some smoke and/or fireworks.]
Solar panels can be a little more difficult to find but with the massive influx of cheap solar junk from China if you know where to look they aren’t too hard. I got mine from the solar patio lights you see everywhere and only last about a year before they break. I am sure if walking around your neighborhood you’ll see some that no longer work, and offer to take them off your neighbors hands, or just look in the trash you’ll find some eventually. You can usually find adequate diodes in them as well. It is important to test your solar panels to make sure they function. Most patio light solar panels output around 4-5v or so at peak, but by linking them together in series (+ to -) the total is the sum of each panels voltage (e.g. 4v+4v=8v).
Now for the batteries. Most laptop computers made in the past 10 years use round lithium ion metal encased cells. The only exception I know of are Macs which use lithium ion polymer cells which don’t work so well in this application just because they are rectangular and flat. The large battery packs you see actually contain several smaller “cells” inside and when linked together (in series again) provide the voltage required, the same applies for power tools. When your battery no longer holds a charge it is usually because a single cell has “died” and no longer functions whereas the rest of the cells still function albeit at a lower efficiency then they did before. So you can disassemble an old laptop battery pack and test the cells with a multimeter. If all the cells show around 3.7v and one shows 0v you found your culprit.
 Most cells are rated for 3.7v, so when deciding how many you will need for your project just make sure the sum is over the rating for your tool. In my case I needed at least 7.2v so I used 2 cells to power the drill (3.7v + 3.7v =7.4v). If you want your battery to last twice as long you can connect some of the batteries in series-parallel ( which produces sum of the current in milliamphours)  (+ to + and – to –) but it is important to balance the batteries out. So if I wanted to double the run time of my drill I would have first made 2 sets of 2 cells together in series, (+ battery – to + battery –) then connect the sets together in parallel by connecting the positives on each end together and the negatives on each end together.
If this seems confusing read more about it online and get a solid grasp of the theory behind it before connecting batteries together causing a fire or worse yet, an explosion.
The same goes for your solar panels wire them together to produce around 5-10 volts more than the sum of your batteries so that even when a cloud passes by you are still able to charge your batteries. For my project I wired 3 panels together in series (4+4+4=12v) and this works fine for me charging to 7.4v . Once again if you want to charge twice as fast just wire two sets of 3 panels (4+4+4=12v) together in parallel, and now you’re charging twice as fast.
Now in comes the diode. The diode functions like a one way valve, allowing electricity to travel in only one direction in your circuit. This is important because without it every time a cloud covers your panels, the electrons stored in your batteries will seep back out into the panels possibly damaging your panel and draining your battery. Diodes typically have a single white or black band indicating the orientation of it. The band indicates the negative side, so current flows from the banded side to the other, not vice-versa. The diode should be soldered between the + of your solar panels and the + of your batteries. If you have a multimeter you can set it to test your diode and make sure it is in the correct orientation, and working.
So let’s finally put everything together.
1.      Determine some method to attach your batteries to the drill and that they will fit.
2.      Determine if there are leads coming from the drill and which are + and – make sure they are long enough to reach the batteries.
3.      Solder the drills + lead to the + side of the batteries as well as another wire to attach to the diode and male/female connector later.
4.     Solder the – lead to the – side of the batteries as well as another wire to attach the male/female connector later.
5.      Solder the diode banded side lead to the extra wire we soldered to the + side.
6.      Solder one lead from the male/female connector to the non-banded side of the diode.
7.      Solder the remaining – lead to the remaining lead of the male/female connector
8.      Determine a way to mount the connector to the drill either drill a hole and glue it in or some other secure method.
9.      Solder the other half of the male/female connector to your solar panels (making sure your orientation matches up to the other half attached to the batteries)
10.  There are many ways to make this project look nicer and neater, some possibilities include encasing the back of your solar panels with fiberglass resin, to create a larger single panel, or using an old battery case (Dewalt etc) and taking out the old NiCd cells (please recycle, cadmium is deadly) and placing your new batteries, wires and diodes into the case, and closing it back up.
11.  Remember this should be fun, educational, and there is always a way to build a better mousetrap. I always love to hear others ideas and criticisms. If you have the skills (and time) you could include a charge control system or other features.
A few tips
1.      I always first just “soft wire” (as in, I twist the wires together) making sure none are touching and determine if my circuits work (like seeing if the drill works) before soldering things together.
2.      Double check the orientation of your male/female connector using your voltmeter before plugging them together and [with reverse polarity] possibly destroying your batteries.
3.      Make sure that any and all bare wires or soldered joints are not exposed. I use electrical tape, hot glue, and heat shrink tubing to cover all bare metal surfaces. If you don’t when you shove it all together then things will touch and short circuit.
The solar powered drill I made for free is still running strong after a year, and I’ve only had to recharge it once! Next solar project is a reciprocating saw!
Important safety note: Lithium ion batteries can explode if improperly recharged. (Read the pertinent news headlines.) Make sure you know what you are doing before attempting this project. There is no charge controller in this simplified solar system so it is important to make sure not to over charge your batteries! I would monitor the voltage of your batteries the first time charging in full sun and determine the time it takes to reach full charge. That way you have idea about how long to keep it connected to the panels in the sun. Also note that the quality of the batteries you start with will largely determine how often it needs to be recharged. So if your batteries are on their last legs expect the same from the drill.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dear JWR;
There is nothing like a real emergency to get you checked out in a quick way for your evacuation plan. During the Black Forest Fire, which began on June 11, 2013, at least 511 homeowners completely lost their homes, many more were damaged and are uninhabitable, two people and countless animals perished in the fire. Our family and business were in the direct path of the fire, but a major wind shift the first night, along with hard-working first responders saved us.

Sitting at the office ready for our afternoon of work, a friend walked in and sid, "did you see the fire?" Expecting a wispy white trail of smoke when I peered out the window, I was immediately floored when what I saw was a GIANT plume of black smoke heading our way.

LESSON ONE - Take Action. My husband and I took 30 seconds to put the "Office Closed, Fire Drill" sign on the front door and we were outta there and home in four minutes. We did not debate, question, ponder, look, examine; we went directly home. I know some who dawdled to watch and photograph, but then had only minutes to "grab and go."

At home, we sat down with our two children, who were wondering what we were doing home so early. We calmly told them - which took ALL KINDS of self control, that there was a fire, and we were going to pack up and be ready to go if we had to.

LESSON TWO - Keep the kids busy and involved. The more we gave them to do, the better they felt. Our children are old enough to help, 11 and 16, and were very calm, as we stayed calm. I have to give kudos to both of them, they did not panic and were very focused on the tasks at hand. On a side note, my 16 year old is completely disabled. His task was to monitor the news and let us know when "breaking news" came over the Internet. Thank goodness for the battery-powered radio, which kept him involved and important while we packed, even when the power failed.

LESSON THREE - Ammo is heavy. Unlike so many families in this firestorm, we had time to load the trailer. Clothes, papers, medicines, dogs easy in 10 minutes or less, ammo was a bit more difficult. Thankfully, friends materialized out of nowhere to help!

LESSON FOUR - Keep the keys on a lanyard or string or belt or rope or chain on your body. We only had to hunt for lost keys twice. One friend loaded up her van, couldn't find the keys and had to leave the loaded van there. It is easy to set them down when you are busy going to and fro from house to car to house to car and so on. The memory stick around my neck was a comfort, unfortunately, brain doesn't kick in so well in an emergency so I never thought to tie the keys to the lanyard I was already wearing.

LESSON FIVE - Power and water are going to be shut off. After years of reading this blog, books, emergency handbooks etc., you think I would have figured this out. Well the fire commenced at 1:30, we were home by 2 p.m., and the power and water and gas were off by 3:30. Thankfully, water stored, battery radio prepared and additional lighting was no problem, but I did feel a bit stupid wondering why the sink faucet wouldn't work.

Because of the smoke and proximity of the fire, we voluntarily evacuated the children late Tuesday night. Thanks grandma for the couch. My husband came back and spent most of the night at the property. And we were able return, early Wednesday morning. We had no utilities, but our preparedness habits made our home quite comfortable during this emergency. Our home remained on "Pre-Evacuation" status for two and a half weeks. That meant living out of suitcases in our living room, which was a miniscule problem compared with what was going on just a couple of blocks north of us.

Now the rebuilding is taking place. Friends are sifting the ruble of their home sites looking for hidden treasures. So much was lost, but community and family abound. The Southern Baptist have their disaster relief semi trailer parked a block from our home and are offering assistance. When I asked how long they would be here, they said "Until we are done." Great people. I also know Samaritan's Purse is here with disaster teams, and the Red Cross and many other agencies. By the way, I never thought I would be the one offered a ham sandwich from the Red Cross. It is weird to be on the "receiving end" of the emergency. Gratefully, I declined and offered the food to a friend who had to evacuate, lost power and all of the contents of his freezer.

There are many more lessons to learn from a fire drill like this, and some stories to tell. Some were learned by others, some by us: For example: Paper maps to handle all of closed roads, grab the cell phone chargers, leave the stuff. We learned that goats like to ride in the back seat of Hummers too. Spray paint your phone number in large numbers on your horses if you have to let them out and close the gates so they do not return to their stalls and many more. Hopefully this can help others, and I look forward to continue reading this blog to learn more for myself and my family.

- Colorado Boots. Black Forest, Colorado

Monday, July 1, 2013

[Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of feature articles by our Central Rockies Regional Editor about alternative / sustainable / renewable energy (RE) solutions for self-sufficiency. Previous related articles in SurvivalBlog that complement this one are "Home Inverter Comparison: Off Grid and Grid Tied," Home Power Systems: Micro Hydro and Energy Efficiency and Conservation. Upcoming article topics in this Home Power Systems series will include: Photovoltaics, Wind generators, Solar Water Distillers, Solar Ovens, and Solar Water Heating.]

First Things, First: Home Power Prerequisites
One important foundation of a cost-effective, sustainable home energy system is energy efficiency and conservation; if you haven't already done appropriate 'due diligence' in this area, you might want to read or review the most recent article in this series, Energy Efficiency and Conservation. The savings one can realize by applying the economies of ideas like these can make the difference between a viable system for your budget and/or location ... or a perceived 'no go' conclusion that might be assumed given current rates of energy consumption. It does require a bit of discipline, research and care in analyzing current and proposed future energy usage, but it can pay off handsomely if, for example, you can end up with a system with half the cost (or even more savings) by judicious selection of appliances, other electrical loads ... and lifestyle choices. It's always a good idea to add in some 'wiggle room' to account for extended periods without sun (solar), wind and/or stream flow (micro hydro), but over-designing a system beyond this can be waste of your financial resources.

This is an ideal time for a reminder that a total 'do-it-yourself' approach is not advised. While renewable energy systems have evolved tremendously over the past few decades, and integrated mostly 'turnkey' systems are much farther away from rocket science and closer to 'appliance status', there's still way too many variables and considerations to advise doing it all by yourself. Experienced renewable energy system designers and installers serve a critically important role to help home energy system owners avoid many other common design mistakes, safety pitfalls, and needless expenditures. It would be an expensive, time-consuming and even potentially dangerous choice to not work closely with a local renewable energy professional. While it might seem more costly than a stubbornly pure "DIY" approach, buying a battery bank twice – before its typical life span is up – because of poor design or incorrect installation is far more expensive. Rely on the experience of a local professional; you'll learn more, save more and benefit from their experience while helping to strengthen the renewable energy industry. If you haven't already done an energy conservation audit, find a local RE professional and ask what they recommend as early in the design phase as possible. Sizing your battery system based on a realistic assessment of both sources and loads will make your project viable and economical. Ask around locally and online among neighbors, nearby friends, etc., to find a renewal energy installer with the right expertise, credentials and references to serve your needs.

Home Power Systems Without Batteries
Before launching into systems that require batteries, it might be helpful to examine home power systems that don't require them, even if briefly. If the prospect of having a remote, self-sufficient homestead with fully off-grid energy isn't on your near-term or medium-term radar, a grid-tied system might offer advantages for city-folk and/or country-folk wannabes. A prior article in this series, Home Inverter Comparison: Off Grid and Grid Tied, goes into greater detail about why one might consider being electrically connected to the local utility grid. A temporary, transitional approach can offer both educational and financial benefits now – and for the duration of however long you might be planning a remote home – as well as decreasing the wait time by saving money in the interim for a future home ... and adding to the resale value of your current home when you are ready to build or buy a fully off-grid home.

Battery Basics
Common to all off-grid systems that use batteries to store energy – from sun, wind, water or whatever source (stationary bicycle generators, anyone?) – are a few key ideas and definitions. Here is a handy glossary of fundamental battery terms. Batteries consist of one or more internal compartments called cells in a given enclosure, and each cell – depending on the chemistry and technology has a typical nominal voltage. For example, a lead-acid cell produces about 2 Volts, so a 12 Volt (12 V) battery internally has six cells wired in series, so that their voltages add up to 12 V.

Batteries are typically wired in series, as is done in a typical flashlight, with the positive terminal of one battery connected to the negative terminal of the next in 'daisy chain' fashion. This provides higher voltages to match inverters and loads, since most inverters designed for home usage have inputs of 12 or 24 Volts. A typical system with 6V batteries will require 4 (or multiples of 4) batteries wired together to provide the nominal 24 Volt DC input that an inverter might require.

To provide more power for longer periods of time, strings of series-wired batteries can be wired in parallel, thus extending the time the system can keep loads powered during times when no new source power (sun, wind, or water-generated electricity) is present. The practical limit is three parallel strings in a system, due to slight voltage imbalances between series strings that cause uneven performance and can cause premature system failure. The size of the battery bank, inverter and energy sources (PV panels, wind generators and/or water turbines) are all carefully matched and configured to provide optimum performance, with particular emphasis on optimizing the useful life of the battery system. To get the most life out of a battery – and they all eventually do need replacement just like any other battery – it is best to use identical new batteries made by the same manufacturer, using the same process, materials, chemistry, etc. You might even ask if it's possible to get all identical batteries with the same date code, if it's available. This tends to minimize uneven voltages, and countercurrents (due to those uneven voltages) internal to the batteries that work against optimum efficiency and battery life. Using similar logic to replacing all tires on a car at the same time, replacing all the batteries in a system at once is the best way to get more 'mileage' out of a home power battery bank.

Battery capacity generally depends on the volume of the battery, so larger batteries of the same technology tend to have greater capacity in Amp-hours (Ah), which is a typical term for specifying for how long a battery can supply that amount of current for an hour at the rated voltage. As an example, a 200 Ah battery delivers 10 Amperes (a.k.a. amps) for 20 hours. The generally accepted time rating for most manufacturers is 20 hours. A more important specification is the kiloWatt-Hour (kWh) capacity of a bank of batteries; multiply the nominal voltage of the bank by the Ah rating and then divide by 1000, to get the kWh figure; e.g., 24V x 200Ah = 4800 Wh, or 4800 Wh / 1000 = 4.8 kWh.

Two other terms that describe a battery's state are State of Charge (SOC) and Depth of Discharge (DOD). These provide numbers, usually as a percentage, of how charged or discharged a battery bank or cell is at any given time. The sum of SOC and DOD is always 100%. For example a system that is almost fully charged might have a 98% SOC and a 2% DOD.

There is no direct way to measure a battery’s SOC, but there are several ways to indirectly get a useful approximation, each with it's own level of accuracy. One way is measuring the voltage and comparing it to a standardized chart. This is the least accurate method, but also one of the least expensive, since it only involves an inexpensive digital meter, and often is part of an integrated inverter-battery system. One other method of estimating battery SOC is measuring the density or specific gravity of the electrolyte. (This involves accessing the sulfuric acid in the battery which is quite caustic, so safety precautions are essential.) This is the most accurate test, yet it is only applicable to the flooded types. It involves measuring the cell’s electrolyte density with a battery hydrometer. Electrolyte density is lower when batteries are discharged and higher as the cells are charged. Chemical reactions in the battery affect the electrolyte's density at a predictable constant rate which affords a good indication of the SOC. An amp-hour meter can also accurately gauge an accurate the SOC. Amp-hour meters track all power going in and out of the battery over time; thus comparing flow rates determines SOC.

Battery Technology
Some of the newest battery technology tends to find practical application first in lightweight portable devices of all sorts and transportation (e.g. lithium iron phosphate batteries for electric vehicles). In even smaller devices, using exotic materials and processes in tiny amounts isn't a major concern, while extending useful charge, reducing weight and optimizing portability are huge issues. However, on the other end of the size spectrum, battery technology for home power applications tends to evolve more slowly over time, due to the very different concerns. Unlike cell phones, tablets, etc., a home battery system doesn't need portability, small size or weight. It does, on the other hand, require massive energy reserves. For that reason, the de facto battery standard for cost-effective domestic alternative/remote energy systems is still the tried-and-true lead-acid technology. Lead-acid batteries are heavy, but relatively inexpensive both to manufacture and maintain. Timeframes between installations and replacements of well-maintained lead-acid systems are typically measured in years, so transportation and installation costs, while high compared to their small counterparts in modern electronic gizmos, are infrequent, and small compared to the system life.

Within the lead-acid battery category, there are a few variations. The most important one, as early adopters two or three decades ago discovered, is the difference between deep-cycle (e.g. those historically used on forklifts or other applications where it was expected that the batteries would use up a significant portion of their capacity before being recharged), and shallow-cycle batteries such as a conventional car battery, that is designed to be charged almost continuously by an alternator. The thin plates within a car battery allow for a quick high-current surge during ignition, but, as many of us have learned, leaving headlights on without the alternator 'topping off' the charge can result in a dead battery overnight. It doesn't take too many full discharges of a shallow-cycle system like that to require a new car battery. Even deep-cycle batteries should not be overly discharged. Too many discharges beyond 50% will decrease battery life.

The thick plates of a deep-cycle battery, on the other hand, are designed to deplete a significant portion (but not all) of the available current with hundreds of deep discharges, but not too many significant high-current surges. The heavy plates and bulky design of deep-cycle batteries allows for these deep discharges over extended periods, thus affording an effective home energy battery solution during multiple consecutive cloudy or windless days ... assuming judicious conservation is in effect during these times, which is another example of where conservation measures resulting in an energy-mindful lifestyle and component choices pay off handsomely. Most deep cycle batteries use a 'flooded' or 'wet' lead-acid design, meaning that their internal structure has sulfuric acid (liquid) and a water electrolyte into which submerged lead plates are suspended. Thick plates also maximize the lifespan of a battery which can be decreased by 'positive grid corrosion,' where the positive lead plate slowly wears away. Although plate thickness isn't the sole determining factor resulting in longer lifespan, it is perhaps the most critical variable, assuming batteries are properly maintained and used.

Another battery technology option to consider is sealed (developed in the 1970s) versus unsealed (relatively unchanged since their invention 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté). Here's more on the history of batteries for those interested. Sealed batteries, also known as valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) cells, typically vent less gas and don't require regular addition of water which can be a decided advantage for cabins and locations where less-than-full-time occupancy and/or extended vacations are a concern. Sealed batteries use either a gel electrolyte to surround the lead plates or a fiberglass mat a.k.a. absorbed glass mat (AGM) to contain the electrolyte. When a gel electrolyte replaces a liquid, in some situations it can allow the battery to be used in different positions without leakage, although that's often not an issue, since once batteries are installed in home power systems, they usually stay put for many years. There are varying opinions whether the pros outweigh the cons in these two types (gel or mat) of sealed batteries. Either will typically decrease the routine battery maintenance needed, since unsealed lead-acid cells require periodic addition of distilled water and other maintenance as slow out-gassing depletes the electrolyte, and exposing the lead plates above liquid levels – an unacceptable battery maintenance practice  – decreases battery life far more quickly than a carefully maintained battery.

When comparing sealed versus unsealed lead-acid batteries, there are considerations favoring both that generally hold true. Unsealed batteries usually have the longest life and the lowest cost per amp-hour of any of the other choices (including the newer technologies, often for reasons of economies of scale and market saturation). The downside of unsealed battery systems is that they do require regular maintenance: watering, equalizing charges and keeping their terminals clean.

Other Battery Terms and Specifications
One of the most important battery specifications is the C/Rate, which quantifies discharge rates and charge rates. To calculate the C/Rate value, divide the cell's capacity by the number of hours it takes to either fully charge or discharge it. As an example, a 220 Ah capacity battery, discharged at 22 amps, is being discharged at a C/10 rate (220 / 22 = 10). If the same battery is charged back up by an 11 amp PV system, the charge rate is C/20 = (220 / 11 = 20).

The number of Days of Autonomy is another important specification for a renewable energy system. An effective design ensures that the typical year-round daily charging from all available sources (wind, PV, hydro, generator, etc.) exceeds the typical daily discharging from all loads. A primary requirement for any viable system design is adequate storage between charging periods, including extended days without significant wind, sun or hydro power, as well as night time lulls in input power. The Days of Autonomy figure is a rating that gives the theoretical number of days the system will provide power for the average daily load without any new power input; which also is a useful number when estimating time for replacing major source components if there is a power input subsystem failure.
Of course, each system is different and the selection and number of batteries, just as the sizing and number of PV panels, wind turbines, etc., will vary with each situation and location. Again, consult a local professional before making any cash outlays.

Installing Batteries: Housing and Safety
Locate your batteries in a safe, easy-to-access spot. Most batteries require enclosures that are lockable, sealed, insulated, and vented to the outdoors. Sloped box covers keep things from being piled on top, making the battery system safer and more accessible. Clear viewing windows allow for easy inspection. A removable side of the battery box eases replacement.

Since batteries store considerable zapping power and contain acid and other toxic elements like lead, they are dangerous. They should be accessible only to mature family members trained in proper safety protocols. Keep battery boxes locked but accessible when they need maintenance. Make sure caps and terminals on flooded battery cells are easily reachable. Well thought-out enclosure layout—ideally making all batteries easy to reach without having to lean over one battery to reach another—reduces the chance of accidental shorting, which could reduce the lifespan of both batteries and their owners.

Besides overall environmental factors such as protection from the elements, always consider the average and extreme temperatures (both daily and annual) of the battery housing which should usually be a very short distance from the inverter to minimize power losses and inefficiency. Temperature extremes and averages affect battery capacity and are a crucial part of the design process. Keep batteries out of direct sunlight to avoid uneven heating of individual batteries which could shorten life spans due to uneven currents. Battery manufacturers typically rate capacities at 77°F; name plate rated capacity decreases at lower temperatures and increases at higher temperatures.

Battery Interconnections
Solid metal bus bars come with some industrial batteries for making the series and parallel interconnections. However, most battery banks need cables for these inter-battery connections, as well as cables to connect to an inverter or DC load center. Size battery cables big enough to handle their maximum rated continuous current. Protect them with fuses or circuit breakers rated for high amp-interrupt current. Determine cable size from inverter specifications and/or any DC loads that the battery bank powers directly. 2/0 or 4/0 cable is common for residential-sized systems.

Don't use welding cable! This used to be a common practice for batteries, since listed cable was not available and welding cable was relatively inexpensive, flexible, and could handle ample current. However, welding cable is not designed for this application and is not listed by the National Electrical Code for battery system use. Do use flexible, UL-listed, NEC-approved battery cable – now readily available – for all battery wiring. If you are hiring a renewable energy system consultant – highly recommended, regardless of your level of proficiency and expertise, even if only to double check your work – you can ensure that your entire system, not just the battery subsystem, is safe, meets all applicable building and regulatory codes, is the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and long-lasting design possible.

Wiring Best Practices
Equal charging and discharging across all cells keeps batteries healthy; resistance differences within a battery bank can lead to premature failure. Poor lug crimps, loose terminal connections, unequal parallel cable lengths, and too small a wire gauge can all affect the equal treatment of cells, thereby shortening battery and system lifespan.
Electrons follow a variety of paths when entering or leaving a battery bank with multiple parallel strings. Therefore, it’s critical to minimize the number of parallel connections and ensure their lengths are equal. When wiring parallel strings, always make series connections first. Then parallel the positive ends of the strings, and finally connect the negative terminals. Connect inverter cables to opposite corners of the battery bank to keep electrical paths between strings as equal in length as possible.

Ongoing Battery Maintenance and Operation
In Home Power Magazine's article "Managing Your Batteries," author Dan Fink says: "Take the initial cost of your battery bank, and divide by the number of years until it needs replacement. That’s your annual 'battery bill.' If you can stretch battery life to eight or ten years, the bill is minimal. If you ruin them in a year, that’s a big bill, and you probably were not paying much attention to them. Overcharging, undercharging, and high and low temperatures can all count as 'abuse.' " As indicated, careful maintenance of batteries can make a huge difference in their lifespan, and thus the effective prorated cost of this highly variable component in the overall renewable energy system.

Before doing battery maintenance, remembering that you're dealing with strong acid, first put on protective eyewear, rubber gloves, old clothes and/or a protective apron. As noted above, monitoring the SOC (State of Charge) is not a simple process, but there are viable approaches, such as using temperature compensated hydrometers (the most accurate but most complicated method). Other methods, best used in combination hydrometer readings, are voltage measurements taken after a rest period (with no incoming or outgoing currents for 2 hours to allow the electrolyte to stabilize), and coulomb counting, which calculates Ah by measuring accumulated charge or discharge amounts, typically by use of highly accurate shunts (very precisely chosen low resistance elements in a circuit whose purpose is to measure current with sensitive volt meters. Meter choices include internal meters (built into modern inverters), system-integrated meters (for networked systems) and stand-alone meters. Many monitoring systems are integrated with computer interfaces for logging and analysis to automate some of the tedious aspects. The Home Power Magazine "Managing Your Batteries" article lists several options for each of the monitor/meter technologies just mentioned.

Batteries and Renewable Energy System Planning: Always Get Expert Help
This article should be considered merely an introduction to the subject. Along with exploring and educating yourself on as many of the appropriate links and references as possible, when you're getting serious about considering a renewable energy system, do consult a local renewable energy professional before spending too much time or money, even before you do a detailed energy conservation assessment. There's no substitute for knowing someone with industry expertise and working with their recommendations for a viable, safe, regulatory-legal and cost-effective system. Even if you plan to do some or much of the work yourself, 'reality checks' from seasoned experts early on and at key points in your planning and implementation phases is a sound investment you won't regret.

Additional References
Batteries for Alternative Energy Systems
Off-Grid Batteries: 30 Years of Lessons Learned
Choosing the Best Batteries
Battery Installation and Maintenance
General Information on Deep Cycle Batteries
Battery University
Lithium-Ion Batteries for Off-Grid Systems: Are They a Good Match?
No Batteries Required: Grid-Direct PV, Wind and Hydro-Electric Systems

Vendor Contact Info
Here are a few manufacturers of batteries and related components for home energy systems; there are many more online:
RE Battery Manufacturers (Home Power Magazine article, Access appendix)
Free Sun Power
The Inverter Store
Trojan Battery Company
Battery Monitors, System-Integrated Amp-Hour Meters, Data Acquisition, Networking & Internet Monitoring

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hello JWR,
 I have a possible solution to TornadoDoc's generator noise problem! Go to the auto parts store and buy a generic car muffler. The cheapest one you can find. Then purchase a length of flexible muffler pipe and clamps, as well as two couplers. One is for the muffler to pipe, the other for muffler to generator. Depending on how mechanically adept you are, you may be able to do this yourself. Remove the muffler/spark arrestor from your genset. Weld the coupler over the hole, then put it back on. When you use the auto muffler it will make your genny very quiet! Watch out for heat though, the muffler and flex pipe will get hot! Be sure it’s not touching any combustibles and that everyone knows not to touch it! When not in use you can take the pipe and muffler off to save space. I have done this for a couple of generators and it works well. - Mister Clark from Washington State

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dear JWR:
There is an estimated 250,000 animal-powered farmers in the U.S. doing all or part of their farming with animals. I’d recommend http://smallfarmersjournal.com/ for some good reading and information and a visit to Horse Progress Days to view the latest in modern equipment. Almost anything can be done with animals that can be done with tractors, even combining with a motorized forecart. Horse Progress Days has some interesting support equipment, including well made coal stoves and manual transplanters. If it’s in reach of you, I suggest attending for an eye-opening experience. The food is good, too. - James L.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Over at the One Scythe Revolution web site, Peak Oil expert Richard Heinberg states that in order to continue to grow the same amount of food in the future, without the use of cheap oil, we will need 40-to-50 million farmers, farming 3-to-50 acres each, cultivated with hand tools. No, not like in the Middle Ages. We are talking about "appropriate technology" here.

But let's face it, "appropriate technology" is wielded by slaves. Masters wield guns. Slaves wield scythes.

Here is quote: "One good scythe per farm, could revolutionize small-scale farming." I kinda feel like this has already been done.

I think the author of this tripe has never actually farmed on a large scale and has no sense of the man hours required. Also, mild steel work-hardened with a hammer and honed with slate was state of the art, around the year 900.  Carbon steel that can be heat treated has been the cool setup since around 1100 AD.  More recent alloys allow even better toughness along with light weight.  While the Austrian design may be better, it would still benefit from modern materials.

Then, of course, even 19th Century horse-drawn harvesters were tremendously more efficient:  

"Draft horses are used at Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS to harvest and stack the annual hay crop. The stacks keep the hay preserved until winter when it is fed to the site’s livestock.
The hay harvesting process involves five steps: cutting, drying, raking, gathering, and stacking.

Upon reaching maturity in mid-summer, the hay is cut with a horse drawn mower. The team of horses, mower, and operator go round and round the field cutting a 5 foot swath with each round. Once the cut hay has dried, the draft horses are hooked up to either a side delivery or dump rake. The rakes are used to put the hay into long windrows. The horses are then hooked to a buckrake. The buckrake has fork like teeth that sweep under the windrows and gather them up into large hay piles. The piles are then taken by the buckrake to either an overshot or beaverslide hay stacker. The hay stackers utilize a pulley and cable system powered by horses to gain leverage to lift the hay piles off the ground and drop them into the haystack.
Demonstrations of the equipment used to harvest and stack hay will be given by Grant-Kohrs Ranch staff and horses."

And other animals can serve for various processes that are presently done with internal combustion engines--such as goats for clearing brush.

As far as forging scythes, without modern powered forges and induction furnace, either one mines coal, or uses every man in the village for a week to do a large scale charcoal burn to manufacture fuel.

- Michael Z. Williamson (SurvivalBlog Editor At Large)

JWR's Comment: If the Hubbert's Peak predictions are right, then the best places to be will be those with rich soil and plentiful hydroelectric power. Scythe? Check. Battle rifle? Check. Electric ATV that can pull a Plotmaster? Check. Electric power (with batteries) is not quite as versatile and lightweight as fossil fuel-powered machinery, but it sure beats doing it all by hand.

Perhaps the new rule book will be written by those who can afford horses, harness, horse-drawn hay mowers and enough land to provide sufficient hay for the requisite winter feed (which can be harvested with those same horses).

Only freeholders with both productive farm land and guns will remain free.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

On the morning of August 29th, 2005 we came face to face with TEOTWAWKI in the form of Hurricane Katrina.  An estimated 92% of our community in Pascagoula, Mississippi was inundated with a storm surge of 20-30 feet and 30-55 feet sea waves.  The surge waters traveled well inland, between 6-12 miles and combined with freshwater flooding from our numerous creeks, rivers, and the runoff from the Mobile, Alabama reservoir that opened its flood gates to relieve stress on the dam.  This basically cut Jackson County in half.  Fortunately the worst of the storm hit in the morning just as it was becoming daylight or our losses of 12 souls would have been much higher had it made landfall in the dark of night.  Even though, it took almost two weeks before they found and were able to claim one of the fallen, a young child, because she was under an enormous  20-30 foot high by at least 100 feet in diameter debris pile a block up from the beach.  The devastation completely destroyed all of our basic services: electricity, communications, water, natural gas, and sewage and covered most of the town with debris piled 8 feet or higher.  The storm’s impact was such that the entire state was declared a disaster zone and it knocked out the power to over 98% of the state and damaged 100% of the states power plants.

When we were finally able to walk around and assess the situation after most of the waters receded, we counted ourselves as lucky because most of the houses in the neighborhood where we rode out the storm appeared structurally sound and there weren’t that many trees down.  Even though everyone knew things were going to be tough for a while, we didn’t count on it taking at least two weeks to restore water, another 1-2 weeks after that to restore some semblance of power and telephone services to our temporary abode.  This appeared to be the norm for most parts of town that sustained “minimal” damage.  As it was, it took over three months before it was restored in our neighborhood, not that it mattered as it was uninhabitable and eventually had to be bulldozed down but that as they say is a tale for another day.

Like most storm veterans living on the Gulf Coast, we had planned and prepared but Mother Nature has an inane way of pointing out the futility of all of mankind’s best laid plans.  Yes, we might have possibly been able to evacuate but deemed it in our best interest to hunker down with some friends and ride it out.  After all, we were staying in a well built home on some of the highest ground in town and at least a mile from the beach.  Besides, reports from other family and friends were that the roads were so congested (1-2 million evacuees from 4 states will do that don’t you know) that it was taking over 12 hours just to get as far north as Hattiesburg, a mere 95 miles north and that there wasn’t any hotel rooms available all the way up to Tennessee and even if you could find one, what would we do with our combined 10 pets?  Besides, how safe would it have been to ride out the storm on some desolate stretch of highway in a vehicle, especially with all of the tornados that Katrina spun off, 51 in total in at least 5 states with 11 of those in Mississippi alone?

So, the hatches were battened down and our storm plan was initiated.  First, was securing and inventorying our combined vital medicines, foodstuffs, pet food, drinking water, batteries, candles, grill and camp stove fuels, cleaning supplies, bleach, anti-bacterial gel, clothing, important papers and computer hard drives, tools, firearms, and cash.  Previously, all of the vehicles were gassed up along with all of the gas cans and the generator was prepped and stored high.  The ice chests, freezers and fridge were stuffed with ice and the most perishable foodstuffs were ready for immediate consumption in the event of a prolonged power outage.  The television and storm radio were tuned to the appropriate channels and the bathtubs were filled to capacity to provide general use water for cleaning and flushing.  The attic access was opened and some basic essentials like: food, water, axe, rope, flashlights, etc.  Just in case.  The outdoor surroundings were checked and a few boats in the neighborhood were identified that could potentially be used in a pinch.  All told, we had enough foodstuffs to last 6 adults and 10 animals for 2-3 weeks and at least a weeks worth of fresh drinking and cooking water as long as we were frugal.  Ah, hindsight is truly bliss now isn’t it.

During the height of the storm, when it became apparent that we would be receiving flood water into the house, everyone rushed throughout the house to empty out the lower cabinets and drawers and closet floors, placing everything as high as possible and even opening up the attic and placing more essential supplies and tools up there in case we had to seek higher ground.  Once, the homeowner and I braved the elements to go outside and unlash the next door neighbor’s small boat (they smartly evacuated early on) from its trailer and re-tied it off to keep it from sinking or floating away.  While doing this, we were obliged to add another soul to our motley crew by rescuing a man from drowning out in the street.  He was delirious and starting to suffer from hypothermia so we wrapped him up into a wool blanket and laid him up on a long dresser in the foyer.  Later, it was learned that he woke up when his head bumped against the ceiling of his bedroom and that he had to dive down and swim out of his bedroom window to safety!  He had the clothes on his back, no socks or shoes and a small empty suitcase.

We tried unsuccessfully to get a passing fire truck loaded down with EMT and rescuers to take him, in case he needed additional medical care but they said we appeared to have things under control.  Besides they were headed south into the teeth of the storm to rescue people clinging to roofs along with an apparent heart attack victim.  Later, two guys in a “commandeered” boat came by headed south but, on their return, the boat was overloaded with people they had rescued.  All total, they passed by 6 or 7 times, and each time the boat was filled to the gills with rescued souls.  Later, we learned that they had rescued over 100 people before the receding waters necessitated docking the boat in their front yard.  I’m pretty sure that that tidbit of knowledge didn’t make the media airwaves.  Of the untold hundreds of similar acts of heroism conducted during and immediately after this catastrophic event by our local emergency personnel and citizenry, I felt compelled to add it because in the end, we all need to have a little hope and faith in our fellow man.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, it became quite apparent that we needed to re-assess our predicament and adjust accordingly.  My wife and I knew that our house that sat at a much lower elevation closer to the beach would be untenable so we gladly took our friends offer to stay with them until we could assess it later.  They were extremely fortunate in that their home, where we rode the storm out, only had 2-3 feet of water go through it and that the structure was virtually unscathed from the ravages of felled trees and flying debris which meant that at least temporarily we would have a roof over our heads and a somewhat habitable place to stay providing everyone pitched in and acted quickly to mitigate the flood damage.  This consisted of removing all floor coverings down to the slab, all of the upholstered furniture, wall sheetrock from the floor to six inches above the visible flood line, and anything else that cannot be scrubbed and taking it to the side of the road.  Next was scrapping up as much of the storm water sludge off of the floors and all heavily coated horizontal and vertical surfaces possible and depositing it at the roadside too.  Some of our precious potable water stored in large 5 gallon containers with copious amounts of bleach and general purpose disinfectant soap was used to wipe down and clean one of the bathrooms, the kitchen and dining room, and a couple of bedrooms.  It took a full 2-3 days of steady cleaning by all hands to get the house sanitized for habitability.  The surge destroyed our large reserves of fresh water in the bathtubs due to the force of the flood waters backing up through the sewage system drains.

It is vital that you sanitize every surface that could have even remotely come in contact with the flood waters because they not only contain sea water and sewage, they are also full of chemicals from industrial waste and numerous other biological and toxic substances.  In our case, there was the addition of some of the foulest smelling primordial ooze from the nearby savannahs not to mention an old medical dumpsite from a former leper colony on one of the barrier islands and numerous chemical and gas refineries.  This mire coated everything in town with inches of nasty, foul smelling and toxic ooze turning the whole city into a gigantic Petri dish rife with disease and bacteria.  It was three days before I could make the first journey out of the neighborhood to inspect our property and in those 3 days, our house was filled with every color and shape of mold that you can imagine.  It literally covered the inside of the entire house from floor to ceiling so, I cannot stress enough that the first priority in such an event is to sanitize everything.

This is also a good time to remove any large appliance that was submerged along with any other furniture and belongings that will not be repaired or restored.  Just make sure to take photos and inventory all items being tossed to the road for insurance purposes and be prepared to fight the appraisers in the event the city is able to quickly remove those items.  One of our biggest fears after the storm was that of fire because the entire city looked like one giant maze with debris piles 10-20 feet high lining every street for months after the storm.  It seems as though we went at least two months before it rained again which meant we constantly had to battle the potentially deadly dust and the oppressive sweltering heat, this is South Mississippi after all!

Fortunately, we were able to salvage the mattresses on the beds because they floated on top of the box springs, all of which was set out to thoroughly dry in the sunlight the day after the storm after being wiped down with bleach water.  Everything gets washed or wiped down with bleach water and sun dried so eventually, all of your clothes become severely faded and thread bare after time.

Temporary power and transportation was next on the agenda and even though the generator was submerged after tipping over off of the raised supports that we set it on, we were able to salvage it and get a couple of box fans and table lamps going as well as powering a couple of fans and lights for one of the next door neighbors.  If we ever have to do this again, I think suspending it from rafter eyebolts on rope or cables may be in order.  In the beginning, we only ran the generator at night because of the fuel shortage.  Because fuel was basically non-existent for the first month or so, we augmented our diminishing supply by removing the gas tanks off of the three new vehicles that “died” during the storm and filtering out the water from the gas by emptying them into a large 55 gallon drum and letting the water settle to the bottom before dipping out the gas to fill our jugs.  Make sure to place this drum outside away from the living and cooking areas but still close enough to guard against looters.  We were fortunate that my venerable 1984 Ford Bronco and 1989 Ford F-150 started right up and didn’t have any water in the oil or gas tanks.  The trannys had water in them but as our friend worked for the local Ford dealership and their main repair shop was spared from the flooding and had adequate generator backup, he was able to replace the fluids within a few days so we had transportation until we were able to replace them about six months later.  We were lucky during that time because unlike so many others, neither of these vehicles burst into flames from corroded or shorted wiring.  This was probably due to the fact that they were raised higher than normal and their cabins weren’t submerged in the flood waters.  It wasn’t until months later that I discovered that the flood water had gotten into the rear ends through a rubber vent hole, needless to say, I wound up replacing the rear end on the pickup to extends it life until we could replace it so, make sure to drain, flush, and replace with new, the fluids in the rear ends and 4x4 lockers.

An important note here about transportation is to make sure you have plenty of tire repair supplies as we must have repaired at least 20 flats that first month alone and even had to acquire another tire after we found the cast aluminum head of an old fashioned meat tenderizer imbedded in the side wall after one of our forays across town seeking supplies.

Another note on “salvaging” your vehicles is the electrical system.  A lot of folks spent enormous effort and time in drying out their cars and trucks and getting them to run to no avail as many of these same vehicles later caught fire as the electrical systems shorted out.  So, if you have to resort to this please add a fire extinguisher or two to your survival kits for such emergencies.  I had to stop two cars coming down the road within the first few months because they were on fire underneath the vehicle and the occupants didn’t know it!

The mechanic had to go back to work within a few days because his services were in high demand at the dealership as it became the main repair facility for all of the emergency vehicles.  He was their only front end specialist and in high demand because the poor road conditions were reeking havoc on those vehicles.  At any given time, there were 20 -30 vehicles with license plates from all over the country there seeking maintenance or repair of some sort for months on end.  That basically left it up to me make the twice daily trips to the county fair grounds for food, water, and ice to distribute to the folks of our old neighborhood as well as our “new” neighborhood.  I cannot stress enough the fact that you never turn anything down because whether or not you need it, someone else in the neighborhood will!  Additionally, knowing the locations of facilities rendering assistance by way of beds and hopefully hot food is vital as this will aid you immensely when you come across people wondering around aimlessly due to the trauma they experienced.  One notable experience I had was with a family of four, including two small elementary age children.  I had observed them walking around for a day or two before it dawned on me that they were still carrying the same bundles of stuff.  After stopping them, their story was one of complete despair as they had been walking the streets for the better part of a week because they didn’t have anywhere to go.  A passing National Guard truck loaded with MREs gave me the location of one such center so, I loaded them all up and of to that wonderful church made famous by Ray Steven’s squirrel song we went!  A few days later while dropping off a few more unfortunates,  I was told that one of the many charity groups was helping to relocate the family.

In the beginning, water and ice are vital to your survival and as such, must be stretched to its fullest potential.  Our wives came up with a great simple process for extending the usefulness of ice.  They set up a simple linear process using the four 100 quart Igloo ice chests that we had as the basic line with two smaller Igloo ice chest to hold any excess ice we happened to acquire.  The first chest was raised up on a sturdy chair and contained all of our foodstuffs and medicine that needed to be cooled, packed in loose ice (some ice is also placed into sealed containers to thaw as a means to augment drinking and cooking water).  To the right, sitting on the ground so that the drain plug of the first chest could drain directly into it with little effort was the second chest.  This chest served as our bathing and dish washing water.  It was sanitized with bleach because an inadvertent germ or two could be in the drained water from our hands accessing the items in the first chest.  You bathed by dipping wash clothes into the bleach water and wiping yourself clean.  Bathing was augmented by squirting GermEx with Aloe Vera directly onto a damp wash cloth and wiping oneself off.  While crude, it kept you clean, provided a refreshing tingle from the alcohol in the GermEx and aided in disinfecting any minor sores or scratches you have.  After the dishes were washed, the water from the 2nd chest was transferred to the third chest sitting to its right and then the 2nd chest was sanitized with clean bleach water making it ready for the next use.  The 3rd chest was used to our wash clothes and the 4th chest sitting to its right was used to rinse the clothes prior to hanging out on makeshift clothes lines.  The water in the 4th chest was clear water that came from sundry sources, e.g. excess ice runoff from the extra storage chests, suspect bottled water that was overheated in the sun, and later on pond water from the local park once we were informed it was safe for non-food use.  Because it was suspect, it was always adequately bleached.  After the clothes were washed, the water from the 3rd chest was used for mopping the floors and wiping off non-food areas.  The water from the 4th chest was used to rinse off everything that was washed with water from the 4th chest.  All excess water from the chests was either used to refill the bathtubs for toilet flushing water or kept in buckets in case of fire and later sprinkled throughout the yard and driveway to cut down on the dust.

Our close encounter with the Post-Apocalyptic TEOTWAWKI event named Hurricane Katrina has not only left an indelible mark upon us but has made us stronger because we survived it and has taught us a few things about ourselves and mankind in general that everyone can learn from.  Here are the 10 biggest that readily come to mind:

First and foremost, in the event you are forewarned with an approaching disaster like Hurricane Katrina, do not hesitate. Evacuate.

Second, no amount of planning can cover every contingency so be prepared to improvise.

Third, 3-7 days of supplies are completely inadequate because it can take up to 2-3 weeks before regular and consistent support from outside sources becomes available.

Fourth, everyone impacted that survives is just that, a survivor so you had better be ready to get over stupid prejudices because you either survive together or perish individually.

Fifth, you are going to have to work hard so, accept your fate and “hitch up your drawers” and get at it.  The first responders are going to need your assistance so that they can provide the aid you need.  Everything that you can do initially be that clearing roadways, sharing resources, making signs to identify streets or people in dire need, assisting neighbors, scrounging, and safeguarding will only improve your lot in the aftermath.

Sixth, maintain your vital inoculations for Tetanus, hepatitis, etc.  Get your booster shots.  Thankfully for us, the nurse in our family went over and above to seek us out and administer all of those vital inoculations.

Seventh, get your pets looked at ASAP if they are subjected to flood waters, we almost lost two of ours.  Fortunately, a dear friend that worked as a Vet tech was able to bring and administer the needed antibiotics to save their lives.

Eighth, more people die or are seriously injured after the storm than during it due to accidents while cleaning up, stress, heat exposure, microscopic critters in the surge water, disease, improperly stored or cooked food, poisonous insects and snakes, exposure to the elements, etc.  If you do not have any experience with the art of using a chainsaw to fell trees or cut them off of your house then please, seek the assistance of someone who has this knowledge!  Observe each other and don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance for even the most basic of wounds, especially if you haven’t kept up on your inoculations.

Ninth, an openly well armed citizenry tends to keep the wolves and looters at bay as they are mainly cowards seeking to prey on easy targets.  Down here after a storm, everyone just assumes that everyone is “packing” so, everyone just generally seems to be much more calm and cooperative.

Tenth, thank all those “outsiders” that show up to assist with the cleanup and rebuilding because 99% of them are there to genuinely help.  Especially show your appreciation to all of those folks manning the stationary kitchens and food trucks.  Some of the best hot meals I ever had came from the church group around the corner running a kitchen and the Red Cross and Salvation Army food trucks.

Lastly, keep the faith as it will see you through to the bitter end.  Even though it’s been almost 8 years now since that fateful day, we are still recovering from Katrina, at least economically but hey, material objects are just that, stuff, easily replaced when you get the resources should you desire to do so.  Remember, not everyone will be made financially whole after such an event but hopefully you’ll still have your health not to mention the most important asset of all, your truly good friends and family.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In response to the letter about swapping out devices that use button batteries, I would point out that some EOTech holographic sights use standard AA batteries, that are easily recharged. The EOTech 512 is an example. These sights are robust, easy to use and stay calibrated through heavy use. 

Combined with the Sanyo Eneloop AA batteries the EOTech sight would be useful for many years to anyone with a solar battery charger. The Eneloop batteries can be recharged over 1,500 times and unlike other rechargeables, they maintain 75% of their charge after three years of storage. While the EOTech doesn't have the ambient light intake or tritium sights of the mentioned Trijicon, it is an option that folks should explore as they compare options. Just my humble opinion. - Ohio Shawn

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dear Jim,
I have been a welder, machinist, engineer, and someone interested in self-reliance for many years. I read the recent discussion on SurvivalBlog of post-SHTF welding with interest.

I do not disagree that thermite could be made from scrap yard materials (done it, with aluminum filings and black sand (magnetite) from the river), but it would require a custom-made refractory mold for each joint.  IMHO two other forms of welding would be much more practical.

Forge welding was the only available process up into the 1800s, and requires only anvil, hammer, fire of coke or charcoal and forced air.  Borax or other flux is very helpful on steel, as opposed to wrought iron. Common salt would probably work, too, but avoid the chlorine fumes.

Electric arc welding is infinitely faster and more flexible, and not out of reach post-SHTF.

Engine-driven welding machines are common, and can of course be used as designed as long as their fuels, usually gasoline or Diesel oil,  are available.

Gasoline engines can also be run on wood-gas, natural gas, propane, manure gas, with suitable carburetion;  Diesels of course on vegetable or waste petroleum oils.

A steam engine burning wood, or a water-wheel, could run a generator welder just as effectively as a modern internal combustion engine, with suitable belting or gearing to provide the right rotational speed.

A medium-size off-grid solar electric power system will also run some small welding machines for limited duty cycles.

Many types of finely compounded  welding rods are used today for specific purposes. However, a DC welding machine can be used to weld with coat-hanger or most other types of plain bare steel wire.  It is much more difficult to control the arc, and the properties of the weld joint will not be as good, but will be usable for many purposes by a skilled welder.  Nor is it out of the realm of possibility to make coated electrodes with better properties, as for instance the coating on one of the most common and most useful modern (E6010) electrodes could be closely approximated with wrapping of newspaper soaked in waterglass, or probably salt or soda mixed with powdered sand.

However I will leave you with a major caveat: If you are not a skilled welder now, then do not expect to do yourself any good by taking up the craft with improvised materials after SHTF.

One of the biggest income-enhancers for the general repair welder like myself, is the guy who buys himself his own welding machine.  Fixing it after it was fixed wrong the first time, costs a lot more than doing it right the first time. 

As with all skills you may wish you had in an emergency, do not wait for the emergency to acquire them.

Thanks for your service, Mr. Rawles! - Ben F.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hurricane Sandy tore through the northern eastern seaboard.  The hurricane combined with two other weather systems to create a Super storm (Some say).  The Hurricane or Super Storm created a destructive path that hasn’t been seen this far up north, ever.  Homes were damaged, properties were destroyed, and lives were lost.  This Hurricane had a lot to teach us.  A lot of us (Preppers) were prepared for this storm and tested our emergency plan for the first time, in real time.  We got to learn a lot about our emergency plan and some of us will patch the holes in our plans, if any.

What Happened:

Hurricane Sandy came through the Tri-State Area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut), Maryland, and Pennsylvania with a force that hasn’t been seen in over a hundred years.  Hurricane Sandy ripped through cities, towns, and neighborhoods without any prejudice.  Hurricane Sandy also sent storm surges to drown out these areas.  High winds tore through homes and properties.  People were killed, injured and left homeless.  The Jersey Shores, Coney Island, Long Island, and parts of New York City’s landscape were changed forever.  24 states were effect by the Super Storm Sandy, Canada, and the Caribbean islands.  Hurricane Sandy reached a recorded 980 miles in diameter.

The Problems:

Evacuation Routes:  Many evacuation routes were compromised during and after Hurricane Sandy. Some people waited too long to leave while others tried to stay and found out the hard way that, that wasn’t a good choice. Train tunnels floods as well as traffic tunnels.  Bridges were shut down due to high winds. Some tried to leave after the storm and found out they couldn’t leave.  Taking evacuation advice seriously is a must and not something to take lightly. For this reason having more than one evacuation route is very important and so is leaving early.

Flooding:  Many cities, towns, and neighborhoods along the northeastern seaboard took on more water than anticipated.  The water moved with a force ripping houses off their foundations and relocating others somewhere in the area.  Vehicles were floating down the street.  Entire boardwalks were ripped away from their foundations, swept into the ocean and in many cases found more than a mile inland.  The massive amounts of salt water destroyed homes, basements, businesses, emergency services facilities, medical facilities and vehicles.  People drown from the flooding as well.  Some people were caught in there basements as the water came into their homes trapping them.  Two kids were swept away by waves of water.  The floods were made of a perfect combination of high winds, high tide, and a full moon all happening simultaneously. The highest recorded surge was in Battery Park City, New York at 13.8ft.

High Wind Conditions:  Trees, power lines, homes, and a sky crane were damage by high-sustained winds.  The sustain winds were as high as 80 mph. The gust of winds reached 109 mph.  The winds were not expected to be as high in the first reports of the hurricane’s approach.  The high winds also helped the water surge onto land.  The high winds also killed people as it sent trees through homes and debris into the air.  High winds also knocked the face of a building off and shook many buildings.  The high wind caused roof of homes to be ripped off, windows blown out, and homes to collapse. 

Power Outages: 8.5 million people (roughly) lost power due to Hurricane Sandy.  This included a power station in New York City, which had an explosion causing 800,000 customers to lose power. The power was knocked out due to high winds, fallen trees and tidal flooding.  The Hurricane caused black outs that could be seen from space satellites.  Hospitals and Nursing Homes had to be evacuated due to power loss and flooding. “Customers” went days, weeks, or even months without power.  Businesses were destroyed due to power outage. Rotting food and loss of income put some businesses out of business, for good. Even now, some homes still do not have power (2/11/2013).  With the power outage came something most people didn’t know about. Waste management systems dumped its waste into the surrounding bays, channels, and rivers due to loss of power. So, the floodwaters were contaminated as well.

Property Damage:  There was an estimate of 71.4 billion of dollars in damages that spread across 24 states.  As we all saw, homes were displaced from their foundation by tidal flooding carrying the homes away.  In some cases, home were found in completely different neighborhoods from their original location. If homes weren’t carried away by the floodwaters, then the homes were just flooded, which caused mold to grow in the days to come.  Trees fell through home, completely destroying the structure. Tens of thousands of vehicles were totaled due to flooding and tree falling on them.  Fires ripped through homes as well, mixed with the high winds turned the fire into a blowtorch, destroying hundreds of homes.  Boardwalks were ripped from their century old foundations as some of you seen with the New Jersey Shore boardwalk in Seaside Heights.  Sand also played a roll in destroying home, vehicles, and business. Sand from the ocean floor and beaches were brought onto land by wind and water.

Complete Destruction Of Areas and Neighborhoods:  Areas and neighborhoods were completely destroyed due to Hurricane Sandy. Breezy Point in New York was destroyed due to wind, water, and fire.  Over a hundred home were destroyed by fire.  A few thousand homes were flooded.  Some homes had their roofs blown off.  A few homes were relocated to other nearby neighborhoods via water.  The New York Aquarium on Coney Island was partial destroyed due to floodwaters and power loss.  Most of New Jersey’s shores were destroyed.  Some of the boardwalks were completely destroyed and pushed further inland or dragged out to sea.

Looting and Robberies: Looting came as no surprise to anyone but a few guys did try and break into a bank during the height of the storm.  They try to use a pickup truck to get the job done but once they rammed through the glass doors. They had no plan of action after that. Need less to say, they got nothing.  Some of the big chain stores were looted during the storm but once the storm passed. The looting picked up in pace and locations in New York City, I am not sure if looting took place in other states.  The police did a good job ending the looting spree here in New York City.  There were reports of robberies in some areas of the city after the storm passed.  There was one report of people being robbed for their emergency disaster supplies that had been given to them by Red Cross (I only heard that once during a news broadcast.)  Burglaries also spiked in neighborhoods that were hit hard and had less people due to evacuations.

After The Storm:

There were a lot of issues that arose from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Getting power back on for people. Logistics for disturbing food, water, and other necessary items for people became a problem.  Housing people who lost their homes became an issue too.  Lack of fuel was also an unforeseen problem.  A few deaths occurred from this storm as well. Some of these problems could have been avoided had the city had a better emergency preparation plan. 

Deaths: 118 people in the U.S. were killed due to Hurricane Sandy. 1 person in Canada and 69 people in Caribbean was also killed.  Some people were killed by floods, while others were killed by flying debris and falling trees.  Some people were even electrocuted.

Lack Of Supplies: There were huge problems with the distribution of food and water to those places that needed the help.  There was a breakdown in communication as to where and when food and water were going to be given out.  In Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York people showed up to the assigned time and place to receive their emergency provisions but instead the time would be changed to hours later.  Minor incidents broke out at these distribution locations.  Some fighting was reported but most were arguments that were reported by people who waited on line.  Some people had to resort to getting their water from open water hydrants and walk miles to get there food from neighborhoods that had power.  People in lower Manhattan had to walk north for food, which in some cases was better than a 5-mile walk.  Breezy Point, New York had the most help dedicated to them but even then Red Cross and FEMA dropped the ball.  Shelter became another issue for those that lost their homes.  People were taken to schools, armories, and churches after the storm.  The temporary occupants from a homeless shelter on Rockaway, New York trashed one school by urinating on the lunchroom floors, feces in the water fountain, and food discarded throughout the school.  The lack of logistics and communication breakdown made everything harder than it had to be.

Lack Of Fuel: The lack of fuel was a combination effect.  From gas stations having no power to retrieve the gas from the ground to refineries being shut down due to lack of power or terminals being destroyed due to floods, wind damage, and power loss.  Waterways for importing fuel were also closed due to debris blocking the waterway.  On top of all that 350,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled in the Arthur Kill Waterway in New Jersey, closing that waterway as well.  If gas stations would have had back up generators or emergency pump systems to retrieve the gas, that might of alleviated some of the gas problems. If refineries would of set their backup generators on higher ground like some of them could of done, then that would of cut down on the fuel shortage days.  Fights and arguments broke out on these gasoline lines, one guy got arrested for pulling a knife on another man just to skip the line.  There was free gasoline being given out at one point. Luckily I filled up my truck before the hurricane hit.  

What Didn’t Happen:

A stronger storm with the same conditions Hurricane Sandy had would have done far more damage.  If the winds were stronger way more trees, homes, and building would have been knocked down. More water would of reached further inland, flooding more homes and costing the states million dollars more.  More people would of died.  The recovery efforts would of taken a lot longer.  The fuel shortage would of taken months to recover.  Help from other states would have been minimal due to the fact that the storm might have been bigger in diameter and those neighboring states would have had to help themselves.  Now, just because Hurricane Sandy could have been stronger doesn’t mean that she would have been bigger but considering Sandy was a combination storm, she would’ve been bigger. Imagine if she would have been bigger in diameter.  Hurricane Sandy was 980 miles in diameter, that’s 560,000 square miles.

What I Learned:

I learned that I was more prepared than I original though.  For living in an apartment I had almost everything I needed for the storm.  I also learned that my wife could take care of herself.  I learned that she is actually paying more attention to me than I thought.  She took precautionary measure to assure our families’ safety while I was at work.

I should have had fuel canisters for extra fuel but I have nowhere to really store them in my apartment.  I was thinking at one point to store them on the fire escape but decide against it.  I need to get a battery-operated radio.  The hand crank radios are cool but only as a last resort.  Besides those two things I was pretty much squared away.

I also learned that water proofing most of your gear especially if you are going to keep your gear in the basement.  If you live in a flood zone and can only keep your gear in the basement.  You are going to have to finds a way to water proof all your gear if you want to keep it.  I heard of one prepper that lived in Breezy Point, lost everything due to flooding of his basement.

Bottom Line:

People need to be ready as our weather patterns are changing for the worst.  Having some stored foods and supplies will not break the bank.  Your family will thank you when the time comes.  You don’t have to prepare for the “end of the world” or an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.  You should just be ready for things that are most likely going to happen such as bad weather emergencies.  There were people that haven’t recovered from Hurricane Irene and then get slammed with Hurricane Sandy.  Some people never even learned their lesson from Hurricane Irene. It is now time to take these lessons into consideration and take action into our own hands.


People need to keep calm and be ready.  Depending on someone to come and help you sucks as many people are finding out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Be able to help yourself out and be ready. No one is saying to put a years worth of food away but you should have something put away for those bad days. 

The Total Numbers: (As of March 30, 2013)

  • Homes Destroyed From wind, fire, and water:  No exact number, yet
  • Damage Cost: Over 71.4 Billion Dollars
  • States Affected: 24
  • Countries Affected: 2
  • Loss Of Power: Over 6 million customers in 15 states
  • Injuries: Unknown
  • Deaths:  118 in the U.S., 2 in Canada, and 69 in the Caribbean.

Quick Tips:

  • 5/8 thick wood boards and cut to fit windows. If you have shutters use them instead.
  • Clear your gutters.
  • Remove all loose items from porches, terraces, and backyards i.e. Grills, Lawn chairs and kid’s toys.
  • Plan your evacuation route and then have a back up planned out as well.
  • Prepare your vehicle for a possible evacuation. Fill your tank and have your bug out bag at the ready.
  • Turn refrigerator to the coldest setting in case the power goes out and pack with plastic sheeting.
  • Freeze a few plastic water bottles to keep your food cold.
  • Test your generator.
  • Fill up the bathtub using the WaterBob.
  • Unplug all appliances and electronics t protect them from power surges and brown-outs.


Monday, March 25, 2013

(Note: This article is part of a series of feature articles about alternative / sustainable / renewable energy solutions for self-sufficiency. Previous related articles in SurvivalBlog that complement this one are "Home Inverter Comparison: Off Grid and Grid Tied" and Home Power Systems: Micro Hydro. Upcoming article topics in this Home Power Systems series will include: Photovoltaics, Batteries, Wind generators, Solar Water Distillers, Solar Ovens, and Solar Water Heating.)

Overview of Energy Efficiency and Conservation : The First Step in a viable Home Power System The most recent article in this series, Home Power Systems: Micro Hydro, in a way 'jumped the gun' a bit, since the foundation of a cost-effective, sustainable home energy system is an honest and accurate appraisal of both average and peak energy requirements. While often not as important in many micro-hydro systems - due to abundant year-round falling water in certain prime locations that can allow for less finely-tuned system efficiency - it's still an important preliminary assessment. It is particularly essential to carefully perform this crucial first step in systems relying on sun, wind or other renewable energy sources that might not be in quite as abundant supply before investing any significant time or money in a photovoltaic (PV) and/or wind-powered system. Doing a fairly meticulous power usage study (and usually re-configuring) of your home may require a bit of work and establishing new conserving habits (the 'bad news'). The good-to-great-to-outstanding news is that - depending on whether you plan to make relatively minor, inexpensive changes to your home energy loads and usage or a major retrofit or a completely new home design (including location siting) - you can potentially save an enormous amount of energy. Therefore, you will save correspondingly on initial alternate energy equipment and maintenance expense, making your family vastly more self-sufficient, in terms of energy, expense, and vulnerability to external energy dependency. Another oft-ignored benefit of down-sizing your home energy budget - while maintaining the same (or often improved) comfort, safety, security and enjoyment of your home - is that by moving yourself farther from the 'conspicuous consumption' category and grid-dependency, you also become less vulnerable and less of a target for attacks of any kind. That's hard to put a price tag on. Having less to defend can simplify defense. Yet another advantage of tightening one's metaphorical domestic power belt is that it starts paying off right away, plugging the leaks in your household's energy ship, keeping you afloat and more maneuverable financially. This often can shorten the time required to save up for the more expensive components for a Renewable Energy (RE) system, such as PV, wind or micro-hydro.

Energy Conservation: Good, Better, Best There are several levels to re-thinking domestic energy usage. We'll start with the simplest (free) actions which everyone can do, proceed to measures that require minimal to moderate expenditures of money and/or time, and finally, for those in a position to completely reinvent their living situations - either by remodeling their home, buying a carefully selected existing home, or best yet, finding optimal property and building a custom energy-efficient home. When one experiences the gains achieved by the simpler steps, it can often fuel (pun-intended) the momentum and enthusiasm for trying more involved changes, which in turn yield even further benefits, economies and self-sufficiency, a win-win scenario.

Big Picture Perspective on Typical Energy Use Before getting into specifics, it's helpful to have a good general idea of where most of the economies can be made in a typical residential energy budget. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory did a study in 2009 which showed seven primary household energy uses and their approximate typical percentages:

  • Space Heating: 29%
  • Space Cooling: 17%
  • Water Heating: 14%
  • Appliances (including refrigerator, dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer): 13%
  • Lighting: 12%
  • Other (stoves, ovens, microwaves, coffee makers, dehumidifiers, etc.): 11%
  • Electronics (computers, monitors, DVD players, televisions, etc.): 4%

As you can probably see from these percentages, some of the biggest energy uses (heating/cooling, water heating, and many appliances) are built into the design of most homes, so retrofitting can involve medium to high expense. However, how often and how efficiently they are used can vary widely and is included in the next section. If your main (or initial) interest in an alternative energy system is to provide just essentials that can only be provided by electricity, consider buying or building a home that has as much of the space heating/cooling, water heating and major appliances (e.g. refrigeration) provided by non-electrical means. Wood-burning stoves, passive solar and/or earth integrated home design, thermal convection cooling, and a variety of other strategies can make a well-situated and well-designed home very comfortable year-round when no grid power is available. A similarly wide variety of solar domestic hot water (DHW) heating systems and water heating coils in wood stoves are examples of non-electric (or minimally electric) alternatives to water heating. Propane refrigerators or super efficient (e.g. Sunfrost) refrigerators, while expensive in terms of initial purchase price compared with convention units, can - in some cases - achieve 'break even' status in just a few years in full-time off-grid locations when factored into the total cost (purchase price plus operating costs) of an integrated solar, wind and/or micro hydro system by offsetting the need for buying a much larger RE system. We often forget that the overall trend over time is ever-increasing utility energy costs, so trade-offs between higher initial purchase price in a more efficient energy system can - with planning - be more than offset by amortizing those costs against what would be spent on equivalent grid electricity over the life of a system.

First: Go For the Low Hanging Fruit: Conservation Ironically, our usual approach - and this goes for traditional government subsidies as well, although the trend is changing - is to rely on expensive and unsustainable sources of energy rather than doing the simplest things to conserve energy that cost us nothing, aside from a little (or sometimes a lot of) mindfulness to change everyday behaviors.

Measure Twice, Cut Once Before getting started on cutting energy waste using the suggestions in the lists below, it's often helpful - and satisfying - to measure the 'before' and 'after' performance to see how your 'energy diet' is doing. Then when you implement as many of the suggestions below (and this can be done a month at a time and compared with your electric utility bills), you can see the 'after' difference the improvements are making. These measurements can be done for many of the pluggable items in your household with a Watt-meter. Here's a low-cost meter that calculates daily, weekly, monthly or annual expense based on your current utility rates. A short, heavy duty extension cord can assist in providing access to more items when a plugin meter like this might not allow reaching some appliances and devices. Owners manuals for some household electrical devices list both standby and active power ratings. (Remember that many, if not most, manuals can be found online these days by web searching for the manufacturer and model number, so try there first if manuals are stashed deeply away or tossed long ago.) The listed ratings will help especially if you don't have a wattmeter or have a device that can't be measured directly with one. It's also interesting to compare the rated wattages with the actuals from the manufacturer's specifications to see if they are accurate. By going through your home - and don't forget outbuildings including sheds, garages, greenhouses, well pumps, etc. - room-by-room, outlet-by-outlet, you can easily estimate your 'before' usage on these items. If you've ever traversed a maze, you might have learned the technique of keeping your hand on a wall until you're back to your starting point. The same technique works well when traversing the walls of your home to find all the outlets, remembering that not all outlets are just above the floor, particularly in kitchens and bathrooms. Don't forget closets, attic fans, attic lights, basements, sump pumps, well pumps, crawl spaces and outbuildings. Wherever your house wiring goes is a potential load. Peeking inside your circuit breaker box can reveal loads that might be missed otherwise. Measure plugged loads that can be in standby mode in 'full on' and 'standby' modes, as well as 'full off' to make sure there isn't any residual current flowing. Unless you completely unplug these loads when not in use, assume the standby power is flowing 24/7/365.

Here's an article about energy monitoring that explores various options available that help show not only which items use the most electricity, but also where and when peak usage occurs. Then add in the remaining non-outlet items and estimate current monthly, seasonal and annual usage of specific appliances and lighting by noting wattages of bulbs, appliances, water heaters, Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) equipment, etc. around the house, multiplied by their approximate monthly use in hours. To do a 'reality check', compare your calculated estimates with the last few years (or as much as you have if you've moved recently) of electric bills, noting the kilowatt-hour amounts on each bill. A spreadsheet such as Excel or Numbers can be handy for this. Make a row for each of the household loads, and a column for each month to track energy usage in KWH (Kilowatt hours). If you have the luxury (or necessity, depending on how you look at it) of waiting a few months (or a year or more) before investing in 'big ticket' energy-saving and/or energy-generating technology, it's often an advantage to see how your improvements are doing over the course of a year, or at least 2-3 months of typical implementation. If you just want a quick rough estimate or your energy usage, you can start with an online energy calculator or have your utility company assist you (many have services for this). These online calculators will give you rough approximations, but it's generally essential to do a full, detailed room-by-room, plug-by-plug (plus all the other loads) analysis before sizing an RE system, or even just being more scientific about your energy usage to see what's working and what isn't. If you need help, there are professional home energy audit services that can help you make an accurate assessment of your energy usage É and suggest options you might not have considered.

Example of An Energy Budget
Here is an example of a 'before and after' energy budget; scroll down the page to see 'before' and 'after' spreadsheet examples and impressive improvements. Another resource for examples and case studies is Home Power magazine, which, BTW, is a superb resource for energy efficiency education as well as information on alternate energy systems, components and reviews.

Simple, Free, Easy Energy Waste Reductions
Among the simplest: turning off unused lights when leaving a room, unplugging unused appliances (e.g. extra refrigerators that have don't have much in them so their contents could be consolidated with a primary fridge), unplugging chargers not in use, etc. For example, it's amazing how much needlessly wasted energy goes into 'phantom loads'; those that run 24 hours a day, but only are needed a small fraction of the time. How many chargers of various sorts run 24/7/365 in your household? and how many could be switched off when not in use (e.g., via outlet strips)? Here's a partial list (and you can probably think of many others) of free ways to conserve energy (and a more detailed list). Most of these are common-sense, every-day, obvious strategies, but we sometimes forget the obvious!

  • Turn off unused lights (at home and at work).
  • Plan reading and work times during the day when natural light is optimal.
  • Unplug seldom-used or unused appliances.
  • Unplug 'phantom loads' (a.k.a. 'wall warts'); chargers not in use.
  • For lights and appliances that have remote control or 'standby' modes, switch completely off (or unplug) when not needed; here are more details on standby 'culprits' and large 'plug loads' like wall air-conditioners, space-heaters, coffee machines, toasters, toaster ovens, clothes irons, popcorn makers, microwaves, hair dryers, set-top cable boxes, aquariums, color copiers, video games, other illuminated kitchen appliances, etc.
  • Use timed 'sleep mode' on computers and other devices instead of screen savers for devices that must be left on (for security or other reasons); set sleep start time to when you want a reminder to 'call it a day'.
  • Set screen saver start times to kick on (e.g. within 3-5 minutes) just a minute or so after your typical trip away from the computer (e.g. stretch, bathroom or kitchen break).
  • Use power strips to switch off home entertainment and computer systems.
  • Turn off all but essentials and safety-security systems when leaving for vacation É or even extended day trips more than a few hours; a good family ritual to assign to whoever is ready first for an outing to check around the house.
  • Check furnace or air conditioning filters monthly; clean or replace as needed.
  • Use sweaters, robes, warm socks and slippers or 'indoor boots' for extra winter warmth.
  • Use extra blankets in winter, and for 'kick-back' (sedentary) time in living areas.
  • Set space-heating thermostats to a low winter temperatures (and lower night-time temperatures.
  • Set air-conditioning thermostats to a high summer temperatures (keeping the difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures minimal year-round also has the benefit of reducing the 'thermal shock' of going in and out of buildings).
  • Find thermostat settings that work for everyone and don't change them; it's more efficient to keep temperatures steady than to 'throttle' or keep changing them.
  • Use fans (including whole house fans) instead of air conditioning when appropriate, and position fans to remove the most body heat; this usually allows slower fan speeds for the same cooling; small personal fans do a much better job compared to a single large fan for people a distance apart.
  • Open sun-facing shades on sunny winter days to capture solar heat.
  • Close all blinds and drapes at night in winter to conserve heat.
  • Close windows in winter to conserve heat.
  • Close daytime windows and blinds in summer to minimize heat infiltration; exterior blinds and shades often are most effective to keep heat out before it enters window glazing.
  • Open windows at night in summer to evacuate heat and allow cooling breezes.
  • Only cool or heat rooms you occupy. Close doors and vents of unused rooms.
  • Set hot-water thermostats to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or lower (e.g. 120) if you have water pre-heaters for dishwashers and clothes washers and/or instant 'flash' (tankless) hot water heaters; large houses, particularly those with long plumbing runs between water heaters and hot water loads can benefit from these local on-demand water heaters.
  • Set refrigerators to 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit; keep full water bottles in extra fridge space to minimize cold air loss each time doors are opened.
  • Set freezers to 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit; keep extra ice or frozen items to minimize cold air loss each time freezer doors are opened.
  • Check fridge and freezer gaskets; replace those that leak air; it should be difficult to pull out a piece of paper between gaskets with doors closed.
  • Periodically (e.g. quarterly) vacuum fridge coils to keep them running efficiently.
  • Use oven lights momentarily to check on 'in-progress' cooking instead of opening oven doors more than necessary.
  • Check oven seals for heat loss and replace or repair as needed.
  • Use microwave ovens for heating water, cooking or reheating small items.
  • Cook larger meals (for leftovers) and multiple items in ovens or stove-top steamers at once; next best is to cook multiple items in a row using residual heat and/or heated water from prior oven or burner use.
  • Use larger burners for larger pots/pans, smaller burners for smaller pots/pans.
  • Use lids on pots and pans to keep heat in while cooking.
  • Use only as much water as needed in teapots, coffee makers, kettles, etc. Heating extra water just wastes energy.
  • Wash only full dishwasher loads; use short cycles after hand pre-scrubbing/rinsing any items that wouldn't get clean no matter how long the cycle runs.
  • Air dry dishes and plan run times so that dishes can air dry well in advance of their next use.
  • Wash and rinse clothes in cold water whenever possible; use detergent formulated for cold water.
  • Wash clothes in full loads whenever possible; set water level appropriately.
  • Clean clothes dryer lint filters after each use.
  • Dry light and heavy fabrics separately; don't add wet items to a load already partially dry.
  • Take items that need ironing out of the dryer before they're completely dry to minimize ironing time É and effort.
  • Use a clothes dryer's moisture sensor setting to minimize drying time; better yet, use a clothes line and/or indoor clothes drying rack. Even in winter, a garage clothes drying rack usually dries clothes in a day or three.
  • Take shorter showers or baths; a quick burst of water, followed by a 'water-off' lather/shampoo cycle, then rinsing quickly can save lots of water and associated heating costs.
  • Turn off (or fix) dripping or leaking faucets, hose bibs or other plumbing, especially those using hot water.
  • If you have an older-generation toilet, a brick, plastic bottle full of water or toilet dam (making sure none of these impedes proper operation) in the toilet tank can save lots of water; any water-saving measures are particularly important for systems that rely on pumped water for domestic use, such as well-pumps or pressurized holding tank.
  • Even if you don't have a garden, orchard or other agriculture, consider using rainwater harvesting and gray water reclamation/recycling. If you do have outdoor plants of any kind, definitely include agricultural water conservation measures and xeriscaping in your conservation planning, particularly in dry climates and/or when using electrically pumped water. Think of water usage as somewhat analogous to electrical usage, particularly if your electricity usage involves moving water around.
  • If your family size has decreased (e.g. kids off to college, etc.) consider selling larger appliances and downsizing to smaller items (e.g. refrigerators); in some cases selling newer large items can pay for the cost of smaller items (used or new).

The list above is far from exhaustive, and represents some of the more typical examples. If you think of other ways to conserve, practice and share them. The consistent cumulative and additive effect of these simple practices as a whole can really add up, more than just practicing a few of them sporadically. It's helpful to record energy usage by looking at your utility bill monthly and track which measures are in place that contribute to cost savings and energy reduction.

Low-cost Upgrades For Energy Efficiency Assuming
you've implemented as many of the 'low hanging fruit' ideas above as possible, the next category to look at (now that you're already saving energy and money with the 'free' list) are low or minimal-cost items or replacements for existing electrical devices you have in your home. These can be implemented in order of greatest savings first, based on your current usage, if you've already created a spreadsheet as suggested above to itemize your current energy use and have a better idea of what to go after first. Just as one plugs the biggest holes in a leaky boat first, going after the biggest loads in your domestic energy budget can pay off the quickest. In general, before shopping for new appliances, lighting or any electrical items that might affect your energy budget, consult the Energy Star web site and/or make note of the Energy Star ratings on the appliance under consideration to find the optimum tradeoff for your budget and energy efficiency, keeping in mind the useful life of the product, payback period based on current and projected energy costs, and - very important to include - the defrayed expenses saved by not having to buy more PV panels, wind generating equipment, batteries, etc.

  • Replace incandescent lighting with Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) light bulbs. Some early versions of these energy savers had lower frequency ballasts, were noisy and expensive not any more.
  • Replace incandescent lighting (particularly for task-lighting such as reading, sewing, art, etc. required for close work) with high-efficiency broad-spectrum LED lighting. Small LED lamps have become popular as book lights and can serve other purposes where extended use, optimum quality and minimal eye fatigue is needed. Here's an example of a 5W under-counter LED lamp that is equivalent to 20W halogen/xenon lamps.
  • Timers, outdoor motion sensors, indoor occupancy sensors and dusk-to-dawn light sensors can all minimize lighting 'on time', regardless of the lighting technology used (although CFLs don't work well with some switching technologies).
  • Replace older Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) televisions and computer monitors - if you still have any - with energy-efficient flat screens.
  • Repair or upgrade weatherstripping, caulking and other building components and interfaces that subject your home to significant heat loss/gain areas due to infiltration. Don't forget attic crawl space air leaks. Utility companies often provide or recommend services such as infrared photography (e.g. FLIR) to spot the most egregious energy loss culprits. If you already have access to infrared night-vision equipment, you can scope this out yourself, both indoors and out to find trouble spots. Here's an economical tool to assist in the detection of thermal leaks.
  • Water heater blankets can improve the energy efficiency of both electric and gas-fueled water heaters, and benefit both older and newer more efficient models.
  • Install low-flow shower heads and sink aerators (if you haven't already) to reduce water consumption, particularly hot water use.
  • Low-wattage hair-dryers are probably more important in planning for peak loads, but they can also impact average load calculations and savings, too.
  • Add movable exterior shades (many of which can be easily rolled up to allow evening summer breezes) to minimize summer heat gain.
  • Use area rugs over bare floors to add insulation. The psychological effect of warmer winter feet can minimize the temptation to nudge thermostats upward.
  • Add strategically placed landscaping (trees, trellises with dense seasonal foliage, etc.) to provide summer shading and maximum winter insolation (heat gain through glazing).
  • Replace desktop computers with laptops when possible; if occasional extra 'screen real estate' is needed. Switch on external monitors only when needed, for both laptops and desktop models.
  • For privacy, use light-diffusing sheer curtains to let in winter light and heat but obscure visibility from the outside during the day as needed, then use heavier curtains (with high insulation value and magnetic seals around window frames if possible) at night to keep heat in.
  • Add or enhance home insulation in attics, walls, under floor crawl spaces, etc. Since the greatest heat loss (and summer heat gain) is through the roof, this is the usually first place to start before enhancing lower spaces. A licensed insulation contractor can both recommend and install the needed insulation to match the optimum tradeoffs for your specific home situation.
  • Replace single-pane windows and glazed doors with double-pane or triple-pane glazed units, including skylights. Add storm doors and windows where they can add extra insulation value.

If you want to get even more scientific about which energy loads are consuming the biggest (or smallest) portions of your household energy budget, a Watt-meter is a good investment. Here's an inexpensive Watt-meter to measure periodic energy expense based on current utility rates.

Major Home Remodeling or New Construction The last category of home energy improvements typically applies only when one has the good fortune to be able to do a major remodeling project, or best of all, a new construction on an ideally situated parcel of land. There are a number of general strategies that can be employed to make new homes (and major remodeling projects) particularly energy efficient. As one might expect, implementing as many of these as possible will realize the greatest potential energy savings.

Passive Solar Design: Orientation, Insolation, Thermal Mass, Insulation The general idea of passive solar design is to maximize winter (or summer below the equator) heat gain and minimize it in the opposite season. In some locations the sun's power can provide all the heating (and often electricity via PV panels) required if adequate insolation (sunlight entering the building), thermal mass (heat storage) and insulation (means for keeping heat from moving in or out of a structure) are available in appropriate places with appropriate control mechanisms. Typically, windows should face true south (ideally within 10 degrees) or north in southern hemisphere locations. Natural obstructions such as hills or trees should be minimal in the path of the winter sun, and it can be worthwhile to carefully select a site on a given property to optimize the total winter sun exposure. A solar site selector, using a compass, bubble level and tripod can be used to map out obstructions in proposed sites during different seasons (e.g. solstices and equinoxes) to choose the optimum home site. Together with statistical weather data about a proposed site's potential (such as degree day maps and degree day data) one can predict approximate solar potential for a given site for various times of year. Good passive solar design may incorporate movable elements such as adjustable overhangs that let in just the right amount of sun for each time of year/day, and/or seasonally variable foliage such as sun-facing arbors or deciduous trees and shrubs that provide summer shade, but let most of the sun in during colder months when leaves have dropped. Combining site selection with careful window sizing, ventilation characteristics and placement will afford the optimum design solutions. There are free software tools such as those provided by Sustainable by Design to calculate sun angle, position, path, overhang design, analysis, horizontal and vertical shading, window heat gain, etc. As always, if the technical aspects of any part of these processes seem daunting, get professional help and also use online resources to complement your knowledge and expertise. Once the sun enters your home, it must heat adequate thermal mass. Good candidates for this heat storage include traditional materials like adobe, tile or water in containers (the darker the better to aid in heat absorption), as well as creative options such as passive solar slab cement floors (which can be colorized, scored and grouted to look like tile. The importance of thermal mass is often underestimated with less than satisfactory results. Skimping on thermal mass can mean the difference between a home that is chilly (read: expensive) in the morning and overheated in the afternoon vs. one that has a comfortable temperature that doesn't vary much from one time of day to the next. Think of thermal mass (some times called a thermal flywheel using the metaphor of a wheel's momentum) as your passive solar system's heat battery.

Most modern homes are well insulated, but in many cases a super-insulated home (such as a monolithic dome) can offset other negative factors, such as low thermal mass or insolation. Needless to say, adequate-to-above-average insulation is usually a prerequisite for any good solar home design. One way of achieving superior insulation by using local indigenous materials is through the use of earth-berming, often most evident on north-facing walls. If your intent is to combine passive solar home design with photovoltaics, the selection of the site should address the roof angles (e.g. large surface area facing due south) and amount of sun received by either roof-mounted collectors (typical) or remotely ground mounted panel arrays. To combine wind and solar, it might require finding a location close enough (to minimize power losses from long electrical cables) for both PV panels and wind generators to receive the sun and wind required. Different site considerations need to be factored into an integrated design when contemplating optimizing for solar (space heating and PV), optimizing for wind generators, and optimizing for micro-hydro systems.

The simplest solar design approach makes for homes that are long along the east-west axis and typically 1 room deep (or not much more than that) along the north-south axis. For homes that are more than 1 room deep along the north-south axis, it helps to carefully consider both air circulation - which optimally can be achieved by natural convection or, next best, efficient fans and/or ductwork - and daylighting. Skylights, light tubes, translucent doors and clerestory or transom windows can assist with getting light back into northern rooms and minimize the daytime lighting needed. Another technique deserving mention is the use of vestibules for entries to minimize heat gain and/or loss. Commercial buildings often make use of this method of minimizing the amount of lost or gained heat each time an exterior door is opened, and it works well for homes, too. Entry vestibules also make great laundry and/or mud rooms as well as coat, boot and other storage areas.

Early in the design phase, if possible, minimize long plumbing runs between water heaters and hot water loads by consolidating plumbing runs along a single wall, as short as possible. This also saves on initial plumbing costs as well as ongoing expense due to heat losses, as well as time wasted waiting for warm or hot water. If a bathroom or kitchen far away from the water heater is unavoidable, consider an on-demand, tankless hot water heater for those locations, to eliminate running taps for up to several minutes to bring water to the desired temperature. For passive water heating, also consider, if possible, locating a renewable source of hot water lower than intended loads and keeping plumbing bends to a minimum. This can often allow for a completely passive 'thermo-siphon' system where the circulation energy (a convection loop) is provided by the temperature differential between the warmer source (e.g. DHW solar panel or wood-stove embedded water heater) and the cooler water in the bottom of the storage tank. Some thermosiphon solar DHW systems integrate the heat source and storage tank for optimum efficiency. If a thermo-siphon hot water loop isn't feasible, choose an efficient pump to circulate the water or other heat transfer medium.

There are a wealth of books, web sites and other resources on the subject and it's best to pick a design strategy optimal for your particular location, climate, budget and locally available building materials. This article just touches on a few of the ideas important in a well thought-out energy efficient home design or re-design; consult experts to get even more ideas and do reality checks on concepts and techniques that you're considering for incorporation in your next home. You can also elect to have energy-efficiency professionals install various components of your home energy systems as well as assist with the designs and component/appliance/device selection. Don't forget to explore any and all federal, state, regional or local energy efficiency rebates, tax credits, etc. These can be substantial depending on the energy saving technology being considered and include biomass stoves, efficient HVAC systems, insulation, roofing, water heaters, windows, doors, PV and wind turbine components, geothermal heat pumps and other items. These can be significant and potentially offset much of the initial financial outlay for the specific item(s) used. Sooner or later, one reaches a point of diminishing returns for scrutinizing home power expenditures, but there are lots of things you can do, regardless of your financial budget, to optimize your energy budget. All these improvements improve your economic and self-sufficiency bottom line, regardless of if - or when - these enhancements go toward a renewable energy system installation.

Additional References

Getting Started with Home Efficiency
Easy Efficiency Improvements Pay Off

Passive Solar Home Design
Making Your Home Water-Smart

How Does Your Home Measure Up?

Beyond Your Utility Meter

How to Reduce Your Energy Consumption

Passive House Institute US

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Many readers will recall that my 2011 novel "Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse" was partly set in and near Farmington, New Mexico. I chose that region because it has a particularly resilient power grid. In the novel I described how Farmington Electric Utility System (FEUS) has made contingency plans to immediately reconstitute a local power grid, in the event of a western power grid collapse. This was not just literary license on my part. It was based on a face-to-face interview with a FEUS manager that I conducted in 2009, as I was researching locales for the novel. That manager told me that if the western grid collapsed, all FEUS customers could have their power restored in less than a minute. This capability is called "islanding" or "controlled system separation." While not a secret, islanding capability is not well-known outside of the power industry. Islanding is also uncommon in most of the United States. (Most Americans live in areas where the majority of their power is imported from the larger grids. It is only in a few areas such as the Pacific Northwest and the Four Corners that are net power exporters. This zoomable map shows you the Big Picture for the US and parts of Canada.

America's Three Power Grids

There are actually three main power grids in the United States: an eastern grid, a western grid, and a Texas grid. This map shows the dividing lines, and this map shows some planned changes. Within those three grids, there are distinct service areas. And within those service areas, there is a patchwork of large power companies, co-ops, and a few independent power producers.

The majority of Americans depend on power that comes from coal-fired or nuclear power plants. Both of these sources would be problematic in the event of major societal disruption. NERC regulations require shutdowns of nuclear plants for trivial reasons, and coal-fired plants require literally trainloads of coal to keep running. The most stable power in event of an economic disaster will be hydroelectric. The Pacific Northwest has the clear advantage in hydroelectric power and some of the most reliable and least expensive power in the country. Generally, where there are large dams there is plentiful hydro power, and the greatest potential for stable local islanding. (But note that potential does not necessarily mean planned. You will need to check on that with your local power company's management to see if they have made the requisite arrangements for islanding.)

Where Will the Islands be?

Do some online research to find maps like this one: Map of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) transmission lines. Then call you local utility and find out if they are power exporters or importers. If they are exporters, ask if they have an islanding plan.

Long Term?

In the event of a long term grid-down situation where the coal trains stop running there will just be a few areas that will have reliable power. Most of these will be in the Pacific Northwest, where hydroelectric power predominates.

Black Startup

In the event that one or all three American grids collapse because of something catastrophic such as a major solar flare, or an economic whammy that stops coal train traffic, getting the grids back up might be difficult. Typically a power plant requires lots of outside power to be re-started. The re-starts that done without functioning outside power--commonly called Black Startup or Dark Startup --are a challenge. Here is a quote from the sometimes useful LeftistAgendaPedia: "To provide a black start, some power stations have small diesel generators which can be used to start larger generators (of several megawatts capacity), which in turn can be used to start the main power station generators." In the event of a nationwide collapse of the power grid, the best chance for power plants to be restarted and partial grid restoration will be in the Northwest, where hydro power will be available to feed the grid.

Off The Grid

Home generation is the sure way of knowing that you will have power. (Even if you are fortunate enough to live near a hydroelectric dam or geothermal power plant, you can't assume that your power will be restored in the event of a power grid collapse.) Home power systems that are not grid tied will be the most resilient to solar storms or EMP. This is because grid power lines can act as unintentional antennas. To be fully prepared for a solar storm, it might be necessary to store spare charge controllers and perhaps even spare inverters, for a worst case. These spares should be stored disconnected, preferably in Faraday enclosures.

If you are planning to strategically relocate your family to a safe region, I recommend that power utility islanding be part of your criteria for choosing locales. Places with plentiful hydroelectric power are your best bet. But again, don't just assume that they are ready for islanding. Take the time to call the local power company or co-op, and ask them if they have contingency plans for islanding, and if so what would be the geographic boundaries for their planned island. This could make a huge difference for the quality of life that you will have in the dark times to come. - J.W.R.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Note: This article is part of a series of feature articles about alternative / sustainable / renewable energy solutions for self-sufficiency. A prior related article in SurvivalBlog that complements this one is Home Inverter Comparison: Off Grid and Grid Tied. Upcoming articles in this Home Power Systems series include: Photovoltaics, Batteries, Wind generators, Solar Water Distillers, Solar Ovens, Solar Water Heating and Energy Efficiency/Conservation.)

Overview of Micro Hydro: One Component of a Home Power System One primary source of locally generated electricity - in the right location - is hydroelectric power generated by a small system of integrated components harnessing the power of falling water, generally called 'small hydro', 'micro hydro', or 'pico hydro' for the smallest of systems. The realtor mantra of "location, location, location" is particularly true for micro hydro systems, perhaps more than for any other local power source, including solar and wind energy systems. If you don't have sufficient flow (volume of water per minute) and head (vertical drop between the water source and the location of the turbine), you can stop exploring micro hydro as a possible energy source right there. However, if you do have just the right location, micro hydro can be one of the most cost effective, efficient, simple and reliable sources of off-grid (or grid-tied) power.

The beauty of a micro hydro system is the simplicity of stored potential energy (gravity) being converted into kinetic energy (moving water) further converted into electrical energy through the generator within the turbine, with basically one moving part (aside from the water. :-) Since the process of converting moving water to electricity doesn't cause any significant atmospheric emissions, greenhouse gases or pollutants (aside from the manufacture and installation of the components, which is arguably a consideration for any energy system), micro hydro, when properly sited and correctly installed and maintained, enjoys - unlike its much larger 'environmental footprint' sibling, large scale hydro - a justifiably deserved status as a relatively clean, renewable, and sustainable power solution.

Micro hydro systems usually cost relatively little to maintain and operate, if they are properly designed and installed. Since heating and electrical demand are typically higher in winter months, even a system with a power output that tapers off slightly in summer can be a good demand-correlated design, as long as summer cooling needs are minimal or provided by non-electrical means. If you have the added advantage of sufficient year-round flow, your micro hydro system can, in many cases, either reduce or even eliminate the need for battery storage and/or other more elaborate and expensive backup systems, which makes it even more attractive, economical, simple and reliable.

Often the sites that have that amount of flow don't have majestic mountain top panoramic vistas, but that might be an acceptable trade off for many, considering the energy-independence such a site can provide. The micro hydro classification generally goes up to systems making 100kW of electricity or less. Larger installations within this range can power larger homes (with less painstaking economizing of energy loads during planning phases) or even small or neighborhood communities if energy distribution (and other multi-load issues) are carefully thought through and properly designed. In multi-property and/or multi-family micro hydro installations, easements, formal legal agreements, safety, power line losses and other related issues should be taken even more fully into consideration.

Micro Hydro Go/No-Go Feasibility Probably the biggest single viability factor in any micro hydro installation is the product - not to worry, it's simple math - of the head (vertical distance between the water intake and turbine/generator) and the flow (typically measured in gallons per minute) of any proposed system. Here's a simple formula for a ballpark idea of your stream's capacity: Multiply the head (in feet) by the flow (in gallons per minute or gpm), and divide by 12. Power (Watts) = head (feet) * flow (gpm) / 12 This yields an approximation of the potential wattage of a fairly efficient micro hydro system. As an example, with 60 gpm and 80 feet of head, your system should generate something in the range of 400 watts (80*60/12). Over a 24 hour period, assuming steady flow, the generated power would be 9,600 Watt-hours or 9.6 kWh (24 hours/day x 400 Watts). Since this formula involves the product of two factors, a site can still be viable - to a certain extent - if the result of the multiplication is still adequate.

For example, if the flow is only 15 gpm, but the head is 320 feet, the site has about the same 400 Watts of potential power as the 60 gpm, 80 feet of head example. This rough formula starts to fail (the potential power decreases) in the fringe examples of very high head and very low flow, due to friction losses in typically long pipe (penstock) runs needed for sites like these, and minimum flows needed to keep turbines turning. The simple formula also becomes too optimistic at the other end of the spectrum, in massive flow but negligible head situations less than 2 or 3 feet. Read "Myth 5" in the article Micro Hydro Myths & Misconceptions if you're still convinced that you can harness the river flowing past or through your property with a negligible elevation drop.

Measuring Head and Flow Now that you know the formula, how can you obtain adequately accurate measurements for the head and flow parameters? We'll start with flow measurement. For low flow situations, a 5 gallon bucket and a stopwatch or timer can do the trick. Here's a video showing a common kitchen pot and a watch to measure flow. For higher flow situations, a weighted-float method - scroll down this page to read details - can provide an estimate of flow. Now onward to head measurement. If you have a super tall 'Yosemite Falls scale' vertical drop, you could use the altimeter app on your smart phone for a very rough estimate of the head since some of the ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) digital elevation model apps are accurate to +/- 10m or perhaps two readings from a 7.5 minute USGS topographic map (since some have contour lines as small as 10 feet. More likely, for any head measurements of around 200' or less, it's far more accurate to measure the head in other ways. Check out this detailed article: Hydropower Head Measurements that offers 3 different methods to accurately measure the vertical drop between inlet and turbine. These include: 1) Using a surveyor's transit or level and pole, 2) Using a Hose and Pressure gauge, and 3) using a Precision Zip-Level Pro 2000ª. Here's a video showing PVC pipe to measure head.

Regulatory Considerations for Micro Hydro Other 'make or break' considerations for micro hydro systems include regulatory and legal issues around the use of the water. Some jurisdictions don't allow individual or neighborhood hydroelectric systems, even if theoretically every drop is returned to the stream from which the energy-generating water would be temporarily diverted. Some of these considerations include proposed projects requiring dams (that might cause flooding), affecting threatened and endangered species, location within an area classified as a National Wild and Scenic River, Wilderness Area, or National Park, and/or other factors affecting fish or wildlife. This Federal Energy Regulatory Commission page goes into detail about these locations where micro hydro should not be considered.

This page lists additional concerns that warrant investigation before investing in any micro hydro development.

Generally, micro hydro systems are 'run of river' systems which means that the diverted water ends up back in the same stream or river that it was taken from after powering the turbine. If this takes place entirely on your property, this makes it much simpler and minimizes any legal, regulatory, insurance or other administrative issues that might need to be dealt with. When in doubt, the due diligence of a few hours of online research, talking with local micro hydro experts, neighbors (particularly adjacent property owners and/or others that might be affected by diverted water in any conceivable way), appropriate local and state authorities, and other knowledgeable parties can be time well spent, and save further wasted time, expense and effort. Here's a directory of micro hydro consultants world-wide that might be helpful.

Limitations of Micro Hydro Systems Site characteristics define the main limitations of micro hydro systems. Besides the obvious problem of not enough flow (or head), seasonal fluctuations can be a major concern. If there is adequate solar exposure, in some cases this can mitigate having enough pressure only in the rainy/high runoff months and still make a viable overall renewable energy (RE) system. In much the same way, a wind and solar combination can even out shortcomings in one technology by complementing with another that makes up for winter or summer energy deficiencies; when the sun is generating lots of photovoltaic energy, often a wind generator or micro hydro turbine is not, and vice-versa. Overall, if there's enough seasonal overlap - and battery storage - a system can still be viable. A wind and micro hydro only combination might be more difficult, again depending on the location, if, for example, there's plenty of wind and stream flow in winter months, but neither has much capacity in the summertime. If solar and wind aren't feasible complements for a seasonal system - which is often the case down in canyons where hydro power is more plentiful, a conventional fossil-fueled generator backup might still be a viable solution, as long is the generator is only needed on a very short-term or emergency backup basis.

Another frequent disadvantage (compared to wind and solar energy systems) is the typical distance from the turbine to the house (and/or location of loads such as shops and garages). The optimal locations for both extracting water and returning it to the watercourse on any given property are often much more constraining than the relative easy of siting the location of a wind generator or photovoltaic array as close to the load destinations as possible.

Micro Hydro Construction Assuming you've made it this far, and done your homework on flow, head, etc., dealt with all the regulatory, bureaucratic, legal, and other considerations above and still are interested, now you can design your micro hydro system.

Unlike some solar or wind powered installations that can be a bit more turnkey or even approaching appliance-like status, thanks to advances in technology over the past few decades, micro hydro systems tend to be more custom with unique elements and individual considerations for each site. The path that water follows when flowing through a micro hydro system is sometimes called 'civil works' and there's often a bit of civil engineering, hydrology and fluid dynamics involved; fortunately, micro hydroelectric systems have matured to where system design is fairly straightforward. It's still a good idea to hire an expert or at least get someone knowledgeable with micro hydro experience to review your detailed plans before you begin or spend any significant amount on the project.

In general, there are many common components, starting with the intake point where water is diverted, sometimes a canal leading to a forebay, a penstock (closed piping within which pressure builds for subsequent turbine use), the turbine (including the generator) wiring and other electrical components (which may include batteries and other regulation) that interface the generator with intended loads, and finally a tailrace channel that returns water that emerges from the turbine back into the stream or river. We'll look at each of these components and consider selection and design factors for each. This page has a diagram showing typical components.

Water Diversion and Intake Filtering Water used by the micro hydro turbine is diverted at the intake point. All systems should have some mechanism to exclude silt (e.g. a settlement basin and some type of filtering), both floating and submerged debris, fish and other aquatic life, ice and anything else that could impede the flow or clog the system. A progressive filtration approach with larger bars or screens that leads to finer filters may be helpful. The intake components often have some sort of mechanical valve or gate to shut off the supply for maintenance and inspection. Here's an article that describes a variety of intake systems with typical price ranges. Some systems benefit from a canal and forebay to divert an adequate portion of the flow to minimize turbulence and ensure steady pressure to the penstock, which is the next point in the water's travel. These canals and forebays can be made with concrete, asphalt, gunite/shotcrete or similar materials.

Penstock Considerations The enclosed piping that carries water to the turbine is called a penstock. If the distance between the intake or forebay and the turbine is long and/or convoluted, the cost of the penstock can become a major cost factor. For longer runs, larger diameter pipe may be needed to avoid losing much of the initial water pressure to pipe friction. Each bend in the piping also introduces additional losses due to turbulence of the water inside the pipe fitting; obviously a perfectly straight penstock run isn't usually practical, but care should be made to approach this ideal, minimize unnecessary bends and keep internal pipe surfaces smooth to optimize flow. A seasoned micro hydro installer can assist with pipe sizing and layout. Here's a formula and online calculator (using the Hazen-Williams Equation) for estimating friction head loss in water pipes. Also, since materials used in penstock piping expand and contract with temperature swings, make sure to factor this into your design.ÊTo be thorough in your penstock design, this article covers many other important details, as well as pipe sizing guidelines.

Turbine Selection The choice of turbine (and a generator carefully matched that optimizes mechanical to electrical power transfer efficiency, as well as transmission line considerations) depends greatly on the amount of head and flow. Since this usually requires site-specific design, we'll just cover some of the primary types here and where they are generally used. Most turbines also have a valve (or valves) that can slowly and safely be engaged (since there's often tremendous pressure at the bottom of the penstock) for turbine and generator maintenance.

Pelton wheel turbines have a ring of small buckets arranged around a wheel, each one catching the flow of one (or several) jets of water. In some systems with seasonal pressure variations, the number of active jets can be changed to optimize efficiency and performance. Pelton turbines work well with lower flows as long as there is sufficient head pressure. If you're familiar with electrical circuitry, this would be analogous to higher voltage, lower current systems (although we're talking about a water pressure and current here).

Francis turbines- with their spiral casing being fed by the penstock - direct water through vanes attached to a rotor, and benefit from both radial and axial flow. This type of turbine is better suited to higher flow, lower head situations.

Cross-flow turbines also known as Banki-Michell, or Ossberger turbines, use a series of fixed, curved blades mounted between the perimeters of two disks, forming a cylinder. Water flows into one side of the cylinder and out the other side, which drives the blades. Cross-flow turbines are optimal for even lower heads and larger flows. Their simpler, self-cleaning design, and hence lower manufacturing and operating cost, can be helpful.

Propeller turbines, of which the Kaplan turbine is an example, are also optimal for very low heads with big flows. Blades can be either fixed (like a boat's propeller), or adjustable, as in the Kaplan turbine, which optimizes efficiency with varying flows. There are other types of turbines and variations, and numerous vendors. Regardless of the type of turbine being considered, always consult with the vendor and/or an experienced micro hydro installer to make sure the components match both the hydraulic and electrical characteristics of your system. As an example of typical power output for a variety of head and flow values, here's a chart for one vendor's turbine (Harris Hydro Pelton Wheel).

Tailrace Before jumping from hydraulic power to electrical power, let's follow the water's return from the turbine back to the stream, usually called a tailrace. Since we don't care about maintaining pressure at this point, now that the water has done the work we wanted it to do, it can flow back to the stream or river of origin through any convenient and appropriate mechanism. Often a tailrace consists of an open, lined canal, channel or flume to minimize the cost of piping. The effects of erosion, debris and freezing temperatures should be factored in to ensure that this end-of-the-route part of the system remains as low-maintenance as the other components.

Generators Generators can be either Direct Current (DC) which generally power an inverter, or Alternating Current (AC) which typically have lower transmission losses for longer runs, and can also be part of on-grid (synchronous) as well as off-grid systems. In most cases, generators are paired with specific turbines to maximize efficiency, cost-effectiveness, safety and other considerations. Your installer or RE consultant can advise which turbine/generator pairings will optimize your particular setup.

Wiring Just as water pressure decreases due to smaller pipe diameter constriction, electrical pressure (voltage) also decreases as wire diameters go down. For similar reasons, wire gauge should be sized and optimized to match the needed run between the turbine and load(s) and/or inverter(s) and/or batteries. Low gauge (higher diameter) wire gets more expensive quickly, so longer runs benefit from higher voltages, but then safety and regulatory issues come into play (particularly with DC voltages above 48 Volts). (As an aside, cross-country utility power transmission lines use extremely high voltages to minimize power losses, since power losses are proportional to (I^2)*R [current squared times resistance], so sending power long distances at high voltages and low currents decreases the power loss that goes up exponentially as the current goes up.) Here's an American Wire Gauge (AWG) chart to help with wire sizing and another to choose appropriate wire size for any renewable energy project (not just micro hydro).

Electrical Components There are numerous variations in electrical system architecture for micro hydro sites, just as the hydraulic components vary widely. Four main classifications include the permutations of systems with and without batteries, and with and without grid connection. For this reason, it's best to work with the intended load(s) and variations on a case-by-case basis. A micro hydro professional (augmented with other online and offline resources) can be of tremendous help here. That being said, a few generalizations can be made. As suggested above, systems with steady, consistent year-round flow can often minimize or even eliminate storage (e.g. battery) and/or backup (e.g. generator or wind/solar complementary sources). The most reliable systems will have some sort of battery storage, charge controllers, and unless a home or shop or outbuilding is designed for Direct Current (DC) wiring, lighting and appliances, an inverter. Here are numerous professional Renewable Energy (RE) consultants as well as online resources.

Other Micro Hydro Advantages and Uses Along with the obvious benefits of self-reliance and energy independence that micro hydro systems provide, don't forget to explore any tax credits or incentives for local, state or federal renewable / sustainable power! These vary over time and vary with the specific technology, but when in effect, can sometimes defray a significant portion of an alternative/remote power system. While this article addresses primarily water power converted to electrical power, let's not forget the historical precedent that goes back many more centuries; water to mechanical power. Here's an example of a commercial water-powered grain mill in southern Oregon which is a fun and educational stop if you happen to be nearby.

Additional References
Wikipedia article on Micro Hydro Home Power Magazine (a wealth of useful info on all aspects of Renewable Energy) Energy Planet on Micro Hydro PesWiki: River Energy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: Micro Hydro Neweras Develop. Limited: Micro Hydro  

Vendor Contact Info
Here are a few micro hydro manufacturers; there are many more online. Home Power Magazine: Micro Hydro Equipment and Products Energy Source Guides: US Micro Hydro Turbines MicroHydroPower.net: Manufacturers Directory  

About The Author: L.K.O. is SurvivalBlog's Central Rockies Regional Editor

Friday, November 9, 2012

I am an 18 year old guy in a family of 8 in a suburban home 10 miles from the nearest city in central New Jersey.
We knew it was coming a week in advance. So did just about everyone in the tri-state area. There was no hiding the fact. Even with a looming election, Hurricane Sandy got "saturation media coverage". Terms like "superstorm" , "catastrophic", and "unprecedented" were being used in almost every Hurricane Sandy story. This storm was supposed to bring catastrophic damage to New Jersey and New York, with moderate rain, high winds, and an unbelievable storm surge. Some were already prepared. Some listened and followed the instructions given by government officials to prepare for the storm.  However, even with all of this overemphasis, many people did not prepare to any degree. All involved learned a lesson. Here is our experience.
What we had on hand: We had already purchased an 1,250 watt / 35,00 watt peak inverter to power the sump pump in the case of a blackout during a flood. It had been used only once in the past five years (a freak 4 hour power outage a few months ago) and seemed to be a waste of money, until now. An aperture was installed which connected the sump pump in the basement with the inverter in the garage. We tested the sump pump and the refrigerator on this inverter running off the 2004 Honda Pilot family vehicle and both worked fine. Also, we had recently  purchased a hand crank spotlight from Harbor Freight Tools, more as a gadget than a useful tool. I also repaired a defunct 1 million candlepower spotlight with a 6V 3.5Ah lead acid battery, to be used on nighttime prowlers (effectiveness is questionable). FRS radios are also on hand, but one pair for eight people is not much. Further, my dad likes our house to be in top condition and so made sure every one of the slightest bubbles in the siding or loose tiles in the roof were immediately repaired.
I also had a small personal bug out bag (laptop carrying bag) packed to bursting with survival supplies, as well as accessory supplies and documents in my room in easy-to-carry containers. Supplies were also stored in my 2004 Ford Explorer, my bug out vehicle and bug out location in one. Altogether, these supplies would enable me to live more than a week on my own on the road quite comfortably. Other members of my family did not have any such supplies, despite my pleas. As a family, we probably had 2 days supply of ready-to-eat food. With me sharing all of my supplies, we would have 3 days of shelf-stable prepared food, but as all of you readers know, that is only enough to get yourself into a shelter safely.
Before the storm: After being warned that Hurricane Sandy was a potential threat to our area, we immediately began making plans based on NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) forecasts, which were extraordinarily accurate and dependable. (We should have prepared instead for a worst case scenario: remember the New England Hurricane of 1938.) Once we knew a hurricane was heading our way, we got ready for immediate usage of the sump pump by running a cord between the pump and the inverter. During the six inches of rain from Hurricane / Tropical Storm. Irene our sump pump was barely keeping up with the water flow, and an  interruption of power for only a minute would surely mean a flooded basement. Although we were expecting less rain this time around, we were taking no chances. I volunteered as a member of CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). We also filled up on gas on Saturday and Sunday. The Pilot was filled on Sunday night, and even then many gas stations were out of fuel. On Sunday night we also brought in all movable outdoor objects. We did not have to worry about trimming trees because we had no large trees around our house. All rechargeable devices and batteries were charged on Sunday. We did not purchase any food, water, or batteries during the store runs before the storm, although we could have used food. College classes were cancelled on Monday, so I spent the whole day watching the slowly increasing winds and reading news reports (which I generally ignored) and NOAA predictions (which I paid attention to). One of the last things we did on Monday before the power outage was to fill a large tub with tap water. We also filled a 5 gallon pot with drinking water, in case of contamination or a loss of city water pressure. Bottled water was already stockpiled due to recent sales, as a secondary backup.
During the storm: The wind began picking up as the storm made landfall, and the rain came down steadily and lightly, which was not a problem. Reports of the storm surge flooding New York began to come in. The house crackled occasionally as a strong gust hit it. We were reading and studying the Bible as a family at 19:00 EDT when the power was extinguished. Internet, land line, and cell phone connectivity were gone. Most of us had flashlights, so we went on without much trouble. Only one of my sisters and my mom did not have personal flashlights, so we found a crank-charged 3-LED Li-ion flashlight from a educational kit for my sister to use. My mom shared a 18V Ni-Cd incandescent work light with my dad. The rest of us used a 16-LED Pb-acid crank spotlight, cheap 9-LED 3 AAA flashlights, and a recently purchased Chinese 1-LED 1 AA alkaline flashlight. Personally, I am a flashlight fanatic and own over a dozen fully functional flashlights, as well as some homemade ones. I used my pocket 9-LED 3 carbon zinc AAA flashlight for a while but soon switched to my freebie Forever Flashlight III by Excalibur. It used to have a 1 farad capacitor but the original owner needed it and took it out. I installed a 0.1 farad memory capacitor from scrap components. It is nothing compared to its former self but is still quite usable and does not require batteries. The wind increased. Some people did not keep their houses in good shape and we went out and pick up several pieces of sheet metal in our yard in tropical storm - force winds. One of the metal pieces got stuck 40 feet in the air in the top of a tree, attesting to the significant strength and dangers of the wind. We were aware of our surroundings and away from any big trees while outside. Back inside the house, we sat and watched the flashes of greenish light from exploding transformers and shorting wires in astonishment for a while before retiring for the night.
After the storm: Tuesday morning, I prepared for my CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) duty. I had signed up before the storm to work an 8 hour shift (8:00 to 16:00) at the Somerset County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) answering phone calls. There were many trees down in my neighborhood and tree branches all over the road. In the news were reports of death and complete devastation on the Jersey coastline and NYC. I almost ran into a tree with attached electrical wire on a curve on a local road. This disturbance was  the source of the brightest light show last night. I  turned around and after some driving met a second partial roadblock and bypassed it, following the example of the car in front of me. We turned onto a major road and got stopped by a police roadblock, having to make a long detour. By the time I got onto the interstate, I had about 12 minutes to go. A trip that normally takes 15 minutes took me 35 minutes. All traffic lights were out but very few people were driving, so traffic was not a problem. I got to my destination without any further hassle and began my duties. One of the first things I noticed was that the Emergency Management personnel and resources were overtaxed. In only once incidence, several shelters closed over the 8 hour period (one due to a tree falling through the roof), with the unfortunates being herded from one to the next just as they began to get comfortable. When I left at 4 PM, much power was back up in the town where the EOC was located, but my township was just as dark as before. Long gas lines were everywhere, and this was not even 24 hours after the storm. I came home to a hot meal as we are able to run the stove without electricity. We were running the car / inverter assembly as little as possible to conserve gasoline, which was in very short supply due to extensive outages and lack of preparedness on the part of gas station owners. The inverter was never turned on for anything other than the washer or the refrigerator. Devices were charged piecemeal throughout the day. This was in contrast to my neighbor, who had very little gas supply but was running her generator 24 hours a day outside of her garage. We watched a legally downloaded movie on my laptop's battery power before going to bed.
Wednesday went very similarly, with everyone finding things to do that did not require mains power. When the refrigerator was turned on, I charged my laptop. I still did not have any phone service or internet access. Radio was the only outlet to the outside world, and several radios were taken out to find out what was going on. I listened to WNYC, which was covering the hurricane extensively. We did not believe the water supply was contaminated so we continued to drink from the tap after initial usage of stored water. However, several people in our home were getting intestinal problems and we were getting suspicious, especially after hearing a boiled water advisory for the neighboring city. Most of us continued to drink tap water, though. In the evening, we decided to try to get some laundry done. The washer ran fine on the inverter, but we only did one load to save gas. The dryer could not start turning though due to the huge current the motor required. We had to assemble makeshift clotheslines and hang up the clothes in the basement. We rationed the number of clothes that could be used to prevent wasteful washing of slightly damp dish towels, night clothes, etc. The Pb-acid 16 LED spotlight was very useful for taking showers, hanging up clothes, and hanging around, although a hand-crank LED lantern would be much better. We made a rule that significant use by a person required 5 minutes of cranking time by the same person. This kept the spotlight fully charged the whole time.
Our neighbor who ran her generator excessively ran out of gas and asked us for some. We gave her our only 5 gallon tank full of gas. She used it up in two days and went to the local gas station to refill it. A left turn onto a divided highway and a lack of police enabled them to unwittingly cut into the front of the line and get 5 gallons of gas. During the whole power outage, we only idled away half a tank of gas (11 gallons) in a 2004 Honda Pilot for the entire power outage; the gas can was only for our neighbor, who continued to run her generator all night. We heard news about 2 mile gas lines in NYC and a possible water shortage in NJ, with critically low fuel levels for some of the water pumps. All college classes for the week were cancelled, but I had no way of knowing that and decided to just not show up due to the gas shortage. Unfortunately, the EOC tried to reach me several times by email and cell with opportunities for volunteer work, but I could not know that and did not respond. After hearing some news of looting, I decided to take a walk around our completely dark neighborhood at 9:30 pm every night with my renovated spotlight. I also hung a dim LED light in our window to give the idea that our house is occupied. Still, to the hundreds without generators living a short distance from us, our high concentration of idling cars and roaring generators parked temptingly in garages and driveways were a security risk. The more the garage was closed on our idling Honda Pilot, the harder it was to notice and get the vehicle, but the more lethal the  CO concentrations were. We were very careful to avoid breathing the fumes and settled on a 1 foot opening for all 3 garages.

[JWR Adds: Every home should have a couple of carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. If your garage is attached to your home, make sure that the connecting door has a tight seal and DO NOT idle your car for extended periods unless your main garage door is wide open. Otherwise, CO could creep into your house. Beware that CO poisoning is insidious and cumulative!]

We left twice during the power outage to go food shopping and replenish our empty cabinets. Fortunately, the local supermarket prepared well for the disaster, and was well stocked and well lighted. We would have been in a bad situation if there was no good food in the stores. More alarmingly, we began noticing a foul smell from some of the water that we collected during the storm in teakettles and canteens and immediately discarded all of it. This was probably bacterial or sediment contamination due to the storm, and the intestinal problems were explained. Our power came back on Saturday at 11:00 EDT, and we returned to a normal life. After a time without power, we were really getting used to it, and had only good feelings for PSE&G.
Lessons learned: There are several lessons we learned from this experience. Relying on existing infrastructure or government directly after a disaster to any degree is a bad idea. If Sandy had dumped rain like most other hurricanes do flooding would only compound the problem with important roadways flooded or even washed out and utility crews unable to perform their assessments. Another is that perishable items should be consumed as quickly as possible after a storm to avoid any spoilage. To prevent grocery runs, at least two weeks worth of non-perishable items should also be stocked up. To keep appliances going, at least 20 gallons of stabilized gasoline should be stored to deal with up to three weeks without power. To prevent failures like with the clothes dryer, test out disaster supplies before using them; an expensive tri-fuel generator is useless if it cannot provide the surge current for a vital appliance. To prevent intestinal problems, do not rely on city water in a disaster; store your own drinking and sanitation water. To prevent panic and uncertainty, create a full disaster plan encompassing every situation. Get necessary items before everyone else is grabbing for them. If like me you feel overwhelmed by this task, this blog is an excellent source of material for preparedness, from the simplest tools to the most extreme hideout. Use the links on the left to explore the wealth of knowledge in t he archives. Be ready, - Luke


A friend in Pennsylvania e-mailed me this terse note:

We have had no power now for seven days. Most lines to get gas in nj were three hours long all week. We have even/odd gas rationing now (oddly/unfortunately enough we just found out that all seven of our cars have odd license plates!) The phone system is hit or miss, (I've been getting voice mails 2-3 days after they were left without my phone ever saying I missed a call.) The last we heard they estimate we will have power a week from tomorrow. [November 15th.] Our generator is having voltage problems so the washer won't work. I've had to bring my own gas in a can to Brooklyn to be able to get back. Fights have broken out at a lot of gas stations, even Blairstown. Someone in Jersey pulled out a gun at one station. I was offered $50 for my empty gas can. Full ones sell for $100. We had services today in the cold and dark, no power there either. We fill the cars up with gas in Pennsylvania then siphon it out for the generator to save trips.

Regards, - Bob G.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Good day, Mr Rawles...

Here in West Virginia, we have experienced a wide variety of weather from Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy.  Last Friday, it began raining well ahead of storm making landfall. Rains continued off and on thru the weekend, gradually increasing in steady rains all day Sunday and well into Monday. Around 7 pm our local time, that rain turned to snow and that's when things began to get interesting. 

I tend to be a light sleeper so it was the 'sound' of power going off at 2:34 am on Saturday morning that awakened me for the day.  I got coffee started with the percolator then sat by a window watching and listening as trees and branches snapped due to winds and the weight of a foot of heavy, wet snow that fell since dark the night before.  Once your eyes have a few minutes to adjust to the sudden darkness, it is quite uncanny how aware of things you become.  Sounds are amplified, movements are detected more quickly, response time to your surroundings are automatic, perhaps mechanical in a way. I think I like this!

As of this writing (Friday), we do not have power nor do we expect it to be restored anytime soon.  On top of the more than 2 feet of heavy, wet snow that Sandy delivered, there are literally hundreds of trees and power lines down throughout the state.  Our county suffered structural damage to some main power stations (including transformers). Yesterday, I was told by the Dept. of Highways that the county road about a mile from our house would not be plowed due to downed power lines. At the same time, the power company stated they could not begin to work on electric lines when the roads had not been cleared. Go figure!

For us, our preps and food on hand prior to the storm will keep us sustained for a very long time. Heat is not an issue. We have free natural gas on our property, plus more than one heat system that does not require electricity to function.  Water is also not an issue. We have a gravity fed spring, not a well, that does not require electricity to get our water. Cisterns collect thousands of gallons of this pure water and gravity flow delivers it to our home. Water pressure isn't optimal (like having city water) but it's a reliable clean water source (one of many). I can live without being pressure washed in the shower. We have not yet finished our secondary power source installation for maintain electricity but it is still in the works. Currently, we run our generator 2-3 times a day for a couple of hours at a time to keep the freezers and inside refrigerator cold. We keep fuel topped off at all times as well as have plenty of other fuel sources on hand for lights, cooking or whatever else might arise. After the first 2 days following the storm, we were able to clear paths to the main roads and can still get to town for things if needed. 

About five months ago, our area endured an unexpected, black-swan weather event (a derecho) over the summer. Five counties in this area were completely black and without electricity.  It left thousands without power for days, some even weeks. Our electric was out for more than 10 days in a 100 degree heat wave.  I would much rather endure loss of power during winter than summer. That event left many without food and water simply because they failed to heed even the basic guideline of having a minimum of 72 hours worth of food and water on hand in the event of a crisis. Folks did not connect (in their brains) that a lack of power to the city water systems would result in their water supply to suddenly stop flowing. They questioned why didn't the city just have generators in place to take up the slack (they did). These same people also didn't realize lack of power meant no way to pump fuel to power the generators. Panic ensued from many who finally realized their ATM, debit/card cards weren't going to work. The shock of businesses not accepting checks, only cash for payment of goods or services was enough to bring out the 'zombiesque' in many people. I was prepared to begin canning hundreds of pounds of meat, etc. even with the summer heat, rather than throw it away. Many people I talked to hadn't even thought about canning and these are people who grow gardens and routinely do some food preservation each season. Duh-mazing! Fortunately, we were able to keep enough fuel on hand for the generators in order to prevent such loss.

Superstorm Sandy was not a sudden surprise. There were many advanced warnings. Local, state and federal officials spent hours on television, radio and Internet pleading with those in harms way to evacuate or be fully prepared to hunker down with sufficient supplies for possibly a long while. In our area, we are used to snow storms...bad ones are not uncommon here. Yet, people still fail to plan or prepare, fully expecting someone to come rescue them when the going gets tough. The term 'normalcy bias' immediately comes to mind.

Now, we are in the middle of another natural disaster and there are still plenty of people who are clamoring about officials not having some kind of plan in place for everyone. These are the same folks who were demanding they get their food replaced from the summer storm losses.  There are people in our area (and others) who do not even have enough common sense to make a natural, outdoor cooler from all this snow to their cold/frozen goods in for preservation. I have been continually shocked at the complete absence of critical thinking, especially from folks who I really thought 'knew better'.

I read recently that a first responder in the New York/New Jersey area said, "We simply cannot save people from themselves." I don't believe I fully realized just how critical mindset is in a SHTF situation until now.  Sure, I talked about it, saw things first hand with how mindless and crippled society has become but I never really grasped the brevity of that until this storm.  Granted, this is not a TEOTWAWKI situation or even a long term SHTF event (thus far). We are fine in our supplies and, thank the Lord, have not endured loss other than some structural issues with our farm fencing due to falling trees. Our current setup is better than most but yet it is very painful to see other human beings suffer, often times simply due to their failure to do anything to protect themselves or their family.

For those of you out there who are still reading and planning but not yet doing anything, please, please, please get off that carousel of inaction and begin putting that gray matter to use! Don't be one of those people who freeze up during a catastrophe or one of those who crawl back into bed, hoping they will wake up and everything will be okay. You have been awakened for a time and a purpose. Don't waste the opportunity to do better for yourself and your loves ones. Just remember, "indecision is still a decision". Are you ready? - C.A.T., the Transparent Shepherdess


Good Morning,
We faired very well, thanks to our preparations, which were enhanced by the knowledge gained from your fantastic web site these last several years.  Being “old Yankees” farm raised, we always knew that we needed to be as self-sufficient as possible.  We have thirteen older house cats, one feral outside, and one of our cats is insulin dependent.  Hence keeping his insulin at proper temperature is very important.  We have standard size refrigerator/freezer, a smaller one, and a small upright freezer.  We always have frozen freezer packs and containers of ice and many thick foam coolers, so we are set for many days.  Sterno stove is great for warming and even cooking, as well as backup with twig camp stove, small pellet camp stove and charcoal grill.  We ate very well:  grass fed beef, organic vegetables from local farm, and have months worth of No. 10 cans or all kinds of food and MREs.  Hundreds of gallons of drinking and flushing water as we are on a well.  Filled up both cars before the storm hit, and being retired no need to go anywhere, nor plans to do so.   

The living room has propane gas stove and three 100 gallon propane tanks.  We just completed installation of 15,000 watt Wenco generator and 500 gallon propane tank.  The “maiden voyage” of Wally Wenco and Polly Propane was 100% effective, plus we were able to provide basic services to the tenants in the 1200 sq. ft. guest house.  Neighbors notified they could come for hot shower, etc. if need be after the storm.  We ran the Wenco only a few hours AM & PM, to conserve propane.  Had plenty of flashlights, batteries, two crank radios, hundreds of books, hundreds pounds of dry and canned cat food, and the “means” to defend ourselves.  So, these two old ladies were just fine, and the year before had 22 trees removed from near the house on this almost four acre lot in a small town, so the house was safe!  Power went out Monday afternoon and came back Wednesday night.

Because we have always been financially frugal, maintain our older vehicles, and do not spend our money on fancy electronics, clothes, etc., we were able to upgrade our survival comfort with the propane generator.  We know that a long term survival in a true TEOTWAWKI for us is not possible, but we have that covered also, especially as just a few miles from us is a nuclear plant.  Were we a few decades younger, we would be living in the American Redoubt, because we have “knowledge” that would be useful, and physically be able to survive.  We are still trying to convince our younger relatives to be more prepared, because someday we will not be around, though they know that our long term food and other supplies are a legacy we can leave them for America’s uncertain future! - L.H. in Lyme, CT

Good morning. If still of use to your readers, here’s Storm Update #3 for Princeton and Margate City, NJ, that I just sent to our friends.
Friday morning. No power still.
Yesterday, after my early run for gasoline, we did the first laundry since Sunday. I cranked open the window and rigged up the extension cords to the genny. Our daughters hardly issued a complaint with helping to fold – a chore they dislike – but under the circumstances, I’m guessing there’s something extra nice about fresh, warm, clean clothes. I continued cleaning-up the property and then helped my wife (Steph) make lunch. We heard back from our eldest daughter’s piano and singing teachers… they were willing to accommodate lessons cancelled by the storm if we could get there. Both are within a few miles of the house and a minute away from each other. The piano teacher gives lessons from her home and the singing teacher uses a local Church. Both had power restored. Needing a break of normalcy, my wife and I agreed. I would stay at the house with our youngest, while she ventured with the other. My wife was also going to see if the local farmer’s market was open.
Steph went to the farmer’s market and did her first ever shopping by flashlight. There was a line, and the store was allowing five people in at a time with an employee escort for each with flashlight to assist with shopping. Cash payment only. They only had non-perishables and the shelves were sparse. Several items she wanted – mostly soups – were gone. She did find a wonderful organic butternut squash soup among other groceries, and a bag of carrots. These were part of our dinner mix last night. On the way there, she sadly observed the destruction around Princeton. Trees down everywhere, debris, cars and houses hit, but lots of lucky falls as well – a few feet in either direction and the tree damage would have been far worse for many people.
In the afternoon, mail was delivered. I spoke at length with our delivery person. The workers that had reported for duty were sorting mail by lantern/flashlight, first class was backed-up for this week, and if they didn’t find more gasoline, mail would not be delivered for a few days even if the power was restored.
About an hour later, our next door neighbor knocked… they were leaving to find a hotel. This is a neurologist who works at a major medical center. Not wealthy, but he could have afforded a house generator system if like minded. I offered our home (these are also good folks), but they didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. They simply asked that I text them when power returns. Coincidentally, I checked in via mobile text with my best friend from Maplewood, NJ, telling him my concern that all of our neighbors were vanishing to hotels or extended family, and the reply text stated that he was in a hotel in Philadelphia with his family.
So, at this point, we have three categories of people. Those without generators who left days ago, those who have generators but not hooked up to the critical systems (leaving for lack of water, food, sanitation, heat, etc.) and those with hard-wired generators staying put as long as the natural gas flows or gasoline is available. Remember, these aren’t hardy country folk or preppers. They aren’t used to grid down or even making do with less. My friend in Maplewood – I’ve known him since 5th grade – he can afford anything he wants and still no house power system or supplies. I wonder how many people have now received the wake-up call? Perhaps Sandy is a blessing in that regard. Still, as much as I’m grateful not to be overwhelmed by cold and hungry neighbors, the evening walk with Aslan our dog was eerie. Empty houses greatly outnumbered the occupied. What would these people do if there was no external refuge in which to retreat? Would my family be a target even among friendly neighbors? Last night, I began thinking more seriously about the Mossberg secured under our bed… I train/shoot at Range 14 at Fort Dix in NJ.  I’d also like to put in a half-way plug here for solar lighting. My experience is that even the top of the line flood/spot lights will have a failure rate approaching 50% after a year. However, beyond a sizable alert dog, there are few better crime deterrents here than good exterior lighting. Our house is bathed in a blue glow of solar lighting for most of the night. I understand this cuts both ways in terms of standing out… but there are other homes with accent solar lighting on walkways/driveways, so perhaps it does not make us that much of an oddball, especially with the interior of the house dark.
We received a message that there would be no school on Friday - today. The roads and lack of operating stoplights are still a safety hazard, and it turns out the school’s fire safety system shorted out during the storm. They estimate that it will be fixed by Monday, November 5th, and that classes will resume then. Things in Princeton are improving each day, and we hope to have power back soon. Other parts of NJ are still chaotic as you get more urban (Jersey City, Hoboken) and closer to the Shore.
Turning to Margate City, under immense pressure, the barrier island access restriction was partially lifted by the Governor late yesterday. Several of my Shore friends – the locals – were finally getting into town to survey the damage. The ones that stayed had been giving us a reasonable heads-up on conditions. No food or water available on island (but the local bar was serving drinks) and the word is that wherever the water surge line stopped at your house is the measure of damage. Margate has modestly varying heights of property, bulkheads and dunes for protection. But when ocean meets bay, pretty much everyone is in a jam. Mom is stubbornly making her way back to our family home on the beach block. Bull dozers are clearing walking paths through the sand on a street by street basis. We should have a full report later today on the interior water damage. Ventnor City remains voluntarily closed due to the infrastructure issues, and the access restriction for Atlantic City still holds – at least that’s what I last heard.
I’m going to start the day’s work. Best to all. - Bill H.

Hi Jim,
Where I live in southern Pennsylvania, it rained solid, although very lightly most of the time, for 6 days straight. Today it's finally letting off. We did have some high winds on Monday and Tuesday, but we haven't had any flooding (despite living in a valley beside a stream) and no wind damage. The power did go out for a few hours Tuesday morning while we were sleeping, but otherwise it was a non event here.

Having lived through a high wind storm a number of years ago that took out our power for a week, we're a little more prepared than we were then. We now have a 500 gallon propane tank and a gas range (cooking stove), a wood burner with plenty of seasoned wood, and a hand pump for water if needed.

A few notes about that might interest readers:
Regarding the gas range, we can light [the cooktop burners] with matches, which means we need to have a large supply of matches on hand for extended power outages. Also, we didn't realize the oven [portion of the range] won't light without electricity because it has a fancy-dancy electronic control mechanism. Fortunately we don't use the oven much, but we now know better and next
time we'll make sure the oven is usable without electricity.

Also, our
house and well are situated in such a manner that we have a Bison hand pump in our basement. In the event of a power outage, all I have to turn is turn a few valves and we can pump as much water as we need. We also can hook up a hose from the pump directly into our water system. It won't be enough to shower, but it'll be enough to flush toilets, which certainly beats using buckets to flush!

Lastly, where I work, we have a lot of customers that were hit hard by Sandy. I've been astounded by how unprepared they were. It's very clear many did not make any effort to have disaster recovery tests. They need RSA security tokens to access our system, and we've had numerous calls from customers stating "when we evacuated, we left our tokens at the office". I've also heard "our server is under water". I hope they had an offsite backup! If nothing else, this [relatively] "minor" Category 1 storm should help them be prepared for the next one.

Regards, - C.G.

Friday, November 2, 2012

I'm a long time reader of your blog and books. I live in Philadelphia. We have a house in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Please look at Seven Mile Island Times and Stone Harbor on Facebook for an idea of our situation there. The whole island was underwater. Our docks washed away and our boat is on the sidewalk, still chained to the trailer. 

We lucked out, the house is fine and built high. We still have electricity and water in Philly. What I took away from this experience can be seen in this HuffPo article.

We were prepared: I filled the tub with water, and topped off all our [vehicle] gas [tanks] prior. A buddy of mine lost power and has no water (pump to well died). His new generator is useless because there is no gas available anywhere. He couldn't even drive to work. Thousands are in line to buy gas all across the region, cans in hand. Stations are either empty and can't rely on distribution, or their pumps are down because of power outages. A family member left NYC this morning to drive to the house in Jersey to see the damage. Despite his full tank, he didn't have enough gas and after reaching a line of cars a mile and a half long had to turn back to NY. We have our vehicles filled up and a few cans topped off. I'm the only one that can get there to see the damage first hand, going Friday myself. Things are bad, but this gas situation shocked me and I heard about it all day from friends and co workers who were in a bad way because of it. Many here were caught with nothing. No power, no water, no gas. Thanks to our preps and luck, we're fairing well. Point being, take this type of disaster seriously and encourage people you know to prepare ahead of time. Fill those fuel tanks and stabilize them! Best, - T.H.


Good Morning,
We live just north of Philadelphia in a suburban area. Because of a house fire we are living in a recreational vehicle (RV) on our property during the [insurance] settlement and restoration of our house. Prior to the storm, the RV was parked close to our apple trees (we have several acres and are blessed with a large garden and fruit trees) and so decided that for the hurricane we should move it to the driveway where it could sit on a hard surface.  About the time that it looked like we should head west to our retreat area instead of waiting out the storm...the roads were closed for all high profile vehicles, trailers, etc. so we couldn't leave. As a side note, our retreat area was dealing with high winds and snow. So having said all that, here are some of the results and my thoughts:
1) Had this been a true emergency (G.O.O.D.) we would have been in real trouble as we couldn't get the RV out of the yard (she is older, 37 ft. long and 20,000 lbs. loaded). We had to call a towing service to winch her out and fortunately did so several days before the storm hit. The point? Make sure if you are using an RV as a bug out vehicle that it can actually move. Parking it off to the side somewhere might be convenient but not do so well if you need to get it out fast. The ground was solid when we originally situated her but soft when we went to move her due to recent rain and cloudy days not drying things out. Also, make sure you start all of your systems regularly as they are no different than any other piece of equipment. Heat, air, truck engine, generator, batteries, all need to be maintained and started monthly to ensure that they will work for you when you need them. Tires crack and get dry rot when not taken care of or used.
2) Because of the weight of the vehicle we had very little movement of the RV during the high winds. A couple of scary moments when gusts reached 70 mph but over all, pretty good. My complaint of how much gas she uses over the road because of her weight is no longer a complaint as the weight kept the RV grounded. We put the stabilizers down just enough to support and level but not enough to take the RV off of her tires. I keep the gas tank topped off and stabilized just in case, so always have 75 gal. of gas for driving and generator use but in a bug out situation she will only go about 400 miles on that tank. Our retreat area is 650 miles away...so we would have to carry extra gas. Another consideration is, what if gas is used for generator power before bugging out.
3) We had heat, electricity(generator), water, food and septic when everyone around us was in darkness so things stayed normal for us. We ended up putting the RV right next to the neighbors house so we could use the RV generator to keep his septic pump, sump pumps and our freezer working (he has been so kind as to allow us to put our fully loaded freezer in his garage since the fire). Although we had over 125 gal of gas, 2- 100 lb propane tanks and kerosene, had this been of long duration we would be hoofing it out on foot after a few weeks or in a real rough camping environment. Also, our food stores are in a storage unit for the time being and would have to be left behind if we had to leave. Reality is a sobering thought.
4) If you are bugging out, get out before the roads are closed. That one is a hard decision to make as before a storm or an emergency everything seems normal and you have no idea how bad things will get or good they will be. So when do you leave? Good question and one that we are discussing for the future. We waited too long in this case and had it been catastrophic for this area we would have been part of the catastrophe. Even though we have 2 years of food and our beans, bullets and band aids in order.
5) I went to our storage unit a few hours before the storm was to start to get a couple of buckets of grain and my grain grinder, along with other supplies. While there, decided to pay the unit rent early. Inside the office the young man behind the desk was fielding calls from other storage facilities as to what to do to prepare their properties for the storm. He responded that he had no clue and told me that there wasn't anything in their manual on how to handle this sort of situation. I asked him if he had any personal supplies, he responded that he some canned food. I then asked him if he had a non electric can opener to open his cans with and he didn't think so. WOW... For those who have supplies in storage units, check to see what provisions they have in place for security in grid down scenario and for goodness sake don't let anyone know that you have food stored there. Our storage unit is a mile away and I realized that in a serious situation we would have to move those supplies quickly and quietly.
6) We were able to stay in communications with the children who live in our retreat area through texting when the phones and cell service were spotty. I was able to use my hotspot intermittently for e-mails, news and weather. We also have a hand cranked weather radio that works very well had we needed it.
7) This is off topic but I have a years supply of my blood pressure medicine. I was able to get it through an online pharmacy in Canada. They require a hand written script and communication with your physician but I get six months of name brand prescriptions for what it costs for one month here in the States. I can reorder as often as I feel the need. Just thought that might help some folks out there that are having trouble getting more than a couple of months of their medicines.
I will close this by saying that we were very blessed! This area is pretty much back online with electricity being restored, roads open, shops opening and things getting back to normal. Yes, there were/are trees down and power outages but compared to our neighboring states we fared very well. As for as our personal conversations are concerned...we thought we were reasonably prepared but realized that in spite of our preparations we are still very vulnerable and our way of life, very fragile. I don't know what conclusions will come out of our discussions but I do know that adjustments will be made.
I have really appreciated this blog and the information it contains, which I check daily. It has inspired us and educated us so that we can be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
God's Blessings to all, - Lynda H.


Dear Sir,
I am an resident of New York City and a long-time reader of your web site.  I endured Hurricane Sandy without incident, but frankly, the storm poked a few holes in my urban preparedness model.  Rather than provide a play-by-play account of my experiences, I want to share some of the valuable lessons I gained from this exercise in survival.
*  For starters, I will acknowledge that a densely packed urban environment situated on an island (aka Manhattan) is the worst place to endure any crisis.  I am surrounded by millions, many of whom would have no issue with taking from me by force, largely because they remain entirely dependent on government handouts and have little concept of independence and self-reliance.  Political commentary aside, that is a real threat to my safety.  That threat, coupled with the uphill battle to legally possess a firearm in the city, puts me at a strategic disadvantage should the situation degrade beyond a certain point.  New York City, by its very nature, requires a vast and steady influx of resources via bridge, tunnel, and air.  Cripple this transport infrastructure and the city is left helpless without provisions.  Take home lesson:  some locations are better are inherently superior for a survival situation – this city is not one of them.
*  Fight or flight.  When the reality of the storm hitting New York was largely certain, I had to make my first major decision:  I either stay put and ride it out, or flee the city in advance of the storm.  After careful consideration, weighing factors such as the size of the storm, my transportation options, where I could go, family and work obligations, and others, I decided to ride it out.  Immediately, and without hesitation, once I committed to staying put, I was “all in” – there was no downtime at that point until I was satisfied with my planning and execution.  That said, one of my next projects in my preparedness practice will be to flesh out just what my options are in leaving this city in a pinch.
* Checklists are essential.  In the past, I have scoffed at maintaining a preparedness checklist on the basis that I could pretty much rattle off the items on such a checklist without much thought.  But in crisis mode where my stress levels were elevated, doubt crept in.  I found myself Googling various web sites for preparedness checklists since I was now second-guessing myself.  Granted, I had most of what was on these lists, but I wasted valuable time and introduced doubt into my planning.  Not a good start.  So lesson learned, have a list, periodically review it, and refine as needed.
*  If you use up any of your supplies or preps, replace them ASAP.  I had no water reserves going into this storm.  I had used up my water supply cache some months ago when our water filter was malfunctioning, and never replaced it.  Never again.  I took a three prong approach:  first, I filled used water bottles, canteens, sealed containers and such and put them in the fridge.  Made sense to me to use what I had first, rather than attempt to seek it out at stores.  Second, I ordered some Chinese food for lunch and had them bring me several liters of water with my meal.  I am not trying to sound flippant here; I was hungry, busy with final pre-storm prep work, and needed water – so I leveraged a delivery service to help me on all counts.  Expanding on this point, most people flock to stores to buy water, only to scavenge the shelves bare very quickly.  Restaurants, especially takeout places have generous bottled water supplies for sale, and most people wouldn’t think of is this avenue for a last ditch prepping effort, but I did.  Lastly, I did venture out to a store once done with all my at-home work to literally walk among the sheep and serve as a reminder to myself to never be in this situation again.
*  Beans, Band-Aids, bullets – and batteries.  I was somewhat surprised when a friend of mine told me that the stores had run out of batteries.  Who doesn’t stock up on batteries, I wondered.  I was well stocked, and furthermore have a whole kit dedicated to small-device charging.  I cannot tell you the number of people whose mobile phones were without charge and this was shortly after losing power!  There are battery packs, solar chargers, adapters for charging through a laptop or car.  Not to mention the basic premise of keeping your phone or other devices charged in the first place.  I guess this mirrors the principle of always keeping your gas tank at least half full.  Lastly, I counseled several friends of mine who were without batteries to purchase cheap consumer electronics that came with batteries – there were plenty of these sitting on shelves.
*  Be prepared to leave.  Everyone and their cousin has a Bug Out Bag today.  Filled with survival gear, emergency rations, weapons, and the like.  What about valuable and irreplaceable documents (passport, birth certificate, titles, deeds, business papers, etc.), irreplaceable computer files, cherished possessions (including cash, jewelry, precious metals).  All of these are resources that may not help you survive during the actual crisis, but will certainly help you thrive after the crisis has ended.  While holed up in my apartment, I went over several scenarios where I would be forced to leave.  Regardless of why I would have to leave, I posed the question:  assuming I had to flee with 5 minutes notice and the apartment was later destroyed, looted, or whatever – what items would allow me to rebuild my life?  What was essential, and what wasn’t? I find these questions to be of great value, not only in a weather emergency, but also when applied to other, greater threat scenarios.  It really forces the individual to distill their thinking to what’s vital, and what’s not.  In my case, much, but certainly not all of what I would need to rebuild my life is largely portable and small.  The deficiency in my case was computer backups – not portable by any practical measure, nor weather proof.  This is now being rectified.
*  Communication is crucial.  Ahead of the storm, I contacted the important people in my life, told them I was going to stay put, and that there was a real chance the grid could go down and I could lose communications.  This contact put my mind at ease, which of course makes any survival situation more endurable.  Furthermore, during the storm and its aftermath, cell phone and internet service was largely disrupted.  It’s an important question to answer:  how do you communicate with the important people in your life when the telecom networks are degraded or down?  Small things, like utilizing text messaging (or SMS) more than voice calls.  An SMS will use less bandwidth than a voice call, and will never arrive garbled.  Mind you, it may never arrive at all, but I found the use of SMS to be more useful than having to deal with spotty, hard-to-decipher voice calls.  Technical issues aside, brevity and clarity are key.  During and right after a storm are not the time to talk at length.
*  Emotional health is vitally important.  I had food, water, shelter, not to mention power, TV, and Internet.  I was not lacking materially in any way.  But while holed up at home during the storm, I was anxious, feeling unsettled, and had difficulty sleeping at night.  Uncertainty, doubt, fear of the unknown – these were all forces I was battling with.  Granted, this is normal as the city I live in was being battered.  In truth, I thought with all my provisions and creature comforts, I would not be upset or agitated in the slightest.  Reminding myself that I had taken good precautions and was well-supplied helped to assuage my concerns.  Prayer or meditation may have been helpful as well, but I engaged in neither.
*  Start small.  My preparedness model was premised on a 3-day survival situation in a grid-down situation.  It was uncomfortable mentally to fathom a prolonged disaster situation, and my role in it.   I now see that burying my head in the sand is hardly the answer, and the only way to feel safe will be to expand and refine my survival model.  I am now looking into preparing for incidents of greater severity and duration, one variable at time.
Sincerely, - M.D.A.


I live in Princeton, NJ with my wife and daughters, and my mother resides in our family home on the beach block in Margate, NJ (i.e., the Shore – Atlantic City area). I put together two updates for our friends. Thought they might be of interest to your readers – though I apologize for the clipped writing style.
Update # 1 – Wednesday morning. I finally slept a fair bit last night (Tuesday) and as the electronics have charged from the generator, here’s the scoop. Make no mistake Mother Nature still rules. You are going to lose the head on collision, so best to lightly sidestep her dominion whenever possible.
I prepared my family and house in Princeton, and was still surprised. I think a lot of people were, especially at the Shore. There aren’t a lot of locals left who can remember the 1944 Hurricane, and there was a much different population for the 1962 storm. From the little I have heard from my Shore friends, those who stayed regretted the decision. The Shore got crushed, power will be out for a week or more and the drinking water is compromised – there is a boil alert as well as filtration. That’s assuming they get the news. Generators are great, but few folks had them, and those that did, well let’s just say that six feet of storm surge pretty much kills your genny… as you are unlikely to have it placed much higher on the property.
Let’s come back to Princeton for the moment. I had the house pretty well fixed. Outside stuff stowed and roped, and I put two little giant pumps on the floor of the basement and rigged their hoses 75 feet out one of the basement windows. If the power went early, I had the portable gasoline driven genny on the front porch… sheltered enough to run and ventilate. Many people don’t know that your typical portable genny is not designed to operate in significant rain - though many will last for a while – there is a good chance of shorting the electrical systems and in getting shocked. I also had two 100 foot extensions cords through the front window to the basement for each. Short story – we thankfully didn’t get as much rain as was forecast. No real issue in basement.
On Monday afternoon, before any of the heavy storm impact hit, we were surprised by a knock on the door. Our neighbor lost part of his roof and is looking for tarps, caulk, tape, rope, etc. I was able to help with these items and also the contact info for our home contractor who had put out an e-mail earlier advising they were available for emergency repairs. This neighbor has a wife and three children – good family – bad sign to lose the roof before the real storm winds arrived. Told him our house is open and to let me know if he needs anything else.
While we had the utilities working, my kids were fine. Though by about 6:30 pm, the winds began to escalate dramatically. Even with the games and TV, they were nervous. It was dark and loud outside – things were flying by and the power had been flickering. At 7:00 pm power failed. By 7:30 pm, we made the decision to go down to the basement. The wind was roaring at 60-70 mph plus sustained and higher gusts in the 80’s – learned this later. So we set up an area with sleeping bags, pillows, lanterns and snacks. Our basement is unfinished – cold concrete floor – but does have shelves, storage bins, etc. I was not prepared for the fear in my kids’ eyes, nor was I expecting the knot in my chest as we could hear the house shutter and pipes rattle with the faster wind bursts.
So with all my readiness… I was still humbled and doing my best to reassure the kids that we were fine. Best decision was to give each of them a chocolate bar and burn through the charge on my wife’s laptop watching episodes of Psych – a funny detective show on TV. We had the occasional trip upstairs to go to the bathroom – no flushing without the power. We are on well water. I had water in the bathtub ready for this, but not during the height of the winds. The flashlight showed trees down, fencing gone, stuff flying and I was worried about one of our old growth trees hitting the house. No detours – bathroom and then back to the basement.
After midnight, when the winds had settled at more like 30 to 40 mph, we moved to the first floor guest bedroom. The kids nodded off with my wife and I went outside to start the genny. The temperature was dropping – though we had ample blankets for that – it was more to avoid food spoilage in the refrigerator. Most refrigerators will give you 4-6 hours unopened of decent cold. You can extend it a bit by turning the temp down pre-storm (which I did on both refrigerator and freezer), but after that… food will spoil. Freezers are better – probably 2 to 3 days if not opened - possibly more, and especially if full of food or home-made ice bags to take up the empty space.
So, in the wind and rain, and with a hat to protect against flying branches and lantern, I repositioned the genny near our exterior hard-line hookup. This is where we plug the genny into the house systems and I use the man-high garage door as the rain shield. Exhaust vents outside. Again, never run a genny in a closed garage or home – the fumes will penetrate and kill. I had just serviced and tested our genny before the storm – you need to know how these things work. Choke on, first pull and she kicked in with a reassuring hum. By 1:00 am we had power to the systems. I had to unplug items that were power drains which I forgot, but essentially as I flipped the breakers in the basement on the genny auxiliary panel and we had heat, water and power to the refrigerators/freezers. I spent the night on the living room sofa waking up every hour to walk the house looking for leaks, broken windows, and checking the genny (overheating, gas leaks, oil, venting, etc.).
Yesterday (Tuesday) is a bit of a blur.  Mid-morning, I discovered that our neighbors had sheltered in their basements as well. Trees were down everywhere, roads were closed, flooding by the river, no power. Anyone without a working genny was leaving for friends and family that had one. Temps are getting colder this entire week, and then there’s food and water. I made fresh coffee for folks, offered food and then began assessing damage and clean-up. I always keep the chain saw oiled and ready from the last use, and so I put on my Kevlar chaps and began cutting trees.
Around mid-day I refueled the genny. This means shutting everything down, then pouring in the gasoline, then restart, then circuits. If you don’t, you can blow the systems starting the genny with a full electric load. I heard from one neighbor that there was access to Highway 206 via one road, and I thought about gasoline. Between chain saw and genny… it was a priority. The kids played games, saw another show on the laptop which was charged as were phones, and we had another knock on the door from another neighbor friend – April. After she got hot apple cider, food and good company she walked back to her home.
At about 3:00 pm, and before daylight sank further, I headed out for gasoline. Got about four miles, passed two police roadblocks, all traffic lights out and roads closed, and after passing my 3rd gas station that was closed with a no fuel sign, I called it a day. What was I thinking? This was a surprise to me, but should not have been. Everyone else was burning gas like crazy too. The stations were out until roads opened for refueling, and even then, the rest of NJ is in deep, so who knows how long that will take.
Returning home, I hit my emergency gasoline supply under the tarps outside – the five gallon steel safety cans had been there since last summer, but I had put Sta-Bil in the gas to keep it good beyond the usual 3 months. There are commercial grade versions that will give you years, but I don’t have access to that stuff… at least, not yet. Short story, the gasoline went into the genny and is just fine. This means I am good to go for several days with 24-hour genny use. I’ll venture out tomorrow to see if any of the gas stations are open with fuel.
Back to the Shore… I hopped onto Facebook for a few minutes. It is not easy using your mobile phone for Internet access on some web sites. On a serious note, the Shore is a mess. I was able to find out that our home still stands, but that in all likelihood has been flooded out. Our basement would be a swimming pool with all systems killed. There is 3 to 4 feet of beach sand filling the entire length of the street and from every home. High tides are still bringing in flooding, but not nearly as much as the full-moon tide on Monday. People were evacuated by chopper, the island was cut-off with all roads impassable, and clean-up will take weeks. People had live wires in their yards, short circuits in homes as water flooded, natural gas lines that need to be secured, trees down, windows broken, etc. Numerous homes, though elevated, have been hit with 2 to 4 feet of ocean water (this means mold), overnight temperatures are headed to the 30’s and 40’s this week, and they do not have any systems to boil water, etc. My mom is still evacuated, not sure when she can return. Have not heard anyone mention looting in Margate, but I did see one report in Atlantic City (though I cannot tell credibility of source). Let’s see what happens the next few days.
Going to start the day now… there’s work to be done, kids need breakfast, no school until maybe Friday, Halloween cancelled, and my wife (who is now standing beside me) says her throat is swollen and sore.
Thanks for checking in with us… I’ll send another update when I have a free moment. Internet access is spotty, but I have to say I am grateful for our Verizon portable secured 4 G Wi-fi device. It is no bigger than a cell phone and has about a six to eight hour charge capacity. But it lets us access the Net with multiple devices from anywhere. The data package is expensive for this, but in emergencies that’s not my first concern.
Storm Update #2:
Thursday morning. Yesterday, Halloween was cancelled by executive order, but I spent the day doing more clean-up anyway. Chain saw cutting, and stacking some wood for the fireplace even though green. Helped neighbors across the street who had a rental genny. Offered showers and heat as their genny is only extension cords for refrigerator and small appliances. My girls had a bit of cabin fever and it doesn’t help that my wife is not feeling good. Made tea, soup and fresh wholesome food left in the refrigerator. Also, we still have lots of kale, onions, scallions, leeks and herbs in the garden. These are my winter hardy plants that last well into the cold weather. They survived the storm winds being low to the ground and well rooted. The girls are also helping with the hand washing of the dishes… not fun.
Also took some time to walk the dog… Aslan needed a romp for his mental exercise. Spent an hour fixing the back fence so Aslan could be let outside without a leash and deer could be kept out. The fence will probably need total replacement, but at the moment, there are no gaping holes. The power drill and deck screws worked like a charm. Lots of periodic sirens – I’m guessing medical and fires related to generators/space heaters failures and accidents.
The girls don’t have school this week. We got word that power was restored late yesterday to the school, but that the roads were still impassable. There is an order from the Governor to stay off the roads unless essential travel only. It gets dark early, so by 3:30 pm things are winding down and the lanterns are on for reading and general action around the living room. I have rechargeable lanterns and battery throw away… no issue for now.
The temperature all day yesterday was cool and very chilly by evening. People without power were warming themselves in their cars. On Aslan’s evening walk, I could see the car headlights in various driveways. I think it also let people charge cell phones. This brings up the glaring problem for the moment – gasoline. Our genny is doing very well on gas consumption… but between it and the chain saw, we are burning a fair amount. Same with the neighbors, and especially the ones using the cars for heaters. The town has opened the Rec/Senior centers for temporary warmth and water – but not after 8:00pm. Don’t know how many people are driving to use these facilities. Anyway, back to gas. While I used on/off shutdowns for the genny for a few hours of the time to save gas – I had the living room fireplace raging yesterday – this is not optimal especially for the refrigerators. Yesterday, I heard from two neighbors that they had found open gas stations with ridiculous lines and rationing. As it was getting late, I opted to stay home and deal with it today.
Woke up today (Thursday) at 6:30 am, and headed out with 4 five gallon safety cans looking for open gas stations. The Traffic lights were still out and only the main artery roads are dependable to be open. I was lucky to find two gas stations within 5 miles of the house. Gas stations that were open yesterday were now empty of gas. As to these two that were open, they already had lines of cars 50 deep. They also had police officers enforcing the lines, gas rationing (10 gallon maximum per person) and general traffic flow order. It took me and hour plus, and it was cash only as I expected, but I started home with 20 gallons of gas. I thought about coffee on the way, and pulled into our main shopping center with a Thomas Sweet, or in the alternative, a Dunkin Donuts in the ShopRite Supermarket. The entire center was closed. ShopRite was open with minimal lighting and I had hope, but when I got to the door, there was a sign saying they only had non-perishable items for sale. The mini-Dunkin Donut stand was closed. By the way, we are hearing from other supermarkets… same story. They cooked what they could, donated to soup kitchens and have thrown out the rest of the spoiled food. At this point, I think Whole Foods on Route 1 may be our best bet for fresh food. As you guys know, I have plenty of non-perishables. And yes, I do have organic coffee at the house, so I am enjoying a cup as I type. I just have to unplug other stuff to brew it.
I am breaking to refill our genny with gas. Next agenda once things warm up is to get the fireplace going, and then I will rig up extension cords so that we can do laundry for the first time since Sunday morning. Bear in mind, my genny is only hard-wired into the home for critical systems, and that didn’t include the washer and dryer. So I will need to power them and the house water system – should be fine – but they are energy hogs.
We also got word that five nuclear power plants had issues during the storm, and that Salem actually had a “controlled” emergency steam release and pump failures. Nice. I’m sure it was only safe levels of radiation, no harm to the public. Right. Oyster Creek was offline anyway, but had cooling issues with the spent fuel pool. I’m assuming that the state and Federal folks are on top of this. Hopefully.
The update on the Shore is pretty dim. We still don’t have good onsite intel. Island access is closed and the residents are upset/trapped. On the positive side, there are parts of Margate with power. There is limited non-perishable food and no fresh items, and water remains contaminated. Some areas are still flooded – though its draining. Ventnor City which is right next to Margate, is sealed off due to city septic failure and more than 1,000 homes with moderate to severe damage. We have received limited pictures of our home from locals and a Sheriff friend. The sand is piled against the house three feet deep which means the six feet of water on top of that probably got into the entire first floor and basement. All critical systems will be trashed. We are beginning the process of talking to contractors and getting mom situated at a nearby hotel to make daily trips to the home to coordinate. She’s upset, but holding up - tough nut.
Cheers. I mean that: single malt whiskey does not need refrigeration, is good for brushing teeth and warms the soul. - Bill H.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I'm located in central New Jersey not far from the Delaware River. In the days prior to the hurricane hitting, everyone packed the supermarkets, warehouse clubs and home improvement stores to stock up.

At the home improvement stores, the people who had best luck getting generators were those who purchased them online and selected in-store pickup. There were lines of people 100+ deep from the front of the store to the back waiting for new shipments of generators to arrive. The only people who were guaranteed anything were those who had already purchased and paid online.

For those lucky enough to get a generator, they'd have a hard time fueling it if they didn't already have gas cans and gas stored at home. The shelves were cleared of gas cans days before the storm hit.

The warehouse club that we are members of sold out of water the day before the storm hit. They normally have pallets of water on shelves up to the ceiling along the length of an entire aisle. That aisle was completely bare. They also sold out of most fruits/and vegetables that could store for a little without power. The displays that normally hold bananas and apples were bare.

Flashlights and D batteries were gone days before the storm too. The only ones that were left were plug-in rechargeable flashlights that would be of little use after the first discharge in a power outage.

My sister had luck finding a huge display of batteries at a big chain baby store. Most people went straight to the supermarkets and home improvement stores, not thinking that many other types of stores also kept basic supplies.

The winds really started to pick up Monday afternoon. There wasn't much rain, even at the height of the storm, but the winds were very strong. Our house, which is only 4 years old, shuddered a couple of times in the highest gusts. We didn't sustain any physical damage to the house, but a couple of small trees tilted over but didn't uproot or break. Some sections of vinyl fencing in our neighborhood blew out and shattered from the force of the wind.

Sections of our neighborhood started to lose power around 6 PM not long after the hurricane made landfall. Street lights were out and the power to houses across the street were out. From our upstairs windows, we watched the sky glow blue and pink in all directions as transformers blew. Every minute or so another one would blow.

Finally, around 8:30 PM, we watched a transformer light the sky up for about 30 seconds. When it finally darkened, we and the rest of our neighborhood were out of power.

I had filled our spare refrigerator in our garage with cases of water and the spare freezer with bags of ice. I also took every empty plastic jug and bottle out of our recycling bins and filled them 3/4 of the way with water and froze them in our main/spare freezers. Every inch of freezer space that wasn't packed with food was packed with an ice bottle.

I knew our refrigerator wouldn't keep food cold long, so we immediately transferred our most critical food (milk for the kids, etc.) into ice filled coolers. The main freezer with most of our frozen food and frozen water bottles was never opened. It stayed perfectly cold until the power came back on, and most of the ice bottles had barely started to thaw. The food in our ice-filled coolers also was fine. We did sacrifice non-critical food that we didn't have space for in the coolers to the garbage bin.

We lit the house with long-lasting led lanterns that definitely did the trick. We hunkered around an old battery power radio to keep up with storm news, and gave our two-year old son a spare lantern to play with, which kept him happy. With no power and little news expected until morning, we turned in early (for us) at around 10 PM.

Our furnace was out and we don't have a fireplace, so the temperature dropped to the low 60s in our house overnight. It was a little chilly, but we were comfortable enough. We were definitely lucky it wasn't colder outside.

By the morning the storm had passed and a family that we are very close friends with down the street had their generator running. We and several of our friends congregated there for the day. They had enough power for their refrigerator, several lights, a tv and cable box, and a power strip for charging phones.

Although the power was out, the cable stayed on until around noon so we were able to see the first images of storm damage. After the cable went out, most of us switched to our web-enabled smartphones and social media to stay informed and reach out to friends.

We grilled outside for lunch and dinner, with everyone pitching in food that would go bad if unused. Everyone with spare gas stored was prepared to pitch in whatever they had until the power came back on to keep the generator running. We brought over 10 gallons that wasn't needed.

Cell phone service was spotty. People who were subscribers of one the two major cell providers in our area had no problem making/receiving calls and surfing the web. Subscribers of the other major service had a signal, but couldn't make calls and their data service only worked intermittently.

The day after the storm, most traffic lights remained out. All gas stations and most stores were closed. One home improvement store opened under emergency power. They only let a limited number of people into the front part of the store where they had set up displays with their remaining emergency supplies (flashlights, batteries, power cords, and a new supply of gas cans). They surprisingly even accepted credit cards. Some other stores we checked out only accepted cash if they were open at all.

24 hours after the power went out, it came back on for most of our neighborhood. We're definitely lucky since of the 2/3 of our state that was without power, only about 15-20% of homes had been restored when we were reconnected.

It was an interesting experience for a day, but something that none of us would have been happy to have continue. We all realized, individually and as a group, what things we were missing that could have made us more comfortable.

Although we were lucky that our part of the state suffered little more than downed trees and power lines, New Jersey is very small so we all have friends in the hardest hit parts of the Jersey Shore and we are very familiar with the popular vacation spots that have been destroyed.

I've been in contact with friends who live just blocks from the beach who have raised homes and still have standing water lapping at their front doors. A few other friends live in beach neighborhoods that have essentially become islands with bridges, highways and other access roads out of service and surrounded by water. Others left some of the very hardest hit communities before the storm hit and don't know if their homes are still standing.

Some neighborhoods devastated by storm surge and flooding are now burning. Along some of the barrier islands, emergency services from the mainland are cut off and fires will likely be left to burn themselves out. Some entire towns are expected to burn.

There are a lot of people who have lost everything and many who are still in harm's way. Keep them in your prayers. Thanks, - Brad S.


I have family from Pennsylvania to Maine.  I tried to encourage my family and cousins who I knew would be affected by Sandy to visit me in the mountains of New England, but they were all so sure that they could survive the storm. 
Only one family had a generator.  It wasn't wired into the house, so plenty of extension cords are in use there.  The others had nothing at all setup.  So I briefed them on filling the tub, freezing extra containers for ice, etc.  And all were briefed on staying put during and after the storm.
Of course, some don't listen so well.  While all survived in some fashion, here is the latest and worse from my cousin on Long Island:

"Pumping out water all day.
We had absolutely not a drop of [drinking] water. Storm surge at 830 p.m. and we were seeing it force its way in at the rate of a foot a minute!! I have never witnessed anything like that in my life!
Scary stuff!!!

We tried to hold it back just no way hydraulic pressure was just too much.
Total 10 feet of water. We jumped ship when it got to 6 feet. Then couldn't get to [deleted for OPSEC]'s house... Every path home and on every road trees were down, we didn't plan for that. We slept at a friend's aunt's house. She welcomed us (dog and all) with open arms and we are total strangers. The walls all cracked assuming will be a total loss.

We are going to call it quits soon will be back at it again tomorrow. No [phone] service so can't call our insurance company. Friends are coming from all over to help. No big deal--It is just a material asset. Insurance hopefully covers hurricanes. We are fortunate, as it could've been much worse."

He was right.  They were fortunate.  They could have drowned leaving during the night.  They could have been injured trying to leave that location to their 'safe' house.
I suspect that the next time they will evacuate in a timely fashion.  I doubt that they will ever disparage a prepared mindset again.
We can't save folks from themselves.
I will head into New York and New Jersey when possible to reach them with support.  I expect to have to wait until after this coming Tuesday.
Thank you for your SurvivalBlog site! Regards, - Mike A.

Good Morning to You!
Our area of the East coast was spared the worst brunt of the storm.  Massive snowfalls to our west, and massive flooding to the east.  We were very fortunate.

We live on top of a hill, and by Monday morning, we had water filling our basement.  I went outside with middle son, and we found a deep hole filled with water next to the foundation of our house.  We dug a ditch from the edge of the hole far, far away from the edge of the hole and down the hill well past the fall line.  I would estimate we dug at least 30 feet of mud.  While I dug, my son took the shovels of dirt that I pulled out of the ground and put it back into the hole by the foundation.  Once we were finished, we moved the drainage pipe from the gutters so that it, too, fed into the ditch we had dug away from the house.  10 more inches of rain fell over the next 24 hours, but no more of it ran into our basement. 

I understand now what you mean when you say you need to be physically fit!  I'm a 40 something mother of three, and my 17 year old son and I put in a good two hours worth of physical work in the driving rain, diverting water away from the house.  Maybe insurance would have covered the damage if we hadn't done the work, but I prefer the effort of digging a ditch in the rain to the effort of clearing a basement of water and carpets and furniture.  Best two hours worth of work I've ever done, and our house is still in one piece!
Besides the obvious water and wind damage around here, there is one thing that stuck out more and more:  The number of people killed by falling trees.  Tall trees close to the house really do need to be trimmed back so that damage is lessened if a tree or limb falls on a house.  One gentleman told the story of how he and his father had a conversation on Saturday about how they needed to trim or cut down the tree next to the house.  Then on Monday, his father was killed instantly when the tree fell on the house during high winds. 

Peace to you all. - B.L.W.


The report from Delaware. With the exception of flood prone and some beach front areas we dodged the bullet.

It was an excellent exercise for our small family. The preparation for with this sort of an event turns on do you stay or leave. Different priorities for equipment supplies and staging following from each of those two choices. However what this storm brought home to us (since we have a shelter in place default ) is that within the shelter in place paradigm is,"suppose that tree falls on your house and you must leave in a hurry anyway' sub-plan. Since for us in our location Sandy was forecast to be a wind event, this latter sub-plan rose up from the back burner rather forcefully.

Now, we had to pull out and check the go bags (not seen since last year's windy scare) marshal water, food rations, range bags (did I restock those mags after the last week) , document case, comms and other take-with items by the door while preparing to deal with prolonged electrical outage (potentially weeks) therefore check generator, water reserves, fuel, etc etc.. 

I found that while our shelter in place preps and SOP were fairly well in hand, the "Yikes, we got-a-go now" end was pretty confused. Part of the reason for this is that we really need to have more duplicate gear stashed in the "Go now" configuration, and it was clear from this go round that we ain't there yet. I also know as I write this that I have all sorts of essential items stowed carefully labeled clearly that I will want to toss in the vehicle, but it will take me days to think through the inventory. Not something to be doing as water is cascading through a rent in the building.

So I tell you to tell me, "build the list now while it is still fresh."

One side note: We were "powerless" for only 8 hours, but as a result I am looking to replace my noisy old Generac (such a headache! The thing just roars. I must be getting old) with newer quieter Yamaha or Honda digital. While researching I found this very useful worksheet for calculating loads on the Yamaha web site.

Blessings... Pray for the folks in New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey.... They have a long way to come back. - Dollardog


As per your request for info out of the New York City area: Having grown up in Florida, I kind of knew what to expect. Needless to say, I was well provisioned and my powder, so to speak, was high and dry and at the ready well in advance of Sandy's final approach...

My wife and I rode out the storm in our "Brooklyn Bunker," a fourth-floor apartment in a solid pre-war building. We spent a long night watching for the flashes of transformers exploding in the wind, and darkness encroaching as lights went out in the homes all around us. Luckily, the lights managed to stay on in our neighborhood, and we didn't lose power once. After the storm passed, we emerged to discover no major damage, some trees down on cars and roofs, limited cell phone service, but that's about it...

The same can't be said for lower Manhattan and parts of Staten Island, though. The six-foot security fence around some rental property I own there came down, right into my truck. A violent storm surge turned most of the coastal communities on the island into what looks like a war zone, with the National Guard deployed to keep order. No working street lights, no stores open, no gas. People are attempting to drive into northern New Jersey to find gas stations that have power, with little luck. Con Edison now says power will be out to 60% of the island for more than a week. My tenants are in the dark with no heat...

Looking across the East River into Lower Manhattan at night, I am reminded of my time as a journalist in New Orleans during Katrina, where I witnessed another entire American city abandoned, darkened, and brought to its knees by Mother Nature (combined with a healthy dose of human stupidity). The entire subway system here is paralyzed, and along with it commerce, and most of the city's inhabitants. There are already some rumblings on blogs and other social media platforms about the "lack of government response," like this one here, but for the most part, people have remained unusually calm and accommodating to each other, at least for New Yorkers.

As with Katrina, Sandy reminded me of just how fragile the veneer of civilization that most most city-dwellers often take for granted truly is. During the final 24 hours leading up to Sandy's arrival, lines at every major grocery store in Brooklyn and Manhattan were several blocks long, with hours-long wait times just to enter the stores and clerks taking small groups of people in to shop, just a few at a time.

Given the mentality of the average city-dweller, the run on grocery stores was to be expected. Perhaps more importantly for the SurvivalBlog readership at large, what's transpired here over the past 48 hours is nothing short of an amazing exercise in the efficacy of state control circa 2012 (much better execution than what I witnessed during Katrina). I am at once somewhat pleasantly surprised yet shockingly dismayed by just how quickly the authorities were able to shut down and subdue the country's biggest metropolis. Within a few hours, they were able to - successfully - deploy several thousand National Guard troops, shut down the country's biggest subway system, 15 major bridges and tunnels, three major airports, and cut power to eight square miles of a world-class city...all with nary a whimper nor major objection from the populace.

New Yorkers in three major boroughs were - and in the case of Lower Manhattan, still are - effectively cut off from the outside world. Moving forward, most SurvivalBlog readers like myself who either choose or are forced to reside in cities should perhaps (re)consider their long term plans and preparations given the recent tactics on display here in NYC.

Thanks and best, - KTC in NYC


Dear Jim:
Sheeple no more here. Sandy came and went. Our area is Bucks County about an hour north of Philadelphia. We border the Delaware River. Power here went out early and and only came on today.

I think we weathered it well. I was one of the last minute "run to the store" folks. Bought a gallon of milk. Everything else was in place. As soon as the power went out, I fired up our generator and hunkered down for the 70 MPH winds.

We did lose a couple of shingles and some aluminum trim on the house. Those unprepared suffered flooded basements, many areas will not have power for a week or more. Lots of trees down, snapped telephone poles, sink holes in the road. The emergency services were running 24 hours for two days. Constant sirens all over the place.

Where did I come up short? I never got around to getting my ham radio license or programming my Baofeng UV-5R. It would have come in handy to keep in touch with the others in my group. I have some Uniden walkies and they proved worthless.

At the end of the storm my wife she thanked me for being prepared. Up until this happened she kind of went alone with my "hobby". Always a little smile on her face. It's different now.

What I need to do:

  • Get my ham license.
  • Run a dedicated electrical line to the crucial items in the house. Pumps, freezer, frig, security lights.
  • Replace my burned out chainsaw.
  • Read "How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It" for the 12th time and update my (your) lists of lists.

Take care and God Bless, - M.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I’m a prepper, however my situation is a little different than most.  I wanted to write an article explaining my unique challenges.
My family has a small ranch in New Mexico.  In the old days when it rained more often we ran about 100 head of cattle.  With the drought that has hit the southwest so hard, we’re down to about 50.
I know most of you are thinking, oh my goodness this guy is so lucky.  He can eat all the beef he wants when TSHTF.  The answer is yes, and no.  I had about the same initial reaction when I first started prepping.  I thought I’d just go home, to the ranch, from my day job and be safe.  I read all the books and browsed all the prepping blogs, then began to realize it wasn’t so simple.  Not only did I have to prep for myself, I had to prep for 50 head of cattle!  Plus a lot of other animals like chickens and dogs.
After I got my beans, bullets, and band aids squared away, my family and I started prepping for the cattle.  There’s little question that they are our greatest resource.  Imagine what half a beef could net us in a barter situation when everyone is starving.  Provided I can defend the livestock, and keep them happy, healthy, and alive. 

  1. Water

Everything needs water.  There are dozens of articles about water on survivalblog.  One gallon per person per day seems to be the golden rule.  For a cow in 100 degree summer heat its 50 gallons a day!  Crunch the numbers and that’s around 3,000 gallons of water per day worst case.  Some days they don’t need near as much.  We’re in the high desert, and do not have surface water.  No streams, lakes, ponds, etc.  Our current water source is pumped via an AC pump from a depth of ~600ft.  Running a generator to pump the water we would need isn’t feasible.  Solar was the solution.  We ended up drilling a new well and equipping it with a solar pump that can produce about 2,500-3,000 gallons a day in the summer.  To supplement this we installed a very large and complex rain catchment system.  All in all we have ,7500 gallons of potable (people) water and 38,000 gallons of stock water that we keep on hand at any given time.  This is fed all over the place via gravity to stock troughs and solar powered booster pumps to other areas such as the house.  As you can imagine this cost a great deal of money and my income is lower middle class.  It was a matter of priority setting for us.  In a grid down situation the cattle would all die without water.  That is not acceptable.

Here’s some advice about drilling a new water well.  I did a lot of the work on the well myself to save money.  Of course the actual drilling was done by a “professional”.  When you interview your well driller be sure to ask the following question, “Are you the actual person who will drill the well?”  Make sure it’s not his cousin, son, or some neighbor down the road.  We ended up with an inexperienced guy.  Our well also proved to be extra difficult to drill, because soon after drilling started he ran into caves and basically freaked out.  This ended up costing more money.  Ask around for recommendations and don’t just go with the lowest bid.

If you choose to install the pump and pipe yourself be sure to put more check valves than you think you’ll need.  I put one every 200 feet, and it’s not enough.  Install a good brass check valve every 100 feet. Do your own research about the gauge of wire to be used.  I ran number 10 wire down to the pump at 575 feet.  To compensate for the DC voltage drop I added another solar panel to bump up the voltage instead of buying the recommend more expensive number 6 wire.  The new well is working better than I dreamed it could.  Solar water pumping is amazing.


To feed cattle; it rains, the grass grows, and the cattle eat the grass.  Unfortunately for good healthy critters you have to add to that diet.  At the very least you must give your cattle some salt and minerals.  You’d be amazed at how much salt we use in a year.  I have food for myself stashed away, but also we’ve included several thousand pounds of bagged stock salt, and minerals.  We went with granulated bagged salt instead of blocks because it could be used for other things like salting beef. 

Sick animals need medical care too.  In my band aids section there’s plenty of the normal veterinary supplies we use on a regular basis.  Many of these items can be used for all types of animals including the two legged kind.  I did not include vaccines as once TSHTF the cattle should not be exposed to other cattle that could be carrying something nasty.  Of course that isn’t 100% certain but one must pick their battles. 


If you think your retreat security causes you to lose sleep at night imagine securing seven square miles of land.  Without an army; it can’t be done.  I don’t have an army, so another solution had to be found.  The current plan is to pen the cattle up at the ranch house during the night, and then send a small patrol with them during the day to graze.  We’ve erected guard towers at the retreat and at least one of them will be manned at all times.  I hope however that our remote location is adequate to keep the golden hordes at bay, because defending our retreat properly would need a very large force.  I suppose that could be said about any location.  I’m still searching for more people to join me at the ranch, and as many of you know, it’s very difficult to find like-minded people.  I’ve been fortunate so far and have some great folks who will stay with us in the event of a disaster.  We have a doctor and a dentist as well as some ex army guys.  I don’t know what the magic number of people needed is but there’s safety in numbers.

Bartering of beef

Without the power grid, cooling and preserving raw meat will be a challenge.  Currently (if you want really good meat) after you dress out an animal you typically hang them in a cooler and let the meat age for a couple of weeks.  This allows the natural enzymes in the muscle tissue to break down some of the harder parts of the meat.  Aged beef is quite simply the best food there is!  I’m sure 99% of the population has never had it.  The fast paced production slaughter plants today don’t age meat more than a day or two.  To age and store the meat we kill we have two large deep freezes.  I’ll soon be installing a solar system to run them.  One of the freezers will be equipped with a thermostat to regulate the temperature so the freezer can be used as a cooler.  Without the solar freezers processing and selling meat during the summer will be all but impossible unless of course I try to make 600 pounds of jerky.

To supplement the beef sales we also have a milk cow and lots of chickens.  If you have a bug problem, get yourself some chickens instead of an exterminator.  You’ll be amazed at the result, plus free eggs!  Our chickens and guineas roam free, but generally lay their eggs in the hen house.


We’re going to need more flexibility than other groups when we’re hunkering down on our ranch.  For this reason a blacksmiths shop has been setup.  Not only is it fun to learn how to make metal parts with nothing but a hot fire and a hammer.  There will certainly be a need for building things.  I don’t know what those will be; otherwise I could go buy a few.  
Heat in the winter is an issue too.  Our ranch house has no central heating.  We have a large fireplace and a wood stove.  I was 19 years old before I lived in a house with a thermostat.  A wood stove is a great way to heat a space but it uses a lot of wood.  We burn between 3 and 9 cords of wood a year depending on how cold it is.  I can only imagine how much wood the folks up north are going to need.  If you live in the colder areas of the country you had better get a spare chainsaw and all the stuff needed run the heck out of it!  I’ve stashed gas for the sole purpose of hauling wood from the pasture to the house, as well as a spare chainsaw (don’t buy a cheap one).  There are no trees around our house.  That makes for great sight lines from the guard towers, but it’s a long way to haul wood for the stove.

I know the EMP group out there must see that my plans would come crumbling down in the event of an EMP.  I just pray it’s not an EMP or CME that kicks off the SHTF chain of events. 

In conclusion: next time you feel overwhelmed about your prepping remember the poor ranchers out there who are responsible for a great many more mouths to feed and water.  I envy your relatively simple preps often, but this is the lifestyle I’ve chosen to keep.  I also feel that after the collapse, if I can pull my family and herd through, ranching won’t be such a hard way to make a living as it is in our current society. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hi James,

I came across these maps today and they may be of interest to your Canadian readers. The parent web page Natural Resources Canada has a key sub page with a lot of great info like GIS map data, insolation calculations, photovoltaic potential, et cetera.

Thanks for your great blog! - John R. in Canada

Monday, August 20, 2012

In keeping with our well-entrenched philosophy of redundancy, we now have five ways to cut firewood at the Rawles Ranch: 1.) A reliable (but noisy) Stihl 024 gas engine chainsaw with a 20" bar, 2.) An assortment of felling axes and mauls, 3.) an early-1900s vintage 1-1/2 man saw, 4.) A Makita electric chainsaw that can be powered by quiet a Yamaha 2.8 KW inverter genset carried in the back of our utility ATV, and 5.) An even smaller Black & Decker 18-Volt cordless electric chainsaw. (The latter lacks the muscle for anything more than cutting saplings or for limb cutting. I bought an Ultimate Battery backpack battery to give it three times running time per charge. And BTW, this same battery can also be used with my Dewalt brand 18 VDC cordless tools, when using a different battery pack adapter.)

   o o o

Citizen Shooter Saves Officer with Amazing Shooting: A 66 Year Old Texan Vic Stacey Puts Four 357 Magnum Pistol Rounds into a Killer Rifleman at 165 Yards

   o o o

F.J. suggested: Make Shingles from Aluminum Beverage Cans

   o o o

Cat parasite that worms into humans' brains can drive victims to suicide. (Credit to Pierre M. for the link.)

   o o o

I noticed that our SurvivalRealty spin-off web site now has more than 120 active listings, including our first one in Ecuador.

   o o o

H.L. sent: Living in a 70 square foot floating cabin.

Monday, August 13, 2012

James Wesley:

While the compact fluorescent bulbs are good at saving energy, even better are LED bulbs. I know they are expensive, but they are coming down in price and can be had at very reasonable prices on eBay. Not only that, but they "burn" cool to the touch and contain no mercury. A broken CF bulb practically warrants a HAZMAT crew! L's last even longer than compact fluorescent bulbs and are made of plastic so there's no worries about breakage. I'm building a solar power system for my home, and plan on switching to LEDs. - Dave, RN

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Good Day James,
I have been a daily reader of your blog for who knows how long and enjoy it everyday. I am not an electrician, but I did check with a good friend who has his PhD in electrical engineering. Should him this paraphrase of D.P.'s post regarding System building note and he said: "Bull." Per the National Electrical code Article 250 on grounding, "You'd- Better ground your system" if something happens to him or his house regardless of how he is powering it (solar, grid tie in, wind, et cetera) if a  fire or electrocution happens to him or someone else he will not be covered by insurance. And if for some reason someone dies, well then I would hate to see what happens. Just a word of caution to your other readers. - The Boondocks

Reading Living with Photovoltaic Power by D.P. he mentions how his laptop power consumption is high, and suggest a tablet. While I agree a tablet is a great low-power solutions, there are a few key things that can make laptops consume substantially less power:

1. Put in an SSD drive.

A solid state drive (SSD) is a hard drive equivalent with no moving parts. That means no motor spinning metal plates at 4,000-7,000 rpm. They are becoming quite popular and their price is coming down. I recently put one in my wife's laptop, and not only does it run notably faster (there is no seek time for physical magnetic needles, because there aren't any) but she also thought I put in a new battery because she got so much more life out of it. Of course I didn't replace the battery. The SSD consumes significantly less power.

2. Avoid processor-intensive operations.

Running a web browser or word processor requires an almost negligible amount of processing on modern computers. Games that involve a 3D environment eat a massive amount of power as evidenced by your laptop trying to burn a hole in your lap. This can also apply to useful programs like Google Earth. Obviously if you avoid the programs that tax the processor power consumption will be significantly lower.

3. Keep your screen at it's dimmest setting

I recommend doing most of your computer time at night, so that you can run your screen at it's dimmest setting. Don't try this during the day, unless you have a dark room, or you'll go crazy. At night a dimmed screen is very bright, and the power consumption is significantly less.

I don't have hard numbers, but taking these steps will likely at least halve the laptop's power consumption. - J.D.D.

JWR Replies: Thanks for those suggestions. I'd like to add that if your laptop is equipped with a wireless Internet card, then turn it off. That also draws substantial current.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

So, you've been wondering if you should be buying some photovoltaic (PV) panels to avoid the darkest of ages? And you have some specific questions:
- how many panels do I need?
- which type of panel do I need?
- what's it going to cost?
- what about an inverter?
- what can I actually get done with my energy?

In this post I will try to answer these questions, having gone through the process myself in the last few years. My hope is that by relating my journey, it will help some of you make the right decisions for your situation. My main goal is to be able to collect and store enough energy that my life can continue without being totally thrown back into the 19th century. 'Little House on the Prairie' may be nice to watch but I am not sure I would enjoy every aspect of that lifestyle. Example: I do have a woodstove with built-in oven but would really rather use my breadmaker to bake a loaf of bread. On the other hand: our house has electrical heat and the kWh it consumes on a winter day can only be delivered by a fully operational power grid (even rolling blackouts could be a disaster), so drastic measures are required.

I decided to go with solar energy because PV panels make no noise, need no gas and are maintenance free. Three plusses over a generator when you find yourself in the dark age. They have downsides as well in the comparison: up-front cost per kWh for panels is much higher and you will need more batteries. What tipped the balance for me is that I do not know how long the grid will be down, so I do not know how much gas I have to store, or if I can get gas at any price if I run out for that matter. As J.E.B. pointed out in his letter to SurvivalBlog (published July 17, 2012): a worst case scenario will be measured in years, not days. A second consideration for me is that if everything works out I may go off-grid voluntarily. In that case the system would pay for it self rather quickly.

Having said that, creating a system for collecting/storing/using solar energy does not come cheap. If you cannot set aside $1000-$2000 without seriously compromising your prepping budget, my approach may not be the correct one for you. Let me first explain this figure a bit more because
it may strike many of you as too much or too little.

First of all: you do not have to plan on spending much more. If you can that is great, but installing $10,000 worth of panels on the roof of your retreat is asking for trouble IMHO. It may give you a lifestyle similar to what you have today, but in a situation where law and order breaks down,
this display simply says: Hey guys, I have got the goods here, come and get me first. Personally I am not a gunslinger trying to attract targets, so keeping a (very) low profile is my first line of defense.

Secondly, if you can't afford that much money, you will need to adjust your expectations and priorities because very inexpensive components are expensive to run in that they are usually less efficient and therefore leave you with much less useable energy. I will give you some ideas of what you can do for $100-$250 at the end of this post.

As a side note on budgeting: if you are in the lucky circumstance of being able to set aside some money and save (or have saved) it in the form of dollars, please stop doing so, take that money and start buying the goods that you will need soon enough. The US dollar is being pushed out of its position of global reserve currency day by day. When that process reaches its inevitable tipping point, the dollar's purchasing power will evaporate and the only official notification you will get is a message from your friendly neighborhood ATM that it is currently out of order. This comes from someone who, up until a few years ago, spent decades saving for a rainy day. Which has now arrived ... and so I feel I have no choice but to convert a good chunk of my savings to goods that I expect to be able to put to good use.

While on the topic of budgeting:
If you don't have or plan to purchase an over-the-top system, you will need to get used to an energy budget. You know: supply and demand. Like an old farmer, you will have to make hay when the sun shines [modern farmers can't afford to wait for the sun so they make haylage instead]. Supply can be increased by buying additional panels; demand can be lowered by energy conservation measures; you can do both until you find your happy or affordable middle ground.

Starting with demand, how can we keep it low? What are the things you really want electricity for? Here is my list:
- lighting (LED type uses the least energy and is long lasting)
- walk-in cooler to store food, seeds, etc. (our house has no basement)
- monitoring systems
- water pumps
- communications (radio, 2-way radios)
- small kitchen appliances (mixer, blender, breadmaker, etc.)
- security (keeping wildlife out of the garden and the chicken coop)
- laptop, e-reader, battery powered flashlights
- handheld power tools (drill, saw, angle grinder, rotary tool)

No washer? Nope, grandma got the job done with a few hand tools and so can I.
No dryer? Hot air from the woodstove will do just fine.
No dishwasher? Never had one.
No plasma television? What are you going to watch when the grid is down?
No entertainment center? I can watch DVDs on my laptop.
No microwave? I would use it if possible, but I am not budgeting for it.
No air conditioner? I do have a small (500W - 1 room - fits in a window)
air conditioner but don't plan on using it unless I really have to. I prefer to sit under a tree beside a brook when compared to the air conditioner's noise. As for heating rooms and/or water with a solar panel: don't even think about it; that is a job for wood or coal. Yes you can use a solar heat exchanger for that, but what if it breaks down and you can't get the repairman to come over? And the wind chills are around -40?

When determining the feasibility of solar power to run a tool or appliance, you need to keep in mind it's power rating and the time it's actually on. For instance if you need to cut a 2x4 your saw may be rated at 1200W but if your cut only takes 10 seconds, the energy used is 10 * 1200 / 3600 = 3.3Wh / 12V = .28Ah. Not worth talking about if your batteries are full. A 50W solar panel will generate 3.3Wh in about 4 minutes on a sunny summer day.

On the other end of the scale: let's say you want to bake loaf of bread using an automatic breadmaker. The appliance is rated at 600W and the process takes 3 hours. About half an hour is used kneading dough and 1 hour to actually bake the bread. Its energy usage amounts to:
.5 * 100 = 50Wh for kneading
1 * 600 * .67 = 402Wh for baking at 2/3 duty cycle
Total = 452Wh over a 3 hour period, which equates to a 150W demand.

The numbers above are pretty close to what I have observed personally: I can use my hand-held power tools all day and only need a 30W - 60W panel to maintain battery charge. My breadmaker tests showed that on a sunny summer day I need 180W worth of rated panel capacity to maintain battery charge over the entire baking cycle.

Another item that can take up a lot of power is pumping water. This year I have put in a small aquaponic garden with 4 grow beds just to see what it takes to grow veggies that way. It's an ebb and flow system that uses a 1000 gallon/hr bilge pump with a 1" outlet. Though the pump is rated for 5 Amps, it draws only 3.5 Amps and runs 20 seconds every half hour. As a result a 15W rated panel keeps up with it with capacity to spare. But if I want to warm up the water quickly after a cool night by using an small aquarium pump to push water through a heat exchanger, I need to go to a 60W panel because that second pump draws 1.3 Amps continually. Lesson for water pumps: try to use big lines and low working pressure and lift.

Because I don't want to be tied down too much by carrying around a ton of documents, I keep most everything in electronic format (mht or pdf) on hard drives and DVDs. That means I need something to read them with. Laptops tend to take 50-60W (or more depending on CPU/graphics card in it). So running it for 8 hours a day to play solitaire, ...err study documents, will set me back 8 * 60 = 480Wh. Sigh! Just ain't gonna happen on a cold winter day... A small tablet or e-reader would work much better under the circumstances.

For those of you wondering about getting enough juice for your tablets and smart phones to continue life in the cloud (Facebook, Twitter, on-line gaming and data storage): don't worry, by the time you really NEED your solar panels, in a grid down situation, cell towers will cease to function within 24 hours as their batteries run out and (access to) the cloud will simply disappear like a morning fog.

Phantom Loads
You will waste precious amp hours to run your systems. There is no way around that because no appliance or battery is 100% efficient, but with some advance planning we can keep the leakage to a minimum. Biggest single issue is your inverter. Don't buy one unless its idle power draw is less than 250 mA. You do not want to waste 1 or 2 amps on heating your inverter while its idling. This is not much of an issue for a 100W inverter that you use only to run your electric shaver because you can turn it off when you're done. However for large inverters that you leave on all day to run your power tools on-demand you do not want their idle draw to exceed 250 mA and the lower that number the better. I learned this the hard way a few years ago when I left a 300W inverter on thinking only its LED was drawing power. After two days the new 120Ah battery was run down to the point where the inverter's low voltage alarm went off ... at 3AM ...

Second inverter issue: do not leave appliances that use standby power plugged into the inverter because that draw will keep the inverter revved up continuously costing a few amps in the process. This may not sound like much but look at it this way: if the inverter uses 2 amps for 12 hours, that is 24 AmpHours. A 60W panel will generate about 3 Amps (averaged over an entire sunny day), so it needs to run 24 / 3 = 8 hours to make up for that loss. At current prices that 60W panel will cost you around $135 (+ S/H & taxes).

As an example: I once kept a yard light plugged in overnight with only its infrared sensor active and it took about 10% of my battery bank's capacity in the process. My inverter was luke warm that morning whereas it stays cold even if I use it all day with my power tools. Another lesson learned and BTW I am running most of these tests on purpose right now, so I will know what to expect when it counts.

Third big cause of energy leakage: bad cells in your battery bank. I have dealt with this extensively in another post called 'battery life extension' and won't repeat that now. Sufficeth to say that if your bank discharges itself from 12.6V to 12.35V overnight, you have a huge power drain on your hands.

Now, let's assume you have dealt with all three biggies above; what is there left to do? Actually quite a bit, though exactly how much and what is a bit dependent on your handyman IQ. I am now referring to a couple of specific items on my list: lighting and monitoring systems. By their very nature they have to run many hours, some of them 24/7. The nice thing is that you can get a 12V (or lower voltage) version of pretty much any item you need.

Let me give you some examples:
- The 110V yard light I talked about earlier can be replaced with a 12V infrared sensor connected to a 12V LED flood light. Yes, if you get the right parts it can be as simple as connecting 4 wires.
- The walk-in cooler I mentioned needs to have its temperature monitored and regulated 24/7. Thermistors (temperature sensors) are a dollar a dozen and 12V computer case fans @ $5 each move enough air to get the job done.
- My primary heat source is a woodstove in a rather small work space. To avoid problems the space is outfitted with a dual fire/smoke alarm and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide alarms. You can get these in 110V AC or 5V, 9V or 12V DC versions.
5V versions tend to come with a "wallwart" power cube, 9V versions run on a battery and 12V versions intended for RV use. If you can't get them locally, try to find a supplier on-line. [JWR Adds: I have found that Camping World is a great source for 12 VDC appliances and gadgets.]

LED Lighting:
Despite candlemakers waxing nostalgic about the power grid being down, LED type should be used to cover your basic lighting needs due to its simplicity and longevity. In essence: put it in and forget about it; I have wrecked some LEDs by putting too much current through them but never seen one fail due to old age. There are many 12V LED lights available these days, though some are still pricey. I took a different (= less expensive) route by getting a bag full of UFO lights (the type you can put in tents) from China and using those. There are 2 types commonly available as of this writing: one with 60 LEDS and the other with 20-24 LEDs. I have used them both and there is not a lot of difference in the total amount of light they produce for the same current.

These units are designed to run on 4 AA batteries (= 5-6V), so you will need to solder 2 pieces of wire into the battery compartment. If you only need 2 or 3 units, you can connect them in series and then directly to your battery. [2 units may need a small series resistor if LEDs get hot.] I put 4 or more per room (very even lighting throughout the room) by connecting all units in parallel and then putting a 'circuit breaker' in the wire that connects them to the negative pole of a 12V battery. The 'circuit breaker' is a 555 timer chip that switches a MJE3055T transistor on/off @ 120Hz and about 15% duty cycle. This runs the lights flicker free @ 2.8V which leaves the LEDs cold to the touch but produces ample light. You can adjust the lights' output by changing the duty cycle of the 'circuit breaker'.

DC-DC converters:
These do what their name implies and convert one DC voltage into another. Use them to run devices and/or monitoring devices directly from a 12V supply. You want to avoid running an inverter to run a wallwart to run a monitoring device that draws 150mA at all cost. Some DC-DC converter examples:
- a laptop power supply that runs off your car battery (produces 18V-22V; should have no problem charging cordless tools)
- a AA, AAA, 9V battery charger that runs off your car battery.
- a 12V desktop computer power supply (this replaces your standard PSU)
- generic DC-DC step up/step down converters in all shapes and sizes on eBay
- for those with a soldering iron: 78xx voltage regulators are hard to beat and can generally be run without heat sink for loads of less than 250mA.

Try to take advantage of your environment:
This example applies mostly to northeners, mountain and desert dwellers. I built the walk-in cooler that I mentioned earlier because at my location we mostly have cool nights [think morning temperature lower than 60 degrees Fahrenheit] (>340/year). The idea is to use a differential thermostat to start the fans whenever the outside air is colder than the air in the cooler and simply flush out the hot air that accumulates during the day. This approach does a decent job of tracking nighttime lows if you can inhibit air flow throughout the day. The cooler itself is a 7'x5' room that is also 7' high. It is completely lined with 2 layers of 1" thick styrofoam (this allows me to overlap joints to achieve lower air leakage). There should be no wooden or metal breaks in the lining as this will seriously lower the cooler's overall insulation value. The door is currently sealed by weather stripping, but I may replace that with a magnetic seal like the ones used in a fridge. Your best location is against a north wall on a lower floor. If you can't avoid a sun baked wall, try to incorporate a layer of aluminum foil on the outside of the styrofoam. That construction needs a small airspace between the wall and the the foil (shiny side out) but is worth its weight in gold. I should point out that in the winter I have to blow hot air from the woodstove into the cooler every now and then to prevent its contents from freezing solid and you may need to provide for that as well.

Inside my cooler there is a separate box that is double insulated. Even on hot summer days it's temperature rarely exceeds 60 degrees F. The outer part of the cooler may get up to 70 degrees at the end of a hot summer day, cooling down to 55 degrees by morning on most days. I can expect to see these temperatures from the middle of June through the middle of August. Before and after that nights are colder and so is my cooler. So in the summer it emulates a good basement and the rest of the year its more like a fridge. This is plenty good enough to provide additional storage life to whatever you put in there for a small energy footprint.

And so I don't have to budget for a fridge, but what about a freezer? I would like to have a freezer but haven't run any tests yet to see how much power it really takes. The good thing about using a freezer is that it requires the most power just when it is most readily available. The problem I see is that I will need to make a custom 12V control circuit to determine when to turn power to the freezer on and off because I do not want the freezer to keep my inverter active 24/7. Apart from that I do not consider a freezer critical because there is always the art of canning to preserve food.

To summarize:
It may sound strange but based on what I discussed above I have decided that if I have enough solar panels to be able to bake one loaf of bread each day year round, I will have enough capacity to run everything I need to run. The catch is in 'year round' (I don't live in the Arizona desert) so let's look at the supply side of my budget.

The calculations above reflect the situation in mid summer, say, from the middle of May till early August. By the end of August the sun is so much lower in the sky that the solar panels' output is noticeably dropping and of course the days are shorter. This trend accelerates as you go into fall and by late September I need to use 2 60W panels where I need only 1 in June. The darkest part of the year is in November before we get snow on the ground and on a cloudy fall day I have to use 3 60W panels to produce roughly the same AmpHours a single 60W panel produces in the summer.

A solid cloud cover tends to cut power production 50%-70% compared to a sunny day. Light cumulus cloud cover (a few fair weather clouds) isn't much of an issue. Cirrus clouds (high feathery clouds made of ice crystals) on the other hand can drop the panel's output 30% even though it still looks 'sunny' on the ground. If you are in a situation where there is frequent fog or smog around a city, you will probably need to make an allowance for that too, but I have no experience with it.

Above all, avoid the situation where your panels are shaded part of the day. This may sound strange but my setup doesn't have any fixed rooftop panels as most commercial installations do. Such a setup would make it hard to do all the tests that I have run but I also consider it inefficient. Even if the rooftop panels' alignment is properly adjusted for your location you will have only 2 times a year where they are perfectly aligned with the sun's rays hitting them at a 90 degree angle. But what is worse is that every morning and every evening the sun's rays hit them at very low angles or not at all (assuming they are facing due south).

A mono-crystalline 60W panel measures approximately 2' x 2.5' and weighs around 12 lbs. So its easy to handle and move. Its also a lot sturdier than I thought (I can assure you that those 'tests' were unintentional) Some of my panels are hung vertically on the inside of doors. If the door is closed the panel is safely stored inside. If the door is open it faces the sun, which can be tracked from southeast to west. In the summer time when the weather is quiet, I usually tilt those panels upward as well. In winter time they stay in a vertical position to take advantage of light reflected off the snow on the ground, but can still follow the sun from southeast to southwest.

Other panels are completely detached and follow the batteries where-ever they are needed. Those panels get repositioned a few times during the day to track the sun. Lots of work? Not really: I only adjust the panels' positions when I happen to be around anyway. Besides when the grid is down, your kids will be home and can't play video games ...

But is it really good enough?
Yes, I started out skeptical too; not really wanting to put down $x000 on something that might not meet my needs. So I started small with a 30W panel and a few not so great batteries and built the system from there. Nevertheless right from the start of the work on my 'retreat' I have run all power tools off that little system. Granted if I needed to rip a bunch of 2x4s lengthwise, I had to do it on a sunny afternoon or the inverter would kick out due to low battery voltage. But for those of us that grew up and/or live in the countryside, to go with the weather is just a normal way of doing things. The system has been up for more than a year now and it has never left me without enough power to do the things I wanted to do.

At present I have 270W of rated generating capacity and my batteries are in good condition. Last month we had a stretch of 5 cloudy days where we didn't see the sun at all. None of the batteries fell below 50% capacity even though I didn't hold back on any planned activities. That is how I am building the confidence that I am on the right track.

Now the math:
150W (for the breadmaker) * 3 (for year round use) = 450W. Based upon what I have seen so far I am confident that this is enough generating capacity for my setup. Making a loaf of bread takes only three hours, so even if my minimum usable day length would be no more than 6 hours there are still 3 hours (~400Wh assuming panels produce at 30% of rated output) left to run all other devices, lights, etc. And if the batteries run low after a stretch of dreary weather I just won't be able to use my laptop or power tools for a while. Keep in mind that running low means the batteries are approaching the 50% charge level, there is plenty of power left for lighting, emergency repairs, etc. During most of the year 450W generating capacity is too much for my immediate needs but this is partly absorbed by running more water pumps, power tools, freezer, etc. than in the winter. And I can always store unused panels till I need them again.

450W worth of panels @ $2.50/W (includes shipping/taxes) will set me back around $1100. A good inverter $250 and another $250 for batteries add up to $1600. And I was lucky because I was able to purchase good used deep cycle batteries for 10% of their retail value. New they will set you back around $250 apiece. I purchased my solar panels and inverter via the Internet. I can get them locally but for 2-3x as much money. Depending on your situation, you may want to get them on-line too, but only order from a supplier in the country you live in. Getting these items straight from China will probably get you B-grade and that is not what you want on high priced goods. And.. your warranty would be a nightmare at best.

As of the time of this writing (July 2012) the prices that I have quoted are available on eBay from North-American suppliers.

Types of panels:
I am getting the best performance from mono-crystalline panels that are rated at 16.5-17.5% efficiency. Poly-crystalline comes in just under that at around 16% efficiency and is sometimes a bit less expensive per watt. Amorphous type panels are still less expensive per watt but have only 8-9% efficiency and therefore have almost twice the surface area for the same wattage. They also seem to deliver power at a lower voltage.

Inverter size:
My inverter is rated for 2500W with 5000W surge capacity. This sounds like a lot but you should take the ratings with a grain of salt. I tried to run a 2 h.p. industrial motor off it but that didn't work because the inverter shut itself down after a few seconds on each attempt. On the other hand I have no problems running a 1200W circular saw, a 1500W vacuum cleaner and a 15A stick welder. So my inverter probably delivers close to 2000W in real life. Its a big box which means it runs cool and that is a good thing. Its fans only come on when I am baking bread on a hot day or when I put it in the full sun because its outer shell is used as heat sink. Given my experience I doubt you will be happy for long if you try to use an inverter rated for less than 2000W as your main inverter. Since you probably want a backup unit as well, its worth considering to get a stackable inverter. Those units allow you to connect them in parallel in a single system effectively doubling your capacity.

System building note:
If you buy an inverter you will most likely see in the instructions that it should be grounded. I suggest you ignore that instruction because it will seriously compromise your system without adding safety for people that use it. Here is why: Your system's common ground is the minus side of your battery bank. Assuming your batteries' casing is intact it is isolated from the earth you walk on, so its impossible for you to be the switch that closes the loop (i.e. get electrocuted if you touch a hot wire; and yes, I personally tried it and am still writing...). The downside of tying your system to earth was pointed out by J.E.B. in his letter: your system could get fried just when you need it most. He is entirely correct in his assertion. The earth is a large capacitor and when excited by externally induced currents, it rings like a bell. As with any capacitor the rise and fall times of the currents are very small compared to the current's size leading to near vertical 'walls of energy' that are fully capable of destroying a system through its ground connection alone. Exactly what size of external event is required to take down a given system depends on many factors but why take a chance? For that reason my solar powered system is not grounded to earth.

How about the $100-$250 setup?
If you have been reading the entire article you may be able to guess where this is going:
- Forget about using 110 VAC tools and devices. This will save you the expense of an inverter. Definitely skip a charge controller in this setup.
- Buy a 40W or 50W mono- or poly-crystalline solar panel (=$100 to $125). If you live south of 40 degrees latitude, you can probably get by with a
30W-40W panel. I do not recommend using panel sizes below 30W for use with deep cycle and marine batteries. 15W is the minimum for car batteries and 5W for garden tractor and motorcycle batteries. The reason is that small panels cannot generate the power required to charge a large battery to
100% capacity. It may charge to 75% or 80% of capacity but that leaves a lot to be desired capacity wise and will at some point lead to quicker deterioration of the cells inside your battery. Rule of thumb: if your battery never reaches 13.6V in full sun around noon time, your panel is too small (or you have a bad cell in your battery).
- Try to get 1 or 2 used batteries that measure 12.3V or higher at rest. If that doesn't work, buy 1 with 100Ah (or more) capacity. Deep cycle is great, but marine type is okay too and less expensive and easier to get. Car batteries will work fine but they cannot be discharged as deeply and won't last as long (but still at least a few years) due to their different grid construction.
- If you can no longer use your car (for any reason you can think of) its quite alright to take out its battery and use that as free additional storage capacity, but you shouldn't mix new and used batteries in a single battery bank. Perhaps you can even round up some additional batteries in the neighborhood, though I strongly suggest you ask the owners' permission first.
- Connect panel to batteries and point panel at the sun. Depending on your panel's connectors, you may need to get or make an adapter for this.
- You now have a system that can provide you with light, a radio and the ability to charge flashlights, 2-way radios, small rechargeable batteries, some gadgets and, likely, your cordless tools year round.
- Since you operate on a shoestring and want your investment to last:
* buy a (inexpensive) small voltmeter and make sure your batteries never drop below 12V (12.2V for car batteries).
* buy a gallon of de-ionized water (it is still inexpensive and easy to get) and keep all cells in your batteries topped up.
* cover the battery terminals and connections with a layer of petroleum jelly (a.k.a. vaseline) to avoid corrosion.
- Best of all: your system is portable. If you have to leave you can take it with you, maybe not on a bicycle but definitely in a car. And so you will be in much better shape than if you had nothing at all.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I found myself in a rather uncomfortable and vulnerable position. Hurricane Frederic hit Mobile, Alabama in September 1979. I thought it was going to be exciting. In fact several friends of mine had a party the night before Frederic made landfall. There was no preparation made on my part for this hurricane. I had no anxiety and could have cared less. At the time I didn't even have a gun. I had barely a quarter of a tank of gas in my car. I did not have a battery operated radio or a flashlight. There was very little non-perishable food in my pantry and a small amount of food in the fridge. I had no idea about hurricane preparation and I did not heed the warnings issued. My family lived in north Alabama about six hours away so I was on my own.

Well, Hurricane Frederic made landfall and it was very destructive. The winds were fierce and the rain was relentless. A large pine tree fell on my house. Many trees were downed throughout the city proper and county making it extremely difficult to navigate. Electricity was out for most of Mobile County so there was no way to obtain gas to fill my car up. Price gouging was rampant - a bag of ice was selling for $10 or more, that is if you could find some. Most of the stores were emptied out prior to the storm. I had never experienced power outages on this scale. My home did not have power restored for 22 days. What little food I had in the fridge if not eaten in 24 hrs was ruined. There was also a curfew imposed by the National Guard. There were very long lines for ice and emergency food being distributed by the National Guard. Fights broke out and looting was rampant. 

I was stuck in a very hot house every night. We were afraid to leave the windows open because of all the looting. Luckily I did have a gas water heater and fortunately the gas was never turned off. My home was a popular stop off for friends who wanted a hot shower. For a few days my neighbors shared what perishable food they had and there were nightly cookouts until the food ran out. I ate well in the beginning. Several weeks later I was finally able to get some food supplies and batteries thanks to my family. My brother drove to Mobile with a well-received load of supplies for me. Federal assistance was slow to arrive and I was feeling desperate still I was luckier than most folks. I made so many stupid mistakes. It was an extremely miserable time that I will never forget. I made a promise to myself to never let that happen again. I was not going to be a helpless victim especially when this could have been avoided with some minimal preparation. And I certainly was not going to depend on any government assistance.

Since Hurricane Frederic I have experienced a number of hurricanes over the years including Ivan and Katrina. I also went through a house fire in 2009. The house fire started due to a lightning strike. It totaled my home. I had to start all over on my emergency kit. The good news is that I was able to rebuild my home and fortify it against category four hurricane winds. This also helped me keep my homeowners insurance at a more affordable rate. But I have learned some valuable lessons.

In this article I will share with you how I now prepare for emergencies since my dreadful days during Hurricane Frederic in 1979. 
I first came up with a list of what emergency items I might need. I kept adding to the list after reading a number of survival books and blogs.
Initially it was frustrating because I wanted everything right now. But I had to sit back and realize it was going to be a slow process. Each month I purchased a few items from my list.
It has taken awhile to obtain what I currently have and my emergency kit is not complete yet. But as I add items I feel more confident. As with most people I had to budget purchasing my emergency items. But you have to start somewhere. Now I do not feel so vulnerable. I feel that I can protect and provide for my family. Even though they think I'm a little weird prepping for the unknown. But whenever the power goes off they come to me for flashlights and lanterns. They expect me to take care of them and have even commented they would have been disappointed in me had I not been prepared.

First thing - I always fill my gas tank up when the gauge nears the halfway mark. You never know when you are going to get stuck in a traffic jam.
I also have (5) five gallon empty gas cans in my garage attic and I fill them up at the early stages of a potential tropical storm. If the storm doesn't materialize I just put the gas in my cars so nothing is wasted. You simply
cannot wait until the storm becomes a hurricane. By then there are long lines at the gas stations and shelves are emptied at the grocery stores.

I purchased a Honda 3000 watt generator that I can plug it into my electrical system. The generator is attached to a heavy chain and locked in place for security. I run the generator for several hours every month to ensure it is in good working order. I also have a small window A/C unit stored in the garage so I can have a cool room to sleep in at night. The generator is mainly to keep my refrigerator and freezer running.
My pantry is kept stocked with at least a month of food - canned goods, peanut butter, crackers, granola bars and dehydrated foods. As a backup I have a closet stocked with long shelf life freeze dried foods.
I have a several six gallon water jugs along with five collapsible one gallon water jugs. I keep a minimum of six cases of bottled water on hand. I have several Aquamira frontier water systems, life-straw, and polar pure water treatment. I fill up both bathtubs and all of my sinks. I recently located a nearby water stream within walking distance from my home. Remember folks a water supply is extremely important. You can go longer without eating than you can without drinking water.

I keep a three month supply of AA, AAA, C, D, and Nine Volt batteries. I have several battery/solar powered short wave radios along with a ham radio. I keep a wind up watch in my emergency pack.
I started out simply with a hurricane kit to get me through at a minimum of 3 to 4 days of survival. Now it has evolved to a more elaborate emergency kit. My goal is to be able to survive at a minimum of three to six months. In this emergency kit there is duct tape, Paracord - various lengths, snakebite kit, hatchet, 15" knife, 18" machete, hiking shoes, solar link radio, binoculars, first aid kit, machete, manual can opener, rain ponchos, tarp, wet fire starting tinder, blast match fire starter, bacterial soap, toilet paper, spork eating utensil, haululite ketalist tea kettle, outdoor 10" fry pan, siphon pump, emergency tent, emergency blankets, nine volt battery with steel wool-(you can easily start a fire with these two items), and camping cookware. I plan on getting some seeds so in the case of a long lived disaster I can grow my own vegetables. I already have several fruit trees in my backyard.

I inventory all of my emergency items monthly and refresh the list when needed. I also include a note where each item is stored. All of my important papers are kept in a fireproof/ waterproof safe.

I have ammo stored in watertight ammo cans. I clean my weapons on a regular basis. There are plenty of flashlights and lanterns. I keep small flashlights and lanterns throughout my home and garage. There are several battery powered fans to use during the day.

I have a grill and an Emberlit stove for backup in case the gas company shuts down our gas supply. I have a camp stove coffee maker so I can start my mornings with my caffeine fix. I practice using a flint/steel fire starter and my Emberlit stove. It's good to learn how to use your emergency equipment when there is no emergency rather than wait until there is one. That also includes going to a range and firing your pistols and rifles.

I have a corded phone stored in my emergency kit. Cordless phones will not function without electricity and I have experienced problems with spotty cell phone usage during hurricanes. For some reason land line phones have always worked for me.

I have precut plywood and each piece is numbered so I don't have to wonder which piece goes to each outside window. I use plylox brackets to quickly and easily insert the precut plywood to protect my outside windows.

I have my rear and garage doors hinged so they open outward making it difficult for hurricane force winds or humans to force the doors inward. Although my front door does open inward I brace it at night with a buddy bar. There have been a number of home invasions in our county occurring at night. It usually involves kicking in the front door and before you can react they are in your bedroom. I also have shutters on every inside window for privacy and it also helps keep cooling costs down. I decided to use spray foam instead of the traditional insulation in my attic. Even in the hottest month my attic is never more than 84 degrees. When the power is out my home should not heat up like most houses.

I have several neighbors close by that I keep in touch with. We have agreed to help each other out if need be. There is strength in numbers. I recently installed a wireless detector alerting me if anyone walks up my driveway to the back of my home. I plan on getting two way radios so I can easily keep in touch with my family and neighbors. My biggest fear is of people becoming desperate and dangerous. From my research it appears to only take several days for some folks to begin looting and killing. Once that begins it multiplies. I want to be able to protect my family at all costs. So ammunition and additional firepower are priorities for me. Most of my emergency items are stored in a backpack and a rolling canvas bag should I need to bug out quickly.

My pipe dream is to buy some land in a wooded area near water. I would build a small but comfortable shelter and an underground bunker. But that is only a dream and not in my budget so I plan to survive with my current method.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hi Jim,
Just finished reading the post on extending battery life.  The writer hit it on the head when he talked about pulse charging batteries. As a matter of fact there is a company out of Hayden, Idaho (in the American Redoubt) which makes microprocessor-controlled desulphating battery chargers.  John Bedini has been designing these chargers for many years, and has now made them commercially available.  His company is called Energenx.
I have three of his heavy duty chargers for use on Trojan batteries. The chargers have a charge cycle and a desulphate cycle where they charge and discharge several times to bring the life back to the battery.  There is a lot of research behind his patented process.
As long as the battery is not physically damaged, and the specific gravity cell to cell is close to the same, then these chargers will restore life to your battery bank. Trojans are notorious for the center cell on the 6 volts dying first, and it has restored several of mine. - T.C. in The Pacific Northwest

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Many preppers believe that batteries should play a prominent part in their preparations. For a variety of reasons, they are probably correct in that assumption. From what I have read on this blog they also generally believe that their batteries will reach end of life (or at least have a greatly diminished capacity) after 3-5 years. This is understandable but not necessarily correct. Since deep cycle batteries are not cheap its also an expensive assumption. This submission deals with how to extend the useful life of various types of rechargeable batteries.

There will be an emphasis on DIY [from very simple to complicated, so just pick your level ...] and sustainability. I believe that there will not be a quick path out of the troubles before us. Whether society collapses overnight or in a more managed descent, historical time patterns suggest we'll be lucky to regain today's 'normal' (= go to store and just buy whatever you need) by 2020. In the meantime we may have to work with what we have on hand. So preppers should have an 'I am in it for the long haul' mentality. Along those lines: if I can build it, I can fix it! ... and help others in my community along the way with my knowledge. Let's use what little time we have left to prepare wisely.

First of all, creating your battery bank:

NOTE: This part only applies if you wire your batteries in parallel (i.e. create a 12V bank). If you wire them in series (24V or higher output) you can skip it. The best way to kill your batteries is wiring your bank incorrectly because the load will not be shared equally among batteries, leading to premature failure of the overstressed battery that will then start draining the good batteries in the bank. The correct way to wire a bank is easy to understand if you keep in mind that the full path current (inverter + to -) will take the route of least resistance. So we need to make sure that the wire length and number of connections are the same regardless of which battery the current goes through.

The following connection schemes (that I found on a UK web site which credited 'smileypete') achieve just that.
For two batteries:
1+ to 2+; 1- to 2-
Tap and charge bank through 1+ and 2- (or 1- and 2+) terminals

For three batteries:
Connect all + terminals to an external terminal with wires of equal size and length
Connect all - terminals to an external terminal with wires of equal size and length
Tap and charge bank through the external terminals

For fours batteries:
1+ to 2+; 1- to 2-; 3+ to 4+; 3- to 4- This effectively creates 2 blocks
1+ to 3+; 2- to 4- Tap and charge bank through 3+ and
2- terminals
or 1- to 3-; 2+ to 4+ Tap and charge bank through 2+ and
3- terminals

My 8 battery bank consists of 2 of these banks of 4 connected in parallel to the inverter through identical cables and I have noted no uneven discharge problems with my setup.

A word of caution:
With a bank of this size you will want to be very very careful when (dis)connecting cables, tightening nuts with metal wrenches, etc. A near zero resistance short will release far more energy than you care to deal with and can easily cause burns, fires and explosions. Also have proper fuses on all incoming and outgoing lines for the same reason.

The 'battery life' issue:
The problem with common battery life knowledge lies with what we are told about overcharging them. Overcharging is generally believed to bad thing ... and it is ... but not always ... and so we need to qualify the term overcharging. Overcharging a battery with too much CURRENT (amps) is ALWAYS bad: it will shorten your battery's lifespan, overheat the battery, boil off water, and can be dangerous if the battery or its surrounding area has venting problems. Overcharging with too much POTENTIAL (volts) is not necessarily a bad thing if the process is properly controlled. The good news is that this control is easy to implement.

About lead-acid batteries:
I am only talking about flooded cells here. Although I have read that gel and AGM types behave in the same way as flooded cells during (over)charging, I have no experience with them so I am not prepared to make generalizations at this point in time.

Maximum (dis)charge current:
People that have studied batteries more than me hold the opinion that limiting the current through a battery to its C20 rate is desirable since this will avoid overheating and does not shorten battery life expectancy in any way. This is true for both the charging and discharging process. A medium size deep-cell battery (T-1275 as example) is rated at 150 Ah. Its C20 current is therefore 150 / 20 = 7.5 Amps. Here we see an immediate problem because this means that we can safely draw only 12 * 7.5 = 90W from one battery. That's okay for LED lighting, a 12V fan and charging cordless tools but little else. So we need to make a bank by connecting multiple batteries together. My 8 battery setup has a 720W capacity which runs my (corded) power tools without me having to worry about stressing the batteries at all. I don't even worry if I connect a 1500W industrial vacuum cleaner or small welder to the inverter since I am still only discharging at C10 rates which won't impact a battery too much if it happens only once in a while. It also means that I can charge the bank at 8 * 7.5 = 60 Amps without stressing the batteries in it.

On commercial charge controllers:
Let's say you bought a 30 Amp charge controller to protect your battery and have it hooked up to a 150W solar panel and one T-1275 battery on a sunny day. The solar panel will put out about 10 Amps. This is within the 30 amp limit of the controller but above the battery's C20 rate (7.5 Amp), so you're happily reducing your battery's lifespan and the money you spent on the charge controller was a total waste of resources. Why a total waste? What about stopping the charging process when the battery is full?

The important voltages for lead-acid cells are as follows:
(A 12V battery has 6 of these cells in series, so multiply the numbers by 6)
1.75V empty
2.01V 50% charge
2.06V 75% charge
2.12V-2.15V full when resting (= at least 1 hour no charge/discharge applied)
2.4V full when charging
2.6V cell balancing voltage

On charging voltages:
If you connect a solar panel directly to a battery, the battery will clamp down the voltage of the solar panel to about 13-14V(max) and absorb all the solar energy in the process. If the battery's plates are fully charged, the additional energy will go into a process generally referred to as boiling. Is boiling a bad thing? Not necessarily and certainly not in stationary deep cycle batteries. You will need a certain amount of boiling to keep the electrolyte from settling. Your car battery doesn't have that issue if you drive through the odd pothole or across other bumps but for stationary batteries it is a real problem.

Secondly the boiling that occurs from potential (over voltage) is different than the boiling that occurs from high current. It sounds different (small bubbles instead of big bubbles) and doesn't boil off
the water. I am not sure what is being released but a marine battery that I bought at Wal-Mart (three years ago for stress testing) has been through many[short duration] boils and I have yet to add a drop of water to it as its cell's water levels are still as high as when it was new.

As you can see from the table above a 12V battery is fully charged (max capacity) at 6 * 2.4 = 14.4V. But there is one entry after that for cell balancing. This happens at 6 * 2.6 = 15.6V. In short cell balancing is fixing a bad cell by over potentializing it. Generally speaking if your battery's capacity drops, its because 1 cell has gone bad and drains the others. For a more detailed description you can google the term "cell balancing".

Cell balancing process:
Simply connecting a solar panel directly to a battery seems to accomplish this cell balancing (= restoring the battery's capacity) under the following conditions:
- battery is in decent shape = resting voltage reads 12.3V or higher.
- battery is not discharged during the process (i.e. you cannot use the battery)
- the process takes time; at least a few weeks if most days are sunny.

I told you that it was easy to maintain your batteries!

I 'bumped into' this process last winter when it was too cold to work in the yard. 1 bank of 4 T-1275 batteries was sitting at about 12.35V so I connected them to a 60W solar panel to avoid discharging them further and walked away. Six weeks later as temperatures started to rise I opened the battery box and found all batteries softly boiling. My volt meter showed 14.4V. I unplugged the solar panel and the next morning the resting voltage was 12.80V! Using the batteries this spring I noticed their capacity is much higher than it was last summer: no more instant collapse from 12.6V to 12.3V. What's most special is that I got the batteries used. They had spent the first three years of their life powering golf carts around a local golf course and were replaced because they couldn't get the job done any longer.

So lets do some math. At my elevation a 60W panel delivers about 3.5 Amps for a few hours on a bright sunny day in the middle of the summer and also on a sunny winter day with a fresh layer of snow on the ground. Spread over 4 batteries that is .9A per 150Ah battery. Which is barely a trickle charge for them and roughly 12% of their C20 capacity making it highly unlikely I would overcharge them even if left unattended. I think its most likely that the batteries were fixed by the high voltage generated by the solar panel. It is possible that this method works better in colder climates because my solar panel voltage is de-rated at -.5%/degree Celsius. This means that on a cold winter day it puts out 17% higher voltage than its rated capacity. For my panel that translates to about 20V in a closed circuit.

Coming back to charge controllers; it seems to me that as long as you keep your charging current below your battery's C20 rate by matching panel to battery, you cannot destroy (but only improve) your battery by applying the solar panel's full voltage to it. No need for a charge controller that cuts out at 14.4V, thereby eliminating the possibility to equalize your cells.

Under 'cell balancing process' I mentioned that the resting voltage of the battery should be 12.3V or higher. The reason for this is that batteries below that voltage cannot be restored to full capacity by just connecting them to a solar panel. Although beneficial, the voltage applied by the solar panel cannot reverse the process of battery plate deterioration called sulfating. So should we get rid of these batteries? Nope, at least not if you are a handyman. Sulfated batteries can be restored by a pulse charger, unless heavy bridging between the plates has taken place. If the [sulfation] bridges are too strong to break by shaking the battery, your best bet is to leave it there and find a replacement battery.

Pulse charger:
So what's a pulse charger? Essentially its an air-core magnetic coil that is pulsed with DC voltage. As the current through the coil is turned off, its magnetic field collapses and releases a short high voltage spike that will get the desulfating job done if you can capture it and send it into the battery. The size of the voltage spike is related to the size of the coil and the amount of power delivered by its power source. There is actually quite a bit of science involved if you want to optimize the design, but any coil/power source configuration will do something albeit at lower efficiency. Keep in mind that small coils cannot handle large batteries: they will create a surface voltage, but your battery has no capacity when you start using it.

So for large batteries (car batteries of larger) your pulse charger will need to be able to handle a decent amount of power. My current pulse charger's coil is made of a pound or so of magnet wire (10x 90' strands of 24GA magnet wire wound in parallel [low internal resistance] on a 4" high form). A smaller coil would not have the mass of copper required to generate pulses with enough energy content.

When I attached the charger made with this coil to a 30W solar panel (1.75 Amps) it worked just fine. When I connected it to a 60W panel (3.5 Amps) it never worked because the charger's switches were instantly zapped (power MOSFETs rated at 400V). Those switches have been replaced by 1000V parts and now everything works fine. The charger even managed to bring deep cell batteries measuring 11.4V and a 12V car battery indicating 4.5V back to life. If batteries get that bad, the initial charge takes several sunny days and a 60W panel to achieve and several charge/discharge cycles are required to get back to a reasonable capacity. For the 11.4V deep cell batteries I used 2 60W panels: one connected to the pulse charger and one connected to the battery. You need voltage levels to reach 13.8V - 14V in order to get battery capacity above 50%.

Charging a battery with 500-600V is dangerous indeed if you apply continuous current. However the coil's magnetic field collapses in less than 10 nanoseconds. So @ 12 kHz I am charging the battery for 12000 * 10 * 10-9 = .12 msec/second; giving it plenty of time to absorb/disperse the energy.

For the technically inclined handy man:
You can build your own pulse charger for $50-$100 in materials, depending what you have on hand. Following are its crucial parts:
- 5000uF capacitor to store energy from solar panel
- diode(s) between capacitor and coil input to force voltage spikes into battery (600V 30A ultrafast)
- diode(s) between coil output and battery (pos. terminal) to tap voltage spikes (600V 30A ultrafast)
- a wire connecting the capacitor's positive terminal with the battery's negative terminal (don't forget!)
- switch(es) between coil output and common ground (800V+ power MOSFETs, shorter fall time is better - I am using four switches to spread the load.
Stressed and hot semi-conductors and longevity do NOT go hand-in-hand.)
- heat sink for switch(es) - I salvaged one from an old desktop computer power supply
- MOSFET driver (UC2950 works for me)
- 555 timer or microcontroller to turn switches on/off @ 12 kHz ~50% duty cycle
(if you know how to write a simple BASIC program a microcontroller is the better option - picaxe 08M2 SoC's can be purchased for about $2/piece [www.techsupplies.co.uk] and programmed through a laptop's serial port using free-to-download software)

Will transistors work instead of MOSFETs? Yes, but not as well. Their fall times are usually measured in microseconds as opposed to nanoseconds for MOSFETs. The faster you can cut the current through the coil, the higher your voltage spikes will be.

BTW I did not come up with this design myself. Its adapted from postings in various alternative energy forums, mostly based on the work of someone who goes by the moniker Jetijs. Too bad a lot of people in those forums get hung up on chasing over-unity effects within their contraptions, which is next to impossible due to the small size of their builds. But we can still use their technical insights for other purposes.

Why use a microcontroller:
On my system I use a microcontroller for two reasons:
- When I make a mistake in the design its easier to fix a piece of software than to de-solder some components.
- This is still a work in progress: from time to time I get an idea based on what I see on my volt meter and I want to test that. Again its easier to adapt the software than to built a new circuit board. And if the idea doesn't work its simpler to delete the code than to try to reclaim parts from a now obsolete board.

As a result of the cumulative ideas, I have now a much more versatile charger than if I had to build it with a simple timer chip. For instance: On start-up the microcontroller tests its power source and loads an initial set of parameters based on the test results. If it realizes during operation that it picked the wrong set, it can fix that mistake. In order to optimally use the available power, the micro controller can vary the charger's duty cycle from 5-65% and it's frequency from 4-40 kHz as it tries to keep input voltage close to 17V when connected to a 60W panel, which seems to be the sweet spot for this combination. The idea is to try to create an optimal spike not just when the sun shines brightly but also under less favorable conditions or with different size panels. The charger just creates a different number of and/or smaller spikes per second.
Again, this was no grand design; its simply what the project evolved into to date.

For the not technically inclined:
A company called Energenx sells a charger called the rejuvenator. The underlying technology is close enough to what I described above that I expect them to work, though I haven't tried them. They are quite expensive and use a 110V outlet, but if they double the life of your battery bank it might be a worthwhile investment.

Dry-cell batteries:
So far I have only dealt with lead-acid batteries. However pulse chargers produce the same effects in dry-cell rechargeable batteries. Some claim success with alkaline batteries too, but I haven't seen that myself: increased voltage, yes, real sustained capacity, no. The technology seems to work with lithium cells too if you are careful with regards to voltage, but I have no lithium cells so I cannot speak from experience. Do not expect to recharge a laptop battery with it: you will probably zap the embedded electronics rendering the battery useless.

I am now using a pulse charger exclusively for my NiMH and NiCd batteries and it works very well. I should qualify that statement: for good quality batteries. Cheap Chinese batteries have about a 50% failure rate after a few cycles due to membrane rupture. On the other hand I have some NiMH from 2001 that are still in use. I was about to throw them away by the time I built my first pulse charger because they powered my cordless mouse for only about one day before dying. Then I put them in my pulse charger and now they run the same mouse for 4 to 6 weeks before they run out. I also found some Radio Shack NiCd batteries from the 1980s that are now doing duty again in garden lights with better results than some of the batteries shipped with new lights. Solar light batteries receive some pulse charger time during the winter months and some are now into their 5th season and still keep the LED going through the night, though you can't save them all.

Most notable is that the batteries stay cold during the charging process which helps to improve their life expectancy because heat is the biggest killer of small rechargeable batteries.

I am charging AA and AAA cells in sets of 4 to around 6V. On a nice clear day you can achieve this with a 1W solar panel if you charge one set at a time. For charging multiple sets simultaneously, use 3-5W panels as a minimum power source. 9V batteries should be charged to around 10.5V to reach full capacity. If you want to use your charger with larger panels it should monitor these voltage levels because it is relatively easy to zap dry-cell membranes if you put too high a voltage across them. A 1W panel has a hard time reaching 6V under the best of circumstances so no worries there.

A pulse charger for these batteries has the same parts and layout as the one described above but with much smaller/cheaper parts. The coil is a single layer of 24GA magnet wire about 4" high that uses a piece of 3" ABS pipe as coil form. An empty Coke bottle works great as coil form too, but avoid PVC as its too dense and impedes the magnetic field noticeably. The capacitor can be 100 uF, the diodes 100V 1A ultrafast or Schottky, the switch needs no driver or heat sink and can be something like an IRF510 (100V, 5A) if you use a 555 timer to drive it. With a microcontroller you should use an IRF520N or similar low input voltage MOSFET.

Will pulse chargers run from power supplies other than solar panels? Yes, I have run them from 12V and 24V batteries as well as laptop power supplies without problems. Pretty much any DC power supply works well since the large input capacitor stabilizes the supply if needed.

Would I normally consider buying a solar panel just to charge a battery? No way, still too expensive per kWh. But I expect supply chain problems to arrive before panel pricing gets much better than it is now and I want to avoid the darkest of the ages. When that day comes I need generating capacity at home, not at a distant vendor's place. For my location solar works better than other alternatives and I decided I might as well start using the panels now and know what to expect from them when it counts.

For the skeptics that feel the urge to write in about how and why all of this won't work: Please don't. I am fully aware that what I wrote goes against conventional wisdom. Which is why you need to replace your batteries every few years, so I can pick them up on the cheap (sometimes even for free) and restore and use them again. Many thanks for the opportunity. Especially when using a pulse charger you are using a totally different process when charging your battery than with a conventional charger as evidenced by a very different charging voltage curve and battery temperatures. I have built and tested all the setups myself and am simply reporting the results I have seen. This posting is meant to get word out to the preparedness community, hoping to help them a bit with their decision making and preparations.

For the rest of you: Take the worst battery (lowest resting voltage) from your bank and connect it to a 15-20W solar panel for a few weeks. [You can use a larger panel too as long as its output is less than your battery's C20 rate.] Then exchange it with the second worst battery in the bank. Keep repeating until you have rotated through the entire bank. Alternatively you can use spare batteries for the rotation. Then start the entire cycle again with the first battery if you want to keep your batteries in good shape. You will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

The Problem
Sleep Apnea has been a recent topic in the blog.  My wife and I both use one of “the machines”.  And although it is true many people just simply cannot get use to using them, others like us can no longer get a good nap or full night’s sleep without one.

So, what do we do if some yahoo hits the pole in route to his (with your permission Mr. Rawles) “hid-e-hole in Idaho”. Our choices were to stay up all night waiting for the power to come back on or …. Nothing!  Sleeping without “the machine” is difficult and can be downright dangerous, stroke or heart attack being top on the list of things that can beset you.  

A Solution
We have found a work-around, a way to prepare for the eventuality of a power outage by purchasing a couple of Duracell DPP-600HD Powerpack 600 Jump Starter & Emergency Power Source units. Each unit will supply a couple nights’ sleep with our CPAP machines.  Our decision to buy two units instead of one “humongous” 100 + amp battery was twofold:  1. Portability - the 100 + amp batteries weigh a ton; the Duracell jump packs are very portable giving me the ability to move them around without help and 2. Redundancy - if one of the jump pack units goes south, we still have one unit left. 

The Product
The jump packs are equipped with an AM/FM radio, flashlight, jumper cables, and charge meter, 480 watt power inverter - all supported by a 28ah AGM battery. These mini power stations run both CPAP machines which represent our most important emergency power needs.

Most sleep apnea machines today are DC-powered and are sold with the required AC adapter for normal household use.  Plug in the CPAP manufacturer's [DC-to-DC] car adapter cable -- one end into the jump pack and the other into the CPAP machine -- and you’re in business for the night.  

Charging Scenarios
When the power comes back on, we plug our jump packs into the wall outlet to trickle charge – always read for the next power outage.  The built in charger will not overcharge the battery.  With the built-in jumper cable sockets, it is a simple task to plug in the cables and quickly recharge the batteries from an automobile or truck.

And in consideration of a TEOTWAWKI event we chose to construct a simple, portable solar charging station.  This solar solution includes a couple of good quality 50 watt solar panels, charger/regulator and the necessary wiring and connectors for off the grid charging capabilities.

One last suggestion:  More books Mr. Rawles.  Waiting for your next book is akin to subjecting fans to literary water boarding.  You must write faster!
Regards, - R. in Oregon  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Off-Grid Origins

Residential power systems - particularly the inverters that provide more popular Alternating Current (AC) voltages, standards and connections - are a far cry from their primitive ancestors of only a few decades ago, when hobbyists and off-grid home or cabin owners needed a fair amount of electrical expertise, as well as tolerance for not-quite-ready-for-mainstream technology and performance. Increased world-wide demand, dramatic improvements in the semiconductor and microprocessor industries, economies of scale, improved safety standards, regulations, plus diligent and competitive engineering have all contributed to the superb home inverter offerings available today. From it's infancy as an inferior, pioneering substitute to grid power systems, usually chosen only out of necessity for off-grid installations, the technology has matured to the point where pure sine inverters can typically offer cleaner, better regulated, and more stable power solutions than utility grid power companies can offer. An added benefit of the precise sinusoidal waveforms is the extra longevity that most computers, consumer electronics, motors and other electrical devices with inductive loads gain as a result of lowered internal friction from surges, spikes, blackouts, brownouts and other voltage irregularities in utility-supplied power.

On-grid Evolution

The lure of a potential market many orders of magnitude larger than strictly off-grid customers encouraged inverter manufacturers to address the technical hurdles of allowing inverters to use both local - e.g. photovoltaic (PV) solar, wind, small hydro, etc. - sources and imported grid-supplied AC to power both consumer loads and backup batteries. An on-grid inverter must synchronize the AC output of the inverter with the incoming AC power from the grid, be able to immediately supplement any outages or drops in grid power with power from the batteries, solar panels, wind generator, etc., and adjust its phase instantaneously when outside utility power is restored. Today's class of pure sine wave, synchronous inverters do all this and more, while meeting and/or exceeding all the needed safety and regulatory requirements such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Electric Code (NEC). These 'best of both worlds' inverters can often dramatically reduce the need for backup generators, fuel and having to oversize collection (such as PV panels, wind turbines) and storage (battery) components. The caveat with this approach is that it presumes that extended utility outages lasting many days or weeks will be very rare. However, if one wishes to build a self-sufficient home energy system in stages, this is often a good compromise. Backup generators and fuel can be added as budgets allow, with grid-tied systems still providing immediate benefits for both new construction and retrofitted homes. Since the vast majority of inverter applications have access to grid power, this article will focus on these modern grid-tie pure-sine inverters.

Power Buy-back

Because grid-tie inverter systems can frequently generate more electricity than is being used, utility meters will actually run backwards or sometimes a second meter is installed to measure the power delivered back to the utility company. The home becomes (at least in those moments when household supply exceeds demand) a net energy producer rather than a consumer. Some more progressive states and municipalities allow home-generated power to be sold back to the utility company at their retail power rates; Ashland, Oregon, for example, even pays a 25% premium (1.25 times the highest residential rate) for home-generated power for the first 1,000 kiloWatt-hour (kWh). Here is a net metering map for USA locations which shows how 42 states, at the time this article was written, support some form of net metering. Check with your local utility. In some cases, power is bought back at wholesale rather than retail rates, reducing the cost-effectiveness of an alternative energy system for those locations. In either case, there are self-sufficiency and ecological gains, and often economical gains, with effective break-even strategies.

Self-sufficient ideals for any home

One important benefit of looking objectively at home energy consumption, in addition to reducing ongoing monthly utility costs and the corresponding environmental benefits, is the potential for scaling down the size, cost and complexity of an inverter-based power system. Typically, the largest energy 'gluttons' include space heating (and cooling), water heating, cooking, clothes drying, and refrigeration. If you can, find non-electric or high-efficiency options for these needs, such as wood-fired cookstoves, gravity-fed water supplies (since well pumps often draw significant current) ceiling and exhaust fans, solar water heating, clotheslines and drying racks. Judicious use of these technologies can reduce ongoing power needs and system design costs to a fraction of what they might be otherwise. Plus, these strategies work equally well for both grid-tied and non-grid homes. This is most easily done with new home construction, taking advantage of microclimate factors, daylighting, prevailing breezes, site location for PV panels, wind generators, small hydro stream/penstock siting, etc. However, even retrofits can gain considerable benefits by careful planning and appliance selection. It behooves one not to overlook the benefits of a conservation-oriented lifestyle. Unplugging not-in-use phantom loads like battery chargers, and turning off unused lights, computer peripherals, etc. can make a significant difference. Energy Star appliances, high-efficiency LED and/or occupancy-sensed lighting, timers and a vast assortment of other energy-saving devices can simplify the effort for this lifestyle. Another 'elephant in the room' - specifically the garage - is the enormous potential (fuel) energy savings of a home-based business instead of a commute-intensive and fossil-fuel dependent livelihood and community. Here's a list of some energy conserving ideas and resources that might be helpful in scaling down your inverter, battery and power source needs. The Department of Energy (DOE) tip web site for Money and Energy Savings is another useful resource.

Older inverters paired with a UPS (off-grid only)

If you have access to an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) that meets your power needs and can handle less than pure sine wave inputs you might be able to economize by using an older, second-hand non-sine-wave inverter with modified sine wave or other coarsely stepped output waveforms. Just make sure to carefully check the manufacturers specifications and then make an explicit inquiry to both vendors about the specific combination to avoid any safety or device/system longevity issues.

Small Inverters

There are numerous small wattage inverters for automotive or small load applications with outputs of 1 kW (kiloWatt) or less. When selecting inverters of this type, make sure both the nominal (rated) and peak or surge wattage ratings are a good fit for both the intended load and the inverter being considered. Keep in mind that these less expensive inverters often use a modified sine wave output that is a poorer approximation to 'pure sine wave' inverters. This may work fine for incandescent bulbs and other purely resistive loads (although an audible buzz is a classic artifact), but efficiency, performance and device lifespan may suffer with computers and home electronics that require cleaner power. Consider using a UPS as noted above. Anything with reactive (capacitive or inductive loads) such as transformers and motors tend to 'fight' dirtier power and waste more energy in heat with correspondingly compromised life spans and reduced efficiency.

Vulnerabilities of the On-grid Only Approach

Aside from the smaller (typically for mobile or portable application) inverters, there are three main inverter configurations: On-grid only, off-grid only, or systems designed to work either way. The 'on-grid only' option, while becoming the most common, is the most vulnerable, due to complete dependency on the grid. To be fair, there are a few advantages to this approach, but these don't do much for a preparedness-oriented home. Most of the long term cost pay back calculations are based on grid-tied systems without batteries. Most tax credit and tax rebate plans apply only to grid-tied systems. However, after two years, the owner can usually reconfigure their systems legally, to make them truly off-grid, but only if the inverter is designed to work off-grid also. This is a must to keep in mind when choosing an inverter, which is one of the most expensive system components. An "Achilles Heel" design flaw of many grid-only systems prevents them from operating in the absence of grid power. There are plenty of mechanisms for grid failure. You have probably experienced your share of blackouts and brownouts. There are also probabilistic mechanisms that threaten the grid as well as the more common situations that trigger these events. The utility grid - in some respects analogous to a giant antenna - could be knocked out by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) from massive solar flares or high-altitude nuclear detonations. The resonant wavelengths needed to disable power systems are minimized by relatively tiny wiring runs from PV panels to inverters and batteries in typical home power systems, compared with miles or thousands of miles of grid wiring. The longer the cable runs, the longer the unintentional antennas for EMP resonance. Rather than wait for the next power failure, try (with advance preparation) living without utility power for a day - or a week - and make careful note of what you will provision yourself with if/when this becomes a permanent (or even semi-permanent) situation.

The 'Total Off-grid' or 'Best of Both Worlds' Decision

The other two inverter topologies that mitigate grid frailties are the 'total off-grid' approach and the 'best of both worlds' configuration that allows for grid-tie benefits and complete functionality when the grid is down. Both approaches use batteries or some form of energy storage. The cost of off-grid systems are substantially higher, and the pay-back period is much longer. Despite some encouraging developments in battery technology, sulfation and other intrinsic longevity issues with lead-acid batteries (the most commonly chosen type) require purchase of new battery banks at roughly 6 to 8 year intervals. Other battery types tend to be more expensive, which outweighs typical lifetime advantages.

Some inverters are designed to work strictly on-grid, which ties the system to the grid's vulnerabilities; for the 'both' approach, make sure explicitly that the inverter you select keeps on running regardless of whether the grid is up or down. The automatic grid power detection circuitry should disconnect the inverter from the grid and switch over to batteries within a few milliseconds, and then reverse that automatically when (if) grid power is restored. Caveats and cons for this "both" approach include the extra expense for a system that handles both grid and home-generated power; the synchronous part of the inverter and the switching logic and circuitry. Advantages of the 'both' approach include the greatest flexibility and source versatility, and possibly lower initial cost, since batteries (and additional panels and/or turbines) could be added later after budgets allow. Check with your inverter/PV consultant to make sure a staged approach like this is designed optimally for future expansion.

The advantages of the total off-grid approach include lower inverter costs, lack of expense and regulatory involvement needed for the synchronous circuitry and disconnect switching. Disadvantages include the considerably larger system size, complexity and expense of a system that must rely on strictly on-site power, which usually must be purchased at installation, rather than added later in stages. If the local supply fails (no wind or sun for extended periods or component failure), often equally unsustainable fossil-fuel based backups require additional expense and design considerations. The psychological benefits in terms of self-sufficiency may outweigh these issues.

Sizing, Options and Selection

Regardless of the type of system selected, proper sizing is always important. Buying more wattage (and complexity) than you need is often a result of not being thorough in a realistic, yet vigilant review of conservation lifestyle and appliance changes noted above. If you have the luxury of designing a new home, carefully plan to include primary non-electric (preferably on-site generated) alternatives for space heating/cooling, water heating, cooking, clothes drying, and refrigeration (such as a SunFrost brand refrigerator). This might make the difference between a system that uses 4 dozen pricey PV panels or half that. With a very frugal lifestyle, design and carefully solar orientation, etc. it's sometimes possible to cut the needed system size - source, storage and conversion components (e.g. PV collectors, batteries, and inverter) in half again. While retrofits are usually more challenging to realize savings of this magnitude, there are still many opportunities to explore and an abundance of energy conservation resources online. Keep in mind that the idle current draw (a.k.a. wasted 'phantom load' power) is proportional to the size of the inverter. This is yet another reason to think through the big picture, all major power loads and size the inverter (and panels, batteries, etc.) for an optimal match between sources and loads.

Despite the tremendous advances in inverter technology, simplifying installation tremendously, there are still a number of choices to be made for a given power system installation. These often include (but aren't limited to):

  • Rated output power in Volt-Amps (VA) which is related to Watts (W); here's an article on the difference between VA and W ratings. Rated output power is often different for different output voltages, such as 240VAC or 208VAC output.
  • Output voltage(s); typically 240VAC.
  • Input voltages; AC (grid) and DC (PV panels, wind generator, etc.) input voltages.
  • Peak efficiency; typically 90% or higher. The lost efficiency is converted to heat.
  • California Energy Commission (CEC) weighted efficiency; a measure of average efficiency.
  • Maximum input current
  • Maximum output current

Online Comparison Chart

Once you have defined your power needs and selected the parameters above, here is a handy interactive comparison chart tool that allows comparison of these vendors (at the time this article was written): Advanced Energy, APS, Blue Frog Solar, Carbon Management, Chint Power, Delta Energy, Diehl AKO, Emerson Network Power, Enasolar, Enecsys, Enphase, Eversolar, ExelTech, Fronius, Growatt New Energy, KACO, KLNE, Kostal, Motech, Power-One, PVPowered, Refusol, Samil Power, Samlex America, Satcon, Siemens, SMA, Solar Bridge Tech, Solar Edge, Solar Energy Australia, Solectria, Sunpower, and Xantrex. You can group inverter comparisons by size (Wattage ranges in kW brackets) to make selection easier. This chart tool has a wide range of inverters for both off-grid and on-grid applications.


Both off-line and grid-tied inverter systems generally require licensed electrical contractors as well as applicable inspectors from your local jurisdiction(s). Always check all pertinent requirements, net metering regulations, and use UL, CSA and NEC certified components to pass safety, inspection, insurance, and other requirements before beginning an inverter-based power system project. When in doubt, consult a professional solar/inverter installer. It's also a good idea when you're not in doubt, too! Electrical equipment has safety as well as economic considerations, so always play it safe. Often solar/wind/inverter/alternative energy professionals can eliminate significant research time investment and quickly guide you to a suitable system tailored to your location, budget and specific needs.

Vendor Contact Info

Here are some of the more popular grid-tie inverter (GTI) manufacturers (click on the links to visit their web sites):

- L.K.O. (SurvivalBlog's Central Rockies Regional Editor)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mr. Rawles:
Today is Wednesday, July 4, 2012.  I am writing from a small town in central West Virginia and I would like to share some thoughts, observations, and lessons from the recent Derecho windstorm experienced by the mid-west and east of our great country.  As I sit here, we are in day six of total power outage caused by a freak storm that came with little or no warning.  Power may not be on for another four days.
I have been a long time reader of your blog and have lots of lists and plans but sadly my preparations for hardship were found lacking.  We here in West Virginia are used to disasters such as floods but the mountains tend to shield us from tornados and high winds are rare.  Within an hour span power was knocked out to 50 of the 55 counties in the state.  The towers of major transmission lines were twisted wrecks.  And then the “fun” began.  This incident has galvanized me and my neighbors.  My observations will be preaching to the choir in this forum but here goes:
·          Gasoline was gone within 24 hours.  Lines were just like the 1970s fuel embargo.
·          Ice became the chief commodity and was in short supply or no supply.
·          Water was out for most people at least for the first two days.
·          Most big box stores and gas stations were up on generator power by day three.
·          A new shipment of 250 generators was sold in a few hours.
·          Temperatures in the high 90s added another layer of difficulty.
     Most people kept their cool and neighbors helped each other.  Many are much better neighbors now.  With all traffic lights out it was hectic but for the most part people were safe and courteous.  We used to have a tourism commercial about West Virginia that showed four cars pulling up simultaneously to a four way stop and each driver motioning for the other to go first.  The tag line was “Traffic jam, West Virginia style”.  I am happy to say that was true in most cases.
     The holes in my preparedness were:
·          I needed good high quality kerosene lanterns with reflectors and extra wicks.  The cheap Chinese red ones at Wal-Mart are toys.
·          Batteries, Batteries, Batteries.
·          Propane, Propane, Propane.
·          I needed a good tough portable radio with multiple charging sources.  I was reduced to listening to a car radio and risking battery and gas.
·          I should have had several barrels of water on hand
·          A couple of deep cycle marine batteries would have been nice.
·          A generator and fuel reserve have moved from the nice-to-have list to the have-to-have list.
The local radio station stepped up to the plate and suspended normal programming and went live 24 hours on generator with news and call-ins giving information.  The unpreparedness of some of the call-ins was instructive.  On the second day several were screaming for FEMA to arrive.  Well, in our recent primary election, Democratic voters supported a prison inmate in Texas with over 40% of the vote, so I do not expect FEMA anytime soon.  It is obvious to me now that there will be a die-off in any major disaster.  Those on medical oxygen or diabetic will not survive.  There is also an element of just plain stupid out there.  One lady drove 30 miles to a neighboring town to get water for her children when simply listening to the radio would have directed her to a fire station two blocks from her house.
Mr. Rawles, I know your feelings about areas anywhere east of the Mississippi but I must say that, in general, West Virginia enjoys some advantages as a retreat.  Property prices and taxes are low, low population density, low crime rate, no urban problems, minimal gun laws, and a conservative and religious population.  For the most part, it is “Almost Heaven”.
I have turned a corner on preparedness and I hope my neighbors have too.  Bottom line: We must have three days of supplies at a minimum and build from there.  Thanks for your blog.
Wavetalker in West Virginia

Hi James,
I too have chosen DeWalt, but went out of my way recently to purchase a 12 volt cordless drill.  My reason being that the rechargeable batteries will eventually degrade.  18 volts is hard to come by without stacking small cells together in series.  But 12 volt batteries are ubiquitous in all kinds of shapes, sizes and capacities, and can be pressed into service easily with a few feet of wire. - Ray K.

Dear James.
I just want you to know that we appreciate what you do ,the information you provide is priceless,and don`t start my day without touching base at SurvivalBlog.com. I use my battery operated tools daily, as a contractor -handyman. I have also found Dewalt to make  great tools. My batteries started to go on my drill, impact driver set, so I went to the Big Box store. I found the price for one spare battery was $80 dollars. Yikes! So I started looking around for options. What I found might save you and your readers some money, and give them some inexpensive backup--since "two is one." I found a combo kit with a DeWalt drill, two batteries, charger and flashlight on sale for for $159. This, mind you, was at the same store that sells a single battery for $80. Hope this helps, - HookNshoot

Regarding Dewalt cordless tools, I agree that they have good quality and lifespan. In my case, I switched over to Bosch Cordless tools seven years ago. I ordered the full set of tools including the jig saw and the car charger and a free canvas carry bag plus an 18v hand plainer from the factory outlet at a good savings with new factory warranty.

The initial Bosch warranty is better and check out the six foot drop test online. Your results may vary and according to Bosch their 12 volt product line has performance close to the 18 volt product line, with less weight.

My change jar is being saved to purchase for their 18 volt impact driver.

As for the batteries after seven years of sporadic use including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I had two of my three 18v batteries [eventually develop] dead cells. New replacements
seemed expensive so I called the local battery place and asked how much to rebuild. I had three batteries rebuilt, with same day service. The cost was $150 versus $240 for buying factory new replacements. Plus the batteries were at full charge when I got home. That's my two copper-washed zinc cents worth.

Remember that most rechargeable battery packs can be rebuilt for about 2/3 the cost of new and as a plus you are "saving the Earth."

Disclaimer: I am not in anyway compensated or have a financial interest in either company. I like them both but just prefer Bosch.

Cheers, - JHB

Here are a couple of do-it-yourself "corded battery pack" conversions, like you mentioned:

Convert a perfectly good cordless drill to a corded one.

How To Make a Cordless Tool Corded

Regards, - Zac


Hello James,
As you noted in your overview of cordless tools, the weak link is in the batteries. When they fail (and they will [eventually] fail) an otherwise useful tool becomes useless.
As an option, you recommend using a high amperage 18 volt DC power source. But unfortunately, 18 volt power sources are not common.

Perhaps another option would be to own 12 volt DC power tools. When their batteries fail, the tool could be powered by any high amperage 12 volt DC power source, like a car battery.
Although these tools may lack the torque of their 18 volt brethren, the quality is still there. 12 volt lead-acid batteries are readily available. Additionally, in a grid-down situation, a number of other tools, appliances and communication gear could be powered by that same 12 volt battery. And, as you pointed out, be sure to use appropriate fuses. Best Regards, - David S.


For extented hours of use on cordless power tool use, check this Y-T video out on what I'd call "semi-cordless": Ultimate Battery Power. Oh, and here is a link to that company's web site: TheUltimatePowerTrip.com. Kudos on having the biggest and very best prepping site in the blogosphere. The others are just pale imitators! - Charles J.

Several readers have asked me what brand of cordless power tools I use. A few years back, I settled on DeWalt brand 18 Volt DC tools here at the Rawles Ranch. This company seemed to offer a very wide selection of very sturdy and reasonably priced tools with long battery life. The only drawback is that their spare batteries are fairly expensive. (Although their batteries seem to have a much longer service life than most of those made by competitors.) Since then, I haven't regretted the selection of DeWalt, since they keep adding tools to their line, and a they've also started making compatible lithium-ion batteries. One nice thing about DeWalt is that they make both AC chargers and 12 Volt DC chargers. The latter come with ubiquitous cigarette lighter plugs, which I dislike. So I do my usual trick of adding pairs of genderless Anderson Power Pole connectors to the cords, to give me commonality with all of my other automotive, ham radio. and off-grid power systems. (I use fuse-protected RIGRunner power strips in most of my vehicles and Anderson Power Pole connectors all over our ranch house and barn/shop.)

I seem to get the most use out of the 1/2" chuck impact drill and the reciprocating saw. (The latter uses standard Milwaukee Sawzall blades, and in fact I've switched to using the less expensive Milwaukee brand blades. For expendable items, I pay attention to quality and price rather than brand names.) My only regret was buying the compatible DeWalt cordless circular saw. I only rarely use it, so it wasn't worth the expense. The motor is high torque, so it runs down batteries fairly quickly, and the blade diameter is fairly small, too. This limits the dimensions of stock that you can cut. I should have skipped buying it. Instead, I should have bought the less expensive cordless jig saw.

OBTW, don't neglect getting a flexible floodlight. These come from the factory with traditional (filament) light bulbs installed, but they can quickly be converted to use high intensity LEDs. Using an LED, just one charged power pack will run the light for hundreds of hours.

I recently found a video of an adapter made that allows you to use less expensive Ryobi batteries in the DeWalt tools. (This is a bulky arrangement, but if you already have a pile of Ryobi batteries, then the adapter is worth buying.) There is also a company that re-builds Ni-Cd battery packs that will no longer take a charge. Detailed do-it-yourself rebuild instructions have also been published.

There is a DeWalt Owners Group Forum where folks discuss a lot of great tips and tricks. I've read that people have even done "hacks" for using DeWalt Power packs for powering laptop computers. I'm sure that many more hacks will be developed, as time goes on. I suppose that an iPod, iPad or Kindle Reader would run for months from a big tool battery pack.

One obvious need is a 120 VAC power cord adapter that would allow you to power your "cordless" 18 VDC tools from AC line current, for situations where you have a lot of repetitive work to do in places where you do have stable generator or utility power available. But, alas, the business of selling spare batteries is very profitable to tool makers, so they've essentially aced-out and third party vendors by patenting their proprietary battery connectors. I have a feeling that some clever fellow in Hong Kong will soon solve this problem. In the interim, anyone who is handy with a soldering iron can construct their own converter. You could simply take a dead battery, remove its cells, and connect it to a high amperage 18 volt power supply. To prevent over-heating, this would require using some heavy gauge cabling. BTW, the same "dead battery trick" has been used to make laptop power converters or adapters for other DC electronics that are 18 VDC, or less, such as handi-talkies. (Resistors can be used to drop the voltage, as needed.)

One word of advice, in closing: It is fine to look for used cordless power tools online or in pawn shops. But don't buy batteries that way, unless they are still new and sealed in the factory packages. Otherwise, odds are that you will be buying grief.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prepping is full of assumptions.  We prepare because we assume that something could go wrong in our lives and that it is our own responsibility to take steps to assure that we come out smelling like roses.  Others don't prepare because they assume that nothing could go wrong in their lives and that someone else will take care of them.  We buy long term storage food because we assume that there will be a food shortage in the future.  Others barely have enough food in the pantry because they assume the pizza place will always be able to deliver and that they can send someone to the grocery store on the corner to pick up the smallest bag of sugar because they only need 1 cup to finish the recipe.  We stock up on spare parts, spare clothes, spare batteries, spare medicine, extra ammo, extra deodorant, extra cash, cans of fuel, etc, etc, because we assume there will come a day when we wont be able to just run down to the massive store that sells everything and get it all in one stop.  Others would have a very clean garage without the smell of gasoline, beautiful pantry cabinets so organized that everyone that comes over is so jealous as to how organized and clean their house is, because they assume that they can always run to the store no matter what time of day it is and get whatever is their immediate need. 

Assumption is one of the biggest banes for anyone that is concerned about safety.  I worked as a technician in the oilfield for one of the largest technology companies that is present on land based drilling rigs.  If there is a safety-conscious industry, it is the oil field.  Every company working in the oil field is required by law to do mountains of paperwork, proving that the company is safe.  There is so much emphasis on slowing down, being aware and not assuming anything.  Double check everything.  Don't assume that there is not anyone behind your work truck,  have someone check and watch for you as you back up, or never park in a spot where you have to back up.  Don't assume that the guy driving the heavy equipment sees you walking across the drilling location,  always take the extra time to verify your presence with everyone.  Working on the cattle ranch that my father and I run,  I also find that assumptions can get you killed.  It is a lot of fun working with my father.  We think very similarly.  This means that we work together very efficiently.  This also means that we assume to always know what, where, when and how the other is going to act.  These assumptions have almost left me ran over, squashed, banged, or hurt some other way on multiple occasions.  The same goes for him.  There have been times where my assumptions have almost gotten my father hurt.  We have discussed the situations and have made ourselves slow down and take our time.  The most important thing is for us to make it home at night.    We as preppers pride ourselves on our long trains of thought which are supposed to end in discovering every possible scenario and how to overcome them.  There are many times where we still make assumptions that could leave us in a whole lot of hurt.  The most present assumptions that I am finding around me has to do with electric generators.   

It was about five years ago that my part of the county had another “Ice Storm” scare.  Everyone that had lived thru the original “Ice Storm” back in the early part of the millennium knew what could be in store.  Generators flew off the shelves.  My parents went and purchased a brand new gasoline generator.  My in-laws did as well.  Last summer I helped my mother in-law clean out her garage.  There, still in the box was the generator.  I asked her if she had ever ran the generator.  Her reply was simple,  “No.  We've never needed it.”  I then asked “How do you know it will work?”  Another simple reply,  “Why wouldn't it.  It's brand new in the box.”  I made her help me get it out of the box and I tried to start the generator.  Do I need to tell you the result?  After a couple of hours exhausting my small engine starting tricks, the generator produced no more electricity than a rock would.  She insisted that we take it back to the store and get it replaced.  “Ma’am, we have a 30 day return policy.”  We called the company.  “Ma’am, the warranty has expired.”  The next step was to take it to a small engine repair shop, but we ran out of time that day.  Guess where the generator is.  In it's box, back in the garage and it has never made it to the repair shop.    My parents have a similar generator sitting in the garage.  There is a major difference between the generators.  My in-laws have opened their box.  My parent's have not even broken the tape on the box to make sure all the parts are there.  I have tried to explain to them that their warranty expired without even the box being opened to make sure that the box actually contains a generator and not a couple of sand bags.   

This spring I purchased a tri-fuel generator with a well known engine and a well known power house.  I was very excited for the day it would arrive.  That night I went to fire it up.  It needed engine oil.  I didn't have any.  I just assumed that it would come with some.  It was not till the next day that I was able to get some and fire the generator up using gasoline.  That was back in February.  It was just during this last week that I was able to find and purchase all the “not included” parts to be able to run the engine off of propane.  It was a good thing I didn't need to run it using propane prior to this last week.  The next step is to get what is needed to connect the generator to the natural gas line that runs to the house.  Both my in-laws as well as my parents are always curious why I spend so much time working on the generator.  There is no need for it during the summer.  My answer is always, “I don't want to have to worry about it when I do need it.” 

Walking down this long road of assumptions brings me to another recent event in my prepper world. I have a lot of new work boots in boxes.  The company that I used to work for would buy us new work boots every six months regardless of the condition of our present boots.  I take good care of my boots and they normally last me a long time.  Needless to say I was able to stock pile my work boots.  As a prepper, this is a great situation to be in.  I just recently had to get the pair that I have been wearing for over a year, resoled.  So, while they were at the cobbler, I got out a new pair of boots.  I had not even worn this new pair of boots for a full week when the sole on both boots just peeled off.  So much for assuming that a new pair of boots ought to act like a new pair of boots.  I have now worn all of my boots for at least a week to ensure they meet my expectations.  Now I am sure that my boots will function when they are needed.  Just as my boots could not meet expectations out of the box, it is imperative to wear and use your bug out bag and the equipment in your bag.  The very next day after my first outing with my new BOB, I ordered all new buckles for the lap belt.  The ones that the bag came with would just loosen on their own.  If I had not tested the bag I would have never known.  Making the 200 mile trek to my retreat with bad buckles would have been more eventful then it should been.    

As preppers, we purchase a lot of equipment.  Most of this equipment will not be used to any great extent until a crisis arises.  Do not assume that your equipment will work as advertised.  Test it.  Use it.  It is during these times of use that the warranty is important.  A warranty is there to protect you from a manufacturing fault and to ensure that everything works as advertised.  My final scenario has to do with an emergency water pump that my father and I decided to build this spring.  We had to replace the actual down hole pump that ran his sprinkler system.  While we were waiting on the pump to come in, we decided to build a hand powered water pump using ¾ inch PVC and a check valve. The design was simple.  The parts were easy to work with.  The PVC cement did not want to function as cement should.  We primed and glued.  The joints would just not hold.  We even let it set over night.  The joints would just come apart.  It took an entire week of working in the evenings after work and a new bottle of cement to finally get water to come out the top of the pipe.  It sure was a good thing we did not assume that PVC cement would work when we needed it the most.  Remember that assumptions are just that, assumptions. 

A crisis is only a crisis if a tried and true solution is not available.  Work with your gear and become familiar with every aspect of your gear.  It is only thru testing and training that your assumptions will be eliminated.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I never realized how dark and eerie our house could be.  Even at night, there were usually two or three nightlights casting their brave glow to prevent midnight mishaps. But on this evening, there was no electricity to power this smallest of luxuries.  Another thing I noticed as I kept vigil over my sleeping loved ones by emergency candle light was the extreme, echoing silence.  There was no fan humming in my son’s room. There was no whir of the compressor cycling on and off in the refrigerator.  There was no air blowing through the central air unit of our home.  Instead there was lingering, creeping silence that accompanied the knowledge that it would be a long time before normal service was restored.

This may sound like the beginning of an apocalyptic horror movie, but in truth, this is what happened in my town after the Super Outbreak of tornadoes on April 27, 2011.  We experienced our own localized TEOTWAWKI when an EF4 tornado ripped through the center of town on its 38 mile long trek of devastation.  The world as we knew it was about to shift dramatically.

The day started off with tornadoes ripping up the town just south of us in the pre-dawn hours.  Everyone was tense as the Weather Channel meteorologists were forecasting a TorCon index of 9/10; the highest numbers they had ever seen.  Yet, we all felt comforted by the fact that storms seem to veer off before hitting our town.  We have weathered many near misses and become a bit complacent.  At 3:00 PM, me, my 15 year old son, my 72 year old Mom and Dad, and my 92 year old grandmother sought refuge in a back basement bedroom of my downstairs apartment as the tornado sirens blared.  The camera located on the tallest building in the center of town provided an excellent view to the local News Channels of the half mile wide tornado as it barreled straight towards us. 

Like most people who are confident that disasters only happen to others, we stood on the driveway after the power went out.  It wasn’t until we realized we were looking up into the center of a side funnel and we could hear the tortured wailing of the winds in the main tornado that we ran like frightened rabbits to the back basement bedroom.  We were lucky that the true devastation started a block away from our house. After the tornado sirens stopped, the police, fire-engine and ambulance sirens began to scream only a few blocks over.  Within the city limits, 910 homes and 98 businesses were damaged.  

As we huddled in the dark, listening to more storms rumble by, we expected things to return to normal within an hour or two.  What no one knew at the time was that the Super Outbreak had destroyed almost all the large high voltage transmission towers that brought electricity into our substation from the north.  We were without grid electricity for six days and without cable television and Internet service for 12 days.  Gasoline was scarce for three days.  Land line phones were inoperable for 21 days.  Cell phone service was sketchy for nearly a month.  Also, schools were closed for 12 days.  Our cushy world as we knew it had suddenly ground to a halt. 

Let me start by stating that I’m not your average “survivalist.”  In fact, I don’t personally own a stitch of camouflaged clothing.  I’m a middle-aged, overweight, desk-driving, city dwelling, mother of one.  I don’t like camping and my idea of roughing it is to pitch a tent on the drive-way so I can come into the house whenever I need something.  I hate baiting hooks for fishing, and the only things I like to shoot are aluminum cans. 

I never made a conscious effort to prepare for the end of the world as we know it.  Sure, the thought that some cataclysmic event could disrupt our cushy every-day lives has always lurked in the back of my mind, but I never acted on it in a big way.  Despite the fact that we did not have an organized response to a disaster, we survived quite well due to several things we had set into motion over the past few decades. 

Our location was selected for a number of factors.  We chose to live in town, to be close to hospitals and utilities.  Our electricity is never out for very long, due to the numerous grids that can be used to reroute power around problems.  We also chose a home with a basement, which is crucial when living in tornado alley. 

The first necessity for survival was food.  My mother and I have always kept an emergency supply of non-perishable food in the basement. She began this practice in the 1970s, during the Cold War.  As children, we thought it was normal to have extra food in the basement.  Of course, raiding the stash to snack on the powered Jello didn’t help her, but we sure enjoyed it.  She stopped for many years, but then started stockpiling peanut butter and jelly again in 1999.  It started out as “Y2K supplies.”  When that didn’t result in grid disruption, those supplies were renamed as “tornado supplies.”  In the winter, we jokingly renamed them “ice storm supplies.”  This wasn’t some organized, labeled food storage.   We just stuck extras of what we normally used in some boxes in the basement.  To prepare food we used the propane barbecue grill and the side burner while we were without electricity.

The second necessity we had prepared in advance was electricity.  Since weathering Hurricane Fran and ice storms in North Carolina in the 1990s, we have never been without a generator.  Years ago, we had an electrician wire a separate breaker box into the house so we could power most of the house, most of the kitchen appliances, and the HVAC unit by plugging in the generator.  Also, I have had a inverter box in my van for road trips for years which allow us to plug in regular appliances to an outlet that is run off car battery when the engine is idling. We used this to recharge our phones, laptops and fluorescent lanterns.

The third necessity we required was information.  Our first line of access was a wind-up radio.  My Dad’s reason for buying this was not disaster related.  He simply got tired of replacing the batteries in his radio that he listened to daily.  With this, we could get information on more storms coming through, as well as the condition of our town, and the availability of limited resources, like gasoline.  We also had cell phones that could generate a Wi-Fi hot spot.  Although we couldn’t use them to make calls, our phones allowed us to reach out and connect with the outside world through the Internet.  Facebook was a Godsend since people were creating pages for the City where vital information was shared.

One resource we did not expect to be scarce was gasoline.  Apparently, very few gas station owners were prepared for an extended period of time with no electricity.  On the first day after the tornado hit, there were only two gas stations that had the foresight to purchase generators for such an emergency.  The lines of cars queued up there were staggering. 

We were lucky, in that we had five full gas cans for the lawnmower.  After a failed attempt at purchasing more gas, we rationed the generator by running it only three times a day to keep the freezer cold and several hours at night.  Next we started siphoning gas out of our vehicles.  We started with the least necessary vehicle. We reasoned that the last to go should be my mini-van, since it can hold the most people, and got the best gas mileage, in the event we decided to evacuate.  So, with this plan, we were set to weather several days without gasoline.

One resource we didn’t have to worry about during this localized TEOTWAWKI was water and waste.  Our water treatment plant was not damaged, and the service was not interrupted thanks to back up generators.  Though since that day, we have had the opportunity to suffer the loss of these luxuries due to non-disaster plumbing disorders.  We have become quite efficient at what I call a Japanese shower, where you wet and soap your body with a washcloth, then only turn on the shower to rinse off.  We did not drain the tub, and used that water for flushing the toilet.  Waste management is something we do not have a solution for yet. 

Our safety was not an issue as we were fortunate to not suffer any criminal activity as a result of this TEOTWAWKI.  At the time, our only defense was a very old, pistol and a shotgun with one box of ammunition.  Luckily, there was no breakdown in civility in our little town as might be expected in an extreme disaster.   

I am proud how our town of 18,000 responded to this disaster.  Several churches set up cook centers for food that was about to spoil, and to provide meals to senior citizens, government employees and workers.  Charging stations were set up at local shelters to charge phones and battery powered tools.  Volunteers and sports teams from the high school mobilized to help clear debris and cut fallen trees.  Government offices were open to help citizens get permits to be able to drive through downtown.  Police and National Guard were mobilized to help with directing traffic and prevent looting.  Tide mobile laundry service came to town to provide clothes washing facilities.  Trucks loaded with bottled/canned water drove through the affected areas handing out water to whoever wanted it.  It was a wonderful affirmation of all that is good in human nature.  

The End of the World as we know it doesn’t have to be an event that impacts the entire world.  Sure, there will always be the looming threat of global catastrophe, but it’s the “as we know it” part that we experienced in our localized disaster.  You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Our outlook on the world changed that month.  People no longer scoff at tornado warnings.  Storms are watched more closely.  Schools close more readily when severe weather threatens.  More families are prepared because they purchased some of the items they needed to survive that month.  Cities are purchasing and installing community storm shelters. 

My family no longer teases us about our TEOTWAWKI supplies.  They simply nod and feel more secure knowing that we are taking steps for the next event. I doubt I will ever have a fully stocked “retreat” outside of town, but are doing what we can.  We are taking baby steps that will add up to a solid plan for coping with a disaster.  If this middle-aged, overweight, desk-driving, city dwelling, mother of one can be prepared, then so can you. 

What we had before the Super Outbreak of 2011:
-Second breaker box for generator to run essentials
-Coleman lantern and Emergency long-life hurricane/tornado candles and hurricane lamps and oil.
-Night lights that become flashlights when the power goes off.
-Non-perishable food and paper items in storage.
-Propane grill with a side burner eye and an extra tank
-Power converter for van – used to charge cell phones and laptops.
-Internet access via cell phones
-Internet hotspot via smart phone.
-Blue ice blocks to keep in the freezer or use for emergency coolers.
-Several tanks of gas for the mower/generator.
-Filled up the tubs with water and filled 10 gallon jugs with filtered water.
-Important papers and prescriptions in satchel. 
-Folding chairs for safe room.

Additional steps taken after tasting TEOTWAWKI:
Researched solar powered water heaters, solar and wind resources for electricity. 
We have purchased a solar charger and plug adapter for small appliances.
We have purchased a camping solar hot water shower bag for emergencies.
Researched pedal powered generators.
Researched storable food stuffs.
We have tried several freeze-dried meals from a camping supply store.
Researched water collection systems.
Designated ICOE ("In Case of Emergency") contact person.
Came up with our own list of supplies in the event of TEOTWAWKI
Inventoried our battery powered tools.
Researched tents and sleeping bags.
Researched reusable defensive weapons that do not require gun powder or gunsmithing.
Practiced fire starting with flint.

Monday, June 11, 2012

In early January 2012, I began thoroughly testing the Pocket Panel: 6 Watt Portable Solar USB Phone Charger and the Cinch Power: CP505S Power Pack (USB Battery). These two products team up to make a compact, lightweight, portable power solution for USB powered devices such as cell phones, GPSes, digital cameras, bluetooth headsets, games, PDAs, MP3/MP4 players or small LED lamps. After a review of the individual components, I'll summarize some quick system tests.

Pocket Panel: 6 Watt Portable Solar USB Phone Charger

The PocketPanel photovoltaic solar charger is rated at 6 Watts and 1.2 Amps. Reviews on the company's web site suggest a typical full sun current around 0.9 Amps which suffices for many typical cell phones. In peak sunlight, the array produces enough power to charge a typical load device while actively using it. Modern smart phones require significant charging current, particularly at first, when significantly discharged. In use, the four 3" x 5.5" PV panels fold out to about 21.5" x 7"; four corner grommets with 1/4" holes provide flexible attachment or tie-down possibilities to maximize solar exposure. A velcro closure simplifies transport, and the unit folds to 7" x 4.5" x 1.25" approximately. The high-efficiency mono-crystalline (17% efficient) require about half the size of earlier poly-crystalline designs and also deliver a higher percentage of rated power over a longer lifetime. (Wikipedia has an in-depth article on photovoltaic technologies, efficiencies, the history of solar cells, etc. They are laminated to a rugged fiberglass substrate, which mitigates some of the weight and fragility of glass. The weather-resistant unit weighs 0.83 pounds. The output is a standard (female) USB port making interconnection easy and versatile. Combined with the adapters in the Cinch Power CP505S, a wide variety of devices can be charged.

Cinch Power: CP505S Power Pack (USB Battery)

The Cinch Power CP505S Power Pack is high capacity, USB-connected battery system with multiple connection adaptors. The power capacity is rated at 5000 mAh (milliAmpHours at 3.7Volts). Output voltage and current are rated at 5.4VDC and 950mA, respectively, with a 500 charging cycle rated lifetime. This unit easily fits in a shirt or pants pocket, at 3.9" x 2.8" x 0.7" It's lightweight Lithium-polymer cell design brings it's heft to a mere 5.1 ounces. Simple operation consists of bringing power in (e.g. via a USB-fitted solar charger) using the supplied USB to DC cable. The cable has a convenient self-retracting cord, collapsing to under 5" and expanding to about 30". The 3-level power indicator system (Low <20%, Med 20-80%, High >80%) indicates amount of stored charge via 3 LEDs. The On/Off toggle switches output power to the USB connector. A "Use" LED is lit when power is being supplied from the battery. When charged, the charging cable becomes the output cable by using the USB output connector, which then interfaces with a variety of supplied adaptors. Adaptors include: Sony Ericsson-K750, Mini USB/Motorola V3, iPod/iPhone, Micro USB, and Nokia-DC 2.0; this should allow a generous variety of Apple, Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, MP3, MP4, etc. devices access to the battery power. The device features over-current and over-charge/discharge protection. It shuts off automatically when the connected device completes charging. An optional AC power supply is available as a backup for extended cloudy weather.

Testing of Paired Products

For pocket transport, the panel array will probably fit best in a coat pocket, whereas the battery (smaller) can easily fit in a typical shirt or pants pocket. The rugged PV array works nicely in a south-facing window, with the attached battery charging next to it on a windowsill. I initially started charging the battery with the PV array around noon on a Friday in January at about 6600' elevation. After an overcast and snowy Saturday, the full charge completed mid-morning on Sunday. The combo of panel, battery and adapter works well. The blue "Use" LED on the battery blinks to indicate power delivery. The charged battery powered my iPhone (normal sporadic usage for me) on this single charge for about a week. I then fully recharged the battery using the PV system which took about another day. A Vococal 3-LED adjustable clip-on reading lamp with a USB connector made a good constant load test in addition to my iPhone. Running constantly, this bright (more-than-adequate) 3-LED reading lamp ran for about 32 hours continuously.

A full five months later (after a full re-charge), the battery pack had 2 LEDs (somewhere between 20-80% charge) remaining, so the standby leakage current is fairly low. All in all, about the only minor drawback might be the suitability of this system for more extreme weather environments. Other portable PV systems (such as the Joos Orange Solar Charger) offer a bit more ruggedness for severe environments, but this combination is likely to be a good solar solution for many remote, backup and portable applications.

More information about the three referenced products is on their respective web sites: Pocket Panel, Cinch Power, and Vococal.

- L.K.O. (SurvivalBlog's Central Rockies Regional Editor)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dear Editor:
I tip my hat to Y. Sam! In my opinion, he has absolutely hit the jackpot as far as resources to have on your property. Having oil and gas even opens up the possibility of home distillation of gasoline and diesel fuel.
One aspect he didn't mention: I was wondering if the gas from his wells is 'wet' enough to produce any casing-head gasoline? [A condensate, commonly called drip gasoline.]

In addition to converting modern engines and vehicles to run on natural gas, don't forget that different types of engines were built specifically to run on natural gas. Companies such as Fairbanks-Morse, Arrow, and Ajax
(and many more) specially built natural-gas fired engines for service in the oilfield. these engines, such as the Fairbanks-Morse 208, are relatively simply machines and have no problem burning natural gas straight
from the wellhead, with no compressor is needed! They're built to run at slow speed for extended period of time and will run virtually forever if properly maintained. The amount of work that can be done with these engines
is limited only by your imagination. - Jeff M.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Like many people, I was a prepper long before I ever heard the term.  I grew up on a farm and learned the value of hard work and ingenuity at a young age.  I never liked being in debt or the feeling of having others in control of my well being.  The following topic may not be of any interest to many people but for those of you who are thinking about moving out of the city to a place in the country it may give you one more thing to add to your retreat wish list.

In 1998 my family and I moved to our 67 acre farm that came with free natural gas (NG) from two 1930s-vintage shallow wells.  This heated our home and water and provided gas for cooking and clothes drying.  A couple of years later we bought the lease from the producer because he was going to plug the wells as he wasn’t making any money on producing them.  Oil was selling for under $9 a barrel at that time.  I did not want to lose the free gas and figured the price of oil would go up so I bought them and the oil I’ve sold over the past 10 years has paid me back a few times.

We live at the end of the electrical grid so our power is the first to go out and the last to come back on.  There is seldom a month that goes by that our power doesn’t go out and at least once a year it is out for more than 4 days at time.  Our first purchase when we moved to the farm was a gas generator.  We had no power the first 8 days after we moved in, due to a severe storm.  I read about fuel cells for producing electricity from NG and that they would be available for home owners in early 2002.  Well that hasn’t happened and in 2004 I bought a whole house NG backup generator.  I called an electrician to hook it up and he said he could do it the following week.  He estimated the cost at $1,000 so I decided I could cut that down by doing what I could on my own.  I prepared the site, moved the generator into position, ran the gas line, mounted the transfer switch, drilled holes through the house, ran the wiring to the switch box, mounted the breaker box and at this point I realized that all that was left was to wire nut the wires together inside the main breaker so I called him back and canceled my appointment.  This thing is great and in an extended power outage it can be turned on and off manually to greatly extend its life.

The first time gas was closing in on $4 a gallon I decided to get a car that ran on NG.  This turned out to be a no go as I couldn’t find a compressor for the natural gas that made sense.  I could only find two options at that time.  First was a “Phil” from Fuelmaker, the unit was priced alright but the upkeep ran about $1 per GGE (gasoline, gallon equivalent).  The second choice was an Ingersoll Rand commercial unit at $100,000. Even though I really wanted to do this I put it on the back burner for a while.  To run a gas engine on NG you don’t need a lot of pressure you just need a lot of volume.  Most cars have tanks that hold 3,600 psi and then have two regulators that reduce the pressure down to a useable level.  The reason for the high pressure is to store enough volume in a small enough space so you can go a far enough distance to make it worth doing.   One day, while pouring gas into the fuel tank of the Honda engine that is used to run the pump jack on the oil well, I decided that was just plain nuts with all the NG available only a few feet away.  I spent a few hours trying to rig something up to run NG into the carburetor but couldn’t get it to run smoothly.  The next day I ordered a kit online for $160 and have not put a drop of gasoline in it for six years.

After reading One Second After I started thinking about getting a NG refrigerator.  The price was mind boggling until I found out that most of the companies selling them where buying new electric refrigerators and taking out the electric parts and replacing them with NG cooling units.  Spending $2,000 to replace a fridge that was working just didn’t make sense.  I still wanted one and started looking through the local papers and on Craig’s List for a used one.  I finally bought a 1949 Servel at a local auction for $50.  This was at an estate auction and I asked a family member if it worked.  He told me it had been working a couple of years ago but did not know if it still worked.  When I got it home and hooked up to the gas I couldn’t get it to light.  I went on line and ordered a manual for the fridge from a guy in Maine who fixes old NG refrigerators.  I tore the burner apart and cleaned the dirt, bugs and rust out of it.  When I put it back together it lit right up and has been going great ever since.  These have no moving parts, are heavy made and should last almost forever.  The freezer is big enough to hold about 8 ice cube trays and the main compartment is the same size as a normal fridge.  I keep this in my shop and full of beverages but it is great to know if I ever needed it for everyday it is available.  The average newly-manufactured refrigerator lasts around 7 years but this one is on its 7th decade.

Every year I go back and search the internet on uses for the natural gas on my farm.  I mentioned earlier about the fuel cells to generate electricity for home use.  Companies like Bloom Energy are selling them to commercial users like Google, eBay and FedEx but not home users.  I can understand why they want to deal with commercial users as they can sell $500,000 to one buyer instead of $5,000 to 100 buyers, but one day they will be available for home users.  About a year and half ago while doing searches I finally found a home compressor so I could start running my car on natural gas.  I had noticed a large increase in the number of compressors available but most were made in China and were complete junk.  I found Green Line Fuel Corp. in California selling a Coltri compressor that had just what I was looking for in a compressor.  Coltri has been making compressors for the US Navy to fill scuba tanks for years.  What I bought was their smallest unit MCH-5 that fills at about 2 GGEs an hour and is built like a tank. Very low cost to maintain and this can be done by the operator unlike the Phil that needs to be sent to the company every 900 hours for a rebuild. 

Once I had found a compressor I liked I started to look around for a car.  My car had 127,000 miles on it and didn’t seem like a good candidate to convert.  I ended up buying a dual fuel Chevy Cavalier on eBay that only had 44,000 miles and that was $1,100 less expansive than the estimated cost converting my old car to run on NG.  I was quite nervous about buying the car over the Internet without driving the car first, but the car has been just great.  With the car purchased, I called Green Line and ordered the compressor.  They delivered it the middle of January. 2011 and we got it hooked up and running in no time.  A couple of months later my dad bought a dual fuel F-150 at a GSA auction and I started to fill that for him.  Six months later he bought a 15 passenger one ton Chevy van with only 18,000 miles on the odometer.  The van runs great but it had the smallest compressed natural gas (CNG) tank ever made (125 mile range).  After removing several rows of seats and installing an additional tank he now has a 400 mile range.  Filling up my dad’s vehicles has made me happier than about anything I’ve been able to do with my natural gas.  My dad is retired and has always loved going to auctions to buy stuff then take it around to farms and businesses and peddle it out of the back of his truck.  About three years ago he pretty much stopped because of the gas prices.  We live in a very rural area and many times he would travel 150 to 200 miles round trip for an auction.  Now he is back on the road and the money he was spending for gas is now profit from his dealings.  We live about 20 miles apart but my office is in between so we just swap out cars there. 

In December of 2011 I had my ¾-ton Chevy truck converted.  The truck had spent most of the last several years in the garage.  Living on a farm you need a truck but at $4 a gallon and 15 miles to the gallon you start asking yourself how many bags of feed can I get in the back of the Cavalier.  All of our vehicles are dual fuel meaning they will run on either NG or gasoline.  CNG filling stations are few and far between where we live.  My truck starts on gasoline and then switches over CNG when the engine temperature reaches 170 degrees.  I’ve filled the truck with gasoline only once in the past six months and still have over half a tank.  The Cavalier runs on CNG anytime there is NG in the tank and you can’t manually switch it over to gasoline.  The one I would not recommend to anyone buying is the Ford unless you have someone that is willing to work on Fords.  The closest Ford dealer to us that would work on a factory CNG truck is 120 miles away and they quoted $800 just to change the spark plugs. The main problem is a regulator called a Compuvalve that gives most Ford owners fits. 
We all see different SHTF possibilities but many of them include having either no gas or a very limited supply.  Being able to get around quickly or haul stuff to market could make a big difference and if nothing bad ever happens I will just keep saving money.

I have several ideas for future projects using the natural gas including a small greenhouse, lawn mower, saw mill and a tractor. 

JWR Adds: This article is further evidence that properties with their own "home tap" natural gas wells are not a myth. And you don't have to move to the Four Corners or to Oklahoma to find one. They are all over the country, if you do a concerted search. Properties with gas wells are also often available at our SurvivalRealty spin-off site. Here is an example, in Kentucky.

I wanted to offer a few more thoughts on DoD generators.  Most of the generators I found on Government Liquidations were Mil Std Generators.  This family of generators was designed in the 1970s and manufactured into late 1980s to early 1990s.  The DoD is selling of the generators because they are old, and compared to newer DoD generators they consume more fuel, require more regular maintenance (PMCS), are less reliable and are more expensive to repair if you can get the parts.  

The Mil Std Family are tough generators designed to run in environmental extremes.  They are not your typical consumer generators and out perform most same kW commercial generators.  Most Mil Stds (5 kW +) are designed to produce 110-125% of nameplate kW  continuously , 0.8 Power Factor, up to 5,000 Ft. elevation (normal de-rating for a generator set is 3.5% per 1,000 ft & commercial generators are rated at sea level to no more than 1000 ft. elevation).  The alternators are oversized to improve efficiency and power quality, to operate at high temperatures and to start motors (the generators have phenomenal motor starting capability).  The alternators are brushless and controlled by voltage regulators so the power quality is good (significantly better than residential gasoline generators).  The engines are a bit over powered compared to commercial sets, contributing to the motor starting, altitude and power quality performance.  Electronics in the generators will be simple relays and black boxes with resistors, diodes, capacitors & simple transistors.  Good electronic shops should be able to troubleshoot them. The generators are also designed to be repaired and can easily be disassembled.  Most wiring harnesses are marked with wire numbers, though the circuits are more complex than in newer generators.  They are heavy and will withstand off road transport without damage.  DoD has published fairly complete maintenance manuals that can be found on the web that are quite a bit more detailed than most commercial generator set manuals. 

In terms of problems, the most likely problems will be in areas with moving parts (engines), the fuel system, and set specific electronic parts with high failure rates.  The 15, 30 & 60 kW generators are known for voltage regulator failures, for example.  I believe a good technician could probably replace the voltage regulator with a current model from Basler or one of the other commercial VR manufacturers.  8 years ago there were vendors who could rebuild the injectors, injector pumps and engines, though I don't know about availability today.  Many of the other components that corrode or fail could be replaced with commercial components (radiators, fuel tank, fuel pump, wiring, toggle switches, etc.)

Downside to sets:  All the generators use engines that have been out of production for probably 15 years.  The Onan diesel engines in the 3, 5, & 10 kW generators were only used in the DoD generators.  Onan stopped making them back in the early 1990s.  Spare parts were available past 2000 but DoD has stopped purchasing most spare parts for these sets so the industrial base for spare parts is shrinking and requires a serious search to find the few parts available. The 15 & 30 use White-Hercules engines that were sold commercially, but these companies are no longer in the diesel engine business so I'm not sure how available parts will be.  The 60 kW also uses an engine previously sold commercially, but the manufacturer doesn't make diesel engines any more either. The generators were designed to run on 1980s fuels.  Fuel injectors and injector pumps should wear out prematurely from the Ultra low sulfur diesel fuel sold today. They are all good diesel engines, but if you have engine problems it may be tough to find spare parts.  All the sets contain main alternators custom built for the generators, though local motor rewinding shops can probably fix damaged windings.  The alternators have a long life outside bearing but are supported by the engine flywheel on the other end so they would be difficult to re-purpose into a different generator set.  The sets use a 24 VDC starter and control system, so cars can't be used to jump start them.  They are noisy too.  Soldiers joke about finding command posts out in the field by listening for the Mil Std generator noise.  After the SHTF Mil Std generators will advertise for quite a distance that you have power and potentially other supplies, though the noise is probably no higher than your typical residential gasoline generator.

Selecting generator size:  Most users don't size their diesel generator sets correctly for optimal generator set performance and fuel consumption.  Army Field manuals recommend an average load of 80%.  This balances having some reserve capacity for peaks and motor starting against optimal engine loading and fuel consumption.  Diesel engines work best at high load.  At low loads diesel engines consume more fuel per Hp of output increasing kW-Hr fuel costs.  At low loads Mil Std generators will also "wetstack" which can lead to sticking rings, dirty injectors, improper new engine break-in and other engine problems.  If you go to engine manufacturers they will have graphs of fuel consumption versus load.  The graphs will have non-linear curves that show optimal engine fuel efficiency normally somewhere between 60-90% of engine capacity.  For the Mil Std generators, at 100% electrical load the engine is probably at no more than 70% mechanical load (the engine has enough hp to power 125% load + another 15% for elevation), so operating the set at even 30-50% electrical load will be wasting fuel.  After the SHTF my house will provide shelter for many years with minimal maintenance, I can filter water, potentially grow food, but my fuel supply could be a finite resource with a shelf life that can't be replenished.  Don't purchase an oversized generator that consumes more of your finite fuel resources than a properly sized generator would. Personally I'm accumulating multiple generators of different sizes that will allow me to run the optimal generator set for the load maximizing the life of my fuel supply.  This also provides redundancy.  If you need help determining how much power you need recommend you read a basic electrician's handbook or you can download a copy of FM 4-424, Theater of Operations Electrical Systems, off the web.   When examining loads look at night vs day, peak loading, standard loads, and motor starting.  Consider batteries and solar for periods of light loads to minimize generator operation.  Induction motors place especially high starting loads on generators.  Mil Std generators will put out 300% of rated load for the few seconds required to start spinning an induction motor allowing a smaller generator to run loads with large induction motors (motor starting depends on the engine, VR and alternator design).  If you have inductive loads, before purchasing a commercial generator check with the manufacturer about their peak output watts or how large a motor they will start.  My father purchased a 1,750 Watt gasoline generator that wouldn't start an induction motor that used 450 Watts, once spinning. 

I agree with the writer who didn't recommend purchasing a DoD generator unless you had the skills to maintain and repair it.  I have those skills and I wouldn't purchase one unless the price was right and the generator was going to be a back up to a back up that I was going to tinker with.  The Mil Std sets might be a good fit if it wasn't going to be operated for many hours (negating the fuel consumption issue) and the poor spares availability could be minimized by purchasing 2 or 3 of the same set size, allowing  cannibalization  of a set to keep the another set running.    

If you are interested in purchasing one try to learn as much as you can about it's prior history before purchase.  As JWR said, try to check the condition of the oil, look at the coolant, check the air filter element, check the hour meter, does it have excessive corrosion on the sheet metal, does it look like it's been taken care of, do the doors swing freely like they have been lubricated, look in the fuel tank for sediment, are there signs of fluid leakage in the bottom of the skid, drain the fuel filter water separator and check for water or condition of the fuel if present, check the wiring harness's for fraying, check the control boxes for corrosion, do the rotary switches move freely, are the output terminal lug nuts stripped, try to find out when it was last started (after a couple years the fuel will gum up the injector pumps), and check to see if it's been rebuilt.  Generator sets in better shape, with less corrosion, and fewer hours are more likely to provide trouble free operation, though corrosion and condition is not an absolute indicator as the sets are so tough. - Greg X.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In response to buying military gensets, I wouldn't. I have owned quite a few of them and my view is they take a really good genset and make it so complex its hard to work on let alone get parts for it. The wiring is usually the problem, very complex.

I purchased a [commercial] 6.5 Kubota last year and it is a super gen set. I run it on Bio Diesel and it cost about 10 cents per hr to run. One good place to look for these is the Light Towers web site. Check tool rental places for sales. Remove the gen set and use the trailer for tools or a Bug Out Trailer.

Here in the Midwest, the Purple Wave auction site has them fairly often. Recently a Kubota 6.5 sold for under $500. Stay simple when it comes to gensets. I have owned two of the Chinese Diesel gen sets and I do not recommended them. I have a 20 KW Detroit Diesel genset I run my sawmill with. These are excellent, very robust and inexpensive to work on and operate. The prices on these are going up though. I paid $2,000 for mine and it may be the best generator I have owned. I currently have seven gensets. For small ones, I recommend that folks go with the Kubota. - Surplus Jim

Hello Sir;
In response to today’s advice on surplus generators I’d like to share my experience with them to warn others. Over four months ago I purchased a surplus diesel 1986 3 KW Onan generator from GovLiquidation.com for emergency use in my house. I spent $500 and five hours of my time to get it but since the thing only had 120 hours on the meter and was built like a tank, I thought that it was worth the investment. I bought it fully expecting to spend couple of hundred dollars on a tune up to get it in working shape. But the thing is over 20 years old and did not start the way it was supposed to.
My local small engine repair place that constantly repairs similar civilian devices started having trouble with it from the beginning. They told me that there is a short somewhere in the wiring but since all the wires are white, the manual that I downloaded and printed off the web was no help. They said that they would have to rewire the entire thing and it would cost over $1,000.
Next I tried the “local” Onan service center (100 miles away). They had no clue about it. Apparently Onan keeps their military and civilian models quite different by design and model numbers so the rep couldn’t even accept it for service or give me any parts information.
After that I took it to an auto repair shop that specializes in electric repairs. So far they have been able to identify that one of the panels had burned out and needs replacement but they have been having trouble finding the replacement panel. Currently they are trying to figure out a way to adapt a part from a different generator to make it work. The good news was that I knew I was in a friendly place when I recognized a guy from my rifle range and another guy who got excited when he saw a mil surplus generator and asked if it can be buried. Now I have a good feeling about the guys working on it.
Overall I would not recommend buying similar items unless you have the knowledge to do all the repairs yourself or unless you know a local repair shop that is accustomed to unusual projects. It has been four months and it is still a work in progress with no official estimate on the cost of repair or even if the repair is possible. Sincerely, - B.G.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Thanks for the recent post mentioning GovLiquidation.com-listed auctions in response to a reader's question about concertina wire. While browsing the site, I found lots of generator sets ("gensets") offered and I am wondering if there are any caveats a buyer should be aware of before purchasing (besides the long drive to retrieve a purchase). Thanks for all you do for the SurvivalBlog community. - G.R. in Texas

JWR Replies: Military surplus ("milsurp") gensets are generally a bargain. But unfortunately, the days of incredibly cheap milsurp generator auctions is gone. This is because the scrap copper merchants will now be there to run up the bidding. (The large copper windings on the generators are now fairly valuable for scrap. Therefore, even if the genset is not working, there is now a "floor" under the auction prices. The only exception would be if you are lucky enough to go to a lightly-attended "sleeper" auction.

Here are my recommendations:

  • Check the genset's data plate carefully. This will tell you a lot about its maker, model, specifications, and year of manufacture.
  • Be sure the check the genset's "Hours" meter before bidding. (If it has one. Most military generators do.)
  • Check the dip stick for the oil color (the oil should look brown, not black!) and for any signs of coolant contamination, which would indicate a leaking head gasket in water-cooled gensets.
  • Depending on the local efficiency of DRMO auction yard, military gensets can come complete with maintenance records typically in a manila folder or in a plastic log book. If you are fortunate and the genset that you plan to bid on has a maintenance log, then read through it thoroughly before bidding.
  • If the genset is trailer-mounted, then be sure to check the condition of the trailer tires. You will also need to buy a military style (pintle and ring) trailer hitch for your pickup's receiver before you travel to bid on a trailer-mounted genset. Be prepared!
  • If you plan to buy a small skid-mounted generator, then bring a couple of beefy friends with you, and a sturdy loading ramp for your pickup or trailer. OBTW, one great trick is using five or six 3-foot lengths of 1-1/2-inch diameter steel pipe that you can use as rollers. Generators can be quite heavy!
  • If the genset that you buy does not come with a manual, then you should be able to find one in PDF online, or on an inexpensive CD-ROM. These include user-level Field Manuals (FMs), Technical Manuals (TMs), Technical Bulletins (TBs), and Lubrication Orders (LOs).

OBTW, a few of the recent generation of Kubota three-cylinder diesel gensets are now starting to work their way out of service and to military surplus yards. If you can find one of those, then snag it! They are fantastically reliable. They can also burn JP-4 and even biodiesel.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Some of the most common things that we stock up on for short term emergencies are batteries. Many of our important tools need electrical power to work. Flashlights, radios, many power tools, and night vision gear-- essentially anything that uses DC electricity--would need batteries. For Bug Out Bags and short-term situations batteries are almost always included and could save your life.   Virtually any situation lasting less than a few years would be fine with batteries.  You can have a hand or pedal generator, solar or wind, et cetera, to charge your batteries.   But what happens in a TEOTWAWKI situation?  Where will you store your power when your batteries fail? What will you do when the lights go out? This is something to be prepared for just like any other situation.  I have not found an efficient alternative for small batteries but larger energy storage problems can be solved.

The Life of a Battery
Many people don’t really think about how long a battery will last [on the shelf versus its life in regular use].  Different batteries have different life spans and different uses.  I will attempt to define the life of these batteries.  I am no expert on the subject but a little internet mining will give you the same info.                                                                                                                                                                

The most common type of small batteries are Alkaline batteries.  These are not normally rechargeable and will be useless for their intended purpose after their initial use.  There are some special Rechargeable Alkaline Manganese (RAM) batteries that are specifically designed to be recharged. Or you can get a special charger that will recharge normal Alkalines [with varying degrees of success]. If stored properly, most Alkalines will retain a useful charge for around five years. These should be used last because they have longer shelf life than most modern rechargeable batteries. For most Survivalists, the modern rechargeable battery designs are a much better option.  Of these, the lithium ion batteries seem to be the best, due to the number of recharge cycles they can handle. However, the shelf life of common Lithium Ion batteries may actually be shorter than that of Alkalines. Usually around 2 to 3 years no matter what you do with them. This makes it difficult to store them for future emergencies.                                                                                    

Lead acid batteries such as car batteries will be common in end times because the cars will [be out of fuel and hence] no longer have a need for them.  However, car batteries are not really good for alternative power system storage. This is because they are made for short bursts of high amps to start your car.  When used regularly [for their intended use] a car battery will last around five years.  When not kept recharged, a car battery can fail in less than six months.  If stored and treated properly, car batteries will last up to eight years, but eventually you will not have the use of them.   [JWR Adds: Deep cycle marine (or "golf cart") batteries are better suited to frequent use, but they have the same maximum life issue as carr batteries, because their plates become sulfated.]                                                         

The only long term solution I have seen is batteries that come with the electrolyte separate.  You could purchase a large stockpile of these and store them in this state indefinitely.  This however could get really expensive.  I have done no research on the subject but it should be possible to drain the electrolyte from car batteries and store it separately to preserve them.   [JWR Adds: Unfortunately, draining a battery will not stop their plates from sulfating.]                                                                      

Capacitors are another form of energy storage similar to batteries. Unfortunately we have not yet created capacitors that can replace the batteries we currently rely on. With the advent of super capacitors we may find a solution to the current problems with batteries.  For now however, the cost and complexity is a problem.

Life Without Batteries           
The first and most obvious solution to short battery life is to rely on them as little as possible. There are a host of [traditional hand-powered or treadle-powered] non-electrical alternatives to common electric power tools. The real problem is that we don’t want to go without electricity.  We like the on demand aspect of our current lifestyle. It will be very hard to crawl out of the muck if we can’t use our tools. Some of this we can solve and some we can’t.  On-demand microwave ovens and lights at the flick of a switch will become a thing of the past. The following are some of the solutions that I have come up with for not having electrical battery power storage.                                                                                   

Build Your Own Battery                 
There are ways to store power that don’t include complex chemical reactions.  The best one I have come up with is water.  Water can in effect be a "battery", after all a battery is really just a means to store energy.  Photovoltaic or mechanical wind pumps can pump water to hilltop reservoir or tower storage tanks.   Water from the tanks can then be used to power small hydroelectric generators.  The expended water can be collected in tanks or ponds at the base of the system for gardening or other uses.  Ponds also have the advantage of being great food producers and for watering livestock.  Proper voltages can be achieved through water flow adjustments.  I have not done this myself but the idea has merit. [JWR Adds: The scale of a system as described that could produce anything more than just short bursts of power would be enormous. It is much more practical to set up a microhydro generator situated on a year-round stream that has the requisite head (or "fall".)]

Another way to store energy is mechanically. This may be the best system for people who don’t have a hill handy for the previous water storage method. The best mechanical energy storage device I can think of is a large centrifugal system.  In this system solar or wind energy could be used to drive a large weighted flywheel. The flywheel could then be used to power a generator using Constant Velocity Transmission (CVT) or electronics to regulate voltage. Well-lubricated high quality bearings would be required to handle the continuous high speeds and the great weight of the wheel. The wheel would also have to be perfectly balanced and as large as possible. Rotational speed is the key with this system. The faster you can get the wheel to spin the more power it will produce.  Speed is more important than weight, when you double the speed you square the energy storage potential. With proper design, planning and some spare parts this system could last a long time.  I plan on building one of these in the near future. Here is an excellent web page that covers the basics of this idea.    [JWR Adds: Keep in mind that the energy stored in a large, heavy flywheel spinning at high speed can also be incredibly destructive. If a flywheel were to become unbalanced and loose itself from its moorings, it could rip through a dozen houses before coming to a stop.]            

There are other ways to store energy out there.  These are just the ones that seem the most practical to me.  With some experimentation I believe that you could make either of these systems work for a long term solution.

There are great solid state electronic devices that use heat to generate electricity.  Small ones are called thermoelectric generators (TEGs). TEG fans are commonly used to move heat around your house if you have a wood stove.  A larger TEG could be used on your stove to power lighting in your house. Another great thing about TEGs is that when an electric charge is run through them one side of the thermo couple will get hot and the other will get cold.  This is commonly used on 12 volt DC coolers for your car, giving you another form of refrigeration. [JWR Adds:  See the SurvivalBlog archives for numerous articles on thermoelectric generators and their drawbacks.]   

Build a Still           
Alcohol is a wonderful thing.  You can drink it, clean with it, burn it in lamps, make weapons and run an engine with it, among other things.  All of these uses are valid in a TEOTWAWKI situation.  As a sterilizing fluid for medical situations, it could save your life.  Alcohol can displace electricity with lamps or as a cooking fuel.  Alcohol lamps can be as simple as a jar with a rolled cotton wick. Lamps could also burn animal, plant or nut oils.  There is some great info on alcohol stoves made from used soda and food cans.  These stoves are incredibly simple and almost never fail. Another possible use is a refrigeration system that uses alcohol. Albert Einstein jointly designed and built one in 1926.                                                                                            

I have a great book by Jerry Wilkerson, called Make Your Own Fuel.  The book shows how to make alcohol and also explains how to convert your car to run on it.  There are some other books out here on the same subject. Plans and information for building a still can be found on this web site.                                                                                         

Drinking alcohol can raise your spirits, but it can also blind you, make you mentally disabled, or kill you, if you make it incorrectly. [Wood alcohol versus grain alcohol.] Many people will find it just as useful but won’t have any.  This will give you a great bartering item.  [JWR Adds: Despite the moral implications, for some folks, selling homemade alcohol might be viable in a societal collapse without the current rule of law. But be advised that doing so in the present day would be a felony in most jurisdictions.]

The Wonders of Wood Gas           
I am sure by this time most of you have heard of wood gas generators. Heat is used to release hydrogen and carbon monoxide gasses in an oxygen poor environment.  The gasses released can be used to fuel almost any internal combustion engine.  The system doesn’t work as well for diesels but for standard gas engines it’s great. These generators have some wonderful advantages and may be the best solution that I will present. 

The first and most important thing about wood gas is that, as the name implies it runs on wood. All you have to do is dry it sufficiently and cut it to size.  Secondly it is a proven technology.  During WWII many civilian cars throughout Europe were converted to run on wood gas. There are designs put out by FEMA in the late 1980s detailing how to build a wood gasifier. This proves that FEMA has done at least one useful thing. [JWR Adds: As previously mentioned in SurvivalBlog, the FEMA plans are not detailed, so they are not particularly useful. See the SurvivalBlog archives for some better wood gas references.]   It is relatively simple and cheap to build and adapt to existing gas systems.  Almost everything you need to build one can be obtained for free. The Internet has huge amounts of information, videos and discussion on the subject.  

Transportation is a cornerstone of our current society. If we run out of fuel or if it gets too expensive then we are sunk. Without the ability to transport goods quickly we will never be able to re-establish a large scale working economy.  Wood gas can solve this problem, at least in the short term.                                                            

Small AC backup generators are everywhere, especially in rural areas.  When running they automatically regulate power output to suit demand.  You can simply run the wood gas to the air intake and you are set.  Electric generators used this way should be able to started with a pull cord [recoil starter] so that no external power for a [DC] starter [motor] is needed.  Buy the best small generator you can. Owning two or more would be beneficial and as many spare parts as possible.   

A good wood gas system could be built for a truck.  The unit could be removed or conveniently parked so as to provide power for electric generators. This could serve until more systems could be built.

Build a Root Cellar or Other Underground Storage
The ambient ground temperature 5 feet down in most areas is around 52 degrees, depending on your latitude.  This is a great temperature for making things such as seeds, food and those batteries last a lot longer.  Underground storage can also be used as a shelter in hard times or to protect your supplies.  Very heavy doors and thick concrete walls will hold out most forms of intrusion. Everyone who is preparing a retreat should have some underground storage.  If you are planning on building, consider building your home underground.  I have been studying this approach for years and the best construction form I have found is a Monolithic dome.  Building in this style is less expensive than standard underground construction.  Monolithic domes are also incredibly efficient and nearly invincible, even if left above ground. This is due to the shape, construction materials and techniques used to build them. [JWR Adds: These are built using re-bar and sprayed concrete that is up to 18 inches thick.]  Most people don’t like round houses but in this case "form follows function." The Monolithic Eco shell is of particular interest because the "air form" [inflatable form] used to make the structure can be reused.  If you have already built or bought a house--as most of us have--then think about ways to save energy in your current home.

Other Ideas                       
There are a host of other low tech. but highly functional alternatives to common electric devices.  As mentioned above alcohol refrigerators could solve a major problem.  You can also build a refrigerator by placing a container inside another container, filling the space around with wet sand and putting a cloth over the top.  The water evaporates and draws heat away from whatever you store inside. This is called a pot in pot refrigerator.                                                                                                                             
Don’t forget horses and other forms of animal labor.  I am not a big fan of horses but if the end comes then I am going to wish that I had some. Goats, donkeys and llamas can be great pack and labor animals.  If predatory animals are a problem, donkeys and llamas when pastured with sheep and goats can help protect your herds and flocks.                                                                                                                                               

Gas engine tractors can run on wood gas or if they have diesel engines you can convert them to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO).  Many restaurants pay for someone to take their WVO away for them.  If you offer to take it for free or pay a small amount for it, a large stock of fuel could be built up fairly inexpensively.  Cars and trucks with diesel engines will run on WVO as well.                                                                                                             

If you have a good location, build a pond.  As I mentioned, ponds can be used for water storage irrigation, food production, [a firefighting reservoir,] and livestock water, among other things. Having a pond or some form of water storage positioned at a high point on a property can negate the need for some electrical or mechanical pumping.                                   

I have obviously not covered all the possible ways to save, generate, store or displace the need for DC batteries.  Some of the ideas I've described are strange, but all should be possible.  As with any preparedness scenario you should create redundant backup systems.  You should also have as many duplicate and spare parts on hand as possible.  Always save as much energy as possible , as the less you use, then the less you need to create. Anything you don’t do may come back to bite you some day. Good luck and remember you can never be too prepared. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I enjoy your blog and support you in a small way with the 10 Cent Challenge.  After reading your response to the Battery-Powered House Interior Lighting letter, I want to add some information that I learned at a FAA seminar that I attended.  The FAA is now endorsing blue or green lighting in the cockpit of all aircraft (general aviation and commercial).  The green and/or blue takes less energy output for the eyes to see details.  Also, red lighting can be seen from further away than blue/green (red is used to designate towers and tall buildings at night, where blue is used for taxiway lights because it stands out less at a distance).  I would strongly advise the use of controlled blue or green lights for interior lighting and keep the bulbs/LEDs out of direct line of sight of windows.  - Carl


I wanted to add a few tips.

We recently purchased a set of low-voltage,solar-powered LED string lights from a Target chain store.  They are similar to Christmas lights, but the bulbs are of various shapes/designs (we opted for a set that looked like little snow globes or disco balls.)

These lights don't have any sort of connector (12 VDC nor 110 VAC.)  Instead, they only have a small solar panel, that's [directly] attached to a sealed battery pack.

During our first camping/outing with the lights, we read the instructions, which said that they required five hours of full sunlight before they would be ready for use.  (We had arrived at our campsite about an hour before sunset, so we had no hope that they would work...)

Much to our surprise, they worked perfectly.  Initially, their light source seems pretty weak.  But, as the skies grow dark,and your eyes adjust, they actually begin to seem pretty bright.   We strung them above/around the opening of our tent, and they functioned like some sort of "street light" of sorts (making entry/exit of our tent safe & sure.

We attempted to sleep with the lights still on, to see how long they would last.  (A mistake.)   At 2 a.m., they were still so bright, that we were having trouble sleeping.  So, I turned them off.

The next day, we angled the solar panel to face the sun.  (The panel/battery has a clip,which we attached to an external tent pole on our dome-style tent.)  We then departed for the day (which turned out to be a windy day.)

When we returned,the little solar panel had spun on the pole (due to the winds,) and was now face-down in the tent (instead of facing the sunshine.)  We still had an hour of sunlight before sunset, so there was still hope...

After sunset, when we turned the lights on, they (again) worked like champs.  We wondered, though, if they would still hold-up as long as the night prior?...

About an hour later, as we were building our campfire, they died...  (We assumed they just didn't get enough sunlight, and we were regretting that they didn't have a 12-volt plug or alligator clips.)

Later, however, as the fire dimmed, the little lights sprung back to life!!!

Go figure -- they also have a built-in light sensor/switch.  They automatically turn off, when there is sufficient light (to save their battery.)   We had light from them all night (again.)

I have been disappointed by so many "solar yard/path lights" in the past.  I almost didn't buy these.  But, their LED functionality got the best of me -- and I'm so very glad that I bought them!

Granted, they are not "high beams."  These are essentially "super" night lights (or minimalist emergency lighting.)
They are enough light to "get the job done" -- and not much more.  But, they are kind of cute, too!
As outdoor lights, they are also water-resistant.  As low-voltage, they are also safe to the touch (even if/when wet.)

This essentially-free lighting was enough for 90% of our tasks in/around our tent and camp site.  Only a few times did we need to turn on a lantern, or flashlight for specialized tasks (like cutting in our kitchen area.)

On that note, this was also the first time we tried using one of the new LED-style Coleman lanterns.  We still brought our Coleman-fueled lanterns, as well as our propane lanterns along, too.  We are life-long campers,and Coleman-powered lamps just seem to be as natural as S'Mores over a camp fire.  But, the sensitive mantles, and glass lenses, plus the Coleman white-fuel cans, and the propane bottles, and the small funnels, and such add up to a lot of possible "points-of-failure."  I was pleasantly-surprised by the amount of zero effort light that our new battery-powered LED Coleman lanterns provided!

One of them was powered via a pack of four D-cell batteries.   The other had an integrated battery pack, which you could wall-charge (or hand-crank!!!)  I'm somewhat sorry to say, that our old-school lanterns will be moved to the bottom/back shelves of our garage now -- because we now favor the newer, lighter-weight, easier & safer to operate LED lanterns.

We have also purchased a roll-up solar panel to charge any/all of our batteries, too.

Granted, there isn't always a sunny sky.  But, one full charge of these little lights, seems to last for multiple nights.

We also bought a hand-crank handheld LED flashlight, too.  Again, it's not as powerful as our Mag-Lites. (I think someone on the Moon could see our Mag-Lites!)   But, they are much lighter and a quick crank of the handle for 30-60 seconds or so, provides us with hours of lighting.  (Whereas dead batteries in the Mag-Lites provides zero light.)

Peace & Preparedness, - J.H.

Another option that has worked well for me is the use of marine-type [low votage DC lighting in the house.

I have a LED chart light set up as a reading light on the back of the head board that I use day to day for my reading and as a bed side lamp. It is powered off of a deep cycle battery in a battery box under the bed. (Yes batteries make hydrogen gas while charging and anyone who is not a big boy and understands this should probably not do it.)

This combo will run many days without a charge and makes a great bed side light as well. One of these days I am going to run the numbers and see exactly how many hours this thing will run, but the battery is so ridiculously over-sized for this application I have not bothered yet. - S.D. in W.V.

Monday, May 14, 2012

James Wesley:
We have frequent power outages.  We bought a [deep cycle] marine battery from Bass Pro Shops that was intended use with a trolling motor.  We keep this battery continuously trickle-charged.   A small inverter from Radio Shack provides 120 VAC for three strings of white LED Christmas lights attached to the uppermost part of the most important wall.  A charged trolling motor battery will keep these efficient lights on for a very long time.  All we have to do is to plug the lights into the inverter socket. Very safe. - Anonymous

JWR Replies: It would be much more efficient to buy strings of DC LED Christmas lights. This is because going from DC to AC and back to DC is inefficient and adds an unnecessary layer of complexity. (You never know when an inverter will fail.) BTW, if you buy the LED strings in red and/or blue, then they will preserve your night vision when you step outside. (Blue seems to provide the most useful light for kitchen tasks and reading with minimal eye sstrain.) You can also build a fairly efficient dimming switch. As previously mentioned in SurvivalBlog, adding a DC-to-DC charging tray for smaller batteries will prove invaluable.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hi James, 
Thank you for SurvivalBlog. It's an incredible resource. I thought you and your readers mind find this interesting:

There is a man that lives with his family on his 24 acre parcel of forested mountain in Vermont, completely off the grid using hydro-electric and solar for power and a natural spring for water. He builds everything himself, including his house and workshop. His land is mostly accessible only on foot (though he has cleared a road — by hand). This guy is building a giant mechanical robot. Seriously. But the best part is that all of this is documented in his dozens of videos on YouTube. His intelligence, humor, self-reliance, and creativity make the videos very instructional and entertaining. I stumbled across him a message board.  His progress through the years and the story of what eventually happens to him is quite fascinating.

All the best, - Alex C.

Monday, April 30, 2012

I had an epiphany a few years ago when I first viewed "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Since then, I've acquired several cars converted to electric and a Nissan Leaf. We bought our last tank of petroleum fuel in May of 2011.

Recently, I've been pondering how the electric cars might be used as a backup source of electric power. The battery packs of the conversions are readily accessible and can provide almost 100 kwh of energy. The Leaf's battery is not accessible at this time. Inverters that use the car's DC voltage (120-156v) as input are available but pretty rare. Ideally, I would like to find a source for a PV system where the car batteries could temporarily replace the PV panels in driving the inverter.

[JWR Adds: Nearly all home PV power systems have the inverter connected to a battery bank, rather than directly to PV panels. This eliminates the peaks and valleys of production caused by varying cloud cover.]

A higher cost solution would be to have two inverters, one for the PV panels and one for the car batteries. That would allow me to use electricity while the sun shines to charge cars as well as meet other demands and then supply energy from the car batteries when the sun isn't shining. Commonly available battery backed PV systems use 24-to-36 volt battery banks which are charged from PV panels [through a charge controller]. My car batteries need to be charged through charg[ing transform]ers that have 220 VAC input. That is, the charger's input must come through a transformer.

Our electric utility power is pretty reliable; I don't think I have seen it down more than two hours. ~1 hour outages only occur once every year or two. We might see outages of a few minutes several times a year.

The primary function of a PV system would be to pump power into the grid. That is how it would be used 99% (or 99.99%) of the time. At this time, PV is not cost effective in my region. With electric utility cost of 10 cents to 11 cents per kwh, it takes many decades to pay for a PV system. So, I would have to justify PV cost with emergency or grid-down functionality.

I've been speaking here of lithium iron phosphate batteries here. When treated well, they are far more cost effective, long-lived, and trouble-free than lead-acid batteries.

My most recent electric vehicle purchase was a Prodeco bicycle. A lithium battery "ebike", such as the Prodeco, is a great low maintenance people mover. Range is more than 10 miles without peddling. A great asset for when petroleum fuel is not available.

JWR Replies: Several of my consulting clients have Bad Boy Buggy electric ATVs. In addition to their quiet operation and utility as farm and ranch vehicles, they also provide a very portable battery bank. (They have eight large 6-volt deep cycle batteries.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hello Jim,
I enjoyed the article regarding off-grid power by Roger A. I'd like to add a few points  about the elimination of phantom loads and the use of inverters.
As defined by the author, "phantom loads are created by appliances that have been designed to still need electricity while nominally switched off."
The elimination of these phantom loads reduces electrical needs in two ways; by eliminating the power needed by the appliance and the potential of being able to turn off the inverter. As pointed out in the article, inverters draw an average of 25 watts just to operate. Running 24/7 this can be a huge load for an off-grid system.

Jim, you suggested using a switched power strip for appliances with phantom loads. Excellent advice. Unfortunately, esthetics and forgetting to turn the strip off after using the appliance can reduce its effectiveness.
I've lived off-grid twelve years now. Here's what I've learned to eliminate phantom loads.

Anything with a plug that includes a digital clock is a phantom load. Microwave ovens and clothes washing machines that use dial-timers are still available. Most of these appliances use no power when they are "off."  Speaking of digital clocks, use a battery powered travel type alarm instead of the plug in type. Cordless shavers, toothbrushes and cordless power tools are okay, but should only be plugged in when the inverter is operating, for example in the evening when lights are needed. The chargers on some cordless devices can be destroyed when used with modified sine wave inverters. This is not an issue with true sine wave inverters.
The "entertainment center" (television, DVD, satellite dish receiver, etc.) is best served with a power strip. That dratted television is mostly a waste of time anyway, but I digress. The computer and its accessories should be plugged into a power strip, which is switched off when not in use.

Battery powered outdoor lighting units with LEDs and a motion detector work well for specific areas.
Refrigeration is tricky. I use a Sun Frost refrigerator/freezer. It's a DC model, which means it runs directly off the batteries and no inverter is needed. These boxy units are available in 12 and 24 volts DC. They are very efficient and have a reputation for reliability. However, the non-standard size and high cost is off-putting to some.

Cordless phones and answering machines can be bought off-the-shelf, and then powered right off the battery system with an appropriate DC to DC converter. These are the devices you plug into your car's cigarette lighter (12 volt DC) to charge your cell phone. Lighting can be had from 12 volt compact fluorescents or 12 volt LEDs. Pumping surface water (from tanks, pools or lakes) to a pressure tank or garden can be done with a DC pump. I've had good luck with Shurflo pumps. Available in both 12 and 24 volts DC, they are noisy and don't tolerate any solids in the water, but are reliable and easy to maintain.
One important caveat when using low voltage DC is to fuse every single device. If you've ever dropped a tool across a car battery and watched it vaporize in an adrenalin-inducing instant, you'll understand the importance. This can be as simple as an appropriate sized in-line fuse from an auto parts store.

Using low voltage DC calls for short wire runs from the batteries to the device and appropriately sized wiring.
Besides helping to eliminate phantom loads, there is another advantage in powering some appliances by DC, especially refrigerators, pumps and lights. Should the inverter fail, you would still have refrigeration, running water and lighting. Best Regards, - Dave S.

Greetings from the suborned state of Colorado.
I’ve rewired a few houses, and while I’m not an electrician – I always used one to inspect my work – also swapped out a lot of panels on aluminum wired condo’s for fellow homeowners... 
Overloading a circuit has been a problem for all types of wiring since electricity was invented, circuit breakers are there to insure that the line draw never exceeds a certain level the level and draw are calculated based on expansion and heat loss for the types of wires used.  As the following chart shows, nearly all aluminum alloys have a rating of 13 (yes it’s a measurement, but for comparative purposes that’s not important) whereas most copper alloys run around 9.  The difference actually isn’t that great, platinum has a much better rating, but is also much more expensive.  The other factor that is overlooked is the ductility of various metals.
The fire problem was only peripherally caused by overloading, the more typical problem has to do with aluminum wiring and it’s expansion when heated and it’s ductility when expanded.  Simply put, when aluminum heats up it expands but when it cools down the metal loses it’s “memory” and does not shrink back to it’s original shape.  The ductility (or, essentially, the ability of a metal to return to it’s original form) of aluminum is fairly low, meaning that a given shear force (force exerted along a perpendicular axis) needed to cause aluminum to separate is lower – and it’s higher for things like iron – but even more importantly is the deformity curve,  for a given force a deformity is a permanent displacement of material for a given force, the curve for iron looks flat until you hit the absolute sheer strength (that needed to separate it), iron will resist deforming almost up to the actual point of sheer.  The curve for aluminum is fairly constant for deformity, at very low forces aluminum deforms permanently.

This permanent deformity problem only crops up over time, and only crops up at junctions where the wire is fastened, like the service box where the circuit breakers are and points in the loops where power is drawn out (outlets), it gets really bad if you join copper wire to aluminum as the copper expansion contributes to the aluminum deformation under heat/expansion stresses.   Joints where a steel screw join with aluminum don’t exhibit the same deformation problems as those where copper is joined to aluminum.   
so what is the real cause of fires in aluminum wired homes?  Well, it’s easy, over time the aluminum deforms and when it cools it fails to resume it’s former shape.  Screws like those used in outlets fasten the aluminum to the (usually) bronze or copper outlet or to the bronze/copper end of the circuit breaker.  The steel screw has a very high deformation curve so as the aluminum wire expands with heat in response to load and other environmental factors, the steel or bronze screws resist doing the same thing, and the aluminum deforms on a microscopic scale while the other materials generally don’t deform.  So expand/contract, over time and use causes a slight gap between the aluminum wire and the outlet box or connector, when there is a slight gap the electric current arcs across the gap (because it’s still close enough to do so) and eats away a little at the aluminum as the heat of the arc attempts to deposit the aluminum on the bronze/copper fixture – this weld fails as the metals are incompatible and the aluminum is lost – creating a bigger gap.  At some point the arcing will start to create flashing and the erosion rate increases – until one of two things happen.  The circuit fails due to the gap or the materials surrounding the junction catch fire.  If you’ve used steel junction boxes and your main panel isn’t directly in contact with your siding the failure isn’t catastrophic – but wait – a lot of junctions happen behind walls, such as when someone doesn’t have enough wire to make a full circuit (or are using up short lengths of wire) and these places are hidden and usually not protected by a steel junction box – the heat hits the building materials and you have a fire. 
But overloading isn’t the primary cause, it’s the nature of the materials and their application that is the primary cause – overloading just makes it happen faster! - Jim H. in Colorado

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Line Loss" is often mentioned when discussing alternative energy systems, but that is just one of several significant losses. This article will describe five distinct types of losses.

In an alternative energy system that incorporates a battery or battery bank, the first electrical loss is within the batteries themselves as they discharge, this is called the Puekert exponent. This loss increases with the aging of the batteries. Look at it this way: If you had a 500 gallon tank of water and you used 200 gallon a day you would have to replace 200 gallons every day or 400 gallons every other day. If this tank had a half inch hole it could lose say 50 gallons a day. That means you would have to put 250 gallons back in every day to keep it full.  The erosion on that hole would increase the size of the hole and the loss as time goes on. Whether you used water or not you would have to replace this loss or the tank would be empty when you wanted to use the water. Like that tank of water, a battery has the same type of loss every day, whether it is used or not. 

Second is line loss, which increases with line distance, especially in direct current low voltage applications. This is why higher voltages are becoming popular. The lower voltage’s lose efficiency and can become dangerous if wire sizing isn’t given special attention. On the other hand the higher the voltage the less choices of direct current appliances (12 volt) you will have. The lower the voltage the larger the wire must be to maintain a safe system. It also needs to be multi stranded. Multi-strand cabling increases the surface area. This can’t be overstated. 


The following table shows the Voltage Drop Index (VDI) per foot of various sizes of copper and aluminum cabling.

VDI = Amps times Feet divided by (% volt drop times voltage)

Wire Size - Copper Wire               Wire size - Aluminum Wire

AGW  VDI      Ampacity     VDI      Ampacity

0000   99       260             62         205
000     78       225             49         175
00       62       195             39         150
0         49       170             31         135
2         31       130             20         100
4         20        95             12           75
6         12        75 
8          8         55
10        5         30
12        3         20
14        2         15
16        1

Determine the appropriate wire size from chart above.

A) Take the VDI number you just calculated and find the nearest number in the VDI column, then read to the left for AWG wire gauge size.    B) Be sure that your circuit amperage does not exceed the figure in the Ampacity column for that wire size. (This is not usually a problem in low-voltage circuits.)

Example: A photovoltaic (PV) array consisting of four Sharp 80-watt modules is 60 feet from your 12-volt battery. This is actual wiring distance, up pole mounts, around obstacles, etc. These modules are rated at 4.63 amps X 4 modules = 18.5 amps maximum. We'll shoot for a 3% voltage drop.   So our formula looks like: 

  VDI = (18.5 A a 60 ft.)divided by (3% x 12 V) = 30.8

Looking at our chart a VDI of 31 means we'd better use #2 gauge wire in copper, or #0 gauge aluminum wire. Hmmm. That is fat wire.

What if this system was instead 24 volt? The modules would be wired in series, so each pair of modules would produce 4.4 amps. Two pairs 4.63 amps = 9.3 amps, Max.   

VDI = ( 9.3 x 60 ft.) Divided by ( 3% x 24 V) = 7.8

What a difference! At 24 volts you could wire your array with # 8 gauge copper wire.

[JWR Adds: Up until the 1980s, residential aluminum AC wiring was allowed in new construction by the U.S. National Electrical Code (NEC), in branch circuits (inside walls.) But because of a higher incidence of house fires caused by overloaded circuits, beginning in the 1980s nearly all state building codes were updated to ban aluminum wiring in branch circuits, for new construction. Typically, these laws grandfathered aluminum wiring it in existing houses.]

Next, I'll discuss inverters. Losses within inverters are the third types of loss. Converting direct current (DC) to 110 or 220-volt alternating current (AC) creates another electrical loss. Inverters are an electrical appliance and use electricity (3 to 40 watts) to run. The better inverters have a "search mode" using from 3 to 5 watts when no loads are detected. When operating an appliance they may use from 25 to 40 watts plus the appliance load. This can be anywhere from minutes to 24 hours a day, depending how long the inverter needs to be on to operate the appliances needed. The cheaper inverters do not have a search mode and must run 24 hours a day unless turned off and on mechanically. This usage can use up to 1,000 watts a day. This amount of electrical usage is equivalent to having two 100-watt panels in direct sunlight for 5 hours just for ability to use electricity if you want to, or three 100-watt panels if there are clouds passing by from time to time. It is much wiser to have an inverter with a search (sleep) mode especially if you have a load that needs to have access to electricity on a non continues basis, like a refrigerator or furnace. If the electrical system has one 110 Volt inverter and 220 Volts are needed the transformer uses electricity (25 to 35 watt range) just like any other appliance.

Phantom loads are the fourth loss. Phantom loads are created by appliances that have been designed to still need electricity while nominally switched "off". The is often the greatest loss, especially in 110-volt AC systems. These are a serious problem in smaller systems. These can be voltage converters that convert a/c back to a variety of lower voltages both AC and DC (wall warts). Clocks, timers, remotes, smoke alarms, and even ground fault interrupt (GFI) outlets are all culprits. (It is noteworthy that GFI outlets are required by the electrical code for bathrooms and kitchens and can use as much as 5 watts per 24 hours.) Appliances with timers and clocks like microwaves and stoves also create phantom loads. Remote controlled appliances like televisions and stereos are the biggest users of electricity while off, some using as much as 80% as much electricity while off as when switched on. All so you can turn them on without going over and using physical force. If industry were to eliminate these phantom loads in their appliances we could close several power plants and save our environment and resources, as well as reducing heart attacks (exercise walking to the television and back to the chair) but people and industry would rather talk than do. These combined phantom loads often exceed the electrical consumption of the necessary household appliances like refrigerators and furnaces. Simple switching could save thousands of watts per household. These phantom loads would save enough electricity to eliminate the need for rolling blackouts in the cities, like happened in Texas.

[JWR Adds: The simple workaround to eliminate phantom loads is to put any identified culprit devices on power strips. When you've finished using the device, make sure that you turn off the entire power strip. The key here is to position the power strip in a convenient place on top of furniture, so that it doesn't get overlooked. Granted, this approach detracts from your home's decor.]

I was able to buy my second inverter and its accessories because of phantom loads. (These had soured their first owner on PV power.) Refrigerators are normally the largest users of electricity. Some have ice makers and need a “resistance heater” coil (in the freezer) to free the ice, automatically defrost, also using “resistance heating” and a “resistance heater” coil in the wall at the door to keep the magnets dry in humid climates because safe latches cost more to produce and diminish the manufacturer's profits. These types of refrigerators can use 3.5 to 5 kWh per day. Short-term gain is certainly more important than efficiency or clean air. Some have a switch to disable this door feature for arid climates thus gaining the good ‘OLE’ Energy Star rating (most don’t). Another load can be a thermostat like all 120 VAC electric refrigerators and some gas heaters. When these are plugged into grid there is no load as the electric is available 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) to the thermostat. Not so off grid. A cheap inverter has to run 24/7 to duplicate this feature, and can be using as high as 600 watts a day just to have your appliance off while allowing the capability for the appliance to come on. This usage can be eliminated by using an external thermostat with a plug system to plug into the wall and plug the refrigerator into the plug. 

[JWR Adds: If you want to track down all of the phantom loads in a modern house, buying a Kill-A-Watt Meter is strongly recommended.]
The better quality modified sine wave or pure sine wave inverters use a search mode and eliminate this problem, by allowing a mechanical device to be installed or the sensitivity to be lowered enough to sense the small voltage needed to make active the device.  The lack of a search mode is the fifth potential loss. All this is before whatever appliance you intend to run can have electricity to do its intended job. Some pellet and gas stoves used instead of central heat have electronics that are two sensitive to run on modified sine wave (as are many other appliances). In some this will cause their “magic blue smoke” to appear. Most of the quote “real deals” on inverters are for inverters that use modified sine wave technology. Even better deals are on older square wave inverters (which may cause motors to show their “magic” abilities also). Many of these are sold in places like eBay and the tool magazines ‘you pay your money you take your chances. When shopping for an inverter a person needs to be aware of this fact. Many solar stores try to sell what they have in stock rather than what you need. As larger chains become involved in the sale of solar equipment misinformation will increase. Many factories offer incentives to their retailers to buy these older types of inverters, thus clearing old stock. Many foreign companies only make the older type of inverters. It is truly buyer beware! “Good information is the key” search it out whenever possible and you will be rewarded.

Many of the systems that I have built, modified, or altered and tested were on a small solar system by today's standard. Thus teaching myself to conserve and question efficiencies. This was important to me. By this time I was completely off grid and had cut my electrical consumption to less than 6 kWh per day. This included using my shop welder (electric) that made many of the devices (photovoltaic trackers, etc) that I was using. Most all the systems herein were modified in this manner. I often had electrical components waiting for the remainder of the upgrades.  The object was to use the old system as well as adding the new ones when they can be afforded. Mixing old but usable batteries with new will age the new making their capacity the same as the old, defeating the purpose of buying new. This is something that anyone who plans to become independent needs to learn while still living on grid. That way one knows how to deal with the quirks that arise without feeling the real discomfort that comes from not having put in the time to learn and understand. All of these remedies that I detail in my working for independence may not be the same avenues you wish to explore, but often the idea or the switching can be modified to be used in a different appliance or on a totally different project. Often just the idea will be the seed or the key leading to success, rather than “do it this way”  I now live in an earth ship miles from utilities. I make my own or do without. I have almost every convince that I had before, like a dishwasher, trash compacter, microwave, bread maker and many other kitchen appliances that use electricity. Many I could do without ‘but’ I like them and have made room for them in my life.  (Don’t we all.) Most people think this can’t be done. Not true! I have to be aware of my battery’s state of charge before using many of these appliances, but often I have spare electricity at the day's end.

A Real World Perspective on Expense Paybacks
Many people ask me what is the payback time on all my solar power equipment? In reply, I ask them what is the payback on their electric bill, gas bill, water bill. Also, what is the pay back when the grid goes down and you lose everything in your freezer? I am helping the environment are you? I am not using alternative energy to make money; I am doing it for the independence that I gain!   Look around you. How many power outages have there been lately? I haven’t had any. How about you? One question I never hear in the solar power industry is what is my payback on the grid-tie system that someone else put in and [for which they] only paid a portion of and then claimed their payback was just so many years, and I as a taxpayer had to pay the balance? I paid for my own [system] out of my pocket, with no help from any agency or deduction whatsoever.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I am currently working in the Alternative Energy industry after retiring from a 21-year career with the military.  As part of my Vocational rehabilitation, the military allowed me to choose my future career.  As a long time reader of SurvivalBlog and a Bible-believing Christian, I saw the importance of prepping.  This includes living off grid.

Alternative energy seems to be emerging as a buyer beware market.  You can see many manufacturers prey on fear claiming that their systems can run your fridge, furnace, freezer and well pump during any grid down event. This is simply an impossibility, a typical house needs 10 or more Kilowatts of power.  This is impossible to provide with an 80W panel and a 50 amp/h battery with a 250 W inverter, which many of these boastful claims are built around.  Not only will it not run your house, or anything else for more then a few minutes the shocking price demanded for these systems are well over $2,500.

When designing a system we always do a spreadsheet up of the total wattage of the household in question, and many times a typical household can expect to pay $14,000 plus for a system sufficient enough to be off grid. 

It is obvious that companies and consumers are asking the wrong questions when thinking about alternative energy.  The industry is looking to make money.  The consumer is looking to get the best bang for their buck, so in the interest of the little guy who cannot fork over thousands of dollars I have a few suggestions.  Without getting into the nitty gritty of system sizing, wire sizing, fuse sizing everything has be laid out in layman's terms.

1.)  How much do I have to spend?  Let's face it, if you only have $500 then you need to build a system around that costs $500.

2.)  Build a system that in the future can be expanded upon.  There is no point in buying a 6-amp charge controller as part of your upgradeable system when the biggest panel you can add to it is 80W.  For the ease of numbers, an 8-amp charge controller will handle a 135 Watt panel.

3.)  Change your lifestyle.  Most people who are preppers already know that life will change dramatically.  When the grid goes down, you will not be using your electric range your electric dryer, and definitely not your hair dryer or coffee maker.

Addressing the foregoing:  First, a solar system has three components.  Solar panel(s) + Charge controller + Batteries.

So for that $500 you could buy a 50 Watt panel, a 10-amp charge controller (ensure that the model is equipped with a low voltage disconnect.) and a 50 amp hour battery.  With this system, you can add an inverter to enable you to charge batteries for cordless tools, run a laptop or radio.  You can buy pre-packed distribution centers for 12 volt lighting with have 12-volt auto-jacks and 2.1 plug-ins to run lighting.  A 3 Watt LED 12V light bulb has the same lumens as 60 Watt incandescent bulb.  A system this size would give you 25 amp hours of continuous power.  Roughly, a 50 Watt panel will charge a 50 Amp/h battery in a day of continuous sun light. 

Not only could you light your cabin with 3Watt bulbs you can also add a couple of 12 V, 10W motion spotlights for security as well as have capacity for cordless tool batteries and laptop charging.  Your heating choices would have to be kerosene, propane or wood as well as cooking and refrigeration.  There are 12-volt refrigerators and freezers but you would need a substantially larger system to run them.

To expand on your $500 system you can substitute your 50W panel up to a 135 Watt panel keeping your 10-amp charge controller.  You can upgrade your batteries from a 50 Amp/h battery to a 106 Amp/h or even a 165 amp/h battery. 

Currently Fur Harvester Auction Trap line Store in North Bay, Ontario carries pre-packaged cabin systems for off-grid trappers cabins that are manufactured by Glenergy, these can be viewed at www.glenergy.ca  All of these pre-packaged plug and play systems range from  $300 to $1,160 Canadian Dollars.

To upgrade again, you would have to replace the 10-amp charge control to add additional panels.  If you had 2 x 135 Watt panels which could be used in either a 12 or 24-volt system now.  A 20 amp 12-volt charge controller and 2 x 6volt 530 Surrette batteries wired in series has just significantly increased total power output.  You can still run all the lighting requirements, use a larger inverter and now you can add a 12-volt deep well pump, and give you more storage, this means if the sun does not shine for a week, you still have power stored. 

Also when purchasing items, eBay is a valuable resource.  Just ensure that when searching for a panel, most flexible solar panels that are 35 Watt or greater are only 6-volt so you will have to buy 2 and wire these in series these to make 12-volt.

When upgrading from here, you can purchase a smart controller and wire in a generator with an electric start.  The generator would strictly run to charge batteries and not run any 120-volt appliances directly.  This would be beneficial when you have a long period with no sun and over consumption, the generator would run long enough to top up the batteries.  When the system has been set up correctly the generator would not run very often unless your kids are having a PS3 Tournament and leaving all of the lights on.

When buying your batteries only buy solar rated batteries as they are built for rapid charge and a longer discharge.  Deep cycle RV batteries just are not built for this.  Another consideration for batteries is trying to use a Lead Acid Gel battery when designing a portable system, liquid lead acid batteries will spill and vent, and lithium ion batteries are expensive and heat up when charging. Regardless of what type is used, ensure that if they are housed in any kind of container they are vented to the outside for larger systems and if it is a portable system make sure there is some sort of overpressure valve.  Pelican cases have overpressure valves built in already.

When building your system, ensure everything is fused.  Fuse your solar panel, fuse your battery, and fuse your loads.  In the event of a solar flare or an EMP, you can have a second charge controller and spare fuses stored in a Faraday cage such as a military ammo can.  In 30 minutes, you could have your system back up and running.  In this case most charge controllers are plastic, one alternative is Morning Star controllers which are metal and encapsulated which makes them weather proof.  The downside to these controllers are that if the solar is hooked up and the battery fuse blows or is disconnected the controller will get fried.  Most other controllers do not have this problem.  Saying that, I always recommend that the solar is disconnected before the battery is disconnected with any charge controller.

When I build custom systems, they have to be rugged.  Currently I have twenty-one 10 Watt systems in Africa which are in use by missionaries.  These systems charge cell phones and laptops, charge 9-volt lanterns and fans and provide 12 volt localized lighting.  Each missionary kit was provided a 10 Watt security spot light as well.  This shows that with even a system as small as a 10 Watt panel and a 9 amp/h battery can provide most of your requirements, plus these are portable and pretty much maintenance free as tool kits are in short supply as well as the ATC fuses.  In a bleak future of a grid down world, there may be an abundance of abandoned vehicles and ATC fuses will be one of those items not scavenged, except for by of course you who is reading this article. 

This leads to another plus in a grid-down world.  In Africa, there are hardly an land lines, there are large areas with no electricity and yet everyone has a cell phone.  Cell towers are mostly powered by solar.  There have been a few businesses set up Ghana with systems I have built to charge cell phones.  Any soldier who has been to Iraq or Afghanistan has seen the countless call offices where you can pay to use a cell phone.  With a small system you can charge lanterns, cell phones, whether or not cell phones will work and even batteries, this can be a valuable source of barter.

Using ruggedized cases such as a Pelican case is one way of building a portable system that can be taken with you in the case you have to G.O.O.D., something that can be thrown into the back of a pick up.  A system this size can be as small as a 20 Watt panel with a 21amp/hour battery.  This size system again would be enough to charge tool batteries, laptops and run 12 volt lighting.  Something as small a 3Watt 12-volt panel with 50 Watt hour batteries will light a tent, charge cell phones or other handheld devices and costs less than $85.

It is my belief solar will be a much better option then naphtha or kerosene lanterns because you will not need to carry spare fuel bottles.  This is a definite plus if you are traveling, light or the cost or scarcity of these resources makes them unattainable.

I'm a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer who has taken restoration carpentry as my second career.  I've been following you for a couple years now and very much appreciate what you're doing. To those ends, I received a link to this article from Fine Homebuilding and thought it might be interesting and perhaps useful to fellow preppers.  Of particular interest to me was the interactive maps from NREL.  One can point their mouse to a particular point on the U.S. map (or to pre-selected points on the global map) and then load the location data into NREL's PVWatts Calculator.  The calculator then shows the user location-specific data regarding positioning of arrays, available sunlight by month for the location selected, DC to AC inversion de-rates, et cetera.  

It occurs to me that calculating the value of the energy produced by a notional PV array would be useful so long as we remain grid-up as it provides the user the ability to calculate an amortization schedule for the investment.  Going the other way, as I'm currently noodling, it provides the ability to develop an electrical load scheme for a home factoring location, budget, and power requirements.  For example, wiring a completely separate DC bus not tied to the grid with a lead-acid battery backup versus using the standard residential AC bus with DC-AC inverter and grid-tied.  Or, a dozen other permutations to arrive at the best bang for the buck.  

Cheers, - Joe B.

Friday, February 24, 2012

To say we have had a mild winter here in Iowa is an understatement to say the least. That was until recently. It would be safe to say that with temperatures in the 50 degree range I have gotten a little complacent this winter. Like many who read SurvivalBlog I spend time watching the news and trying to keep an eye on the big picture. At least in this case it came at the expense of some of the details. Like everything in life I would like to remind myself as well as all my Brothers and Sisters out there that might read this that like all things in life we need to take a balanced approach.
We did have a snow storm and nature reminded us that it was still winter. I guess this would be one of those situations that Attitude made the difference in the whole day. That was something else that I think I may have forgotten. At my house we don’t prep just to survive. If all I was interested in was surviving I would not put so much time and effort into what we have done. Personally I want to survive with a life worth living.  I personally am not someone that is going to wonder through the woods with a backpack eating bugs having lost everyone and everything I love. If they are going to get to the people and pets that I love and care for then they are going to have to go through me to get there. So if those things are gone they would have had to take me out to get there. So while I’m here I might as well enjoy the life that I have.
Instead of taking the doom and gloom look at what all went wrong let’s take a positive outlook on the day and see what I was able to learn from our experience. Life is a choice. Where you are in life is a sum of the decisions you have made so you are exactly where you have chosen to be. Look at it this way: If you are now willing to make changes to your lifestyle such as giving up cable or eating out then you have made a conscious choice. You have chosen to keep things exactly the way they are. Since you are not willing to do anything different you must be happy with the way things are in your life. So let’s take a look at where the choices I have made took me for the day.
Waking up to about 4 inches of snow meant that my first duty of the morning was to get out and get rid of the snow off the driveway and sidewalks. Not a big deal. My Cub Cadet has a two stage snow blower on it and I race my neighbor to see who can do the others sidewalk first.

The first thing I notice is this has got to be the heaviest and wettest snow I can remember in a long time. As soon as you step down on the snow it instantly turns to ice on the sidewalk under your feet. This is the first time I can ever remember my machine struggling to throw the snow out of the way. I’m usually having to angle the shoot down so the snow does not go too far and end up where I don’t want it. I happily spend an hour or so removing the snow from our property and a couple of my elderly neighbors. Rats, Rick has already gotten the sidewalk. Score one for him. I’ll get him next time.

I pull the tractor back into the garage and notice that it is unusually dark inside. I thought I had turned on the lights in the garage when I went in but must not have. Well no big deal there is plenty of light coming in from the open garage door. I put the tractor away and pull my truck back in and prepare to go back into the house. Like most people I go to walk out the door and hit the automatic garage door switch and nothing happens. Click, Click, Click? I looked over and I had turned on the lights but they were not on? I guess all this heavy wet snow has taken down some of the trees in the area.

A power failure is not a huge deal. I pull the release cord on the door to disconnect it from the drive and close the door manually. Here is where our first learning experience comes into play. Don’t you just hate those? With the door being connected to an automatic garage door opener there are no operating locks on it. Being an accountant by trade I’m not the most mechanical person on the planet so I have to subscribe to the K.I.S.S. principle.  So believing in this instead of trying to do something elaborate I just grab a set of vice grips and clamp them on the rail to secure the garage. It would have been no big deal if the door had been closed when the power went out but since the side was all the way back there was no way to secure the door. A nice set of Vice-Grips on the rail worked quite well in my opinion.

At this point my vicious guard dogs decide to wake up and come downstairs and see how much of my breakfast they can talk me out of. This is where I would really suggest one of those LED head lamps if you don’t already have one. The kitchen is on the North side of the house so does not have a great deal of outside light this time of year. Having both hands free makes tasks much easier than trying to hold a light with one hand and do everything with the other. Of course there is always the hold it in your mouth and slobber all over yourself method. Personally I prefer the head lamp. Slobber all down the front of your shirt first thing in the morning seems to bring a lot of pesky questions. Or at least it does at my house.

At this point the power has been out from probably an hour and a half at my estimation. With Winter having shown up with the snow the temperature outside was far from what we had gotten used to. No big deal “I HAVE PREPS”. Quite proud of myself for having thought ahead I have a backup heat source. I have a kerosene heater out in the garage that I keep around for just such an occasion. So closely watched by my ever vigilant guard dogs we go out to the garage to get the heater and bring it into the house.

I do have to interject here that I was quite proud of myself at this point. I have read here on SurvivalBlog quite a few times that you can never have too many flashlights and the read many praises on the new LED flashlights. Having done so a while back when I was at Home Depot I saw bulk packs of them on sale and picked up several. She Who Must Be Obeyed and I then went around the house and put at least one flashlight in every room of the house. Several rooms we put a couple. Luckily for me the flashlight was right where I expected it to be and worked great.

The Dogs and I then went out and brought in the heater and wiped off the dust and checked it over for proper operation before I tried to light it. I used to use it regularly to heat the garage before having a heating system put in. Since then it has sat patiently on the shelf waiting. This is when I noticed that last time I used it I had forgotten to refill it. Not a big deal. I was prepared. I knew I had extra kerosene in the garage. I had several unopened cans that I had purchased for just such an occasion. So the dogs and I trekked back out to the garage to get some kerosene to top it off before we put it into operation. I knew the cans were unopened and therefore full. I checked on them by looking over at them to make sure they had not been damaged several times a year but had never physically touched them since I had put them off in the corner against the wall. I know they were full because I had purchased them and put them over there.
This was when I realized that Murphy's Law had not been repealed. The cans were strangely light when I went to pick them up. Almost as if they were empty. I look at the top and the seal is still in place right there where it is supposed to be. They simply can’t be empty could they? They were new when I put them there and the seal is still on top right where it was supposed to be. I shake the can and there is no slosh like there should be. No one ever told me that if you put a steel can on a cement floor that the bottom of the can will rust out. It must have happened over a long period because I never remember smelling kerosene in the garage but the bottom of the can was rusted and the cans were empty.

Well we must keep our beautiful wife warm so we go back into the house and strategically place the heater in the kitchen on the bottom floor of the house and light it. I did this because heat will radiate up. So by putting it at the bottom of the house farthest away from the stairs the heat will radiate through the bottom floor and eventually upstairs. The sun has finally come out so I open up the curtains on the south side of the house to let in as much sunlight as possible. I was surprised that within a half hour I had to go back downstairs and turn the heater off. It was starting to get way too warm upstairs.

Not knowing how long my existing kerosene still in the tank was going to last I went to plan “B”. Being a believer in "two is one and one is none", I had recently purchased a backup heat source to my backup heat source. Truthfully I had picked it up for the 5th wheel we have recently purchased and placed out our bug out location. On another trip to Home Depot I had purchased a Mr. Heater tank top heater. I had plenty of propane. All of my back up cooking is based on propane if the gas were ever to go out I had stocked up with the normal grill tanks with the adapter to fill the small tanks our camping stove uses and had a supply of tanks for our grill as well as three different 100 lb tanks to take down to the 5th wheel. We are still in the process of setting up the camper so they have not been moved down there yet. All were fully charged for just such an occasion.  With no better time to test our new heater than the present I assembled our new heater and attached it to the tank. I was amazed at the heat this thing put out and had to quickly turn it back off. I was confident that we were going to be nice and warm for as long as we would be without power.

So that gave me a few minutes to sit down and go through my checklist to see what needed to be done:

  • Shelter is in place and safe? Check
  • Water? Plenty stored and water still running check
  • Food? Well stocked for both 2 pawed and 4 pawed family members so Check
  • Everyone Safe and warm? Check
  • Light? Plenty of candles, flash lights with back well over 100 back up batteries (Sale at Bass Pro shops on back Friday), Oil Lamps with extra wicks and oil, all in place so check  

Not being the type that would be willing to leave a heater on and unattended this gave me some time to sit by the window and go over our situation and evaluate what still needed to be done and see where I had missed things. As I sat there in the a comfortable chair looking out the sliding glass door watching it start to snow again I noticed a few things. Please let me share them with you.
As I sat there in front of the window I had a sense of calm and peace flow over me. It had started to snow again fairly aggressively. I could see several neighbors loading up their cars forced to trek out into the storm looking for a warm place to go. Meanwhile I was sitting there in my chair warm and comfortable. Knowing my family was safe and warm. I didn’t have to care what the roads were like. I didn’t have to care how much it snowed. I didn’t have to care when the power came back on. For the first time in several years the house was quit. I could almost hear the house talking to me. Those subtle noises that a house makes that are always there but are hidden behind the background noise of all the gadgets of our modern life create. I had a calmness and peace that I had not felt in quite a while. The simple things in life were all taken care of because we had the foresight to prep not just for the big disaster but also for the little things.
I realized the mistakes I had made. I had gotten complacent in knowing my preps were there and had not taken the time to periodically check and make sure they were still in operational condition. Luckily I had subscribed to the "Two is one, and one is none" theory and that had saved us.
My pointed out an area I had thought of once and had completely forgotten about. As unromantic as it sounds at this point feeling so good about how well things had gone overall we forgot about the toilet. Where we live we have a high water table so the sewer system cannot be buried very deep. Because of this we have what is called a grind pit in our back yard. All the waste from the house drains down into this pit and a device in the bottom grinds up all the solids and then pumps them “UP” to the sewer system. With no power there is no pumping action and the pump would become full rather quickly if we did not monitor how much water went down the drain. Of course this is when Murphy decided to make his presence known again. I had not really worried about it too much because I had a nice Kohler generator. Well as you might guess we don’t currently have our generator. It is over being worked on by the small engine person of our Mutual Assistance Group. We are experimenting with retrofitting the generators of our group with automobile mufflers in an attempt to quite them down considerably so they will be safer to use at our bug out location in a SHTF situation. The loud roar of several generators will carry for quite a ways in that type of situation and we are attempting to lower our decibel output as much as possible. Because of this my generator is not currently available.  Not a severe problem I can always grab one from work and bring it home once the storm passes if necessary but defiantly something that I need to work on.
At this point there is only one thing left on the list to do. So I go upstairs and see my beautiful wife and my vicious guard dogs all curled up on a pile of pillows on the bed. This is a scene that would make the cat proud. My wife is comfortably reading a book basking in the sunlight coming in from the window. My lab is comfortably curled up on my pillows and my Shepherd is sprawled out across what is left of the bed.
I update my wonderful wife on our situation and my conclusions. Then I inform her the only thing we have left to do to insure our survival is work on shared bodily warmth and comfort. That this is a critical part of our survival plan. The fate of the world could depend on it.
My loving wife then looks up from her book. She looks at me with those beautiful hazel eyes. Her long beautiful hair cascading down across her shoulders and pillows. The absolute picture of loveliness. A gentle smile crosses her face only to be replaced by her tongue sticking out followed quickly by a raspberry thrown in my direction. Dejected and rejected I was banished to the couch where I had to spend the afternoon taking nap lessons from the cat.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Southern California, September 8, 2011, 3:45 p.m.: Crud, my computer just shut down. It had been an uneventful day at the ranch studio to this point. I was finishing the day’s work on a project and looking forward to riding my horse before it got dark; now my computer flat-lines. Great…, what next?

Hit the television power switch on the remote, nothing... Power light on the plotter is off too, Huh? Went to the main breaker to see if the circuit to the studio had tripped. Nope, the wheel-of-debt inside the meter was not turning so the solution was not going to be “just the flip of a breaker away”. The problem just ratcheted up a notch.
Called San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) but could not get through, circuits were overloaded. Living in a rural area it is not unusual for the power to go out from time to time and take it in stride. We also have those raging Santa Ana wildfires  every year, but a quick scan of eastern mountains showed no hint of smoke and living near the airport where the tankers stage, I didn't hear or see any tanker or helicopter activity.

Walked out to my truck and turned on the radio but no information about any power outage. Strange, must be a local power outage, or maybe just the transformer to my place.
Using my iPhone, I called a couple of neighbors. One not home, the other had no power either. The ratchet turns another notch.

Ok, so this is starting to look a little more serious than a tripped breaker.
Called my wife, who works in a corporate office downtown, and their power is out too. With no backup power, everyone was told to go home. A few minutes later, she calls back to say the security gates to the underground parking garage have no backup power so all the cars are trapped inside with no way out. Great...this situation is escalating from mere inconvenience to a "what next" event.

Cell phone rings, wife says a few of her co-workers with cars trapped in the garage had decided to stay in the building (being a biotech company they have good security), overnight if necessary, until someone could get the security gates open to the underground garage (or I come to pick her up). I reminded her that she had her Get Home Bag (GHB), just in case. Whenever we travel beyond our rural community each vehicle has a pack loaded with gear so we can hike back home (dreaded EMP event) and hers was in her truck. That meant she had MREs, water, first aid, hiking boots, sleeping bag, change of clothes, etc.

Now I am hearing sirens in town (a mile away). Even though I do not let my diesel tank get below the half way mark, I thought I would run into town to see what was going on and top off my tank anyway. What a shocker when I got to Main Street, to see the stoplights not working and lines already spilling out of the service stations into the street. There are only six stoplights in town and with none of them working the main street (small town and we really do have a Main Street) was a complete parking lot with stopped cars.

The parking lots for the two grocery stores in town were filling up too. I later heard that transactions could only be made in cash as the computers were out and they only had battery back-up lights. My ‘alert flag’ colors are starting to change.

Having been through the wildfire drill quite a few times, but well along in the Beans, Bullets, Band-Aids (BBB) departments I was comfortable as I drove back to my ranch watching others scramble to get in line at the few gas stations and two markets. The gas station lines were particularly futile since the pumps had no power anyway. Waiting in line was for the desperate people that were so low on fuel they had no choice but to park and wait.

Wife calls before I get back to the ranch to say someone managed to get the security gates open but now she is stuck in the gridlock of everyone trying to get home and every single stop light was out. What normally is a 40-minute commute turned into over a four-hour stop and go nightmare.
I now hear on my truck radio that the power outage extends beyond my small town and into other areas of San Diego, as well as east and north of the downtown area. However, no news on where or how it started the extent of coverage or estimate of when it will be back on. Fog-of-war starts to set in.

The radio newscaster talks in general terms about the power outage, but again no specific or useful information, just as it always is during the wildfires. During those, I did not evacuate and stayed to protect my property (yes, we did have looters). During those fires, one of the most frustrating things was the useless news coverage. Then, while watching the television news coverage (when the television had power), the smoke outside was sometimes so thick I could not see ten feet let alone down to my horse corals. I needed specific information (street names would have been nice) on where the fire was in real time to make go-no go decisions. Instead, the news broadcasters spoke of the fire only in general terms. Kind of like tornado news coverage on Fox News about a tornado in Oklahoma. Nice to know about as you casually watch television, however, a bit lacking if you are living the event and need information to make critical decisions, fast. Local news needs to do a better job at this.

After the last two Santa Ana fire experiences, I realized that Beans, Bullets, and Band-Aids did not address what I consider another critical category- Communications (comms). Consequently, I went down the ham radio road to fix that deficiency. I have my General license, which gives me access to High Frequency (HF) bands not available to a Technician license, a two band handheld radio, plus a HF mobile rig that will really reach out and touch somebody on HF bands. My son has the exact same license and gear and we routinely communicate with our dipole antennas (aimed at each other) from southern California to where he lives north of Los Angeles, without the use of repeaters, or computers. This met our comms goal of not having to rely on anyone to “help” us with our comms. All we need is our gear and a 12 volt DC battery.

Now it is getting closer to sunset. Check on horses to be sure they have water and feed. Filled extra water barrels for horses since during the last big Santa Ana fire the local water department generators stopped working. Set out flashlights throughout the house and studio. Also, set out candles and several kerosene lanterns just in case.
It is a warm evening so decided to set up comm center outside on the deck where I had a view of the surrounding area. Lit the kerosene lantern. Grabbed my handheld ham radio, car top magnetic antenna and a cookie bake sheet. The magnetic antenna centered on the bake sheet acts like the roof of the vehicle, which provides much better reception than the standard rubber-duck antenna. This way I can set up my UHF/VHF station remote from my vehicle. Added a writing tablet and pens, several flashlights, snacks, comfortable director’s chair and switched on the radio to see what was really going on.

As it gets darker, the reality of the situation starts to set in. Being a rural area, when it gets dark, it is not like being in the city, it is a lot darker. We also have dark-sky restrictions for outdoor lighting because of our proximity to the Mount Palomar Observatory, and with the power out everywhere, tonight, dark has become pitch black; the occasional vehicle on the road is the only light I see. I hear a few generators running and now see a few dim lights in the distance.
Scanning my programmed repeater frequencies, I find that someone has set up an unofficial network ("Net") where, finally, some useful information is being provided. I quickly learn that the power outage extends beyond the San Diego area, into Mexico, east to Arizona, and up to the southern part of Los Angeles. The cause is still under investigation. Time to get the grid back up, unknown. Not good. Wife is still in traffic so using the “Find My iPhone” app, I monitor her progress in real time on the map display of my iPhone.

Listening to my handheld, I check FaceBook on my iPhone and see many postings about the outage, mostly questions and speculative assumptions being posted compared to the verified info I hear on my FT-60 radio.

The fellow acting as Net Control is doing a good job of fielding questions and passing information. Requests are coming in for ham operators to help out at a hospital; someone needs a prescription delivered to their house; is the local CVS pharmacy still open for prescriptions, can anyone stop by such and such an address to check on an elderly couple; water is needed for the volunteers directing traffic at the stop light locations.

A local emergency assistance group (ham operators) break out their generators and lights and set them up at the stop light intersections so those directing traffic are more visible.

The Net traffic is increasing and one of the owners of the repeater keys up her mike to say she is monitoring this frequency and eventually steps in as the Net control to give the first fellow a well-deserved break. A question is asked about the backup generator for the repeater and she tells everyone that it would run for at least a week with no problem. Later, things ratchet up another notch as she is replaced by a fellow who takes over as Net control and announces that this frequency will be restricted to essential communications only. At this point, we are very close to the repeater being commandeered for official emergency communications only.

As new information is transmitted, there was the recurring questions of “where did you hear this?” What is your source? Can you confirm, etc. Because it is the nature of ham radio operators to be precise in relaying accurate communications the information being passed was specific and useful, not at all like the local news. So having been monitoring Face Book while listening to the ham, I started posting information I thought useful to Face Book. Before I know it, I have quite a few Facebook friends posting that I am their source for useful and reliable information.

My wife finally drives up and describes the traffic nightmare she just went through. She sits and listens to the ham radio traffic for a short while then goes to bed. It has been a long commute home for her.

I stayed up monitoring the radio until after midnight. By then the radio traffic had slowed and there was still no information on the cause of the outage or when the grid would be back up. Nothing left to do but get some rest and see what a new day brings.
As we all know the power started being restored in the early morning and everything pretty much returned to normal by the end of the next day.

After Action notes for this short-term event:

  • Keep the fuel in your vehicle over half full at all times. Spare fuel cans are a plus.
  • Work on your BBB supplies. You can never have enough.
  • Have a Get Home Bag (GHB) in your vehicle. You never know when you will need it to get home. My wife is the only person at her workplace that had all the gear she needed to either stay at the workplace or make the trek home if it came to that.
  • Get a ham license, some basic gear and familiarize yourself with how this valuable asset works.

While this did not turn into a BBB event, having those preps adequately covered made this much less stressful.
I later heard that the grocery stores sold out of water and ice faster than anything else did but other shelves were starting to look bare as the night wore on.
On another note, a friend of a friend who owns a precision gun store in another city (AR and high-end sniper rifles) had to call the police because of attempted break-in attempts during this grid down episode. Were just these opportunistic thieves or more desperate types looking longer-term at the situation and opportunity?

This event was just a hiccup. It lasted less than 12 hours. It took everyone completely by surprise and happened as people were getting off work. Those that were prepared were able to focus on important tasks, those that were not prepared stood in line. Having BBB is fine. Having comms provided invaluable real time information about the situation.
There are three stages humans go through to make decisions in stressful situations: Denial, Deliberation, and Decision (DDD). How long a person lingers in the (Denial) “this can’t be happening to me” stages depends on many factors. Spending too much time in this stage can lead to bad consequences. Once they realize it is really happening to them, people will naturally Deliberate on how serious, long term, threatening their situation is. Timely and accurate information is critical at this stage. Do not let the ‘Paralysis of Analysis’ tendency creep in at this point. Get reliable information since it is important to get to stage three quick. Like stage one, Denial, the faster you get though the Deliberation stage, the faster you get to the most important stage. Now it is time to make a Decision. Good or bad, this is where the rubber meets the road; go-no go, bug-in, bug-out. Not having real time, accurate information can lead to wasting too much time going through the first two of the DDD stages or worse yet, not making any, or making the wrong Decision based on completely inaccurate, or out of date, information.

If you are reading this, someone thinks you have some interest and understanding of the need to be prepared. Regardless of where you are in your journey, have your basic BBBs covered. Consider though, how important it is to also have comms so you go through the DDD process faster, and make the correct Decision in phase 3. We all know knowledge is power. Good comms could be that knowledge that saves you or your loved ones life. Just ask any leadership military person about command and control.
Consider budgeting some time and money and get your ham license and some gear. I see more and more articles appearing in the blogs about ham radio. There are good reasons for this. I have never regretted going down that road and having the fourth leg of my prepping table supported by good comms. A four-legged table is a lot sturdier to stand on than a three-legged stool (Beans, Bullets, Band-Aids, + comms). Hope for the best, but plan for the worst!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mr Rawles,
To chime in on the "heat to electricity issue": A Stirling engine or "hot air engine"), might be what Dale from Vermont is looking for.  There are not many commercially available - one company was making them in New Zealand before the earthquake, but a quick Google search has also revealed that they moved their manufacturing to Spain. There may be others.  According to their web site they haven't yet resumed their 'off-grid' line of  engine production.

They can be quite efficient, and run off any heat differential.  For example: Hot air temperature and a cold spring, or a wood stove and cold air outdoors.  They do need the heat differential, or in other words a heat sink, to provide convection and motive power.  They are several generations/styles that have been developed over the years.  I believe they could be made to turn an alternator.  There are many 'do-it-yourself" videos on the net by people from all over the world. Hope that helps! - E.B.


In response to article Some Thoughts on Burning Coal, writer Dale from Vermont:
There are possibilities for building a 12 or 24-volt low voltage direct current system using automotive or aviation industry components and a wonderful little device known as a RhoBoiler, devised by the Rhodesians during the time of economic boycott by the world's bully nations, which drove the Rhodies to greater self-sufficiency. The RhoBoiler varied in design and construction materials [often a former 44-gallon fuel drum] but was in general a low pressure remote boiler from which hot and sometimes pressurized water was supplied.
A recent web search turns up a few descriptions and pictures. An obvious starting place might be a scrapped-out water heater boiler, but obviously, pressure release valves are critical, lest a boiler explosion result. Most of the RhoBoilers were wood burners, given the local availability of wood as a fuel source, but the concept can certainly be adapted to coal-burning and electricity generation as well.


Regards, - George S.

Dale from Vermont wrote about the idea of a coal-fired home generator. Here's a link to a $13,000 steam engine unit. The electrical output isn't specified, but based on the 3 horsepower rating of the steam engine and
assuming about 40% heat-to-electricity efficiency, it might be as much as 1,000 watts - D.B. in Oregon

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Probably the biggest gap in our survival preparations at present is having a good source of energy if we have to stay underground for an extended period. If surface conditions are such that we cannot venture outside, then most likely there will be problems with our photovoltaic panels, solar water heater and hydropower, all of which are above ground. With currently available technology, propane seems to be the only reasonable solution to support heat, hot water, and electricity. Propane can be stored indefinitely and furnaces, stoves and generators that run on propane are readily available. However, storing enough propane underground to support our group for several years would be impractical. I'm also uncomfortable storing large amounts of propane for many years, since it seems inevitable that it will leak eventually, presenting a safety issue as well as a loss of the resource. Most people, including serious preppers, don't plan to rely on propane for more than a few days. For those with solar and hydro solutions that can work without pause for years, a 3-day backup system in the form of propane seems superfluous.

I keep coming back to coal. Like propane, it can be stored forever [if protected from weathering.] (Before it's mined, it's basically being stored indefinitely underground in a mine.) With existing, mature technology, coal can support all the things propane can be used for: heat, hot water and electricity. Unlike propane, there's no danger of leaking, and it's much more practical to store tons and tons of coal underground than it is to use buried propane tanks. There's only one problem: unlike propane, electrical generators that run on coal are not readily available for individual household use. This seems strange, since coal is the number one energy source for electricity generation at the utility scale.

Are you or my fellow readers aware of any practical, reasonably efficient solutions for home electricity generation using coal as an energy source that don't require an engineering degree to implement (if I had the skills I'd just build the generator from scratch myself)? I would be willing to pay a significant amount of money for such a system.

Thanks in advance, and best wishes. - Dale from Vermont

[JWR Replies: When ever wood heat or coal heat are mentioned in the blog, invariably someone will then Thermoelectric generation (TEG) technology . Unfortunately that technology hasn't matured sufficiently to be reliable. Sadly, TEG circuits burn out with alarming regularity. So steam power--at least for now--seems to be the only reliable way to turn heat into electricity. Perhaps some readers would care to chime in with some alternatives.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dear Mr. Rawles,
I have been a daily visitor to your site for about three years now. I want to drop you a line regarding our experience in the big Pacific Northwest ice storm--wit effects still being felt.

I live with my wife in a suburb of Tacoma, part way between the city proper and the farm country. The television and Internet news sites all warned of a "massive" and "record breaking" storm that would move into our area this past Monday. We are on PSE power and have our own water well.

We consider ourselves pretty well prepared (we read your site, right?) so all we did was top off the gas in our vehicles, plus put another 20 gallons into five gallon tanks. We did all our dishes and laundry, unplugged electronics, brought in a mighty heap of firewood, and got out a bunch of candles and hand-crank flashlights and radios. Because we knew we would have no water if the power failed, we filled the bathtub with water to have some extra if our bottled water (both drinkable and non-drinkable "flushing" water) was exhausted.

After getting a foot of snow Tuesday, (which is a lot for around here), on Wednesday the power went out. A one-two punch of cold arctic air and lots of moisture from the Pacific gave us  one nasty storm. Trees loaded with snow fell over left and right, taking out power lines and blocking roads. By Thursday frozen rain put a coating of ice on top of the snow, making driving almost impossible. Temperatures dipped into the mid-twenties but our wood stove kept us nice and toasty. For two and a half days we had no power, water, land line phone, television, or Internet. Not a big deal really, it was actually kind of an adventure since we knew we had the skills and the stuff to go quite a while without any of these things.

We did learn a few things, and spotted some holes in our plan. We could have used a generator but  it was beyond our budget, but I did use an inverter to run some electricity from my truck into the house, enough to recharge cell phones and my laptop, and to run the television to watch a movie. Lesson: get a hand-crank cell phone charger, and generator when we can afford it.

Because there was so much snow and it stayed below freezing for several days, we took most of the stuff from our refrigerator, put it in plastic tubs, and nestled them into the snow on our back deck. We packed snow around them and weighted the lids to keep critters out. Lesson: we should have done this on day one, rather than day two. By waiting we lost a few items and the fridge got stinky. And we had to empty some tubs to use, so next time we will pre-empty them, set them on the deck early in the storm, and transfer food to them sooner.

I went out to my truck to tour the neighborhood, more to see what was happening than anything else. I put on my chains but they rattled like crazy, which didn't sound right. I limped over to the tire place a few miles away, suspecting that the chains were the wrong size, and sure enough, they were. (They did have power but in the case that they were open but had no power, I brought cash. No power means no registers, credit card or check payment, and they might not even be able to make change.) The truck is new to me and I did have chains but I had never put them on. Apparently I bought the wrong size  a few months earlier. Lesson: use your tools! Not just chains but everything. Practice with them before you need it. Stuff without training is just expensive doorstops/paperweights.

After chaining up properly I drove around a bit. Nearly all the traffic lights were out but most people obeyed the treat-a-failed-light-like-a-stop-sign rule, though I did see a few who just ran right through the intersection without stopping at all. About 80% of the area was without power but there would be a few blocks that had juice and boy were they packed. At least a hundred vehicles lined up for gas at the few stations that were open. The one grocery store that had power was absolutely mobbed. I didn't go in because I didn't need anything, but the parking lot was a madhouse of ice, slush, heaps of bulldozed snow, cars parked at crazy angles, and lots of angry people. I can only imagine what it was like inside the store.

Didn't these people know a storm was coming a few days before it got here? It was all over the news, even the national mainstream media talked about it. Many, if not most, of the vehicles had no chains or snow tires and I saw several fender benders and cars stuck in the snow. Some lunatics drove way too fast for conditions, showering other cars and even pedestrians with ice and slush. No cops were anywhere to be seen.

I stopped to help one person but the conversation we had only made me shake my head in bewilderment. This guy wanted fresh coffee and hot food, so he put himself and others at risk because he was unwilling to sit at home and eat from a can and do without his precious coffee. He'd heard the news but disregarded it, he had not stocked up before hand, and was so used to his modern conveniences that the idea of going without them drove him onto roads he had no business on at all.

I have neck and back injuries so I was going to put my health at risk to help numbskulls like that guy, and I reluctantly did not offer anyone else roadside help. It does raise the obvious question: what will it be like during a long-term and/or large scale emergency? What if people like that guy have to go weeks, months, or longer without electricity? Just how long will it take for the helpless, handout-dependent, unprepared general public to turn nasty? Based on what I saw, not very long. - P.P.P.


Dear James:
I am writing to to you on Sunday afternoon. We have been without power since Wednesday at 3 a.m. I live in western Washington.

Most of the contents of our refrigerator are history. My wife is cooking and canning the now thawed frozen meat.

We scored 5 gallons of gasoline from Fort Lewis for our generator. The generator has had problems with fuel starvation from ice and gunk in its fuel line. Had to work on that Saturday and today. Seems to be fixed. We are using the generator to recharge computer batteries and to pump water, running it about two hours a day. Dried some clothes that were in washer Wednesday when power went down.

We have been very well off with kerosene lighting and propane heating. Even so, getting reset for the new day is very tiring in a mad rush to get everything done while generator is running. Believe it or not, we are sustainable. We could go like this indefinitely as long as I can locate gasoline. Having said that, we did not go to church this morning to conserve energy for the day's chores.

I read that Yelm city limits has regained power as of last night. Hopefully we can buy gas there. Here in the hinterboonies we may not see power service again until Wednesday evening.

A new wind storm is blowing in Sunday, which may worsen an already rough situation. At it's peak there were 3/4 million people without power. This was the ice storm that kept on giving, and many people were without heat.

We are blessed and thankful for what has worked, and are on notice for what has not. Next time we will be in even better shape. I'm thinking that we will switch to propane refrigeration and diesel powered cars/generator with a 250 gallon diesel storage tank. It's now on the list. I am online right now thanks to the generator.

This isn't just a how are we doing letter. I'm writing this to show you the value of all the preps we have done over the years. I wear my tin foil hat with pride. Some, if they were with us might say "You guys are weird," then in the next breath ask if there is any hot coffee left. My wife is running both ovens at the moment (they were imported from Italy). Try that with a glow bar start oven--which is presently all you can buy in the states.

Signing off until generator run time Monday. - D.&D.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In the words of the fictional character Jeff Trasel from the novel "Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse": “If you don’t have Com, you don’t have jaaack“. The subject of radio communications as it relates to Prepping is an often misunderstood topic. Understanding radio communications issues can also be confusing, complicated, and daunting for the newcomer. There is a lot to know about the subject, and speaking as one that has spent a good part of his life experimenting with radio communications, it seems that the more I learn about radio communications, the more I learn how much I have to learn! In this article I would like to share much of the information that I have gleaned about radio communications technology and it’s applications. I will attempt to present this article in a way that the reader can glean real world applications, and in a way that it is easy to understand for the novice.

Before delving into any technical issues about radio, one must establish what it is that one wants and needs their communications systems to accomplish. Communications is yet another area where rule 6-P applies; that is, “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance“. Proper planning is absolutely crucial to accomplishing your communications related goals. Communications equipment can be somewhat costly, depending on what it is designed to do. The main question one must ask when planning a crisis communications system is, “What is it exactly that I want my crisis communications system to accomplish?” Crisis communications planning must be approached from a system wide mindset and not a compartmentalized mindset. This means you have think of the big picture and you must be cognizant of how all the pieces of your communications plan fit together before you start buying equipment This will allow you to better utilize your limited resources as it relates to what equipment you will buy and how you will use it. It will also prevent significant headaches later on.

Although there are plenty of arguments pro and con in the “preparedness” world about this, I would advise anyone that is serious about establishing a crisis communications system to consider becoming a licensed Amateur Radio operator. Communications equipment is like any other preparedness related equipment. If it is purchased and then left in a box until needed, it will not work as intended at the moment of truth. Becoming a skillful radio technician and communicator is an on-going process. This is true whether you go down the Amateur Radio road or not. You must know the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of your equipment. If you don’t, then you can’t reasonably expect to know how to use the equipment under less than ideal circumstances. I use the following illustration to make the point. In our county, the local health department recently had several of it’s employees take a “Ham Cram” class and they received a Technician Class Amateur Radio license. The health center also received Amateur Radio equipment through federal and state grant funding. The reality is, even though several of the employees are licensed Amateurs, the equipment does not get utilized because none of the employees have truly applied themselves to learning the “hands on” and “how to” of Amateur Radio. This shows that just because one has a license to do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one is proficient at the task which one is licensed for. Once you decide what it is you want to accomplish, then it’s time to consider your options. The first options I will discuss are those which are available to be purchased and used by anyone and that does not require a license to operate. Then I will delve into what Amateur Radio can do for your crisis communications plan.

The first option I will discuss is a system know as the Family Radio Service (FRS) . It consists of fourteen Ultra High Frequency (UHF) frequencies. FRS radios are limited to an output power of 0.5 watt, and can be purchased at a low price from many retailers. The low power output means that the range of these radios are limited. One advantage is that FRS radios use FM modulation as opposed to AM. This means that FRS frequencies are not as susceptible to noise or interference from power lines, as can be seen with handheld Citizens Band (CB) radio which will be discussed later. Another possible advantage to FRS radios and UHF signals in general is that they often perform better in urban environments. This is because signals in the UHF frequency range penetrate buildings better than signals in other frequency bands. FRS channels 1 through 7 are shared with the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), channels 8 through 14 are for FRS use only, and channels 15 to 22 are for GMRS use only. This is why most FRS radios are pre-programmed with 22 channels. The GMRS only channels should not be used unless you possess a GMRS license. GMRS will be discussed later.

There are many practical uses for FRS, and it can be used in situations where one needs non-secure voice communications over an area of five miles or less. You should only expect FRS to work reliably for approximately 1 to 2 miles. The range will depend greatly upon the surrounding terrain, because propagation of radio waves in the UHF frequency range is limited to line of sight. This means that the radio wave will only travel as far as the horizon. I will also discuss line of sight in depth later in this article. One drawback to FRS is that is a very popular system, and there will be many other people sharing a very limited pool of frequencies. Many manufactures of FRS radios will tout “privacy” features on their radios. Do no misunderstand what they are talking about here. The “privacy” features do not encrypt or make your communications secure in any way. These features utilize a combination of Digital Coded Squelch (DCS) and Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) techniques. I know that sounds very technical, but think of it in this way. If you activate DCS or CTCSS, then the only time the squelch of your radio will open (this means you will hear audio coming from the speaker) , is when the radio transmitting the signal is transmitting the same code that you have programmed your radio to receive. Because of this, there may be someone else operating on your frequency, but if they do not have the proper transmit tone programmed, then you will not hear them. DCS or CTCSS do not change the fact that FM receivers by their design will always “capture” the strongest signal. This is known as the “capture effect”. This means that the strongest of any two or more signals will override weaker signals in the receiver. DCS or CTCSS allows you to reduce the amount of frivolous traffic that you will hear on the radio, but it in no way makes your communications secure or private. Anyone with a programmable scanner receiver or an FRS radio will be able to eaves drop on your communications.

Also, remember that is always possible that organized adversaries may utilize FRS radio equipment to coordinate their attacks, assaults, and other activities. In the event of a crisis, it would be of great value to have the ability to constantly monitor the FRS channels for this type of activity. Obtaining this communications intelligence (COMINT) could keep you and your family safe and could give you the early warning you need to prepare for an imminent an assault. For reference the FRS frequency table is as follows, expressed in MegaHertz (MHz):

CH 1 462.5625 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 2 462.5875 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 3 462.6125 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 4 462.6375 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 5 462.6625 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 6 462.6875 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 7 462.7125 (Shared with GMRS)
CH 8 467.5625 (FRS only)
CH 9 467.5875 (FRS only)
CH10 467.6125 (FRS only)
CH11 467.6375 (FRS only)
CH 12 467.6625 (FRS only)
CH 13 467.6875 (FRS only)
CH 14 467.7125 (FRS only)
CH 15 462.550 (GMRS only)
CH 16 462.575 (GMRS only)
CH 17 462.600 (GMRS only)
CH 18 462.625 (GMRS only)
CH 19 462.650 (GMRS only)
CH 20 462.675 (GMRS only)
CH 21 462.700 (GMRS only)
CH 22 462.725 (GMRS only)

The Multiple Use Radio Service (MURS) is another communications system that can be used by individuals and which requires no license to operate. MURS is similar to FRS in operation but MURS frequencies are in the Very High Frequency (VHF) band. MURS radios operate at a maximum output power of 2 watts. This is slightly higher than FRS radios which are limited to 0.5 watts. MURS radios can be purchased through many different on line retailers and communication equipment suppliers. The effective range of MURS radios is similar to FRS radios and depending upon terrain, will typically range from 1 to 5 miles for hand held units. In urban areas this may be decreased due to the types and number of structures in the area. This is because VHF signals don’t penetrate buildings and structures as well as UHF signals. MURS range may be increased in some rural areas because signals in the VHF frequency range tend to propagate better over open, flat terrain. It should be noted that VHF signals from MURS radios are subject to the same limitation as UHF signals from FRS and GMRS, in that they are line of sight, and the signals will only travel as far as the antenna can “see”. One advantage to MURS is that you are allowed to use external gain antennas with MURS frequencies. An externally mounted, elevated antenna will improve the performance and range of most any radio because of the “line of sight” principle. Logic dictates that the higher the antenna is, the further it can “see”. The legal antenna height for MURS is limited to no more than 60 feet above ground, or no more than 20 feet above the structure that it is mounted on. An external gain antenna is of great benefit to the performance of most types of transmitters and receivers, not just MURS radios. (A transmitter is any radio that sends out or “transmits” a signal and a receiver is any radio that “receives” or picks up a signal.) Also, “antenna gain” is a term that describes how well an antenna performs. The higher the gain, the better the performance.

It should also be noted that some driveway monitors, including those made by “Dakota Alert” use MURS frequencies. The advantage to this arrangement is that you can carry a MURS portable radio on your person while you are out working around your retreat, and you can receive alerts from the driveway alarm. Some of these MURS based driveway alarms include a push to talk (PTT) base station for your home, which means that not only can the indoor base receive the driveway alerts, but a person inside the house can transmit from the base station and have communications with another person carrying a MURS portable radio. As with FRS, possible adversaries may use MURS equipment to coordinate their activities, so it is worthwhile to monitor these frequencies for COMINT. The MURS frequency table is as follows, expressed in MegaHertz (MHz):

151.820 (FM narrow mode)
151.880 (FM narrow mode)
151.940 (FM narrow mode)
154.570 (FM wide mode, shared with business band)
154.600 (FM wide mode, shared with business band)

The next communications system I will discuss is the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio. CB radio has been in existence since the late 1950s, and now consists of 40 pre-programmed channels in the 27 MHz band. CB radio has some limitations that, in the opinion of the author, make it a poor choice as a survival related communications tool. CB radio has many things that work against it. CB is limited to 4 watts of output power. CBs also operate in the Amplitude Modulation (AM) mode. AM modulation, in conjunction with CB’s place at the top end of the High Frequency (HF) radio spectrum, makes it very susceptible to interference from power lines and other sources. Try a real world test to prove this point. The next time you are driving underneath high voltage power lines, tune the AM radio in your car to an unoccupied frequency. You will hear a great deal of noise that comes over the speakers of your car radio. Now tune it over to a vacant FM frequency. You will not hear the line noise. This same phenomenon affects CB radio and greatly limits it’s utility, especially in cities, towns, and urban areas where high voltage lines are present. The low transmit output power also severely limit’s the distance that a CB signal will travel. Some CB radios utilize “side-band” technology. This means that the radio takes a standard AM signal and divides it into two halves, upper and lower sideband. This allows slightly more power to be used to create the voice signal. This single sideband (SSB) mode can be selected by a knob on properly equipped CBs, tuning to either Upper Side band (USB) or Lower Side band (LSB). Sideband technology does increase the output power of a CB, but only to about 12 watts PEP (peak envelope power).

A decent antenna will improve CB performance whether it is installed in a vehicle as a mobile installation or as a base station inside a structure with which you can utilize external gain antennas. CB can work well in point to point simplex applications (such as one retreat communicating with another on a direct frequency), but there are better solutions for base to base communications to be found in the realm of Amateur Radio. One advantage to CB is that he radios typically operate of 12 volts DC, which makes it more practical to provide back up power. A deep cycle battery or other 12 volt DC system can provide this power. Amateur radio gear that will be discussed later also runs on 12 volts DC. You can easily install a CB base station at your retreat by connecting a mobile CB radio to a 12 volt DC power supply. The key to effective CB base station installation is to get the antenna up in the air as high as possible. Most of the time, radio waves in the 27 MHz propagate effectively as ground waves. This means that once again, the waves travel “line of sight”. However, at some points in the 11 year solar cycle, the Maximum Usable Frequency of the Ionosphere (more on that later in the Amateur Radio section) will increase to the point where to 27 MHz signals can propagate across the country and even across the world while using very low power levels. This can be fun to “shoot skip” as the CB’ers say but in reality 27 MHz skywave is not very reliable, so 27 MHz signals can only be depended on to function “line of sight” with regular reliability.

Another advantage to CB use is that is very widespread and having CB radio capability promotes interoperability with others. This could be very useful during a bug out when traveling on roadways and you are in need of information. As most red-blooded American’s know, CB is widely used in the trucking industry and those trucks can be treasure trove of useful information. For that reason, even though I don’t rely solely upon CB for my crisis communications plan, I do always have CB equipment available for use if needed. As with the other equipment mentioned earlier, CB is easily monitored and intercepted. This means your communications are not secure and an adversary using CB radio could use it against your retreat. Also note that there are several CB channels available for “remote control” purposes. These are intended to be used for RC aircraft, cars, etc. Under normal circumstances, I would certainly obey these restrictions but if needed, and if the user had the proper equipment, these channels could provide the user with less congested frequencies to conduct voice communications. CB frequencies can also be monitored by some programmable scanner receivers. The CB frequency table is included below for your reference, expressed in MHz:

CH 1 26.965
CH 2 26.975
CH 3 26.985
CH 4 27.005
CH 5 27.015
CH 6 27.025
CH 7 27.035
CH 8 27.055
CH 9 27.065
CH 10 27.075
CH 11 27.085
CH 12 27.105
CH 13 27.115
CH 14 27.125
CH 15 27.135
CH 16 27.155
CH 17 27.165
CH 18 27.175
CH 19 27.185
CH 20 27.205
CH 21 27.215
CH 22 27.225
CH 23 27.255
CH 24 27.235
CH 25 27.245
CH 26 27.265
CH 27 27.275
CH 28 27.285
CH 29 27.295
CH 30 27.305
CH 31 27.315
CH 32 27.325
CH 33 27.335
CH 34 27.345
CH 35 27.355
CH 36 27.365
CH 37 27.375
CH 38 27.385
CH 39 27.395
CH 40 27.405

CB Remote Control Channels

Amateur Radio

The next section we will discuss is Amateur Radio. Amateur Radio is, in the opinion of the author, the most viable form of communications for a crisis. I say this because all of the communications systems discussed up to this point are fixed in nature and are not designed to be flexible. These radios use only pre-programmed, non-tunable channels. They are designed to be used by untrained, unlicensed individuals and they are designed in a way that will limit there effective range so as to prevent harmful interference to other untrained, unlicensed users. Amateur radio on the other hand is just the opposite. It is flexible by nature, and for many reasons.
Amateur Radio (otherwise known as Ham Radio) has been around for almost 100 years and consists of many different frequency bands ranging from 1.8 MHz to 1240 MHz. Amateur Radio operators are licensed in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To be an Amateur Radio operator, one must pass a written multiple choice test which consists of different elements such as operating rules, electronic theory, radio frequency energy (RF) safety, antenna theory, and others. There are three levels of Amateur Radio license in the U.S. and they are Technician Class the entry level license), General Class ( an intermediate license) and Extra Class (the highest level of license). Many folks I have spoken with over the years have told me that they didn’t want to get involved with Amateur Radio because they didn’t want to learn Morse Code. The reality is that Morse code proficiency is no longer required to obtain an Amateur Radio license and hasn’t been for several years.

Obtaining an Amateur Radio license has never been easier. License exams are administered by volunteers with an FCC approved Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC). Most communities are within an easy car trip of a testing location. The cost is very low and once you obtain the license, you renew it every 10 years at no cost. You can find a testing site near you by going to this web page. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the America’s national association for Amateur Radio and you can explore their informational web site at ARRL.org . The questions and answers to the tests are published in pools that are updated every three years. As such it is very easy to study for these tests because you already have access to all of the possible questions and answers before the test. The VEC’s must select questions only from this pool so, it’s not a subjective test. There is ample study material available at w5yi.org and other internet sources. This includes study manuals and study software. I’m not giving anybody a plug here but I can tell you that the Gordon West study manuals that are available at w5yi.org are great material to use, and they helped me pass all of my exams easily. Amateur Radio equipment can be found at reasonable prices on the Internet (such as eBay), from other Amateurs, or at local “Hamfests”, which are swap meet for Amateur Radio gear. Find a local Amateur to help you out. We are a helpful bunch and will bend over backwards to get someone into the hobby and look forward to "Elmering" (mentoring) someone.

To get started in Amateur Radio, the first test you need to take is the Technician Class test. This test consists of a 35 question multiple choice test. After passing this test, and after you receive your first callsign from the FCC, you will have operating privileges on all Amateur Radio bands from 6 Meters (50 MHz) and up. This will provide you with access to the entire VHF and UHF amateur frequency bands. The propagation characteristics (meaning how radio waves travel) of these frequency bands can allow you to communicate both locally and regionally (out to about 50 miles, depending on system configuration). Frequency bands differ from “channels” in that “channels” (as applied to FRS, GMRS, MURS, CB) are pre-set and synthesized meaning that you can’t change the frequency. This means that you will have a lot of stations competing for a very limited amount of radio spectrum. With Amateur Radio however, the user selects the operating frequency and there is much more spectrum space available to carry out interference free communications. The two most commonly used bands available to Technician Class licensees are the 2 Meter band (144 to 148 MHz) and the 70 cm band (420-450 MHz). The Technician Class will also give you limited voice operating privileges on the 10 Meter HF band from 28.300 to 28.500 MHz. The 10 Meter band is at the highest portion of the High Frequency (HF) amateur bands. This means you will give you a taste of what HF radio is all about. 10 Meters propagates very similar to CB radio so you will only be able to communicate over long distances beyond line of sight when propagation conditions are favorable.

The second license available is the General Class license. This test consists of 35 multiple choice questions. There are many advantages to pursuing the General class upgrade after you pass the Technician test. Amateur Radio licenses build on one another, so when you upgrade to the next license class, you retain all of the privileges that you have previously earned and then receive more. The biggest advantage to the General class license is that it gives you much broader access to the High Frequency (HF) bands. The General class license will give you operating privileges on every Amateur band, whereas the Technician license limits your activities as an incentive for you to upgrade your license. The HF bands allow you to communicate locally, regionally, nationally, and even worldwide when the geomagnetic ionospheric conditions are favorable. More on those conditions later.
The third and final class of Amateur Radio license is the Extra Class license. This test consists of 50 multiple choice questions. The Extra Class is highest level of Amateur Radio license issued buy the FCC. The only advantage to earning the Extra Class license is that it gives one additional slivers of access to some of the HF bands. Your level of interest in furthering your expertise and study is what will motivate you to seek the Extra Class license or not. I know many amateurs who have been a General for many years and they have seen no need to upgrade. I have met others who challenged and took all three license exams and passed on the same day! [JWR Adds: And when you pay the day's test fee ( $15) that covers all of the tests that you take on that day.] So it really depends on one’s personal motivations as to whether one pursues this goal.

Band Allocation

I will now provide a description of each of the most commonly utilized Amateur Radio bands and equipment and how they can be utilized in communications planning. Before talking about the bands, one must have a grasp of a few basic concepts and terms. First, the designation “meter” as it applies to the description of radio bands is the measurement in meters between the peaks of the radio waves at a given frequency. Think of it this way. Radio waves, if they could be seen with the naked eye, would appear much as waves in the ocean do. They have peaks and lulls at timed intervals. The “meter band” measurement is the measurement between the middle of the peak of one wave and the middle of the peak of the following or preceding wave in meters (or centimeters in some cases) at a given frequency.

The second concept one must understand is antenna resonance. When an antenna is resonant, that means that the antenna absorbs and thereby radiates most all of the Radio frequency (RF) energy that is applied to it. If the antenna is not resonant, it will reflect a given portion of the power applied to it back to the transmitter. The amount of reflected power will be proportional to just how far out of resonance the antenna is. The amount of power reflected back as compared to the amount of forward power applied is known as the Standing Wave Ratio (SWR). Typically, an SWR of greater than 2:1 indicates antenna inefficiency and may the reflected power may damage your transmitter. An antenna analyzer is very helpful in attaining antenna resonance but is a very costly piece of equipment and is out of the price range of most Amateurs, and the theories of inductance and capacitance as they effect antenna tuning are way beyond the scope of a small article. A good rule of thumb to remember is that the lower one goes in operating frequency, the larger the antennas become due to the unchangeable laws of physics. But fear not, there are many things you can do to get a good signal on the air, which will also be discussed.

The third concept one must understand is the concept of radio wave propagation. Propagation is simply the method by which a radio wave travels from point A to Point B. There are two major ways that radio waves propagate. The first is by “line of sight” as discussed earlier. Line of sight means that the radio wave will only travel as far as the antenna can electrically “see:” This is typically the distance to the visual horizon plus about 15%. There are two very simple formulas for calculating line of sight which I have found to be very useful in determining how far a radio signal will travel. They are:

Radio Line of Sight:
D= approximate distance to radio horizon in miles
Hr= height of receive antenna in feet
Ht= height of transmit antenna in feet

Visual Line of sight:
Approximate distance in miles= 1.33 X v (height in feet)

Another quick reference table regarding radio line of sight that may be useful:
Range=approximate radio range in miles
TX Ant. Height= height of transmitting antenna in feet
RX Ant. Height= height of receiving antenna in feet
Range TX Ant. Height RX Ant. Height TX Ant. Height Range
8 10 5.5 150 21
10 20 5.5 200 23
11 30 5.5 300 28
12 40 5.5 400 32
13 50 5.5 500 35
16 75 5.5 750 42
17 100 5.5 1000 48

The second mode of propagation is by “Skywave”. This concept is a bit more complex but with time and experience, one can get a pretty good grasp as to how skywave will behave on certain bands, at certain times of the year, and at certain times in the sunspot cycle. Skywave involves HF radio waves (which are frequencies of 3 to30 MHz) being sent up and then reflected back to the Earth’s surface by the Ionosphere at distances of hundreds or thousands of miles away. Skywave propagation is made possible thanks to the Ionosphere. The Ionosphere several layers of electrically charged particles that range from about 30 to 600 miles above the earth’s surface. It is comprised of several layers including D, E, F, F1 and F2. The D layer ranges from about 35 to 55 miles above the surface. The D layer is an enemy to skywave propagation but fortunately it is only in existence during the day and it vanishes at night. The D layer does nothing to reflect signals, but it will absorb and attenuate daytime signals, especially in the 160, 80, 75, 60, and 40 Meter Amateur bands. It is often known to Amateurs as “That Dang D”. The E layer ranges from 55 to 75 miles above the surface. The E layer is an occasional player in skywave propagation and can reflect signals back to Earth at distances of several thousand miles under proper conditions. E layer skywave propagation is often sporadic in nature, and can effect frequencies that are well above the HF part of the spectrum. The F1 and F2 layers exist only in the daytime (like the D layer). At night, the F1 and F2 layer combine to form the F layer. The F layer in it’s various forms ranges from 125 to 300 miles above the surface. The F layer is responsible for most reliable skywave communications.

The Ionosphere is “ionized” by Ultraviolet (UV) rays and X-Ray radiation from the sun. The sun goes through stages of activity and inactivity that waxes and wanes over an 11 year period. This means that the amount of radiation from the sun goes up and down, and that in turn effects the Ionosphere. The rule of thumb is that as more sunspots, (which are dark and comparatively cool areas) develop on the visible surface of the sun, the more ionizing radiation the sun emits. This means that sky wave propagation is usually enhanced due to increased ionization in the Ionosphere. Increased solar activity is a double edged sword however, and during solar flares, which are sudden, large emissions of solar radiation, HF communications can be adversely affected to the point where HF radio is blacked out and unusable. This occurs because of disruptions in the Ionosphere as well as in the earths magnetic field, which also plays a role in skywave propagation. As most Preppers know, severe solar flares can induce huge currents in the power grid which could cause severe damage and in turn lead to power outages that could last for years in the worst case scenario, such as the Carrington Event of 1859.

A good understanding of Ionospheric and Geomagnetic activity is a must for any serious user of HF radio. The term Geomagnetic refers to the relationship between the Earth and it’s magnetic field, which is mostly concentrated at the poles. There is ample information available to HF radio users that can allow one to reasonably predict what sky wave propagation will be doing at a given frequency at a given time. There are four measurements that can be used to make this estimation. These measurements are the A index, the K index, the Solar Flux Index (SFI) and the Sunspot number. The A index is a general measurement of activity in the Earth’s magnetic field over the past 24 hours and indicates an average trend of geomagnetic activity. The K index indicates the nearly real time level of disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field, as observed at observatories around the globe and then averaged. The K index is generally updated at three hour increments. The rule of thumb is that the higher the A and K indices are, the more disturbed the magnetic field is. This means that HF communications may be degraded, especially at higher latitudes and over the poles. The Solar Flux Index is a measurement of radio energy that is being emitted from the sun at 2800 MHz (10.7 cm wavelength). The higher the solar flux, the higher the level of ionizing radiation being emitted from the sun. This usually means that HF communications will be enhanced, because the Ionosphere is receiving more ionizing radiation. The last measurement is the Sunspot number. This is a simple method which indicates the number of dark spots that are visible on the sun’s surface. The more sunspots that are visible, the more ionizing radiation that the sun emits. What does it all mean? It means that you want to see a low A index, a low K index, a high Solar Flux Index and a high sunspot number for good HF propagation. If the A and K index are high, HF communications may be disrupted. If the SFI and sunspot numbers are low, it means that most of the higher HF frequencies will not be usable for sky wave. These current indices can be found at www.solarham.com .

This all brings me to the next concept that one must understand about HF radio and radio waves in general. It is the concept of Maximum Usable Frequency (MUF). MUF is the maximum frequency at which, at any given time, the Ionosphere will refract a radio wave back to the earth’s surface. The MUF will change with the seasons, the time of day, and the point of the sunspot cycle. The east majority of the time, the MUF is 30 MHz or below. This is why VHF and UHF radio waves are line of sight. Any VHF or UHF waves that get transmitted up into the Ionosphere are not reflected back to Earth and pass into space. This is why if you want to have access to transmit on frequencies that will reliably propagate over long distances (greater than about 50 miles most cases), you will need to have an HF radio station. There are exceptions to this but it usually involves Sporadic E layer propagation as mentioned above, which is an unstable and fleeting form of propagation. It can be fun to work this type of propagation during normal times but don’t count on it to work as a part of your crisis communications plan. There also other Amateur Radio systems other than HF that you can use to communicate over long distances (such as EchoLink), but these typically rely on the Internet infrastructure which most Preppers are at pains not to do.

The first individual band to be discussed is the 160 Meter band or commonly known as “Top Band“ to Amateurs. This band ranges from 1.8 to 2.0 MHz and is the lowest amateur band and is in the MF (Medium Frequency) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The typical operating mode for 160 Meters is Lower Side Band (LSB). The propagation characteristics of the 160 Meter band are usually similar to what you would expect from a broadcast AM radio station. Note that the 160 Meter Amateur band is located just above the AM broadcast band which runs from about 510 KHz to 1.710 MHz. The 160 Meter band is not utilized by most Amateurs because the antennas for 160 Meters are typically very large for the reasons of antenna resonance described above. Like most Amateur bands, 160 Meters has quirky propagation characteristics at times, and it changes with the seasons and sunspot cycle. 160 Meters is greatly affected by D layer absorption and is nearly unusable during the daytime hours during the summer, but can propagate great distances at night during the winter. 160 meters also suffers from a high atmospheric noise level at times. Another great rule of thumb to remember is that the lower one goes in operating frequency, the higher the atmospheric noise levels become. Atmospheric noise is also generated by lightning and thunderstorms to the point where MF and HF can be become unusable due to static crashes.

The next band is the 80 and 75 meter bands. Those two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The 75/80 Meter band ranges from 3.5 to 4.0 MHz and the default voice communications mode is Lower Side Band. This band will be of potentially great use to the Prepper. 75/80 Meters has the ability to communicate regionally, beyond the range of typical VHF and UHF systems which will be discussed later. 75/80 fills a unique gap in HF coverage, and can provide statewide communications. This is where most statewide emergency communications “nets” take place. Groups such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and state Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) conduct most statewide HF operations in this band. It has been said that most disasters are local and regional in nature. This makes 75/80 very useful because of it’s propagation characteristics.
The best propagation mode for the Prepper on this band is to use Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS). This involves the counter intuitive placement of an antenna that is very close the ground, within about 8 feet or so. It needs to be just high enough that people or animals cannot touch it. This proximity to the ground causes the radiated energy to ascend towards the Ionosphere at a very steep angle. This means that when the waves are reflected back to earth, they are also returned at a very steep angle. This makes the coverage pattern of an NVIS antenna to be much closer to the transmitting station, typically within a range of 25 to 300 miles. This makes it the perfect choice for a Prepper that wants regional communications. There is information later in the article about how to build an easy and inexpensive dipole antenna for 75/80 that can be configured for NVIS. 75/80 typically covers out to about 200 miles during the day, but can extend out several thousand miles at night when the D layer and its associated absorption disappears. 75/80 is very susceptible to D layer absorption during local daylight hours. 75/80 also suffers from higher noise levels during the day, especially during the summer months.

The next band is 60 Meters. This band is unique in that it is the only Amateur band that is channelized. The center frequencies for 60 Meters are 5332, 5348, 5368, 5358.5, 5373, and 5405 kHz. These are center frequencies and not the dial frequency that will be displayed on the display of an HF radio. The corresponding dial frequencies are 5330.5, 5346.5,5357.0,5371.5, and 5403.5 kHz. The channel width is limited to 2.8 kHz in the Upper Side Band mode. This band is allocated to the Amateur Radio service on a Secondary basis only, and the Primary users are typically federal government users. Secondary users must always yield to Primary users. Power on this band is currently limited to 100 watts Peak Envelope Power (PEP) into a half wave dipole antenna (whose construction is described later in this article). Most amateur radios do not have the ability to transmit in this band without modifications. 60 Meters is useful in that it fills a propagation gap between the 75/80 Meter and the 40 Meter bands. 60 Meters does not suffer from as much atmospheric noise as 75/80 Meters but 60 Meters is still susceptible to D layer absorption. NVIS antennas may also be used effectively on 60 Meters, and it useful for communications within the same state and with surrounding states. The main problem is that not very many Amateurs are on the air on 60 Meters.

The next band is the 40 Meter band, which covers 7.0 to 7.3 MHz. The default voice operating mode is Lower Side Band. 40 meters is typically the highest frequency amateur band that can be used for effectively for regional communications. 40 Meters differs from 75/80 Meters and 60 Meters in that it’s regional range usually extends from about 200 to 500 miles during the day and extends to several thousand miles at night. 40 Meters is typically better than 75/80 Meters for communications with states in the same general region of the country. This makes 40 Meters a good regional band but not necessarily a good band for statewide communications. A disadvantage to 40 Meters is that it is still shared with international broadcast stations in some parts of the world, especially above 7.2 MHz. The international stations don’t usually cause a problem during the day due to the D layer but they are the bane of 40 Meter operations at night.

The next band is the 30 Meter band., which ranges from 10.1 to 10.15 MHz. 30 Meters is different from the previously mentioned bands in that it is limited to the use of digital communications modes only. PEP is limited to 200 watts. Voice communications are not allowed on this band. Digital communications can be as simple as the old stand by Morse Code and as advanced as modern software suites which allow users to interconnect radios with computers and then send and receive data packets over the air. There are many digital modes that can be used on Amateur Radio bands. The advantages to digital modes is that you can send and receive large amounts of data faster than it can be relayed by voice. Digital modes are also very useful in situations where signals are very weak and voice communications cannot be established. There are many inexpensive digital interfaces available to connect radios to computers, and most of the software is freeware or available at a very reasonable cost. Digital modes are not restricted to just 30 meters and they can be used on the other amateur bands as well. Another advantage to digital modes is that while they are not considered encryption (because of open, public source protocols), they can defeat the very casual listener that doesn’t have the proper receive equipment. 30 Meters can propagate regionally, nationally and world wide depending upon the propagation conditions.

The next band is the 20 meter band which ranges from 14.0 to 14.35 MHz. The default voice operating mode is Upper Side Band. 20 Meters is what some Amateurs refer to as the “work horse band” because of it‘s useful propagation qualities. There are many types of operations that take place on this band, including a great deal of “nets”. Nets are formal on the air gatherings of Amateurs for different purposes. 20 Meters is generally open year round and typically only closes down at night as the MUF due to de-ionization of the Ionosphere. 20 Meter propagation is generally nation wide in nature, but it will occasionally propagate regionally on shorter skywave hops. Depending on how far away the station is that you need to establish communications, 20 Meters may be a good bet. I know Amateurs that maintain 20 meter contact schedules with other stations that are located on opposite ends of the country. 20 Meters does not suffer from D layer absorption as the lower bands do, and atmospheric noise levels on 20 are typically low except during thunderstorms. This makes 20 Meters an all around good band for talking with friends across the country.

The other HF bands I will group together. They are:
17 Meters from 18.068 to 18.168 MHz
15 Meters from 21.0 to 21.450 MHz
12 Meters from 24.890 to 24.990 MHz
10 Meters from 28.0 to 29.7 MHz

These bands are useful for nation wide and world wide propagation depending upon the solar and geomagnetic conditions. The default voice operating mode for these bands is Upper Side Band. I would point out that 10 Meters is a very large band and it is the only HF amateur band that allows Frequency Modulation (FM) operations. This is allowed from 29.6 to 29.7 MHz. This is because FM transmissions are wider than Single Side Band (SSB) signals so they require more space (bandwidth). 10 Meters is a big enough band to allow for the increased bandwidths. FM is an advantage over AM and even SSB in that it is not as susceptible to line noise interference from power lines. 10 Meter FM would be a decent choice for point to point simplex communications between retreats. 10 Meter ground wave propagation behaves very similar to Citizens Band propagation because the frequencies in which they operate are very close together. This also an advantage because some CB antennas can be re-tuned for use on the 10 Meter band. Digital modes are also allowed on these bands.
Here’s great HF radio hands on skill. You can build a simple HF wire dipole antenna at very low cost and with just a few parts. You will need some copper antenna wire (preferably with a steel core for strength), and three insulators (which can be made from ceramic, plastic, glass or even wood) . The insulators need to be at least 3 inches in length. You will also need a length of 50 Ohm coaxial cable (such as RG8) with the appropriate connector for your radio. This is typically a type PL-259 in most Amateur Radio applications. You will also need some rope to support the antenna, as well as a soldering iron and electronics solder to make all of the connections permanent.

Just follow the following steps, using the formula:
I=dipole antenna length in feet
f= the intended operating frequency in MHz.

This gives you the overall length that your wire antenna needs to be. Then, divide this number by 2 and cut two pieces of wire to this length. Place an insulator between the two pieces of wire. This will be the center insulator. It is usually best to drill a hole in each end of the insulator, and then wrap the antenna wire through the hole, wrap the free end around the antenna a few times within an inch or two of the center insulator, and solder the connections. Do this on each side of the insulator, so that you have one end of each of the two equal length wires attached to the center insulator. Then place an insulator on each end of the two wires using the same procedure. Then go back to the center insulator and strip the outer jacket off of your 50 ohm cable to a length of a few inches (dependent on the length of your insulator). Then separate the outer shield from the center conductor, making certain that the two do not contact one another. Then solder the center conductor (stripped of insulation) to one leg of the dipole at the center insulator and solder the shield to the other side of the dipole, also at the center insulator. Then you will want to attach the coax to the center insulator using a heavy wire tie or other strong attachment to reduce stress on the insulator connections to keep them from breaking in the elements. Then you can tie of the ends and center insulator of the dipole to trees or other similar elevated structures. Route the cable and connector to your radio and test with an SWR bridge. An SWR of 2:1 or less should be adequate for most radios. Many modern HF radios already have a SWR bride built in. You may need to slightly lengthen or shorten the antenna to get it to resonance. This is a very inexpensive and easy way to build an HF dipole antenna. I have made several of these, one for each amateur band from 80 to 10 meters, and I keep them in my crisis communications kit for immediate set up and use. You can read a great article about this project at http://www.ehow.com/how_6002278_build-dipole-antenna-hf.html .

Then next band is the 6 Meter band, from 50 to 54 MHz. as a Technician Class licensee, a new ham would have full access to this band and all others above it. 6 Meters propagates mostly ground wave and there are many FM repeaters in this band. More on repeater operations in the 2 meter and 70 cm band descriptions. SSB is widely used on 6 Meters, and it occasionally will propagate via sky wave via the E layer of the ionosphere. Skywave on 6 Meters is not reliable but is an interesting mode to work distant or “DX” stations on. 6 Meters is in the VHF low part of the spectrum, and signals in this frequency range tend to propagate further via ground wave than other frequencies that are above or below it. It is no coincidence that many state police agencies have used VHF Low for the last 60 years. It is because of VHF Low signals propagate better over large, rural areas than VHF High or UHF frequencies do. If you wanted to communicate via simplex ground wave with another retreat, this would be the most ideal band.

The next band is the 2 Meter band from 144 to 148 MHz. 2 Meters is quite possibly the most popular and widely used band, and FM is the most common mode. There are many repeaters in the 2 Meter band. A repeater is a station is installed at an elevated point, typically on a large communications tower or on top of a building or mountain. A repeater uses two frequencies simultaneously. The repeater receives on an input frequency, amplifies the signal to higher power, and retransmits it from the elevated antenna on an output frequency. This allows two stations that would otherwise be unable to communicate due to Line of Sight problems to establish communications. Other communications options on 2 Meters are the use of “simplex” frequencies. This just means transmitting directly from one station to another on the same frequency without use of repeaters. It’s the same principle as voice operations on the of the bands that don’t allow use of repeaters. There are also SSB operations on 2 meters, and digital operations are allowed at higher throughput rates. This means you can send more data, faster. This is because the band is larger and there is more spectrum available. There are thousands of 2 Meter repeaters in operation across the country. Some of them have back up power sources, some do not. It is the recommendation of the author that you not rely on repeaters in your crisis communications plan. This is because the repeaters may become congested with radio traffic or there power may fail in a crisis situation. Always have plan to establish simplex communications with your family, friends, and your retreat, without relying on a repeater if at all possible.

The next band is the 70 cm band from 420 to 450 MHz. The most common operating mode is FM, but there extensive digital and Amateur Television (ATV) operations in this band. Yes, you can actually transmit “Ham TV”! There are many repeaters on the air in this band, especially in urban areas. 70 cm performs well in urban areas because UHF radio waves tend to penetrate buildings and structures better that frequencies in other ranges. Simplex operations are also common on 70 cm. 70cm is widely used as a “backbone” band for linked repeaters. Some repeater operators have linked their systems together so that in some cases, one can communicate statewide on a VHF or UHF repeater. 70 cm is often used to relay this link data. Both 2 Meters an 70 cm are often used in Amateur satellite operations. There are several satellites in earth orbit that have amateur radio repeaters on board. While this is fun to play with and is a tool for your communications tool belt, satellites have limited utility for consistent, reliable communications with other specific stations. This is because most of the satellites are in a Low Earth Orbit and the orbit is circular in nature. This means that the satellite circles the earth about once every ninety minutes. When combined with the rotation of the earth, this means that passes over a given location are limited in occurrence and short in scope. Satellites are also heavily used and it can be difficult to establish contact on them. For this reason they should not be relied upon to provide time sensitive communications for the Prepper.

The other two commonly used bands I will lump together. They are the 33 cm band from 902 to 928 MHz and the 23 cm band from 1240 to 1300 MHz. These bands are great for the digital or ATV operator. They provide ample bandwidth for data throughput an the antennas for these bands are very small. Voice and repeaters are also used on these bands. There is not a lot of activity on these bands in the rural areas of the country, but they are more active in the urban areas. They are also outside the range of most cheap scanners, which provides some protection from the casual listener. Again, encryption is no allowed on any of the amateur bands but the squeaks and squawks of digital are meaningless to the untrained and unequipped listener.

The next area that must be addressed for a reliable crisis communications system is back up power. This can be accomplished in many ways. The good news is that most Amateur Radio systems and other related communications equipment operate from 12 Volts DC negative ground. This means you can connect this equipment to a car battery or preferably (if using a battery), to a marine deep cycle battery. Maintenance free lead acid batteries make good back up power sources for radio. Of course, you need to have a back up plan to recharge the batteries without the grid. This can be done using a variety of systems including solar panels, wind generators, or hydro generators connected to a battery charging conditioner to prevent damage to the battery pr to the charging system. One can also use a standard gasoline, diesel, or natural gas powered generator to power a 120 Volts Alternating Current (VAC) to a 12 VDC power supply for the radios. These 120 VAC to 12 VDC power supplies are commonly used to power Amateur Radio equipment from the grid under normal conditions. Do not rely on grid power to at any point in your crisis communications plan.

In my situation, I utilize HF radio on 80 through 10 Meters for back up long haul communications , as well as 2 Meter and 70 cm simplex for local use. I use the repeaters regularly, but I don’t rely on it. Our local 2 Meter repeater also has a limited back up power source. I work about 10 miles form my home and I have 2 Meter radios installed in all of our vehicles, including my work vehicle. I have a very understanding employer. I have 2 Meters and 70 cm installed at my home and I can communicate with my family regardless of grid condition. I have utilized this before when a disaster struck our town and cellular phone communications were out for hours. The only communications I had with home were by Amateur Radio. The cell network was overloaded and damaged, and it was good to know that even when bad things happened, I could inform my family of my status. It was a huge relief to my wife because she had been very concerned about my well being, and all of her phone calls to me got the familiar “We‘re sorry, all circuits are busy now. Please try your call again later” or something to that effect. She knew what to do in order to contact me due to rule 6-P.

Another area of great interest to the Prepper is utility monitoring. This a complex subject, but it boils down to listening to all different types of frequencies and modes to figure out what’s happening in the world. Engage in and learn about this activity and you would be surprised at what you will hear. I advise you not to do anything that is illegal. In some states, it is unlawful to possess a police scanner in a vehicle, so make sure that you know your local laws. Consider installing a wideband scanner receiver, and a high gain external base antenna at your retreat. The author recommends the Uniden Bearcat BC9000XLT or equivalent and the Antenna craft ST-2 antenna. They make a great pair. You can monitor local public safety entities as well as other government entities. Many of these entities encrypt their radio traffic so you cannot listen to them. It is unlawful to decipher these communications. Most of theme use a very secure protocol and most attempts at decryption would be moot for most people anyway. It is also unlawful to intercept cellular telephone or other encrypted communications, so don’t do it. Also, some entities utilize a P25 digital modulation protocol, and if that’s the case where you live, then you will need to acquire a P-25 digital trunking scanner to receive them.

Shortwave broadcast, while somewhat on the decline from some parts of the world, is still alive and well. You will interesting news and content that the regular lap dog media will not report. This includes a great deal of alternative and Christian media that would be snubbed, defamed and marginalized by the politically correct main stream media. The author’s favorite shortwave broadcast station is WWCR out of Nashville, Tennessee. They operate on the frequencies of 3.215, 4.840, 5.935, 7.465, 7.490, 9.350, 9.985, 15.825,12.160, and 13.845 kHz AM. There are also many broadcasters from around the world still on shortwave. This could prove to be a vital news source in the vent of an information blackout here in the U.S. Most amateur HF radios have wide band receivers so an HF station doubles as a shortwave receiver. There is also a great deal of military and government traffic on the HF bands. Military monitoring is also a popular pastime that could have utility in a crisis. It is still considered lawful in the U.S. (Yet, anyway. Many countries have outlawed it). A decent scanner receiver (like the BC 9000XLT) will cover the 225 to 406 MHz range where most UHF military operations take place. With an outdoor antenna, you can hear military aircraft operating hundreds of miles away in the AM, non-encrypted mode. Most scanners will also allow you to monitor amateur frequencies, weather broadcast stations (which are a great source for civil emergency alerts), civilian aircraft, taxi cabs, busses, railroads, transportation departments, and utility companies. A great source for local radio frequency information for your area is the database here. There are also many other web sources for the frequencies for your area. Engaging in utility monitoring will remind you of how important it is to utilize Communications Security (COMSEC). It will remind you to mindful of what information you transmit in the open. Also remember that in a collapse scenario, do not transmit from your retreat unless absolutely necessary. If it is necessary, keep your transmissions very brief, and consider using a modular addition encryption protocol. Line of sight transmissions can be DF’d. That means an adversary can use Direction Finding techniques to locate your retreat. Skywaves are much more difficult to DF but it can be done, so keep your HF transmissions short as well. Spend most of your time listening and use COMINT to your advantage.

Another thing to remember is to not completely discount grid based communications systems as a part of your plan. I’m not saying that you should rely on these systems. You absolutely should not. But many of these systems, if they are operating in some capacity may have utility to you even if they are compromised and not reliable. Landline phone companies for example are required to maintain battery and generator back up power for their network switches. Remember that the landline network providers still provide the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) backbone that interconnects telephone voice circuits to cellular sites. Also consider installing a landline phone in your home for this reason, if it fits into your budget. It does in my home because it is a part of my DSL internet package. Landline phones, as long as they are not the cordless type, will typically continue to work during a short-term power outage because the phone is powered by telephone company equipment and not by the power to your home. Cordless phones require AC power to your home or back up power supply to operate. You can purchase battery back up units for cordless phones that provide several hours of talk time during a power outage. I picked one of these units up at a Hamfest for $5. Also consider installing Skype on your computer which provides free IP-based video chat capability if you have a web cam, microphone, speakers, and a broadband Internet connection for your computer. Also remember to use e-mail and text message capability if you have it. Text messages or e-mails can sometimes get through to members of your family and friends who do not have a crisis communications system even if the voice circuits are overloaded and unavailable. You may need these methods to communicate with folks that didn’t prepare ahead of time.

A lot of folks also don’t know that most cell phone carriers have e-mail gateways into their text messaging system. This means you can send an e-mail and it will be delivered to the recipients cell phone as a text message. Text message charges apply.

Check out the table below to look for you carrier:
Alltel number@alltelmessage.com or number@message.alltel.com
AT&T number@mobile.att.net
Bell Canada
Centennial Wireless
Cellular South
Cincinnati Bell
Metro PCS
number@mymetropcs.com or number@metropcs.sms.us
U.S. Cellular
Virgin Mobile


Alaska Communications Systems number@msg.acsalaska.com
General Communications Inc.

Puerto Rico

Centennial Wireless

U.S Virgin Islands

Centennial Wireless

For more carriers, see:

I hope this information is useful to you in your preparation efforts. May God bless you and your families as we endure these turbulent times in our world. don’t forget to make preparations in other necessary areas as well. Beans, bullets, and band aids should be squared away before you invest in communications. And most importantly, remember to walk daily with the Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one will come to the father but through Him.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I'd like to suggest one solution for grid-down insulin refrigeration: I have purchased a Dometic RC4000 3 way portable refrigerator for insulin.  It runs by 12 VDC,  120 VAC  and LP gas.  It is an absorption type ammonia system (as used in recreation vehicles) and appears to be a high build quality unit manufactured in Hungary.  It is the size and shape of a large wheeled ice type cooler but with only a small 1 cu ft cooled area.  It is perfectly suitable for long term insulin protection and uses 1 lb of propane a day  =  18 days from a typical barbeque-sized 20 lb tank.  With no moving parts it is expected to last a long time. [JWR Adds: These can also be plumbed to much larger domestic propane tanks. Or, if you have a large tank with a "wet leg", you can refill small tanks from it, repeatedly, if you buy the correct adapter fittings. Call you local propane distributor, for details. Be sure to consult your local fuel storage ordinances before doing do.]
Performance is as follows:
13.3 VDC @ 6.0 Amps  is  unregulated at 40F below ambient.
120 VAC has a 7 position thermostat and regulates from 22.5F at pos 7 to 42.5F at pos 1.
LP gas with regulator (supplied) has 3 settings providing 20, 30 or 40F below ambient.  The regulator required adjustment but was adjustable.
I purchased the unit for under $400 including shipping from PPL Motorhomes. Regards, - A-Man

Friday, December 16, 2011

People have often asked me over the last nine years, “Haven’t you had to give up living a 'normal' life?”  My response has evolved into, “Define normal?”.

My off grid experience started in 1998 when my wife and I purchased out homestead property which was 1.5 miles from the closest power line.  We had previously purchased a propane generator (10 KW) and had planned on using it as a backup generator for times when the power went out, (which is frequent in the area we purchased our property) but we never imagined the costs of having power run to our property would be what was quoted to us.

The decision to go totally off grid was made when the local power company quoted us a cost of $16,000 to run the poles to our property.  Six hundred dollars per pole, thirty poles minimum to cover the 1.5 miles, “thanks but no thanks”, was our reply.  Hence we decided to go off grid and we have never regretted it since.

One has to accept the fact that going off grid does require a life style change.  Unless one is independently wealthy with a bottomless pocketbook, there are a minimum of four things which you must accept in my opinion.

  1.  The use of heat pumps and air conditioning is out.
  2.  Forget about using electric ranges.
  3.  Forget about using electric hot water heaters.
  4. The two biggest users of electricity will be the refrigerator/freezer and the well pump if you have one.

The four items above does not mean that you cannot be environmentally comfortable, or cook your food or have hot water.  It does mean that you have to adjust your life style and change how you will accomplish those items.

After much study we decided upon a log home design using 6” x 12' logs and using 6” insulated panels in the roof for insulation.  Total square footage of the house is 1,296 square feet on 1.5 levels.  Our heating system consists of a Kitchen Queen wood cooking stove.  This stove was selected because it not only is a cook stove but will heat up to 1,500 square feet.  We do have a propane gas range that is also used.   The range model we have uses a spark ignition system and not a glow bar.  This is especially important for the oven operation since with a glow bar, “juice” is constantly used when the oven is in operation.  (Reference number 2 above).  Using the wood stove requires an average of two cords of wood a year and bread sure does taste better baked in a wood stove.

Out electrical system consists of the following, and has been updated as our requirements have changed:

6 – BP 160 watt panels – mounted on roof
4 – ISOFOTON 150 watt panels – mounted on side of house
2 – BP 170 watt panels  mounted on roof

1,900 watts total

All these panels are 24 volt DC  panels and are wired for a 48 volt DC system.   Total amps DC = 39.58.

Outback Power systems combiner boxes are used to feed a Outback Power Solar charge controller, which feeds through a Xantrex DC disconnect.  Sixteen Trojan T-105 batteries wired in series and parallel provides for a 48 volt DC battery bank with a total of 440 amp hours of storage.  The life span of a well maintained battery bank system, keeping them clean, never letting the charge level fall below 50%, keeping the lead acid battery water level correct, is five to six years.  (We have just recently changed out our battery bank for new batteries).  This is the greatest recurring costs associated with the system.

The battery feeds a Xantrex 4048 sine wave  inverter (stay away from modified sine wave)  which inverts the 48 volts DC to 110 AC feeding a standard Square D breaker panel.  From the panel, the house is wired per code.

Our well that was drilled is 470 feet deep.  Luckily, the static water level is at 90 feet.  To provide sufficient reservoir, we placed our 1.5 hp 220 volt, three wire pump at 360 feet.  We choose a three wire pump because  with a two wire pump all the electronics are in the pump and if something malfunctions, the pump must be pulled.  With a three pump, the electronic control box is above ground and can be repaired/replaced with little problem.  The 220 volt pump does require a step up transformer to take the 110 volt to 220 volt.  Important in our system in that the transformer is wired after the pump switch.  This ensures that the transformer is not “pulling” a constant ghost load but only when the pump needs to be turned on.

Solar power charges most effectively when the sun is shining fully.  Our average daily use is 70 amp hours daily. This big use items include:

  1.  Average of one load of washing a day. (A Staber model washing machine is used.  Can be safely used with an inverter)
  2. 16.5 cubic foot frost free refrigerator.  (We initially started out with a propane refrigerator, did an excellent job keeping things cold but after five years of use the small size, 9 cubic feet became an issue.  We went with an Energy Star refrigerator and purchased four ISOFOTON panels to cover the additional electrical usage).
  3. 9.0 Cubic foot Energy Star rated freezer. (We purchased two BP170 watt panels to cover the additional electrical usage)
  4. Well pump

Our present solar power system consists of:

6 – BP 160 watt panels – mounted on roof
4 – ISOFOTON 150 watt panels – mounted on side of house
2 – BP 170 watt panels  mounted on roof

1,900 watts total, generates an average of 120 amp hours on a good day of sunshine.  To cover the days when it is overcast, snowing, or raining, we have our previously purchased generator (10 KW) that is automatically controlled by the inverter to provide power and charge the batteries, as required. 

Hot water is handled by the use of an on-demand propane hot water heater.  We have a Tagaki brand that will provide up to eight gallons per minute of hot water and uses propane only when the hot water faucet is turned on.  This coming spring, a home built auxiliary solar hot water system will be put in place to augment the on-demand hot water heater.  The greatest advantage to the on-demand system is we have never run out of hot water--even when doing laundry and washing dishes at the same time.  The output is great enough that we could install a dishwasher if we wanted to.

As previously stated, the well pump is one of the biggest users of electricity and ways must be used to limit its use.  One of the best ways to reduce the usage off grid is to use lower water flush toilets.  The ones we use require only 1.2 gallons per flush.  Also scheduling laundry days to when the backup generator is running helps immensely since there is excess capacity when the generator is running.

I am constantly asked about costs.  “How much did all this run you”.   A fair enough question.  This is the breakdown as of November 2011.



6 – BP 160 watt panels


4 – ISOFOTON 150 watt panels


2 – BP 170 watt panels


Charge controller




DC disconnect


Mounting racks/hardware


Combiner boxes


Wire and Cables








As you can see, the total costs have been $16,390.  This includes having to replace the battery bank at a cost of $2,500 in March of 2009. 

Based on data from the local power company, below is the average monthly light bill for a 1,300 square foot home.

Average monthly light bill for 1,300 sq ft home


108 months


Based on  nine years (108 months) we are $458 in the black and do not have a monthly expense of $156 for electricity.  This enables us to invest in other preparations.

Is total off grid living for everyone?  An emphatic NO!  We are fortunate to live in an area that air conditioning is not a requirement.  Still, think back to when you were growing up.  Very few families I knew had air conditioning, we all used fans.  The fans made it much more comfortable. 

I must emphasize that all wiring in our home meets the current electrical code.  To do otherwise is foolishness.  Every part of the system we use, was done be myself and my wife.  (Luckily my brother in law is a licensed electrical contractor to keep my straight). 

We are so satisfied with our off grid system that even if the power company offered to hook us up to the grid for free, we would refuse.  In nine years we have not had a power failure, even during the worst winters of the past two years. 

Up-front planning and a desire to become more self-sufficient is a strong driving force to going off-grid.  Do your homework and you may find out it will work for you.

USB power is rapidly becoming standard for portable electronic devices, and makes it easy to charge them from either computers, 12 volt DC automobile sockets or 120 volt AC electrical outlets.  However, what do you do when traveling away from such conveniences?

The Brunton Restore photovoltaic charger and its relatives provide a variety of recharging options for the traveler or outdoorsman.

Fully charged, the unit can dispense at least two full recharges to phones, cameras, GPS or similar devices, from its 2,200 mAh battery. This was doing full recharges of a drained device from a fully charged Restore. I wasn't able to test Bluetooth units, but they are claimed at 7-8 recharges, and portable game consoles at 1-2 charges.

A full Restore charge on a sunny day takes about 10 hours.  From a computer, it takes about 4 hours.  From the car adapter or wall, it takes about 2 hours.  My tests concurred closely with their claims.  The unit holds charge for a long time.  I was only able to test for a week, but I'm quite sure it will last much longer than that. 

It comes with USB and Mini USB terminals and cords, a Mini to Micro USB adapter, and a combination adapter for car (12 VDC) or wall socket (120 VAC).  It has a small but bright LED light for locating accessories in the dark, which would also make a useful emergency footing light.  It shuts off automatically after 5 minutes.  It has LEDs to show charge level, and an indicator to show solar charging is taking place.  The power button has a red indicator to confirm operation that shuts off after a few moments, while the unit continues to operate.

The unit is solidly built with rubber bumpers all around, a strong hinge and a sturdy case.  While I didn't deliberately throw the device around, I was not gentle with it.  I left it out in rain and high wind over two nights, temperatures slightly above freezing.  I bumped it off tables and coolers.  I consider this normal usage for outdoor conditions, and the Restore had no trouble with it at all.  I put it wet in the freezer for a day, then thawed it. No issues.  It provided power while still below freezing. 

I did find the directions a bit unclear until I had a chance to work with the unit, but Brunton promptly responded to all my inquiries.  The instruction booklet is in English, German, French and Spanish.

For backpackers or preppers needing to travel off grid while still having access to modern communication devices, the Restore is a reliable and useful piece of equipment.  It retails at $120 MSRP, but is frequently available at significant discounts.

Full disclosure: I was furnished one unit for test, and return has not yet been discussed, but is typically done in 90 days, through the marketing firm.  Brunton may have charged it off as promotional, in which case I will be able to keep it, but I have not been offered to keep the unit at this time. - SurvivalBlog Editor At Large Michael Z. Williamson

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The following is a chronological list of events and occurrences when the lights went out on September 8th, 2011, or what I like to call “The Great Blackout of 2011”.

3:38 p.m. - I live in San Diego, California, and when the lights went out I was at home taking a nap. For some reason after I got home from teaching that day I was exhausted (probably the heat) and needed to rest.  It was a good thing too because I would need my energy in the hours to come.  While I was sleeping I could hear my phone going off with the sound of text messages and calls but I ignored it.  The calls and texts kept coming and so finally I got up to check my phone since I thought it must be important.  It was.

4:00 p.m.- The second I got up I didn’t sit down again until much later that evening.  I was inundated with messages from friends and contacts from all over with messages saying: “The power is out everywhere!”, “the SHTF what are you doing?!”, or my two favorites “I’m bugging out” and “Is this an EMP?”  I texted my friend back that it couldn’t be an EMP because otherwise our cell phones wouldn’t be working.  After more information started coming through I learned that this was a massive power outage that had spread from southern California to as far as Yuma, Arizona.  As soon as I was informed of the potential that this could be a long term power outage I put the phone down and started preparing. It was around 4 p.m. and I wanted to get everything done before nightfall.  First things first, I went into all three of our cars and took out my emergency bags no sense leaving them in there.  I had made bug out bags for every person in the house as well as for every car.  These bags were essential since I basically took the necessary requirements of food and water and tripled it. Since we wouldn’t be mobile anytime soon with traffic backed up everywhere I knew it was best to stay put. I also didn’t want to have to worry about potential looters breaking into the cars and stealing the contents.
I decided to prepare for our first night without electricity.  I had to hurry since I knew it would be getting dark soon.  I gathered all of our flashlights and put them on the kitchen table, next I took out all the candles and battery powered lanterns.  I immediately pulled out all the batteries and spare batteries and began checking them.  This took a while.  I know I should have checked my batteries months prior - but hey, “shoulda, coulda, woulda”.

5:00 p.m.- Next up was safety and protection. At this point in time the information was that the power could be out for as long as three days.  The possibility of looters or riots in the days ahead came to mind and I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down.  I gathered all our firearms, checked to make sure they were ready to go and placed them in strategic places throughout the house.  I went around and checked to make sure all the doors were secure, fences were locked and dogs were okay.  I still had no idea how long this outage would last and I knew that I would be relying on them heavily for alerting us to any strangers or possible looters in the days ahead.  Both were large Shepherd mixes, one actually a fourth generation Rhodesian Ridgeback/Shepherd whose bloodline had been in our family for 30+ years.  My hope was that their size would play a huge part in the deterrent factor and if that wasn’t enough I knew that their bark was just as bad as their bite. 

This entire time I had the Ham radio up and running, as a member of the local CERT team I knew they would be giving out information and taking questions.   I was listening to the traffic reports throughout the county.  People were running out of gas and with gas stations unable to open for business the advice was for those who were low on gas to pull over in a shady spot if possible and get off the roads.  I knew my sister was in that traffic and I was worried.  She was seven months pregnant and had been sent home from work because of the blackout.  She had picked up my two year old niece from daycare but was low on gas because of being stuck in traffic for two hours for what was usually a 30 minute drive.

6:00 p.m.- Problems start happening.  I had not heard from my sister yet but I knew she was on her way to my house.  She was very low on gas but was still going to try and make it being that the only open gas stations were in Temecula, a city 20+ miles away.  The same was true for my brother in law who was coming in the opposite direction from work.  He had been stuck in traffic for hours and was low on gas as well.  To make matters worse no one was able to get hold of their son, my nephew.  This was due to the fact that all the cell phone lines were jammed.  We tried to go online to see if he tried to reach us via facebook which was still working for those who had Internet.  No messages.  At this point I started getting worried and annoyed.  I had friends texting me asking me if I had all my survivor gear out, or asking me what I was doing, or what they should do.  Meanwhile I was thinking that they were draining my phone battery (I know I could have charged it in my car but I needed it with me as I was going about the house trying to get everything done) that I might just need for that important call from my sister, or nephew, or brother in law who had still not arrived yet.  I knew some of them thought their messages were funny.  I didn’t have time to entertain or further enlighten them.  There was still so much more work to do.

6:30 p.m.- My sister finally arrived.  Not long afterwards so does my brother in law, then my other sister, her husband, and their two kids.  Everyone’s gas tank is pretty much on empty.  I fill up the car that uses the least gas so that my brother in law can go around looking for my nephew who we still weren’t able to get a hold of.  I give him my cell phone so that he can charge it as he drives around.  We soon find out that for some reason that part of San Diego - Rancho Bernardo to be exact was not able to receive any calls or text messages to cell phones incoming or receiving.  In addition my nephew was not able to access the internet via cell phone unlike others who were able to in different areas.  We were able to confirm this information later when my brother in law left to try and find my nephew.  While he was in that area he tried reaching us and us him to no avail.  He finally found my nephew at their house.  One of his friend’s parents had dropped him off and he was with the neighbors waiting when my brother in law finally arrived.

7:30 p.m.- It was now dark.  Everyone had safely arrived at my house and I was busy making dinner on the front porch.  I had spent a good amount of time digging out the portable propane stove from in the garage and setting up an outdoor makeshift kitchen.  We still didn’t know how long the power outage would last so I was trying to cook as much meat as possible.  Needless to say we ate pretty well that night. 

8:30 p.m.- Dinner time.  We had our dinner inside using several of our lanterns as light.  The kids seemed to be having fun.  We discussed what would happen in the days to come if the electricity still was not back in place.  We did have a location in the mountains about 1 hour away with other extended family.  We had two very large delivery diesel trucks which would be able to hold most of our important belongings the only problem was I knew we didn’t have enough diesel gas for both of them. We decided to wait it out.  At this time information we were receiving on the radio was that electricity would be restored later that night.  I was skeptic but hopeful.  I wondered if “they” were telling the truth or if they just didn’t want to stir a mass panic.

11:30- Bed time. After dinner we had cleaned the kitchen, washed the dishes, and given the kids baths all by lantern light.  I walked around the perimeter of the house again making sure all was well.  I looked around at my family most of them were already fast asleep together in the television room.  I looked at the time and realized how tired I was.  I had basically been working nonstop since I found out the power had gone out.  I climbed in bed.  Having no electricity sure was exhausting and the electricity had only been out for 8 hours!  I couldn’t imagine another day like this, though I knew if this was a possibility I had already done most of the work for things to be easier tomorrow. 

As I lay down to sleep that night a few thoughts went through my head.  Thank God we at least still had [utility-piped] running water.  And Thank God that everyone made it here safe and we were all together.  Thank God things weren’t worse. Other thoughts that occurred to me while the power was out and later the next day:

  1. I should have put the insulin in the freezer right away or in at least a colder compartment than the refrigerator (insulin gets ruined if it is too cold as well as too warm).  I practically kicked myself for not doing this first thing!  I was so wrapped up in everything else this completely slipped my mind!
  2. I should have bought that portable ice machine at Target.  It was only $130. 
  3. I really need to get out of the city.

Here is what I learned:

  1. The vast majority of the population is poorly prepared in every sense for any type of emergency.
  2. You can never have enough gasoline and even if you think you do get more.  It would have been an excellent selling or bartering item at times like these.
  3. Candy is an absolute necessity in preparedness.  Especially when there is no television or computer to send the kids off to to occupy themselves.  When adults need a few moments of quiet time, candy makes everything better, instantly.
  4. Having a Ham radio is an essential part of preparing.  The Beans, Bullets, Band-Aids saying needs to add that extra “C” for Communication as well as the “E” for Engineering.  Being informed just makes you feel better and in a strange way gives you hope when you know you can still reach someone on the other “end”.
  5. Handheld battery operated lanterns are awesome! You can hang them when cooking outside for a good source of all over light.  They are better than flashlights when walking down the hall or when going to bathroom and taking a shower.  You can just set them on the counter and you have pretty good visibility of the area around you.
  6. Survival preparedness isn’t really about you.  It is about protecting your loved ones. 
  7. Having properly prepared for an emergency makes you feel like gold.
  8. I really need to get out of the city. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Regarding the recent article by CentOre, titled: Need a Power Source?  Got Water?: There is good info on the waterwheelplace.com web site for the do-it-yourselfer to calculate potential horsepower and watts from any given wheel configuration. Pa in Pennsylvania

I won't claim to be an expert on hydro power generation, but would advise against two non-durable materials mentioned: Instead of aluminum pipe for a shaft, get some steel pump shafting from an industrial metals supply or a well supply. Aluminum won't hold up. Another is Teflon. While very slick, it will not last at all. I would suggest UHMW for the bearings if you are going to use plastic. Get in touch with a plastic supply to obtain some. It is not expensive, nor is the shafting very costly. - Michael H.

Dear Jim,
Yesterday's discussion of floating boat mills reminded me of a very thorough article on boat mills and hanging mills in Low Tech Magazine.  Anyone interested in this versatile technology should review it.  Allow me to commend the online magazine also.  With detailed articles on pedal-powered machines, human-powered cranes, ropeways, and other neglected technologies, it's both fascinating and practical. Best wishes to all and thanks for your hard work. - W.T., M.D.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My family roots go back to Ohio’s Muskingham River area in the mid 1800s.  There are no raging cataracts or other major stream drops on the Muskingham.  At least, not in the first twenty miles upstream from McConnellsville.  Observing the river channel confirms this stretch at least, is subject to erratic, heavy flooding.  Despite this my pioneer ancestors still used the river to grind their grain, and provide power for several other industries.

How did they do it?  They had no metal to make pilings out of.  Wood piling would have just washed away at each flood since most of the watercourse bottom is bedrock.  Construction of a water retention dam with the water trapped in a pipe until sufficient ‘head’ is created to turn a turbine was not an option due to the very gentle fall.  In the roughly twenty miles stretch from Philo and downstream to Stockport the Muskingham drops a total of approximately 23 feet.

What to do?  What they did was build floating mills.  Logs were gathered and shaped.  At least two would be shaped similar to canoes.   More logs would be fashioned for cross members often called stretchers.  The two ‘canoe’ logs were held rigidly apart by the stretchers.  Think of a catamaran sail boat.  The raft is held against the current by a line from the barge that was led upstream and tied off to a convenient tree or rock.  Poles then kept the raft pushed out into the current so the paddlewheel would not strike the bottom.  Paddlewheel?  What paddlewheel?
A paddlewheel was fashioned that would fit between the two canoe logs with its axle perpendicular to the current and parallel to the surface of the water.  Many paddlewheels were fashioned with axles of wood, turning in wooden bearings.  Once my ancestors had a rotating wheel they could perform many functions of ‘modern life.  The raft, always floating on top of the water, would rise and fall with the river level.  In times of major flooding many rafts were lost, but many others were floated over the normal banks and tied off as tight as possible.  After the flood they were disassembled, the parts returned to the water where reassembly took place, renewing any parts damaged by the flooding or otherwise showing excessive wear.

Now, what do we care in our day and age, and, how can we apply this knowledge?  The basic principles still stand today.  Two uses that come immediately to mind are water pumping, and turning an alternator (hydro-electric power!).  If you are ever in the vicinity of the beautiful Metolious River near Sisters, Oregon, stop by the store in Camp Sherman and feed the huge, wild rainbow trout pellets off the bridge.  Look downstream toward the left or west bank.  There are a string of quaint vacation cabins lining this bank.  Many have two-pontoon rafts floating in the current pumping river water to sprinklers in their yards.

With but a small amount of imagination you could put a large pulley on the paddlewheel shaft, and a smaller pulley on an alternator.  You may have to play with the ratio combination of the pulleys because your paddlewheel will probably have more, or less power that mine since there are many variables:

  • Velocity of the current
  • Length of each paddle
  • Distance each paddle is submerged [maximum depth]
  • Number of paddles
  • Efficiency of your bearing system that will be supporting the paddlewheel shaft.

Why not get creative and put a water pump on one end of the shaft, and an alternator on the other?  Shifting between utilities could be as simple as putting the v-belt on the desired utility and removing the v-belt from the other.
Our little brook out here in the Oregon High Desert has a drop of approximately 43 feet in ten miles.  While I’ll not alert the neighbors by installing a floating mill right now rest assured I have all of the materials at hand to:

  • Provide water to our wheat field;
  • Provide battery recharging; and,
  • Provide fire water tank filling.

My bill of materials list that we have stockpiled includes a:

  • Length of 2 inch aluminum irrigation pipe for my main shaft;
  • Block of 2 inch Teflon to cut my bearings from;
  • Lot of 2 inch angle iron for my paddle arms; and,
  • A large selection of stainless nuts, bolts, and lock washers.

I am currently looking into using a five or ten speed bicycle frame with the paddlewheel turning the peddle gear and the load placed in lieu of the rear wheel.  Including the shifting mechanism allows me to vary the speed for various loads without any pulley or chain swapping.
There will need to be a bit of calculation performed to insure proper operation.  The variables include:

A.) Normal speed of the current;

B.) Normal depth range of the water, that is, the minimum you can expect and the maximum;

C.) The type of load your water mill will be expected to operate; and,

D.) What is the type, size, and quantity of drift [debris] must you plan on that will be striking your wheels paddles?

All these, and more, factors come into play in designing your wheel to insure proper operation.  Submersion depth is primarily influenced by variables B &D.  While the width is influenced primarily variables A & C. If your float system has sufficient reserve buoyancy you can construct a small shed or building on it and have covered space.   With covered space you could operate machines like your grain grinder right at the source of water power instead of muscle power in the kitchen.  My wife really likes the idea of having sufficient capacity to operate the ringer washing machine that we picked up from somebody’s front yard (After seeking and gaining the owner’s permission.  Their response to my request was, “Sure!  Want any help loading it?)
Proper mooring of your floating structure is vitally important. The mooring system has to meet three needs:

  • Hold your structure well away from the shallow water near the bank;
  • Hold your structure steady in the current; and,
  • Prevent your structure from sailing away during floods

There are at least two methods that I am familiar with for holding a raft away from the bank.  You can cut two stout poles, their length the distance you wish to hold your raft from the bank.  Lash the poles to the raft, one forward and one aft of the side you want facing the bank.  Now run a line from the upstream, bank side corner of the raft to a stout object well up stream.  A solid tree, a rock outcrop, etc. will work just fine.  With the line tied off solidly on the bank and to the corner of your raft the moving water forces will cause the raft to push in, toward the bank.  Your two stout poles will prevent this.

Another method is to use a stout line tied off well up stream and attached part way back on the side of the raft toward the bank.  Sailors call this a breast line or spring line depending on its actual use.  This line causes the raft to shear into the current.  Now, instead of stout poles to hold the raft off the bank, you will be using a pair of lines (In place of the poles.) to keep the raft in position.  Which system to use?  That will depend on local factors such as the height and slope if the bank.  A high clay bank would not hold the stout poles very well for very long.  Whereas a nice wide gravel bar shore may leave you nothing to tie lines securely to.

In our situation I will end up using both systems.  I guess I am a belt and suspenders guy.  In fact, since our stream is about fifty feet wide where we will cite the mill, I will run lines to both banks.  We picked this narrow spot since it is a bottle neck that creates a better velocity of the water than most of the pool stretches, etc.
I shun the idea of putting out anchors upstream, (sometimes called "kedging anchors") , from the raft.  There have been far too many instances of a log or large amount of brush hanging up on anchor line[s].  The only alternatives are then are the:

  • Line must break, or
  • Raft must submerge from the weight on the anchor line[s].

By choice I leave out, as an alternative, having someone watch for large debris and then removing or steering the log or debris around and off of the anchor lines as it would be a twenty-four/seven task at a time with much more important tasks to complete.

So, if your retreat has that pleasant little brook running through it, you may look at it in a whole new light now.  What other uses can you think of to make use of this little thought of twenty-four/seven power supply?  How about running a flour mill or washing clothes during the day, and filling a cistern at night so you have gravity water pressure to your home?  This might qualify as one of the original Eco-Friendly machines. Nothing, except for velocity of the water, is removed from the Eco-system.

(CentOre is a loosely connected group of people in the Oregon High Desert interested in improving our existing skills, and learning new skills that will enhance our odds when it hits.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I cannot even remember a time when I wasn't a "prepper".  Although until a few years ago, I had no idea of what I was preparing for.  Before the dawn of my awakening, I had serious urges to learn how not to kill plants and flowers. I wanted to grow my own food eventually, so I started with a trip to the local Big Box store, and bought some bare root fruit trees. Now in my mind, they are already dead, so if I could resurrect them, and keep them going, I was on my way. If they didn't survive my over-nurturing tendencies, then I wouldn't feel bad, as they were dead already! To my surprise, all but one survived the first year, and I tasted the sweet success of peaches fresh off the tree!  What I didn't know then, was that you always thin out the fruit the first year or two, or all the branches break. I learned the hard way.  That summer I built two 4x8 raised bed garden boxes, and planted up a storm. I read nearly every garden web site, watched all the you tube videos and read all the books that I could get my hands on, and learned about proper drainage, shading, and organic pest control. It is all a balance act as I found out, but I am now eating most of my diet from my garden. Quality garden soil is the key. Everything else can be managed. 

Along the way, I found articles  and blogs on TEOTWAWKI and WTSHTF. I read Bible prophecies, Hopi indian prophecies, and listened to those whom I trust, warn of impending disasters, and world wide trouble. Economic collapse, social unrest, changing weather patterns, and evidence of global disasters increasing in intensity, and frequency, answered any questions I might have had about the urges to prepare that I had been experiencing for many years.   In a disorganized way, I started buying long term food storage, beans, rice, wheat, and canned meat. At the time, I did not have a wheat grinder, and had absolutely no idea of what I would do with it, when the time came.  A plan would have been the smart way to start, but I eventually bought a hand grinder.  It was not until the electric grinder that I found at a yard sale, came into my life years later, that I actually ground the wheat to make bread.   Another lesson learned along the way : White wheat? Red wheat? Which do I use for bread? Gluten? Why do I need to add that?  Gluten needs to be added to make it rise better. After a few flat loaves, I asked  questions. Once again, I learned the hard way. I also did research, and learned that the nutritional value of wheat is increased by up to 700% by sprouting. What a find that information was, for my long term food storage plans. I will sprout my wheat, and throw it into salads! 

Momentum was building, as guns were acquired, CCW permit obtained, ammo purchased, water tanks, 72-hour kits assembled, and a trailer for hauling what I needed out of town if it came to that.   I'm a single mom here, with two grown boys, and I was feeling a little bit lonely as I used what extra money I made, to purchase more and more food storage, for at least a year's provisions. I personally knew of no one else doing this. I was feeling a bit like a hoarder, and occasionally had to do a reality check. Finding like-minded people on web sites, and blogs like SurvivalBlog.com was a tremendous help, to center myself.  Reading and re- eading the lists of organized ways to approach preparations has helped me move forward. I sure wish I had started that way.  Just after the real estate bubble burst, I saw the values declining so rapidly in housing, that I realized one of the most valuable pieces of advice given to me is to be debt free of consumer debts, and to own a house free and clear. I accomplished getting free of installment debt after a time, but the house mortgage was going to be a bigger challenge.  

I still had a little money in savings, but really felt uncomfortable with the money in the bank, after having narrowly avoided the markets' mini-crash in the late 1980s, and read about savings and loans collapsing.  So I decided to use what I had, to build my emergency short term, or long term retreat on a piece of land that I had purchased some seven years prior when I had been buying things to prepare without knowing why.  This was a perfect plan, to secure a small home that would be paid for, off grid- independent of city utilities of any kind.  It would be for me, a great investment, and a place to retire to as well. I work for myself, so for me, this was it. This was the only retirement fund I would have, a place to live.   Construction started two months later, after researching plans found on line. Again,  planning was lacking, as there was urgency in completing this project, and the builder was pressed for time too.  But my cabin stands proudly, in a rural area, 165 miles from the nearest city, and 15 miles from a town of 20,000.   

There is a fantastic neighbor across the street, but the first line of defense, is a fence! So that went up right away with the help of one of my sons, and some friends.  In spite of broken bits for the rock drill, cuts, bruises, and sore backs, we made it through the excruciatingly long week of stretching fence, and barbed wire on top. I did the hard part - I watched, and made lunch for everyone! :)  

The house is equipped with a composting toilet because I bought property without doing a percolation test first.  (Learning the hard way.) The perc test determines if a septic can be put in, and in this case, there were too many rocks!  Water must be hauled, but there are underground tanks that can be purchased inexpensively, to hold plenty of water. (you can buy up to 10,000 gallon tanks) I presently have 1,200 gallons stored, in 300 gallon tanks,  but will be installing two 1,500 gallon tanks this next summer. Wells dug in this area run $35,000 and up.  When in conservation mode, the average adult uses three gallons or less per day for drinking, cooking and washing (heated over the stove- sponge bath I would suppose)  So I will have plenty of water for over a year. The water system is pumped with a 1/3 horsepower recreational vehicle water pump, and an extra pump is hidden away for emergencies. Water is run through the cabin with pex line, which is easy to work with. I installed an on demand propane water heater for the shower, and kitchen sink. The Berkey water filter sits proudly by the sink, and is always filled. Extra filters are in the pantry. 

The cabin has a ventless propane heater, and a cast iron wood fireplace.  A funny thing about propane I learned last winter: In extreme cold, regulators freeze, and propane heaters do not work, nor do propane stoves and ovens!  Last winter I went to the cabin to experience the Christmas season in the snow. Hah to me. the temperature had dropped to -15 degrees Fahrenheit and everything in the cabin when I got there at 9 p.m., was frozen!  I think of SurvivalBlog, where I learned "two is one, and one is none". Oh thank goodness I thought, that I had just installed this new woodstove. I had not yet used it, but this was to be it's maiden fire.  Funny thing about fire places and wood stoves... there is a bit of a learning curve. I was being conservative of electric, because I wasn't sure of how charged the batteries were on the solar system, so I lit the oil lamps for light, which adds a cozy feel, and I set out to light myself a great fire! I remembered to be sure the flue was open, but I left the door open while I was attempting to defrost the cabin. I grabbed a cast iron pan from the kitchen, threw in a piece of chicken and some veggies, and shoved it into the wood stove.  Yum, dinner was great, but when I stood up and turned on the light to wash the dishes, I realized that the whole room was filled with smoke, and if I had installed a fire alarm, everyone within miles would have known what a dummy I was with my first fire!  

The smoke was so thick in the cabin that I had to sleep on the floor that night, because I couldn't breathe!  Yes, I did open the windows a crack, to vent the smoke outside, but I realized that there was a flue adjustment, and the door was suppose to have been closed.  (No wonder the cabin was still cold, outside the four foot ring around the hearth).  I called a friend in a panic, who after having a great laugh at my expense, told me how to adjust it to heat the house comfortably. (yes I learned the hard way - again)  

The following day was sunny, and a bit warmer but still no propane. No worries, I have a solar oven. It worked like a charm to cook lunch, but I soon realized that if I was to survive with this thing, I had better plan my meals a day in advance, because the sun is out for a limited time. No planning dinner at 3 p.m. in my neck of the woods!   The sun... A funny thing about the sun I discovered. It never makes appearances when you need it! I had decided with the cabin, solar was the way to go. So I started small, with two 175-watt panels, and eight T105 batteries, and an Outback pure sine wave inverter. Great system if the sun is out all day. Some days it is not. Darn that jokester the sun. It seems to be out all day when I am not there, but when I go to visit the cabin, it is cloudy. The battery bank is drawn down too quickly, and then Wham! I'm out of juice. No lights, no water pump, no radio, no charging the cell phone.  During the summer, which is the rainy season, it happens this way every day.  So I learned two more lessons the hard way:   Lesson 1. Always have a water tank that provides gravity feed to a house. Lesson 2. Buy more panels to charge the batteries up faster, or a wind generator.  I also have a gas generator, but it does require gasoline, and I am 15 miles from town. Lesson 3. Always keep a spare can of gas handy.   So now I have a great log sided shed built behind the cabin, to house the back up generator, and the 25 gallons of gasoline, the stockpile of charcoal, the 8 gallons of oil lamp fuel, the tools, washer (which will be run with generator power, and gravity fed water), dryer for use when it is raining, and all of the camping supplies.  

I have built up to a two year supply of food, soaps, Clorox, medical supplies, hundreds of matches, and flints for when it is raining, and I am outside for what ever reason. Handguns, rifles, shotgun, ammo to hold off an army,  300 + seed packs 1/2 heirloom, and 1/2 hybrid to sell or trade.  I am finally taking inventories of all that I have stored, to best rotate, and plan for future needs. I have learned that vodka is used for making tinctures with herbs, and I may consider buying a couple of cases to sell or trade in an extreme situation.   I am designing my green houses, and a heating system to extend the growing season well into winter.  I am collecting books to read, mostly non fiction, and movies to watch on cold dark nights. I have purchased 4 more solar panels 190 watt each, and before they are installed, I will be pricing the tracking pole mount. It increases productivity by at least 30%. 

I now have two 55-gallon drums, and hand crank gas pump, which will all be assembled and filled next summer. I expect to fill one with diesel fuel for barter or to sell. Diesel lasts for years, and I have distant neighbors who use it.  A four wheel drive vehicle is a must in a rural area during winter.  I would love to learn about ham radio, and to be certified to operate one.   I have a 10x20 covered chicken run with a coop at the retreat location and a small flock of eight hens. They live in the city for now with me, but travel to the cabin and stay in the summer for extended stays. They seemed to enjoy their last summer vacation. I always have eggs to share with neighbors.  Last but not least, My son and I purchased an older kick-start dirt bike, kept in our home in the city, with a 72 hour kit nearby, and an off road map from point A to point B.   Next year my project is to learn to use those fishing poles I bought at the swap meet!  Respectfully submitted B. R. in Arizona

Monday, November 7, 2011

I am 69 year old Connecticut native, grew up on 100 acre farm in Eastern Connecticut during the 40’s and 50’s. [The late October 2011 snowstorm caused a lot of damage and the lengthy power failures upset a lot of people. See: Tempers flare over six days of Connecticut power outages.] I know most of the hardest hit areas, and am also a prepper!  Like most of New England, our state was clear cut during the 1700s and 1800s.  I have seen old photos of our rolling hills with nary a tree to be seen.  As a child on our farm, I never remember a winter power outage, and I do remember big snow/ice storms!  This is because the 2nd and 3rd growth timber was small and not overhanging power lines, and the many rural subdivisions had not yet been built.  Most people lived and worked in our then wonderful cities and the local manufacturing plants. 
Over the last 30 to 40 years, due to higher taxes, many businesses have left, people have left the inner cities and been able to buy a new home in the suburbs.  We have had a huge residential building boom, and people were happy to live in mostly upscale communities with tree lined lanes.  We are paying the price!
We had many power outages in last August due to Tropical Storm Irene, and most people were not prepared with supplies, and most could afford the basics.  They did NOT learn!  We have become soft and dependent on the Government!  They complained in letters to the newspapers, and to television reporters, and even complained about the MREs given to them from the local fire departments.  My little shoreline town is a very wealthy town and even here, they complained and many were not prepared.  Even the elderly people have not prepared!
Propane stoves and companies that sell the tanks and service them are readily available in our state, and are safer and easier for our aging population to operate.  We have one in our living room with three large tanks.  Enough to take us through most of the winter.  These citizens can afford to do this, but have chosen not to.  For a few hundred dollars, they could have a little camp stove, a twig stove, a sterno stove, a charcoal grill (we have all of these) and dried and canned food.  No need to go hungry or freeze to death.  Food from the freezer can be put in large plastic totes, weight the lid down with rocks or bricks and put it outside in the shade.  We have five months of cold here, and the frozen food will stay frozen. 
I am equally frustrated that the town officials do not have town meetings to talk about how to prepare.  In fact, though my elderly sister and I want to keep a low profile, I think I will e-mail our Town Selectman and tell him that I will personally give a brief talk and provide a list of what every homeowner should have so that they are safe, warm and fed when the next outage occurs. 
I have read all of Cody Lundin’s books, your books, the Army Survival Manual and other such literature, and we had parents who were always prepared.  Perhaps I can get through to some of our citizens! - L.H. in Lyme, Connecticut

Mr. Rawles:
I'm a long-time SurvivalBlog reader.

There was a recent post about dry batteries and where to buy acid.  I live in rural Ohio, in farm country.  I have had no problem buying battery acid at a local auto parts chain store.  I am always adding to [batteries for] tractors and combines, et cetera.  Never thought of it being hard to get.   Last time I bought it it came in a 6 quart container for around $30.

Keep up the great work. - Sheepman Dave

I frequently get questions regarding long term, reliable, battery backup systems. First some comments regarding Lead Acid batteries, and then a possible answer to long term backup batteries that can be stored dry almost indefinitely until they are needed.ry

There is at least one manufactured that that sells “Bone Dry” lead acid cells. DEKA sells their commercial line of wet cell batteries wet or dry. Look at their Commercial Line data sheet. The acid for batteries can be obtained from them, from Grainger Wholesale, or also through several hardware companies. Do a Google search for Battery acid. For the home chemists, 98% H2SO4 can be purchased from Biodiesel suppliers such as DUDA Diesel. (Mixing the correct acid gravity battery acid from concentrated acid requires the correct knowledge and procedure, or you will go to the hospital with severe acid burns – no fun, especially in a TEOTWAWKI situation).

The better alternative to Lead Acid batteries is to switch to Nickel Iron, aka "NiFe" batteries. These batteries were formally used in many industrial applications, and also to supply backup switching power to electrical substations. They have a rated lifespan of 25 years and longer with proper care. The only reason they fell into disuse is because they are not as efficient as Lead Acid or sealed NiCd cells  and need regular watering with distilled water, unlike sealed lead acid batteries. NiFe efficiency usually runs around 80%, so you may have to add a few solar panels to make up for the inefficiency. (Simplified: You put in 100 watts, and only get 80 watts back). NiFe batteries, as the name implies, use electrodes of Nickel and Iron, and a caustic electrolyte (Usually Sodium or Potassium Hydroxide, with some Lithium Hydroxide added.) I have run across 30+ year old NiFe batteries in eastern Europe, that are still functioning almost like new.

The nice thing about NiFe batteries is that they are not sensitive to overcharge, freezing, neglect like not charging them, etc. The electrolyte is shipped in dry powder form, and only when the NiFe battery is needed, is the electrolyte prepared. This allows the cells to be stored almost indefinitely. Preparing the electrolyte only requires mixing the caustic powder with distilled water, in the proper proportions. The usual cautions for mixing caustic solutions apply, since the NiFe electrolyte is like a strong oven cleaner, and will cause severe burns if not properly handled, although it is [a bit] safer than battery acid.

One importer of Chinese NiFe batteries is Be Utility Free. There are also  two others, Iron Edison, and ZappWorks. The ZappWorks web page states that their cells are manufactured in Dillon, Montana. [JWR Adds: Not only are they from a company in The American Redoubt, but they have a competitively low price, per Amp-Hour.] I don't know if these companies sell their cells wet or dry.

For more information and more vendor names, check out Nickel-iron-battery.com. Regards, - The Consultant

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mr Rawles,
In the past I have read articles on people wanting new batteries on hand such as car, tractor and deep cell as part of there preparedness plan. one of the problems was they were unable to purchase dry batteries without the sulfuric acid in them. I recently had to purchase  a few new sets of batteries for my tractors and learned that John Deere stocks their batteries dry and when you purchase them, they add the acid and give them to you. I'm sure you could buy them from them dry. Now where and how you would get the sulfuric acid later I don't know, haven't researched that. I asked if John Deere made deep cell batteries and they do. Expensive. maybe all deep cells are. They said makes their own batteries and likes to ship them dry for better shelf life. seems to be the only ones who do this. The local Case IH dealer gets theirs from Exide (or should I say Exide makes them for Case [to sell under their brand name])  and they come wet also.  Hope this helps. Thanks for all you do. - Mike E.

JWR Replies: Thanks for that great tip. It is noteworthy that simply spinning a battery dry (as most makers do when they sell "dry" batteries) will not stop the plates from gradually sulfating. If a battery has been tested at the factory, then ipso facto it has been filled with acid. For true long-term storage, a battery's cells should be rinsed several times and the battery thoroughly dried before it goes into storage.

Carboys of battery acid are available from many industrial and marine battery dealers. WARNING: All the usual safety precautions for handling strong acid (around 6 molar) apply!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Technology is a significant force multiplier in emergency situations.  There are several options I’ve found in my preparations to incorporate electronics into our everyday use and emergency preparations.  Hopefully these ideas will be of use and get others thinking about possibilities.  My goal in utilizing these ‘gadgets’ is to increase availability of resource while decreasing maintenance and effort – all at low cost if possible.  I’d like to share a few of the low-cost options that are simplest to try that we’ve adopted in our preps.

I’m an engineer and realize most of the tools I use won’t be appreciated by everyone, but I do recommend that everyone invest in a simple Digital Multi-meter.  They are quite inexpensive (as little as $15) and useful for troubleshooting automotive and equipment electrical problems.  They are easy to use and with all the information and tutorials on the internet anyone can begin taking advantage of their use.  Besides this tool, the rest of my recommendations are targeted to anyone of any background.  There are several helpful electrical gadgets we’ve found and use that have many broader options.  The best part is that these ideas will hopefully start generating interest or ideas of your own.  Realistically most adults won’t start collecting schematics or advanced electrical tools, but they can start learning new things, or may have friends or better yet, children, who are interested in pursuing these areas more.

Some simple things, first.  In a big family we have need for a lot of flashlights.  The kids use them often and so we often find batteries are dead when we need the light most.  On eBay we have found many Chinese suppliers of low cost, solar powered LED lights that have dramatically decreased our monthly expenditures for batteries.  Sure, these lights are cheaply made (you get what you pay for) but work great for everyday use.  Do a search for “Solar LED keychain” on eBay and you can easily find them for less than $1 each ($0.73 on average).  Over the course of a month we accumulated 10-15 of these lights and they all work great.  They are cheaply made and break easily, so think of them as disposable and to keep the kids from wearing out your more dependable gear.

Another good source of solar LED lighting is the inexpensive outdoor lamps available at all hardware stores.  Wal-Mart sells them for ~$2.  We keep these lights all around our chicken coop, outdoor buildings, and garden to help keep deer and predators away.  They also contribute to security and our own convenience when out-n-about at night doing chores.  They are inexpensive enough to proliferate anywhere needed and require no maintenance.  Another option is to use electrical tape to blacken the side of the light facing our home to improve visibility, or to help minimize visibility of our place from roadways.  Keeping these lights about the chicken coop also has improved egg production and extended the laying season longer into the dark days of winter.

EBay is also a great source for inexpensive wireless door chimes and passive infrared (IR) motion detectors.  For $3 each we picked up a number of different devices to test out as deer and predator alarms.  Some devices work great, others are less effective.  All are effective at detecting our dog at 6 feet, and many will see the dog as far away as 30 feet. For less than $10 we have a wireless perimeter around the chickens that detects any small animal movement and provides loud alarm to deter intrusion and warn us of detection.  Another $20 watches over our half-acre garden from deer or elk intrusions.   The alarms seem to deter the deer better than when we left a radio on out in the dark, and do well to give us and the dog a heads-up that marauders are probing the defenses.  The dog is learning well to respond to the cheerful doorbell chimes when they go off.

We purchased a more expensive IR detector that turns on a sprinkler when deer approach the garden and it has worked well, however it requires us to leave the hose on all night, and is too expensive to deploy in adequate numbers to cover all the fruit, garden, and other vulnerable locations on our place.  These low cost wireless chimes have worked very well for us to provide numbers and coverage.

All of these devices use the smaller, “pen-light” batteries and require replacement every few weeks.  Being an engineer, I’m always looking to ‘improve’ original designs or modify them to my unique needs (or wants).  I hate stocking and replacing batteries, so the logical next step was to combine the solar panel from the LED lights to power these wireless motion detectors.  Simply disassembling the LED lights and wiring the power (red) and ground(black) wires into the motion detectors has eliminated the battery need.  Some motion detectors require more power than others, but all the ones we’ve tested are adequately powered by the solar cells.  If more power is needed, simply use two or more solar cells daisy-chained together to boost the voltage to the detector.  Dropping a clean plastic container over the top is adequate weatherproofing that will not hamper the detector too badly, though I recommend spending time to make a more robust enclosure for your device to ensure longer life and use.

Another option to consider with these low-cost LED devices is to make an emergency charging circuit for your cell phone or handheld gadget.  The landscaping lights are recommended for this option.  Again, simply connecting multiple lights in a daisy chain and wiring a surplus USB cable to the mix works well for charging a FRS radio.  If you disassemble the light, you will discover one or more rechargeable battery inside – usually an “AA” size.  This can be removed and used as needed, and then replaced to recharge in the sun.  Some lights we’ve looked at have the battery soldered or “fixed” in the light, and others use a non-standard size battery, so do some snooping before purchasing in quantity.  Many of these solar devices have a single 3.6V battery.  The cheap keychain lights, for example, are sufficient to power a small “spy” camera that is the size of a car’s FOB, and can power the small camera to record video for up to 3 hours, continuously.

I wanted a more ‘discreet’ warning system around the chicken coop than the loud siren of the motion detectors provided, and found that by simply cutting the wires to the small piezo speaker inside the detector and connecting a separate LED to those wires, the detector gave a visual instead of a verbal warning to me.  Individual LEDs in various colors are available from Radio Shack or online for pennies.  The longer wire on the LED connects to power, the shorter one to ground, though on the speaker’s wires it doesn’t matter which wires the LED connects to.   I inserted the LED into a small tube cut from a pen, and now the LED indicator became very discreet and directional – only seen in the direction the LED was pointed.

There is another alarm available for very low cost to detect movement.  Small magnetic alarms that commonly are attached to a door or window are available at our local “Dollar” stores, and have a piercing alarm when the smaller bar is taken away from the main unit.  Besides their obvious use for detecting unwanted entry into your home or shop, these alarms work great to ensure the kids don’t forget to cover up the chicken feed bin, or leave the coop door open, or any other ‘reminder’ you want to keep a door closed.  I like to turn one on and throw it into the boy’s bedrooms on those mornings they haven’t gotten out of bed by the 3rd call!

As a science project with the kids, we created a GPS-based device that we wanted to launch with weather balloons of helium to track wind patterns, and to set adrift in the ocean to watch water currents.  First, we designed a custom circuit and software to record the GPS track, but in the end we found a much better, low cost solution that has many other applications worth considering.  Instead of a custom circuit, we found that on eBay we could purchase an older cell phone (I recommend a Motorola i415) with GPS capabilities for less than $10.  For another $6 we got a pre-paid phone SIM for the phone.  Using an on-line service for real-time cell phone tracking, we could watch the cell phone travel in real-time, and get our GPS data even if we never got the cell phone back from the ocean.  These phones make great, low-cost equipment tracking similar to Lo-Jack for much less cost.  A possible option for farm equipment, shipping container, or other large item you want to keep tabs on.  Gluing a strong magnet to the phone and modifying the charging cable would allow you to place the phone under the hood, wired to the vehicle’s battery for constant power. 

Rather than running 120AC power out to some of our remote locations, we’ve chosen to use car batteries for lighting and power needs instead.  It is great having a spare battery or two on hand, and with inexpensive solar arrays it is easy to keep them charged and available.  I’ve wired our garden house to use low-cost LED lighting strips, which run off the battery.  The solar panel easily keeps the battery topped off and ready for the infrequent use and the 12V is a standard supply for most battery powered devices and gadgets to run off, too.

With 12V readily available, there are a couple other electrical devices worth mentioning.  Various Internet sellers and eBay have remote controlled relay devices for under $15 (search for “12V remote relay”) that are great for remote control of any motor, light, or device.  They are simple to wire up and use, with little electrical experience needed.  It is nice when the lights are left on out in the garden house to have a remote control by the window in our house to simply click, and turn them off.  This gives all kinds of options to our OPSEC considerations.

For locking or mechanical actuation, I love using inexpensive, 12V automotive door lock solenoids.  Again, for less than $5 these can be had and applied to any number of uses.  We lock our chicken coop door at night with a door lock solenoid (remotely controlled, of course).  These solenoids are very strong (more than 7 lbs of pull in some cases) and work well to flip a wall switch, too. 
Two options we are using for power generation include solar panels and hydro power.  Neither option is able to generate more than 150W of power, but that is adequate to charge a single or bank of 12V car batteries.  Car batteries are the power supply of our choice because they are readily available, stable, and carry significant electrical power.  They are robust for charging and 12V is a common input power for many handheld devices.

I do not believe 120V AC is a viable option for TEOTWAWKI.  It requires extensive resources to generate and is neither safe nor versatile.  We do have several generators for running our freezers and power tools, but in a dramatic or long-term scenario, our plan is to rely on gas-based power tools (i.e. chainsaws, generators, rototillers, etc), propane powered stoves and refrigeration, and DC power based communications equipment.

Solar panels are readily available and easy to use.  We have several that are 40 to 50W, and with an inline diode to protect from back current, they work well to maintain car batteries.  Several springs and creeks in our area provide us and our neighbors with hydro power sources, too.  One design we built for a neighbor is based on a GMC truck alternator.  GMC alternators have a built in voltage regulator and are robust for many alternative power generation options - do a search on Google for “bicycle alternator” and you will see many clever designs for bike-power, for example.  This is one reason we keep several older model GMC trucks and a Suburban around – useful, common parts.  The alternator can be used for a 12V generator supplying up to 100 Amps of current to run AC inverters, charge batteries, or run pumps.  The neighbor’s spring is captured in a 2,000 gallon tank, and channeled off the side to ABS piping into the alternator’s turbine.  The alternator was ~$80; turbine blades are homemade and piping all from scrap on hand.

A lower cost option we used on another neighbor’s stream is my favorite.  Instead of an Alternator we used a 1200 gallon-per-hour bilge pump as a generator.  More regulation circuitry was required, but because the output was under 10 Amps, a simple solar regulator from eBay for $12 was adequate.  The smaller stream’s flow was diverted into a garden hose, fitted easily to the bilge pump’s output to run the motor as a generator.  Total setup costs (besides labor) were under $50.  These have been simple, fun, and safe ways to engage with neighbors in exploring options for remote power generation.  This setup is charging two car batteries and running 12V lighting, shortwave radio, dual-band ham radio station, and a fan in his remote shed.

Finally, one last electrical option that has worked out well for us is a water pump for our drip irrigation system.  Some of our plants require more regular watering than others, so we put in a simple drip system of tubing.  To automate it as much as possible, I used a small barrel suspended from 30 feet high to provide the water source for the tubing.  To keep the barrel full, especially in the summer months when rain is less frequent I used a small bulge-pump (12V) I had on hand to pump small amounts of water out of the livestock trough into the bucket.  I did rig up a simple microcontroller to only turn the pump on for 20 minutes each day which required more than basic electrical skills.  The pump is inexpensive and keeps the water barrel charged without any attention required.

All of these ideas are inexpensive and as simple as possible.  Just imagine what is possible with a small, microcontroller (mini computer chip) that costs less than $1.23 and very advanced sensory and computing power!  While not generally of use most people, there are options out there for your consideration.  As an engineer my emergency preparations include keeping extra microcontrollers on-hand for any number of needs.  The powerful capabilities of these modern devices are a big force multiplier for automating farm and garden tasks as well as the obvious security/OPSEC roles.  If you don’t have a working knowledge in these areas, your children may.  Many different options are available to encourage your kids, friends, etc to pursue learning if they are interested in these things, which will pay off not only in your emergency preparations, but enable them for potential engineering careers in life.

Since all of the devices mentioned are less expensive, it should encourage people to experiment with them.  Hack them, open them up, and try using them in new ways.  Kids love exploring and tearing apart things, and many of these projects have been fun for us to explore with and for the children to learn new concepts, science, and practicing putting stuff back together.  There are several photographs of these and other projects on our family blog, (Northwest Podcast).  Since these ideas are based on 12V DC they are much safer, though higher current levels must be respected.

The last note I would make regarding using electronics or technology in your preparations is to echo the warnings of the scriptures.  No gadget can replace faith and trust in the Lord.  There are significant risks and dependencies in using electronics but many of these (such as an EMP event) can be prepared for.   The scriptures warn us of trusting in the arm of flesh (Jeremiah 17:5) and of worshiping the works of man’s hands (Micah 5:13).  I believe that our culture is at great risk to this form of idolatry because of the technological blessings the Lord has given us.  Let’s use these gifts to bless the lives of our families and those around us, and put all of our trust in the Lord.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Those of us who are from the 1930-1940s generation may have a lot of childhood memories from our parents and grandparents that will serve us well as we approach TEOTWAWKI.  As I meditate back on the sketchy memories of childhood, I can recall a number of things that today would be called “survival living” but for us at that time was simply “living.”

In survival times, let us not forget our kids emotional well-being.  In addition to needing extra love and assurance from parents and grandparents, there are many simple ways to help them entertain themselves and break free of the video/television/iPod-in-your-ear addictions.  A simple iron or steel wheel with a metal rod with a flat bend  at end will entertain them for hours as they roll it all over the yard.  In the south, playing “doodle-bug, doogle-bug, won’t you come out”  is a joy when you “doodle” the concave hole and watch the bug back out.  Bags and bags of marbles are great as well as building blocks.  These are some of the ways we entertained ourselves as kids. 

Moving on to the real topic of survival, many of us have a head start in our preparations while others are just now waking up to reality that they are seriously behind the eight-ball, or they think they will “take” what someone else has---not recommended, especially in my state, where carrying concealed weapons is legal.  We know food is critical.  We know defense if critical.  There have been many great articles on this posted by readers and owner of this site.  The thing I’ve had a hard time understanding as a senior citizen is: “I have a bugout bag but where in the heck am I going to bugout to”?  Those in the country are going to get overrun by “bugouters” apparently, and that will be a serious moral and safety problem.  We’re in the country, but if we are forced to “move on”, we’ll be in a world of hurt after initial supplies run out.  We’re too old to camp out in these freezing mountains in winter so we are praying our current home will protected and safe.  Ultimately, God is our hiding place and our covering of protection.

Even if many of us are not in ideal locations (who can know where that is except by the specific guidance of the Lord), we can learn to make do where we are.  Two out of five neighbors are stocking up on food.  The others will come knocking when they are hungry and we will share what we can as we can see skills they have which may be needed and available when they are hungry enough to trade.  We are putting aside extra beans and rice for them as we would rather feed them than fight them, and trust God to stretch our food.  If we had the money, we would probably just pack up and leave the country but financially that is not an option.  

For water, we have a well and can always pull the pipe and pump to drop down a well bucket from a rope if we get desperate.  Fortunately a well driller lives within walking distance.  We installed a 5000 gallon water tank to last a while along with a 1,000 gallon propane tank.  Since the water has a lot of iron in it and needs to be filtered, our Big Berkey does the job, and for our backpack we use Seychelle water bottles.   All these have worked well for us.  We also make our own colloidal silver and use it for almost everything needing purifying including our dogs’ water, washing our fruit and veggies, rinsing our meat and chicken, etc.  While we can, though, we purchase the “silver sol” (comes under several names) and take it internally daily for health maintenance.  I also used it to get rid of an abscessed tooth infection recently instead of taking antibiotics which I don’t tolerate well.  We brush our teeth with it, disinfect our brushes, we spray it in our eyes for infection, we spray it up our nose for sinus infection, etc.  Colloidal Silver or Silver Sol and Olive Leaf Extract capsules are our number one line of defense for practically all illnesses we get from flu to cold to infection to pneumonia, all which we have experienced. 

For over 10 years we have heated with woodstove only.  For backup electricity, we put in an 8 KW backup solar system with two inverters so we can pump water from the 220v pump in the well for about 45 minutes a day in sunshine before it stops.  We did not tie into the grid as we did not want the power company controlling our system.  With a transfer switch, we switch back and forth as needed.  Here in sunny northern Arizona, a solar oven cooks great!  We cook tender, melt in your mouth, roast beef and chicken in it now but will resort to beans and rice later.  If you can’t afford the good ones sold online, you can make a cheap one yourself with a box, aluminum foil, duct tape and glass, or search online for methods suggested.  We did buy a Rocket stove which will cook with twigs but also learned to make a cheap one with a #10 can with bottom cut out.  We have used a #10 can cut to half size and put a wire screen on top wired down for a tortilla cooker. 

Every time the grocery store has the 1 pound bags of frozen vegetables on sale, I buy 12 or 13 bags at a time and dehydrate them in my large 9-tray dehydrator and vacuum seal the dried veggies in quart and half gallon canning jars.  Once they are dry, no worries about spoiling.  I vacuum seal everything I can get my hands on in way of dried food products.  I used to do a lot in the vacuum seal bags, but they do not hold up over time and mice and bugs can eat through them, so now I do it all in jars.  A good vacuum sealer, with the extra tube and extra lids for regular and wide mouth jar sealing, is one of the best investments you can make.
As far as a garden, all the years of chemtrail spraying we have endured here seems to have ruined the soil, trees and plants. The severe drought in Arizona seemed to start about the time they started spraying as we would watch them cover the skies which would divert the rain clouds.  Whenever we would hear a weather report to expect rain in a day or so, we knew we would get sprayed and just like clockwork, they sprayed, and no rain.   Even with building up the soil, things just don’t grow as well as they should.  The earthworms seem to be gone.  Long term food survival is still a formidable challenge in my mind.  I am purchasing seeds to sprout for live enzymes.  There’s not enough natural plant life to support any chickens or other food animals. We would love to relocate to an area with good soil & water, and Christian neighbors and preppers but have not found that place yet.

I’ve learned how to take a bath without bathing, a lesson from my grandmother who never had an indoor bathroom.  Wet a washcloth, spray with colloidal silver or nano silver and a little perfume and wash down with it and you will feel as clean and fresh as a shower.  You use hardly any water that way.  Even though we are on a private well, we practice water conservation in many ways.  One way we have done for years is to draw the hot water into gallon jugs until it begins to run hot to use, then we give that to the dogs for their water.  That amounts to two gallons of water saved each time we wash dishes or take a shower. 
I make frequent trips to the thrift stores to look for fill in supplies.   Made a major find this week when I found boxes of medical supplies like 4x4 drain sponges, abdominal pads, drainage bags with tubes, tracheostomy drain sponges, box of 50 surgical masks, surgical gloves – all for a song!  Could not believe my find.  My sister is a trained paramedic so figured she would know how to use the medical stuff.  Also found a few camouflage small military pouches that attach to a back pack.  Previously I have purchased from that thrift store woodland camouflage shirts, pants, canteens with covers, backpacks, etc.  I have found that thrift stores for pets located in upscale areas net better stuff

The local swap meet yields all kinds of neat survival items from military 3-part sleeping bags (found 2 sets), to ALICE packs with frames,  to knives to cast iron cookware.  Online stores have yielded me good prices on gas masks and canisters.  You just have to look.

All this and I am a 68 year old grandma!  If I can do it, anyone can.  Now our challenge is to go through everything, sort and inventory.  For strength we will rely on our strapping 6’3” tall 18 year old grandson who has always lived with us.  So far we have put him through a two year Heavy Equipment Operator class to learn how to operate all kinds of heavy equipment.  We had him join the Civil Air Patrol to learn skills there like desert survival training and search and rescue.  Those skills will be valuable later on when the SHTF.    I’m also thinking about putting him in a karate class.  Invest in your kids and grandkids in this way.  It will pay off. 

With all that said and done, do we feel prepared?  No, as there is always more to learn and do physically, but even with the best preparations, the unknown is always lurking, waiting like a lion to pounce on the unwary, unsuspecting ones.  We do not have any underground bunker or cave.  The ground is so rocky that is not an option.  Theft is so bad in this rural area, you cannot leave anything unattended, especially in remote areas. 
Having everything in one place goes against all wisdom in prepping.  But having done all, we stand.

So I end with this:  “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust. Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.  He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be they shield and buckler.  Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.  A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.  Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.  Because thou has made the Lord, which is my refuge, even  the most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh they dwelling.  For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”  Psalm 91:1-11.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hi Jim,
I’ve been chasing some practical technologies that have proved useful to me. I hope that you find them useful as well.
As you know, power usage in an off-grid environment is a purse to be tightly controlled. After all, when you make your own, you cautiously guard it’s use.
I‘ve been using LED strings from Inirgee.com for the past number of years at the off grid ranch and have been well pleased. 
I’ve used the warm white and the cool white and learned I like warm white inside and cool white outside.

Recently I got adventurous and toyed with the Chinese/Hong Kong manufacturers on eBay. Most of my lights use the 1157 single pole DC light sockets so that’s what I centered around. I started out with these since the US guys have already toyed around and found what they liked but, of course, their price is higher.
Then I also got the cheap Chinese ones to try out. I also found these. They work well and put out light in 360 degrees.

Next, I tried the plate style light fixture. They come with Velcro backing so you can stick them up. They work very well for overhead or desk lights or simply put into RV-style house lamps. Here are three different eBay offerings: One, Two, Three

Then I ran across a super nice floodlight, 1,000 lumens and pulls ~.6 amps. A lot of light with a very minimal current draw.
All in all, the overall current reduction has been ~80% less than I was using and the lights are comfortable and reliable.
Nice thing about putting these floodlights on the ATV and tractor is at night, I can turn off the engine and leave all the lights on and not worry if I'm going to run the battery down. 5 to 6 hours of very bright light at night and the engine always starts.

One convenient method for portable applications of the floodlights has been to use a (military) BB-2590 lithium battery (rechargeable of course) powering a single floodlight and it ran continuously for seven days.
All in all, should power go away, using the aforementioned DC lighting solutions makes life a lot more tolerable. And before that should happen, the cost of illumination is drastically reduced I hope you find an acorn or two in the foregoing that helps you.
Best Regards, - The Army Aviator

Mr. Rawles:
In a recent SurvivalBlog post, Alan W. wrote:

"It has a 400w inverter with a modified sine wave output. During Hurricane Irene the
only thing that I could get it to power was a standard lamp with an incandescent light bulb! It wouldn't run tools or electronics."

I believe he is drawing the wrong conclusion from this experience. Instead of blaming the (admittedly inferior) "modified sine wave" inverter, he should have blamed himself for not testing his equipment before the emergency struck.

I own a number of inexpensive inverters with "modified sine wave" ranging from 175 watt to 1000 watt ratings, and have found they run almost everything I have tried to power with them. I have run lights, both incandescent, CFL, and long tube fluorescents with both old magnetic and modern electronic ballasts. I have run sound reinforcement equipment
including mixers and power amplifiers (with a slight buzz but no damage).

Every night I run my CPAP [sleep apnea breathing] machine and charge my cell phone using an inexpensive 200 watt rated "modified sine wave" inverter running from a deep cycle battery that is charged by a small solar electric system.

One way to be almost absolutely sure that an electronic device will be happy running from a "modified sine wave" inverter is to look at the acceptable power voltage range. Many electronic devices today have "universal" power supplies that will accept any voltage from 100 to 250 volts. Such universal power supplies have zero problems using the less than great output waveform of inexpensive inverters. Both my CPAP and my cell phone charger have such universal power supplies.

As far as the tool issue, most motors require 7 to 10 times their running power to start. It is possible that the 400 watt inverter was simply not big enough to run the device he tried to use.

It is also very possible that he had a defective inverter.

He also stated:

"An inverter with a pure sine wave output is a much more expensive design
(and is the same output as your house electric) and is typically larger. It
is often used in back-up power supplies for computer systems."

Most reasonably priced computer UPSes sold in the home and small business market, have "modified sine wave" outputs, not "pure sine wave". Our computers at home are running on four different APC brand UPSes, all of which have "modified sine wave" outputs. This is another example to disprove the common myth that electronics can't run on "modified sine wave" inverters.

And, regarding:

"I realize that the typical generator uses a cheaper inverter and that may
be fine for a few lamps and a refrigerator, but I want to run medical
equipment, Televisions and a laptop during outages."

The "typical" generator does not use an inverter. The modern inverter generators popularized by Honda with their very quiet EU series of generators do use inverters, and the Honda models have a pretty good "pure sine wave" output.

There may be medical equipment that has a problem running on "modified sine wave" inverters, but I suspect many dealers and manufacturers claim pure sine wave is required for liability reasons rather than any actual technical reason. Again my CPAP is perfectly happy running on "modified sine wave" power.

Laptops mostly have universal power supplies these days which don't much care how good the power is you feed to them. In the case of a laptop a better solution is to use a power supply that runs directly from the 12 volt DC battery. This is much less wasteful of energy.

Televisions and radios may pick up noise when running on any inverter because even the best "pure sine wave" inverter has RF trash on its output. Try this before hand and see how much of a problem it is in your situation.

JWR wrote in reply:

"Even the best inverters produce AC power with a slightly clipped or distorted waveform."

This is true. You can largely clean the power up by using a Harmonic Neutralized Constant Voltage Transformer such as the models made by Sola. I have both a small 50 watt and a large 1,000 watt Harmonic Neutralized Sola and use them to provide clean power to very finicky "power prima donna" electronics. The downside of these transformers are that they are large, heavy (my 1000 watt transformer weighs 80 pounds), waste some of the power, and are expensive even if bought used.

JWR Also mentioned:

"Also, when sizing your system remember that the larger the inverter, the
higher its "idle" current draw will be."

That is a very important point. That is why I use a small 200 watt inverter to power my CPAP machine and my cell phone charger. Nothing larger is required. Regards, - R.R.


As a former truck driver, I have used inverters to power all sorts of things in the truck for about 10 years.

I have run various power tools, laptops, desktop computer, and even a deep fryer,cooker combo on my inverter.

The little cigarette lighter plug style inverter puts out around 50-70 watts. It would not power my laptop, but it would charge the battery, it works great for the little household adapters. They usually run around 30-40 dollars at a chain truck stop.

I used a Cobra 800 watt inverter that powered a desktop computer and CRT monitor. This was back in 2000 when laptops were still very expensive compared to desktops. It was mounted in the truck where the television normally goes. I could go many hours on the four batteries in the truck while still being able to start the engine later.

I later upgraded to a 1000 watt inverter to power my cooker, after having problems with my truck mounted diesel genset. With the high maintenance costs of running that little diesel generator, I would have been better off buying 6 or 8 additional deep cycle batteries and installing a second alternator. I spent nearly as much on the little generator as I did on the care of the 500hp Detroit diesel that got me down the road. - M.B.


Instead of spending a lot of money to get a pure sine wave generator or inverter, I'd like to remind SurvivalBlog readers of something that has been mentioned here before: You can place a UPS power backer in the line between the generator/inverter and your electronics. Let the generator charge the UPS battery with squarish sine waves and run the electronics off of the inverted battery power by the backer which is made to run sensitive electronics. I started using UPS seriously when our local power company (famous for high voltage spikes) kept burning out high quality spike protectors. The UPS power backers, take spikes, browns and square waves all the time providing clean power to your electronics. A power drop won't even drop the satellite TV connection. The down side is that you have to replace the battery every few years or so. I've had the internal batteries last for as long as 5 and as few as 2. Almost every electronic device I own is on one except for large current drain items like laser printers and appliances. Those items stay on surge protectors which I do replace as they fail. - F.B. (15 Miles From Asphalt)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I had purchased two Schumacher brand Portable Power packs-essentially a [gel cell] battery with [just] an inverter without the extra buzzers and bells from a company that makes quality battery chargers.  It has a 400w inverter with a modified sine wave output.  During Hurricane Irene the only thing that I could get it to power was a standard lamp with an incandescent light bulb!  It wouldn't run tools or electronics.  After some Internet research, I found that most units used the modified sine wave because it is a less expensive design.  Unfortunately, it may or may not supply power to the unit that you need to turn on and it could damage some electronics.

An inverter with a pure sine wave output is a much more expensive design (and is the same output as your house electric) and is typically larger.  It is often used in back-up power supplies for computer systems.  These are not portable.  Even the the top end Xantrex unit uses an inverter with a modified sine wave output.  If anyone has any advice on where to find a portable unit with an inverter with a pure sine wave output.  I realize that the typical generator uses a cheaper inverter and that may be fine for a few lamps and a refrigerator, but I want to run medical equipment, Televisions and a laptop during outages.  Any ideas? - Alan W.

JWR Replies: From what I've read, the term "pure sine wave" inverter is a bit of a marketing myth. Even the best inverters produce AC power with a slightly clipped or distorted waveform. (And for that matter, even utility grid power doesn't have a perfectly symmetrical waveform.) But both Xantrex (formerly Trace) and Outback manufacture sine wave inverters that produce very "clean" power that works very well with even the most finicky electronics such as desktop (AC transformer) computers and laser printers. Some of their small, low-wattage models are ideal for small photovoltaic, wind, or microhydro power systems. To save money, look for sine wave inverters in used condition, via eBay or Craigslist. But be sure that they are guaranteed to be working. (Commonly called a "No DOA" Warranty.) Also, when sizing your system remember that the larger the inverter, the higher its "idle" current draw will be. Even without a load, they put a load on a battery bank. Again, the higher the wattage rating, the bigger the idle current draw.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The range of topics in prepping pretty much covers the spectrum of life, and all aspects tend to be connected, however, this article is mostly limited to my strategies to power my grid dependant, difficult to defend, suburban home when the grid is down, all the while on a limited budget.  No new, earth shattering, break through here, just a plan that uses lots of basics.

My circumstances probably reflect a sizable demographic of the folks who are attempting to prepare for hard times in the suburbs.  A middle class male, married with 4 kids, living in a stick house, in a small town, near a small city, in the crowded northeast.  Fortunately we do not live on a main line of drift. We have no bug out locale.  I have with no military background or engineering experience beyond home handyman.

Several main ideas have guided my strategies, some of the ideas are related and inter connected:

Finances – my budget is stretched, as I am working on reducing debt, prepping, saving and still trying to maintain a modest, comfortable life style.  My energy solutions need to be affordable, or at least let me add to as my budget permits.  This is not the same as cost effective.  Nothing is a cheap and easy as getting electricity from the grid.

Flexibility – I pretty sure I don’t like what is coming down the road, but I don’t know what it is, or when it’s coming.   May not even know that its arrived till is been here for a while.  My preps have to be able to accommodate as wide a range of circumstance as possible, from no power for a few hours, rolling black or brown outs, to maybe no electricity for a year or more.  I also need to consider TEOTWAWKI, may not occur in my lifetime.

Utility – I would like to be able to get some use of my preps during relatively normal, grid up times.

OPSECOPSEC is key.  I cannot draw attention to my self and family.  We must blend in.  Our survival could very well depend on keeping a low profile.  We are well armed, but would very much like to avoid any confrontation.

Portability – I may have to relocate, hopefully not as a part of the Golden Horde, but possibly to relatives, neighbors or friends in a more easily defended section of my town.  It could be planned and orderly, or I could be quickly putting gear in the back of my truck, or even a garden wagon or bicycle trailer.  My preps must be modular and not too heavy to carry.

Redundancy - Same concept as "Two is one and one is none."

Efficiency - Efficiency is not fully on the list. Of course, I would like all my preps to be efficient, but not at the cost of robustness.  I feel that the drive for efficiency has put the nation in a precarious spot.

With these ideas in mind, my main energy strategy has been to simultaneously lower my energy needs and to meet those needs with small photovoltaic (solar) panels and limited use of wind generators.  It has taken a few years and is still a work in progress. It also requires a change in thinking.   Life will not be the same without grid electricity.

A small system will not power my fridge, microwave, toaster oven, furnace or air conditioning. at least for not very long.  I can, however, power fans, lights, sump pumps, alarm system, security cameras, battery chargers, and laptop computers.

A gas generator could meet my immediate energy demands and is affordable, but it violates too many of my guidelines, especially OPSEC. I wouldn’t mind getting one eventually, but see it mostly as a convenience.

A large solar installation is more than I am ready to spend, and also conflicts with my guidelines about portability and poses serious, although quieter, OPSEC problems.  It would probably work nicely in a remote rural area.

Goal: Lower my energy demands by finishing the basement and using DC power.

The reality is, that the only way we can stay in our home, with a long-term power outage during the winter, is to "camp" in it.  There will be a major downgrade in our standard of living.  My goal is to keep us as safe as possible, out of a FEMA shelter, and to cushion the fall as best I can.

The safest place in the house is the basement; it provides some protection from things that could accompany no electricity, like radioactive fallout, severe weather, and gunfire.  Concentrating our living in the basement also lowers our energy usage and makes light discipline a lot easier.  Essentially, we may need to live in the basement during part of the year and the rest of the house will be a large closet.

Previously my basement wasn’t a place one would want to spend much time. After cleaning the cobwebs, my first step was to add cross bracing to the ceiling joists for support.  I studded and partitioned with insulated walls, added some more insulation to the ceiling and put down inexpensive rubber puzzle mat flooring from a discount store.  I made removable, interior, plywood shutters with radiant foil backing for the windows.  We made two rooms, a utility room and a work out room.  There is a small alcove for a potential camping toilet bathroom.  I added no electrical wiring; only utilizing what was already in place. Neither room draws attention from visiting neighbors.  Both are well insulated and partitioned so as to be livable with little energy. 

While the focus of this article is on electricity, I’ll stray a little bit to heat.  Making heat from electricity, especially from low voltage systems is a non-starter; it’s way too inefficient.  Unfortunately we do not have a fireplace. I have some concerns about the smell of wood smoke drawing attention, but future plans include retrofitting the basement for a wood stove.

My extreme cold weather plan is to drain my pipes to prevent bursts and flooding.  There are numerous Internet resources on draining pipes and preventing burst pipes. 

Heat is from a pair of Mr. Heater portable propane heaters.  Mr. Heater runs off both 1 pound and 20-pound propane canisters.  I have extension hoses, filters and a protective box for the 20-pound tanks.  To conserve we will have to run Mr. Heater intermittently, but I don’t think we will freeze to death.  I am afraid to set Mr. Heater on the rubber puzzle mats, so I built plywood stands.  Mr. Heater is designed for indoor use, but be sure to understand the directions before using it and be careful because it gets hot.

For safety, both rooms have dual battery powered CO detectors two different brands) and a smoke detector.  Propane is my stored energy of choice, because it stores well, and no smoke or smell when using it. I know that the 20-pound tanks tend to be under filled, but it is a manageable weight for my wife and kids.  I keep adding to the cache of tanks under the back deck, keep them chained together to make theft more difficult.  My eventual goal is to cache enough of them to supply our needs for two winters.  We never run out of propane when we barbecue. 

The workout room would be a bedroom, and I have inflatable air mattresses and sleeping bags for the family and the inevitable guests.

In summary, the workout and utility rooms give us a relatively safe, comfortable, easy to heat and light shelter, as well as use during “normal” times.  I did most of the work myself, it took a few months. 

The other aspect of decreasing demand is to utilize 12 VDC appliances.  A quick explanation is that most solar panels store their energy in 12-volt batteries.  Converting the power from batteries to AC to run corded appliances loses a significant amount of energy in the [inefficient] conversion from DC to AC.  Deep cycle 12-volt batteries are designed to be charged and discharged repeatedly.  They are rated in amp hours, which are how long they could run an appliance of certain amperage, at some pre-determined rate of discharge, usually 20 hours.  A 30-amp hour battery could theoretically run a 1-amp appliance for 30 hours.  To preserve the life of the deep cycle battery, they are not usually discharged below 50%, so the 30 amp hour battery, realistically gives 15 amp hours of service.

Some 12 VDC appliances are easy to find; air compressors for inflating tires and mattresses, fans, battery chargers, laptop power supplies, car DVD players and lights, and so forth.  Other items take a little work, like finding a DC power supply for my alarm system and router.  I am still using cigarette lighter plugs and receptacles, but will make the switch to the preferred Anderson Power Pole connectors some day.  Using 12 VDC appliances lowers my electric bill during normal times, and has made road trips more comfortable, as all this stuff can be powered from the receptacle in my truck.  When I see 12 VDC items on sale, I often stock up, for redundancy as well as potential barter items.

When folks start talking about needing an air conditioning unit when the grid is down, it’s hard for me to not roll my eyes.  All of our ancestors survived long enough for us to be here without the benefit of air conditioning.  Air conditioning units are energy hogs and OPSEC disasters.  I get just as hot and cranky as the next guy, but it hasn’t killed me yet.  If your health is such that no air conditioning will indeed kill you, then your survival preparations are going to be complicated [and expensive].

Refrigeration is a tougher problem, and I have taken several steps to mitigate it.  The first is that we do not store lots of frozen food.  We try to keep a good amount of ice in the freezer, increasing the supply if we think there may be a power outage coming.  Our canned and storage foods tend to be packaged smaller, so we don’t have to worry about leftovers spoiling.  Smaller packages are also more portable.  I am learning about root cellars, but haven’t constructed one yet.

Finally, I have recently purchased a 12 VDC cooler, the Koolatron Krusader Cooler.  I haven’t had it long enough to deliver a final verdict, but I think it will be handy.  There is a wide range of DC-powered refrigerators, freezers and coolers.  The smaller ones at least, are different than a traditional kitchen refrigerator because the keep the contents about 40 degrees cooler that the outside temperature, and can also be set to heat the contents instead of cooling.  Many are marketed to the tailgating and RV crowd.

Even though its DC, they still use a good bit of power, drawing about 4 amps per hour, so may be needed to run intermittently.   I am still evaluating it, but at this time, I would rather have several small coolers as opposed to 1 larger one, in keeping with my guidelines.

Providing The Power

I have been using small solar panels and portable power supplies to provide back up power as well as supply some of my day-to-day needs (like my router and alarm).   It is an ad hoc system that has slowly grown as my budget and developing expertise allowed.  Unfortunately, most all of the solar panels and components are made in china, but I try to purchase American made whenever I can.

When I started getting involved in the providing the power part of my plan, I initially purchased a Sunlinq foldable 12 Watt solar panel and Black and Decker Electromate 400 portable power supply.  The Sunlinq was purchased through Amazon.com, while I found the Black and Decker was less expensive at Wal-Mart--after figuring in shipping.

The Sunlinq uses standard SAE connectors that makes a nice tight connection and allows for easy modular additions.  It’s the same type connector as used with the Battery Minder chargers. (I think that the Sunlinq may be made by Sunforce or vice versa.)

The Black and Decker Electromate 400 has an area light, a built in inverter with 2 AC outlets, 2 DC outlets, an air compressor, and attachable jump-start cables.  It’s sturdy and has a nice handle.  It was a good intro combination and very portable. 

The next addition to my collection of solar panels and batteries was the Sunforce 60-watt solar power kit, which I coupled with the Xantrex Xpower power pack 1500, to provide power to the utility and workout room. 

The Sunforce system is four 15-watt panels, a mounting frame, a 7-amp charge controller, a small inverter, and connecting cables.  It uses the same SAE connectors as the Sunlinq.  I have since purchased several more of the kits, via eBay, Amazon and Costco. 

Prices can vary considerably.  Purchasing the complete kits, instead of individual panels has given me modularity and spare parts.  Sometimes the kits are bundled with small extras like a crank flashlight or small battery maintainer solar panel.  The included charge controller is only rated to 7 amps, so if more than 7 panels are linked together, a larger charge controller is needed.  Charge controllers connect between the solar panels and the battery to ensure that the batteries are not overcharged and damaged.  Low wattage panels do not require a charge controller.

I am not sure I would purchase the Xpower power pack 1500 again.  I initially chose it because it is a very convenient package.  It has a 60-amp hour battery, inverter with 2 AC outlets, 1 DC outlet receptacle, and can handle loads of 1,500 watts, with surge to 3,000 watts (I haven’t taken mine anywhere close to that).  It weighs about 60 pounds and has solid rubber wheels.  You could assemble all the parts for less money, but it’s hard to beat the Xpower's portability.  The first one I ordered from Costco arrived with its plastic case broken, as did the replacement!.  After returning the second one, I waited till the spring and bought one from Amazon.com, at a better price, which arrived with a very tiny ding.  The Xpower  1500 comes bundled with a very nice AC battery charger.  The Xpower's batteries are pretty easily replaced, as opposed to the Black and Decker and other various power packs that I have acquired.  As with the Sunforce solar system, prices vary considerably for the Xpower 1500.

I regularly shop around for deals on small solar panels, like the Sunlinq or the Sunforce and smaller portable power packs, like the Black and Decker.  I will use them as spares and barter items.

Goal Zero seems to have a nice package of systems well assembled, but pricey.  The Goal Zero connectors are hard to find unless purchased directly from them.  I like the Goal Zero Guide 10, which is an AA/AAA battery charger, that also is also a light and a USB power supply. 

In a moment of weakness, I bought the Harbor Freight 45- watt system on sale.  I think the Sunforce is a better value.  The Harbor Freight folding 13-watt panel does work well, although the connections are flimsy.  It is a good value when on sale or even better when combined a 20% off coupon.

I have several of the Sunforce 60 watt kits discreetly mounted the south side of the house. The power cables enter into the basement utility room, and via the Xpower 1500 provide most of the power to the room, and makes up for my lack of additional wiring when I finished the basement.  The kits are connected with Powerlet SAE "Y" splitters, which are a little expensive, but well made and tight.  You can also make you own SAE connections; I buy my components at Solarseller.com

I purposely mounted the panels in locations that had solar exposure, but that were less than ideal, so as not to be very obvious from the street.  In an unstable Schumer hits the fan (SHTF) situation, my plan is to take down the solar panels, and use them intermittently in the back yard to charge up batteries.  If things seem stable, then I may remount them in ideal, non-esthetic locations to get maximum benefit.  I may deploy the reserve PV power kits as well, or save them to barter. 

I have recently added on to my system with the purchase of some deep cycle batteries.  In keeping with my strategy of modularity and portability I used 35 amp hour UB12350, batteries wired in parallel, instead of single larger battery, to add depth to my energy storage, and provide additional power to the basement.

I keep the various power packs charged with the solar panels, and during power outages, like Hurricane Irene, where we lost power for five days, we placed the smaller power packs in different rooms in the house and either used area lights, or plugged in a lamp and turned them on and off as needed.  Irene was a good test drive of my preps.  There was a time that my main panels were busy charging the xpower 1500 and the ub12350 battery bank.  We recharged the smaller power packs with small solar panels in the back yard and it worked out well.  Having the security cameras and alarm running at night helped the family sleep a little better.

For holidays and birthdays, I have given small portable solar chargers to family members to keep phones and other personal portable electronics charged.

If my vehicles are operational, I have a 1,000-watt inverter that can be connected to the car battery. I can get some short-term power from via extension cords, as long as the engine is running.  This is noisy, but probably less conspicuous than running a generator.

It is important to purchase power packs that can be charged directly via DC power due to the efficiency issues.  I have seen at least one packaged solar power system advertised on the Internet that uses a Xantrex power supply that can only be charged with AC power.

My experience with wind turbines has been mixed.  They are not as easy [to install] as photovoltaics, and to get real benefit, the turbine needs to be mounted fairly high, so it’s an OPSEC problem.  I bought a Gudcraft 300-watt unit and mounted it atop a volleyball net post in the corner of the yard.  It is a clunky unit, that doesn’t produce a lot of electricity where it sits, but is also inconspicuous has not caused any problems.  I have helped friends set up various other brands with underwhelming results, due to lack of wind in our area.

I have had some experience with an eBay vendor, USAWindGen.com.  They essentially make simple home-made units.  They are only suitable for intermittent use, but are inexpensive and have helped to keep my batteries charged.  I mount them on 1-inch conduit; about 5 feet high and only deploy them when needed.  Over all, I can’t strongly recommend wind turbines for alternative power in the suburbs, but you may find then a useful adjunct.

There are no doubt that larger arrays, ideally placed would be make for a more efficient power, but my ad hoc system seems to work and meet my needs as far as "camping" in my home.  When using small alternative energy products, you need to budget electricity just like any other scarce resource.


Essentially, my strategy has been to make it possible to decrease my “energy footprint” so that I can camp in my home if needed, in a way that doesn’t mess up my home while the grid is up and running.  I attempted to develop a plan I can afford and is flexible, portable, conducive to OPSEC, has redundancy, and if possible, useful during “normal” times.  The electrical power requirements for camping are not large, and growing an ad hoc system over time can meet these needs.  Although not as efficient as a well-designed system implemented at one time, this incremental approach has been affordable and allowed me to learn about alternative energy at my own pace.  Your mileage will vary.

I feel that if every family should have a small photovoltaic panel and portable power supply, either as their main source of emergency power, or as back up to their generator or larger alternative energy setup.  I know that if things get very bad, these steps and my other preparations may not be enough, but that doesn’t mean that I have to quit, and I hope that anyone reading this doesn’t quit either.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mr. Rawles,
I wanted to send a quick note that one option for a retreat's power/heating needs could be met with a natural gas well on the property.  Here is a link to a map which shows coal bed methane areas in the United States.  If someone was so inclined, a well could produce natural gas for a retreat for as many as 100 years and allow for a completely independent fuel source which can be added to other sources such as wood stoves and the like. 

Best Regards, - Jon H.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In 2003 I lived in what can only be described as "The Hood" when Hurricane Isabel arrived. Today I find myself in a middle class neighborhood for Irene. The difference between the two and how my neighbors are handling these semi-SHTF scenarios gives a very instructive view of operational security (OPSEC) and its effects.  These two hurricanes came ashore about the same place and the same strength, but its two different worlds I have seen the aftermaths effects on.

During Isabel I lived in one of the worst sections of Virginia Beach, the sort of place that other people who claimed they were from tough parts of town gave you a wide berth. I am talking deep Hood rat territory. In one year alone half of all murders in Virginia Beach happened within walking distance of my house. I used to tell people my mortgage was cheap, but I lost the savings in ammo costs.  I lived there for ten years and integrated with the local population to some extent and frankly, there are some things to learn from the Hood for all preppers.  The number one thing is that the Hood is one of the last places in America were the residents routinely live in a condition yellow environment.

This is the neighborhood where I first learned OPSEC without knowing what it was called. A good example of this was going to get some range time in. I knew intuitively that if I let it be known that I had a collection of guns in my home I would quickly become a target to every wannabe gang member on the street. So when range time came the guns went to the trunk of the car, not in nice hard cases or rifle socks, but in laundry bags and baskets. Few people had washing machines in this neighborhood. So the sight of people carrying laundry to their car to head to the laundromat was common. If I had something nice coming into the house, new DVD player, new television, etc, it came in the same way. You never left a product box whole and put it prominently in the trash, and never put a box out to the curb. You had to keep what you had hidden or someone would get the idea to take it.

This is our first big difference between Irene and Isabel.  If I wanted to I could go and brand shop a generator for my house right this minute. I just need to drive down any of my current neighborhood streets and look at the boxes at the curb. I could compare wattages and outputs. I can see the generator running right there in the driveway with a full can of gas right next to it all shiny and new.  The moment the power went out I knew who had a generator and who did not in less than 15 minutes. They are loud, out front, and proudly displayed.  Even better, there are no street lights and I can see all these people in their houses right now with the lights shining full blast, clearly marking which rooms are occupied and which are not. In suburbia what good is living in comfort if no one can see you living in comfort? During Isabel I did not hear a single generator in the six days that my neighborhood had no power.  To run one would have been bordering on suicide.

During Isabel no one showed off what they had. Maybe someone would bring a small cooler with a couple drinks outside, but that was all you saw. In my Irene neighborhood everyone has been out front on their grills all day cooking away and drinking their beer. A neighbor down the street has been having an after party of sorts. They have several large screen televisions setup in their garage and are watching the game while their generator runs and they cook out. They have several very large coolers filled with drinks they are dipping into. In my Isabel neighborhood you would have been overrun with a mini version of the golden horde as the neighborhood came around looking for a handout, and not taking kindly to you not sharing. 

This leads us to a second difference between Isabel and Irene. When the lights went out during Isabel, and the storm was past, the neighbors all went outside and formed groups.  These groups usually represented 5 or 6 houses worth of people gathering together.  In the strictest terms you could almost call these groups gangs, but in reality they were neighborhood watches. I was lucky that my next door neighbor was a lady by the name of Miss Wanda who had several teenage kids. Miss Wanda had been shot several times and grown up in the projects so I used her as a sort of mentor and a connector to the neighborhood grapevine.  We pulled several lawn chairs and benches into the yard between our homes and this became sort of a command center for our courts neighborhood watch. Once again I want to stress nothing here was planned; this was pure instinct of people who were used to dicey situations and knew that you had to keep an eye out. These were people, who would take every dime they could from the government, but did not trust their government and fully expected to be the last to receive any form of help. People talked and visited with each other, drank, and played music but you better believe every single person who traveled those streets was verified as needing to be there and was vouched for by someone else.  The neighborhood as a whole knew who should be there and people were strongly vetted.  

Have you ever been in a bad neighborhood and been frustrated by the groups of people walking slowly in the middle of the street who won’t seem to get out of your way? Thought they were just being disrespectful didn’t you. That’s not what was going on at all. You were being vetted. Your victim status was being evaluated, your profile was being noted, and your business was being judged. Only after all of these calculations are done will the group get out of your way, or rob you, or harass you. Once