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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Should You Ever Borrow Money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  The Subtle But Massive Costs of Interest

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.  Avoid Unnecessary Fees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Negotiate Down the Fees You Pay

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.  How to Borrow Money Cheaply

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

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

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

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

6.  Take Advantage of Special Deals

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.  What to Do With the Money You Save

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  How Many People Will You Feed?

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

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

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

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

2.  How Much Daily Food Will Each Person Need?

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

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

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

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

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

3.  Non-Essential Foods Actually Are Essential

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

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

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

4.  Allowing for Wastage and Spoilage

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

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

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

5.  Food as a Trading Good Too

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

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

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

6. How Many Months/Years of Food to Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Stored Food Expiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portable Generators

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

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

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

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

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

Four quick comments about generators.

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

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

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

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

Lead-Acid Battery and Trickle Charger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Jul 132013
 
Perhaps a broken window that lets in wildlife and weather, six months of unattended decay, and your retreat might end up being like this when you arrive.

Perhaps a broken window that lets in wildlife and weather, six months of unattended decay, and your retreat might end up being like this when you arrive.

So you finally find yourself confronted with the need to bug out to your retreat.  The good news is at least you have a bug out location, and you’ve practiced and prepared for the eventuality of having to bug out, unlike most of your neighbors and friends.

You load up your vehicle with everything you need to safely and successfully travel to your retreat, feeling confident and relaxed about having prepared prudently, and set forth.  Because you’ve planned and even practiced this before, you’ve nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong!

In this two-part article series we first look at the problems inevitably associated with bugging out, and then in the second part, consider how to address and solve these problems.

Part One – The Four Problems

It is true that you’re in a better position and have a better prospective future than your un-prepared friends, but your future is far from guaranteed.  Until you get to your retreat, you are as vulnerable as anyone/everyone else – perhaps even more so as you are limited to only what you have in your vehicle – something that offers very little security or resource.  You are now confronting a terrible number of unknowns and variables and risks where anything from random bad luck to more serious things may interfere with your journey to your retreat, your future plans and your future life.

Let’s look at four sets of risks that may interfere with your optimistic expectations.

1.  Getting There Safely

This is probably a risk you’ve thought about already, but just because you’ve thought about it, that doesn’t mean you can protect against it.

Clearly you need to bug out as early as possible, before the rule of law has totally collapsed, before the roads get jam-packed full of other evacuees from your city, and before modern-day ‘highwaymen’ start preying on travelers.

Maybe you are successful at doing this, and manage to beat the rush out of your city, but what happens if you have to travel through other cities on the way to your retreat?  It is one thing to beat everyone out of your city by (say) four hours, but if you need to pass through another city that is four hours driving from the start of your travels, you’ll have no headstart at all on the outflows of desperate people from the second city.  Maybe you beat the rush by a day, but have a two-day drive to your retreat – you’ll be no better off than anyone else on the second day of your travels.

How far is it from where you live to your retreat?  Each mile that you must travel is 1760 yards of potential for a puncture, a radiator hose bursting, or any other sort of unexpected problem with your vehicle.  Each mile that you travel is 5280 feet of risk from any type of unexpected ‘third party’ event – not just evil people doing evil things to you, but ‘innocent’ acts of bad luck such as a traffic accident, perhaps.

Maybe you don’t get involved in an accident yourself, but maybe a semi some miles ahead of you on the freeway has jackknifed and is blocking the freeway, with traffic backed up for miles, and with hours of delay.  Meanwhile you’re burning through your precious gas to keep the car warm (or cool) and you’re at risk of anything and everything in a stationary vehicle.

Talking about weather, do you have any seasonal issues to be concerned about?  Have forest fires ever closed the roads in the summer?  What about snow in the winter?  Remember that you don’t just need the highways to be ploughed and drivable, you need the last few miles of dirt road to your retreat to be passable too.  How will you handle that, if it is an issue?

If you’re in a vehicle visibly loaded with supplies (or, even worse and more conspicuously, towing a trailer), and if word has got out about whatever disaster it is you’re fleeing, you’ve become a tempting tasty target for evil-doers all the way along your route, haven’t you.  Our feeling is that you need to be in an ‘ordinary’ vehicle with no visible amount of extra supplies in it.

It isn’t just evil-doers you need to worry about.  It is do-gooders too.  Maybe the state’s governor has declared martial law and requires all people and vehicles to be off the road during hours of darkness.  So instead of driving all day and all night to your retreat, you suddenly find yourself needing to pull over and anxiously/uncomfortably wait until the morning before you can continue your travels.

Sure, we know that you drive many thousands of miles a year normally, and never have any sorts of problems at all.  But this isn’t normal.  This is anything but normal, and with Murphy’s Law waiting to trap you every possible way, the ‘simple’ act of getting to your retreat will be fraught with risk.

2.  Will Your Retreat be Secure

Okay, we’ll say that you managed the drive to your retreat safely and successfully.  Congratulations.  🙂  And now you’re driving up the driveway, and round the corner, there’s your retreat, ready and waiting to welcome you.

You hope.

What say someone else has decided to make your retreat into their retreat?  What say you arrive to find it already occupied by people who could care less that you say it belongs to you.  They’ve got the retreat, and they’ve got guns and are willing to use them if you don’t leave and abandon your claims to ‘their’ retreat.

Or maybe you find your retreat looted, burned out, vandalized, abandoned, and unlivable.  All your precious preps have disappeared.

Now, please don’t tell us proudly about your ‘op-sec’ and how no-one knows about your retreat.  That’s sadly not true, no matter what you might think and hope.  We discuss the impossibility and the ill-advisedness of trying to keep your retreat secret in our two articles, ‘Is It Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Will Not Be Found‘ and ‘The Ugly Flip-sides of Opsec‘.

Here’s an alarming thought.  Maybe you hire a local person to protect your retreat, and to visit it once or twice a week to make sure it is safe and secure.  But how do you know that he won’t then turn around and make your retreat into his retreat when things go bad?

3.  Will Your Retreat be Functional

Let’s hope for the best, and assume you not only safely made it to your retreat, but that the retreat is still standing, secure, and unoccupied.  Great.  But your problems are not yet over.

You unlock the main door and go in to the house.  You are immediately overwhelmed with the smell of rat urine and feces.  You go to your store rooms and find that you’ve a happy thriving colony of rats, enjoying your supplies, with little or nothing left for you to now survive on.

Or maybe you discover that a pipe burst in the last freeze, and you’ve got water damage throughout the house.

Or maybe some tiles blew off the roof and you’ve had rain and other things coming in through the roof.

Maybe all those things work fine, but you go to flush the toilet and you discover it is blocked.  You don’t know it, but some time over the last year, a tree’s roots broke through the pipe to your septic tank, blocking the flow of water and, ahem, other stuff, and you’re going to have to somehow troubleshoot your problem and fix it.

Maybe you discover that your fuel tanks have rusted through and all your fuel has seeped away, leaving you with empty tanks and polluted ground.

Maybe everything works well, but after a week or two, you discover that there’s a design problem with your heating system, and it keeps giving problems and eventually becomes totally broken.  Or perhaps bad wiring burns out/shorts out your battery system.  Maybe ‘infant mortality’ (the propensity for electronic devices to sometimes fail early in their life) strikes and destroys your charging system or some other essential element of your retreat.

Maybe it is a more low tech problem.  Your well proves not to be capable of sustained supply of water – sure, it tested fine for a 15 minute test, but now you’re using it, day in and day out, it runs dry.  Or the reality of the power your solar cells can provide proves to be massively less than the theoretical amount they should have delivered.  You can probably think of many more vulnerabilities.

There are countless things that can go wrong with a property, both while it is occupied and also while it is unoccupied.  Unless you’ve been using the retreat on a regular and sustained basis, you have no way of knowing if the reality of its practical ability to support you will be the same as its theoretical promises.  You’ve no way of knowing if the equipment and services you’ve built into it will prove to be reliable low-maintenance and sufficient for your needs – indeed, you don’t even know for sure what your actual needs may be.

4.  No Ongoing Farming Activity or Experience

Okay, now let’s assume that none of these preceding three potential problem areas are giving you any grief.  Lucky you!  So let’s now look at the fourth potential issue.

Depending on when you arrive at your retreat, sooner or later you’re going to need to switch from eating from stored food supplies to growing your own future food needs.  And when you do this, if you are doing it for the first time, you’ve a huge new Pandora’s Box of unknown uncertain issues to confront and resolve.

Sure, you’ve got books galore on how to grow your own food, but have you actually ever done it, for real, before?  More to the point, have you done it for several seasons in a row at your actual retreat location?  The answer to this question is almost certainly no.

So now – for the first time – you find yourself grappling with who knows how many problems and issues.  Insects and other infestations and wildlife might attack/destroy/kill/eat all your harvest.  The soil might be lacking in some sort of nutrient – or it might have too much of another type of chemical in it – do you know how to understand and correct that?

You might do a great job of planting and caring for the crops, but when it comes to harvesting, you might discover that you lack the manpower to harvest the food before it spoils.  Sure, you grew a perfect crop, but you only managed to harvest a quarter of it.

You might discover that one part of your property has the wrong type of soil and another part has too much water (or too little water).  Another part might have too little sun.  And protecting your crops from wildlife and diseases will be a full-time job.  All the deer you were so enchanted to see when you first bought the property – what do you think they eat?  Yes, your food!

Farming is something that requires more than book learning.  It requires skill and experience – both in general terms and also in the specific issues and challenges posed by your particular property.  It is more than likely that your first few years of cropping will be full of challenges and disappointments.

If you are raising animals, that too is far from a guaranteed ‘can’t lose’ scenario.  Where do the animals come from to start with?  Who will care for their health?  Where will their feed come from?  Who will slaughter/butcher them?  Where will the meat be stored?

None of these issues are impossible to resolve, but they all assume a great supply of experience and know-how.

Read About Solutions in Part Two

If you’ve read this far, you now understand that bugging out is not as easy as it sounds, and, perhaps more importantly, moving into an empty unused retreat and relying on it instantly becoming the resource you hope it to be is something fraught with many uncertainties and possible problems.

The good news is that these problems are not impossible to solve.  Please now click on to the second part of this article – ‘The Three Solutions to the Four Problems of Bugging Out‘.

Jul 132013
 
It is vastly preferable not to have to start farming your land from scratch after a disaster.  Better to have the farm already operating as a going concern.

It is vastly preferable not to have to start farming your land from scratch after a disaster. Better to have the farm already operating as a going concern.

This is the second part of a two-part article about issues to do with viably bugging out and transitioning to ongoing life in your retreat.  If you arrived here direct from a search engine or other website link, you might choose to first read the first part which sets out the four main problems associated with bugging out, and then return back here to read about the three solutions we propose.

Solving the Four Problems of Bugging Out

In the first part of this article, we explained the four main categories of problems with the typical concept of maintaining a bug-out retreat and moving there in a crisis :

  • It may be difficult to get to when you actually need to bug-out
  • The retreat or may not be available and in good condition when you get there
  • The retreat may quickly prove to have problems and limitations once you start to live there
  • The reality of starting to provide your own food may turn out to be much more difficult than you’d hoped for

There are solutions to all these problems, please now read on.

Solution 1 – Bugging Out Very Early

In its ultimate form this solution might seem extreme, and it might be massively life changing, but it is also the ideal answer.  Move to your retreat now and live there permanently.  That way, when – if – TSHTF, you are already in place, with a known quantity as your retreat, with all systems tested and functioning.  The only major impact will be you switch from enjoying the convenience of electricity from the national grid and local utility company, and you can no longer order in supplies of liquid/gaseous fuels as and when you need it.  Oh, and the local country store can no longer be counted on to have much of anything for sale, either.

But at least you are already in place, already set up, and your lifestyle changes are minor rather than major.

You might perceive it impossible to turn your back on your high paying jobs, your city lifestyle, and everything else.  That might be true (in which case, keep reading, for our second best solution), but maybe you should also revisit some of your assumptions about what you need and must have.

For example, you can live much more inexpensively in the country than in the city, and things which you formerly perceived as essential and necessary ($100+ meals several times a week when eating out, tickets to expensive shows, expensive business clothing, etc) can be replaced with much less expensive but still pleasant alternates (alternating between having friends for dinner and going to their place for a meal, or treating yourself to a meal at the local diner where dinner for two costs $20, enjoying the less sophisticated but more sincere amateur and high school productions, plays, musicals, and wearing comfortable unassuming clothing rather than name brand fashions).

Instead of needing to pay for both your residence in the city and your retreat, you now only need to pay for your retreat, which probably costs less than your in-city residence.  And maybe instead of an impressive 4,000+ sq ft mansion, you realize that for your family of four, you can live perfectly comfortably and conveniently in a still spacious 2,000 sq ft residence.  You no longer need to choose a property as much to impress and as a visible statement of your ‘success’ and affluence, instead, you can now choose a property for functionality, convenience, and appropriateness.  Instead of making payments on (eg) a million dollar home on a one-eighth of an acre lot, you’ll own, outright, (eg) a half million dollar home on a five acre lot.  Oh, you’ll also be saving money on property taxes and insurance, too.

Instead of buying or leasing a new premium brand vehicle every year or two, you buy an ‘old junker’ (that in truth is neither old nor junk) and keep it for ten years.  It has fewer electronics, but is much more reliable because of that, and both easier and cheaper to repair when it does give trouble.  A more modest older car can save you the better part of $1,000 a month right from the get go.

And instead of working a 50 hour week, plus another ten hours on commuting, you now have 60 hours free to farm your property or work in a local business/store in the nearby town.  Maybe you can even take advantage of tele-commuting and still do some of your previous work, but remotely from your retreat rather than in person in the office.

Instead of spending hundreds of dollars a month on a health club, and tens of hours doing artificial exercise in a gym, you instead spend time working in the fields, simultaneously getting exercise and instead of spending money, earning money and growing food.

When you actually start to pick apart the elements of your modern lifestyle and convert them to an alternate lifestyle, you might be astonished at how it proves possible to turn your back on many of the seductive traps of modern-day consumerism and end up with a truly relaxing, healthy, enjoyable lifestyle in the country.

We’d also suggest you consider not just the concept of moving to a solitary retreat where you live on your own.  Moving to become part of a prepping-focused self-sufficient community means you’re part of a group of like-minded people, with similar values and objectives.  You’ll quickly fit in with such people, and be able to benefit from the synergy that comes from being part of a larger community.  Our Code Green Community represents one such approach to this, but there are of course others too.

We discuss this concept from a slightly different perspective in an earlier article we published, ‘Bugging Out Very Early – a Lifestyle Choice‘.  It is for sure a massive change in lifestyle, but one we urge you to consider.

Solution 2 – A Fulltime Retreat/Farm Manager

The second solution is an interesting one to consider.  You should contract with someone to farm your retreat property, and to maintain its grounds and the security of your dwelling.  Maybe they even live on the property themselves (in a separate building).  This would be a farm manager type person.

If your retreat is going to be adequate to support you and your family and anyone else who would join you, then it should also be adequate, in normal times, to be farmed on a commercial basis such that the income from its farming activities is at least enough to pay the farm manager’s salary, and maybe even leaving you with some extra cash generated too to cover the costs of owning your retreat.  Maybe the income generated by actively working your retreat property will allow you to afford a larger, more productive and therefore more viable and life-sustaining property right from the get-go.

This means that if/when you need to evacuate to your retreat, you arrive at a self-supporting farm that is already in operation as a going concern, and even complete with skilled staff on-site.  Sure, you’ll need to adjust its operation – it will no longer be able to benefit from mechanized agriculture, but it is better to downsize an ongoing farm than to need to start one from scratch.

You and your farm manager will already know the most productive patches of land, what grows best and where, and how to succeed in spite of animals, disease, and other natural challenges.

This is of course also a feature of our Code Green Community – you can have your lands farmed in absence, and your dwelling reasonably secured and policed, but it is also something you could realistically arrange for your own ‘stand alone’ retreat property too.

The only thing to be slightly aware of is the possible danger that your farm manager comes to view your farm as his farm, and when you arrive to settle there, he may feel unwilling to relinquish control of it.  You’ll need to pick your manager carefully and be sure to positively assert and demonstrate your ownership/management/leadership at all times prior to arriving so as to ensure such problems don’t arise.

Solution 3 – Moving to an ‘Added Value’ Retreat Community

Maybe neither of these first two approaches are feasible.  There are some people, in some situations, where that is unavoidably the case.  That is unfortunate, but it is no reason to despair.

Instead, you can consider ‘added value’ retreat communities, where you’d be joining a community of like-minded people, with some of the community already living in place, thereby providing security for your retreat facility, and making it easier for you to join a going concern rather than starting everything, on your own, from scratch once you evacuate to your retreat.  Maybe you don’t even wish to live an agrarian lifestyle, working on a farm in the fields.  Maybe you wish to provide some type of services or do something else within a community – anything from being a storekeeper to a restaurant owner to a doctor or other professional service provider.  While we all focus first and foremost on the most essential things – shelter, water, and food – the reality is that an optimized life in a Level 2 or 3 situation will require a lot more than ‘just’ growing food and eating it.

Our Code Green Community would be one such solution, others may also exist, or you might create your own with a group of friends.

Not Solved – The Physical Act of Bugging Out

The preceding three solutions have been focused on ensuring you have a viable sustainable living situation after having transitioned/bugged out.

But if you are choosing to remain in place until a time when you need to bug out in response to an emergency situation, you still need to focus very clearly on the most certain and secure way to travel to your retreat in a crisis.

You need to be able to go to your retreat well in advance of problems growing to a point of social collapse, and/or you need to be able to quickly get to your retreat securely when problems become unmistakably and unavoidably present.  The latter solution seems to revolve around non-traditional means of transportation – either the extra flexibility of motorcycles or the freedom from infrastructure that an airplane provides.

We discuss these issues more in our section on bugging out.

Summary

By obvious definition and implication, when a crisis occurs, WTSHTF, it is then too late to discover weaknesses, shortcomings, problems, and overlooked forgotten essentials that are present in our retreat.  We need to have all these matters addressed and resolved well prior to any situation that tests their efficacy in ultimate measure.

In the first part of this article, we looked at some of the types of problems you might expect to encounter when activating your bug-out plan and hunkering down to survive a crisis.  In this second part, we suggest some solutions to minimize the possibility of such problems arising and interfering with your ability to safely and securely survive.

We’d wish you good luck, but luck should have nothing to do with your chance of succeeding in an adverse future.  You need to be well planned and well prepared.

Jun 252013
 
The stunning Tesla S has a best-case range of over 300 miles between battery charges.

The stunning Tesla S has a best-case range of over 300 miles between battery charges.

One of the big problems we all have to consider is what sort of motorized transportation we can use in a Level 2/3 situation.

The problem is that modern-day fuels – gasoline, diesel, liquid propane and compressed natural gas – are all vulnerable to disruptions in supply, processing and distribution such as would occur in any sort of emergency situation, and so we’ll largely be forced to rely on such stored fuel as we may have, and when that runs out, our options become difficult.

Sure, you could look at ways to make your own bio-diesel, and that might become a necessary option.  You could also look at modifying a vehicle to run on wood gas.  And some people, by choice or necessity, will allow themselves to settle for horses or oxen.

But there’s another option worthy of consideration, especially in Level 2 and early Level 3 scenarios.  An electric vehicle that you can recharge from solar or wind power.

This is of course not a cheap option, because the first thing you need to do is buy an electric vehicle.  But if you have the budget to consider such things, and depending on the amount of surplus renewable electricity you expect to be generating each day, it might be your best option.

How Much Electricity Does an Electric Vehicle Use

Just as with any other powered vehicle, the range you get depends on your speed, driving style, and the terrain.

There are some major differences in how battery mileage is tested in the US, Japan and Europe, so we’re generally using US EPA quoted figures, which may or may not be exactly realistic, but which tend to give the lowest claimed ranges, so they are probably better than the other tested range claims.  If you are evaluating electric car ranges, make sure you understand how the range figure was established – the latest US EPA test is a ‘five cycle’ test and more complete than its earlier two-cycle testing.

Their range also depends on how much of the battery’s full charge is used.  Generally it seems to be considered best practice not to 100% deplete the batteries.

  •  A Tesla Model S has either 60 kWhr or 85 kWhr batteries, and can get you 350 miles or more on a single charge in optimum conditions.  We are not certain how much of the total stored charge is used.
  • A 2013 Chevrolet Volt has a 16.5 kWhr battery and a 38 mile range, during the course of which it depletes 10.3 kWhr of its total battery capacity.
  • A Nissan Leaf with a 24 kWhr battery gets 84 miles on a full battery charge, or 75 miles on an unstated lesser amount of charge.
  • AA Ford Focus Electric with a 23 kWhr battery gets 76 miles per EPA figures.

Looking at these and other numbers, it seems fair to say that each mile driven in an electric vehicle takes somewhere in the order of 250 – 300 Whr of electric energy.

To translate that to other terms, you could run a 20 watt LED/CFL lightbulb for 12 – 15 hours with the same amount of power required for an electric vehicle to drive one mile.  You could run a 1600 watt heater for 10 minutes with the same power that takes the electric vehicle one mile.

More Electricity is Required to Charge the Car

Say you have a solar panel setup that gives you 5000 W of power when the sun is shining on them.  You might think that you can connect the solar panels up to your electric vehicle, and if the vehicle has, say, a 20 Whr battery, then a simple calculation suggests that you just need to charge it for four hours and you’ve put 20 kWhrs of charge into it.

Unfortunately, that’s an over-simplification.  You need to adjust for the various inefficiencies and conversion losses you’ll experience from when the power comes out of the solar panels until when it ends up stored in the vehicle battery.  You should figure on as much as 30% of the power from your solar cells being lost in the process of taking them from the original low voltage DC solar cell output to a high voltage input (often in AC) to the charger unit for the vehicle, and through that and in to the batteries themselves.

It would probably be prudent for you to talk to the car manufacturer about a direct DC input to the vehicle’s charging system.  If you can go straight from DC to DC, this might give you a considerable improvement in efficiency, but depending on the vehicle and its DC charge voltage (which could be very high), this might not be feasible.

There is another electricity need as well.  You can’t leave a car with a dead battery.  You need to keep the battery with a certain minimum amount of charge, and because the batteries self-discharge at a slow rate, you need to be topping the vehicle up every week or so whether you are using it or not.

One more thing to consider is that charging your vehicle will probably take considerable time.  If you can provide, say, 5 kW of power, then you’re looking at probably a full sunny day of solar power for a Leaf or Focus to be charged, and two or three days of this to charge a large capacity battery (but longer range) Tesla.

And if you thought you’d pack a portable solar kit in the back of the vehicle and charge it at your destination prior to returning home, that is probably impractical.  If you had a 200 W solar array (uncommon, but here’s a site selling 150 W and 300 W portable panels), then it would take about two hours of charging for each mile of range added to the car.  If there were 8 – 10 hours of sun in a day, that would give you 4 – 5 miles of extra range.

What is the Service Life of a Battery Powered Car

Unlike the lead-acid starter battery in a regular vehicle which works until, one day, it no longer works; electric vehicle batteries don’t usually catastrophically fail.  Instead, they slowly but surely degrade, meaning they hold less and less charge with each successive discharge/recharge cycle.

Their rate of deterioration depends on various things, with the two major issues being the simple passing of time, and the number of cycles of charge/discharge they experience.

Chevrolet warrant their Volt batteries for 100,000 miles or 8 years and estimate that the battery will have lost 20% of its ability to hold a charge by the end of that time.  Its battery warranty is a slightly complex consideration though because the vehicle is dual-fuel; it will be running on its gasoline engine for an unknown percentage of the warranty period, as well as sometimes off its batteries.

Tesla warrant their batteries for eight years and unlimited miles, and will replace them if their capacity diminishes by 30% during that time.

So it seems that we can expect probably ten or more useful years from a battery pack, no matter how much we do or do not use it.  That’s both good and bad – what say TEOTWAWKI occurs just a month or two before you were planning on (needing to) replace your battery pack?  As long as you have a reasonably new battery pack, you’re good for up to ten more years of battery life, but otherwise, you’re going to have a much shorter useful remaining life, and because the batteries slowly decay even if sitting unused, you couldn’t keep a supply of spare batteries to extend the total life of the vehicle.

Needless to say, there’s no way you’ll be able to build your own high-tech lithium ion battery.  Once the one in the car is no longer functional, that’s it until – if/when – the high-tech world we luxuriate in  is restored again.

Uses For an Electric Car

So why would you even want to consider an electric car in a Level 2/3 situation?  After all (at least per our standard definitions) a Level 2 situation is all about living off stored resources until such time as normalcy returns, and a Level 3 situation assumes normalcy won’t return any time in the foreseeable future and requires you to fully transform to a sustainable ongoing lifestyle.

In a Level 2 situation, you’d simply run normal vehicles off stored fuel.  In a Level 3 situation, you’d be reliant on animal power or a low tech type of wood gas burning car – maybe even a steam-powered car.  (Yes, we’ll write about both these concepts in future articles.)

But there may still be room for an alternate technology in both situations.  An electric car reduces your reliance on stored fuel while you still have any (a Chevrolet Volt type solution – a vehicle that will run on either battery or gasoline would be ideal), and in a Level 3 situation, an electric car gives you additional capabilities that animals don’t have – the ability to travel an extended distance at speed, at least for as long as there are passable roads, and to the limit of your battery range.

Unless you spend a lot of money on a Tesla, the present selection of electric vehicles all have limited range – about 30 – 70 miles, depending on driving conditions.  There’ll be no recharging stations for you en route WTSHTF but if your retreat is within 10 or so miles of a local community, making roundtrips between retreat and community possible on a single charge, then in a future Level 2/3 situation, the electric vehicle can be useful.

Clearly, it is not an essential item that you must have as part of your basic core prepping supplies, but if budget and circumstance allows, it might be a valuable additional option.

A Warning Note About Range Claims

It goes without saying that ‘your mileage may vary’ in terms of the actual range you get out of your vehicle.

In addition to all the usual range-affecting factors that you are familiar with when driving a regular gas-powered vehicle, an electric vehicle’s range also varies significantly if you need to use its heater or a/c unit (headlights don’t make such a big difference).

But there’s another factor to also keep in mind.  Every time you discharge and recharge the lithium ion batteries, their capacity diminishes slightly – maybe by less than one tenth of one percent, which sounds like nothing until you think forward to what happens after the 100th or 1000th charging cycle and then all those tiny reductions in storage capacity have become significant.

The chances are that the useful life of your vehicle’s battery system will be determined not by its sudden complete failure, but by its gradual reduction in driving range below the point that you need.  For example, if your retreat is 12 miles from the nearest town, and you have a vehicle with a 35 mile range, you start off, with a brand new battery, needing to drive 24 miles with a 35 mile charge.  That’s easy.

But after some years, the batteries have lost 20% of their storage capacity and you now have to drive 24 miles on a battery that holds a 28 mile charge.  That’s getting to be ‘touch and go’, isn’t it.

Then, in another year or two or three, the batteries reduce down to having the same range as you need to drive, and what happens then?  Remember where we commented, above, that recharging the vehicle away from a heavy-duty high current source of power will take almost literally forever.  In other words, the vehicle has essentially become functionally useless, unless you can arrange for some source of recharging in the local township you make your roundtrip visits to.

Our points here are three-fold.

First, take all range claims with a grain of salt.  They’re probably not as inaccurate as some of the claims made for regular vehicles that you drive ‘normally’, and in the future, you’ll almost definitely drive an electric vehicle as super-economically as possible, but even so, allow yourself a margin of error between the claimed range and the actual range you might get.

Second, if your typical roundtrip distance will be close to the claimed range capability of the electric vehicle when new, you’ll only have a limited life before the vehicle’s range has reduced below that you need.

Third, because the effective life of the vehicle will most likely be limited by its gradually reducing range, the longer the range it has when new, the longer its effective life will be before that range has diminished down to useless.

Benefits of an Electric Car

An electric car offers several benefits compared to regular gasoline powered vehicles.

The first benefit is that, as surprising as it may seem, an electric car should be more reliable than a regular internal combustion engine powered vehicle.  It has many fewer moving parts, and many fewer stressed parts.  With the local dealership no longer being available to fix your vehicle any time it develops a problem, a reliable vehicle becomes much more essential.

The second benefit is that electricity is an easier fuel source to create and replenish than petrol.  This might also seem counter-intuitive, but the chances are your retreat will have multiple ways of generating electricity but no ways of making petrol.  At a stretch, you could come up with a bio-diesel or a wood gas type system, but complexity issues start to increase in such cases.

The third benefit is that it is quite likely you will simultaneously be desperately short of energy in general, but also have occasional surpluses of electricity.  An electric car provides a way for you to store and use any surplus electricity you are generating, rather than have it go to waste.

What About the Prius and Other Hybrid Vehicles?

Do not buy a Prius or other hybrid electric vehicle.  These cars essentially have no ‘stand alone’ or independent electric power capacity.  They are designed to recover, store, and re-use power from the vehicle when it brakes, so their batteries have very limited capacity and their electric motors are primarily boost or assist motors, capable of powering the vehicle only at low speeds.

These are great cars, for sure, but they are best thought of as super-efficient gasoline powered cars.  Without available petrol, they are useless; indeed, most of them have no provision for external charging.  They also have very low capacity batteries – a typical Prius has about a 1 kWhr battery, of which only about half is available for use in powering the vehicle.  This is a perfectly sensible design for its prime purpose – recovering and reusing energy that would otherwise be lost every time the vehicle brakes, but it is clearly totally insufficient to allow for fully electric-powered travel for more than a mile or so.

The plug-in version of the Prius has a larger battery – 4.4 kWhr – which gives it about an 11 mile range.  This is great when you have gasoline in the tank to fall back on as soon as the 11 mile range has been used up, but not so great as a purely electric vehicle in a future scenario where gas is no longer available.

Electric Car Models

There are quite a few different models of electric cars out there, although most sell at best only a few thousand units each year, so you’re not likely to find one on the local used car lot any time soon.

Furthermore, it is our sense that the technology is steadily evolving, and with the batteries having a finite life, there are definite costs associated with buying a second-hand electric vehicle.  It is good to delay buying an electric vehicle as long as possible – but if you decide you can afford one and can justify one, be careful of this strategy.  You might find you leave it too late!

Rather than list the vehicles currently available – a list which risks being incomplete and quickly going out of date, we suggest you look at these two Wikipedia pages – a list of electric cars currently available and a list of production battery electric vehicles, to see whatever is currently out there.

Most of the electric vehicles are solely electrically powered.  But there are a few (most notably the Volt) which combined both a regular petrol engine with a battery/electric motor, and while these might have shorter electric ranges, they open up an interesting possibility for the future.

First, their shorter range (ie about 35 miles for a Volt) might be sufficient for short runs between your retreat and the nearest township.  And, second, you might be able to modify the petrol powered engine to run on wood gas.

This would require considerable effort on your part, of course, but by making a hybrid electric/wood gas vehicle, that would seem to give you the best of both worlds for the future.

Summary

In our wonderful modern world, with gasoline prices amazingly low (even $4.50 a gallon is ‘low’ compared to the true replacement/alternate technology costs of energy) and petrol freely available at gas stations open 24/7 just about everywhere in the country, electric cars make no sense for most of us.

While it is true you save money in per mile fuel costs when running on electricity; overall, and for most of us, the up-front extra cost of the electric car outweighs the per mile savings.  Even if there is an eventual saving to be had, the inconvenience of the range limitations of electric vehicles, and the time it takes to recharge them, reduces the use of electric cars to essentially around-town runabouts.

But in the future, when gas disappears from the gas stations, and other liquid fuel replacements become massively more expensive than petrol even at its highest current prices, electric cars may become much more useful for shorter range transportation.  Most of us will find it easier to generate electricity (to power a vehicle) than to create petrol or diesel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preppers and Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prepping on a Low Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Apr 302013
 
Small country towns have been dying out in recent decades.  A Level 2/3 situation will see their resurgence.

Small country towns have been dying out in recent decades. A Level 2/3 situation will see their resurgence.

One of the key things in developing your retreat is to create or become part of a community.  You can’t viably ‘go it alone’ in a Level 3 situation (although it is possible to do so in a Level 1 or 2 situation).

Depending on the scope of your plans, there are several ways to become part of a community.  Most people immediately assume they will have a multi-acre block of land to themselves, and as for becoming part of a community, they will simply befriend their adjoining land-owners immediately around them, and – hey, presto!  Instant community.

That’s fine, and if it works for you, so much the better.  But a rural community of adjacent farmers/ranchers is not the only type of community that will be created, or which currently exists and may survive, and further more, while working together with your rural neighbors is both essential and positive, the chances are that even when you pool all your various resources and abilities together, there are still large gaps in needed skill sets, abilities, equipment, and so on.

Even in the most extreme of Level 3 situations, there will be a need for small service towns/villages.  These will be (and currently are) places where the nearby farmers can go to buy sell and trade, to get services, to benefit from pooled resources such as education, healthcare, maybe law enforcement that require at least a small amount of ‘economy of scale’ to be feasible, and also as a place to socialize and to meet as a community to discuss/resolve regional issues.

This is very different in concept from most towns and cities these days.  Modern and larger urban creations exist purely for themselves and are sustained internally (or externally via concepts that would not apply after TEOTWAWKI), rather than to service the surrounding country dwellers.

In contrast, a rural town is more outward looking and exists as a service point for its immediately adjacent rural community.  It has an essentially similar economic base today as it has always done ever since the founding of our country, and as it has done for centuries prior to then in the UK and Europe.  It is typically small, with perhaps a one room schoolhouse, a one cell jail, a general store, a doctor, a dentist, a couple of specialty stores and service providers, maybe a lodging house, church, bar and restaurant, and is almost always located strategically on a route to somewhere (and more likely, is not on a spur to a larger town/city, but is on a road that connects larger population concentrations on either side of it).

The Evolution of Rural Towns

These days many rural towns have grown in size to become larger than has historically been the case (or have simply died out entirely).  This is because the ease of modern-day transportation has meant that instead of the local community needing small towns every ten miles, it is now sufficient to have larger towns every twenty or thirty miles.  The traveling time and cost and inconvenience to go 20 – 30 miles today is less than it was to go a mere ten miles in an earlier time.

But please note the distance constraint will become an issue again in a Level 2/3 situation, when road maintenance will be neglected and fuel for vehicles will be either scarce or prohibitively expensive or possibly both.  Instead of thinking ‘I can drive 70 miles on the freeway to a town in an hour, and pay only $6 in gas to do so’ people will think ‘it will take me almost two hours to travel by horse and cart ten miles, and more than a day to travel 70 miles’, and so closer towns will become essential once more.

The key thing about any town is that if it is to survive in Level 2 and 3 situations, it will be because it exists to provide services to the people living rurally in the immediate area.

Many small rural towns these days exist for reasons other than primarily being a service provider to nearby rural residents.  Don’t confuse these types of towns with real locally focused towns, because these other ‘artificial’ towns are less likely to survive.

For example, if a town is currently a tourist retreat, it will not survive (there won’t be many tourists in such a dystopian future).  If it is based around some type of local industry that relies upon the normal social and economic functioning of the normal world, it again will not survive (what happens when the industrial employer can no longer source its raw materials or sell its finished goods, and so can not pay its employees?).  This is as true if it is a traditional industry (perhaps a saw mill) or a ‘new’ industry (maybe a server farm for an internet company).

If it is a retirement town with a large community of senior citizens living off their retirement checks, and augmented healthcare services to meet their needs, it again will not survive (what happens when those retirement checks stop coming in?).

Another factor when considering the viability of a small town is to evaluate its dependence on external sources of water, food and energy.  Clearly, the more it needs to bring these three essential commodities in from ‘somewhere else’, the more its future viability is vulnerable to the disruption of the supplies of these things.

A viable town has its own water supply nearby, and sources its food from nearby farms.  Energy is more of a concern, with it being rare to find a small town that has its own city energy source.  And even if it did, the chances are that the energy generation relies upon bringing in supplies of coal, natural gas, or oil fuel.  Only if the town has a dam and hydro power is it reasonably energy-independent.

Why are we raising these issues?  Four reasons.

Four Reasons Why a Nearby Town is Important to You

First, if it is your plan to create a rural retreat, you still need to have an eye to being within reach of a nearby small township.  You can’t possibly hope to have every skill set, every experience, every knowledge base, every type of equipment, and so on, yourself, on your retreat.  You will need to be able to turn to specialist providers of supplemental skills from time to time.

You’ll also want a place where you can buy things you need and don’t have, sell things you have produced, and/or trade and exchange and barter the one for the other.

Some type of town within a reasonable distance (think non-motorized transport when evaluating distances) is therefore a huge benefit and boost to your own survivability.

Secondly, not all current towns are the same.  Some will fail just as surely and completely as the big cities, while others will survive and may even thrive.  For example, the small town with the struggling hardware store and grocery shop will find that people no longer drive an extra 40 miles to go to Wal-Mart, Costco, or Home Depot, but instead necessarily return to doing business at the closer alternate.

You need to evaluate the towns that are close to potential retreat locations and assess if they are likely to survive and to add value to your retreat lifestyle, or if they are more likely to fail and instead become a source of problems for you at your retreat.

Thirdly, many people make an automatic assumption that a retreat needs to be in a deserted rural area, ‘safely’ far away from other people.  That’s not necessarily the case at all.  If life on a farm isn’t your idea of a good time, maybe you have a set of skills and personal lifestyle preferences that would fit better into a small town environment.  Maybe instead of being a land-owner needing a blacksmith, you can become the blacksmith.  Maybe you can establish the trading mart where the local people (both town-folk and farmers) do their buying, selling and bartering.  Maybe you can become the local saloon owner.  The local schoolmaster or schoolmistress.  And so on.

Fourthly, and this is the big one, maybe there is an opportunity for you to start your own new town.  If there have been towns close down over the last 100 years, but if there is still a reasonable rural population, who now rely on good transportation options to travel further distances, maybe you could consider establishing a new fledgling township and activate it if/when a Level 2/3 event occurs.

This would require some considerable capital investment on a very speculative basis, and so is not suitable for many people to consider.  But creating a substantial rural retreat is not an inexpensive concept either, and so maybe it might be a more appealing concept for you to prepare a skeleton of a new township.  You’d probably still have some ‘town gardens’ in it for immediate food growing, but rather than creating a rural retreat with the purpose of keeping people away for safety, maybe your strategy instead is to create the kernel of a settlement that could grow into a service town, and instead of keeping people away, you’d want to welcome people into it for safety.

Summary

Whatever your relationship will be with a town, being either a part of or close to a ‘good’ town that will survive is a key part of your retreat location evaluation and decision.

Apr 292013
 
Our 'advanced' society comprises an underlying and obscured labyrinthine linked series of dependencies.  Like falling dominoes, one single failure could bring everything down.

Our ‘advanced’ society comprises an underlying and obscured labyrinthine linked series of dependencies. Like falling dominoes, one single failure could bring everything down.

Much of this article might be thought of as ‘preaching to the converted’.  The chances are you’re already accepting on the basic tenets of the need to prepare for an uncertain future.

So why are we writing it?  Not only to reinforce in your own mind the wisdom of what you do and why, but to help you when discussing prepping with your non-prepper friends and colleagues.  Feel free to share this article with them; maybe it might open the eyes of one or two people who read it.  We hope so.

The Domino Theory is a concept with many applications.  First formulated by President Eisenhower in 1954, the theory originally held that communism would attack and take over countries, one by one by one, with each country’s fall to communism being accelerated by the fall of its neighbor.

This process was said to run in a sequence from China to Korea to Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia and on to Thailand, then Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and India.  Clearly that didn’t actually happen (thankfully!) and for a while the theory was discredited.

But the theory can be used in many different applications, not just political, although it continues to be regularly used to argue politics.  For example, the theory has recently been used by people on both sides of current Middle East issues, arguing either that the spread of Muslim extremism is following a domino pattern while others are claiming that Middle East democracies (ummm – exactly which would those be?) may also take root and grow in a domino fashion.

Of course, you understand the analogy, right?  Set up a row of dominoes, spaced slightly apart, then knock the first over and watch the rest of them following in a wave, each set off by its neighbor.  Indeed, treat yourself to a light break for a few minutes and watch this video clip of dominoes falling in a chain (during the course of which two new domino world records were established).  It is strangely compelling, and there are many similar clips on Youtube.

So what does this have to do with prepping (other than possibly being a suitable activity to enjoy on long winter evenings at your retreat, while surviving internet or television)?

We preppers see the world we live in as becoming more and more like a chain of dominoes.  And whereas in a domino falling game, the rules say you start with only one domino being pushed over and then watch to see if all of the others fall, sequentially, we see the world as having several lines of dominoes all leading in to a central target, and with any of the dominoes on any of the lines being able to fall over and to start the chain reaction down the rest of their line to the central target.

That central target, by the way, is us and our current lifestyle, which we preppers understand as being full of dependencies and vulnerabilities, any one of which might tip over and start a domino type chain of events that end up destroying the lives of ourselves and everyone around us.

These chains of events occur in two ways.  The first are chains of events that result in a massive disruption in society, and the second are the chains of events that sees the disrupted society become a destroyed society – an anarchistic situation where the rule of law has disappeared and the government is no longer there to help us.

How could this happen?  Well, it just takes a single seed event to start a chain reaction, sort of like the child’s rhyme ‘For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost’ and which concludes with an entire kingdom being lost.

Two More Ways of Looking at the Domino Theory as it Applies to Preppers

Non-aware people – a phrase used by preppers to describe people who believe there are no risks or dangers inherent in our lives, and who believe the future continuity of a supportive society is assured – tell us that our concerns are needless, and say that there’s no possible way that some of the things we see as risks could ever become problems.

Let’s look at two more perspectives on this – one theoretical and one very real.

For the theoretical example, and in more modern terms than the rhyme about the horse’s lost shoe, people sometimes ask the question ‘If a butterfly flaps its wings in (your choice of a remote far away minor country), might it result in a (hurricane/tornado/whatever) in (your choice of major western city)?’.

In case you wondered, scientists have considered this question at length, and have come up with formulas to express the situation, which it seems is best summed up, in non-scientific terms, by saying ‘it depends’.  🙂

The underlying point in the question is ‘can a really small and safe seeming event end up as the catalyst that creates a huge disaster.  Non-preppers tell us to relax and not worry.  But we are like people who see a tiny leak appear in a huge damn, and worry if the leak will widen, if the crack will spread, and if, as a result, the damn will eventually crumble, with the tiny leak becoming a raging torrent.

This brings us to the real-life example.  You should go read an analysis of an airline disaster as published by whatever country’s air transportation safety board was responsible for investigating the event.  We’ve read plenty of them.

Almost without fail, all airplane disasters start off with a single small event which, in and of itself, is not fatal.  It may not even be serious.  But it is the initial precipitating event that starts the line of dominoes toppling.

For example – the pilot in command leaves the cockpit of the plane, with the two more junior pilots now piloting the plane.  Domino one.  One of the pilots is unhappy with his love life and hadn’t slept well the previous night.  Domino two.  Unusual weather causes an airspeed sensor pitot tube to ice over, and to stop sending accurate information to the flight management computer.  Domino three.  The flight management computer can’t understand its conflicting results and goes into error mode.  Domino four.  The two pilots misunderstand the error mode and do the wrong thing.  Domino five.  They call the senior pilot back to the cockpit but he just passively stands behind the two junior pilots rather than taking command.  Domino six.  One of the two pilots makes a wrong command with his joystick controller and doesn’t tell the other two pilots what he has done.  Domino seven.  The two pilots send conflicting commands to the airplane computer and don’t realize they are doing it.  Domino eight.  The dominos keep falling for five minutes, at which point the plane crashes into the sea killing everyone aboard.

Does that all sound unrealistic and impossible?  Not so.  We’ve just described the crash an Air France A330 in the South Atlantic in 2009.  The initial events were all easy to recover from, but due to a combination of mistakes and bad luck and who knows what else, 228 people died.

Back to prepping again.  Our point is that things that should never ever occur – like three highly trained pilots misunderstanding one of the simplest things in flying a plane – that when you have a plane in a stall, you push the plane’s nose down rather than pull it up – sometimes can and do occur.  Some of us are trained pilots, and to us it is unthinkable that AF447 crashed, with three skilled commercial pilots having five minutes to recover the plane from the first alarm to the final crash.  But, unthinkable or not, the plane did crash, and not because of a big huge vulnerability, but due to a semi-random chain of events that resulted in unexpected tragedy.

It can happen with planes – not only can, but does.  It can happen with anything and everything else as well – that is, after all, the quintessential concept of ‘accident’, isn’t it.  Just like if you toss a coin enough times, you’ll eventually end up with an unbroken sequence of it always landing heads, so too can ‘accidents’ happen in every other part of our life and our society.  Most accidents are small and ‘self-healing’ but there is always the possibility of a really big disaster.

Let’s see just one example of how a sequence of events results in society disintegrating in front of us.

The Dominoes Fall, Part One

Let’s start with a minor event, because the point of our article is that cataclysmic events can start from the smallest and most trivial of initiating circumstances.  It is the obscured way that the innocuous flapping of the butterfly’s wings grows to become a thunderstorm that is the problem.

In this case, let’s start with a person answering their cell phone while driving along on the highway.  Whether legal or not, we all do this, on a regular basis.  This is the first domino.

The person’s eyes glaze over as they talk, then realize they are drifting out of their lane and across the center line.  Another domino – and again, something we’ve often seen on the roads.  Startled, they over-correct and their car swerves in front of a truck.  There’s the next domino now falling, and we’re still talking commonplace events.

The truck fishtails as the driver attempts to avoid the car.  Another domino.

The truck rolls over, down a bank, and comes to rest when it hits a power pylon.  And another domino.

Now the dominoes turn a corner, and the traffic events change to a very different series of events.  The dominoes continue to fall.

The power pylon is knocked over, breaking the wires it was supporting.  Domino falls.

The power line was only a medium capacity line (we’re not going to cheat and make it easy!).  The utility that was using the power from the line switches its feed to an alternate path through the grid.  The next domino wavers – will it fall or not.

Ooops – over it goes.  Much of our grid operates at close to capacity already, and much of it is aging and in less than prime condition.  The loss of one circuit has overloaded the alternate circuit, and suddenly a transformer blows.

Due to poor design and random bad luck (this time we’re giving ourselves some help) the loss of power meant that the control circuitry for the distribution system also fails.  The backup generator failed to start.  A couple more dominoes fall.

The failed control circuitry means that the regional grid doesn’t properly reconfigure itself.  A couple more transformers overload and fail, and high tension distribution lines melt and fall.  There’s a few more dominoes.

The regional grid was formerly a net contributor of power to the national grid, but now is a net recipient of power, overloading other parts of the national grid.  In spectacular showers of sparks and noisy explosions, more transformers fail.  The grid consumes itself, just like a domino pyramid collapsing.

In less than five minutes from the car swerving in front of the truck, the nation’s entire electricity grid has gone dark.  Some local power utilities are still generating local power for their local consumers, but the vast majority of the nation, which relies on the grid to transport power from where it is generated to where it is consumed, are now without power.

So, big deal you might think.  Change over a few blown fuses, string a few replacement wires between pylons, and we’re back to normal in a day or two?  Sorry, no.

Those failed transformers can’t be repaired.  They need to be replaced, and we no longer make them in the US.  It will take more than two years before replacements start arriving from China, and maybe ten years before all of them are back online.

But whether it is ten years, two years, ten months, or even ‘only’ two months before power is restored, we have many more problems that will start occurring in the next ten minutes and the next ten hours and the next ten days.

The Dominos Fall Ever Faster

The dominoes are still falling.  They turn another corner then split into multiple parallel streams, and keep going.  The implications of a near total power loss for our modern society – which is totally reliant on electricity for almost everything – are catastrophic.

One domino stream has to do with the loss of power in the food storage industry.  Refrigeration and freezer units fail, meaning the nation’s inventory of food in cool stores starts to spoil.  Within a few days, much of it is no longer edible.  And as for ordering up replacement food – how can that be done, and where will it come from?  Because –

No power means no communications.  No cell phones, no internet, no landline phones.  Even if the emergency services had power themselves, they would be largely cut off from each other and unable to communicate and coordinate disaster recovery actions.

Think about the loss of communications.  We don’t just mean that your teenage children can’t now spend all day compulsively texting each other or posting on Facebook.  ATMs stop working, as do banks with electronic only records of accounts.

Another stream has to do with the loss of power in FEMA and the regional emergency coordination centers.  Sure, they’ve backup generators, but how much fuel do they have for them?  As for more fuel, well, no power means the pumps at gas stations don’t work, and no power means the refineries don’t work either.

Another stream has to do with life’s modern essentials.  How about water?  No power means no pumps – not for water in to your residence, nor for sewage out of it, either.

Before you know it, everything in your world has stopped working, because everything in your world either directly or indirectly needs electricity.

But wait, that’s the good news.  Now for the really bad news.

The Dominoes Fall, Part Two

So we’ve seen how a driver answering their cell phone ended up with most of the United States without power.  What happens next?

For the first  few minutes, nothing much happens.  And we truly mean nothing much happens.  Failed traffic lights will put our cities into instant gridlock.

But very soon, some clever person realizes ‘no power means no burglar alarms, and gridlock means police can’t get here quickly’ and he breaks into a store.  The dominoes quickly start falling down that path as copycats note the growing crime wave of looters acting with seeming impunity.  Not only are there no burglar alarms, there are no regular phones or cell phones either, and even if there were, without power to their computers and radios, there is no way that the police dispatchers could coordinate sending police to multiple crime scenes.  Before too long, the police cruisers will be without petrol anyway.  Meanwhile, gun control laws in the largest and most crime ridden cities mean that store owners and individuals are helpless to resist the crime wave that engulfs them.

So what happens next along that domino line?  Soon the looting becomes general rioting, and then, either by accident or deliberately, a building catches fire.

Even if the local fire department could be advised of this and attend the fire, what are they going to do?  There’s no water pressure in the fire hydrants, remember.

Okay, so they have a few pumper trucks that can maybe suck water out of the hydrants (not sure about this, but possibly), but what happens when they run out of diesel?

Soon you have the city ablaze, both from accidental fires spreading unchecked and from copycat arsonists.

At this point, the police have not just been unable to respond, they’ve chosen not to respond (just like in the LA riots).  There are too many rioters out there, and too few police, who have to cluster together in larger numbers due to not being able to keep communications up and speedily travel from one hot spot to the next.

So the city is decaying into lawlessness, one domino at a time.

The dominoes turn another corner.  Stores quickly run out of food.  The looters realize that you can’t eat big screen televisions, and shift their focus to food.

It isn’t just the stores that run out of food.  People start to quickly run out of food, too.  They’re already struggling to survive with no water, and now are realizing that if/when they manage to get sufficient safe drinking water, they’re merely replacing one pressing problem with another one, the lack of food.

Not only are they running low on food.  The 25% or whatever of the adult population who smokes are running out of cigarettes.  The percent of people on addictive drugs are running low on their supplies.  You know that these groups of citizens will be becoming anxious and irritable, to put it mildly.

Meantime, there’s another line of dominoes toppling.  You can flip a coin and decide if it is midsummer or midwinter, but either way, the lack of energy to heat or cool dwellings means that people in poor health are suffering, and those who can get to hospitals are finding little solace or assistance there.  There’s a growing healthcare crisis, not yet affecting normal healthy people, but starting to become an issue.  People injured in the rioting are finding it harder to get medical care, and the general restlessness of the ‘normal’ and law-abiding citizenry is growing.  Their initial passive complacent ‘the government will save us’ attitude is being replaced with annoyed outrage – ‘why isn’t the government saving me?’.

The ‘government’ can’t save its citizens, because government employees are suffering the same problems themselves, and are also having to choose between protecting themselves and their family by abandoning their government related duties, or leaving their families unprotected in an increasingly hostile environment and risking their lives attempting to control an uncontrollable wave of civil disorder.

The ones who do honorably report for duty find themselves undermanned with insufficient colleagues to do anything, and find themselves confronted with no support from other government sources and resources, and quickly decide the situation is hopeless and if everyone else is abandoning their jobs, they should do the same.

Anarchy takes over from order.  But even as anarchy seems to be ruling supreme, a new guiding principle becomes more and more apparent – the growing need to ensure one’s personal immediate survival.  The need for shelter, water and food.

Apartment dwellers are moving out of their apartments – who wants to live on the 10th or 20th floor of a building with no elevators operating and no water?  Others are being forced out by fires.  Still others are abandoning their homes due to safety concerns or the need to find food.  Where do all these people go and what do they do?

How long will it be before begging in the streets for help, shelter, water and food becomes demanding in the streets?  How long before people start taking not just goods from stores, but life’s essentials from other people, and by force?

Time for a new line of dominoes to start falling over.  The infrastructure repair workers – people who had been trying to restore power in whatever limited amount possible – start abandoning their jobs.  They too have no water or food, and their families are being threatened just as much as anyone else’s.

And another line of dominoes now starts falling over too.  What a few people had first started doing has become now a city-wide exodus – people are abandoning their city, fleeing to the suburbs and then on beyond, looking for refuge and safety from the civil disorder, and looking for shelter, water and food.

What Happens Next?

Sorry, all the dominoes have now fallen over.  Society has been destroyed.  The people tasked with protecting and defending society have fled their posts, and (this is the real kicker) the people tasked with restoring society’s services have also fled their posts, too.  The city dwellers are fleeing their cities – but where will they go?  Who will support them and how?  Lots of questions, none of which come with good answers.

For more on this topic, please refer to Why Cities Will Unavoidably Become Lawless within a Week or Two of a Level 2/3 Event, which talks some more about how cities will fail when their support structures fail.

And for more on where people can go to when evacuating a city, we have several articles, including perhaps this one – Rural America’s Decline Means Urban America’s Increased Vulnerability.

And as to what will happen next, here’s a good article – The Four Waves of Food and Shelter Seekers.

Could it Really Get That Bad?

Many people acknowledge that society could suffer a massive failure, but refuse to accept that the net result would be lawlessness and much worse.  They prefer to think that respect for the concept of the rule of law and the treasuring of human life above all else would remain, and that people would behave honorably and well.

Perhaps some people might indeed set shining examples of unselfish good behavior.  But the thing that can’t be avoided is – what happens when people are starving, and they have to choose between allowing their spouses, children, and other dependents to die of hunger while acting honestly and nobly, or doing whatever it takes – anything it takes – to get food any way possible?

No matter how basically decent and honest most people are most of the time, when it becomes life or death, many people will choose life, no matter how it is to be achieved.  Cities will inevitably become a ‘kill or be killed’ environment.

A breakdown in society and destruction of the rule of law doesn’t require everyone to ‘go bad’.  The tipping point requires only a very few people to act that way – this has been proven time and time again with the great ‘revolutions’ in history – revolutions that now seemed inevitable and which are misperceived as having been conducted with the active support of the overwhelming majority of citizens, but which in reality were brought about by only an active few.

You may or may not be certain how you and your friends would behave, but you can be absolutely certain that enough other people will act lawlessly and violently to make ordinary normal life impossible.

Summary

Who would have thought that the US could be brought to its knees by a careless driver swerving on the freeway?

We’re not saying the scenario we walked you through is guaranteed to occur.  We agree that it ‘shouldn’t’ occur, and we agree that it is very unlikely.  But, planes that ‘shouldn’t’ crash still do, and sometimes with 100% fatal results.

We’re also not saying this is the only way that our society could be brought to its knees.  Actually, we’re saying something much worse than that – we are saying that this sequence of events is only one of countless hundreds of ways in which the multiple dependencies on which our current world around us is based could collapse and all fall down, leaving nothing behind.

Most of all, we’re suggesting that – contrary to the misperceptions of many – our society is becoming increasingly more and more vulnerable rather than more and more resilient.  Energy – and electricity in particular – is one of the core essentials that our society is built upon, and if the supply of energy were to be disrupted, society could quickly and spectacularly fail before such time as energy supplies could be restored.

We’re saying that – if you’re not already – you should become a prepper, and start to prepare for a life where you can not rely on the government saving the day in an emergency.  The only people you can for sure rely upon are yourself, your immediate family, and your closest friends.  The only food, water and energy will be that you’ve stored for yourselves or can create with your own resources and efforts.

Please see our introductory series of articles about prepping for more information about who preppers are, what their concerns are, and what they are doing about their concerns.