Jun 172013
 
The cost of living is a relevant factor to consider when choosing a retreat location.

The cost of living is a relevant factor to consider when choosing a retreat location.

Whether you’re looking at a retreat in a nearby state, or a far-away country, one of the issues to consider is how much the cost of living will be.

For sure, WTSHTF, there will be a massive rewrite of the cost of living equation, with unpredictable and uncertain results into a Level 2 and/or 3 situation.  But if you’re considering spending time at your retreat prior to a Level 2 or 3 situation, then the local cost of living is helpful to understand.

In particular, an appreciable number of preppers seek to find a dual-purpose location which is suitable to live at, permanently, and also to stay at as a retreat if things go bad.  There might also be a (very weak) correlation between cost of living and the cost of creating a retreat.

Here’s an interesting list of the 30 cheapest cities in the entire world to live in, as of April 2013 (Note that these indexes are regularly updated, so depending on when you’re visiting, you might want to search out the latest list from the site’s home page).

And, for its twin, here’s a list of the 30 most expensive cities to live in.

The website uses a detailed methodology to create these lists, but there’s one important thing to appreciate.  It calculates costs to create an equivalent cost to live at a reasonable western standard, rather than the costs to live like a local, in whatever sort of average lifestyle locals have.  That is presumably why Luanda, Angola scores so high, and probably also why six US cities appear in the list of the 30 cheapest cities.

Of course, if you are considering a move anywhere outside of the US, you’ll want to be able to accept a lifestyle that is perhaps somewhere in the middle, a compromise between how the locals live and how you’d prefer to live in a perfect world, and for sure, in an emergency situation, you’ll need to be able to live completely like a local, because all your favorite imported luxuries will no longer be available.

In addition to the 60 cities listed as either most expensive or least expensive, you can see ratings for their entire database of 780 locations, all around the US and all around the world, here.

Here’s their list of all 50 US states, ranked from lowest cost of living (a bit confusing, the higher the score, the lower the cost) to the highest.  We also show the US average (443) cost of living to give a relative measure of better and worse states than average.

TN  702
KY  688
AR  683
OK  670
KS  663
MO  657
TX  650
NE  640
AL  632
MS  621
GA  619
LA  611
ND  609
IA  607
ID  598
WV  593
UT  590
OH  585
IN  582
SD  569
NC  566
MI  560
IL  554
WY  552
WI  551
SC  545
NM  541
VA  535
FL  513
MN  503
CO  497
MT  483
NV  470
DE  465
AZ  464
PA  452
US  443 National Average
WA  441
OR  408
NH  402
ME  381
VT  359
RI  347
MA  342
MD  307
NJ  296
CT  265
NY  257
CA  253
AK  171
HI  149

Interestingly (perhaps) using this company’s ranking methodology, the first of the American redoubt states doesn’t appear until you reach the fifteenth place (ID), and the two partial states in the redoubt (OR and WA) are 11th and 12th worst states, no doubt due to the big city and liberal influences in the western part of these two states.

Here’s a map showing the top five states in strong green, the next five states in pale green, the worst five states in strong red and the following five states in light red (we ignore HI and AK).

 

locationcriteria2

 

There’s no real surprise to see where the red ends up, but the green might be more of a surprise.

The local cost of living is of course only one factor to consider, and also bear in mind that these are state-wide averages, so can vary greatly across a state.  As an example of variations within a state, Texas scored very positively with a state-wide rating of 650, but there is quite a spread between individual cities, ranging from, eg, Houston at 661, El Paso at 634, Dallas at 610, and Austin at 583, but Amarillo gets a very different score, at 300.

Other Criteria

The results we’ve been discussing here are based on one set of assumptions, tailored to help companies adjust compensation packages based on where they relocate an employee.  There are many other ratings for cost of living, using a mix of the same and perhaps different criteria, and with different weightings for different factors, all giving slightly different sets of results.

For example, here’s another excellent set of ratings, also from April 2013.  There are both similarities and also some differences between this other rating system (MERIC) and the first (Xpatulator).

We summarize the best and worst states as per Xpatulator and show their comparable ratings with MERIC in this following table.  We rate 1 as the cheapest state and 48 as the most expensive (we again ignore HI and AK).

State  Xpatulator  MERIC 
TN 1 2
KY 2 3
AR 3 7
OK 4 1
KS 5 8
MO 6 12
TX 7 9
NE 8 5
AL 9 13
MS 10 10
ID 15 4
NH 39 40
ME 40 39
VT 41 41
RI 42 44
MA 43 43
MD 44 42
NJ 45 46
CT 46 48
NY 47 47
CA 48 45

 

The results are similar, but not identical.  Both agree on the same ten ‘worst’ states, in slightly different order, but there are slightly greater differences in the best ten list, with only seven states appearing in both top ten lists.

One notable difference is Idaho comes in at number 4 in the MERIC ranking, but only made 15 in the Xpatulator ranking series we first looked at.

The best state for the MERIC ranking series is Oklahoma (scores as 4 with Xpatulator) and Tennessee for Xpatulator (scores 2 with MERIC).

There are plenty of other rating series too, but even ‘just’ these two sets of data give a reasonable consistent picture already – maybe more rating series start to add confusion rather than clarity!

Summary

There are major differences in the cost of living between the various states in the US, and of course, even greater differences when you start to look internationally, too.

While this is only one of the very many factors you need to consider in choosing a location for your retreat, it is a valid consideration to bear in mind.  The Xpatulator website has information on all US states, many US cities, plus a large number of other cities, regions and countries around the world that gives you one perspective on how the various costs are made up to live in different locations.  Another good rating series is the MERIC series.

If you are considering off-shore locations, the calculated cost of living is an even smaller part of your total evaluation, and you also need to realize that many of the apparently more desirable countries and locations have what can be politely termed ‘developing’ economies, meaning that these numbers are subject to potentially great change with little warning.

Jun 122013
 
A spectacular fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in March 2011.

A spectacular fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in March 2011.

Even the most stubborn of non-prepper types might be worried about living too close to a nuclear power plant.

Indeed, the concerns about safety are not just at a personal level (some people attempt to keep their distance from nuclear power plants) but also at a national level – many countries forbid their construction, and more recently, some countries which have been reliant on nuclear power for a substantial part of their total electricity needs are abandoning nuclear power and closing down their plants, again due to concerns about the safety of the reactors.

There’s probably not a single person in the US who doesn’t know about the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant’s near total meltdown, even though it occurred 34 years ago in 1979, and there’s even fewer people in the entire world who are not acquainted with Chernobyl (a 1986 event).  Most recently, even if people don’t remember the name of the location, the Japanese nuclear power plant crisis at Fukushima had so many people stocking up on Iodine tablets that they became as scarce as ammunition is at present.

So it is unsurprisingly common to see on typical sorts of hazard and ‘do not locate here’ prepper retreat selection maps, that prominent marking is given to not just the location of currently operating nuclear power plants, but also to the location of decommissioned plants as well.

All this focus on nuclear power plants begs the question – just how much of a threat do they pose?  Let’s have a look, first of all, at the potential dangers of what has gone wrong in past nuclear power plant accidents, and then secondly, evaluate the risk of such events in the future.  The results are surprising.

The Implications of a Nuclear Power Plant Mishap

Problems with a nuclear power plant can vary from trivial to catastrophic.  Trivial mishaps occur from time to time, but they never escalate to an emergency because backups and safety systems kick in and resolve the issue before it escalates.

If backups fail, there are other design features that are intended to minimize the extent of any worst case scenario events, chief among which is the containment structure around the power plant itself.

But, of course, Murphy’s Law applies to nuclear power plants and even to triple redundant safety systems, just as much as it does to anything and everything else.  So we have, on occasion in the past, seen events that have resulted in the release of nuclear/radioactive materials.  A chilling consideration is that even the ‘worst case’ scenarios that have occurred to date (especially Fukushima) weren’t truly worst case – as bad as they were, they could have been much worse than they ended up as being.

So what is prudent to consider in terms of possible worst case events?

According to this document, local government authorities plan for two rings of danger around a nuclear power plant.  The first has a 10 mile radius, within which there’s a danger of direct radiation exposure, the second is a much larger zone with a 50 mile radius where radiation and fallout might contaminate food and water.

These are fairly nonsense measures with little science underlying them.  Let’s compare this plan with the reality of what we’ve seen in past events.

The problems at the Japanese nuclear reactor complex at Fukushima are interesting to consider.  According to this page, the Japanese created a 20 km radius exclusion zone (ie about 13 miles), but considerable radiation was received at much greater distances and small levels of fallout made it all the way across the Pacific and landed in the US.  Furthermore, some commentators have suggested maybe the Japanese understated the amount of radioactivity released and its impacts.

Going back to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, for which there is still a 30 km radiused exclusion zone around the power plant (18.5 miles) there are also remaining radiation hot spots in places out as far as almost 200 miles from the reactor – see the map on this page.  In the early period shortly after the release of radiation, some hot spots existed as much as 300 miles from the reactor.

On the other hand, our own Three Mile Island event in 1979 involved the partial meltdown of a reactor, but only a very limited release of radiation, and according to this page, no-one has subsequently died from the radiation released.  At the time of the event, initially a 5 mile radius evacuation zone was suggested, and then that was briefly extended to recommending voluntary evacuation within 20 miles of the plant, but many people quite sensibly ignored this.

Our point is simply that there’s little way of predicting what the impacts of a problem at a nuclear power plant may be, but worst case scenarios can see seriously elevated levels of radiation from fallout, even over 200 miles from the plant, depending of course not just on the nature of the event but the prevailing winds.

The Scope and Scale of Nuclear Accidents

Clearly, there is a huge difference between trivial and massive nuclear accidents.  This page from the International Atomic Energy Agency has  an interesting explanation of the INES – International Nuclear Event Scale.  The scale is logarithmic, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, which means each level is ten times more serious than the level before.

Events that occur at levels 0 – 3 on this scale are trivial and probably of no impact to people outside the power plant.  Level 4 events are ones which there might be some local release, but of a minor level – you could leisurely walk away from the contaminated area and be safe.

Level 5 is where we start to become at more widespread risk, although as this Wikipedia list of INES events points out (somewhat obliquely) ordinary members of the public have apparently never died as a result of a Level 5 event at a power plant.

Level 6 definitely involves casualties, but there has only ever, in the entire history of nuclear power, been one such event, in the Soviet Union in 1957.

Level 7 events – the maximum level on the scale – have only occurred twice, at Chernobyl, also in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) and Fukushima.

Part of the reason for the high number of resulting deaths from Chernobyl was the slowness of the Soviet authorities to acknowledge the events at the reactor, and the slowness of them subsequently evacuating civilians from the affected area.

In contrast, the Fukushima event was reasonably responsibly handled, with apparently – so far – only two directly related deaths, and neither from radiation (two employees who drowned).

Here’s an interesting table comparing the Fukushima and Chernobyl events.

Here’s a helpful Wikipedia page with a reasonably complete listing of accidents at all civilian nuclear facilities (not just power plants) and – for the sake of completeness, although not part of this discussion of nuclear power plant risks, here is a similar page on military nuclear accidents.

The Degree of Risk

Now it is time to put these past events and present risks in perspective.

Sure, we all are very aware of Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.  But how many others have also occurred?

The answer might surprise you.  As you can see from the preceding section, very few other problems have occurred at a level that resulted in the release of any radiation outside the power plant itself.  Furthermore, although it is hard to appreciate this from the hysterical coverage given at the time and for ever after, the Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature and scope.

So, let’s now look at the two – only two – accidents involving appreciable releases of radiation.

The first of these – Chernobyl – involved a type of reactor design that is not used in the west.  It has a terrible weakness inherent in its design – if temperatures increase in the reactor, this creates a positive feedback loop that causes the reactor to increase its level of activity, which increases the temperatures further, which speeds up the reactor more, and so on until, all of a sudden, you have a Chernobyl disaster.  All western style reactors have a negative feedback loop design – if the temperature increases, the nuclear reaction decreases, and so the temperature drops back down again.

In other words, a Chernobyl type accident could not happen in the west.

As for the Fukushima event, this was precipitated not by any problems originating from the reactor itself, but by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  The reactors shut down because of the earthquake, and so stopped generating power, which was needed to keep the cooling pumps operating.

The earthquake also caused a loss of outside power coming into the facility, so the on-site emergency generators started up.  All was good until the tsunami arrived, flooding the generator rooms, floating away the fuel tanks, and causing the generators to fail.  With loss of cooling, the power rods heated up beyond safe limits and melted down.

The Fukushima event was the result of poor planning and lack of consideration of external vulnerabilities.  Everything actually worked perfectly and as it should until the tsunami swamped the generators.

Our point is simply that the two disasters that occurred were each unique and not symptomatic of systemic weaknesses that apply to other or all nuclear power plants in the US.

So, let’s think about this.  In some 60 years of civilian nuclear power plants being in operation, there have been only two accidents that involved serious amounts of radiation being released.

Now, remember that one of those two accidents could not occur in the US due to different reactor design, and the other is very unlikely.  But let’s still consider the Fukushima event as relevant, because maybe there are other unexpected vulnerabilities hidden within US reactor designs.  So, in approximately 15,000 reactor years of operation, there has been only one significant and arguably relevant accident.

People feel perfectly safe living next to a volcano that erupts maybe once every 15,000 or so years.  You should feel similarly safe having a nuclear power plant in your back yard.

Oh yes – the number of radiation deaths from the accident at Fukushima?  Zero.

Extending the Analysis

As of May 2013, there are 436 nuclear reactors operating within 127 power plants around the world, and another 70 reactors under construction.  Within the US, there are 104 reactors operating within 65 power plants.

There are also tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, none of which have ever accidentally exploded all by itself.

There are also many hundreds of other nuclear reactors.  You might live close to one without even realizing it – some universities have nuclear reactors on campus for teaching and research.  Military and research facilities also have nuclear reactors.

Then there are nuclear powered submarines and surface vessels – perhaps 200 or more in total.  And – oh yes – don’t forget other nuclear power sources, even if not involving critical reactors – that are located in many other places, below the earth, on the earth, and above the earth in satellites.

Consider all these things, and then contrast the two significant nuclear accidents we’ve seen, neither of which directly exposes any similar vulnerability in US reactors.

Bottom line – there are more nuclear reactors ‘out there’ than you’d think, and fewer nuclear accidents than ‘conventional wisdom’ seems to perceive.  Nuclear power plants are extremely safe.  Many more people die from the pollution released by coal and oil-fired power plants than by radiation that is (not!) released by nuclear power plants.

Based on this analysis, you should have no concerns whatsoever in locating yourself close to a nuclear power plant.  Unfortunately, we’ve not yet finished our analysis.

Two More Vulnerabilities?

There are however two types of vulnerability not yet considered.

The first of these is the potential for a deliberate radioactive release as the result of some form of sabotage or terrorist attack.

For sure, all nuclear power plants have security forces protecting them, but alas, equally for sure, we have to fear that a determined and clever terrorist attack may have an appreciable chance of gaining at least temporary access to the control circuitry and the physical reactor and related parts of the power plant.

We also have to concede that a well researched terrorist exploit of power plant vulnerabilities could result in grave harm being inflicted on the reactor, possibly to the point of a melt-down and an uncontained release of radioactive materials.

It is necessary to also assume that terrorists could infiltrate the actual power plant staff – if, as we’ve seen, an organization as security obsessed as the NSA can allow a contractor (Edward Snowden) with some obviously non-conformist and pro-privacy views to not only work for them but to walk off with large amounts of ultra-highly classified materials, and if we see muslims infiltrating the army before massacring soldiers (13 killed and 30 wounded by Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood), we have to accept that nuclear power plants are every bit as much at risk of infiltration and subtle sabotage, and maybe more so.

So it seems we have to accept that enemy terrorists can attack a power plant equipped with inside knowledge on security measures/capabilities and reactor vulnerabilities and how to exploit them.  That’s a little bit scary, isn’t it.

There’s one more way of terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, too.  By computer.  We can only guess at what possible vulnerabilities lie within all the computerized control systems at a nuclear power station.

And – wait.  We said there are two extra vulnerabilities.  That was only the first, even though there were three parts to it.  The second category of additional vulnerability is to wonder what would happen if an EMP attack disabled the control circuitry in a nuclear reactor.

We expect that nuclear power plants would have some degree of ‘hardening’ of their control circuits to make them semi-resistant to some types of EMP effects, but probably they would not be 100% invulnerable to all levels of EMP intensity.

We also understand that there are physical ‘fail safe’ design features, such as enabling the fuel rods to literally fall out of the reactor, causing the reactor to lose its criticality and stop functioning.

But we also then think about what happened at Fukushima – the fuel rods correctly fell out of the reactor in a SCRAM type action when the earthquake hit.  The problem there was when the power to drive the cooling pumps to keep the fuel rods cool failed.  That’s not a mechanical failsafe device – it requires electricity and electronics, which might be vulnerable to an EMP attack, and if this ended up with a similar type of Fukushima failure event, the result could be massively disastrous.

These are all hypothetical scenarios, and happily improbable.  But are they impossible?  No, alas, they are not.

You’ll have to decide how much importance to ascribe to such risks when making your own decisions about the risks associated with being close to nuclear power stations.

Summary

The popular perception of elevated risks associated with being located close to a nuclear power plant is generally wrong and hysterically overstated.

The well-known Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature, no-one has died from radiation released at Fukushima (with the whole series of events at Fukushima not being due to anything going wrong with the reactors themselves), and the Chernobyl accident was directly related to a bad unsafe reactor design that is not used in the US.

As for other nuclear accidents, none have involved significant releases of radioactivity.

You’re more at risk of a nearby dormant volcano erupting than you are from dangerous levels of radioactivity being released from a nearby nuclear power plant.

But.  There is one unknown vulnerability that can’t really be quantified.  That is the risk of deliberate failure and intentional release of radioactive materials, caused by terrorist actions.  We don’t know how likely that might be, but we have to accept it is not totally impossible, and while we also don’t know what extent of release could be caused by deliberate action, we also have to accept that it could be very high.

So – nuclear power plants.  The good news – they have proven themselves to be very safe in terms of ‘normal’ risks.  But, the bad news?  They are potentially vulnerable to unusual risks and deliberate attack/sabotage.

Depending on other factors, it is probably wise to keep some distance from power stations accordingly.  Depending on the wind patterns between you and the power station, ‘some distance’ could mean as much as 300 miles.

Jun 102013
 
A map showing population changes, 2000 - 2010, across the country by county.

A map showing population changes, 2000 – 2010, across the country by county.

We’ve written regularly about the importance of population density when choosing a retreat location.

But there’s more to population density than just looking at the density of an area at a given instant in time.  Is the population increasing or decreasing?  That may impact on the future population density that you can anticipate to evolve.  And there is a very different dynamic in a region with rapidly growing population than a region which is steadily losing people.  Consider Florida, with new developments, new roads, new shopping, and formerly empty areas now becoming new towns and cities.  And then think about some of the rust-belt states, with decaying infrastructure, empty city centers, boarded up shops, etc.

So, do you even know if the retreat you may be considering is in an area with a growing population, or a retreat in an area with a shrinking population?  And, although the extremes of too rapid growth and too substantial decline are both obviously bad, what about moderate growth and moderate decline – which is better?

First, we should define what is normal, such as it ever is in a nation as varied and diverse as ours.  The country as a whole grew by 9.64% in the ten years between the 2000 census and the 2010 census.  So, in a sense, any area that did not grow by right around 10% is growing at a less than average rate and so is – in relative terms – sort of shrinking.

The 9.64% overall growth in the nation did not occur evenly over all 50 states.  According to the US Census bureau, the south and west each grew by over this amount, while the northeast and midwest grew by less.

The states listed in order of percentage growth are

Rank  State Growth (%) 
1 Nevada 35.1
2 Arizona 24.6
3 Utah 23.8
4 Idaho 21.1
5 Texas 20.6
6 North Carolina 18.5
7 Georgia 18.3
8 Florida 17.6
9 Colorado 16.9
10 South Carolina 15.3
11 Delaware 14.6
12 Washington 14.1
13 Wyoming 14.1
14 Alaska 13.3
15 New Mexico 13.2
16 Virginia 13.0
17 Hawaii 12.3
18 Oregon 12.0
19 Tennessee 11.5
20 California 10.0
21 Montana 9.7
AVG National Average   9.64 
22 Arkansas 9.1
23 Maryland 9.0
24 Oklahoma 8.7
25 South Dakota 7.9
26 Minnesota 7.8
27 Alabama 7.5
28 Kentucky 7.4
29 Missouri 7.0
30 Nebraska 6.7
31 Indiana 6.6
32 New Hampshire 6.5
33 Kansas 6.1
34 Wisconsin 6.0
35 District of Colombia 5.2
36 Connecticut 4.9
37 North Dakota 4.7
38 New Jersey 4.5
39 Mississippi 4.3
40 Maine 4.2
41 Iowa 4.1
42 Pennsylvania 3.4
43 Illinois 3.3
44 Massachusetts 3.1
45 Vermont 2.8
46 West Virginia 2.5
47 New York 2.1
48 Ohio 1.6
49 Louisiana 1.4
50 Rhode Island 0.4
51 Michigan – 0.6

Twenty one states grew by more than the national average, 28 states (plus DC) grew by less, and one state (Michigan) actually shrunk.

How Much Growth is Good?

We would suggest that you don’t want to relocate to an area that is undergoing significantly greater than normal growth.  A region and a state with ‘super-growth’ will see a changing demographic, will have an unpredictable future, will have greater pressure on land prices and availability, and inevitably spreading urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and other challenges.  After spending some decades in the Pacific Northwest, where the freeway capacity has never been able to catch up with population pressures, we speak from bitter experience.  🙂

If we arbitrarily define super-growth as being 10% above the national average, that would make five states undesirable.

We also suggest you don’t want to relocate to a moribund state with little or no growth.  There are seldom good reasons for a state suffering curtailed growth, and it may bring with it a feeling of resentment and greedy entitlement among those people remaining.

If we perhaps choose the bottom five states as being also undesirable (although we could as easily make this four, or six, or any other number) that provides a further point of focus.

So if we’ve eliminated ten states as growing either too fast or too slow, what about the other 40 states?  Are they all equally desirable/neutral from a population growth dynamic?

Clearly, some of these have to be better than others, but we’re also starting to shift from where it is appropriate to consider states as a whole to where it becomes more appropriate to think about counties.  However, and without thinking about the identities of the specific states, if we were to select say a matching ten ‘better’ states to highlight, we’d probably choose the ten ranging down from the average growth rate of 9.64%.  In order, these would be AR MD OK SD MN AL KY MO NE and IN.

To show all this on a map, we have shaded the ‘too fast growing’ states with red, the ‘too slow growing’ states with black, and the ‘slightly less than average’ states in green.

growthstatesc

It is interesting to note that one of the fastest growing states (TX) is right next to one of the slowest growing states (LA).  However, LA is a special case state, due to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, giving perhaps an anomalous result for this ten year period.  We also note that one of the redoubt states (ID) is also the fourth fastest growing state.

More Meaningful Data at the County Level

The state level information is interesting to see, but potentially misleading.  As we said above, we’re now moving to a situation where county by county considerations become more important, and so here’s a wonderful map showing exactly this.

This gives us a very different view.  We would suggest that the ideal color to look for would be the lightest blue color, showing a 0% – 10% population increase.  Beyond that, we would be probably comfortable with the lightest yellow color too (ie up to a 10% decrease) and then our third choice would be the mid color blue (10% – 20% increase).

Other colors could be considered too – remember, that even now we are at county level data, a single county can conceal conflicting trends in different parts, and need to be considered in the context of other counties around it, and also whether the county’s population is large or small, numerically.  For example, in a county with a very small population but a large land area, adding or subtracting just a couple of families could make a large percentage difference.

You can now see, for example, that even the most rapidly growing state (Nevada, with a statewide growth of 35.1%) actually shows most of the state with low growth, some parts with decreases, and almost the entire growth (in terms of actual extra people) occurring in one place only (Clark County – ie the Las Vegas area).

This is a great example of how average data for a larger area obscures major differences when you start to look in more detail.

Summary

The US population grew, nation-wide, by 9.64% over the period 2000 – 2010.  This growth was not evenly distributed over the entire country.  One state actually got smaller (Michigan), while the most rapidly growing state (Nevada) grew by 35%.

But within individual states, there is also a huge range of increases (and decreases) when you track the changes in each separate county.

Our general recommendation is to locate in an area with average to moderately below average growth, ideally between a maximum of perhaps 10% and a minimum of slightly less than 0% growth – a mild decrease, in other words.

But, just as how we saw a huge change when we went from state level data to county level data, even a single county can mix some areas of growth (perhaps a city) with other areas of no growth or population decrease.

As is the case with all data, our search does not end once we get county level statistics.  If anything, it is only just starting when you’ve created a short list of counties to consider in detail.

Jun 102013
 
An example of a car prowler opening a car with a mysterious electronic device.  No-one yet knows how.

An example of a car prowler opening a car with a mysterious electronic device. No-one yet knows how.

We’ve written before about the vulnerabilities and threats to our society posed by hackers wreaking mischief on our nation’s computer-controlled infrastructure.

The problem that exists is visualizing and comprehending the open-ended nature of such threats.  Any computing device, no matter how simple, or ‘safe’ it might seem, including devices that we don’t even think of as being computers, is/are vulnerable to hacker attack.

It is one thing to guard against known threats and risks, but the open-ended concept of computer ‘exploits’ requires the people protecting and defending the computers to be as creative and imaginative as the attackers.  Although we have some very clever people involved in helping our society become less at risk of computer attack, it is impossible to think of every form of computer attack.

Let’s look at another form of computer attack that, happily, in no way risks destroying our society and plunging us into the depths of a Level 3 situation.  But we offer this to you as an example of how computer vulnerabilities can appear in unexpected areas, and in every area.

Specifically, here’s an interesting story about how common ordinary car prowlers across the nation are now making use of an unknown device that ‘zaps’ the computer control systems in some vehicles, causing them to unlock themselves.

The really interesting aspect of this is that both the police and computer security experts have no idea at all what the device is or how it works.  Which is a polite way of saying that they also don’t know how to close the loophole that this mysterious device is exploiting, and for now, all they can lamely say is ‘never leave valuables in your car’.

The learning points from this real life example are :

  • Even the most unexpected devices (car door locks) have computers operating them and are vulnerable
  • Even the simplest of computers have security vulnerabilities
  • Most astonishingly of all, even if the experts know a vulnerability exists; they might not know what it is or how to fix it

As we said to start, this particular vulnerability isn’t going to cause society to collapse.  But you have to ask the question – what else might also be vulnerable to computer attacks that are more essential to the ongoing smooth functioning of our society?  The answer to that list is enormously long, and some of the vulnerabilities terrifying in scope and scale.

Truly, any day and every day there’s a possibility that an all-out attack on critical computer control systems might occur, plunging our society into a sudden and severe disruption and Level 2/3 event from which few people will survive.

Keep up with your preps!

Jun 092013
 
A classic map of population density, but much too simplistic to be used to help you determine the rural nature of a retreat location.

A classic map of population density, but much too simplistic to be used to help you determine the rural nature of a retreat location.

One of the most essential tenets of prepping is that you need a retreat that is in a rural area, away from population concentrations and big cities.

It is fairly obvious when a region has too dense a population; when it is too ‘citified’.  But how can one measure the degree of rurality (is that actually a word?) or ruralness (another word the spell checker doesn’t like) of the region you are considering for your retreat?

The simple approach has been merely to look at population density per square mile, on the basis of ‘the fewer the better’.  Here’s a typical population density map.  But this is indeed a simplistic approach, with several limitations.  It can be appropriate as a very quick first filter of the nation, with some regions clearly being eliminated for having way too many people crowded into them, but beyond that, as you start to become more exact in your evaluation, it becomes increasingly limited.

For example, having no-one else living around you for many miles is probably too much of a good thing – or, in this case, too little of a good thing.  As we’ve remarked in other articles in our series about choosing a location for your retreat, you should compromise between too few and too many people, either too distant or too close.  So you’re not seeking the lowest population density.  Yes, you’re seeking a low population density, but the key issue is the type of people around you, not just the number of people around you.

The people who are within half a day or so of your retreat should be reasonably self-sufficient, so that in the future, they’re likely to survive and contribute to the viability of the region as a whole.

There’s also a difference between a region with low population density because no-one can comfortably live there (ie the middle of the desert or the top of the Rockies) and a place with a low population density because the people who live there are all on 80+ acre farms.  A simple population density map gives you no clue as to why some areas are empty or very sparsely populated.

Clearly you want to locate yourself somewhere such that your neighbors are growing all the food they need, and some more besides.  That not only implies you probably could also grow more than enough food for you and the people with you, too, but also means that your neighbors may have surplus food to trade for other goods, or, in an emergency based on unusual weather or crop infestation or some other disaster interfering with your own crop yield, to share with you.

This distinguishes such areas from other places which might be tourist resorts, or ‘service towns’ that happen to be somewhere otherwise in the middle of nowhere, or possibly places with a seasonal retiree population.  These types of groupings of people are not self-supporting, and rather than adding value and survivability to a region, they detract from it.

Maybe you’re not really cut out to be a farmer, but maybe you have some other suitable skill to offer in exchange for food.  You’ll get more food in return for whatever you do if you are trading with people who have a surplus of food than you’ll get from people who are food poor.  Or maybe you’re going to raise chickens, and you will swap chickens and eggs for fruit and vegetables and meat.

Whatever your plan, it is best done in a region with already viable other families living there.

A More Exact Statement of Population Criteria

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.  So let’s first try to make a formal statement of what you’re looking for when considering population density and rural character.

You want to find an area with a low population density – perhaps less than one person per 5 – 10 acres (whether right or wrong, a convenient rule of thumb is you need at least an acre of reasonably arable land per person for food, then add extra land to adjust for unproductive land, roading, buildings, livestock that require an acre or more each as well, and so on).  With 640 acres in a square mile, this translates to a maximum of 64 – 128 people per square mile.

Depending on where the people are located within the county, you also might prefer not to be in an area with a density of 0 – 1 people per square mile (ie one person for every 640+ acres).

Now, to move on from simple population density, you want the region your retreat is located in to have a primarily rural and sustainable economy with productive farming.

Let’s look at some ways we can better understand the country and its different regions.

Distinguishing Rural from Urban/City Areas

So –  when is an area considered rural rather than urban?  It seems there are several different measures to consider.  Population density is one, but as discussed above, it has limitations and flaws.

Another simplistic measurement is distance from major urban areas.  There are others.

For perhaps the most outstanding and definitive review of issues to do with classifying areas as rural or urban, this paper published by Dr Gary Hart of the University of ND analyses over thirty different classification methodologies and, in a dry and academic way, has a lot of interesting commentary.

If you don’t want to read its 50+ pages, the key finding is that most methodologies are flawed.  Let’s look at the common weakness that applies to most measurement criteria.

The Problem of Measuring Data at County Level

One of the problems of most approaches to analyzing regions and their uses is that they are typically based on county level data.  The problem with this is that counties vary in size, and sometimes obscure a mix of wildly different social and geographical areas within the overall county.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest, Washington state’s King County (map here) extends from Seattle and its adjoining high density cities to national forest, mountains, and empty areas of minimal population density; in total comprising 2,307 sq miles.

In terms of sheer size alone, King County is bigger than 60 of the world’s entire countries, but as big as it is, King County is not even one of the top 100 sized counties in the US, and is only the third largest in WA.  In terms of population (2.008 million) King County is bigger than 95 different independent countries, but is only the 13th largest county in the US by this measure.

Clearly, a county the size (either physical or population) of this and many other counties is way too large for accurate detailed information.  The collected/average data for King County ends up reflecting nothing that actually exists in reality (just like the average American family has 2.5 children, but have you ever seen a half child?).  Its overall scores obscure a mix of regions, some of which are intensely industrial and some of which are intensely rural, some of which have high population densities and some of which have low densities, some of which are skewed strongly Democrat and some of which are skewed strongly Republican.

Sure, not all counties in all states are the same size as King County, and not all have such a blended mix of city and country components.  But the point remains that country level data is often too broad, obscuring substantial variations within the counties.

How do we solve this?  We can really only start to address this issue once we’ve started to narrow down our area of searching; there’s no easy/convenient way to do it on a national level for the first few rounds of evaluation and regional scoring.  But when we start to zero in on regions, we then need to modify the county level data and subdivide it into smaller geographical sizings.

As we go through the first few exercises, we need to simply keep our mind open to two essential and opposite facts :

  • There may be excellent areas obscured within an apparently unsuitable area
  • An apparently excellent area may have, within it, bad areas to be avoided

Truly there are equal parts art and science to identifying ideal retreat locations.

Read More in Part Two

Let’s continue with a look at three scientific approaches, and see how useful they may be for our purposes.  Please now click on to Three Examples of Identifying Rural Regions, the second part of this two-part article.

Please also see our more general series of articles on choosing and evaluating the best location for your retreat.

Jun 092013
 
A yes/no categorization of regions by zip code into frontier or non-frontier regions, proposed by the National Center for Frontier Communities.

A yes/no categorization of regions by zip code into frontier or non-frontier regions, proposed by the National Center for Frontier Communities.

This is the second part of a two-part article about determining the rural character of any given region and therefore, its derivative suitability as a retreat location for prepper purposes.

If you arrived here direct from another site’s link or search engine, we’d recommend you first read the first part – How Rural is Your Retreat’s Region – and then come back here to read this second part.

The Index of Relative Rurality

In 2006, a researcher from Purdue University, IN, (Brigitte Waldorf) published a paper in which she detailed a measure she called the Index of Relative Rurality (abbreviated IRR) – a scale from 0.0 to 1.0 for measuring areas, with 0.0 being most urban to 1.0 being most rural.  At the time, this was an innovative new measure, and used four factors for giving a rating – population size, population density, percentage of urban residents (ie living in built up areas), and distance to the closest metropolitan area.

But it also has some major limitations.  Although its author opens her introduction by saying (and we agree with her)

Low population density, abundance of farmland, and remoteness from urban agglomerations are characteristics that people typically associate with rural places.

the problem is that her IRR scale, while considering the first and the third of the three factors, completely overlooks the second – ie, the land use in the region being measured.  We think this is an important additional factor.  She disagrees, saying on page 9

Are there additional dimensions or rurality? In the past, it may have been defendable to include the reliance on agriculture as a key dimension. However, today agriculture accounts for such a small share of economic activities overall as well as in rural areas, that it no longer qualifies as a key dimension. Similarly, many social characteristics (e.g., traditional) often associated with rural areas are —at best—outcomes but not defining dimensions of rurality.

That’s a very sad statement to make, isn’t it, and vividly and unintentionally ‘proves’ one of our key contentions – that our society is becoming unsustainably unbalanced in favor of cities.  Maybe, for her purposes (and she goes on to confess she chose simple measures with readily available data) it is appropriate to ignore agricultural issues, but for our purposes, we feel it is an essential consideration.  And, indeed, we’d have hoped that a woman based in Indiana would be more in tune with rural issues – apparently not.

Nonetheless, in the seven years since the IRR was published, there has been little work published to enhance it or to incorporate considerations about land use/lifestyle.

Another weakness of her scoring is that the author attributes equal importance to all four factors, apparently again for the sake of mathematical simplicity rather than due to any reasoned decision that they all apply equally.  If she adjusted the weighting for the four factors, or the scoring within each factor, the aggregate ratings would then change appreciably.

But, while recognizing the limitations of the Index of Relative Rurality, let’s at least look at what it shows.

Here’s a map, based on the 2000 census, showing, county by county across the nation, its IRR score.

In a follow-up article in 2007, the researcher points out an interesting additional measurement – a seven step series of levels of rural-metropolitan characterization of counties.  A map, again using 2000 census data, is here.  For our interests, we’d most prefer counties in the E, F, or G categories (defined here and detailed here.).

Here’s a link to her article where she presents this additional material.

Agricultural and Farming Issues

Although ignored by Professor Waldorf who claimed it to be irrelevant and who also implied it to be inconvenient to measure, we consider that the land use within a region is a vital measure of its suitability for a ‘grid down’ type retreat.

Unproductive land may be fine for recreational purposes, and may offer a lovely lifestyle when food, energy, and everything else is readily available and inexpensive.  But if (when?) our elaborate social support systems should collapse, it is essential that we can become independent and self-contained, able to produce our own food, our own energy, and survive with a minimum of external inputs.

So how can we now evaluate agricultural/productive land use?  Happily, and notwithstanding Professor Waldorf’s claim that such data was difficult to obtain, the USDA has some excellent information, in county by county form, and displayed helpfully on maps, dating from its 2007 rural census.

The USDA does these censuses on a five yearly cycle, so we hope the published 2007 data will soon be replaced by 2012 data.

Here’s an excellent map that shows the percentage of area, by county, that is used for farming purposes.

This encapsulates much of what we’d want to know, but it does have a few limitations.  For example, it considers farmland as a percentage of all land, and fails to distinguish between land that could theoretically be used for farming and land that could not be so used.  So if a county has a large amount of national forest/park on it, then it will be downgraded for farm area utilization, even if the remaining balance of the county is 100% farmland.

A slightly different representation of this data is on this map, showing acres of land in farms.  The more intense the blue dotting, the greater the abundance of farming.

You might also be interested to know the average size of each farm, and whether it is privately or corporately owned.  For our purposes, we might assume that we’d be more comfortable in an area of farms of similar size to whatever we would hope to own, ourselves, and we’d prefer to be among other privately owned farms than among those owned by abstract/remote corporations.  We also have a perception that smaller farms may be less reliant on high levels of automation and, as such, better able to transition to less energy intensive farming methods.

An interesting consideration is if the number of farms is increasing or decreasing.  Overall, the total count of farms increased in the five years from 2002 to 2007.  You’d probably prefer to be in a region with stable or increasing farms, rather than in an area with decreasing farms – these regions are probably suffering from encroaching urbanization.

An alternate view is here, which shows the change in number of acres being farmed.  A decrease in the number of farms, or an increase for that matter, might be due to one farm being split into two, or two farms merged into one, so the change in total number of acres being farmed is in some respects more helpful.

It is also helpful to understand what type of farm use applies in an area.

This map shows the percentage of crop type farms as measured against total farmland, and this map shows percentage of pastureland as measured against total farmland..  The two maps are more or less reciprocals or opposites of each other.

If you’d like further details about the type of farming, there are other maps on this page, and at the bottom of the page, links to a massive number more.  Here’s just one more of the many other useful insights offered by the USDA that can help you better understand the implications of one region compared to another.

These maps and the data they represent give an interesting and valuable additional perspective on ‘good’ and not so good areas to locate, but are relatively silent on the subject of population densities, so you need to balance the data here with other data, possibly the Index of Relative Rurality (see above), and/or the status of the region as being a frontier region or not, discussed next.

Frontier Communities

Although Dr Hart’s analysis of classification methodologies lists over 30 different ways to distinguish rural from urban, he is clearly interested in the concept of ‘frontier’ regions, although he is quick to point out, as we would too, that the word ‘frontier’ sometimes has irrelevant and unhelpful connotations.  We don’t mean frontier in any sort of ‘Davy Crockett’ or warlike sense at all, merely in the sense of being far away from urban living and lifestyles.

There is a National Center for Frontier Communities and they have come up with a three factor calculation for evaluating a region’s frontier status – population density, distance in miles from a market or service area, and travel time in minutes to that same market or service area.

They have asked states and in particular, the State Offices of Rural Health, to define, county by county, which counties they believe to be ‘frontier’ counties.  Thirteen states don’t define any of their counties as frontier counties, 19 use the three factor calculation, and 16 use other criteria, so the results are hardly homogenous and consistent.

The results are not very useful for two reasons.  First, they are county by county, and secondly, they are either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ rather than on a continuum with varying values.  However, you can see them here, and there is also a very interesting derivative map, showing the change in frontier status over the past 20 years.  The second map gives a good perspective of where urban sprawl is happening and moving.

In addition to this county-wide categorization, the Center is developing a new definition for ‘frontier’ and has published a draft series of four maps that are massively more valuable.

Firstly, they show varying degrees of frontier qualification, rather than the simplistic yes/no status of their current classification.  Secondly, they are more ‘granular’ – they show details down to zip code level rather than no smaller than county level.

You can see their four maps here.  In case it isn’t obvious, FAR Level One is a superset that includes all level two, three and four regions too.  Each additional level shows less and less frontier regions, and this is very helpful because you can see not only what your immediate area is categorized as, but what the adjoining areas may be as well.

Their definition for FAR Level Four is surprisingly close to something that would almost be suitable for locating a retreat – we’d doubtless prefer greater distances from larger metro areas, so we’d feel more comfortable in the middle of each block of FAR Level Four region.

Summary

This is the second part of a two-part article on how to determine the rural vs urban nature of an area.  If you’ve not already done so, we recommend you should read the first part – How Rural is Your Retreat’s Region – too.

We ended the first part by pointing out that identifying an ideal location for a retreat involves both art and science.  Now that we’ve looked at three different scientific methodologies, we continue to feel that there’s a measure of art involved, while the science component is much more complex than generally acknowledged.

Most of all, while we’ve looked at some detail into the rural vs urban differentiation in this two-part article, this is only one of very many different factors and considerations you need to consider when choosing your ideal retreat.

Please also see our more general series of articles on choosing and evaluating the best location for your retreat.

Jun 052013
 
Prepping is open to all, no matter race, color or creed.

Prepping is open to all, no matter race, color or creed.

We received an interesting email from a reader – let’s call him Bill.  He writes :

My family and I are well aware of what is coming down the pike in terms of serious unrest due to a collapsed society.  However we are barely making it financially due to low paying jobs and we have no savings.

We would like to know how can we begin to prepare and most importantly how can we use what little resources to pool with other preppers or like-minded individual so that our family can at least have a chance to survive.

Also because we live in Billings MT, how can we navigate this area to get to people who won’t hold Our RACE (African-American) against us.

Please help us with this if you can.  Thanks, Bill.

Bill raises two very good points (thanks, Bill!).  Let’s look at Bill’s last point, first.

Preppers and Discrimination

Preppers are color blind.  We, perhaps more than any other group in the country, look at a man and first see who he is, what he can do, how he could contribute to our community, what talents and skills he has, and only after considering all these things, notice if he is white, yellow, brown, black or, for that matter, purple with blue stripes (okay, so we’d probably notice that up front!).

Preppers are least likely to be racist in either sense of the word.  They don’t automatically react negatively to any particular race, but also, neither do they automatically believe that any race deserves entitlements or special allowances or anything else.  We treat everyone the same – they are as good as they are.  They’re not any better, but they’re not any worse, either.

It is unfortunate that there is this vague fuzzy linkage that some people perceive between ‘prepping’ and being a ‘survivalist’ which then leads to being a ‘wild mountain man’ which ends up implying either that we are the Unabomber or an Aryan supremacist.

This is unfortunate nonsense.  We are of course nothing more than ordinary folks, added to which is having a responsible concern about our future and a desire to safeguard it.

So, when it comes to discrimination, we know all about it, because we are ourselves discriminated against.  We are sneered at, we are ridiculed, we are insulted, and we are typecast as something we’re not and never have been.

If anything, a typical prepper is probably less concerned about a person’s origins than is common for most other groups in society.  All that matters to us is that you’re not expecting special treatment, and that you’ll pull your own weight as an equal honest productive decent member of society.

This isn’t just me being idealistic.  It is a common thread running through most leading prepper sites and advocates.  I have to believe it is reflected among preppers in general, because it is rational and sensible, and surely preppers, more than anyone else, are the most rational and sensible of people!

So, Bill, hurry to find us and join us.  We understand the challenges you have when people are quick to judge you by applying inappropriate labels just because it is convenient for them to do so; rather than to challenge their prejudices.  But also beware – if you join with us, you might find yourself now doubly pre-judged, being now guilty of being both black and a prepper!  The only good thing is that such stupid people will struggle to also consider you a white supremacist.  🙂

Now for the specific question Bill raises, about how to prepare on a very low-income/budget.

Prepping on a Low Income

This is a huge topic that needs lengthy article series devoted to it (and we’ll doubtless publish some in the future).

But, as some quick commentary in timely reply to Bill’s question, the good news is he isn’t locked in to a high paying job where he currently is.  Maybe it is relatively easy for him to move west some, and to seek alternate employment in one of the small towns in NW Montana.  If he can do that, then he’s much of the way to where he needs to be, both literally and figuratively.

There’s a curious reality in Bill’s position (and that of the many other people in a similar situation).  By not earning a lot of money, he is actually freer to make lifestyle changes than would be the case if he had a job paying, say, $7,000 a month, but with a mortgage, car payments, and other commitments soaking up nearly all of the $7,000.  He has less to lose by changing jobs, and more to gain.

Moving to a safer more viable location is a huge plus, allowing Bill and his family to then consider a future strategy that involves surviving in place rather than needing to create a separate retreat.  That’s a huge plus.  As part of a surviving in place strategy, it is essential to integrate into your local community on as many levels and via as many paths as possible – we’ve several very relevant articles in our section on community related issues, in particular the article on becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem when your community confronts the stresses arising from WTSHTF.

The next thing for Bill to consider is building up a stockpile of essentials to get him and his family through difficult times.

The first essential thing to possess, in a case where you don’t have a lot of cash, is (are) skill(s).  Indeed, if we had to choose between having a bank full of cash or an in-demand skill, we’d take the skill every time.  As we’ve written about at length, cash will quickly become valueless WTSHTF, whereas if you have an appropriate skill, it will become much more valuable.  That’s not to say that cash, now, isn’t a nice thing to have, but longer term, skills are more valuable.  They don’t run out, and they are more easily transported and converted into other things.

Ideally, you should learn a trade that you can simultaneously hopefully work at now, and also which will continue to be needed in the future.  There are very many such trades, and you’ll know if the work you do is a job that is likely to continue to be needed in the future or not.

A computer programmer?  Probably not.  An investment banker?  Also probably not.  And – gulp – an internet writer?  Hmmm…..  But if you are a basic service provider of some sort, with a skill/trade, and if the things you do/work on are things that will continue to be relevant in the future WTSHTF, then you’re well on your way to successfully surviving.

Note that the skill/trade you develop needs to be one that not only will be relevant in a lower-tech, grid-down, fuel and energy scarce economy, but also needs to be one which can be performed using low-tech tools and equipment.  Furthermore, if it is a type of service or activity which requires consumables, you’ll need to stockpile up on those consumables now, with the assumption being any and all supplies you’ll need to continue your work in a Level 2/3 situation will become essentially unavailable.

So the most valuable asset to accumulate is a productive skill.  That will be most beneficial in the medium and longer terms.  But, short-term, there will definitely be challenges as the local economy goes through an upheaval, so you do need to build up an inventory of essential things to live on/with/from, too.  It is very likely that there’ll be a period of some days, weeks, possibly even months as things adjust to the new reality where very little work and income will be available to anyone, no matter how essential their skills and services.  An economist would say this is due to the market becoming very inefficient, we’ll simply say ‘trust us on this’.  🙂

One way to stockpile food and other supplies on a very limited budget is to build a ‘food coop’ with other local families and work it so you buy a bulk and cheaper supply of food items than you’d normally buy yourself, splitting each purchase up between the members of your coop.  Instead of buying food, one meal sized portion at a time, from the local supermarket, you buy food ten or twenty meal sized portions at a time, and buy from Costco or the local wholesale grocery supply store.  Spread that between several different families, and then you’ll discover some magic.  The money you were previously spending to buy one meal is now stretching to buy you two.

Now for the important part.  Put the extra food that you got with your money into your preparedness store, meaning you paid what you’d normally pay for one unit of food, you received the one unit you need, and you also got some extra bonus which you’re now using to grow your food supply.  If you continue that way, you’ll find your store of extra food is slowly growing, and at no cost.

As you start to grow a food supply, the next thing to do is to now start shifting the money you’re saving by buying food in bulk and instead of using it to accumulate food, use the savings to start accumulating other essential items you need.

As for water, the key constraint with water is not the cost of the water, but means to store it.  What we do ourselves is to keep all the empty glass and some of the empty plastic containers we use, thoroughly clean them out, then fill them to the absolute top with boiled water and store them in a cool dark place.

We fill them with boiled water, all the way to the top, so as to keep as little oxygen mixed in with the water as possible, thereby discouraging the growth of whatever nasty things there are that might otherwise start to grow in the water.  We have these stored in date order, and every few years, we’ll empty and refill them again in sequence, on a rolling basis, so we always have a mix of ‘new’ and ‘old’ water.

We also have water purification equipment so that we can ‘make’ our own clean water from whatever other sources come to hand.

We’re not saying any of this is easy, and for sure, we all wish we could win the lottery and be able to prep free of financial constraints.

Don’t expect to instantly create a ten-year supply of everything.  But start off building up a 24 hour reserve, then grow it as best you can, and if you consistently keep doing this, before you know it, you’ll find yourself massively better prepared than you are today.

It is amazing also how some life-style changes can make major differences in the amount of disposable cash remaining out of each paycheck.  We know some people with fairly high incomes who are poor, living from paycheck to paycheck, because they waste so much of their money.  And we know some people with low incomes but who have surplus discretionary cash as a result of living carefully.

Don’t eat out so much.  Cook food from basics, rather than heat up prepared foods.  Eat more vegetables and fruit and less steak.  We’re not saying you should give up smoking and drinking if those are (two of) your vices, but maybe smoke/drink a little less, and choose a slightly cheaper brand.  Downgrade your cable tv package.  Don’t go to movies as often.  Plan your travels in your car so instead of making two separate trips, you do everything in one trip.

Pay down high interest debt, and don’t fall into the careless trap of running up late and overdraft fees.

Stop buying Starbucks coffees, and instead make yourself a coffee at home to take with you.  Even make a box lunch rather than buy take-out each lunchtime.  And so on.

The most important suggestion we have is to remember the old saying about how a successful journey is made not in a single leap, but by a consistent ongoing series of small steps, all in hopefully the correct direction.

It is amazing the difference that small tweaks change.  We estimate that by planning our driving, we save probably $30/week in gas for our vehicle alone, and if you use a rule of thumb that other costs for a vehicle are about the same as the gas cost, that means we’re saving $60 – plus, by better managing our travels, we have more free time and waste less of it stuck in traffic.  More money, and more time to spend it – oooops.  Nope, that’s not right.  More money, and more time to develop new skills.  🙂

Don’t go looking for easy answers.  They don’t exist.  But don’t despair.  Simply dedicate yourself to a slow steady series of steps moving you closer and closer to your goal.

Summary

Although it is true that many very wealthy people do invest heavily into prepping for their future, being a prepper is not something exclusively reserved to members of the unofficial ‘rich white boy’ club alone.

Preppers span the entire spectrum of age, race, income, occupation, education, and every other demographic you can consider.

Prepping is an inclusionary concept – we who currently prep always welcome more people to join us and become preppers too, because the better prepped our neighbors are, the more likely they are to positively ‘add value’ and help us mutually survive in a future adverse scenario, and the less likely they are to become a problem.

So, Bill, please take heart and in good cheer move your own prepping forward as best you can.

Jun 042013
 
When the grid goes down, we will not only need to generate our own electricity but we'll need to store it too.

When the grid goes down, we will not only need to generate our own electricity but we’ll need to store it too.

In our amazing modern life, we seldom pause to consider all the ‘behind the scenes’ miracles that are being worked for our benefit – all the things which could fail, might fail, and probably will fail in a Level 2/3 scenario.

Of all these blessings that we take for granted, perhaps none is greater than the miracle of electricity.  For most of us, nearly all the time, we can plug anything into any wall socket in our house and it will operate, and we can turn on any or all of our appliances and enjoy their normal operation, at any hour of the day or night.

Electricity from our local utility company is always available and amazingly inexpensive and probably has been the greatest lifestyle enhancer of the last 100 years.

You mightn’t think electricity to be amazingly inexpensive when seeing your monthly bill, but try going without electricity for a week or two then ask yourself ‘how much would I pay to get my electricity back?’ and then you’ll appreciate its value.  Or cost out other ways of creating the electricity – for example, electricity from a high-efficiency diesel generator will probably cost 40c per kWhr, compared to a typical cost of about 10c for mains provided electricity.

When the grid goes down and you have to generate your own electricity, you’ll quickly build an even greater appreciation of how amazing our present electricity supply is.  No part of generating electricity in the future will be easy, and because you’ll be using a different way of generating much/most/all of your electricity, one issue deserves particular mention – something you’ve never needed to think about in normal life (although in actuality, it is something the utility companies are very sensitive to).

The chances are you’ll make use of photo-voltaic cells – PV cells or solar cells – for at least some of your energy needs.  Maybe you might use of wind power, too.  These are great energy sources, but there’s an associated problem.  This is the start of a four-part series of articles that considers this problem, and offers ways to optimize your work-arounds and solutions.

The Need to Match Electricity Demand to Electricity Supply

The problem relates to a major limitation of both your likely future energy sources.  In the case of PV cells, you know they only work when there’s reasonably bright sunlight.  So, you never get any power at night, and on short winter days that are overcast, you get very little power even in the middle of the day.

In the case of wind power, the wind turbine only generates power when there is ‘good’ wind – nice steady smooth wind blowing in a reasonably consistent direction at a reasonably consistent speed (wind gusts can destroy a turbine) that is neither too fast (at high speeds, turbines stop working to prevent damage) nor too slow (turbines have a minimum speed below which they no longer generate useful amounts of power).

The problem with both PV cells and wind turbines is that you can’t match their power generation to meet your requirements.  A diesel generator simply starts working harder (and burning more fuel) when its load increases, and if you have a micro-hydro station, you can vary the amount of water driving the turbine, but there’s no way you can make the wind blow more strongly or the sun shine more brightly.

The typical solution is to have a PV/wind system that provides enough power during a realistic typical sort of day of working to both cover your power needs during the period of operation, plus surplus power which can be transferred into some sort of electricity storage system.  Then, when the power being generated becomes insufficient to meet your requirements, you can switch to the stored power and use that until such time as the primary power source can start meeting your needs again.

Hence the need to store electricity.

Storing Electricity is Not Always the Best Solution

In addition to whatever method of storing electricity you might choose to match with your renewable electricity generation program, there is another way of storing electricity which has a huge plus but also a huge minus.

We are talking about simply keeping a large supply of diesel or propane for a generator.  Each gallon of diesel can give you about 10 kWhrs of electricity, and with a typical house using about 1000 kWhr of electricity a month (depending on design, size, and climate of course) at present (with plentiful energy, low-cost, and no need to fanatically conserve energy) this suggests a diesel generator would consume about 100 gallons of diesel a month to give you all the electricity you need.  A few tweaks to your retreat design, some more insulation, and some alternative heat and energy supplements, and you could easily halve this to 500 kWhr of supplementary electricity per month – a mere 50 gallons.

If you have 1,000 of diesel stored, that could see you through 20 months of power needs, which would cover all Level 1 and most Level 2 scenarios.  Those 1,000 gallons of diesel represent something well under $10,000 to purchase, to stabilize with fuel stabilizer for many years, and to store in good quality long life tanks.

As a comparison, if you wanted to have a battery based electricity storage capacity of say 75 kWhr, you’re looking at an investment in batteries and control circuitry of $20,000 or more, and you’ll want to significantly expand the power output of your solar or wind setup so it has sufficient extra capacity not just to meet your regular needs but also to charge up the storage banks – maybe something like an extra 5 kW – 10 kW of power generating capacity – figure on another $10,000 or so for that.

So for solutions extending out a year, two, maybe even three or four, you might decide not to overcomplicate things (and add to the cost as well) and have a system that provides renewable energy during the day and relies on a diesel generator at night.

But, having said that, a key part of preparing includes planning not just for Level 2 situations, but also for ultimate Level 3 situations, and if you base your electricity generation on diesel, you know that, sooner or later, you’ll run out of diesel.  So if you wish to be best prepared for the future, you’ll recognize that electricity storage, while not necessarily the most economical solution for Level 2 events, is essential for Level 3 preparedness.

Any type of preparing of course ideally involves multiple solutions to each single problem, so as to have redundant approaches, and for this reason too, it makes sense, even in planning for shorter term problems, to have at least some way of storing some electricity.

How to Store Electricity

It is difficult to store electricity, with the only ‘true’ form of electrical energy storage being a device known as a capacitor.  While capacitors are remarkable and very useful in some applications, they are sadly not really well suited for storing the large amounts of energy we wish to store, and for the lengths of time we wish to store it.

We’ll spare you the science, but suffice it to say that all other forms of energy storage involve using the electricity to create a different form of energy which can be conveniently stored and converted back to electricity again in the future.  Even a battery, which might seem to be a pure store of electricity, actually converts the electricity to a chemical form of energy.

In considering an electricity storage method, you need to consider a number of factors :

  • System efficiency – for every kWhr of energy you put into the system, how much do you get back again when you convert it back to electricity again?  In the broader scheme of things, efficiency is of course important, but in this application, where you’re essentially storing spare/surplus power, it isn’t quite as important as it would be, for example, for a utility company that is paying for all the electricity it generates and seeking a way to cover the ups and downs of daily demand.
  • Storage losses – does the stored energy slowly – or quickly – dissipate over time, or does it stay unchanging for long periods of time?  In our case, we will have a mix of requirements – some energy needs only be stored for 15 hours or so (ie from when PV cells stop providing power around sun-down until they start again shortly after the next dawn).  But you will want to be able to store some energy for a longer term in case of extended periods of insufficient power supply during the day.  Storage losses are an important factor.
  • Size and other requirements – is anything special needed?  Does the storage thing take up a lot of space?
  • Maintenance and useful life – how many times can electricity be transferred in and out of the storage system?  What types of ongoing maintenance are required, and how easily can the system be maintained in a future situation where you’ll not have high-tech equipment, and sooner or later will run out of replacement spare parts?  How many years until it fails entirely and needs to be replaced?  Clearly these are very important issues for us.
  • Capacity – how much electricity can be stored in the system?  Are there limits to its ability to grow?  Of course we need to have adequate capacity – that goes without saying, and if there’s a low tech way we can grow the system in the future, so much the better.
  • Cost – what are the costs of storing electricity in the system?  Do we need to comment on the fact that, as preppers, we are always confronted with too many different high priority ways to invest our money and insufficient money to invest!

Although there are very many different ways to store electricity (perhaps better to say ‘to store energy’ because the thing we are storing is not actually electricity, but something else which can be converted into electricity), in our case there are only one or two which are practical to the size, scale, budget, and other requirements we are likely to have.

The most obvious storage system involves batteries – probably some sort of lead-acid batteries.  A less obvious form is to store energy in a rapidly spinning flywheel, and a third approach, which may work well for some people but not well for others, is to store energy in the form of pumping water up to a higher elevation, and then to reclaim it as needed by having the water flow down through a micro-hydro power generator.

Continued in Part Two

Please now click on to read part two of this series, ‘Using Batteries to Store Electricity‘, and then continue on to parts three and four (Other Energy Storage Methods and Strategies to Reduce Your Need to Store Electricity).

We also have other articles on the general topic of Energy.

Jun 042013
 
A cutaway view of a typical lead-acid battery.

A cutaway view of a typical lead-acid battery.

This is the second part of a four-part article series about how to store electricity (better thought of as storing energy rather than electricity per se).  If you arrived directly here from a link or search engine, you might wish to start from the first part of the series here, then read on sequentially through this article and the balance of the series.

Lead-acid batteries use a technology that has been around since the mid 1800s.  The relatively recent Lithium-ion technology is showing some signs of promise as a possible replacement to lead-acid, but that is still a way off, and for now, for our purposes, lead-acid batteries, while far from innovative, remain probably the best general purpose way to store electricity in circumstances that typical preppers are likely to encounter.

Batteries offer between about a 50% and a 85% efficient means of storing electricity, making them neither particularly better nor particularly worse than most other forms of storing electricity.  They have acceptably low storage losses, typically losing somewhere between 2% – 15% of their charge each month.

As old-fashioned as they may be, the generic concept of lead-acid batteries masks the fact that there are many different types of lead-acid batteries, designed for different purposes, and with greatly varying suitability for our requirements.

They also have a surprisingly complex series of requirements for how to charge and maintain them so as to get the optimum life out of the batteries – to prolong the amount of electricity they will store, to maximize the number of charge/discharge cycles they can withstand, and to protect against sudden failure.  For optimum use, it is important to be sensitive to many aspects of their care and conditioning that we never consider with our car battery – and the proof of the need to look after our storage batteries should be evident when you consider how quickly car batteries fail!

Lead-acid batteries fall within three general families when it comes to how they are made.  The oldest technology is the ‘wet’ or flooded type battery, then there are gelled batteries and AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries.  Flooded batteries typically have removable caps and you should occasionally check the level of the liquid inside the cells, adding distilled water as necessary, although some now have ‘fully sealed’ cells (which actually aren’t fully sealed).  AGM and gel batteries are always sealed and in theory need no maintenance.

Some people view gel cells as a transitional technology and suggest you avoid them, preferring either AGM or wet cells.  Gel cells require different charging procedures and voltages than regular and AGM batteries, and are more prone to degradation or failure if not treated optimally.  AGM cells are very low maintenance, but more expensive for the same amount of capacity as wet cells.

The most common measure of a battery’s storage capacity is how many amp-hours of charge it can give.  However, it is important to appreciate that the amp-hour capacity of a battery is dependent on how fast it is being discharged.  The slower the rate of discharge, the more total charge the battery will give you.  For example, a battery that is discharged evenly over 20 hours will typically give 10% less charge than a battery discharged over 100 hours.  A battery that is discharge over 8 hours will typically give almost 20% less charge than one discharged over 20 hours.

Our point is that it is important to understand whether a battery’s capacity is being measured on the basis of a 100, 20 or 8 hour discharge rate.

The lead-acid battery that most people are most familiar with is a car starting battery.  This is designed to store a small amount of charge which can be provided at a very high rate of current for a short period of time, for the purpose of starting the engine.

It has a secondary purpose to power the car’s various electrical loads for a moderately short amount of time while the vehicle is stopped and the engine switched off.

But these batteries are not designed to give up all their charge over a slow gradual period; indeed, they’re not designed to give up all their charge at all.  They are not ‘deep cycle’ type batteries.  Perhaps because of this, they are typically not even rated in terms of amp-hours of storage, but rather quote a ‘cold cranking amp’ current rating – the amount of current it can supply when being called upon to turn a vehicle’s starter motor.

Don’t use car batteries as storage batteries.  They are not designed for deep discharging and don’t last long.

No lead-acid battery should be fully discharged before recharging it again.  The greater the amount of discharge before recharging, the more the battery is stressed and the shorter its future life will be, in terms of additional charge/discharge cycles and capacity of charge that can be stored per cycle.

Deep cycle batteries are designed to allow for the greatest amount of charge depletion per cycle.  Typically these types of batteries (sometimes referred to as ‘golf cart’ or even as ‘forklift’ batteries) are designed to give up perhaps 70% of their capacity per discharge without suffering any severe consequences.  Some batteries allow for an 80% discharge, but it is probably better to go easy on them and not go all the way down to 80%.

Depending on the exact battery design, discharging to 50% is considered the ideal compromise, and you should avoid discharging beyond about 70% of capacity.

You can measure the state of charge of a battery either by testing the specific gravity of its liquid, or by testing the voltage it puts out.  The specific gravity measurement is slightly more accurate, but with so many batteries either sealed or AGM, these days most people use voltage readings as a measure of charge instead.  The voltage steadily declines as the battery discharges, starting from 12.6V when fully charged.  Am offload reading of 12.3V shows about a 50% charge, and a 12V reading (offload) more or less corresponds to a 75% discharged state.

Battery life also depends on other factors such as even ambient temperature (cooler is better than warmer).

Modern batteries such as these or these claim to give up to 2000 or so cycles, with discharge all the way to 80% each time.  That’s almost six years of daily discharging (or twelve if two-daily discharging, and so on for extended cycles).

In terms of actual elapsed time, these types of batteries seem to be talking of lifetimes in the 10 – 20 year range, if the number of cycles isn’t exceeded in a sooner time frame.  That’s starting to become a viable life.

Other highly respected battery suppliers include Concorde/Lifeline and Rolls/Surrette.

If you are building a high-capacity battery, there are several ways to do this to best effect.

The first is not to use a 6V or 12V based system.  Increase your voltage (by connecting batteries in series) to 24V or 48V.  This has several benefits, including reducing the electrical losses through your wiring and/or reducing the need for ridiculously oversized wiring to carry your battery current.

The second is of course to connect multiple batteries in parallel, but this needs to be done with caution.  The more batteries in parallel, the greater the chance that a ‘bad cell’ in one battery unit will bring down the entire set of batteries.  What happens is the battery with the higher voltage then starts ‘charging’ the battery with the lower voltage, and bleeds away its power into the weaker battery.

For this reason, it is always important to match batteries with like batteries, whether connecting in parallel or serial – batteries of similar capacity and similar state of life.

It is best to arrange for each individual battery in your battery array to be of as large a capacity as possible.

Beyond that, rather than to create one huge battery with maybe six individual batteries paralleled together, it is much better to create two three battery units, or even three battery units, each with two paralleled batteries.  That means you can better rotate your batteries in and out of service, alternately charging and discharging each battery in sequence, and stretching out the overall life of all the batteries.

Continued in Part Three

Please now click on to read part three of this series, ‘Other Energy Storage Methods‘, and then continue on to part four ‘Strategies to Reduce Your Need to Store Electricity‘.  If you’ve not yet done so, you might wish to also read the first part of the series, ‘Storing Electricity‘.

We also have other articles on the general topic of Energy.