Jul 242013
 
Do you want your retreat to be in a small town, on its outskirts, or some miles away in empty countryside?

Do you want your retreat to be in a small town, on its outskirts, or some miles away in empty countryside?

Choosing a retreat location is the hardest thing you must do, because there are so many variables, issues, and choices to make.

Furthermore, many of your choices are far from clear-cut.  They depend on things uniquely to do with you, your circumstances, and to do with the areas you are considering, and require you to make difficult value judgments where a choice for something might then impact on your ability to also optimize some other important feature.

This all makes it difficult for you, and of course, difficult for those of us who try to write on the topic too!  But write we do; indeed this article means we now have over 90,000 words already published about choosing a retreat location (more than a full-sized book), and there’s plenty more still to write.

This article can be considered as a follow on from several other articles that directly or obliquely consider the choice between an in-town or out-in-the-country type location.  See, for example, our two-part series, Identifying Good Towns and The Robustness of a Town’s Services, plus articles such as Where to Locate Within a Town, The Importance of Good Nearby Neighbors and Will Your Nearby Town Thrive, Survive or Fail.

In this article we identify some of the respective good and bad points associated with living either in a rural area far from other people, or in a more concentrated population cluster such as a small town.  You can decide on the relative importance of these things, we simply offer them up for your consideration.

Positive Aspects of Town Living Negative Aspects of Town Living
  • You become a member of a local community, and with a group of people in the town, can select your friends and fellow community members from a larger group of people to choose from
  • If the town groups together constructively, there is better mutual security – ‘safety in numbers’ and with help closer at hand in an emergency
  • Probably have some community services such as medical, law enforcement, fire, water, sewer
  • Probably have businesses providing all sorts of commercial services – eg electrical and mechanical maintenance, plumbing, etc
  • Most places you need to go to will be within walking distance
  • A group of people in one location aids effective trading – buying, selling, exchanging, bartering
  • It is harder to quality control your neighbors (and their neighbors, too) and you are more impacted by them and their actions
  • Some locals may pose present threats, others may become troublesome WTSHTF
  • An unknown number of people will be truly prepared, and an unknown but greater number may become dependent on you WTSHTF
  • A greater population density and more frequent interactions with other people makes it easier for epidemics to spread
  • A town is unlikely to be self-sufficient for food, and unlikely to be able to become so in the future (too many people, too little land)
  • You have much less privacy of any type in a town
  • The desirability to be discreet about your resources and capabilities and the lack of privacy will pose problems, for example, with antenna arrays, making your dwelling structure bullet proof, etc
  • Smaller sized lots make it more difficult to use them for many different purposes
  • Land prices are higher, limiting the amount of land you can buy in a town
  • Land taxes are probably higher than in the country too
  • Local city bylaws are probably going to be more restrictive in many respects (some possibly unexpected).  In particular, you can forget any opportunity to use firearms for any purpose on your town lot, and may have major restrictions on the fuel you can store
  • City laws (and laws in general) may be more aggressively enforced with a city police force and less ability to do things unobserved
  • A town’s services may fail WTSHTF and make the town less viable without the services than the countryside would be (never having the services in the first place).  For example, most country folk have their own septic systems, what do townsfolk do when their town sewer system fails?
  • You probably can’t hunt or fish or raise livestock on your town property; even if you could, just how much game do you expect to find in your back yard?
  • Might not even be allowed/able to collect rainwater from your roof.  Where else/how else would you get water in a town?
  • Less space for solar arrays, probably no chance of hydro, probably little/no chance of wind power
  • Impractical to consider activities that generate significant noise or smells
  • Towns are more likely to organize formal food sharing (ie confiscation) type programs in an emergency.  They have an additional level of government (city govt) and a significant concentration of people needing food.

Positive Aspects of Rural Living

Negative Aspects of Rural Living
  • Free of direct/immediate issues from neighbors, who are probably sufficiently distant to give you much greater privacy and to have less mutual impacts on what you and they do
  • Lower population density and fewer interactions with other people reduce the spread of epidemics
  • Your neighbors (and you too) are all more likely to be already self-sufficient in terms of food production
  • You may even have a chance to start growing food surpluses to trade with others
  • Because everyone was not relying on city services (eg water, sewer) to start with, WTSHTF you will all be less impacted
  • Land prices are lower – you can buy more land for the same money as less land in a town would cost
  • Land taxes are probably lower than in the city too
  • More land gives you more space for everything, and a greater amount of land spreads your risk of unexpected events over a broader area, hopefully making such events less impactful
  • With more space, costing less money, and more private, you can set up all sorts of things ranging from private gun ranges to antenna arrays to more extensive cultivation of many different crops to safety and privacy zones
  • You have the space for extensive solar arrays, might possibly be able to implement a micro-hydro system, and maybe add a wind turbine too
  • You can consider activities that are noisy or smelly or in some other way would be too attention-getting or objectionable in town (eg methane gas generation from cow dung)
  • You’re more likely to have a solution already in place for water
  • Fewer (or no) restrictions on hunting and fishing and livestock raising on your land
  • Easier to build structures with non-standard construction eg for fire-proof and ballistic protection and to erect obstacles against vehicular assault
  • Less likely to have as much county government interference as city folks do with both city and county government, and more able to live your life discreetly
  • Larger lots allow for inefficient but beneficial land uses such as forestry and harvesting trees for both construction materials and firewood/energy
  • Your nearest neighbors are probably too far away to be able to provide immediate urgent assistance in an emergency
  • Even communicating with neighbors may become difficult if cell phones and landlines fail
  • Might not have high-speed internet and state of the art cell-phone and data service
  • Although neighbors are far and few, you are more dependent on additional people to manage and secure a larger lot than you are in a town
  • There is probably less of a community spirit, and a smaller potential community anyway, at least within a few hours walk/bicycle/horse ride
  • There is a lack of convenient local services.
  • Nothing will be a short walk away, and if liquid fueled internal combustion powered vehicles become impractical in the future, distances will become a major problem

Towns Aren’t All Bad

Wow – looking at the imbalance between the pluses and minuses of town and rural life would seem to suggest that everyone should choose a rural location for their retreat.

But not all the bullet points are of equal importance, and you need to do more than just count bullet points.  You need to decide which are the most important factors for you, and whether you can minimize the negatives that inevitably are associated with any set of positives.

We provide considerable more detail on the brief bullet points we offer above in other articles on these topics.  We linked, above, to some of our other articles about town vs country living, and you can also visit our complete collection of retreat location themed articles here.

Summary

The difficult art of choosing an ideal location for your retreat involves trading off the pluses and minuses of each issue you need to consider.

To help you understand and evaluate the consequences of your choices, we’ve listed almost 50 different factors to consider when trying to select between a town or rural retreat location.

Jul 232013
 
This easily constructed or inexpensive to purchase six element 2m Yagi antenna has excellent directional focus.

This easily constructed or inexpensive to purchase six element 2m Yagi antenna has excellent directional focus.

A directional antenna can give you a massive increase in the strength of signal you transmit, and in your ability to clearly receive weaker further-away signals in return.  If you are currently having problems communicating with another person while using omnidirectional antennas, a directional antenna might be an excellent solution.

Note that a semi-synonym for a directional antenna is a ‘high gain’ antenna.  And also note that in all cases, an antenna is not ‘creating’ extra power.  All a directional or high-gain antenna does is focus the power it has in one direction.  That makes for a stronger signal in its focused direction, with the trade-off being a weaker signal in other directions.  Think of it a bit like a light bulb.  If you put a reflector behind the light bulb, and/or a lens in front of it, you can shine a narrow small spot of light a further distance than if the light shines out in all areas equally.

This points to one consideration with a directional antenna.  If you start using one, you could be shutting yourself off from communications coming from other directions.  Might you need to be able to receive unexpected communications from other directions too?  If so, you need two receivers or two antennas.

Directional antennas aren’t always appropriate.  For example, when you are in a mobile communications environment, you want to have an antenna that transmits and receives more or less equally in all directions, because you will be facing in different directions and the path from you to whoever you are communicating with will vary enormously and somewhat unpredictably, as both you and/or possibly the other person moves about.

But if you are wanting to communicate from one fixed point to a second fixed point, a directional antenna becomes more relevant, because you know pretty much exactly where you want to focus your radio signals.

Do You Need a Directional Antenna?

Before we go too far into this article, it is necessary to first examine if you actually need a directional antenna or not.

If you have a clear signal already between your fixed location and the person you wish/need to communicate with at their location, there might be no need to add a directional antenna.  Of course, if you are struggling to understand each other, then you both should consider adding directional antennas.  A single directional antenna added to either radio will help both of you, but if you both add directional antennas, that will provide even better results.

There are also two situations when adding a directional antenna might provide a benefit, even though you have good communications with normal antennas.

The first is that with a stronger directional signal, maybe you can reduce the transmit power you are using to communicate.  In a future situation with grid power down, you’ll all of a sudden find each watt of power is a precious commodity to be very carefully used.  If you can reduce your transmit power from 50W to 5W, or from 500W to 50W (in both cases by using a 10dB gain antenna) then that might make a big difference to your total available power and how long it will last.

The second situation is that maybe you are in an area with a lot of congestion, and by using directional antennas, you are able to selectively receive signals from one direction and ignore signals from most other directions, making it easier to get the transmissions from the other person and not have them obliterated by other/stronger signals from other locations.

If not congestion from other transmissions, you might have interference from some sort of other device that is sending out ‘static’ – assuming it is not in the line you want to communicate with your partner on, a directional antenna will help you avoid the interference.

There’s a weak third consideration as well.  By narrowly focusing the beam of the radio signals you are transmitting, and by reducing their power to the minimum needed, you are reducing the number of other people who will also be picking up your signal.  You won’t have become invisible and undetectable, of course, but you’ll have lowered your visibility somewhat, and that’s got to be a good thing.

The Best Frequencies for Directional Antennas

In theory, directional antennas can work equally well at any frequency you wish.  But the theory needs to be tempered with some practical considerations, the most important of which is that a directional antenna takes up more space than a regular antenna.  That’s an unavoidable downside, and is usually addressed by choosing only higher frequencies for directional antennas, because, as you almost surely already know, the size of any antenna is proportional to the wavelength (and inversely proportional to the frequency) it is designed to transmit/receive on.  In other words, the higher the frequency, the smaller the antenna.

Remember that when we are talking about, eg, the 2 meter band, that is the length of its radio wave, and so a common simple half-wave dipole antenna will be half that length.

If you have a large open lot, and a reasonable amount of money to spend, you can consider directional antennas at lower frequencies, but for most of us (especially those who are limited to using higher frequencies with their Technician level ham license anyway) we will choose to concentrate on VHF and UHF frequencies.

The smaller the antenna, the lighter it will be, and the lighter it is, the less substantial the support materials and elements need to be, allowing it to become even lighter still, and/or more physically robust.  These are all very good attributes to seek out – light weight, small size, and strong.

Clearly, the 70 cm band uses antennas that are only about one-third the size of the 2 meter band.  While 2 meter antennas need not be huge (about 40″ long for a half-wave dipole) something that measures in multiples of 14″ rather than 40″ will clearly be vastly preferable in most respects.

On the other hand, in a rural environment, longer wave lengths can travel more successfully through forests.  In an urban environment, shorter wave lengths will be reflected by buildings and travel more readily than longer wave lengths.  So you might need to adjust your frequency choice depending on what is between you and the person you’re communicating with, even if it ends up requiring a larger antenna array.

Directional Antennas for Mobile Use

We started off this article by suggesting that directional antennas are not suitable for mobile communications.  That is essentially correct, but there is one special exception to that.  If you stop moving, and if the person you are communicating with is also not moving, and if you know the bearing from you to the other person, then during your transmission you could sensibly use a directional antenna to boost the quality of your transmitted and received signal.

In such a case, you’d want as small/portable/lightweight an antenna as possible, which means possibly sacrificing some elements of directionality and signal boost in favor of convenience, but even a 3dB boost in signal is the same as doubling both the transmission power and receiving ability of your radio.

If this is to work, you need to be able to know, reasonably accurately, where to point your antenna.  There are two ways to do this – an easy way and a hard way.  The easy way is to do so by trial and error.  You could transmit test signals saying things like ‘I am now pointing the antenna north, now northeast, now east, now southeast’ and so on, and each time you and the other person could decide how strong the signal is.  Once you’ve found sweet spots, then try smaller degree changes, and eventually you’ll come up with an antenna direction that seems to work better than other directions.  Assuming a not extremely directional antenna, as long as you’re within maybe 30° of where you should be pointing, you’ll be getting helpful improvements in signal strength.

The hard way is not necessarily much harder.  If you know where the other person is, and if you know where you are, and if you know where north is, you can simply compute what direction to point the antenna at to be pointing directly to the other person.  Some GPS units will even do this automatically for you, but of course, in an uncertain future, you don’t want to be relying on the continued availability of GPS service.  A compass and map however is wonderfully low tech and likely to survive just about any future catastrophe.

If you’re in a marginal communication area, being able to use a directional antenna while mobile might make a big difference.

How ‘Directional’ is a Directional Antenna?

Directional antennas send the strongest signal in a particular direction, but their beam is still fairly broad (much more so than a flashlight).  Generally it is common to be able to be within 15° to the left or right of the antenna’s primary direction and still get almost the same strength of signal.  You could be 30° to maybe even 45° either side of the antenna and still get an appreciably stronger signal than would be the case with omni-directional antennas.

So it is helpful to have the antenna pointed in more or less the right direction, but it doesn’t need to be laser-straight on target.  A few degrees either side is perfectly acceptable.

This has a related point, too.   If you want to communicate with two or three different locations, then if there is no more than perhaps 90° of angle from the one most to your left and the one most to your right, they can all be well serviced by a directional antenna pointed towards the middle of the group.

Which brings up a related concept.

Sometimes You Only Want a Weakly Directional Antenna

Maybe you are setting up a communication system at your retreat, and you know from your property layout and other issues that everyone will always be ‘in front’ of a certain line, but they’ll be all around the place while staying in front of that line.

In such a case, you don’t want a narrow beamed directional antenna.  You want one that fairly broadly radiates out in front and to the sides, but which has as little ‘wasted’ signal and sensitivity behind it.

What Type of Directional Antenna to Use

There are very many different types of directional antennas to consider.  You need to consider issues such as potential frequencies you might wish to use, and limits on the size and shape of the antenna you could install, plus also whether you will only need a very narrow band of radio energy focused in a single area or a broader beam to cover a wider area.

At that point, you can start to choose from various different antenna types.  The simplest is a two piece antenna with a driven element and a single parasitic reflector behind it.  Depending on the spacing between the two elements, you can get either a tight or broad focus of radio beam.

If you want a more directional (tighter focus) then a three element Yagi is a great starting point, and if you want to go ‘wild and crazy’, you can add more and more and more elements to the Yagi configuration, making it progressively more and more focused and directional.  A ten element Yagi can give you up to 13.5 dbi of gain – more than ten times the power of a dipole in its main focused direction, and with about a 3db drop in signal strength at about 20° either side of straight ahead.

The Yagi type antennas are excellent devices and easier to construct than it might first appear.  But they have very narrow frequency bands.

If you wanted a broad-band antenna that could work better than an omni-directional dipole, and which would be suitable for both the 2m and 70cm bands, you could consider a Log Periodic Dipole Array (or LPDA for short).  These have moderate directionality and moderate gain compared to a dipole.

It is also possible to have multi-band Yagis, or stacked Yagis, one for 2m and the other for 70cm.

Please refer to the reference selection below for sources of information on these types of antennas.  There are other choices, too, of course, but the Yagi will be your best bet, most of the time.

As a piece of trivia, we have been talking about antennas with up to about a 15 dBi gain – about the same as increasing power 20 fold.  However, there are some huge antennas, used in the space program, with gains of up to 100,000,000 fold – 80 dB!!!

Limitations of Directional Antennas

When used with VHF/UHF transmissions, a directional antenna is not going to be able to increase your range beyond the line of sight limit that affects all transmissions at those frequencies.  The radio waves slightly bend towards the earth as they travel in an otherwise straight line (which gives you a theoretical range about 15% greater than strict line of sight), but once they’ve passed that point and the earth’s curvature drops away, the radio waves shoot off into space, never to be seen again (unless they bounce off the moon or a satellite and come back again that way, which can happen, but which isn’t relevant for our purposes).

So a directional antenna can help you get closer to the theoretical maximum range of the transmission, but it won’t allow you to beat that limitation and go any further.

And it won’t penetrate every area where signals don’t currently reach.  It might improve reception when foliage is attenuating a signal rather than a structure outright blocking it, and it might also improve reception by sending a sufficiently strong signal to bounce off something else and make it to the receiver via a not quite so direct path, but it can’t do the impossible.

Polarization Issues

When you’re transmitting and receiving with a normal antenna, it tends to be more or less vertically oriented, and the electric field it emits reflects a similar vertical orientation.  The antenna is said to be vertically polarized.  Needless to say, a horizontal antenna would be horizontally polarized.  (To make things more complex, there are also some antennas with circular polarization.)

Sometimes one type of polarization is better than the other, and there are complex factors associated with that.  If you have the ability to experiment with both horizontal and vertical polarization, so much the better.  You might notice an appreciable difference one way compared to the other.

But the main reason for mentioning this issue is that for best results, both antennas should share the same polarization.  Make sure that the people you need to communicate have the same polarization with their antennas that you have with yours.

Resources

The best introduction to antenna theory, design and building, that we’ve come across is the ARRL Basic Antenna book by Joel Hallas.  This is very clearly written and doesn’t overload you with complexity or terribly long equations.  It is a great first step to take into understanding more about antennas, and is reasonably priced at only about $24.

At this point, if you want to know more, you have some free choices and also another excellent book to consider buying.

Here is a pdf from the National Bureau of Standards about Yagi antenna design.  It was published in 1976 but is as relevant and applicable today as it was almost 40 years ago when first issued.

But it is also complex and obtuse and hard to follow.  If you first downloaded that before buying the ARRL Basic Antenna book, don’t let it put you off.  The Basic Antenna book is truly basic and easy to follow.

If you’d like a broader book that is both easier to read and has a much wider coverage of all antenna related things, you can get a free download of the 1974 ARRL Antenna handbook.  This is a massive 338 page book that covers just about all there is/was to know about antennas back then.  You should probably get the download, but you would find the current edition very much easier to read and with more focus on VHF/UHF than was the case back then.

The current 22nd edition was published in 2013 and is available on Amazon for $38 or thereabouts (the book lists for $50).

Summary

Your antenna is one of the most important parts of your radio setup.  Money spent on a good antenna is almost always a better investment than money spent on more expensive radio transmitters and receivers.

There are several reasons why a directional antenna might be of use to you, and there are several styles of antenna that might give you the functionality you need.

After discussing the considerations, implications, and choices of directional antennas, we then provide links to further detailed free information and two excellent reference works as well.

Jul 222013
 
A simple and inexpensive, but also well designed and well placed external antenna will massively enhance the range you can send and receive radio signals.

A simple and inexpensive, but also well designed and well placed external antenna will massively enhance the range you can send and receive radio signals.

Several readers have asked us how best to communicate with other nearby friends and family in an emergency when landlines and cell phone service is all unavailable.

Maybe you too want to be sure to be able to reach your children in their schools, your spouse at their work, or your parents in their retirement village.  If they are relatively nearby, this might be relatively easy – but it also may not be so easy.  Hopefully this article will help.

The short answer is of course to use two-way radios, but there’s a lot more to how to do this effectively.  We’ve written many articles on the subject in general before (see our complete listing of articles on wireless and other communications here), and in this article we want to focus primarily on communicating between two houses or apartments that are perhaps a mile or two or three apart.

If you’re wanting to communicate with someone more than a few miles away, it may still be possible using the techniques in this article, but if it proves impossible, don’t be alarmed.  We will shortly be publishing a second article, explaining techniques enabling you to communicate up to about 200 miles.

So, concentrating initially on short-range communications, please have a look at our article about how to choose the best portable radio for FRS/GMRS use, and then after revealing our current favorite (the Baofeng UV-5R and/or F8HP series), we talk about how to best accessorize the Baofeng radios with better antennas and other useful add-ons.

We also have articles on how to maximize the range of your walkie-talkie, and a two-part series on how to choose and use the best antenna for your radio.

Now, let’s answer the question how to communicate with someone else a mile or two (or maybe three or four) away?

First, why do we choose a this as a distance to consider?  Because this may possibly be the maximum distance, in a city environment, that you can realistically expect to be able to experience convenient easy simple and affordable communications using regular VHF or UHF type portable ‘walkie talkie’ radios and with small convenient antennas.  Sure, out in the countryside, or on the water, you might get ten times this range, but in a city/suburban environment, your range will probably be more like a mile or two, maybe three or four if you are lucky and have great antennas.

Making an Initial Guess About Communication Feasibility

Depending totally on the terrain and obstructions between you and the place you wish to communicate, you might get more than a mile or two, or you might get less, even with powerful radios and great antennas.  We know, based on experience and guesswork, what sort of works and what sort of doesn’t, but you’ll probably have to do so on a trial and error basis.  Fortunately, the costs of doing so are not huge.

The first thing to consider is how blocked your radio signal might be between your location and the location you want to communicate with.  Can you physically see, with a telescope or pair of binoculars, the other radio’s antenna from where your antenna is located?  If the answer to that is yes, then you’ve a very high probability of being able to communicate.

If the direct ‘line of sight’ between you and the other radio is blocked by trees, you might still be okay, depending on the density of the trees, and if they are wet or dry (dry is better than wet).  You will probably find better results with VHF rather than UHF communications in such a situation.

If the direct ‘line of sight’ between you and the other radio is blocked by buildings and other man-made structures, you still might be okay, but in such a case, you are more likely to get better results with UHF rather than VHF communications.

If you’ve got a hill between you and the other radio, then you’re probably out of luck.

Equipment Needed For Your Communications

You need two key things.  Both are simple, and neither needs to be unduly expensive.  A good radio, and a good antenna.

A Good Radio

For the radio, if you use one at a fixed location, it doesn’t need to be a handheld transceiver (HT) – it can be a ‘base station’ type radio.

If you get an HT, it probably is limited to a maximum power of 5W or thereabouts.  This may be all you need, but if you’re struggling with very marginal reception, then you might get some benefit by increasing the power, either by adding a linear amplifier to the output from your HT, or buying a more powerful radio to start with (which is probably the better choice).  Mobile radios typically transmit up to 50W of power, and base station radios might be even more powerful again, all the way up to 1.5kW.

The key consideration is that whatever type of radio you select, you of course then need to be able to provide it with the electricity it needs, and the more transmitting power it radiates, the more electrical power it needs to drive that.  As a rule of thumb, you should assume that you’ll need 1.5 times as much power into the radio as you are transmitting out.

This is not a problem normally, but if you lose your mains power, you then need a reliable power source capable of providing almost as much as 100W of power while you are transmitting on your 50W transmitter, or more than 2kW if you’re going wild and crazy with a maximum 1.5kW transmitter.

Unless there are real reasons for needing to go over 50W, we suggest you stick to that as a maximum power level, because in truth, there are very few situations where you’ll get more range with 500W than you would with 50W, and anything over about 100W requires special (ie more expensive) antennas to handle the extra power.

We like mobile radios because they are designed to operate in a vehicle and from a 12V DC power supply.  It is easy and affordable to buy a single ‘golf cart’ type 12V lead acid battery and a trickle charger for it, so that you can always have many hours of emergency power for your radio (and other things too) if the power fails.  See our article on emergency low capacity power supplies for more information on how to power devices such as radios in an emergency without mains power.

You can choose either a mobile radio that only operates on VHF frequencies  (ie 138 – 174 MHz – approximately the 2M ham band or thereabouts), one that only operates on UHF frequencies (ie 400 – 480 MHz – approximately the 70cm ham band or thereabouts), or a dual band VHF/UHF radio, or a multi-band radio that operates on more than two bands (perhaps adding the 1.25M band, maybe adding other HF frequencies too).  A single band radio is of course less expensive than a dual or multi band radio, but is also, of course, less versatile, too.

Some mobile radios are slightly more powerful than others (some go up to 75W, others are no more than 40W) but you’ll not really notice much difference in range between these two extremes, while you’ll definitely notice a difference in battery life, so we’re not too fixated on transmitting power.

Currently our preferred mobile radio for people on a budget is a dual band AnyTone AT-5888.  Amazon sells it for about $300.  This radio is distinctive because in addition to the narrow ham frequency bands which most radios are restricted to, it will also transmit on other nearby frequencies such as GMRS and FRS and MURS.  This is of course illegal, but in a true emergency, you would be allowed to make use of that extra feature (click link for our discussion on that special dispensation).  You’ll see plenty of ham radios that seem to offer broad frequency band support, but if you carefully read the fine print, you’ll see that while they receive signals over a wide range of frequencies, their transmit abilities are restricted to only the ham frequencies.

If all you need – or all you can consider (eg for taking to school or carrying in a handbag) is a handheld walkie-talkie, then probably the Baofeng UV-5R series is your best choice.  Choose the cheapest UV-5R from this page on Amazon– ignore the claims about ‘newer model’ or ‘improved’ etc.  They all have identical electronics in them, no matter what their exact model designation or outside case appearance or marketing claims may be.

A Good Antenna

This is the most important part of your setup.  You’ll have more influence over the effective range that you can both send and receive communications by choosing the best antenna than you will by choosing a more powerful radio.

If you are using any type of HT radio, you should immediately replace the provided ‘rubber ducky’ type short stub antenna with a better after-market antenna.  Even high-end radio manufacturers seem to perversely delight in providing a low quality antenna as standard, and you’ll get markedly better reception and transmission with an after-market antenna.

In the specific case of the Baofeng UV-5R, you should replace the provided antenna with either a Nagoya 701 or a Nagoya 771.  The 701 is more portable, the 771 is longer but more fragile, so generally the 701 is perhaps the better choice.  However, they are both very inexpensive (about $12 each) you may as well get one (or more!) of each.

When I am arranging for a child to carry a portable radio with them, I unscrew the antenna so that it is easier and less bulky to carry (and also less fragile).  It is very easy for them to screw in the antenna before using it.  The same is true of, eg, a woman wishing to carry one in her handbag.

If you are considering a radio for use in a vehicle, then you absolutely must add a roof mounted external antenna to the radio.  This will give you a further significant improvement, even over using an improved type of antenna directly on a portable radio inside the car.  The Tram 1185 is a fairly priced dual band antenna (under $30), but if you are only going to be using a single band, then it is much better you get an antenna designed specifically for the one band you’ll be using.

For use at home, there are two things to try to achieve :

The first is to get your antenna as high up as possible.  The higher up the antenna, the much better the range it will have, and the less impact obstructions will have – the radio signals will literally go over the top of the trees and buildings (if you get the antenna up high enough, of course!).

The second is to get your antenna out of the house rather than keeping it inside.  Why force your signals to go through the side of your house, and have them lose strength and range because of it?  It is of course much better to have the antenna outside, with one less obstruction between it and the other antenna it is trying to send to/receive from.

A related concept is that if you can’t position your antenna somewhere with an unobscured 360° view of the surroundings, at least try to position it on the ‘best’ side of your dwelling, so that the directions you are most likely going to be communicating in are least obstructed.

The good news with both VHF and UHF antennas is they don’t need to be very big in order to be very effective.  Because they are small in size, they are also light and sturdy and less likely to be damaged by wind and other adverse weather.

If you are in a situation where it would be difficult or not allowed to have an external antenna, don’t despair.  You could either wait until an emergency and then mount an antenna outside – perhaps you already have prepared mounts that are inconspicuously present, so all you need to do is drop the antenna in.  Or perhaps you have a temporary/emergency antenna that you just hang off the side of your house/condo/apartment when you need to use it.

Indeed, we’d go as far as to recommend not having a permanent external antenna (unless you’re an enthusiastic ham and use your radio for other purposes on an ongoing basis).  If you keep your antenna inside and only mount it outside when it is needed, then you are more assured that it won’t be damaged.  Wind, debris, and UV radiation from the sun all take their toll on antennas, and the last thing you need is your antenna to fail right when you need it most, and/or for the weather emergency that is causing you to need to communicate with others to have also destroyed your antenna.

Antennas are both cheap and essential, and so we’d recommend having several of them as ‘just in case’ backups.

There are a number of good antenna designs and suppliers out there, and each have their fans.  But when you hear a person speaking very highly of an antenna, you need to understand what other antennas the person has also tried and scientifically compared alongside their favorite antenna.  It is our impression that most people who rate antennas have not actually comprehensively compared their favorite antenna with other possibly similar or superior antennas.

We too have our favorite design of external antenna, indeed, we have two favorites – one intended as a semi-permanent type external antenna and the other as an emergency ‘mount anywhere’ type antenna.  Both are designed by a professor in California, Ed Fong (he teaches antenna and radio theory so he knows what he is doing), and before you think our own recommendations are also made without having carefully analyzed and compared different types of antennas, let us point you to some articles Ed has written, explaining how his antennas work, testing them, and setting forth the specific ways in which his antennas are better than others out there.

Ed does not make these antennas as a business – he and his graduate students make them as a way to earn funds that go to tuition scholarships, and because of that, he doesn’t even have a website.  He sells his antennas either directly or through eBay, and last I checked, they are about $26 each.

Due to his not having a website, and for your convenience, we have hosted the following four articles that explain his antennas and why they’re so good :

The DBJ-1 :  A VHF-UHF Dual- Band J-Pole (an article in the Feb 2003 issue of QST magazine)  fong.pdf

The DBJ-2 :  A Portable VHF-UHF Roll-Up J-pole Antenna for ARES (an article in the March 2007 issue of QST magazine) dbj2_arrl.pdf

An Omnidirectional Gain Antenna for UHF without Radials (an article in the Summer 2012 issue of CQ VHF magazine) CQ_Quarterly.pdf

Radial-Free Collinear Omni-Directional Antenna with Gain and Virtual Ground (Ed’s granted patent application – includes a fascinating discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of other types of similar antenna) publishedpatent.pdf

If you’d like to buy one (or both) of his antennas, you can email to Ed edsantennas@gmail.com, or you can search for his antennas on eBay and buy them from there :  http://myworld.ebay.com/antennas_iqn/ .  You can tell him the frequency bands you want the antennas made for and he’ll cut them to exactly the lengths you need.  Alternatively, if you do the sums yourself, you can of course use the information in his articles and make the antennas yourself.

Oh – it seems we’re pushing you to buy his antennas.  Maybe that’s true, but in case you think we’re doing so for nefarious and selfish reasons, we hasten to add we don’t get anything at all from Ed in return.  Although we’ve bought antennas from him, he doesn’t even know who we are or about this website.  We simply consider them to be the best, and the best value, antennas out there.

Omni-directional or Directional Antenna?

Now for an additional consideration.  We have been talking exclusively about omni-directional antennas so far – ones which radiate their signal, and receive incoming signals, equally in all directions.

Sometimes you might get a better result from a directional antenna – please see our new article all about directional antennas for more information on this point.

Summary

With the best antenna, located as optimally as possible, and connected to a good quality receiver with a reasonably high power transmitter (ie probably about 50W), you’ve done about all you can do to maximize your range within the VHF and/or UHF frequency bands.  More power – an obvious seeming possible approach to get more range – will not really make much difference at all.

If you can’t get connected with the people you need to connect with after optimizing these things at both their end and yours, you need to consider other strategies.  There are two more reasonably practical radio/wireless solutions to consider, and we will shortly be publishing an article explaining those as well.

Jul 172013
 
How do you know what makes a town a good location for your country town retreat?

How do you know what makes a town a good location for your country town retreat?

You already know that your retreat should be far from a big city, but what about small towns?  We’ve written before on the subject of being close to a suitable ‘good’ small town (see ‘The Importance of Good Nearby Neighbors and Small Towns‘ and ‘Will Your Nearby Town Thrive, Survive or Fail WTSHTF‘, but we’ve not really considered the issue of actually living in a small town.  Hence this article.

In this first part of the article, we talk about the differences between what we view as ‘good’ towns and those we view as ‘bad’ towns’.  In the second part of the article, we talk about the measuring a town by the robustness of the services it provides.

There are several issues to consider when deciding if you want to live in or close to a small town.  The first issue of course is identifying suitable small towns.  But what makes a town suitable?  In the second of the two articles above we lightly touch on one measure of suitability – whether a town is likely to remain a viable and close to self-supporting entity in a future Level 2 or 3 situation.

That is indeed an important consideration – a town that will collapse when society collapses is nothing more than an instant gang of marauders inconveniently living right next to you; whereas a town that can survive with only moderate impairment is a positive resource that can add to your own chances of surviving.

There are other considerations too.  Two very obvious additional considerations are :

Location and Size

Similar considerations that apply to your choice of a location for your (possibly remote/rural) retreat apply to your choice of a town to live in.

You don’t want the town to be too close to a major city, indeed, if anything, you want a town to be further away from a major city than would be the case for a rural retreat.  This is because towns are like beacons, calling to people.  They are names and places on maps, whereas individual retreat properties are vague amorphous things with nothing to identify themselves on a map (unless it has aerial photography!).  It is conceivable that refugees will think ‘I’ll leave my big city and travel to this small town – I remember driving through it once and it seemed like a friendly nice little place, I’m sure they’ll welcome me and look after me there’.

So, more distance than for a rural retreat and/or some geographical barriers are definitely called for when considering a town’s location.  We discuss this further in our article on Transportation and Roading Implications of a Retreat Location.

You don’t want the town to be bisected by a freeway or in any other way be part of a major throughway that you can expect refugees and marauders to be traveling along.

You want the town’s population to be bigger than very small but smaller than very big.  Let’s try to be a bit more specific.  You want a town to be at least a couple of hundred people in size.  Any smaller than that, and it isn’t so much a ‘town’ as it is a semi-random grouping of people living close to each other.  There are less likely to be existing town services, and less of a feeling of belong to a specific township in the minds of the residents.

In somewhat irrelevant support of that, in Montana cities can’t incorporate unless they have more than 300 residents.  In case you’re wondering how it is you’ve seen some much smaller incorporated towns and cities, that is because they don’t have to automatically disincorporate if their population dwindles below 300 – the smallest incorporated town in Montana has fewer than 100 residents.

So, ideally, you want to set about 200 people as the lower limit for a viable/suitable sized town.  At the other end of the scale, once you start to go over 1,000 residents, the feeling of connectedness starts to weaken.  People become more individually anonymous and therefore also less individually accountable for themselves and for the town as a whole.  In a town of a few hundred residents, pretty much everyone knows everyone else, but once you grow from a few hundred to a few thousand, that is no longer the case.

One important thing about measuring the population of a town – if there are population clusters living in unincorporated county land close to the town, those people may identify themselves as residents of the town and will of course be part of the town’s economic base, even though they don’t live in the town as such.  Similarly, two towns very close to each other tend to coalesce into one larger whole – even if both are small and there’s a mile or two between them, residents will of course happily travel to one or the other for their shopping and other needs.

The Differences between a Town and a Group of People Living Closely Together

Here’s an interesting way of distinguishing a collection of people who just happen to live closely together from a ‘real’ town.  A ‘real’ town is more likely to have some sort of public/community amenity – a park, a statue, a town hall, something like that.  Even if it ‘just’ has a church, it has some type of focal point for the population, and the people have shown themselves to recognize the township as something more than just a semi-random grouping of people who happen to be living in close proximity to each other.

Maybe the town has a 4H chapter, or a Masonic Lodge, or some other sort of social cornerstone as well.  A Chamber of Commerce is another good sign.  For that matter, even a local bar/tavern/restaurant is at least a place where locals can go and do a bit of socializing.

Something else that distinguishes a town from a mere grouping of people living close to each other – a volunteer fire department (or a full-time one), or any other type of community service like that.  Let’s also not forget a public library – ideally in its own building rather than a truck that visits once a week.

Does the town have its own newspaper, or radio station, or even television station?  If it does, that is better than if it doesn’t (although with the small-sized towns we’re most interested in, it is unlikely they’ll have their own radio/tv station; and any newspaper is probably a weekly rather than daily).

You want to find a town where there is a sense of community identity, and ideally community spirit and community pride too.  This helps to subtly make the people in the town feel accountable to each other and their community, and modifies their behavior in a positive way.  It also encourages people to ‘fight’ for their town – not in a literal sense (well, not in normal times, anyway) and encourages them to make some effort to help preserve and protect the town from problems.  Because part of protecting the town is protecting the townsfolk, in these types of town, people are likely to be more helpful to each other, and more willing to help out.

Some people might consider seeing neighborhood watch signs an indication of positive community involvement, but we don’t think they are either as relevant or as common in small towns as they are in large cities, and we’ve seen little clear evidence suggesting that neighborhood watch groups actually signify or do much at all in communities of any size.

Another perspective is that small towns tend to be more crime free to start with, and the criminals are better known – there’s less need for a neighborhood watch group, and if there is, perhaps it denotes as much overly officious nosiness as it does a sense of protective community.

A Suitable Town Should Have Some Viable Industry or Shops or Services

You want a town that has some local industry and commerce and services.  Some towns seem to be nothing more than a clustering of houses with almost no stores or anything else.  Other towns have a surprising amount of retail stores, multiple gas stations, and other service providers.

A town with some commerce is better than one with too much or too little.  You know, for example, that the gas stations will be out of business very quickly if society collapses.  The big box super-store will also disappear when it can no longer get its daily deliveries of goods to sell, leaving a bunch of employees without work.  But a small country store or butcher shop or something like that – hopefully those sorts of places can transition to become intermediaries in the new economy after TSHTF and will continue to provide valuable services to both food providers/sellers and food consumers/buyers.

A post-collapse town will need to be able to adjust to a new economy which will be much more focused on trading with local farmers, and providing services to the town’s residents and nearby rural farmers.  Some types of service based businesses (especially low-tech ones) will be able to continue as before, others might be able to adapt to provide slightly different services that will become more in need.

Quality as Well as Quantity of Residents

We don’t mean to sound elitist when we offer up this section heading, but the clear truth is there’s a world of difference between a prosperous thriving town of 500 people, with well maintained streets and buildings, and high levels of income and education on the one hand, and a moribund decaying town of 500 people, with empty boarded up buildings and those still inhabited in a poor state of repair, and a massively greater than normal level of unemployment with few college graduates, on the other hand.

Which would you rather live in?  Of course, the former.

Sometimes the difference between one town and another is massively obvious the minute you drive into the town.  We can think of one town in MT in particular where the only local resident seemed to be an aggressively prowling policeman in his cruiser, looking for revenue opportunities – understandable, perhaps, because there’s no way a town of not quite 1000 residents can afford their own police department unless the department is charged with generating as much revenue as possible, ideally from non-residents.

You want to be careful if considering a town that is also the county seat.  It will have a disproportionate number of local government employees, all desperate to do something, and not otherwise contributing to the local economy.  When TSHTF, these people will need to redefine their jobs and seek new income sources to keep themselves paid, and will instinctively want to use their government authority to ‘take control’ of the problem and manage any ‘solutions’.

With all due respect to such people, let’s just say there’s an appreciable risk that their ideas of a solution, and their need to levy other people to support themselves, may not coincide with your own ideas.

Political Leanings

We know this is a bad measure to use, but we’d try to get precinct level voting records for the last few elections to see not just how the various congressional districts and counties voted, but also in more detail, how people specifically in the town itself voted.  The problem with county level voting records is that there can often be a difference in voting in different parts of the county, the more detailed you can get your information, the better.  If there were any ballots or initiatives, that will give you a feeling about how the town feels about things, and of course, the Presidential elections are another good bell-weather measure of political feelings.

We’ll let you decide for yourself which views are the views you’d like to be surrounded by!

If time allows, attend a public meeting or two.  Have a look on the notice boards at the library and at other public places and see what sorts of issues (if any) might be gripping the population at present and get a sense for the general feeling of people about these things.

Read back issues of whatever newspapers service the town, so you can get more of an idea about what challenges the town faces and how they confront these challenges.  It is amazing how quickly you can form a reasonably accurate understanding of a town, just by reading through a few back issues of the local newspaper.

Growing, Stable, or Shrinking?

We don’t like extremes.  We don’t like a town that is growing too fast, because such growth is usually the result of people moving to the town from elsewhere, and we’ve no way of knowing if those people will be adding to or detracting from the town’s identity, independence, political perspective, and so on.

A rapidly growing town is a rapidly changing town, and not only do we not like extremes, we also don’t like rapid change and the unknowns it presents.  Rapidly growing towns also often seem to be imbued with a desire to turn their back on their rural roots and to become ‘more civilized’ – an attribute which, to us, is not always a desirable one.

Furthermore, if you buy a lot in a growing town, you might find the density of residents around you increasing, with neighbors subdividing or building additional structures on their lots.

Rapidly growing towns also always seem to be placing pressure on their infrastructure and services, and on their roading and traffic capacities.

On the other hand, a shrinking town is not a nice place to be, either.  There are two sorts of shrinking towns – ones which have been reducing in size steadily for the last decade or two, and then there are the ones that had a single event at some point in the past which massively impacted on the town’s economy.  The closing of a timber mill or a mine; the coming of a freeway that took away all the through traffic, something like that.  A town that was once much bigger, but which shrunk in size 50 or more years ago but now is stable or slowly growing again is much more preferable than a town that is diminishing at present.

There are lots of problems with towns that are shrinking.  The town itself looks dismal and forlorn, with boarded up buildings and empty streets.  Furthermore, the last thing to shrink in any town are the municipal employees, making for top-heavy local government and greater costs together with under-employed people keen to justify their non-essential jobs.

While property prices are often low, they may also continue to go lower, which is not something you’d want.

Our favorite types of towns are ones that are slowly growing, more or less in line with the growth in the county and state and nation as a whole.  Our entire economy is based on an (often unstated) expectation of gradual growth, and if there is slight growth, then that equates to prosperity.  New businesses will occasionally start up, current businesses will see increasing amounts of business, and everyone feels pleased and happy.  They want to protect their prosperity much more than people in a shrinking town, where many people are, either openly or privately, debating as to whether and when they too will leave the town.  There’s much less community identification in the shrinking town.

Judging a Town by its Traffic Management

In our opinion, another measure of a town’s suitability is to look for stop lights.  If a town has stop lights, that either means it has more traffic than you’d be comfortable with, or an overly controlling mentality that seeks to regulate and protect its citizens from each other.  If it just has stop signs (or not even that) you’re in a town that doesn’t have as much traffic, isn’t as self-important, and which trusts its citizens to be sensible and sane.

Some towns are proud of the fact they have no stop lights, whereas we suspect some are proud that they are now big and important enough to have one (or more).  We’d prefer to be in the town that proudly delays getting stop lights as long as possible.

Okay, the presence or lack of stop lights is probably not the most important issue to consider, but it provides another perspective on the social values of the town.

Read More in Part 2

Please now continue on to the second part of this article – Evaluating the Robustness of a Town’s Services, for a discussion of twelve more factors to consider when choosing a town for your retreat.

Jul 172013
 
The proximity of fire and paramedic services is an important consideration when evaluating potential towns for your retreat.

The proximity of fire and paramedic services is an important consideration when evaluating potential towns for your retreat.

This is the second part of a two-part article about choosing an appropriate town to live in as a retreat location.  If you’ve arrived directly here from a search engine or website link, you might wish to read the first part ‘Identifying Good Towns‘ before then continuing on to read this second part.

When you’re choosing a rural retreat, you have little expectation of having much in the way of utilities available at the retreat.  Ideally you might be able to get some electricity run to the property, but that is about all.  But when you’re in a town, you have a much greater expectation of available services.  Furthermore, depending on the robustness of the services, the town – and its other, less well prepared residents – may be able to cope with a collapse of society to a better or worse extent.

There are several key services a town may provide its citizens, or, if not directly providing, may provide the focal point to encourage some outside provider to participate.

The most important services would be water, sewer, electricity, gas, phone, internet, and transportation.  Let’s briefly consider each of these.

Water

Does the town provide water or does each house have to make its own arrangements?  If the town does provide water, does it require electricity for any part of the process?

If the water comes from a stream/river/reservoirs ‘up there’ and is gravity fed all the way to your tap, then that is hopefully (but not definitely) able to continue operating if the power fails.  But if the water comes up from a well, then goes through a processing plant, you have electric motors driving the pumps to lift the water from the well, to send it through the processing plant, and then on to your house.

If the town does provide water, are you able to also store rainwater on your property, or dig your own well, too?

Sewer

Smaller towns probably require everyone to use septic tanks, and that’s a very robust solution.  If you buy a property with an existing septic system, we’d consider extending it, and then pumping it more regularly than needed, so if society collapses, you’ve got a good many years out of your system before it needs to be attended to in the future.

There are different types of septic systems.  Some are gravity fed, others need pumps to distribute the sewage.  Ideally you’d want to have a system that does not require electricity to operate.  Not only does this reduce your dependence on electricity, it is one less thing to go wrong and need maintaining.  If you do have an electric system, it would be ideal if you had a holding tank that could be filled and then the pump activated to process/distribute the contents on an occasional basis – that way you could run your generator briefly to power the pump once a day or whatever, rather than needing power 24/7.

If the town does provide sewer services, you should again understand what happens if the power fails.  Maybe you want to have your own septic system (if you are allowed, of course) even though the town provides a sewer service.

Electricity

Some towns and counties have their own PUDs that provide electricity to the community.   That is maybe nice, but largely irrelevant; what is more important is where does whatever utility provider you will be relying on for electricity get their electricity from?

Ideally, they have a hydro-electric power station all of their own, that provides all their power and more besides (which they sell on to other utility companies).  Less ideally, they buy hydro-electric power from some other company.  Very unusually, they might have their own nuclear power generating facility.  Still less ideally, they generate their own power, but from oil, gas, or coal.  Least ideally, they just buy power as a commodity on the open market from whoever, wherever, they can get power from.

The reason for the variation in desirability is the degree of independence/dependence this gives the utility.  If they buy power from somewhere else, then when the grid goes down, they’ll be out of luck and so too will you.  If they generate their own power from oil/gas/coal, then they’ll again be out of luck as soon as their supply of fuel is exhausted (and that could be in as short a time as a few days, even less with natural gas coming straight from a pipeline).

If they contract with another nearby utility to take some of their spare hydro-power, then that may possibly continue, although we’d expect to see the state or federal government take control of any surplus power generating and repurpose it as they see fit.  Of course, if the national grid fails, then the nearby utility could hopefully still provide power to your utility and wouldn’t have other competing utilities across the country competing for the power.

If the utility has their own hydro-power, then that will hopefully continue more or less intact, at least until such stage as the turbines can no longer be maintained.  That option gives you the best chance of ongoing electricity.

Gas

Natural gas is great stuff, and for the foreseeable future is likely to be the cheapest energy source available in much of North America.  If your town has natural gas available, you are fortunate, and should make full use of it during normal times.

But in a Level 2/3 situation, we expect that the natural gas pipelines will quickly fail.  They rely on computer controlled switching and pumping, so if the computers fail or the electricity fails at any point from well head to your home, the gas supply will either massively degrade or fail too.

So you can’t rely on gas in an emergency, but you can enjoy it during the good times.

Phone

It would be really nice if your town had its own ‘central office’ or telephone exchange.  That way, even if the broader telephone network fails, maybe your local central office can continue working and can provide phone communications within your local town.  The older fashioned it is, the better.  Wires strung on poles (or underground), and stepper/rotary switches in the exchange would be our idea of perfection.

Of course, you’ll also want cell phone service too, and hopefully with fast data, but that’s something for modern-day living while society continues to function, and will quickly fail when society fails.

Internet

Of course you want internet service for the present, and equally of course you have to expect to lose it when society fails.

Transportation

If your town has bus service, then it is too big!  You want to be able to walk from where you would live to the downtown area, and to anywhere else you’re likely to want to go in the town, too.

Ideally your town is also fairly flat, so you can not only walk, you can also cycle.

One thing that would be nice is proximity to a rail line.  When we look at the history of this and other countries, we are struck by the fact that trains preceded cars.  Of course, part of the reason is that steam locomotives were developed before internal combustion powered vehicles, but another part of the reason is that train transportation is incredibly efficient in terms of energy consumption and a great way of moving large quantities of people and things, long distances.

Our guess is that if we see a long-term Level 3 disaster, train service will be restored much sooner than road service.  Does that mean you should include a fully restored coal or wood burning steam loco, a couple of carriages and a couple of freight wagons as part of your preps?  If you can, we’d urge you to – become a new ‘railroad baron’ in the new world that would follow. 🙂

Back to what is achievable and relevant for most of us, suffice it to simply say that it would be nice but not essential to be either on or close to a rail line that is currently in use and not slated for closure in the foreseeable future.

As for road transportation, the town should ideally be on a secondary road and it would be better if it were on a spur rather than a throughway that has more traffic on it.  If it is on a throughway, it would be helpful if there were some hills on one side of the town that would act as a geographical barrier in the future, and another town reasonably readily reachable on the non-barrier side.

Other Types of Services

The preceding services were all to do with ‘things’.  How about also some services to do with people.  For example, police, fire, and medical.

Let’s consider those types of services too.

Police

We’re in two minds if having a city police department is a good thing or not.  Many smaller towns contract either with the country sheriff, or alternatively, with another nearby town or city.

This can save a great deal of money compared to the cost of having to establish their own department, and also gives the town access to ‘surge’ strength and a share of things that it would otherwise have to create entirely.  For example, instead of needing its own bomb department or SWAT team, it would have access to such things maintained by the law enforcement agency the town contracted with.  Even things like detectives might not be needed on a full-time basis by a small town, and so being able to get ‘half’ a detective is an efficient way of proceeding.

On the other hand, in a small town, the police are more directly accountable to the people they serve.  Hopefully most officers live in the town, whereas if you’re contracting with a larger county or city department, maybe none of the officers live in the town, so rather than reflecting the town’s values in their approach to policing, they’re imposing their outside values.

At what size does it make economic sense for a town to have its own police department?  That’s hard to say.  A town of 1000 – 2000 will almost always find it better value to contract from a larger department; and perhaps we can stop at that point, because if your town is much bigger than 2,000 people, we suggest it is starting to become less desirable because it is becoming ‘too big’.

While it is nice to have your own police department in your own town, the smaller the town, the greater the probable cost of this ‘luxury’ item, and/or the more aggressive the police department may be in ticketing people for violations so as to pay their way and protect their jobs.

Fire

Many small towns will have a volunteer fire brigade, and might call volunteers by something as simple as a siren that sounds in the middle of the town.

The problem with this arrangement is that it adds several minutes to the time it takes to get a fire truck to your property and fighting your fire, and if you’ve ever seen a fire take hold of a property, you’ll know that several minutes can mean the difference between a salvageable fire and needing to tear down the ruins and rebuild from scratch.

On the other hand, of course, your retreat property should not be a fire risk to start with.  You should build the exterior of it from a fireproof material; that’s not to say that your interior won’t be at potential risk of fire, but if all the fire can burn are interior furnishings, it won’t run away so severely, and if you have some decent hoses and water pressure, you can probably slow if not completely stop the fire until/before help arrives.

Insurance rates will probably be higher if you have a volunteer fire department.  But land taxes may be more if you have to pay for a full-time fire department.  Prevention is better than cure, though, so we’d prefer to pay a bit more for at least a core basic full-time fire department, but don’t consider it too serious a downcheck if the town doesn’t have one.

Medical

There are several things to consider under the medical heading.  Where would the nearest paramedics come from in an emergency, and then where would they take you after they’d arrived – ie, where is the nearest hospital?

Some towns have regional medical centers in them.  This is an enormous plus for a town, because you not only have the building and resources, you have the medical staff too.  In a crisis, your town will have an abundance of medical professionals residing within it.

Remember that with a stroke your chance of survival diminishes by about 10% for each minute it takes for paramedics to get to you and restart your breathing.  You want to have paramedic service in the town or not far out of it if at all possible.

Education

If you have, or plan to have, school age children, the presence of local schools will of course be an important factor to consider.  Even if you don’t have children, a town with decent education standards is more likely to have decent people than a town which places little importance on that.

On a related subject, have a look at the demographics of the town – its ‘age pyramid’.  You want a town with a reasonable share of younger people, rather than one comprising predominantly middle-aged and older people.  Without young people, the town has no rejuvenation and no future.

Churches

If attending church is something you wish to do, you’ll want to see the choice of churches that might be available to you in the town and its immediate surroundings.

Some people might suggest you can get a feeling for the ‘soul’ of a town by its churches, that may also be true, although it might be hard to evaluate short of spending time attending several churches to form your own direct impressions.

Summary

This was the second part of a two-part article about choosing an appropriate town to live in as a retreat location.  If you’ve not already done so, we suggest you also read the first part of the article – ‘Identifying Good Towns‘.

A logical next point in your research would be our article ‘Where to Locate Within a Town‘.

Jul 172013
 
Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Maybe you’ve decided that town living is a better choice for you.  There’s nothing wrong with that decision.

Many of us have little ability or interest in a farming lifestyle, and particularly if we have some other type of non-farming/rural talent or ability we can use to survive on in the future, it not only becomes sensible for us to consider living in a town, it becomes essential, because the town contains the concentration of people needed to be your future customers.

There’s no need to feel like you’re becoming a second-class prepper by not buying a dozen acres in the middle of nowhere and becoming totally self-sufficient, because in reality, the concept of living by yourself, and being fully self-sufficient, is an impossibility to start with.  The solitary farming family will need help in many different aspects of their life, plus they’ll need people to trade with – to sell the surplus food they’ve grown themselves, and to buy other food items to supplement the diet of their own food.

That has been the historical role of towns since mankind stopped being nomadic hunter gatherers and started to settle on land.  The towns provide a focus for the farmers around them, and the supplemental services and support the farmers need.

As towns grew larger, they started to then add extra people and extra services for the existing townsfolk as well as for the farmers nearby, and then of course, with the industrial revolution, towns started to be centers for factories, and so it went from there to the mega-millions of people in some of our massive sprawling cities of today.

But, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, towns will revert back to essentially being support resources for the surrounding farmers, and you’ll want to either have something that farmers will want/need, or something that the other people in the town will want/need.  There will only be a reduced level of trade between nearby towns, and almost no trade with more distant locations, because transport will become expensive, slow, difficult and probably dangerous.

House or Apartment?  Big or Small Lot?

So, do you want to have an apartment above a store on the main street of the town?  A condo in a block of condos?  A house on a 1/8th acre lot a street back from the main street?  A house on a 1/4 acre lot several streets back from the main street?  Or a house on a one acre lot more or less at the town limits?

As a rule of thumb, the closer to the town center, the smaller your lot will be.  Of course, lot size is probably not your prime consideration, but we’d suggest you should consider this somewhat, and in particular, we’d urge you to consider having a freestanding dwelling rather than a condo/apartment/townhouse.

We’re not saying you need a large house – a smaller house would be fine, but you should probably allow for being able to accept some ‘guests’ who will want to join you WTSHTF.  A spare bedroom or two might be much appreciated by all.  Generally you want to choose an average sort of house consistent with its surrounding houses – ‘security by obscurity’ in a sense.

Having your own freestanding dwelling on your own lot gives you much more security, independence and privacy than sharing a structure and common areas and land with others, and in an uncertain future, you’ve no idea who might be living next to you.  The ability to have a buffer zone between your residence and the next residence/street gives you a very slight warning and a ‘no-man’s land’ where you can choose how to respond to unwanted visitors with less than lethal force.  When they’re breaking down your door – or, even worse, coming at you through the shared common wall with the adjoining apartment – your options are much more limited!

You can also use the land around your residence to erect a ‘garden shed’ or two in which you can store additional supplies and materials, in addition to whatever is in your home itself.  If you have your own land, you can have your own septic tank, or at the very least, dig a privy.

Talking about such things, some distance also gives you a sanitary/quarantine gap from your neighbors as well.  High density housing combined with a failure of services such as water and sewer is a huge invitation for dysentery and all sorts of other nasty diseases to spread like wildfire; and in a situation with diminished healthcare resource and fewer modern medications, what is currently inconvenient can quickly become lethal.

It also gives you a firebreak.  With the loss of public water services, fires can be harder to fight, and spread quickly between nearby buildings.  Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to modify the house you buy to ‘harden’ it against fire, or, even better, you will get an empty lot so you can build a house the way you want it, right from the start.

When you’re very close to your neighbors, and especially if you’re sharing a common structure, you’re beholden to them and you will be vulnerable to the consequences of their mistakes.

Your own extra space does a lot more than insulate you from the mistakes of your neighbors.  You have some space to set out some solar cells (in addition to whatever might be on your roof, or perhaps instead of being on your roof, so as not to draw attention to yourself).  You also have space for a generator and can park several vehicles securely.

Talking about being insulated from your neighbors, we’d urge you to avoid any type of property that is subject to a Home Owners’ Association, and be very wary of any attached covenants, codes and restrictions.  Home Owners’ Associations can run amok and cause no end of problems to people like ourselves – people who may not be willing to conform to the most excessively politically correct mandates of the HOA.

Not only do you want to avoid the constraints of an HOA, you want to have a moderate amount of privacy on your lot – you don’t want to be looking out your living room windows and straight into your neighbor’s living room, and so on.

If you have your own freestanding dwelling structure, you also have your own roof, and so you can collect rainwater from it without any complicating factors.  You can fireproof the structure too, and – while you’re at it – also make it ballistically stronger.

Even Non-Gardeners Should Have a (Small) Garden

One more thing about having some land.  Yes, you’ve already decided you’re not going to live a life as a rural farmer, spending all days doing back-breaking work in the fields.

But we’d urge you to have a few rows of veggies in your back yard, or perhaps erect a small greenhouse (then you can even raise plants up off the ground and not have to bend over so much).  Even a small bit of food independence (or, more accurately, less food dependence) might make a lot of difference when things get really tight and really tough.  Grow some easy, resilient, fun things.

You’re growing such things to supplement your other food and income, rather than to survive from, and if you grow some non-standard food items, you might find them much appreciated by other people, too.

So, one of the framing factors in your location choice within the town will be the varying costs of having some land together with a freestanding dwelling – how much you feel you need and how much you can afford.

Having acknowledged that, you should choose a place as centrally located as possible.  Sure, convenience is a good thing, and the ability to only walk for three or four minutes to get to your nearby Starbucks store in the morning is definitely a plus – well, okay then, maybe you’ve found the one town in the US that doesn’t yet have a Starbucks or analogous coffee shop.  🙂

For sure, you need to plan your future based on walking or riding a bicycle wherever you go in town, rather than driving a car.

Security Issues

There’s another reason for choosing to be close in to the center of the town as well.  If your town gets attacked by marauding bandits, two things will happen.

First, unlike the wild west movies we see, the bad guys won’t ride into the middle of the main street, a yelling and a hollering as they come, then shoot up everything they see, then ride out of town again.  Whereas, in the movies, the center of town seems to always be the most dangerous spot, in real life, we think it will be the safest.

Just like German U-boats against convoys in WW2 that would pick off the stragglers – the bad guys will attack, by stealth, the furthest out properties – the ones in the sort of grey zone where lot sizes have got larger, houses are further apart, and if you didn’t know the official city boundary line, you’d not be sure if they were in the town or not.

The second thing that will happen is a response to the first.  Outlying residents will come in to the center of the town for protection, and at the same time, the people who live closer in will band together to protect themselves – and themselves only.

The city limits sign will have no meaning.  The townsfolk in the center of the town will band together and protect only the inner enclave of their town.  This will be the area where an attack on one building is ‘dangerously close’ to other nearby buildings, such that the neighbors feel they have to help defend.  When the population density thins out some, if one building is attacked, neighbors will either cower under the kitchen table or run away, but when the population density rises, neighbors will feel that it is safer to help repulse the attackers, because they’ll perceive the direct danger to themselves much more starkly.

We’ve also seen analogous examples of this in history too – towns where the inner part was defended by a city wall, and the outer part – outside the city wall, was on their own.

Okay, we know our advice seems contradictory.  On the one hand, you want to have a reasonable lot size, and a bit of privacy and buffer zone between you and the neighbors.  On the other hand, you want to be close in to the town center for security and safety.  Where do you compromise?  That really depends on the layout of the town (and your budget).

When we talk about town layout we don’t just mean the streets and houses and plat maps, although that is of course relevant.  We also mean the ways in and out of the town, and any geographic buffers/barriers that might provide protection – rivers and hills, for example.

Clearly, attackers will be very likely to approach from some directions and less likely to approach from others.  This isn’t a military campaign, they are looking for ‘low-lying fruit’ and will leave difficult situations well alone (because there will be plenty of low lying fruit).  So consider degrees of risk when choosing your location in a town, although the most important thing to appreciate is that if/when threatened, the town will ‘shrink in’ on itself, and only the dense central area will end up with the residents effectively uniting against external problems.

Summary

If you have a skill that can be used in a rural town after WTSHTF, then by all means plan your prepping on the basis of setting up your retreat in a town.

We discuss how to choose a suitable town separately.  Once you have chosen a suitable town, in this article we explain where in the town is best to locate yourself.

Jul 172013
 
How did our country change from Andy Griffith type consensus policing to military style police assault?

How did our country change from Andy Griffith type consensus policing to military style police assault?

We hear this lie way too often, and sadly we see some people base their future plans on the lie.  Don’t fall for this trap.

So, what is the lie?  Go to any gun rights forum and you’ll see it in its purest form.  In the context of gun rights, its purest form is someone asserting, not as a joke but as an apparent truth ‘they’ll take my gun from me only when they pry it from my dead fingers’.

But the lie exists, sometimes in obvious form and sometimes in more subtle form, in many different contexts, not just gun rights.  The prepping version of this lie is ‘I’ll never let them take my preps from me’.  In its broadest form, it is any person claiming that they will take extreme action to oppose anything they disagree with.

There’s a corollary to the lie as well, which is even more deceptive and dangerous.  The corollary takes the form of ‘I know (members of some official/government/law enforcement/military group) and they’d never agree to (do some unconstitutional act).’

The prepping version of this corollary is ‘The local police would never agree to an illegal/unconstitutional order to come and seize my stores.’

We have two words to offer to the bold brave blowhards who claim they’d die rather than relinquish their firearms, who claim they’ll shoot it out rather than surrender.  New Orleans.  There’s a huge number of ‘good old boys’ living in the New Orleans area, and exactly how many of them refused to allow the police to seize their weapons after Hurricane Katrina?  Exactly zero.  None.  Zip.  De nada.  They meekly surrendered their guns like the sheep they truly are.

Or, to put it in another context, how about all the gun owners in states that place restrictions on gun ownership already.  How many of those people have made brave (perhaps ‘foolhardy’ is a better term) fights to the death over their claimed rights?  None.

If they are told they are not allowed ‘assault rifles’ they meekly comply.  If they are told they can’t have magazines with more than ten rounds, they meekly comply.  If they’re told they need to get a firearm owner’s certificate and permission to buy a firearm – yes, again they meekly comply.  But then, after having meekly complied with all these restrictions, they tell us that if someone tries to take their firearms from them, they’ll fight to the finish!  Apparently they don’t realize their firearms rights have already been largely taken from them.

And as for the corollary (that decent right-thinking police would refuse to comply with illegal/unconstitutional orders), again, two words.  New Orleans.  How many police and county sheriff deputies refused to seize people’s weapons, often at gunpoint, even from friends and neighbors?  Again, zero.

For the preppers making similar statements, how many preppers openly defy laws restricting how much fuel they can store in a residence?  None that we know of.  Sure, some preppers might discreetly choose to ignore some restrictions, but how many do so openly and are keen to fight to the death over that issue?  None (and just as well – we have a bad enough a public image already!).

Furthermore, and bearing in mind the billions of bullets that the Department of Homeland Security is amassing, if/when the authorities come to seize your preps or guns or whatever, who is to say they’ll need to rely on the help of the local police?

How big is the DHS?  The short answer is they are the third largest Cabinet department (after DoD and Veterans Affairs).  They employ about a quarter million people and have a budget of more than $100 billion (the DHS budget requires more than $300 from every man woman and child in the country, every year), but the question is the wrong question.

The better question is ‘how big is the entire government security/enforcement apparatus?  The DHS is only the most visible part of the growing government security and control organization.  This Sept 2010 article by the Washington Post (surprisingly critical for a left of center publication) says that some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence, in about 10,000 locations around the US.  The WaPo article can’t even guess at the total headcount of all these organizations and private contractor companies.

To put those 10,000 locations into context, there are 50 states and 3,143 counties in the US.  That means that each state averages 200 different locations with shadowy security type structures in place and people employed by them; or, if you prefer, an average of 3 locations in every county.

And that was back in 2010.  You have to believe the numbers have grown still further in the almost three years since then.

Here’s one more version of the enormous lie.  This one diffuses out the claim a bit – ‘The people in our area would never allow (whatever) to happen; they’re too conservative’.

That is a harder claim to ridicule, of course, which is why it is often made.  But if you hear that claim being made, go have a look at the election results from the area that is supposedly ‘too conservative’.  Okay, so maybe they elected a Republican congressman/senator/whatever, but by what size of majority?  If you look at conservative states that are touted as ‘the American Redoubt’, did you know that in 2008, Montana almost gave its electoral college votes to Obama rather than McCain?  McCain had only 2.5% more votes supporting him than Obama.  How conservative is that?

If we drill down to county level results, some of the ‘best’ areas of Idaho and Montana for preppers have surprisingly large Democratic bases – as much as one in three people votes Democrat, even when faced with such stark choices as between (in 2012) Obama and Romney.  Sure, some counties are more overwhelmingly Republican, but some counties are strongly Democrat too.

So if you have one-third voting Democrat, and at least half of the other two-thirds being only weakly Republican, our question becomes ‘just how conservative is your area, really?’.

For example, the small city of Troy in MT, which you’d hope would be ultra-conservative, has a city ordinance banning firearms from city parks.  This is in a state touted as being one of the most ardent supporters of the Second Amendment (where in the Second Amendment does it say ‘except in city parks’?).  Indeed, not only does this show a surprisingly anti-gun sentiment in Troy, but it also points out the regrettable lack in Montana of a comprehensive state level pre-emption statute forbidding all county, city and town gun laws in addition to the state laws.

What Is Our Point?

Okay, so we’ve roamed around the topic fairly broadly here.  What are we actually trying to say?

Simply this :  If you take comfort in the claims by other people that if/when something unconscionable occurs, they will resist such things all the way to the use of deadly force, and even at risk of personal injury or death, you are mistaken.  And if you take comfort in the claims by other people that bad things could never happen because either it is unconstitutional or because good honest Americans would refuse to enforce the provision, you are again mistaken.

If you think that bad things could never be imposed on the American people because we, the people, would oppose such things, and because the Americans directed to impose such bad things on us would refuse to do so, you are very very mistaken.

The ugly reality is that we are already increasingly constrained by laws that many people would consider unconstitutional, particularly as regards the first, second, and fourth amendments.  The ugly reality is that whenever people have been confronted by armed police demanding they acquiesce and allow their property to be searched without a warrant or due cause (ie after the Boston bombing) or demanding they surrender their firearms (ie after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans) everyone has uniformly acquiesced.

We are already much closer to a police state than we realize, and our constitutional rights have been massively constrained.  How did weaponless friendly Andy Griffith morph into police in tactical gear with body armor and fully auto weapons, and with head masks obscuring their identity and making them all the more impersonal and unaccountable?

How did a world where firearms training was often offered at schools morph into a world where a child drawing a picture of a gun gets suspended and ‘counselled’ (some might say ‘brainwashed’)?

Where in the Fourth Amendment does it say ‘except if within 100 miles of the border or an international airport’ (which includes much of the American Redoubt, and indeed, nearly all of the populated country in general)?  This is how the Fourth Amendment reads – a clear statement that has become almost unrecognizably distorted :

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

You need to realize that bad things could and might happen, and if they do, there is unlikely to be any popular uprising against such bad things, and that the authorities will be able to enforce such things with overwhelming force.

Our founding fathers would not recognize the America of today.

Jul 152013
 
The sign says 'buy local' but even if these 'fresh' apples are local, they have probably still been sitting in a cool store for many months before being shipped to the supermarket.

The sign says ‘buy local’ but even if these ‘fresh’ apples are local, they have probably still been sitting in a cool store for many months before being shipped to the supermarket.

One of the issues we as preppers instinctively accept and understand but struggle to explain to non-preppers, is the huge degree of fragility and multiple dependent layers upon which today’s society is built.

Exactly like a house of cards, if a single component in any of the dependencies fails, the entire structure is at risk of colossal failure in a manner that would not have been possible 50 or 100 years ago.

The problem we have in explaining these dependencies is that many of them are obscured and not at all intuitively obvious.

Here’s an interesting example of a surprising statistic and dependency.  70% of the food we eat passes through or is dependent on the ‘cold chain’ – refrigeration is needed as part of its processing, storage, and distribution.

Some of this we know about already.  It is unsurprising to learn that the milk we drink and the meat we eat has been chilled pretty much through its entire history from the minute it was first obtained.

Some other things are less obvious, but if we think about it, we’re not very surprised.  Look in the produce section of your supermarket, and although you’ll see things like potatoes and onions in bags or loose, displayed at room temperature, we might realize that they’ve been sitting in cool stores for months between when they came out of the ground and were put on display in the supermarket.

Oh – and of the potatoes we eat (the average American eats 36 lbs a year), most are not just kept chilled/cool, but are actually hard frozen.  Astonishingly, 29 of the 36 pounds of potatoes we eat are in the form of frozen French fries.  Who’d a thought?

The same is true of fruit as well.  Apples, oranges, etc – all these things are kept in special temperature environments – indeed, not just the temperature is managed to a very exacting degree, but so too is the humidity and even the gas mix surrounding the fruit.

But how about things as unobvious as, for example, even peanuts?  Yes, they too are kept in cool storage to extend their shelf life.

Our point is simply this.  A power failure – even a power shortage – would threaten 70% of our food supplies.  Without refrigeration, we’d have two problems.  The first is that we’d no longer be able to harvest food when it was plentiful, inexpensive, and in season, then store it for future sale/consumption some months later.  This would make for a crazy situation with some months having enormous gluts of food products and other months having nothing at all.

The second is that without refrigeration, we’d no longer be able to have vast distances separating where our food is grown and where it is eaten.  At present food travels at times almost literally half way around the world to reach our supermarkets.  If we had to rely on food grown within a day or two of our homes, that would destroy the viability of many major cities because the amount of food growing area needed to support the millions of people in the urban concentrations would stretch out impossibly far.

Anyway, food for thought, as it were. 🙂

More details in this rather pompous article and this very incomplete web site.

Jul 132013
 
This is a wonderful portable generator, costing only $135 and providing both 12V and 110-120V power.

This is a wonderful portable generator, costing only $135 and providing both 12V and 110-120V power.

We previously wrote a detailed four part series about storing electricity which assumed you wanted to live off-grid, long-term, and needed a high-capacity and very long-lived energy storage solution for such a scenario.

That is of course a valid need, and there’s a lot of good information in that series about all aspects of storing electricity – when time allows, you should read it. 🙂

This article, however, is about one special type of energy storage application – a need to have a short-term emergency supply of power when the mains supply fails.  If the failure is a simple short-term thing such as high winds blowing over power lines, then you just need a little bit of electricity ‘to get by’ until the mains power is restored.  These are Level 1 type situations.

If the failure is caused by a major disruption that will escalate to a Level 2 or 3 scenario, you might need some power for a short while to operate radios to communicate and co-ordinate with other members of your group, prior to bugging out to your retreat location.

There are many different ways you can have an emergency power source always on hand, with many different amounts of electrical storage capacity, complexity, and cost. This article considers two approaches.  There are others, but these two are the simplest, and being the simplest is, for our purposes, an essential consideration – simple things are easier to deploy and less likely to fail.

Portable Generators

For almost any non-trivial amount of electrical power, your best solution will always be a generator.

While they are typically heavy, noisy and expensive, you can also get smaller, lightweight, affordable and very quiet generators that would be suitable for use pretty much anywhere – including for apartment dwellers, too.

For example, here’s a portable generator for only $135 on Amazon (pictured above).  This unit is quiet, lightweight, and runs for 8.5 hours on each 1.2 gallon tank of fuel, providing about 400W – 500W of 120V power during that time.  That’s a great value, and with a five gallon container of fuel and running the generator sparingly rather than 24/7, you’ve enough power for maybe three days.

The above generator is a two-stroke generator.  A similar four-stroke generator generates twice as much power using almost the same amount of fuel (four-stroke engines are more efficient than two-stroke), and is similarly quiet, while weighing an extra 10lbs (54lbs instead of 44 lbs) and being slightly bulkier.  It costs just a hair less than $200.

Amazon has plenty of other portable generators, albeit more expensive than these two, as well. Here’s a listing of some of the nicer modelsthat would be excellent as portable, use anywhere, low-sound type generators.

Four quick comments about generators.

First, no matter what generator you might choose, you must operate it outside, due to all the exhaust gases it produces.

Second, you should run your generator once every few months to be sure it is still in good order and condition, and be sure to stabilize your fuel so it doesn’t ‘go off’ while sitting in the generator or fuel can.  There are several types of fuel stabilizer available, the best is PRI.  Don’t settle for any other brand, use only PRI.

Third, these low power generators are very limited in what they can handle (because of their low power output) and you’ll need to be very careful to match the current drains with the generator capacity.  Using a Kill A Watt meter is an easy way to monitor the power being drawn from the generator, and be very careful of peak loads – when motors first start up, they draw a great deal more current than when they are running at normal speed.   These peak loads can fry your generator if you don’t plan carefully for not just average but also peak loads.

Fourth, keep the cords from the generator to the devices using the power as short as possible, and as heavy-duty as possible.  Short heavy-duty cables will waste less power and provide a better voltage level than would be otherwise the case with lighter and/or longer cables.

Lead-Acid Battery and Trickle Charger

The $135 portable generator we linked to at the start of the previous section is probably the least expensive solution for most people, and when you match that with a single five gallon tank of gas, you’ve got the equivalent of about 15 kWhrs of power, and/or about 35 hours of running time.  If that’s not enough, you can simply store as much extra fuel as you need and are legally allowed to have, and/or get a higher capacity generator.

But if you’re in a situation where either you can’t run a generator – maybe you’re in an apartment with no balcony or outside space to operate the generator, or if you’re in a situation where you need a guaranteed, absolutely-must-work source of power for a short but essential period of time, there’s another solution to consider.

Buy a 12V ‘golf cart’ or other ‘deep cycle’ battery (or two 6V batteries that you’d connect in series).  Note that these are very different to auto starting batteries – do not get a regular car battery.

You also will need a trickle charger to maintain it (them) at full charge.  If the mains power fails, the fully charged battery becomes a source of 12V DC power, and if you connect an inverter, you can get 120V AC power from it too.

This is a clean, totally silent and reasonably compact form of electricity generation and storage.  There is almost no maintenance you need to do – you can just set it up and then forget about it for several years before then testing the battery, perhaps once every six months after that, until you note its capacity has diminished to an unacceptable level.

There might be restrictions on how much fuel you can store in an apartment (either from the landlord or the fire department) and there might be restrictions on running a generator, and you might not want to attract attention to yourself and your generator, either; but none of these constraints apply to batteries and battery power.  They don’t need to be stored outside, and modern non-gassing batteries are perfectly fine indoors to store, to charge, and to use as a power source, especially when connected to an intelligent charger.

If you need a lot of standby power, we’d suggest batteries such as these or these.  Other highly respected battery suppliers include Concorde/Lifeline and Rolls/Surrette.

If you don’t need such an expensive high-capacity battery, then a Trojan U1-AGM is a good entry-level battery, probably costing about $125 or thereabouts.  Trojan make other batteries with successively greater capacities, too.

You then need some sort of trickle charger to keep the battery charged.  We consider the NOCO Genius products to be the very best, and you’ll probably find either the G750 or G1100 to be adequate for your needs.  Neither is very expensive, and because your need is more to maintain a charge rather than to recharge the battery, you don’t need a higher current capacity unit.

If you want your battery to run 110-120V appliances, you’ll need an inverter as well.  Get the lowest powered inverter you need, and use it with caution, because any/all 120V appliances will use up your 12V battery very quickly.  We’d suggest you consider getting whatever emergency appliances you need that are designed to operate off 12V DC (and which are designed to be ultra-efficient, too).  That way you don’t ‘waste’ some of your energy by converting it to 120V and then using it in a device that does not have energy efficiency as its main design criteria.  Many appliances designed for sail boats are high-efficiency 12V units, and you can get many different sorts of 12V LED lighting that provide the most energy efficient source of emergency light.

You could also consider getting a set of solar panels to recharge your battery if you were planning for an extended period of needing the battery, but this would likely only give you a very little bit of top up charge each day, unless you had large panels, and then you’re moving beyond the scope of this article (and should read our full four-part series on storing electricity).  Here’s a single panel system that claims to provide 100W of power, and complete with the necessary charge controller unit too; this is about as good a simple choice as possible before needing to move into complicated bulky and fixed installations.  In reality, we expect you’re more likely to get 50W rather than 100W of charging power from the cells, but if you’ve no other way of recharging your battery, this could give you up to as much as 500 W hrs of extra power each day during the period of your power outage.

If you do get a solar panel system like this, you should trial it to understand how it works and how much power to realistically expect, then carefully put it away and not touch it again until you need to start recharging your battery during your power outage.

One more thing to add to your setup.  A 12V to USB charger/connector – a device that will enable you to recharge all your electronic things that can be charged from a USB port.  These devices typically come in the form of a cigarette lighter type adapter for a motor vehicle – they are perfectly good in that form; although you will then either need to solder leads to the adapter or else get a matching socket to connect to your battery.

Make sure that any such USB power supplies are high current (ie more than 2 Amps) so as to be able to recharge tablets as well as phones and other low current devices.

Summary

Many of us have our homes wired up with heavy-duty generators and transfer switches, and many of us have extensive other power storage facilities of various sorts too.

But sometimes these requirements are overkill.  Sometimes we just need a small amount of power, for a short term solution.  Perhaps it is a relatively benign brief power outage, or perhaps it is such a severe event that we’re forced to get out of Dodge just as quickly as we can rendezvous with the other members of our group.

In such cases, a simple small portable generator, or a fully charged golf cart type battery can give us everything we need, and for under $200.