Mar 182018
 

Original containers are sometimes a good choice for food storage. But for longest life, often there are better choices.

A large part of prepping is the art of storing provisions and other necessary items in anticipation of a time when they will not be readily available, due to a breakdown in society and its usual services.

Many articles are written about what to store, but very little is written about how to store the things you are collecting.  We suggest, and this article explains, that your choice of storage materials is very important.

The best storage container depends on what it is you’re trying to store, and the environment in which you’ll be storing it.  For example, you might be okay storing some items in cardboard boxes indoors, but clearly you’d probably never use cardboard boxes for outdoor storage.  Or, while you might be okay with storing clothing in plastic containers, you might not want to store food items in the same containers.

Here are some issues to consider when choosing storage containers.

What Are You Protecting For/Against

Some of the biggest reasons for using containers, other than the simple convenience of having everything together, is to protect against one or more external factors.

The most common considerations are

  • Heat or Cold
  • Humidity or Water
  • Oxygen
  • Light (particularly UV light)
  • Insects, Pests, Rodents, etc
  • Grouping items together into convenient and compact collections
  • Miscellaneous External Factors

Understanding the factors you are protecting against will help guide you towards the appropriate container choices.

Container Life

Do you want a container that will last six months, six years, or six decades?  Probably no-one reading this would settle for a six month life, and indeed, most of us would consider six years too short too, but somewhere in the ‘more than six and less than sixty year’ range we’ll likely find a sweet spot.

How do containers age and wear out?  Anything that sees the sun will be impacted by the UV rays from the sun.  Many natural products will dry out or go brittle or in some other way lose their desirable properties.  Plastics will lose their plasticizers and start to crack and break.  Metal might rust.  Rubber will perish.  Wood might rot (or be eaten by termites or chewed through by rodents).

In addition to unavoidable age-related wear and tear, containers might also fail due to things like accidental mishandling and breakage.  Drop a glass jar onto a concrete floor and it will probably smash, and you just know that sooner or later, everything made of glass will be dropped – and even if the glass object is already on the floor and therefore unable to be dropped, something will instead drop on it.

Depending on the product you are storing, and where you are storing it, these life related issues will impact to varying degrees.

Container Reusability

Do you want a container than can be reused countless times, or are you happy with a single use container?  A tin of food is an example of a container that is single use, a Mason jar is an example of a container that can be reused very many times indeed (albeit with new lids each time if you’re using them as a long life canning alternative.

In the middle between the single use and the virtually unlimited use are containers with a varying number of potential reuses – items with plastic hinges, cardboard flaps, flexible metal detents, plastic bags that will eventually get holes in them, or whatever.

One other aspect of container reusability would be what ongoing use you can get from the material the container is made from.  There’s not much you can do with a cardboard container, but with many other materials, you can use them for other purposes.  Metal may be able to be worked into other shapes for other purposes.  Glass could be melted down and then blown or molded into other shapes, and the same possibly for plastic too.

Container Repairability

Maybe you’ve a container with a limited life, but which can be either readily repaired or have key wear items easily replaced, and so given repeated life extensions.  The lids in a Mason jar are an example, gaskets in other lids is another example.

A wooden box can probably be repaired with extra pieces of wood, a hammer and some nails. Maybe super glue can be used to repair other items.  Glue – super or ‘regular’ – can also fix some types of breakages in glassware and ceramic items.

And in other cases, cracks don’t even matter too much.  A crack in a water container would be a problem, but in a container that is simply storing clothing, not so much.

But in choosing your containers, consider not only their susceptibility to wear and damage, and but also their ability to be repaired, and make sure you have the tools and materials to carry out such repairs.

Permeability

Are you storing something that needs to be fully sealed in (or, a similar concept, have external things fully sealed out)?

Water, for example, ideally should be fully sealed into a container to avoid evaporative loss and environmental contamination.  Many food items need to have external things (usually but not exclusively oxygen) fully sealed out.

If so, the permeability of the container becomes an important issue.  Many plastics, and obviously most natural products (wood, fabric) are somewhere between moderately and very porous.

If you want impermeability to gases, then you either should look for mylar or nylon type plastics, or glass, or metal.

Interaction with Contents

If you are storing an acidic food, you don’t want it in an aluminum container.  If you are storing a liquid, you don’t want it in cardboard (obviously enough).  If you are storing water, you don’t want it in a wooden cask or barrel because it will absorb poisonous chemicals and flavors from the wood.  You might also not want water in many plastic containers due to the danger of the plasticizers and release agents leaching out of the plastic and into the water.

Environmental Issues

Will the container be inside or outside?  Does it need to be non-reactive to water?  Does it need to insulate its contents from temperature extremes?  Does it need to be impervious to rodents and other creatures?  Will it need to be strong to resist wind and other external factors?  How about UV issues?  Rust?  Rot?

Clear or Opaque

Do you need (or would you like) to be able to see the contents inside the container?  On the other hand, will light harm the contents of the container?

Container Sizes, Shapes and Weights

Sometimes the size, shape and weight of the container is a relevant issue, other times not so much.  A portable product should of course be in containers that aren’t too bulky or heavy to be moved.

If you are space-constrained for storing certain items, you want containers that are efficiently sized (ie usually with square rather than rounded corners and sides) and with little unused storage space inside them.

Multi-Purpose Use

Ideally, you want containers that can be used to hold different things at different times, rather than containers that only work for one thing.

Sometimes it is unavoidable to have containers that can only be used for one thing, because of the nature of the product you store in it.  It is hard to re-use a gas container (particularly a plastic one) for drinking water, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be reused for transporting waste water.

Container Materials

Containers can obviously be made from many different materials.  Some of the most common are plastic, glass, metal, and wood or cardboard.

But this list should be further subdivided.   Plastics should be divided into permeable or barrier, foodsafe or not, and their ability to resist high/low temperatures and UV.  Metal varies from iron to steel to stainless steel, as well as aluminum and more exotic materials.  Even wood or cardboard comes in many different grades (food quality or not, painted or not) suitable for different types of applications.

Other materials include fabrics and other natural materials, stone, earth, pottery/ceramic/porcelain, and even concrete.

In addition, containers commonly have a different material for their opening section and/or hinge and/or the seal between their top and bottom.

Two Are Twice as Good as One

Sometimes the ideal approach to storage involves using two containers.  For example, putting items first into plastic bags (nylon or mylar) and then putting many of the filled and sealed bags into large multi-gallon plastic pails and sealing the pails.

Even though the pails may not be food-safe, that doesn’t matter.  The plastic bag protects the food inside from the pail, while the pail in turn protects the relatively fragile plastic bags from other external environmental factors.

Smaller is Better than Bigger

Which do you think is better – one huge container that is sufficient to hold all of whatever it is you are storing, or multiple smaller containers?

We suggest that having multiple smaller containers is the better choice for several reasons.

First, when you open a container, the life of the item in the opened container may start expiring much more quickly.  So if you have a multi-year supply of whatever, but the item will only last three months once the container has opened, you’ll want each container to hold no more than three months of product.

Second, smaller items are more conveniently moved and shifted and managed.  You don’t want awkwardly bulky and heavy items that only a strong adult can manhandle – what happens if the strong adult is absent or unwell or indisposed?

A related third factor is one of risk of injury.  No-one is likely to risk serious injury if they drop a ten ounce container on their foot, but if they drop a ten pound (or a 100 lb) container on their foot, that might become a life threatening injury (particularly if healthcare is not conveniently at hand).

A fourth factor is to protect against random unexpected container failure causing the loss of your total supply of something.  As you of course know and are planning/preparing for, ‘shit happens’ in many different forms.  Perhaps one of your containers might have a bad seal or a hairline crack or something in it.  If the container has 10% of your supply of whatever inside it, then that’s a disappointing loss; but if it has your entire supply of the item inside, and the failed container has caused the contents to spoil, then that’s a very serious loss.

In this case, the adage to not put all your eggs in one basket is quite literally true!

This also leads to our next point.

Multiple Storage Locations

We suggest not only storing your provisions in multiple containers, but also to store them in multiple locations.  If you do this, then events that might cause physical harm to the storage location no longer endanger your entire inventory of stored provisions.  Maybe there’s a fire, maybe a flood or even a tornado.  Perhaps a tree falls onto the building, or a car crashes into it, maybe there’s a landslide, maybe a satellite falls out of the sky and lands on the storage area!  Maybe the zombie horde manage to wrest control of one of your supply dumps from you, maybe anything at all.

No matter what might happen, if you have your stores split over two locations rather than one, your risk is reduced so that, hopefully, a worst case scenario sees you losing only half rather than all your provisions.

Needless to say, be sure that your multiple storage locations are safe and appropriate.  You’re just substituting one risk for another if you take some of your provisions and remove them from your protected retreat and instead place them in a shed on the far side of your property, making them vulnerable to anyone passing by.

Containers We Like

We really like glass.  It is one of the most unreactive materials, and has an extremely long life assuming it isn’t broken (its biggest weakness).  Glass containers with glass stoppers are the best of the best, but you might find yourself needing to accept some other type of seal such as metal or plastic, possibly with or without a rubber or plastic or natural material seal.

You really need to think through the potential challenges of glass breaking.  For example, if there’s any chance of earthquakes or other events causing containers to fall off shelving, you need to either ensure the integrity of the shelving or avoid using glass.

For inert products, we like wood and metal, and our favorite metals are either stainless steel (very expensive) or aluminum (a great compromise between strength and weight, but beware of having acids in contact with aluminum).  Note also that in some types of fire, aluminum will either melt or even start burning.  The average house fire reaches temperatures of 1100°F, and aluminum melts at 660°.  Steel on the other hand doesn’t melt until temperatures go above 2500°.

For large liquid storage, either metal or concrete containers seem to be the best solutions.

While we acknowledge the convenience and ubiquity of plastic, we try not to use anything plastic in our long-term storage.  Plastic bags – particularly made with a mylar or nylon component – are probably okay, but most other plastics just have too many issues in our opinion.

Many times, with food storage, it is a great idea to add a desiccant, and/or oxygen absorber, to the container of bulk food before sealing it.

Summary

It isn’t enough just to own a lot of provisions and other ‘stuff’.  You need to very carefully plan out how and where you store your supplies so as to avoid nasty surprises and problems.

Jun 142016
 
A garage sale can seem to be full of tempting bargains. But are they really as great as they seem?

A garage sale can seem to be full of tempting bargains. But are they really as great as they seem?

This is the first part of a two-part article about the wisdom (or lack thereof!) of buying used gear rather than new gear.  Please also see the second part of our article that specifically looks at considerations to do with buying used electronics.

So there you are, browsing through eBay or the local Craigslist; maybe you’re walking through a second-hand store or at a garage sale, but somehow, you find yourself looking at a tempting bargain.  Should you buy it?

Or maybe, instead, you’ve simply decided that the best way to make your dollars go further is to buy as much used gear as possible.  You already know that a used car that has dropped in price down to one-quarter of new can still have many years and tens of thousands of miles of good life in it – surely the same is true of electronics, too?

Well, yes and no.  There are several things to consider when looking at buying used electronics such as radio gear, computers, and pretty much all other ‘gadgets’.

Pricing

The first surprising point is that while some electronic items drop in price very quickly, others do not.  A 5 – 10 year old computer – well, that’s probably going to be available at pennies on the dollar.  But a 5 – 10 year old radio transceiver?  Not so much.

Indeed, something as old as a 15 or 20 year old radio might still be selling for a high percentage not only of its original price but of what you’d pay for comparable gear, new, today.

There’s an interesting implication of this, and the answer is perhaps not what you’d expect.  If a radio still costs 50% of more of its new price when it is 15 – 20 years old, does that mean that it still has half its life to go?  Does this suggest that radio gear has a 30 – 40 year life?

Another consideration that is increasingly becoming relevant – with the growing availability of low-priced Chinese gear, you sometimes find yourself with a choice between a ‘brand name’ product (ie primarily the big three Japanese brands – Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood) that sells new for perhaps $750, which sells if 15 years old for, say, $500, or a brand new Chinese product with similar capabilities, for $250.  How does it make sense to consider the $500 item when the brand new name brand item, several models newer and ‘better’ is not very much more, and a similar and possibly better new Chinese product is half the price?

Plus, whereas used cars have a number of different services that publish valuations to help you understand if you’re getting a good value or not, there’s nothing comparable for used electronics.  This of course works both ways – maybe you’re getting a tremendous value, but maybe you’re being offered something shamefully overpriced.

Age vs State of the Art vs Fashion vs Value

Some things have technological obsolescence long before they actually wear out.  Computers and cell phones are good examples of this, although both product lines seem to be ‘maxing out’ and we’re all buying computers and phones less regularly than we used to.  But, do you really want to buy a ten-year old computer at any price?  Do you really want it with an old-fashioned CRT VGA monitor, some sort of Pentium processor, a mere 1 GB or so of disk, and so on?

We suggest that this is false economy and not a good choice.  Remember, after TEOTWAWKI, there isn’t going to be a repair store to go to, there aren’t going to be online help forums, and there won’t be spare parts.

We might buy a ten-year old refrigerator or vehicle, but no way would we buy a ten-year old computer.  We wouldn’t even accept one, for free.  With many electronic items, the ‘state of the art’ has changed so much as to make the older product truly obsolete, and useless at any price.  It isn’t even useful for spare parts.  What use is incompatible memory; an old and power-hungry screen with such low resolution as to be useless, a hard drive with an out-of-date interface, etc?

The trap in that scenario is buying something that is very inexpensive, but also very useless.

Sometimes the latest ‘state-of-the-art’ features truly are valuable and worth paying extra for.  Before you settle for something ten or more years out of date, make sure you know what you’re missing out on.  And even seemingly ‘old fashioned’ technologies like radio transmitters and receivers are changing (quite drastically due to digitization) and with much/most electronic gear, the newer model with newer features can truly be worth paying extra for.

Another factor that encourages faster replacement than is indicated by simple measurement of things wearing out is fashion.  Mercifully this afflicts women more than men (such as me!), but marketeers even try to encourage us to change our clothing long before it is worn out.  Wide lapels or short.  Bell-bottom flared trousers or straight/narrow/skinny.  And so on.  ‘This season’s colors’ – gack!  Cars used to be sold on an annual model refresh cycle, that has slowed down a bit too, but generally we all buy clothing – and probably cars too – long before the economic and effective life of the item we are replacing has expired.

The opportunity in that scenario is buying something that still has a lot of good working life left, and which has been valued lower than it is worth simply because it isn’t fashionable.

Opportunistic Buying – Yes or No?

By nature, many of us preppers are acquisitive and tend to eagerly accept anything we can get, particularly if it is free.  Anything we have space to store and which might possibly be of some value in the future seems like a no-brainer to accept – no downside to taking it, and who knows what upside, right?

We don’t entirely disagree with that concept, and if you saw the cartons and closets full of junk we have, clearly we’re as bad as anyone else!  We laugh at fashion – we just dig far enough back in our closet to find clothing that matches the ‘new’ fashion but from the previous time it was in fashion.

But there is a danger, if/when you buy opportunistically, that you start confusing irrelevant actions with important results.  Which is better :  To have a double garage you can no longer drive either car into because it is full of old junk that you’ll never actually use, even in an extreme Level 3 situation?  Or to have just a couple of cartons of essential items that you will use and need, for sure?  To buy $1000 worth of junk that maybe is worth much more if you ever have a need for it, but then to lack the money to buy a $1000 item that you will definitely for sure need?

The garage full of junk obscures the fact you might be missing some essential items.  And your ability to repurpose the junk in your garage will also be reduced after TSHTF, because you can’t just go to the local hardware store or wherever/whatever to get an extra piece of two of stuff to modify/repair/adapt the junk item to a practical purpose.

You’ll also have very much less spare time; you’ll need to focus your time on productive essential tasks, and the same will be true of your friends and neighbors (and, excuse us for saying this, but who knows how many of them will survive through the stressful times and still be available as resources for you to turn to).

A useless thing is a useless thing, no matter how little you pay for it.

Why is it Being Sold?

If you like hearing lies, ask any seller of anything ‘Why are you selling this?’.

Now sometimes you don’t need to ask the question, because the answer is sadly obvious.  The item is little better than junk (at least in the seller’s mind); maybe it doesn’t work, maybe the seller doesn’t even know what it is, or maybe it is no longer needed (eg a baby’s crib).  You see a lot of that sort of stuff at garage sales.

But when you’re looking at higher value items that apparently still have value and life left in them, it is a question to ask, even if the answer is meaningless.

Nine times out of ten, the answer will be a lie, and the tenth time, it will probably be an obscured truth.  For example, if the seller says ‘I got the newer model’, then the obscured truth might be ‘This one failed and I had to replace it’.

If you think about yourself, two things are probably usually true.  You only replace things when you uncover limitations or problems with them, and you generally keep things that are working well, even if you buy additional or replacement units.  You’re not alone in this approach – many other people do exactly the same, and only sell items when they absolutely for sure have no remaining value, or when something bad has happened to them.

So, know this :  There’s almost always a ‘bad’ reason why anyone is selling anything.  You may or may not uncover that reason, but expect there to be one.

There are additional lies that specifically relate to electronic gear being sold.  For example, ‘it has a nearly new battery’ and ‘it hasn’t been used much’.  Unless you see a new battery still sealed in its original packing and with a recent manufacturing date stamped on it, you probably should plan on replacing the battery (or at least buying a new one as spare).  The same goes for ‘I’ve just replaced all the tubes’ – unless you can test the tubes, consider them all as near the end of their life – and even if the tubes were recently replaced, you don’t know how much remaining life there is in the new tubes.

Some people might also tell you it has recently been ‘re-capped’ – that all the electrolytic capacitors have been replaced.  Ask to look inside the unit and see for yourself – do they look new or old?  Is the soldering fresh and bright, or older and duller, like everything else?  Has every electrolytic been replaced, or just the ‘easy to get at’ ones?

You might also been told ‘it has just been serviced by an authorized dealer’ – only accept that claim if you see the invoice and perhaps, if it is a high value item, you’ll even want to call the dealer and confirm that the work order was to ‘check/overhaul everything and make the unit in perfect like-new order’ and see if the dealer has any notes about issues they found and weren’t authorized to repair.  Just because you see a $200 invoice that says ‘repair item’ doesn’t mean that every fault with the item was repaired, or that the repair used new replacement parts, etc.

One more lie that some people can tell with a straight face – ‘I haven’t used it for a while, but last time I did it worked perfectly’.  If it can’t be fully operated and demonstrated to you prior to you buying it, you should prudently expect the worst.

Bartering and Negotiating

It should go without saying that you should avoid paying the initial asking price on anything that is being offered for sale.  Experts at negotiating deals consistently tell us two things – the first is that the first person to name their price loses the negotiation, and the second is that the magic phrase to use is, and say this slowly and thoughtfully, in an uncertain but helpful tone, ‘What is the best price you’d accept for this?’.

If you think about it, the two pieces of advice are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they.  By asking the guy to name his best price, he is the first person to put a number out there.  You might be able to talk the guy down further, but for sure, you know there’s no way you’ll have to pay extra above that revised asking price!

Once you’ve done most of the dickering over price, see if you can then switch to another line of bargaining.  ‘Could you throw in the —- as well?’ – see if you can have him include something else as well.

Maybe try to negotiate a deal for two items, but then, when you’ve beaten the guy down as low as you can for a ‘quantity discount’ for the two or more items, then look disappointed and say ‘Thanks for trying to help me with this.  Unfortunately, the price is over what I could afford for all the items we’re talking about.  But, I tell you what.  I’ll take the xxxx off your hands for $—-.’  That way, you’ve managed to get a quantity discount for only buying one thing!

Another thing.  Sometimes you might be able to trade something you have and are willing to dispose of as part or full exchange for the item the other guy is selling.  This can be the best deal of all.  If you have something you don’t need but the other guy wants, and he has something he doesn’t need but you want, then it ends up with you both giving away something unimportant and getting something of value in return.  A ‘win-win’ deal like that is the best of all.

If you don’t really need something, but would be willing to buy it at a bargain price, a useful strategy is to say to the seller ‘I’d be interested in helping you out by taking your xxxxx off your hands, but the thing is, I didn’t come here today looking to buy one, and I don’t really need it.  So I could only justify it to my wife it I got it at a heck of a deal.  What say you try selling it to anyone else for the best price you can for the rest of the day, and I’ll come back at closing time, and if you still have it, then I’ll give you $— for it?’.

This makes best use of the pressure of time in the deal.  If you’re going to a one day sale event somewhere, at the start of the day, there’s a rush of buyers all wanting to get the best bargains, and the sellers are optimistic that the rush will continue and they’ll get their asking price for everything they have.  But that first rush doesn’t last long at all, and half way in to the day, it is over, and sellers are starting to gloomily think to themselves ‘no-one has even shown any interest in my xxxxx at all’ and they’re starting to think they’ll need to pack up unsold items and take them back, instead of the cash they might have sold them for.

By giving the seller a fair chance to sell the item for more, and by making the point that at the end of the day, no-one else is likely to be buying it, you might be able to negotiate a very low price such as to make it sensible to buy the thing you don’t really need or want.

Part Two

Please keep reading for the second part of this article, which talks about the special considerations to do with buying used/old(er) electronics.

May 142016
 
The classic tube powered Collins 75A4 radio, now 50+ years old. Revered by some hams - but a good choice for you?

The classic tube powered Collins 75A4 radio, now 50+ years old. Revered by some hams – but a good choice for you?

This is the second part of a two-part article about buying used gear.  The first part discussed general considerations when buying any type of used gear, and how it is possible to be mislead and to end up buying junk you don’t need, while all the time thinking you’ve bought something useful at a bargain price, and closed with some suggestions and tips on how to bargain for the best possible price.

Now it is time to focus in on the special considerations relating to electronic equipment.

Age and Reliability

Just about everything has a finite life.  The older a thing is when you buy it, the less remaining life it has.  Even ‘your grandfather’s axe’ has a finite life – you have to keep replacing its head and handle every decade or two.

To make things more complex, ‘age’ is measured two different ways.  The first aspect of age is the simple passing of time, no matter if the unit is being used or not.  Some components age even when not being used.  Rubber cracks, plastics lose their plasticizers, springs lose their tension, seals leak, wet things dry out (and dry things get wet) and so on.  Rust never sleeps, right?

The second aspect of age is the number of hours the unit has actually been powered on and in use.  Just about everything has a finite total number of hours of life – sure, sometimes that number might be very high, but it is still a number, and every minute anything is turned on, you’re steadily rolling the dice as the minute hand moves, each time hoping you don’t get an unlucky result and your equipment randomly failing.

There is a third element of age as well – the type of operation and environment.  Something that has been run ‘hard’ at 110% of rated power will age massively more quickly than something that has been run carefully/gently at 90% of rated power.  Something with a ‘dirty’ power supply is going to be stressed more than something with a nice clean stable power supply.  Something that has been in a very hot environment will age very much more quickly than something that has been kept cool.  Heat is the universal enemy of all electronic circuitry, and as a rule of thumb, for every ten degrees hotter that something is operated at, you are halving its life.  Run it 20 degrees hotter, and you’ve reduced its life to one-quarter, and so on.

When you see something, you have no way of guessing about how the unit has been used in the past, and a product that is about to fail seldom gives you any sort of indication that is about to happen.

The simple passing of time affects electronics as much as it does anything else.  A surprising but key aging element is corrosion – the oxidation of the leads on electronic components and the increasing difficulty of soldering them effectively to other devices, and the slow failure of existing soldered joins.  The key factors here are not to store components in regular plastic bags, and to keep them cool and dry.

Regular plastic bags are thought to ‘outgas’ and ‘leach’ out chemicals that accelerate corrosion and harm the materials stored inside them.  Barrier bags (a fancy way of saying ‘nylon’) are okay, and archival plastics probably are too, but regular PE type materials – best to avoid them.  This is a good article about component storage.

Of course, moisture is an enemy and corrosion accelerant, so keep things as dry and humidity as low as possible.  A related thing – bad news if you (or previous owners) live near the sea, with the higher salt levels brought in from sea spray.

Some things have obvious life-limiting factors as part of their design, and may be impractical to maintain.  Other things have very long lives and are practical to maintain.

In the case of electronics, some items will wear out and fail semi-randomly, some will do so moderately predictably, and some will last almost forever.  And it is all overlaid with an element of random chance.  You’ve no way of knowing if your particular piece of gear will end up with a long life or a short life.  The only thing you do know is that the more it is used, the closer it is getting to its ultimate failure.

Semi-conductor and Component Aging

If you have really old gear with tubes inside, then you need to plan for occasional replacements of the tubes.  Just like incandescent light bulbs burn out, so too do tubes.  But, unlike a lightbulb which burns more or less the same every day until suddenly failing, with a tube, it isn’t only just having it fail by sudden total burning out of the filament.  Tubes also have several other factors that influence their longevity, and their performance steadily declines, every hour they are being used.  The more they are used, the less remaining life they have, and the more poorly they will perform.

Most tubes will have a rated life stated on their specification sheet, and you’ll see this life expectancy can vary wildly.  One make/model of tube might be rated for 1,000 hours, another for 10,000 hours.  And, in all these cases, please be sure to understand what this rating means.  A rating of 1,000 hours doesn’t mean ‘all these tubes will work perfectly for 1,000 hours and then fail some time after’.  It means ‘some tubes will fail quickly, some will fail slowly, and on average, you’ll get about 1,000 hours overall’.  That is a very different scenario, isn’t it – some tubes will start failing immediately.

Back in the days of early computers that used thousands of vacuum tubes for their logic, people were employed as a full-time job just going through the racks and non-stop replacing tubes.

There’s another factor with tubes, too.  Unfortunately, ‘new old stock’ tubes might already have some percentage of their working life used up, just by sitting on the shelf (for example, if the vacuum seal is less than perfect).  If you are able to test your tubes on a tube tester, that will show you where on the spectrum each tube lies as between brand new and into the failure zone.

The solid-state components – the transistors and integrated circuits – will fail semi-randomly.  There is an initial period that is sometimes termed ‘infant mortality’ where new components might fail, then there’s a long period of reliability where failures are random and rare, then beyond that, the failure rate starts to inch up again.  The steady declining performance of vacuum tubes is not as pronounced with solid state devices, although it is present, but to a much more subtle degree.

Interestingly, and sadly, the newer and more modern the solid state devices, the faster they will fail.  Increasing miniaturization makes even individual atoms and molecules significant elements in an integrated circuit, and gradual effects such as the migration of materials across substrate barriers are much more significant in miniaturized components than in earlier items that were hundreds of times larger.  The tolerance range between operating voltages and maximum voltages is also greatly reduced in modern semiconductors.

There’s not a lot you can do about that, though, but just because a neighbor has a 50-year-old radio working perfectly absolutely does not guarantee that the new radio you buy tomorrow will outlast it.  Similarly, as you read around the internet and prudently do your research, be sure to understand that the people who confidently point to very long life with their electronics are probably, and by definition, talking about old gear.  When you think about it, it is impossible to say ‘my radio has worked perfectly for 50 years’ when you are talking about a radio you bought just last year, isn’t it!  But if you search out some of the technical papers about semi-conductor longevity, you’ll see the ugly truth that the smaller the componentry, the more delicate it is and the shorter its life.  This is also a factor in terms of EMP vulnerability – an electronic component designed for 2 volt logic and within a thousandth of an inch of the next component on the same chip is going to be fried by an induced 5 volt power surge which can also pass across the tiny gap between it and the next component, whereas an old transistor, 100 times larger in size, and working off 12 volts, will laugh at a 5V surge and not even notice it.

Resistors have a long life, particularly if they are newer metal film rather than older carbon film.  Older style carbon film resistors are cylindrical in shape and usually have a dark brown body; newer metal film resistors are a lighter brown color and typically are ‘bar bell’ shaped – cylindrical but of larger diameter at each end.

And inductors – coils of wire – last about as close to ‘for ever’ as anything ever does.

The ‘Achilles Heel’ of most electronics are the electrolytic capacitors.  These can dry out (or leak) and generally have a life somewhere between 10 – 40 years.  Some people replace all their electrolytic capacitors every 10 – 20 years, whether they need to be replaced or not, particularly because if a capacitor fails, it can cause cascading problems throughout the circuit including the failure of power transistors and other costly/hard to replace components.

Batteries – Both Obvious and Obscured

Perhaps the most regularly replaced item in any piece of electronics are the batteries.  And, in considering this, don’t forget that many electronic items have both the obvious/main battery, but possibly also some other obscured/hidden batteries that are used to do things such as storing the device’s settings in memory so that it doesn’t reset every time you turn it off.  These tiny batteries are invariably overlooked until they fail, so if you are buying any used equipment, it is a good idea to ascertain if they have such secondary batteries and then to replace them if they exist.

A regular rechargeable battery has a very variable life, depending on the conditions in which it has been used, stored, and recharged.  Unless you have special test equipment, and also know the expected values for an optimum conditional representative unit, you can’t really check to see what state of health the batteries are – better to play it safe and treat all batteries as nearly at the end of their lives.

On the other hand, the good news about most rechargeable batteries is that their ‘life’ isn’t defined by a sudden total failure.  Instead, it is just a steady decline, with each subsequent recharge storing less power than the one before, until you get to a point where it is no longer convenient to keep recharging a battery that takes two hours to recharge and then runs for 30 minutes (or whatever).  So in a Level 3 situation, you’d keep using batteries long past the point you’d swap them.

On the other hand, rechargeable batteries can indeed also fail completely, and not hold any charge at all.  All the more reason to replace all rechargeable batteries (or at least to buy a spare set and store them until needed) when you buy used electronic equipment.

Maintainability

So maybe something fails in the electronic item you purchased.  Can you trouble-shoot to find the failure, and can you then fix it?  Years ago, the answer was ‘yes’ – large-scale discrete components, individually soldered to spacious printed circuit boards, were easy to replace, and when something failed, you only needed to replace that one thing.

But now, with tiny SMD components less than half the size of a grain of rice, the ability to troubleshoot and replace is much more complicated than it used to be, and requires a steady and skilled hand and soldering iron.  ICs might contain millions of transistors, so a single transistor failure might take the entire IC out of service.  That is okay if you have spare ICs, but pretty soon, you’ll find you are spending more to build an inventory of spare parts than you are on the gear to start with.  Another difference is that whereas before, it was practical to have a spare parts inventory of all the different resistor, inductor and capacitor values, plus a smattering of the most common diodes and transistors, these days, most products have their own unique integrated circuits so you must have spares for each item rather than a common inventory of spares for everything.

This is also a reason to standardize.  Rather than having a dozen different walkie-talkie radios, for example, buy twelve (or thirteen or more) the same.  If one fails, you then use it as spare parts for the others.  This also makes it enormously easier from an operational perspective if everyone has the same gear.  So that ‘really nice’ and inexpensive piece of gear you’re drooling over has to be considered in the context of the practicality of requiring people to learn how to use a different interface, and the need to keep a separate inventory of spares for it.  Better to use the money to buy another one of the standard model units you already have.

The Future Lifespan You Need

An interesting consideration is to decide how long you need something to last in order to have received fair value from it.  Of course, ideally, everything would last for ever, and equally ideally, we’ll never experience an event that forces us to resort to our emergency equipment and supplies.  The world would just continue on, the same as it has been until now.

But both those scenarios are sadly unrealistic!

Should we consider it as good news or bad news that many of us have been prepping, to some degree or another, for more than two decades?  Is your glass half-full or half-empty?  Are you upset if at the end of a year, you’ve not filed any claims on your car insurance policy?  Do ten or twenty years with no need to activate your preps make next year riskier or safer?

The point behind these (largely unanswerable) questions is that much of the stuff we’ve bought to have for a possible future WTSHTF situation are things we’ve now owned for ten years or longer.  If we bought something that was already 10 – 20 years old when it was purchased, it would therefore of course be up to 30 years old now, and at the point where it would be prudent to think about replacing (or at least giving it a thorough overhaul and replacing many of its components) – or possibly supplementing it with a new set too.

In other words, if you are buying something today that you need to use tomorrow and which will have paid for itself in terms of value and use within a year or so, it doesn’t really matter if its life is two years or twenty years (although of course twenty years would be nicer!).  Your main focus is on an item that will work reliably today and for a long enough period so that it has paid for itself by the time it fails and you replace it.

But if you’re buying something that you won’t even touch for a decade or two, you need something that will be able to sit in storage for that period of time, and then be activated and work for another decade or two or however long you expect to need to rely on it.

This issue – that if you buy something old today, it might be very old by the time you finally get to use it – is another reason to avoid buying old stuff unless you know how to maintain and repair it and have an inventory of the necessary spares to do exactly that.

What We Do

We don’t buy anything essential that was made before 2000 (mainly because it is a nice round number to use as a cut-off) and we generally prefer to buy things that are less than ten years old, unless there is a special reason to choose something older.

And whenever we can cost-justify it (which is most of the time – not because we have lots of money, but simply because the cost/value/benefit equation supports it) we prefer to buy brand new gear, run it for a few months to check for any ‘infant mortality’ and then put it in extended storage until needed.

Part One of This Article

This is the second part of a two-part article.  If you’ve not already done so, you might like to also read the first part, which talks about buying used/second-hand gear in more general terms.

Apr 112016
 
The HP-12C - possibly the finest calculator ever.

The HP-12C – possibly the finest calculator ever and still being made by HP.

So, after TEOTWAWKI, what happens when we need to do ‘figuring’ – to do some sums, to calculate some values?  Our computers are dead, our notepads fried, and our calculators have run out of batteries.

We have several suggestions that will make your life easier.

Solar Powered Calculators

Our first suggestion is to stock up on calculators that use photo-electric cells to power them.  These can be expected to last for probably 15 – 25 years, maybe longer, and if you store them in a cool dryish sort of place that gets neither extremely hot nor cold, that will be a good environment for longest life.  Solar powered calculators are inexpensive, lightweight, and not very large (but note that larger ones are easier to operate and you’re less likely to make errors entering numbers, and have easier to read screens).  Amazon sells a broad selection, many at less than $10 each.  You want to choose display only calculators, not printing calculators – the printing calculators use a lot more power, plus you then need rolls of paper and ink ribbons too.

We recommend you store two or three solar-powered calculators in your Faraday Cages.  Take them out, one at a time, if you need to have one readily accessible.

HP-12C

The second is to get one of the brilliant Hewlett-Packard HP-12C calculators – in our opinion, the finest calculator ever made.  Not only can this calculate just about anything and everything you’d ever want to calculate, but its batteries last almost literally forever.  The record is currently an HP-12C with batteries that are now 22 years old, and it is still going strong.  In other words, the limit is more the storage life of the batteries than the power used by the calculator – we regularly get 10+ years of life out of each set of batteries we use (although with the new non-mercury type silver-oxide button batteries, we suspect their ‘shelf/storage life’ is not as lengthy as with the earlier mercury batteries – we’ve seen figures claiming five years for silver oxide in place of ten years for mercury batteries – yet another case where Congress has legislated a good product out of existence for the thinnest of reasons).

The HP-12C design is now over 30 years old, but it was so perfect when it first came out that customers have resisted every attempt by HP to modernize or replace it.  The closest to a replacement is the latest ‘Platinum edition’ version of the HP-12C, and you can interchangeably get a regular or a Platinum version; the differences are trivial and mainly ‘under the hood’.

The only thing to be aware of is that there’s something missing from the classic HP-12C calculators, and obscured on the Platinum edition versions.  The equals sign.  The calculator uses a different way of calculating – you key in the first number then hit the Enter key, then you key in the second number, then you press whichever function key you wish for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, as well as very many other functions too.  This is called ‘RPN’ or Reverse Polish Notation; it takes a bit of getting used to but is actually surprisingly logical and simple.

We own several of these calculators; they are robustly built and never seem to break.  The best thing about the RPN keyboard is always seeing the puzzled look on other people’s faces.  ‘Can I borrow your calculator?’.  ‘Ummm, yes, sure’ we say, unenthusiastically, maybe adding ‘it is a bit complicated to use’.  But our disclaimer about it being complicated is always ignored.  Then, invariably, two things happen.  ‘How do you clear it’ and ‘Where is the equals sign’, followed, a minute later, by the borrower handing it back to us!  This means that we’ve never lost a calculator by someone ‘borrowing’ it and ‘forgetting’ to return it!  They cost $50 – $60 each these days (used to be more) so we’d rather not have them disappear.

You might also want to consider an HP-11C ‘scientific calculator’ – most of the extra functions on a 12C are financial; if you think you might need some trigonometry functions in particular (useful in surveying and building) then get an 11C too.

Again, keep your HP-12C in a Faraday cage until you need to deploy it.

This shows the stylus and the clearing bar that come with an Addiator adding/subtracting device.

This shows the stylus and the clearing bar that come with an Addiator adding/subtracting device.

Mechanical Adders

Now it is time to go lower tech.  There are two low tech solutions to consider, one being better than the other.

You should consider getting a hand-operated adding machine.  You might immediately think of some of the large boxy machines that used to sit on accountants’ desks – quite possibly with a roll of paper coming out the end as well, and a handle that the user would pull towards them to enter each number.

Those are great units, but you’re going to run out of rolls of paper and ink ribbons very quickly, so we don’t recommend them for a Level 3 type scenario.  However, there’s another more subtle challenge to them, too.  They have dozens, or even hundreds of moving parts, and that’s a lot of things to go out of adjustment, springs to break, or in some other way to have something fail.

Slightly simpler, and generally older, are machines that simply display the running total in a window rather than print on a piece of paper.  Some look like ‘regular’ adding machines, others are more complicated and can be used for multiplication as well as addition.

While it is a long time since machines such as the American Rapid Calculator Co pinwheel adding machines were made, the Soviet Union made similar machines called a Feliks brand Arithmometer.  I’ve seen them dated from the 1930s to the late 1970s – they stopped production in the early 1980s and one of those might be worth considering.  But be aware that although they look to be very solidly built, like much in the Soviet era, that is as much illusion as reality.  It is reported that the gears inside are made of low quality zinc.  As a bit of trivia however, the name ‘Feliks’ is the first name of Felix Dzerzinsky, the first head of what became the KGB, and were originally made in a factory in Moscow that subsequently became the KGB headquarters (on Lubyanka Square).

Some of the German machines (eg Thales up to the late 1960s and Brunsviga) are not all that old, either.  All these ones that look similar spring from the same design, originally by a Swedish-Russian man in St Petersburg.

Make sure you’re getting a non-electric machine, though.  There are lots of Monroe type adding machines that look manual but are electric, and can be trouble-prone and very difficult to repair.  If you’ve ever seen one of those working, you’ll immediately understand how the moving parts are considerably stressed as it crashes and clatters its way through to a solution.

There’s an even simpler solution that is as close to fail-proof and fool-proof as it gets.  An Addiator.  These units are tiny (about 2″ x 6″ x 0.5″), weigh only a couple of ounces, and are totally simplistic to use with almost nothing to break or go wrong.  They can easily be found on eBay and elsewhere, probably costing no more than $10 – $20 a piece.  Search for ‘Addiator’ or ‘Arithma’ on eBay – we just did and found 44 listings.  Make sure the unit comes with its stylus – other things can be used instead of course, but if it has its stylus to start with, so much the better.

Addometers are slightly less common and more expensive, and not quite as intuitively obvious to use.

Other similar products exist, for example, the Sterling Dial-a-matic.  Pick and choose whichever style you like, they’re all reasonably reliable and very easy to use.

Make sure that the unit you select has a lot of digits – ideally eight or more, so you can add up reasonably large numbers.  We’ve seen Dial-a-matics with as few as four, which is hardly worth the hassle of buying, owning and using.  Also make sure the machine can subtract as well as add (as best we can tell, the Resulta mini adding machines won’t subtract).

Slide Rules

Many people say the Faber Castell 2/83N slide rule is the best ever made.

Many people say the Faber Castell 2/83N slide rule is the best ever made.  Last produced in 1976, but still available on eBay and elsewhere.

So your Addiator will see you right for adding and subtracting.  But what say you need to multiply or divide – or, even worse, to work out square roots, or do trigonometry?

Until the early 1970s, everyone used slide rules for such things.  Sure, they don’t have eight glowing digits of instant and near perfect accuracy, but for a century or more, slide rules were used to calculate and build everything, even jet planes and rockets.  The happy reality is that most of the time, we don’t need eight significant digits, and rather than being ‘significant’, most of them are illusory because the measurements we are feeding in to our calculators are imprecise to start with.

Some slide rules might still be manufactured, new, in China perhaps.  But we suggest that the best approach is again to go to eBay and pick up one from there – they have an entire section dedicated to slide rules.  We’ve seen good slide rules sell for $20 – $40.  You want to get one that is 10″ in length, not the half sized ones, and not the double sized ones.  Make sure it isn’t missing its cursor (the clear plastic thing that slides along it), and the more scales it has, the merrier.  The very best slide rules have a pair of ‘folded’ scales that in effect give you the benefit of a 20″ rule without any of the attendant disadvantages – one scale set goes from about 1 – 3.2 and the second scale set goes from about 3.2 – 10, and easy set has more graduations to give you a bit more accuracy.  We know that some of the double-sided Faber Castell slide rules (ie the W scales on the 2/83 and 2/83N rules) have these folded scales, and some of the other brands have them on their high-end slide rules too.

Other than these considerations, you can’t really go wrong with any of the different brands or models.

Ideally if it comes with instructions (and in English – some of the slide rules are sold from other countries and their instructions aren’t always in English) that will save you from any need to buy a book on how to use a slide rule, too.

Giving you the best of both worlds, the German company Faber Castell bought the Addiator adding machine company and made combo units – slide rule on one side and Addiator on the other.  Some of them are still available.

The Ultimate in Low-Tech Calculating?

So, there you are with your Addiator and slide-rule (as well as a solar-powered calculator and perhaps even an HP-12C).  You’re all set to calculate whatever the future holds, right?

Yes, you probably are.  But if you wanted to regress back one further step in calculating, you could always get an abacus too.  A skilled user of an abacus can do calculations almost as quickly as a modern person with a calculator, but it does require skill and practice/training to become that proficient.

So you might decide to pass on that for now, but if you want to be totally prepared for everything, get a book on how abacuses work so you can simply build your own if needed in the future, and have the information you need for how they work.

Aug 292014
 
A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper.

A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper – sighted at a rest stop somewhere between SD and MN.

A little known side effect of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant problems in Japan was a shortage of toilet paper that affected the entire country.

Japan has had toilet paper shortages before, back in the oil crisis of 1973 (you never thought that expensive and scarce oil would create a toilet paper shortage, did you!) and so the nation has become particularly sensitized to the potential of future shortages.  As a result, the Japanese government is now urging the public to stockpile toilet paper, and has even arranged for a special type of toilet paper roll (without the inner cardboard sleeve) that allows more toilet paper to be stored in less space.  You can read more about their public promotional campaign here.

We see two interesting things about this.  The first is the government’s determination that it could take a month for any disruption in supply to be resolved, either due to factories returning to production or by way of importing supplies from other countries, and so they are recommending everyone keeps at least a one month supply in their homes.

Depending on your point of view, a one month supply is either a generous amount or woefully inadequate.  A lot would rest on the type of disruption to local manufacturing, of course, and if it was a broader global disruption (such as another oil shock) then even a one month supply might be exhausted long before new supplies were on hand.  Of course, this is a Level 1 type preparation only, not a Level 2 or 3.

The second interesting thing is the focus on stockpiling a month of toilet paper.  We don’t disagree with this at all, of course, but how about other things, too?  Like, ummm, water and food?  If toilet paper is liable to disruptions in supply, surely food supplies too have to be considered as being at risk of some future disruptions, and if we had to choose between no toilet paper and no food, well, that’s an easy choice, isn’t it!

Don’t get us wrong.  It is great to see a national government advocate a one month stockpile of anything, but we see this as begging the question – why do we need to maintain a one month supply of toilet paper, but not a one month supply of everything else, too?

Aug 132014
 
Sometimes the old-fashioned things are also the best and most reliable.

Sometimes the old-fashioned things – like this phone – are also the best and most reliable.

This is the first of a series of short articles about things in our lives we take for granted but which we need to consider in our preparing.

Today’s topic is the telephone.  Not that fancy smart phone you have in your pocket, and not the multi-station cordless system you have at home, either.

We’re talking about really simple and basic hard-wired phones.  You know, landline phones that are powered from the phone line itself – the type of phone we all used to have.  Phones with no caller ID or other display, no built-in answering machine, no memories, no multiple lines, no built-in intercoms; phones with nothing at all except a dial and handset.

You probably have a phone or two like that somewhere at home at present, and maybe you’ve sometimes looked at it disdainfully and thought you really must get around to junking it.  Don’t do that!  Keep it as part of your emergency ‘power out’ kit.

The value of this type of phone is that in a power outage, all our cordless phones will die.  In a severe power outage, the cell phone towers will die – maybe not immediately, because many have backup batteries or onsite generators to give them some minutes or even hours of power, but definitely later if not sooner.  Cell phone service also has a mixed record when it comes to availability.  Some severe events have seen the cell phone towers all massively overloaded, making it impossible to place or receive phone calls.

Note that in such cases, you should try sending text messages.  They use a different part of the cell towers’ bandwidth, and can usually get sent and received even when there’s no dial tone or ability to make voice calls.

In a disruptive situation, our landlines may prove to be more resilient.

A word of warning, though.  You not only need an old-fashioned phone, you need an old-fashioned ‘POTS’ (Plain Old Telephone Service) type landline too.  If you get your regular phone service through your cable or internet company, or if you get your regular phone service through a fiber optic line, then you are again relying on electricity to drive your phone service at your dwelling, and also relying on electricity through all the electronic switching and processing that goes on, invisibly to you, between the side of your dwelling and the central office where the phone signal is patched into the regular ‘old fashioned’ phone network.

If you no longer have one, we’re not necessarily saying you should spend extra to maintain a POTS type phone line at your residence.  Depending on your need to communicate, and who else you’d wish to communicate with, maybe you’re better off with radio transceivers.

But we are saying that if you do still have a regular POTS phone line into your home, be sure to have a regular ‘old fashioned’ phone to use with it, too.  Amazon of course offer several types of traditional phone, and currently a standard white color corded phone is showing as only $10.

Note that if you have a very old phone that is now your emergency phone, it is appropriate to test it out once every half year or so.  Some of the electrical components inside it (particularly electrolytic capacitors) start to fail after about 20 years, and the last thing you want is to discover your super-emergency phone has failed, unnoticed, at some time in the past.

Come to think of it, maybe spending $10 for a new phone that will be more likely to be trouble-free for the next decade or two might be a good idea!

One final comment, which lifts this out of the category of a little thing and into the category of a more appreciable investment.  We know of many corporations that have issued all their key executives and other essential personnel with satellite phones.  No matter what happens to the cell phone towers and the landlines, the satellites up in the sky are likely to remain operational, making a satellite phone probably the most fault-tolerant and guaranteed to work of all communication systems.

We’ll write about satellite phones separately, but for now, a quick heads-up is that the Iridium phones have consistently tested to be the best, the several times we’ve tested them and the other brands/services.  There’s no need to get the latest model with the most features.  A refurbished older model works just as well for most purposes and situations.

Satellite phones need a direct view of the sky.  If you’re in an apartment building with your windows facing out onto other apartment buildings, your reception may be marginal.  But if you can go outside somewhere where you can see much of the sky above you, free of obstructions, then they’ll work perfectly, everywhere.

May 052014
 
The Champion 3100W inverter/generator - currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

The Champion 3100W inverter/generator – currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

(You can see our definition of levels one, two and three type events here.  It is a useful categorization that provides structure to your problem analysis and preparation planning.)

When some people – particularly preppers – start thinking about generators, they immediately think of enormous noisy diesel standby generators, in special generator sheds, and capable of providing tens of kilowatts of power for extended periods, drawing off multi-hundred gallon storage tanks.  Don’t get us wrong.  We love diesel generators with a passion, and we also agree there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ power.

But these types of installations will typically cost $10,000 and up, will guzzle gas at a rate of several gallons an hour, are definitely impractical for apartment dwellers, and frankly are overkill for the times when you have a short power outage lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  In these short time frames, we can compromise some of the convenience we normally enjoy with abundant and available power throughout our home, and also avoid needing to adjourn to our retreat to ride out the problem.

All we want is a small convenient and ‘low profile’ portable generator that we can run without drawing way too much attention to ourselves, and keep the essential parts of our home operating.

No matter if you have major industrial-grade generators or not, we suggest everyone should have one of these small generators – and here’s the key concept.  Get a small one.  Don’t ‘over-engineer’ the problem and end up buying something that generates enough power for you to have every appliance in your house all operating simultaneously.  For a short outage, all you need is lighting, some essential electronics, and some power to share between your fridge and freezer at times, maybe a stove top or other cooking facility at other times, and perhaps heating or cooling at still other times.

How Much Generating Power Do You Need?

We repeat.  Don’t over-engineer things.  And note the question.  We’re not asking how much power you want, or would like.  We’re asking how much you need, in order to sustain life and a moderate level of comfort and security, for a short duration of no more than a few days.

So, to sustain life, you need air, shelter, water and food, right?  Let’s think about each of those.

Air – hopefully you already have air!  And hopefully also you can get fresh air without needing to drive some sort of fan or other motorized appliance.  So presumably this does not need power.

Shelter – a bit more complicated.  We’re assuming that you’re in your regular residence and it is unharmed, so you have four walls and a roof already.  But also part of shelter is some amount of heating or cooling.  You know the seasonal weather extremes for where you live and you also know what you have installed in the form of hvac appliances.  But perhaps for a short-term solution, you should not aim to heat/cool your entire residence, but work out a heating/cooling plan for just a couple of rooms only.

Maybe you have a central hvac system, and in the winter you only need a small amount of power to drive the fan, with heat coming from natural gas.  That would be ideal, and natural gas seems to continue flowing, no matter what happens to the power.  But, even so, humor yourself next winter-time.  Do a ‘what if’ worst case scenario test and see how many 1500 W heaters you would need to keep a central living area warm without your hvac.  Hopefully you’ll be able to get by with only one.

As for summer, again perhaps you have a central air system, but for the purposes of this exercise, can you also have a window unit that controls temperatures in just one room?  A small generator is probably inadequate to handle the power needs of a central air system, but is probably suitable for a typical RV sized 13,500 – 15,000 BTU type unit.

One other part of shelter – some lighting.  Perhaps now is the time to start picking up LED lights when you see them on sale, so that you are getting maximum light for minimum watts.  Indeed, the LED lighting is so good (and so long-lived) that there’s no reason not to use them all the time, in all your lights.

So – heating, cooling, and lights.  That’s pretty much everything you need for short-term shelter requirements, right?  Maybe you have something else to also plan for, like a cellar sump pump?  Try not to overlook anything else that might be essential.

Water – do you have any water pumps (under your control, as opposed to operated by the building you live in)?  If not, then hopefully (maybe) you’ll continue to get water from your taps during a power outage, and if you don’t, that’s a matter for another article.  And what about waste water?  Some people have macerator units on their toilets, or pumps operating their septic system, but other than that, most of us have gravity powered waste water systems (at least out of our house, beyond that, in the city system, there might be other issues, which are again outside the purview of an article about low powered home generators!).

The only other consideration about water would be if you wanted warm/hot water.  If you have gas water heating, maybe you have an electronic pilot light (although these are not so common on hot water heaters) in which case you need power for the hot water to work.  Otherwise, if you have electric hot water heating, that will be a problem, because the elements in your water heater probably draw 5kW – 10kW of power, and that is more than you should reasonably expect from a small portable generator.

There are two workarounds for that.  The first is a small ‘under sink’ type water heater.  The other is to simply heat up or boil water on your stove top.  Worst case scenario, if you have to go without long hot baths/showers for a few days, that’s truly not the end of the world.

Food –  There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to food.  The first is food storage – ie, your fridge and freezer.  Ideally you want to keep these powered up, at least some of the time, so you don’t have all the food in your freezer spoil, and so you are able to maintain a cool temperature in your fridge too, besides which, depending on the nature of the power outage, you might need that food to live on.  Find out how much power your fridge (and freezer, if separate) use when they’re running; we’ll tell you what to do with those numbers in a minute or two.

The second part of food power needs is cooking your food.  There are several ways you can prepare food using relatively small amounts of power.  Your microwave is an efficient and effective way of preparing many food items.  A small toaster oven is another choice, and a stand-alone hotplate/element is a third choice.  You might also want an electric jug/kettle for boiling water for coffee and other purposes.  Indeed, why limit yourself – get all these items (if you don’t have them already).  None of them cost much more than $50 a piece at Costco or on Amazon.

Make a note of the power requirements for such items.

Everything Else – Okay, now we’ve covered the absolute essentials, but what else might also appear on a list of things you really need to be able to provide power to?  We’d certainly agree that you need to have half a dozen watts on hand for your phone charger, and maybe a few more watts for a radio or even a television.  For that matter, in the unlikely event that your internet connection is up, we’d not begrudge you the power cost of turning on your cable modem, Wi-Fi router and computer for an hour or two, a few times a day.

Maybe you have some medical equipment you need to operate.  And maybe you don’t want to have your generator running 24/7, and so have some batteries that you charge during the day and run your essential nighttime electrical circuits from at night.

Adding it All Up

Now that you’ve made a list of all the items you need power for, you’ll see there’s probably nothing on the list that needs to be receiving power, every hour, every day.  So this is where you now get to make a little bit of power go a long way.  You do this by letting your appliances take turns at the power from your generator.

For example, you know you’ll only need cooking appliances on a couple of times a day.  You also know that your fridge and freezer can go quite well for an hour or so (fridge) or half a day or longer (freezer) at a time with no power (especially if you keep their door shut!), and you also know that you can ‘play games’ with any heating or cooling, so that some of the day it is on, but some of the day it is not.

So what you should do is arrange it that you either have a cooking appliance, a fridge or freezer, or some hvac equipment running, but never all of these items at the same time.  How do you do that?  Simple.  Have plugs from all the devices sharing one (or two) sockets.  That way you can only have one item plugged in at a time.  Maybe you have some devices that would take up all the power, and three or four other devices that could run, any two at a time, and one or two devices that can be on or off at any time and it doesn’t really matter, because the power they draw is so low.

What you’d do is you’d have the output from your generator going first to a power strip that has all the small power devices connected to it, and one remaining socket.  You would have a collection of plugs next to this socket, and obviously only one of them can be plugged in at a time.  You might have a plug for your a/c, and another plug going to something else, and then one more plug that goes to a second power strip, on which you’ve blocked out all but two of the sockets, and you have a collection of plugs alongside that, so that any two of them can be connected at the same time.

That way it is physically impossible to overload your system, because the way you have your plugs and sockets lined up prevents that.

You can – and should – also have a power meter in series with all of this to monitor the actual power draw (see below).  Or perhaps manage all this with an Arduino based power management system.

Allowing for Surge and Starting Power

Most electric motors draw considerably more power when they are starting than when they are running at their normal speed.  This surge or starting power draw can be two or three times their running power – in other words, a 1 kW motor might have a surge/start power demand of 2.5 kW.  Some types of motors will draw as much as four, five or six times their normal running power while starting up.

This surge/starting power can last for as little as half a second or as long as three or four seconds, and starts off at the very highest level and then steadily declines down to normal running power at the end of the startup phase.

Most traditional generators will quote you two ratings – a rated or standard load, and a peak or maximum load.  So if your theoretical motor, with its 1 kW normal power draw and its starting power requirement of 2.5kW was to be matched to a generator, you should get one with a rated or standard load of at least 1 kW and a peak or maximum load of at least 2.5 kW.

But what say you have four devices, each of a 1 kW standard load and a 2.5 kW starting load?  Does that mean you need a 4 kW generator that can handle a 10 kW peak?  Happily, no.  It is normal to assume that you’ll never have multiple devices all starting simultaneously.  Because the starting load is so brief, and also quickly starts dropping down from maximum, this assumption is usually acceptable in most environments.  So in this example, you’d want a 4 kW generator with a 5.5 kW max load rating.

Choosing a Suitable Small Generator

Our expectation is that you’ll end up with a power need in the order of about 3kW; maybe a bit less, and if it is much more than that, you’ve failed to correctly differentiate between ‘need’ and ‘would like’!

The good news is that there are very many different models in this general power range to choose from.  But that’s also the bad news.  How to make a sensible buying decision with so many choices?

Well, there are a few things to consider that will help steer you in the right direction.

The first is that you want the generator motor to be four-stroke not two-stroke (ie separate oil and gas, rather than mixing the two together).  Four stroke motors tend to be more fuel-efficient and more reliable.

The second is that you want the generator to be as quiet as possible.  Some generators publish ratings on how noisy they are, but unfortunately there’s no universal standard for how this should be measured.  If you see a noise rating, it should be quoted in either dB, dBA, dBC, or possibly some other type of dB measurement.  It would be helpful to know if it was measured at full load, half load, or idle (there can be more than a 10 dB difference between idle and full load), and at what distance from the generator the measurement was made.  Was it in an open area or an enclosed room?  Was it a hard concrete floor or something more sound absorbing?

It is difficult to convert between the different type of decibel measurements, because the different weightings or adjustments that are implied by the letter A, B, C or D after the dB vary depending on the frequency of the sound being measured.  As a rule of thumb, though, the same sound probably registers lowest on the dBA scale, and slightly low on the dBC scale, and higher on the plain dB scale.  You’ll seldom/never see dBB or dBD.  Oh, to add to the confusion, some suppliers sometimes use the term dB and dBA interchangeably, even though they are actually very different.

You can sometimes get a sense for how loud generators are, even if they are not specified, by reading reviews on sites like Amazon.  Chances are someone will compare any given generator’s sound level to another generator, and then you can start to work from there to understand at least the relative loudnesses, and if one of the generators does have a published sound rating, then you know if the other one is above or below that figure.

A good generator has a sound level of under 60 dBA under at least half load when measured on a concrete floor from 7 meters (23 feet) away and with reflective walls 100 ft (30.4 meters) away, and with a very quiet ambient noise background (ie 45 dB).

Another relevant issue is fuel economy and run time.  These are two slightly different measures.  Fuel economy can be thought of in terms of ‘how many kWh of energy will this generator give me per gallon of gas it burns’.  An easy way to work that out is to see how many gallons of fuel an hour it burns, and at what load level.  For example, a 4 kW generator, running at 50% load, and burning 0.4 gallons of fuel an hour is giving you (4 * 50%) 2 kWh of energy for each 0.4 gallon of fuel, ie, 5 kWh per gallon of fuel.  The more kWh per gallon, the better.

The run time issue is similar but different.  It simply measures how long the generator will run on a single tank of gas.  Sure, the more fuel-efficient the engine, the longer each gallon of gas will last, but probably the biggest factor in run time is simply the size of the gas tank on the generator.  Run time means nothing when trying to get a feeling for gallons/hour of fuel use, unless you know how many gallons in the tank that are being consumed.

In theory, you should turn the generator off when re-fueling, and even if you don’t do this, it is always an inconvenient hassle, and so the longer the run time per tank of fuel, the happier you’ll be.

Make sure you understand, when looking at a run time claim, what the load factor on the generator is.  Needless to say, all generators will run much longer at 25% load than at 100% load.

One other nice feature, although one to be used with caution, is a 12V DC power outlet that might be suitable for some crude battery charging, depending on what its true output voltage might be.  But be careful – charging batteries is a very tricky business and perhaps it is more sensible to charge the batteries through a charge controlling device, and from the generator’s 110V main output.

An obvious consideration, but we mention it, just in case, is the generator’s size and weight.  The smaller it is, the easier it is to store somewhere convenient, and the lighter it is, the easier it will be to deploy when you need it.  Oh – do we need to state the obvious?  Don’t run a generator inside.  You must keep the motor exhaust well away from the air you breathe.

Something that is often underlooked or obscured is the quality of the a/c power and its waveform.  How close to a pure sine wave is the power that comes out of the generator?  This doesn’t really matter for resistive loads like a heater, but for motors and electronic circuitry, the ‘cleaner’ the wave form the better.  The only way to be certain about this is to connect the generator output up to an oscilloscope, but that’s not something that is easy for many of us to do.

There is a new type of generator now becoming more prevalent which not only has an excellent pure sine wave form of a/c power, but offers a number of other benefits too.

Inverter/Generators

(Note – do not confuse an inverter/generator with a standalone inverter.  A standalone inverter converts DC power to AC power, typically from 12V DC up to 110V AC.  It does not have a generator connected to it.)

A typical generator (well, what we call a generator actually is a motor that runs an alternator) runs at a steady speed of 3600 rpm so that the power that comes out of the alternator will be automatically at 60 Hz (mains frequency).  The a/c waveform will be a little bit rough and noisy, which can be a problem when powering more delicate electronics.  Also, the engine is having to run at 3600 rpm, no matter if it is heavily loaded or very lightly loaded with power consuming devices because the frequency of the power generated is dependent on the speed of the motor.  This makes the motor noisier than it needs to be, and at lower power loads, makes it less efficient because it is using a lot of power just to spin itself around.  If the engine speed should fluctuate, so too will the frequency of the supplied power and that also can cause problems with electronic items.

Modern high quality generators take a different approach.  They generate a/c power at any frequency at all – it doesn’t matter what frequency, because they then convert the a/c power into DC power.  Then, in a second stage, they use an electronic inverter to convert the DC power into (at least in theory) a very clean pure a/c sinusoidal wave form at 110V.  You have a much nicer wave form, and because the generator can spin at any speed, the generator does not need to be so powered up if generating only a light load of power, making it typically quieter and more fuel-efficient (up to almost 50% more fuel-efficient).  On the downside, inverter/generators are currently more expensive, and have slightly more complicated electronics.  But for the type of application we are considering, they are usually vastly preferable.

Some inverter generators have a nifty feature.  You can double them up – if you connect the generator to another identical generator, using a special connecting cable that synchronizes the a/c output waveform of the two generators together, you can get twice the power.  You might say that it is better to have two 2kW generators rather than one 4kW generator, because that way, you have redundancy.  Anything could fail and you still have half your generating power.

Another nice thing about most inverter/generators is that they have been designed, right from the get-go, to be small, compact, lightweight, and quiet.  That’s not to say that they will be totally undetectable when operating, but they won’t be anything like as noisy as traditional generators that can be as loud as motor mowers, and if quiet operation is really important to you, some additional external baffling in the form of some sort of operating enclosure could drop the sound level down even further.

Their compact size and generally light weight makes it practical for them to do double duty not just as an emergency generator that gets ceremonially wheeled out of the garage when the power goes off (or, even worse, that resides in its own special building), but also as a go anywhere/take anywhere general purpose generator, useful for outdoors events, camping, remote building sites, and so on.

An obvious consideration for any generator is the cost.  With the constantly changing mix of models, ratings, and prices, we’ll not get too specific other than to observe that at the time of writing, it seems you’re likely going to be writing out a check for a little less than $1000 for a good inverter/generator with about a 3 kW rating, which is about twice what you’d pay for a regular generator without the inverter stage.  We expect this price differential to drop, but please don’t wait for that to happen before you get one!

Here is Amazon’s current listingof gasoline fueled generators.  Some are inverter/generators, others aren’t.  Some are California emissions compliant (CARB), others aren’t.

If we had to select a favorite, we’d probably nominate the Champion 3100W unit, or failing that, one or a doubled up pair of the Champion 2000W units.

How to Measure the Real Current/Power Used by Your Appliances

Devices such as this, costing $16 - $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Devices such as this, costing $16 – $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Maybe you have a computer with a 450 watt power supply.  Does that mean the computer actually is drawing 450 watts of power all the time it is on?  Almost certainly, not (a typical computer might consume only 50W of power, maybe even less, plus another 50W of power separately for its screen).  Maybe you have something else with a power rating plate on the back ‘110V 10A’ – does that mean it is drawing 10 amps all the time it is on?  Again, probably not.  A 10A rated device probably includes all lesser amounts of power too, and they simply put 10A on the plate as a conservative overstatement that wouldn’t cause them problems in the future.  (Note – resistive devices such as heaters tend to have more accurately plated power requirements.)

It is normal for appliances to show their theoretical maximum power draw rather than their normal power draw on their labeling.  While you need to leave a bit of ‘headroom’ to allow for occasionally one or another of your appliances peaking up higher to full power, it is acceptable to assume that most of the time, most of them will be using average rather than maximum power.

So how do you work out how much power your appliances are really truly drawing?  Easy.  There are devices that you plug in between the appliance and the wall, and they measure the power consumption of whatever is plugged into them.  Indeed, you don’t need to plug only one appliance into one of these measuring devices – we’ll sometimes plug a power strip into the measuring device, and then connect a bunch of equipment to it.

As you can see, Amazon sell such units for as little as $16.  Although there are some new low price units, we have always bought the only slightly more expensive Kill a Watt brand monitors.  You only need to get one to be able to work your way around your house testing everything.

In addition to showing you the instantaneous power usage, the Kill a Watt unit has another useful function – it can also show you total energy used over time.  When would this be useful?  Think of something that cycles on and off, such as your fridge.  You can measure how much power it uses when it is on, and you can guesstimate how much extra power to allow for when it first starts up, but how much power does it use per day?  Unless you stand over your fridge nonstop, day and night, carefully noting the minutes it is on and the minutes it is off, you’ll have no accurate way of knowing this.  But with the Kill a Watt meter, you simply plug the fridge in, check it is zeroed, then come back in a day or two and note the total hours elapsed and the total kWh used.  How easy is that!

(Note that if you are doing these calculations, you should check for different total energy consumption rates based on hot and cold weather, on opening the fridge a lot or a little, on placing hot foodstuffs into the fridge, and so on.  You’ll find that your daily average usage will vary enormously from some ‘good’ days to some not so good days.

How to Measure the Actual Power Being Provided by Your Generator

Your objective, much of the time, will be to run your generator at about 75% of full power.  At power levels much above this, or at power levels much below 50%, your economy will start to suffer and you’ll be getting fewer kWh of electricity per gallon of gas.

But how do you know how much power you are taking from the generator?  Easy.  Use the same Kill a Watt meter you used to calculate your power draws, and plug it into the generator then plug all power loads into a power strip plugged into the Kill a Watt.  That will tell you exactly the power you use.

You can use this information to know when you can add extra power loads to your generator, and when you are close to maxed out.

Two Notes About Fuel Storage

Many cities and many landlords have restrictions on how much fuel you can store at your residence, and probably also on the types of containers you can store the fuel in.  Sometimes these limits are per address, sometimes they are per building (which might mean you could keep fuel in a garden shed as well as in your garage and as well as in your house, too).

Enforcement of such bylaws is typically done ‘after the fact’ – ie, if you have a fire and it becomes apparent you had a mega-fuel dump in your garage, then you may find yourself being asked some awkward questions, not only by the fire marshal, but quite likely by your insurance company, too.  By the way, it is not always easy to tell, after a fire, exactly how much fuel was stored in each container, particularly if they were all in the one area.  It is probably possible to see how many fuel cans you had, but harder to tell which ones were full, which were half full, and which had only a couple of pints in the bottom.

It might pay to familiarize yourself with these requirements, and if you have a large number of half empty fuel containers, you better be sure you can explain why.

That also points to another benefit of a fuel-efficient low powered inverter/generator.  If you are trying not to trespass too far into ‘forbidden territory’ in terms of the fuel you store, then the more hours you can run your generator on a small amount of fuel, the better.

Secondly, gasoline (and most other liquid fuels) has a surprisingly limited life.  You can store it for three months with no ill effects, but after about six months, you’ll start to encounter problems.  Our article about fuel storage tells you more about these issues and also recommends the best form of fuel life extending chemicals.

Maintaining Your Generator

We hate internal combustion powered equipment, and avoid it wherever we can, particularly for things we only use rarely.  They can be difficult to store and unreliable in operation after extended storage.  Electrically powered items are generally very much better.

But in the case of a generator, you have no effective alternative to some sort of internal combustion powered device, and so you’ll need to be attentive to the manufacturer’s recommendations about periodic maintenance.  Not quite so clearly stated is the need to also be sensitive to the age of your fuel and managing that, so you aren’t running old untreated fuel in your generator.  Also not stated, but in our opinion very important, is to run your generator for several hours, perhaps once a quarter.  Solstices and equinoxes are the trigger dates we use for all sorts of maintenance items (other people use daylight saving start/end dates for things that need maintaining less frequently).

One other thought.  It might be useful to keep a spray can of engine starter fluid as a way of helping your generator come to life if it has been too long since it last ran and it is proving reluctant to start, particularly on a cold day.  Some generators start more readily than others.

Summary

A small, lightweight, and almost silent emergency generator can allow you to keep power on in your normal home, even when the lights are out all around you.  While we have nothing against larger systems that will power your entire home (and have one ourselves), if you’re not ready for a ‘full-on’ system and the costs and complications associated with it, a simple portable inverter/generator will give you enough power to make the difference between great discomfort and only moderate inconvenience.

These small units are also invaluable for apartment dwellers.

Aug 032013
 
This 4WD $11,500 Polaris UTV can carry 1,000lbs and tow another 1,250lbs.

This 4WD $11,500 Polaris electric UTV can carry 1,000lbs and tow another 1,250lbs at speeds of up to 25 mph, and some tens of miles in distance.

We wrote before about the benefits of considering electric vehicles for your future retreat transport needs – see our article ‘Is a Tesla the Best Car for a Prepper‘.

We concluded that some sort of electric vehicle would be excellent in a Level 3 situation, because electricity might be easier to generate/create than other fuel/energy types.  But of course a Tesla is a very expensive vehicle, and not well suited for ‘working’ purposes on a farm.

There is also a much less expensive possibility that would be suitable for many preppers.  Getting an electric ‘golf cart’ type vehicle, sometimes also referred to as a ‘golf car’.  You might initially think of true golf carts and reject the thought of such things having any use at all in a grid down retreat situation, and while it is true that the type of vehicle you’d see on a golf course or in use by a ‘Mall Cop’ would not be a good general purpose vehicle at your retreat, that’s not the type of vehicle we have in mind.

Instead, and as well as the traditional/commonly seen type slow sedate golf cart type vehicles, there are many more types of electric vehicle that might be better suited for off-grid use.

Different Types of Electric Vehicles

We are talking about a probably open vehicle that has seating for two or four people, and some load carrying capacity (up to maybe 1000 lbs) to carry general stuff about the farm and even from your retreat to a local town and back.  It might also be able to tow another 1000 lbs or more, and could even be 4WD.

Some are more like mini-tractors, and can be fitted with various accessories to help you in your farming (and with a snow plow blade too for winter driveway clearing).  Some are fairly slow, others are surprising sporty, with maximum speeds in excess of 25 mph.  These types of vehicles are sometimes termed a ‘utility task vehicle’ or UTV, or perhaps a ‘Side by Side’ vehicle, or a Recreational Off highway Vehicle (ROV).

So the first thing you need to do is define the ‘mission’ of the electric vehicle.  Is it to primarily be used to transport you and trade or shopping goods to/from the local town, or will it be used as a mini-tractor type farm vehicle?  If the former, depending on the type of roads you expect to encounter, especially after a few years of zero maintenance and with no snow removal in winter, you’ll know the sort of traction system you need and the range the vehicle should have.  Maybe a regular golf cart will be fine, maybe you’ll need an off-road type vehicle.  Maybe the range of the vehicle with standard batteries is fine, or maybe you need heavy-duty batteries.

If you want to have a mini-tractor type vehicle, you’ll be needing a very different set of capabilities and design considerations.  If you want a vehicle to carry back deer and other game when you go hunting, then obviously other issues apply, including having a cargo tray.

Pricing

These electric utility vehicles vary widely in price, the same as cars.  But as a round figure, plan to spend more than $10,000 on a new vehicle, depending on the features you want.

Of course, there are much less expensive second-hand ones out there, but if you are buying second-hand, you should probably factor in the cost of a new set of batteries too.  The chances are whoever is selling a used vehicle will claim the batteries are almost brand new, and maybe they even have a recent manufacture date on them, but because lead-acid batteries are very susceptible to mistreatment (particularly being discharged down too far) even a new set of batteries might have a very short remaining life.

Ebay Motors has a UTV section in it with a number of listings at any time for electric type UTVs, and a separate section (under Other Vehicles and Trailers) for Golf Cars.  We’ve sometimes seen them listed on Craigslist, and most medium/larger cities have dealers who specialize in such vehicles.

When buying any sort of electric vehicle, you also need to understand if the charger is included with the vehicle or if that is an additional extra item.

Range

Range is – or should be – measured differently for a UTV than for an electric car, because they use different types of batteries.  A regular car probably uses Li-ion batteries, and they can be discharged pretty much all the way down to zero charge without harming the batteries, so if the car’s range is quoted as ‘how far you can go on a complete charge’ that is a valid measurement to consider.

But a UTV is probably powered by Lead-acid type batteries, and they behave very differently.  The more you discharge a Lead-acid battery, the fewer the number of times that you can recharge it, and the greater the harm you do to the battery.  So when you are being quoted a range for a UTV, you need to understand what percentage of charge depletion is being used to assess the vehicle’s range.  Is it the range to use up half the battery charge, 80% of the charge, or the theoretical maximum 100% charge range which you should never use?

Best practice for Lead-acid batteries is to discharge them only 50% before recharging; some, but not all, of the better ‘deep cycle’ batteries can allow up to an 80% discharge.  We discuss matters to do with caring for and best using Lead-acid batteries here.

There are two more things to consider when assessing range capabilities.  The first is that the range assumes new batteries in best condition, and the second is that the range assumes moderate speeds and good surfaces.  As the batteries age, they will hold less charge each cycle, and your range will therefore drop every time you recharge the batteries.  If you ‘need’ to be able to travel 20 miles on one charge, you ideally should get a vehicle with a 30 or 40 mile range, so that you can continue to get at least 20 miles of travel from the UTV for a long time before needing to replace its batteries.

It is common to see UTVs claiming ranges from about 20 miles up to about 50 miles ‘per charge’ but you’ll need to carefully understand what ‘per charge’ means’.

Batteries and ‘Fuel Economy’

There is no standard battery configuration for UTVs, and so simply understanding the different range capabilities doesn’t directly equate to how much electricity each vehicle requires to travel one mile.  That’s a bit like saying ‘this car gets 200 miles per tank of gas, and that car gets 300 miles’ – unless you know how many gallons of gas in the tank, the range figure doesn’t directly equate to fuel economy.

So you should understand the battery configuration for the UTV.  Generally, UTVs have some number of either 6V, 8V or 12V batteries, and probably all connected in series.

Many vehicles operate on 48V or 72V, but whether this is the result of a series chain of 6V, 8V or 12V batteries varies from brand to brand.

To understand the ‘fuel economy’ of the vehicle, you need to know how many kWhrs of electricity are used to drive how many miles.  Divide the miles traveled by the kWhrs used, and you’ll get miles per kWhr.  Probably this will range from 2 to 5, and noting how electricity will become scarce and expensive in the future, you should pay attention to this number and be willing to pay an up-front premium to get a more efficient/economical vehicle.

We are starting to see some UTVs with range/economy boosting features such as higher efficiency motors (rather than old-fashioned series wound motors) and regenerative breaking (ie, when you press the brake pedal, the motor becomes a generator and starts charging the battery again).  Search out the most efficient UTV you can find, as long as it also provides the other functionality you need as well.

Recharging

Many UTVs will recharge from a regular 110V AC power outlet, and many will also accept direct DC charging too.  Ideally, you’d like a vehicle that will work both ways so as to give you more flexibility for the type of charging equipment you use.

If you live in a sunny area, you might even decide to mount solar cells on the vehicle’s roof (and some models come with a solar roof already installed).  We’re a long way short of being able to have the solar cells power the vehicle real-time, but if you have maybe 200W of solar cells on the roof, then when the sun was shining directly on them, that would give you the equivalent of about a 1 mph speed from solar power alone.  That’s not exactly brilliant, but if you are driving into a town and back again, and if you get five hours of sun, that could give you as much as another kilowatt-hour of power which might give you as much as 5 more miles range on your day’s use of the vehicle.

If you do get an electric UTV, you should of course remember to increase the number of solar panels (or whatever else you’ll use to generate electricity) you have to reflect your increased electricity need and consumption.

Safety Considerations

If you are buying some type of UTV, and plan to take it anywhere other than on perfect road surfaces, you probably should be sure to get a vehicle with a roll cage on it to protect you in case it tips over.  These protective cages also require you to have seat belts fastened, so you want good seat belts in the vehicle too.

A vehicle with four-wheel braking would be slightly preferable to one with two-wheel braking.

Maintenance

It is true that an electric UTV doesn’t need some things to be maintained that would otherwise be required in a gas-powered UTV.  Clearly it has no internal combustion engine and all the related things to do with that, but equally clearly, it still has plenty of moving parts plus it has a battery system too.

Whatever vehicle you get will have a detailed owner’s manual with maintenance schedules included.  Our point here is merely to point out that electric vehicles are not maintenance free.  They still need work on their brakes, steering and suspension, for example, and they need regular attention to their batteries, water levels in them if applicable, checks for any corrosion around the batteries, and so on.

Plus, every some years, depending on your usage, you’ll need to replace the batteries themselves.

As an interesting aside, in a normal modern-day living environment, the total costs of ownership as between a gas or electric UTV are similar – some people claim one is better than the other, others claim the opposite.  Certainly, a gas-powered unit that might have 200 miles of range before needing refueling is much more convenient than an electric one which might need some hours of recharging every 30 miles.  But in our case, we’re buying not so much for present convenience as we are for future utility.

Summary

Ideally you want to be able to continue using some forms of powered vehicles in a Level 3 situation.  In a Level 1 or 2 situation, this is easily achieved by simply using the fuel you have stored.  But in an extended Level 3 situation, you need to be able to make your own fuel.  There are a number of different ways of making gasoline or ethanol type fuels, LPG or methane type gas fuels, and diesel, and in addition to that, you’ll of course have some methods of generating electricity too.

The best prepper will have several vehicles, each powered from different fuel sources.  At least one should be electric.

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

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

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

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

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

Strategy 1 – Prioritize Paying Off Your Debts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exception – Prepayment Penalties

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategy 3 – Consolidate Costly Credit

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

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

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

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

Move the money you owe to the lowest cost lender.

Strategy 4 – Refinance Your House

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

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

Strategy 5 – Roll Balances to a New Card

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

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

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

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

Strategy 6 – Renegotiate Your Interest Rate

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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