Jul 312013
 
Adding a simple piece of wire to your walkie-talkie could double its range.

Adding a simple piece of wire to your walkie-talkie could double its range.

Some things in life you can never have too much of.  But for this article, we’ll concentrate just on radio range/efficiency!

There are many ways to boost the range of your two-way radios.  We write about this topic regularly (please see our complete section on communication related topics to access these articles) and basically, the suggestions we offer fall into one of two categories – either getting a more powerful radio transmitter and more sensitive radio receiver, or boosting the effectiveness of your antenna.

Between these two choices, improving the effectiveness of your antenna is always the better approach.  More powerful transmitters and more sensitive receivers are, of course, more expensive than standard grade units, and a more powerful transmitter is also going to need much more power to operate – chewing through batteries maybe ten times faster, and/or becoming a power-hog when you’re off-grid and power is precious and limited.

One more important issue – the more powerful your signal, the further it goes, and the greater the number of people who might receive it.  This is seldom a good thing, particularly when you are trying to keep a low profile.

This is why our focus is not just on greater transmitting power, but also on better overall efficiency of the antenna so it can receive weaker signals more clearly, and – with our radios – if we improve our antenna, we often then cut back on our transmit power, keeping it at the minimum needed for the range we require.

Enough introduction.  By now, you’re probably keen to understand the 10¢ device and how it can double your radio range.  Actually, we may have misstated the truth – the device might cost you less than 10¢!

How a Piece of Wire Can Double Your Radio Range

This device is simply a piece of wire which dangles down off your hand-held radio transceiver.  That sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it, and a bit like the ‘patch’ devices that used to be sold to gullible fools to add to their cell phones, with claims either that they would magically filter out harmful radiation or boost the phone’s range or something.

But we’re not trying to sell you anything, and there is actual solid radio theory that readily explains how and why this works as it does.  And, most of all, you will actually perceive the great boost to your radio’s signal yourself – you will know if it works or doesn’t work.

Without going too much into the theory, but also giving you enough to understand that this is a bona fide scientific real thing, most antennas need two parts in order to work properly.  Sometimes the two parts are obscured as part of a single overall antenna structure, but any good antenna definitely does have two parts to it.

However, with a hand-held transceiver (HT) the people who design them have pretty much unanimously decided that people prefer small portable robust units rather than larger, bulkier, and more fragile units.  They have taken that perception and used it to justify making the antennas small and inadequate.  They know the antenna is inefficient, but it is also small and strong, and they feel that is more important to most people, most of the time, than is a bulkier more fragile antenna but with better range (and with removable/replaceable antennas, if you do want/need a better antenna, you can simply buy one, as most of us do).

The manufacturers are probably correct in their assumption, and most of the time, we accept the limited performance we get from our HT antennas – but sometimes we need better performance, and that’s what this article is all about.

We explain this so you understand the answer to the question ‘If this is so great, how come it isn’t already being offered on all radios?’.

To be more technically precise, the antenna on most hand-helds is typically some type of quarter-wave monopole radiator, usually inductively loaded to shorten its physical length while preserving its electrical length, most commonly a normal-mode helix.  Adding this extra piece of wire changes it to a half-wave dipole.

You already know that the first thing you should do with any HT is to replace its standard ‘rubber ducky’ stub antenna with a better antenna, with ‘better’ being in part synonymous with longer/bigger.  See our two-part article about adding an external antenna to your HT, and if you have one of the lovely little Baofeng UV-5R or the newer Baofeng F8HP radios (see our commentary about why either of these are usually your best compromise choice here) then you’ll see on this page the first thing we recommend you do to optimize the Baofeng is adding a specific improved antenna (the Nagoya 701, costing a mere $6 or so on Amazon).

But even these improved antennas are still massively inadequate because they don’t provide some type of radiating element for both halves of the antenna.  Instead, the radio designers use various compromises in their design that basically end up as using your body as the other (‘ground’) half of the antenna system.  You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the human body, while wonderful in many ways, is not very good at doing double duty as a radio antenna!

So, to address this limitation, you can add the missing other half of the antenna to the radio yourself.  All it needs to be is a specific length of ordinary wire (bell wire or phone wire, ideally multi-strand so it is flexible, and insulated).  For 2M, this would be about 19.5″, for 1.25M, it would be 11.5″, and for 70cm, it would be about 6.5″.

For best results, you want to strip the insulation off a short piece of the wire and then connect the exposed wire to the ‘ground’ or outside part of the antenna connector.  This is very easily done with the Baofeng units – just unscrew the antenna sufficiently to be able to poke in the wire then screw down the antenna again to secure it.  It might help if you break off/file down/drill a bit off the side of the plastic shroud surrounding the antenna mounting screw, making it easier to get the wire in and firmly clamped by then antenna.

You can also use various types of washers or electrical clamps and connectors to create a connection too, depending on how much work you want to put into this enhancement.

Once you have connected your wire, just let it hang down freely while using the HT.  Don’t grip the wire when holding the HT, but let the wire hang down separately.

When the radio is not in use, you can wind the wire around the set or do whatever else you like to store it conveniently.

What Sort of Improvement Will You Get?

You will notice a significant improvement in both transmitting and receiving on 2M, some improvement on 1.25M, and much less improvement on 70cm.  We’ll spare you the antenna theory issues as to why this is.  🙂

But on 2M, you can expect your signal strength to increase by perhaps 6dB.  Some hams report as much as a 9dB improvement, but we find that improbable.  A 6dB improvement is the same as increasing your transmitting power four-fold, so it is a huge/massive improvement, and truly could double your range – or could now allow you to reduce your transmitting power while still getting a signal out as far as before, and getting a greatly improved receive signal.

Now for an interesting extra point.  Not only do you not always need to boost your transmit and receive capabilities, but sometimes this can be inappropriate.  Sure, you can maybe offset a more efficient antenna by reducing your transmit power, but if you are already receiving very strong incoming signals, and particularly if you have some unwanted signals on nearby frequencies, boosting the signal from the antenna to the receiver can sometimes cause problems.  If you find, after adding this extra wire to your HT, that it actually receives more poorly than before, even though it is transmitting better, you have a problem with your receiver circuitry being de-sensitized by strong adjacent signals, and in such a case, you should stop boosting your antenna.

For this reason, there is another way you could conveniently control your antenna, making it easier to selectively add or remove the extra wire.  Have just a short lug connected to the antenna ‘ground’ base on the HT, and protruding slightly from the radio.  Then if you need a boost in capabilities, you can conveniently clip whichever antenna you want onto the radio, but if your receiver is being overloaded, you can unclip it again without any great hassle or bother.

Some Extra Tips and Suggestions

First, if you use your HT on more than one band, you will need different length wires for each band (19.5″, 11.5″ and 6.5″ for the common 2M, 1.25M and 70cm bands).  If you regularly switch bands, what you might want to do is have the 6.5″ wire mounted permanently, and keep two extender lengths, 5″ and 13″, then if you switch bands from 70cm, you connect the extender onto the bottom of the 6.5″ wire.

Note that the connection needs to be electrical, not just physical.  There are easy and complex ways of doing this – the easiest is stripping a bit of insulation off the end of the 6.5″ wire and off one end of the two extender wires, then simply twisting the two together.  Slightly more elegant would be to have an alligator clip on the extender wire, and more elegant still would be to have a paired socket and plug connector at the end of each wire.

Second, you don’t actually need to have your antenna wire physically connected to the ground of the main antenna at all.

You will get best results if it is connected, but if that is difficult – or if it is impossible, for example, with a radio that has a fixed antenna that you can’t unscrew to access its ground – you can create a capacitive coupling between the radio and your antenna, by simply terminating your wire in a metal path (tin foil or copper or whatever) and affixing the patch somewhere on the radio.  The bigger the patch size, the better, and some locations will work better than others.  Some trial and error experimentation might be called for to work out the best place to place the patch.

Of course you could also open up the radio casing and hard wire/solder the wire to a ground point on the radio’s circuit board or access the antenna’s connector internally, then have the wire coming out through a hole in the case, and that would be slightly better than the capacitive coupled device, but is more hassle.

Third, some people have chosen to connect the extra wire to the antenna’s connector rather than to the radio.  There’s no reason not to do this, and if you don’t want to do anything to your radio, and/or if it is easier to add the extra wire to the antenna’s connector rather than to the radio’s connector, that’s an equally fine solution.

Lastly, if you’re still not convinced about how a simple piece of wire can add so amazingly to your radio’s range, Google ‘tiger tail antenna’ to see many credible articles confirming it works.  But, really, you don’t need to do this, because it only costs you 10¢ and only takes you five minutes to do it yourself.  You’ll hear the difference, as will the people you’re communicating with.

And surely that’s what counts.

Jul 302013
 
A private road to your retreat for sure, but who maintains and repairs the bridge if it fails, and how will you get to/from your retreat if the bridge is out?

A private road to your retreat for sure, but who maintains and repairs the bridge if it fails, and how will you get to/from your retreat if the bridge is out?

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card on the state of the country’s infrastructure, giving grades, state by state, to a number of elements ranging from the quality of drinking water to the number of bridges needing repair, from energy self-sufficiency to schools and parks.

Not much of this has any direct relationship to us as preppers.  But there are some very weak correlations between a state that has a good infrastructure at present and it therefore also being a state which might be able to better withstand stresses to its structure during some sort of disaster, being a state which could manage for a longer time with ‘deferred capital investment and maintenance’ during the period of a Level 2 situation, and being a state which is more likely to recover sooner from whatever the problem was.

Furthermore, all other things being equal, a state with good infrastructure is probably a better run state every which way, and a better choice to live in, both now and in the future.

You can see their entire 2013 report card here.  You should appreciate that this is a group with a vested interest in developing infrastructure, because such activities directly result in more work for their members.  But even after recognizing their bias, it remains true that a state they rate as better than another state truly is better, no matter how actually good or bad each state may be.

Unfortunately, it seems the methodology used to grade the states was possibly inconsistent or maybe just plain incomplete, and not all states were given grades.  This makes it difficult to compare state by state, but you can see some basic facts about each state, both by clicking states from the map on this page and by selecting the states by name after clicking the states label from this page.  It seems that both routes give you the same information, but presented in slightly different formats.

Something to consider when you’re considering what state to locate your retreat in, perhaps.

You also of course need to consider not just about an entire state, but also about the county and local area in which you would locate.  Don’t be like one family we know – they proudly told us of their great retreat location, down a country road well off the main traffic routes.  The only problem?  There was no other road access to the property, and the road to their property included a bridge which was washed out unexpectedly, one spring (note – not the bridge pictures at the top of this article!).

It was six months before the county repaired the bridge!

Jul 302013
 
Follow these six strategies to get more of this stuff in your pocket.

Follow these six strategies to get more of this stuff in your pocket.

Many of us feel a sense of anxious urgency about our prepping.  We know that if we suddenly find ourselves trapped in a Level 2 or 3 situation, we are not yet ready to be able to survive such a challenge; but what we don’t know is if/when a Level 2/3 situation might suddenly appear.

To put it as bluntly as possible, the biggest constraint we have is the lack of cash to invest in our preparing.

Well, we can’t give each and every one of you many thousands of dollars of cash, but we can equip you with the tools to cut down on your own monthly outgoings.  In this, the second part of our new series about prepping on a low budget (please also see part one), we look at how you can get out of debt more quickly, freeing up the money you currently spend on paying off what you owe, and enabling you to use it on more productive things instead.

Strategy 1 – Prioritize Paying Off Your Debts

So what is the first thing you should pay off?  Generally it will be the balance with the highest interest rate.  Look at all the debts you have, and understand what the APR is on each of them.  You might be amazed to see the difference in APRs.  For example, maybe you have a discounted car loan at 1.9%, a student loan at 5%, a revolving line of credit at 7%, and two credit card debts, one at 15% and one at 24%.

In such a case, you should make nothing more than the minimum payments due on everything except the 24% credit card debt, and you should do all you can to get that 24% balance reduced down.  At 24%, you are paying $20 a month on every $1000 you owe; if you can reduce the total owed by an extra $100 in payment this month, then next month that will give you a $2 reduction in interest you pay on the now lower total amount outstanding.  $2 might not sound like much after having paid off $100 extra the previous month, but if you are making payments over, maybe, two years, then in approximate terms, that $2 is a recurring benefit over the 24 months of the loan and will (sort of) save you $48 over the remaining period of the loan.  That’s a much more significant saving, isn’t it.

That is one of the key things about reducing your interest payments.  A trivial seeming $1 a month reduction in interest payments might seem of no value at all, but it is saving you $1 a month for every subsequent month, as long as the loan remains open, and over many years, that really adds up.

The other key thing is that if your interest bill is now lowered by $1, next month your payment is going more to paying off the balance and less to paying interest, so you are paying off more principal, which means that the following month, there will be even less interest to pay and even more principle paid off, and so on.

You might already know that if you start missing payments, your debts start to spiral out of control.  The flipside of that is that if you start paying more than your minimums each month, you quickly start to reduce your balances much more positively than you’d have thought possible.

After you’ve paid off the worst loan (in terms of interest rates) you’ll then successively move through everything else you owe money on.

Generally, the last thing to pay off would be your house mortgage, because that probably has the lowest interest rate associated with it.  Plus, for most of us, the interest is tax-deductible, reducing the real interest cost by as much as 30% or more (depending on whatever your top marginal tax rate is).

There’s no better way to control your outgoings without making any impacts on your lifestyle at all than by simply prioritizing how you pay off your debt, starting with the highest interest bearing debts first, and then working successively down to lower and lower interest bearing debts.

Exception – Prepayment Penalties

Some types of loan might have prepayment penalties associated with them.

Make sure that the loans you are focused on paying off as quickly as possible have no prepayment penalties associated with them.  If there are penalties, you are probably advised to concentrate on paying off other debts first.

Strategy 2 – Keep a Credit Card with No Carried Over Balance

Many credit cards have a deal whereby if you pay off your balance completely when it is due, then each month’s charges don’t incur any interest if you keep paying them off when the balance comes due.  Okay, we probably understand that already.

But did you know that if you don’t pay off your card entirely, then all charges immediately start accruing interest without the grace period you’d otherwise get if you were clearing the balance each month?

In other words, if you have to keep some balance on a credit card, have two credit cards.  One which you are paying off, but on which you add no new charges, and a second one which you keep current, so when you add new charges to it, you can pay them off when they come due, next month, without incurring any fees on those.

Strategy 3 – Consolidate Costly Credit

If you can, it is very helpful to consolidate your debts and to move them to the lowest cost source of money.

For some of us, this can best be done by getting a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC).  You’ll probably get an interest rate around 4% – 5%, and possibly might even be able to claim the interest as a mortgage/tax deduction on your 1040, depending on your circumstances and the nature of the amounts owed.

Let’s say you owe $5,000 at 12% and $5,000 at 18%, and you manage to get this transferred to a HELOC at 6%.  That means your monthly interest payment will instantly reduce by $75 every month – more if you can make your new interest payments tax-deductible.  That’s another $75 a month that you’ve suddenly created – and it is money you should then use to keep paying down your debt, at a new faster rate.

If you can’t get a HELOC, maybe you can still get some smaller loan from your bank or credit union, and if not at 6%, definitely still at much less than what you’re paying to the worst of the credit card and other lending sources.

Move the money you owe to the lowest cost lender.

Strategy 4 – Refinance Your House

We just spoke about rolling credit card balances to a HELOC.  But what if you have a home mortgage with a high interest rate on it?  Why not ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – refinance your home to a lower rate and also increase the amount you’ve borrowed to pay off other debt.

At the time of writing, there’s even a federal scheme that allows some home borrowers to get a federally subsidized new home loan with no origination fees and no qualification requirements.  Ask if you qualify for one of those.

Strategy 5 – Roll Balances to a New Card

Maybe you sometimes get offers in the mail giving you ‘pre-approved’ credit cards and allowing you to roll over a balance from another credit card, with an initial grace period of no interest charge applying.

Make sure there truly are no charges – no ‘cash advance’ type charges or anything else at all, and if it truly is a way of getting some months of free interest, then if the interest rate that commences at the end of the free period isn’t worse than what you’re paying now, why not cut up one credit card and start using the ‘free money’ offer on the new credit card?

We know some people who have done this repeatedly, each time getting a new grace period of some months before any interest starts being charged.

Needless to say, don’t go into debt initially with the plan to do this into the future, but if you are already in debt, this might help reduce the cost of paying off the money you owe.

Strategy 6 – Renegotiate Your Interest Rate

You mightn’t realize this, but many times you’ll find you are able to negotiate the interest rate you are charged on your credit card balances.  The credit card company doesn’t just have one interest rate that everyone, everywhere in the US, uniformly pays.  It sets interest rates more or less individually, based on your credit score, your history with the card issuer, your address, and many other factors.

If you have been making your payments regularly – or sometimes even if you haven’t – you might be able to negotiate a lower interest rate.  Even if you only get a 1% reduction in your interest rate, this could save you thousands of dollars.  Look at our table of interest costs in the middle of the previous article in this series, Seven Thoughts About Borrowing Money.  Say you had a $10,000 loan at 18% and were making payments over a 10 year period.  If you can reduce that to 17%, and if you keep your monthly payment much the same as it was before, that means you now pay your loan off over nine years instead of ten, and your total interest paid drops from $11,922 to $9,587.

You pay your debt off a year sooner, and you save yourself $2335 in interest, all as a result of getting ‘only’ a ‘small’ one percent reduction in interest charged.

That’s sure worth making a phone call and asking for, isn’t it!

Why would a credit card company/bank drop your interest rate?  Because it costs them a lot of money to get a new customer; and it costs them much less to keep you as a good customer than it does to lose you and buy in another customer – the marketing cost of getting each customer, and the promotional cost of a ‘no fee for the first year’ and/or a ‘100,000 mile frequent flier bonus if your sign up for our card’ and/or a ‘no interest on balances rolled over for six months’ or whatever other offer they are giving to new customers is massive.

Summary

There are sometimes good reasons and sometimes unavoidable reasons to go into debt (we discuss them here).  But there are almost never valid reasons to delay paying off the debt you’ve incurred.  The most compelling reason of all is that getting out of debt is just plain smart – your disposable income will skyrocket when you no longer have so much of your paycheck already committed to debt repayments.

The six steps above will help speed you towards a debt free future.  It will help, but you’ve still got to do some heavy lifting too – make paying off your debt a priority, and accept some lifestyle sacrifices while doing so.  In return, you’ll have a much healthier financial future.

Jul 302013
 
Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.

Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.

Ignore, for the moment, how it would happen, and instead think about what would happen, if all the satellites ‘up there’ stopped working.  The BBC recently published an article asking – and answering – that question.

You can probably guess at some of the results of a global failure of all satellites.  Our GPS systems would stop working.  A lot of the content on our televisions and radios would disappear – not just satellite radio and tv channels, but regular programming on regular stations, too; much of which is distributed by satellite feed.

Some long distance phone communications would become more difficult.  While much/most long distance phone communications go by terrestrial microwave or fiber or cable, some is still routed via satellite.

Weather forecasting and reporting would become more difficult.

Air traffic control would deteriorate, although the transition from ground/radar systems to GPS type systems has been shamefully slow in the making and is only rolling out now.

So there’s a quick list of five effects of a loss of all satellites, none of which sound like they are life changing or life threatening, right?

But let’s now ‘drill down’ a bit further and consider some of the other uses and implications of satellites.

If our weather forecasting abilities deteriorate, that has massive implications on many things.  It interferes with optimized crop production.  It makes it harder to plan sufficiently in advance for severe weather such as hurricanes.  Airplanes are more likely to fly into storms rather than be able to avoid them.

The military uses of satellites is also significant.  A great deal of intelligence gathering is done via satellite – not just real-time and offline imagery (both still and video) but SIGINT too – monitoring ‘the other guy’ and understanding some of what he is up to.  Satellites are also used to control our growing squadrons of drones around the world, and are used for tactical communications by personnel in many areas of the overall military structure.

These continue to be bothersome, but not life changing.  There are many more ‘pin prick’ type issues such as this – ranging from the failure of many ’emergency locator beacons’ to a slow down in first responder services due to not being able to use GPS to most efficiently get where they are going.  But possibly the biggest problem would come from an unexpected aspect of the loss of the GPS satellites that has nothing to do with location data.

GPS satellites do a great deal more than simply tell us where we are.  But don’t sneer at the value of that ‘simple’ thing.  Most of us, several times a year, and possibly even several times a day, reply on our GPS units.  Or, if we don’t directly reply on the GPS to navigate with, maybe we rely on its derivative data – showing us a traffic conditions map, enabling us to decide which route we take to get between home and work.  Much of that traffic data comes from ‘probes’ – a fancy way of saying ‘monitoring the GPS in your phone, and if the GPS fails, so too do the probes and therefore, the traffic data in general.

However, we’re still only skirting the edges of problems when GPS systems fail.  Sure, commercial transport relies on GPS much more than we as ‘ordinary’ drivers, and we’ll all have to start to find our old maps and brush up on our map reading skills.  But, the really big thing, uncovered in the BBC’s largely simplistic analysis, is the other thing that the GPS service provides – ultra-accurate timekeeping.

The BBC claims that without the timekeeping services provided by GPS, the entire internet will degrade and possibly even collapse.  And all of a sudden, that’s a very different ballgame, isn’t it.  The article says

Our infrastructure is held together by time – from time stamps on complex financial transactions to the protocols that hold the internet together. When the packets of data passing between computers get out of sync, the system starts to break down. Without accurate time, every network controlled by computers is at risk. Which means almost everything.  [Our emphasis]

So, the loss of satellites – or, even worse, the loss of just the GPS satellites, would end up meaning TEOTWAWKI.

Now, how likely is it that such an event might occur?  More likely than you might think.

One major solar storm would be all it takes.  A major solar storm could destroy the GPS satellites (as well as so much more besides).  We’ve written about the risk of solar storms before, and in particular, in this article we quote from a study which estimates there to be a 12% chance of a super storm occurring in the next ten years.

So, there’s about a one in eight chance that some time in the next decade our modern world’s infrastructure will be destroyed.  Are you prepared?

Jul 292013
 
A radio repeater retransmits your radio signal, greatly increasing the range you can communicate over, and potentially getting it past obstacles and obstructions.

A radio repeater retransmits your radio signal, greatly increasing the range you can communicate over, and potentially getting it past obstacles and obstructions.

If you wish to establish emergency communications with other people in your immediate neighborhood, then you can probably do this successfully with portable VHF or UHF radios – ‘walkie talkies’ – ideally using higher powered longer range Ham radios analogous to but better than the popular FRS, GMRS and MURS radios anyone can use.  We have written about this topic regularly, most recently an article about optimizing the performance and range of short-range VHF/UHF radios.

But if your comm needs lie outside the admittedly very short-range within which convenient VHF/UHF direct communications will reliably work, even after optimizing your radio equipment and antennas, you have to consider either a different way of using your VHF/UHF radios, or switching to a different frequency band that allows for longer range (beyond line of sight) communications and which is less likely to be blocked by buildings, trees, hills, etc.

The simplest approach is to extend the range of your existing VHF/UHF radios by using a local repeater for your VHF/UHF communications.  Instead of communicating directly with the other people you need to communicate with, you send your signal to the repeater, and it then rebroadcasts it on to the ultimate recipient (and, of course, to everyone else listening at the same time!).

The wonderful benefit of this approach is that you use the same equipment you already have, and don’t need to invest in anything extra.

The Pluses and Minuses of Using a Repeater

We’re a bit ambivalent at suggesting you use public repeaters as a solution to your emergency communication needs, because we’re now saying ‘In the event there’s a massive disruption in society and its normal services, you need to rely on one such service still being available’ – that’s not a very sensible plan, is it!

But it costs you nothing at all to program some repeater frequencies into your radios.  Because the repeaters will be located some miles – maybe even twenty, thirty or more – away from you, maybe they will not be impacted by the same event that has caused the loss of cell and regular phone service and forces you to use your wireless capabilities.

The two big concerns with using repeaters in an emergency situation is whether they remain operational and whether they become very congested with lots of ham operators all excitedly chatting to each other about whatever event has occurred.

For the first issue – remaining operational – the big challenge probably relates to the continued availability of power at the repeater.

It would be helpful to find out if any of the local repeaters are solar-powered.  If they are, then clearly that is an enormously positive step towards being free of reliance on grid power.  Even if not solar-powered, maybe the repeater has a battery backup good for an hour or so of operation – that might be enough time for you to at least get in touch with your family members and agree on what, when, where and how you’ll meet up.

If your local repeater doesn’t have solar or battery power, why not suggest they add it.  Join the group/club that operates it (we’ll tell you, below, how to find out who the group is) and suggest you add this capability.  You’ll probably find the idea is warmly received – many ham enthusiasts are half-way to being ardent preppers already; and even those who aren’t love the thought of a ‘real’ emergency coming along where they can start to apply their ham skills and equipment in an important and essential manner.  Ham radio is a key part of our national emergency communication capability, and suggesting to your local repeater group that they should ‘harden’ the repeater and make it more disaster-proof is an issue that they’re probably going to be completely in favor of.

Having a repeater that will still work without grid power would be a very valuable enhancement to their ability to assist in a major emergency, and with the relatively low cost of solar systems these days, you might find it a concept that could be quickly implemented.  You might have to volunteer to coordinate a fund-raising appeal!

If all else fails, you could suggest applying to the local ARES or RACES coordinator for a subsidy to make the repeater self-powered, but there’s a danger that if you do that, ARES/RACES would claim it exclusively for their own use in an emergency, so perhaps it is better not to do that.

For the second issue, congestion, we can only guess as to what to expect.  In theory, ham operators are supposed to be very careful to avoid clogging up the air-waves, and should observe specific protocols and courtesies to enable the best use of the frequency at all times, including in an emergency.  In reality, though, what can we expect?  It is anyone’s guess as to what might happen.

You should also check if the repeater group has any arrangement to dedicate the repeater to ‘official’ emergency type services in an emergency, or if it will remain open, either to the entire general public, or to official members of the support group.  The best case scenario would be limiting the repeater to members of the support group, the worst case scenario would be restricting it to official emergency communications only.

Bottom line – we’re not saying that a repeater is something you should 100% totally rely on.  We acknowledge its limitations and instead are putting it forward as a possible alternate when all your more desirable options have failed.  It is something that might work and if it does, might be very helpful, and so, with no cost to you involved (because you already have your radios) why not at least include it as one level of your multiple levels of emergency communications.

Repeater Range

There’s nothing magical about how a repeater provides its extended range, although finding that your ability to communicate has suddenly grown from maybe being able to reach 5 square miles around you to now being able to reach over 1,000 sq miles sure can seem very close to magic.

The main benefit a repeater offers is that it is usually sited in an excellent location – on the top of a tall building, or on the top of a hill.  That simply gives it a much greater line of sight than you have on the ground, and because its signals are traveling down from a height, they are less troubled by buildings, trees, and other obstructions that otherwise cause you problems when trying to communicate, on the ground, to someone else on the ground.

A similar rule of thumb applies to repeaters as it does to direct communications.  If you can theoretically see the repeater (you might need binoculars or a telescope to actually see it), you can probably receive its signals and it can probably receive yours.    If you can’t see it, then it might still be within range depending on how much stuff there is blocking the signals – you’ll have to try it and see for yourself.

It is common for repeaters to be able to send and receive signals from 20 miles away, and often even further.  Just like the topography greatly impacts on non-repeater radio range, the same applies with repeaters too.  Some repeaters have a more than 50 mile range, and some reach out as far as 75 miles.

Remember that these distances are the repeater’s radius, which means you could be however many miles to the north and the repeater will receive your transmission and rebroadcast it, allowing it to be received however many miles to the south (as well as to the east, west, and everywhere else), giving you a best case range extension out maybe 150 or more miles.

This would be unusual, however, and normally you are better advised to consider most repeaters as having about a 20 mile radius of coverage.  If you can reach signals from further away repeaters, so much the better – the thing to do is experiment and create your own coverage map of where you can activate and receive repeater signals from which repeaters.  You need to become familiar with the repeaters in your area, their coverage ranges, their quirks of operation, and so on.

Short Range Benefits Too

So sometimes, maybe, you can get 100+ miles of range from using a repeater.  That’s great, but the chances are the people you most need to take to are much closer than that.  Indeed, sometimes the range extension you need is more like one or two city blocks, due to a block of tall buildings preventing any signals passing through them.  Or maybe you need a mile or two due to a small hill putting the person you wish to communicate with in your signal’s ‘shadow’ zone.

There’s every good chance a repeater can help in those cases too, and while it might seem ‘the long way around’ to communicate via a repeater 20 miles away to talk to a person one building over from you, the ability of the repeater, somewhere up high, to ‘see’ down to both your location and the other person’s location might enable some of the otherwise very difficult short-range special communication needs too.

Finding Nearby Repeaters

You might not realize it, but your local region probably has multiple VHF or UHF repeaters all within range of where you are and hopefully simultaneously within range of where the people you may need to communicate with will be, too.  The major challenge is knowing where the repeaters are, what frequencies they use, and what their CTCSS access control tones may be.

There are a number of sources you can turn to for this information.  This site shows, for example, 117 repeaters in ID (and the same number in MT too).  The ARRL Repeater Book lists 136 for Idaho.  Repeaterbook.com has 143 entries.  Radioreference.com has only about 60.

Note that a larger number of entries may or may not be better than a smaller number, because maybe the larger number of entries includes out of date listings for repeaters that no longer exist.

The best source of information – most complete and most up-to-date – is from the state or regional frequency coordinator group.  How do you find these groups?  You should get a copy of the annual ARRL Repeater Directory (we prefer the full size spiral bound edition, but there’s nothing wrong with the tiny pocket edition other than its small size print,, and its small size is a benefit when traveling) – this has a good listing of repeaters in it to start with, and has contact details for all the local frequency coordinators listed in the front.  Many of the coordinators publish their information on websites; if not, a courteous email from you to them (include your Ham callsign to confirm your bona fides) will usually get a fast and helpful reply.

Programming Your Radio to Work with Repeaters

Not all radios can work with transceivers.  You need a radio that can transmit on one frequency and listen on another frequency, and which can add control tones to its transmissions to ‘unlock’ the repeater.

Our favorite handheld radio – the Baofeng UV-5R– has all the capabilities you need, and so too does our favorite mobile radio – the AnyTone AT-5888UV.  Most other ham grade radios will too.

To work with a repeater, you need to know what frequency it listens on, and set that as your transmit frequency.  If the repeater requires a tone to activate it, you need to program that into your transmit side, too.  Then you simply add the repeater’s transmit frequency as your receiving frequency, and your radio is good to go.  Sometimes (rarely) a repeater might have a control tone on its transmit signal, but we usually ignore that when programming it in to our radios.

Most of the 2 meter repeaters transmit at a frequency 600 kHz higher than the frequency they receive on.  With the 70 cm band, the frequency change is usually 5 MHz, but some parts of the country have the transmit frequency higher than the receive, and other parts have the opposite.  So be careful to check which way around it is with the receivers you are hoping to work.

The information in the resources mentioned in the previous section give you all this data.

Which is Better?  VHF or UHF?

Should you search out VHF or UHF repeaters?  That question presupposes that you have the luxury of multiple choices of repeaters in the areas and locations you want to communicate within; that is usually true in most city areas, but much less true in rural areas.

Quite possibly, in a rural area there might be only one repeater, or – alas – maybe none at all (in such a case, don’t despair – we’ll be publishing a future article on how to set up your own repeater).

If you do have choices, our suggestion is to try them all and program them all into your radios.  At present, the ‘best’ repeater is of course the one which is most available and used the least, and which provides a good quality signal between you and the other people you need to communicate with.

But in a future event, WTSHTF, you’ve no real way of knowing which repeaters might remain functional, and for how long, and which repeaters may quickly become hopelessly overloaded with way too many people all excitedly and urgently trying to communicate each other.

The more different repeaters you have pre-programmed in to your radios, and the better you understand the coverage footprints of the repeaters in your area, the more likely it is you’ll end up finding one that works.  (Note that you and the other members of your group will need to have a pre-arranged methodology for which repeater signals you’ll listen to.)

If you are getting a single band mobile or portable radio, and plan to use it with repeaters, you should consider which band has the most repeaters available.  The two most common bands are the 2 meter and 70 centimeter bands, and (much less commonly) there are some 1.25 meter band repeaters too.  Some regions seem to be more focused on the 70 cm UHF band, others on the 2 m VHF band.

In terms of better range and signal, that is usually more dependent on the repeater location and equipment than on its frequency.

Who Can Use a Repeater?

Most ham repeaters can be used by any and all hams.  Some are restricted to members of the repeater association group only, but this is uncommon.

On the other hand, when you use a repeater, you need to realize that you are using someone else’s equipment.  Someone has spent considerable time and money creating and maintaining the repeater.  If you become a regular user of a particular repeater, it would be appropriate for you to join the group that manages and maintains the repeater, and contribute time, resource, or money to help in its upkeep.

Repeaters for GMRS Too

Although most of the ‘open to the public’ repeaters are for ham operators and are on ham frequencies, there are a number of GMRS repeaters out there too.  There are nowhere near as many GMRS repeaters as ham repeaters, though.

If you use a GMRS repeater, there is a slightly higher chance of you being required to have a current GMRS license, and if you’re going to get one of those, maybe you should get a Ham license instead (cheaper, albeit slightly more bother).

This website has a listing of some GMRS repeaters, some of which claim to have truly impressive coverages.

Note that very few GMRS radios on the market are capable of working repeaters, because they can’t send on one frequency and receive on a different one.  You would need to get a professional grade GMRS radio, or skirt the legal issues with using a dual purpose radio such as the lovely low-priced Baofeng UV-5R series (see our many articles on these radios, perhaps starting from here).

Summary

If there are repeaters in your area that provide coverage both in the locations you are likely to be in, and also in the locations other people in your group are likely to be in, then if you have problems establishing direct communication, working through the repeater might be a possible alternative approach.

Obviously direct communication is always better – less things to go wrong, and probably less congestion on the frequency you use as well, but this is not always possible.  In such cases, and assuming you’ve already done all you can to optimize your radios and antennas, it is logical to try repeater style communications.

It is unknown how available repeaters might be in a disaster situation.  Become a supportive member of the group that manages and maintains your local repeater(s) and encourage them to invest in standby power supplies such as batteries and solar.

Jul 292013
 
Borrowing money is nothing new, but the many ways of getting into debt these days make it easier to find yourself in financial trouble.

Borrowing money is nothing new, but the many ways of getting into debt these days make it easier to find yourself in financial trouble.

None of us have as much money to spend on prepping as we wish.  So we’re starting a new article series to help you become more financially free, and better able to invest in more complete prepping.

Our financial lives revolve around two main factors.  The income we generate each month, and the money we spend each month.  Hopefully we spend less than we earn, of course.

The issue isn’t so much the actual numbers as it is ensuring there’s a positive gap such that you are earning more than you are spending.  If you want to widen that gap, you can do either or both of two things, and only two things.  You either increase your income and/or reduce your expenses.

An exception to that rule seems to be if you’re managing a city, county, state or the entire federal budget.  Deficit spending seems to be something that these public bodies can do with impunity, but don’t you be tricked into believing that either you can safely spend money you don’t have, or that the public bodies can, either.  Detroit declared bankruptcy last week, other cities have already done so with less publicity, and some other cities similar in size to Detroit also have massive unfunded liabilities.

The only difference between us and a public body is that the speed of our crash would be quicker and harder, and that it is our own personal money and future at risk – the administrators of public bodies are seldom personally at risk when they spend their way into deficit oblivion.

So, how to reconcile the need to not spend more than you earn with the easy availability of money to borrow?  And how to borrow money as inexpensively as possible?

1.  Should You Ever Borrow Money?

Chances are you currently owe money, like most of us.  Maybe you have a house mortgage, a car payment, a balance on a credit card, a store card, a student loan, maybe payments on some furniture or something else you financed, and so on.

Some people say you should never borrow money.  We’re not saying that, and as we said, most of us do owe money.  But we will agree that many of us should probably borrow/owe less than we do.  There are times when it makes sense to borrow money – buying a house being the classic example of that.

Sometimes you might have no choice but to borrow money, it might be literally life or death.  Medical and dental bills would be an example of that.

A third category when it can make sense to borrow money up front is when the thing you are paying for is something that will provide an ongoing financial benefit to you – an educational qualification to advance your career, or a new tool that you can use to work more productively and more profitably (sometimes a new(er) car can be justified under this heading too).

A related category would be when you must spend money up front to save needing to spend more money later on.  For example, if your house needs repainting or your roof needs replacing, you are better advised to get that done in a timely manner, for fear of having much greater costs subsequently if you delay.

There is a final, fifth category where it makes sense to borrow money.  If you are in an unusual situation where an item is going up in price at a greater rate than the cost of borrowing money, maybe it is better to borrow so you can buy the item now, rather than save and buy the item later when you have saved enough money.  This has often been true of real estate, and can sometimes be true of other things too, although be very cautious when it seems you are being presented with any sort of ‘amazing short-term opportunity to save money’.  More often than not, the deal isn’t as amazing as it seems, and the short-term opportunity might be longer term than it seems to be.

It never makes any sense for any seller to sell anything for less than its fair normal market value; if someone is trying to tell you they are selling you something for less than it is worth, you have to wonder what sort of fool they are to do that.  If something is truly worth, say, $50,000, then why wouldn’t the seller ask $50,000 for the thing?  Why would he only ask $25,000?  Yes, there sometimes are valid reasons why real true bargains come along, but be very wary of deals that seem ‘too good to be true’.

So, there are five situations when it may make sense to borrow money.  On the other hand, there are also many times when it makes no sense to borrow money at all, because the ability to easily borrow money merely tempts us into buying something we didn’t and don’t need.  A bigger screen television, for example; a newer car, a hot tub, an extravagant vacation, or whatever else it is that is currently tempting you.

Manufacturers and retailers spend billions of dollars every year tempting us to buy as much as we can – and then to borrow more money to buy more things that we shouldn’t be buying – because if we all reduced our levels of spending and consumption, our economy, which has become ever more dependent on people spending more than they should, would implode.

But don’t worry about the national economy.  You should be ‘selfish’.  Never mind about the national or international economy, and don’t think about what the other 330 million people in the US are doing.  Think only of yourself, and what is best for you – our economy can probably withstand the effects of you reducing your own level of consumption slightly.  🙂

For the future, if an item doesn’t clearly fall within the five appropriate-to-borrow-money categories above, you should discipline yourself to not buy it until you have spare available cash in your bank account to pay for it.

This will save you much more money than you think, because not only are you saving on the interest costs of borrowing money, but you’ll find you end up buying fewer things, and those you do buy will be more sensible appropriate things.  You’ll have a better life style, you’ll own better things, and you’ll have more money in the bank and fewer monthly outgoings.

You’ll also discover the joys of being able to negotiate cash discounts, of being able to buy things when they are at the lowest price, and so on.  So let’s hurry your forward on your path to a much stronger financial situation.

2.  The Subtle But Massive Costs of Interest

Some of us go to ridiculous lengths to ‘save money’ – we know a person who proudly drives ten miles to fill their car up with gas at a cheaper gas station, but (by our calculations) the cost of driving there and back exceeds the money they save each time.  There are lots of examples of people who are ‘penny wise and pound foolish’, and hopefully you’re not guilty of any of these failings, yourself.

But there is one failing that many of us have.  We are sometimes so appreciative of any source of credit that we seldom stop to look at the cost of the credit, and to comparison shop when borrowing money.  The cost of credit – the interest rate we are charged – should be as important to us as the price of gasoline or the cost per pound of potatoes in the store.

Because interest ‘compounds’, there is a huge difference in total cost to you between a higher and lower interest rate, and between paying a loan off quickly or slowly.  The best thing to do is to get your interest rate down as low as you can, and to pay the loan off as quickly as you can.

Let’s look at several different scenarios to see how this works out, using a $10,000 loan amount every time.  If your loan is more, just multiply the amounts by how many times more it is to see the impact.

Interest % Years = Monthly Payment = Total Interest Paid
21% 10 $199.93 $13,992
21% 5 $270.53 $6,232
18% 10 $180.19 $11,622
18% 5 $253.93 $5,236
17% 10 $173.80 $10,856
17% 9 $181.36 $9,587
15% 10 $161.33 $9,360
15% 9 $169.24 $8,278
15% 8 $179.45 $7,228
15% 5 $237.90 $4,274
15% 4.5 $255.78 $3,812
10.5% 10 $134.93 $6,192
0% 10 $83.33 $0

 

You’ll notice several things here.  If you halve the time it takes you to pay off your loan, your monthly payments don’t double.  The increase by more like 50%.  As for the other 50% that doesn’t increase, most of that saving is due to you paying much less interest – half as much interest, sometimes even less.

The longer your loan, the massively greater your total payments will be.  Keep your loan periods as short as you can, and any time you have spare money, use it to pay the loan down still faster and further.  Remember that each extra dollar you pay, over and above your monthly minimum, is going entirely to paying off the principal amount owing, and that once you’ve reduced the principal, you no longer pay any more interest on it in any of the remaining months of the loan.

You can also see the huge difference in total interest payments at different interest rates.  Reducing your interest rate by only a few percentage points can save you thousands of dollars over the period of your loan.

Most of all though, hopefully you’ll vividly see the massive costs associated with borrowing money.  Say you’re thinking of going on a vacation – $5000 for the two of you.  Does it really make sense to borrow that money on your credit card, and to pay it off over 5 years at 21%, making the total cost of the $5000 vacation into $8100, and to be making payments for long years after you’re returned home and already forgotten about the great time you hopefully enjoyed?

Remember the five (and only five) scenarios for borrowing money, above.  If something isn’t clearly within one of those five scenarios, don’t be tricked into borrowing money to pay for it.

Now, talking about tricking, let’s look some more at issues to do with borrowing money.

3.  Avoid Unnecessary Fees

Lenders love late fees.  They massively increase the amount of profit they make from the money they’ve lent you.  So don’t be tricked into incurring them.  Plus every late payment – even by only a day – becomes a downcheck on your credit report.

Know when payments are due, and make sure your payments are always safely and surely received a couple of days before they are due.

Banks also love the fees they charge when you go into an unapproved overdraft, and/or the fees they charge if they bounce your checks.  Many times the bounce fee can be more than the check amount itself!  There’s no excuse for writing checks when you don’t have money in your account; make sure you never end up incurring these fees.

We know one person who regularly writes checks he doesn’t have money in his account to cover, and boasts that the bank always honors his checks.  That’s very kind of the bank, but he also confirmed the bank charges $30 every time.  A $30 fee for what is in effect a one or two day loan of $100 or $200?  Say it was a $200 check for two days.  That $30 fee is the same as a 2760% interest rate, and if I ever found myself paying that interest rate, I’d sure not boast about it.

We know another person who is often late paying his water bill.  He says he only really feels the pressure to pay it when he gets a notice of pending cut-off hung on his door handle at home, and then he pays it immediately.  He says it doesn’t matter, because it is not reported on his credit report.  But what he doesn’t say is that he is assessed a $20 late fee each time that happens.

A $20 late fee might not seem like a huge amount, but what a total waste of $20 for no benefit in return.  He still had to take the time to pay the bill, but by being slack, he wastes $20.  And one time, he was out-of-town, and returned home to no water, a late fee, a reconnection fee, and an emergency call-out fee.  Almost $100 in fees.

So pay your bills on time, even the ‘nasty’ ones you don’t like (like parking tickets, before they double) and the ‘unimportant’ ones like water bills.

In general, you should have a look and see how much each of your credit cards is costing you in annual membership fees, and how much your bank account is costing you too.

Do you really need three different Visa cards – especially if they each charge you $50/year?  Almost certainly not!  We generally have one Amex card, one Visa card, and one Mastercard in our wallet.  That way, if we have a problem with our Visa or Mastercard for whatever reason, we have an alternate to use, and we also have an Amex which we mainly use only at Costco (Costco has a deal on a combined Amex/Costco card membership).

Trim down the credit cards you possess.  And choose credit cards with no annual fee, or a low annual fee.  Some credit cards charge $100 or more a year, some are free.  Unless there’s some way you’re clearly getting the value from the annual fee (maybe it gives you a free companion airline ticket or something), don’t use that type of card.  If you do need that particular card, see if you can negotiate a lower annual fee with them – you’d be surprised how much you can negotiate with the credit card companies when they think you’ll otherwise leave them and go elsewhere.

You should also look at your monthly bank fees.  Banks change their fee structures all the time, and while they send out notices of changes to their terms and conditions, who has time to read through them all and try to work out what has actually changed?  Although you might have got the best deal at the time you opened your account, almost surely, over the years, it has changed and other deals have come along so you no longer have the most appropriate account type and fee structure.

Many banks have some type of ‘free checking’ account, or if not, they very probably have a lower cost account than the one you currently have.  If you’re paying more than $10/month, go ask for a better deal.

Many people report better experiences with smaller banks and local credit unions rather than with larger banks.  If you’re looking at changing banks, be sure to speak to a small bank or credit union as part of your shopping around.

If you sometimes need emergency loans, in small amounts and for short periods, make that part of your bank shopping too – find out what their policies are and what the fees will be.

4.  Negotiate Down the Fees You Pay

If you are borrowing money through an independent mortgage broker, ask them to split their fee with you.  The chances are they are getting 1%, 2%, or maybe even more of the money you are borrowing as their fee/commission, and just like realtors will generally give back some of their commission, so too will mortgage brokers give some of their fee back to you, too.

But be careful how you approach this matter.  If you ask the mortgage broker about the fee up front, he might say ‘sure, of course’ and then present you with loan rates that he has inflated the fee, so that he can then ‘reduce’ the fee and ‘give you back’ some money but still end up with as much money as he would have got anyway!

When borrowing money, it pays to shop around and compare, and when you’ve found the best two or three, then negotiate between them to see who will trim their own margin the most.

Even if you’re not negotiating by asking for a fee giveback, you can simply instead ask for a fee reduction.  We’d not recommend you ask a full-time bank employee to share their fee with you, but you can ask the bank employee for a reduction in the loan fee.  Remember these loan officers are in the business of making loans, not refusing loans, and they have some discretionary ability to vary the rates they first offer you.

If you make a mistake and the bank charges you a bunch of fees for bouncing a series of checks, and if this is not something you make a habit of doing, go into the bank, meet a banker in person, and ask for them to reverse out the fees.  If you discover that your ‘free checking’ account requires a minimum $5000 balance, and you dropped below that, ask for that fee to be waived too – but you can only do this once or twice.  However, if you’ve been with the bank for a while, you can simply say ‘I forgot’ or ‘I didn’t realize’ and they’ll probably cooperate with you.

You might be surprised to see how quickly many institutions will take their fees off again, but you have to ask them (politely!) first.

5.  How to Borrow Money Cheaply

Just as important as paying off your debt is avoiding incurring new debt as much as possible.  But sometimes there is no alternative to needing to borrow some money.  When you absolutely must borrow money, try to do so on the most favorable terms possible.

If you have a credit card, try to never take a cash advance from your available credit limit.  This is a very costly thing to do.  You will be charged an immediate cash advance fee (usually 2% – 3% of the amount withdrawn) and then the amount instantly starts accruing interest.  Worse still, many credit cards then make all the other current charges on your card start accruing interest, too.

One way around this, if you’re short of cash, is to simply pay for more things by credit card, and pay for fewer things with cash.  You’ll probably get a month or two of time, interest free, to pay for the new charges on your card if you’re keeping it current each month.  That’s a lot better than paying all the fees for a cash withdrawal.  You’d be amazed at how much you can buy with a credit card these days.

Payday loans and pawn shops are even more expensive than credit card loans.  As nasty as they are, it is probably better to make a cash withdrawal off a credit card than to enter into one of these transactions.

6.  Take Advantage of Special Deals

Maybe you have a chance to buy something on a ’90 days same as cash’ basis.  If you see such a deal, you should consider several things.  First, ask the store if they also have a cash discount offer at the same time – maybe you can get a 5% or greater discount for paying cash (because it probably costs them at least 5% to give a ’90 days same as cash’ deal).

If they don’t, then if you can afford to pay cash for the deal anyway, you could buy it on the ’90 days same as cash’ basis, and make sure you make the payments as is needed to avoid having interest kick in, including paying everything off the day before the 90 day point.

If you need something that is offering the 90 day deal, you should take it, and understand what happens on the 91st day.  Does that mean that suddenly all the past interest over the previous 90 days will then be billed to you?  Or do the 90 interest free days remain, no matter what?

Then at the end of the 90 days, you then use a credit union loan or something like that with a lower interest rate to then pay the balance, and make your payments on the credit union loan.

Maybe you are offered a deal on a new car with 1.9% financing.  You have already saved up the money for the car, so you don’t need it.  But here’s an idea – why not borrow the money for the car, and then with the money you’ve saved up, use it to pay down any other monies you owe – even your house mortgage.  If you have a house mortgage at (say) 6%, you’ve managed to suddenly replace perhaps $30,000 or more of it with money you borrowed at 1.9% as part of your car purchase.  That’s a good deal, even after allowing for the tax benefits on the house interest.

Be careful if you use the money to pay down your house mortgage though, because your monthly house mortgage payment will stay the same, and you’ll also then have to find more money to pay for the car payment.

7.  What to Do With the Money You Save

Each time you save yourself some money, don’t spend the money you’ve just freed up, and don’t let it just disappear into all the rest of your money.

Instead, take the money you’ve just now saved and either use it to pay down the money you owe on something, or use it to build up your preps.  Either which way, you end up with a lasting benefit, and at no extra cost to you.

Jul 292013
 
Some people deride coal as being dirty, ugly, and old fashioned.  They are foolish to do so.

Some people deride coal as being dirty, ugly, and old-fashioned. They are short-sighted to do so.

It is only slightly an exaggeration to say that coal has fueled and been a significant enabler of much of the modern world’s development.

But these days, ‘conventional wisdom’ denigrates coal as being dirty, environmentally unfriendly, and generally nasty.  The popular perception (which is completely wrong) is that the US (and possibly world-wide) coal industry is in terminal decline, because it is an obsolete and no longer effective/useful energy source.

Is there actually any continued role for coal in the future – either in our ‘normal’ future or WTSHTF?  Due to the prominence of coal for much of our past, that is a question we need to research and resolve.  So, please keep reading.

Historically, coal has been a long time and low-tech energy source, being reasonably easy to mine, to transport, to store, and to use.  Any low-tech energy source becomes very relevant to us when we consider a future where our high-tech infrastructure may have failed.

Coal has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years in homes, then subsequently as a fuel for stationary boilers in factories, then as a fuel for steam ships and steam locomotives, and as a feedstock for gasworks making city gas supplies, and as an energy source for power stations, and even as a raw source for hydrocarbon products of all sorts.  As recently as the mid 2000s, more than half of our nation’s energy came from coal-fired power stations.

In times of oil scarcity, coal has been used to make ‘artificial’ petrol and other liquid fuels.

Coal is also used in the production of steel, cement, even paper, and many other things.  The US is the world’s second largest coal producer and has the world’s largest reserves – more than 240 years of supply.  So coal would definitely seem to be something all preppers should consider.

As preppers, our major focus on coal would be as an energy source.  The good news is that coal is a very good value source of energy, less than half the cost of most other major energy sources.

There are very many different ways to measure the costs of energy, but the disparity between the cost of coal and other energy sources is so huge as to make it unnecessary to quibble over the last few percents.  If you look at the table on page 3 of this document, you’ll see the following costs per million BTUs of energy for a range of different energy sources (2010 data averaged across the US).

Energy Source Cost ($ per million BTU)
Coal $2.42
Natural Gas $7.41
(note – prices in 2013 are about half this)
Distillate Fuel Oil $20.62
Jet Fuel $16.28
LPG $19.61
Motor Gasoline $21.98
Residual Fuel Oil $11.70
Other $17.97
Average for all Petroleum $20.32
Nuclear $0.62
Wood and waste biomass $3.45
Electric Power Industrial $2.62
Electric Power Retail $28.92
National Average $18.73

 

As you can very clearly see, and based on these wholesale/industrial rates, nuclear power is massively better value than any other power source, but coal comes second, followed closely by wood.  Natural gas is three times the cost of coal, LPG and gasoline are about eight times the cost.

So, in terms of theoretical cost per theoretical unit of energy, coal is massively better than all other energy sources open to us, both now and in the future.

Another interesting point is that one ton of coal can create two barrels of oil.  At the time of writing, this regularly updated coal price report shows coal varies in price from as low as $10.30/ton to as high as $68.25/ton.  To put this number into clear perspective, even after allowing for carbon capture and other ‘best practice’ environmental considerations, it costs less than half as much to convert coal to oil than it does to buy a barrel of oil directly (here’s an interesting report on that topic).

We point this out not to suggest we all create Fischer-Tropsch plants to convert coal into oil in our back yards, but merely to open your eyes to the enormous potential of coal for many different energy applications, both at present and in the future.  It is very wrong to think of coal as ‘old fashioned’ (and as ‘bad’).

If the preceding is even half-true, why don’t we all build massive coal bunkers and store tons of coal?  Sure, it is true that coal is not a very ‘clean burning’ energy source, but who would worry about that after TEOTWAWKI, when all sources of industrial pollution with have been close to zeroed out?  Let’s learn some more about coal.

Different Types of Coal

As you might have noticed from the coal price report linked in the preceding section, the amount of energy you can get from a ton of coal can vary widely, as do other factors such as its sulphur content.  Here’s an interesting chart that sets out the varying amounts of sulphur and energy from coal in different parts of the US.

The wide range of different properties of coal have been categorized into four broad categories (and there are sub-categories within each of these four main categories).  The ‘best’ coal for most purposes is generally anthracite, followed by bituminous, sub-bituminous, and finally lignite type coal.

Anthracite has the highest calorific (energy) value, the highest carbon content, and is the oldest coal.  Each of the three subsequent grades have less energy, less carbon, and are more recent (albeit in geological terms of hundreds of millions of years).

The subbituminous category is of interest, even though it would seem to be the third of the four grades, because it has a low sulphur content.

Using Coal

Coal burns hotter than wood and can create more soot.  If you are going to burn coal in your house, you’ll need to make sure that your fireplace and chimney system can handle the greater heat of coal.

Coal also needs a different type of air flow than does wood.  You need to have coal on a grate with air able to come in from under the great and go through the coal bed for its combustion.  This is fairly critical – a solid bed of coal (as may happen after some hours of burning and a layer of ash being created) will prevent air flow and proper combustion; whereas too porous a bed will also fail to allow for optimum burning.

A well tuned coal fire should generate little smoke, although that depends a bit on the type of coal being burned.  Typically anthracite is preferred for home use and it is a ‘clean’ burning coal.

Coal comes available in different size ranges.  Here’s a list from small to large, and with sizes (which seem to vary from place to place somewhat)

  • #5 (typical size 3/64″ x 100 mesh)
  • #4 (typical size 3/32″ x 3/64″)
  • Barley (Buckwheat #3) (typical size 3/16″ x 3/32″)
  • Rice (Buckwheat #2) (typical size 3-5/16″ x 3/16″)
  • Buckwheat (typical size 9/16″ x 3-5/16″)
  • Pea (typical size 13/16″ x 9/16″)
  • Nut (typical size 1 5/8″ x 13/16″)
  • Stove (typical size 2 7/16″ x 1 5/8″)
  • Egg (typical size 3 1/4″ x 2 7/16″)
  • Broken or lump (typical size 6-8″ x 4″)

We’ve seen people express opinions favoring one size over the other, and others favoring quite the opposite (for example here), and the best size probably depends on the type of stove/furnace and grate you are using.  If you are using an auto-stoker device, then size becomes even more relevant.  Suggestion – experiment to start with, using different sizes until you find the size that works best for you.

As with any type of combustion indoors, we’d recommend you have a couple of CO detectors to keep an eye on CO levels, just in case unusual conditions interfere with the normal safe operation of your fireplace/stove.  You should also have a fire extinguisher or two, and perhaps a bucket of sand (or baking soda) as an excellent way of damping down a coal fire if it starts to get out of hand.

We’d also suggest you regularly inspect your flue/chimney setup for any ash accumulation and sweep it clear as needed.  After a while you’ll get a feeling for the needed frequency of maintaining this – failure to do so might interfere with the venting of the fire and cause dangerous gas buildups inside your house, and/or might encourage chimney fires.

Of course, if you change your coal type, you’ll need to ‘recalibrate’ your expectation of how regularly you need to clean your flues.

Real World Costs and Benefits

We were earlier quoting the wholesale costs of different energy sources.  As you can doubtless guess, there’s a world of difference between the ex-mine cost per pound of buying 1,000 tons of coal, and the cost of having one single 50 lb bag of coal delivered to your doorstep.

Here’s a very useful fuel comparison calculator you can use to compare the respective costs of different energy sources for home heating.  It comes with some default numbers that aren’t enormously out of line, but adjust them for the actual costs you’d pay in your area, and you’ll get a clearer view of the actual costs and benefits of different heating sources.

Coal’s benefit reduces somewhat when you’re buying coal in small quantities, but it typically still shows some advantage over most other heating options.

Read More in the Second Part

This was the first part of a two-part article on coal.  Please now click on to read the second part of the article – Practical Issues to Do With Using Coal.

 

Jul 292013
 

We love coal fires and their distinctive appearance and smell.  The fact they are a very efficient and low cost way of heating is a further reason to consider coal as a fuel source.

We love coal fires and their distinctive appearance and smell. The fact they are also a very efficient and low cost way of heating is a further reason to consider coal as a fuel source.

If the concept of coal as a fuel source appeals, you need to shift from the theory to the practicalities of what it will cost to buy the coal, how you will store it, and other related issues and considerations.  Our earlier article, ‘Coal – A Prepper’s Friend of Foe‘ looked at the overall issues to do with coal, this article looks at some further specific things to consider when evaluating coal.

Where the Coal Is and Buying It

Clearly the closer you are to a coal mine, the lower your cost of coal will be, although another factor will be the ease of shipping coal to your location.  Here’s a somewhat dated but still accurate map showing the spread of coal fields across the country, and here’s a link to the latest US Energy Information Annual Report on coal which has details of mines and their production levels and much more.

If you are wanting to buy significant amounts of coal, then you could consider buying full rail wagon or truck loads.  A full truck load is about 24 tons.  But if you are wanting more moderate amounts (especially to start with when you might be experimenting with different sizes and grades of coal to see what works best with your setup), you should find the closest possible coal merchant.  If you can’t find any nearby coal merchants, you could contact the closest coal mines and ask them for referrals.  Of course there are online services such as this and this too (but we’ve yet to see Amazon start selling it complete with free second day delivery included!).

However, please wait a few minutes before rushing to buy some hundreds of tons of coal.  You should read on to the next section.

The Downsides of Coal

There are two major problems (as well as some minor problems) with coal that argue against our broad adoption of a coal strategy for our future energy sources.

The first is that burning coal is harder on our furnaces than burning wood.  The sulphur that is present in coal creates compounds that attack the metal of our stoves, fireplaces, chimneys, and other structures.  This is nothing that can’t be reasonably compensated for when designing and building such structures, but it does accelerate the wear on all such things, compared to burning wood or natural gas or fuel oil.

The second major problem is storing coal.  Now, you might think that a natural unrefined substance such as coal, which has been slowly forming for 300 million years, and which you may also know is fairly hard to set on fire and to keep burning, would last another few million years without any problems after taking it out of the ground, but if you thought that, you’d be surprisingly wrong.

Coal can be a potentially troublesome product to store.  It reacts with air and with water, and the result of the reaction causes a release of heat.

The release of heat does two things.  First, it speeds up the reaction (making for a positive-feedback loop), and secondly, if it builds up sufficiently, it ignites the coal.  So you can have a pile of coal, even in a cool and/or damp environment, that sets itself on fire.  Amazingly, and completely counter-intuitively, spraying a pile of coal with water can increase the chances of it self-combusting.

Coal not only burns spontaneously after it has been mined, it can also do so while still in the ground; indeed, according to this article, thousands of coal fires are burning all around the world, all the time.  Coal fires in China burn through 120 million tons of coal every year, and contribute 2% – 3% of the total annual worldwide CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Coal fires in stored coal piles are far from uncommon, and take very little time to start (75% of such fires start within three months of a coal pile being formed, and many of those fires within the first two weeks).  A little known fact about the Titanic is that when it put to sea on its maiden voyage, it had a fire burning in its number six coal bunker.

If you have large-sized piles of coal, you need a way to monitor their core temperatures.  If the core temperatures reach 140°F, then you need to consider preventative measures, and by the time it gets to 150° it is time to break the pile and allow the coal to cool before repiling it.  Coal generally will start to smoke at about 180°, and at that point, it is a bit too late because it is starting to combust.

Note that coal will often steam as water dries off, this is different to smoking.

Large lumps of coal are more resistant to spontaneous combustion than smaller lumps, and anthracite is the least susceptible, while lignite is the most susceptible.

If there is a lot of air flow through the pile, that will keep the coal cool.  If there is no air flow through the pile, that will keep oxygen away from the coal and limit the reaction.  But somewhere in the middle, between ‘no air’ and ‘lots of air’ is a danger zone with enough air to encourage spontaneous combustion.  It can only take a small amount of air flow for this to occur.

So, if you are storing coal, you need to keep the piles small and monitor their core temperatures.

A related issue is that coal deteriorates over time.  It again seems strange that something which is formed so slowly over 200 – 300 million years is so apparently ‘unstable’, but you will definitely start to notice reductions in heat output from coal that has been stored for extended periods of time.

These heat output reductions are probably not profoundly significant, and you can still store coal for many years, even tens of years, and still get valuable energy from it, and when you compare this to storing wood (which might rot) and liquid fuels (which need stabilizer and even then have a maximum storage life of perhaps ten years) it is clear that coal is as suitable for storing long-term as other energy sources.  But it isn’t perfect.

Legal Restrictions on Burning Coal

Another problem might be any clean air regulations in your state/county/city that restrict your ability to burn coal.  The problem is that such laws almost certainly don’t say ‘except in an emergency when you can burn anything you like at any time for any purpose’.  If the law says it is illegal to burn coal today, it will still be illegal to burn coal WTSHTF, and while enforcement might be thin, sooner or later some enterprising person will realize you are burning coal and will use the law as an excuse to legally ‘fine’ you, with the fine perhaps being the forfeiture of your remaining coal or food or anything else they wish it to be.

On the other hand, if your region just has occasional, weather/air quality dependent burning bans, then perhaps, after TSHTF, the authority that rules on such things will no longer function, and/or, the lower level of general industrial activity will reduce the number of times during the year when coal is banned.

Clearly if you plan to rely on coal as a year-round fuel source (eg firing a boiler that then provides heating, hot water, and possibly even electricity generation or a mechanical power source) you need to be sure you can legally use it year round.

How Much Space Does a Ton of Coal Take Up?

So, if you do decide to set aside space to store coal in bulk, how much space will you need?

Our first comment is to remind you of the problems outlined in the preceding section to do with coal’s propensity to spontaneously self-combust.  It is better to have a number of smaller piles/bunkers/whatevers of coal than one large one.  If nothing else, we’d want to be sure that nowhere in our fuel pile was more than four feet from the outside.  That might sound like a restrictively small size, but you could get as much as 6 tons of coal in such a pile.

This is a very conservative suggestion, but better safe than sorry.  Back in the 1920s, the Railroad Administration suggested piling coal for railroad storage not over twelve to fifteen feet in height when the track is placed on top of the coal pile, and not over twenty feet when a locomotive crane is used.  The Home Insurance Company advised against piling in excess of twelve feet, or more than 1500 tons in any pile, and suggested trimming the piles so that no point in the interior was more than ten feet from an air-cooled surface.

Coal is dense, but due to its irregular size and shape, it doesn’t pack efficiently.  In general, you can expect to get from about 43lbs to 59 lbs of coal per cubic foot.  Because coal is heavier than water, wet coal takes up more space for a given amount of weight than does dry coal.  Older coal (ie bituminous or anthracite) will have a greater weight of coal per unit of volume than does newer coal.

So, back to our suggestion you keep a coal supply in piles measuring 8′ x 8′ on their base and 4′ high – a total of 256 cu ft.  If you work on say an average of 50 lbs of coal per cu ft, that would be about 12,800 lbs of coal, or 6.4 short tons per pile.  You are using 10 sq ft of floor space to store a ton of coal.

Summary

This was the second part of a two-part article about coal.  If you’ve not already done so, you might choose to now read our first part, ‘Coal – A Prepper’s Friend or Foe‘.

Coal is usually the second cheapest energy source in the US today.

The two cheapest sources of energy in this country are strangely the two which ‘greenies’ hate the most – coal and nuclear.  On the other hand, arguably the ‘cleanest’ source of energy is also the most expensive (electricity) and being as how almost half of all electricity comes from coal fueled power stations (and most of the rest from stations burning either natural gas or oil) the ‘cleanness’ of electricity relates only to what you see coming out of the wall rather than the total process of generating the power in the first place!  But it isn’t our place, here, to get into a discussion on the illogic that surrounds too much environmentalism….

Suffice it simply to say that while it is of course entirely impractical to consider building your own personal nuclear power plant; depending on where you are, where you could source coal from (and at what cost) and any local restrictions on burning coal, you might find coal to be a surprisingly cost-effective and good solution for much of your future energy requirements.

If you do choose a coal based approach to some of your energy needs, you are well advised to choose specific stoves/furnaces that are designed and optimized for the different burning characteristics of coal (compared to wood).

We’d recommend you research the issues to do with using coal at your retreat.  You might be surprised at how positive a coal based energy approach could be.

Here’s an interesting reader forum type website that could be a good resource for preppers wanting to find out more about buying, storing, and using coal.

Jul 262013
 
So just exactly how many cans of spam do you need?  :)

So just exactly how many cans of spam do you need? 🙂

This question is a bit like asking ‘How high is up?’.  Clearly, the more food you store, the better you will be able to withstand a Level 1 or 2 event (Level 3 events assume, more or less by definition, that the problem will last longer than any stores you might have amassed).

There probably is an upper limit to how much food you could/should store, but few of us are going to reach that.  In case you wonder, there are two situations where you might end up with ‘too much’ food.  The first is if you have so much food that you can’t eat it all (or give it away or trade/sell/exchange it) before such time as it passes both its official and its real expiry dates.  The second would be having such a lot that you find yourself with food to last much longer than you have energy or water or other essentials.

In all cases, you need to balance your prepping.  Until you can – in all respects – survive a one week event, there is no point adding a second week of food.  Who needs food when you no longer have water?  When your heat has gone, and it is midwinter and you’re dying of exposure, food is again probably the least of your worries.  And so on.

So it is important to keep your prepping balanced.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the same with prepping.  When you run out of any essential item, your survival is threatened, no matter how much of other things you still have on hand.

But having said that, it is relatively straightforward to get a retreat that will provide shelter for an extended many year period, to get a well that will provide you with all the water you’ll ever need, and to get perhaps a solar cell array to provide you with at least some ongoing power.  At that point, food becomes a key consideration because you’re in the happy point of having open-ended indefinite solutions to your need for water, shelter and energy.

Of course, you need a lot more than the most minimalist amounts of food, water, shelter and energy, but you truly do need these big four categories of preps.  Other things you might be able to improvise or make do without, but you can’t make do without these four major categories.

So, assuming you have resolved everything to do with water, shelter and energy, how much food should you store?  You might say ‘Oh, I’ll store a year’s worth’, – this seems to be a commonly cited quantity to aspire to.  However, that answer in turn begs some other questions – just how many cans and bags and other forms of food is a year’s worth?

To answer these questions, you need to consider five factors, and to ignore one distractor.

The distractor is the claim you’ll often see made in prepackaged collections of long life foods – ‘Contains a three-month supply’ or maybe ‘contains 240 entrees’ or something else.  You need to see exactly how many calories the supplier is basing these claims on, and contrast it with your expected calorie need (point 2, below); and dollars to donuts, you’ll almost surely find that their ‘three month supply’ is more like a two month supply, their 240 entrees are more like 240 appetizers, and so on!

So let’s now look at the five factors to consider.

1.  How Many People Will You Feed?

This question has some overtones that you should consider.  You probably already know how many people you’re planning to have in your retreat.  But might you have some unexpected extra people join you?

Maybe someone gets married and brings their new spouse.  Maybe a couple has a new child.  Maybe a friend or two come along and ask to be accepted into your community.  Maybe you meet someone after moving to your retreat who has an excellent set of skills and you want to have them join you, too.

In addition, you should also consider how you will handle people who come begging for food.  Will you send them away with nothing, or will you give them a token small amount of food?

However you answer these questions, you’ll probably end up realizing that it is likely you’ll have more mouths to feed than you originally plan for.

2.  How Much Daily Food Will Each Person Need?

You may already be familiar with the US Recommended Daily Allowances that specify how much of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and other elements a person should consume each day.  Here’s a link to them if you’re not.

Perhaps the most relevant issue though is not how much of each vitamin and mineral is in your diet (in theory, most ‘healthy’ diets contain plenty of all of these, in practice you’ll probably augment your stored food with a multi-vitamin supplement), but instead how many calories of energy you are getting from the food you eat each day.  This number isn’t an official standard because it varies depending on your gender, age, height/weight, and your level of activity.

So when you see labels on foods talking about ‘based on a daily allowance of xxxx calories’ they are not saying ‘this is the scientifically calculated exact number of calories you need’; they are simply basing their percentages on a somewhat arbitrary number.

The harder you work, the more you need to eat.  A daily intake of 2,000 calories a day may be enough for someone who does little or nothing every day, but if you’re going to be working in the fields, then you can expect to see your needs increase to maybe 3,000 or more calories a day.  Here’s a helpful table.

So you should adjust the quantities of food people will consume upwards to reflect the probability that people will be working harder than formerly, and so will eat more, too.

3.  Non-Essential Foods Actually Are Essential

We’ve written before about the surprisingly serious potential problem of appetite fatigue.  What this means, in part, is that you can’t optimize your food storage and serve the same food item, the same way, every day for a year, even if it is the cheapest and easiest product to store and prepare.

You need variety and so you’ll need to add some non-essential items into your food store too.

Good food can be a morale booster, and bad food a morale drainer.  In difficult times, good food can help people remain positive, and for sure, you are prepping for what will be difficult times.  So you will want to also supplement your food supplies with non-essential comfort and luxury food items.  At the end of a long hard day with everything going wrong, it will be a wonderful thing to then break out something like maybe a retort pouched piece of shelf-stable long-life smoked salmon and treat everyone to a ‘feel-good’ delicacy.

4.  Allowing for Wastage and Spoilage

We know you’re planning on not wasting a single ounce of everything.  Everything you have will be cooked, and everything you cook will be eaten.

But we also know that the real world isn’t quite as perfect as you might hope for.  For example, what happens if a water pipe bursts and water floods onto and into your dry stores?  What happens if you have a problem with rats or mice?  At a smaller level, what happens when something goes wrong with a meal?

Depending on your degree of vulnerability to such unexpected things, we’d probably add another 5% or more to adjust for these imperfections.

5.  Food as a Trading Good Too

We suggest you add further food to your minimum calculations to give you some ‘currency’ that can be used to trade for other things in the future.

We’ve written several pieces about how current US currency will lose its value in a Level 2 or 3 situation, and until such time as a new currency replaces it, all manner of different things will be used as trade goods.  When time allows, please visit our complete subsection on the site about the future economy and how it will evolve.  Understanding these issues is important.

In particular, it goes without saying that food will be greatly in demand, and would be almost universally accepted in payment for just about any other thing you might wish to exchange or trade.  You might want to have a mix of staples and also higher value items (herbs and spices and flavorings in particular) for future trading purposes.

6. How Many Months/Years of Food to Store

Now for the big question.  You know, from answering the previous five points, how much food a day or week or month you should set aside.  But now – how long a supply do you need?

We suggest that you must have at least one year of food, and ideally closer to two years.  Indeed, if you can go to three years, better still.

Think about a worst case scenario.  TEOTWAWKI occurs after the planting season one year, meaning you’ll not be able to get any measurable amount of food from your own gardening until the harvest season next year – maybe 15 months later.  (Is this the point where we extol the great sense of having a greenhouse? 🙂 )

Let’s also say that things go very wrong with your first year of gardening, and you only get six months worth of food from your efforts.  So add another 6 months to the stockpile you need, and you’re now at 21 months.

Now let’s say the next year has a flood, or spring frosts, or a drought, or something.  Let’s say you only get six months worth of food that year, too.  Now you need 27 months of stored food.

Furthermore, you really need to always keep at least 6 – 12 months of stored food in reserve, because it is an unavoidable truism in agriculture that some years are good and some are terrible.  So add another 6 months to your stored supply and now you’re at 33 months.

Make your own decisions as to how you’ll plan and project your food needs, but be pessimistic rather than optimistic, and we expect you’ll end up agreeing with us that you must have one year, should have two, and ideally would love to have three year’s worth of food in your store.

Avoiding Stored Food Expiration

You don’t want to have to regularly junk your stored food and replace it with a fresh set of unexpired food, and neither do you want to go into an emergency situation with your food nearing its expiration dates.

There’s an easy answer to this concern.  Eat what you store, and store what you eat.  That way, you are steadily eating your stored food as part of your normal everyday diet.  It means you are turning over your stores regularly, and hopefully eat everything before it expires.

It also means there is less disruption WTSHTF.  You keep eating much of the same food you’ve been eating prior to then.  That can be a bit of a comfort in itself, reassuring you that not all has been lost and destroyed in your world.

It also imposes a bit of a discipline on you when choosing food supplies.  If you’re like us, you probably have some 25-year-shelf-life pails of long life shelf stable freeze-dried foods – perhaps you bought them on special, and perhaps you thought ‘This stuff is barely better than prison grub, but in an emergency, I can’t expect to enjoy good food’.

But what is the point of buying food you don’t like and wouldn’t normally eat?  To save money?  Think about that – you’re happy spending, shall we say, $10 on a meal today, but you’re not willing to spend a comparable amount to set aside a meal for the future.  That’s a bit contradictory, surely!

So, as much as you can, considering shelf life issues, buy and stock up with the types of food you like to eat, not the types that are cheapest or which have the longest lives.  As long as you are able to eat what you have stored before it expires and keep regularly replenishing it, shelf life isn’t such an issue.

Shelf life only matters when you’re storing food you won’t eat, not when you’re storing food you will eat!

Summary

You’ll eat more food than you expect in a Level 2 or 3 situation; and you’ll probably have more mouths to feed as well.  Add to that a greater need for food variety, and allow some extra to use as trading goods, and you’ll soon realize that there’s no such thing as ‘too much food’ in your stockpile.

When you plan for some worst case scenarios, you’ll quickly realize that a one year supply is probably insufficient, a two-year supply barely enough, and a three-year supply a much more comfortable level to keep.