Aug 212012

Underground bunkers can be very expensive and customized, or remarkably inexpensive made from converted shipping containers as shown here.

Many people associate prepping with building a ‘Doomsday Bunker’ – some sort of reinforced concrete or steel bunker, and buried underground.  These are sometimes primarily intended as nuclear and fallout shelters, but the companies building them come up with many other reasons and benefits to their underground bunkers, including tornado and storm shelters – but probably not flood shelters.

In reality, such devices are a very small part – and often play no part at all – in most people’s prudent preparing for adverse future events.

If you are considering some type of retreat or protective structure, should you consider an underground survival bunker?  Let’s look at their pluses and minuses.

Plus – Discreet

A buried bunker with an obscured camouflaged entrance and low profile ventilation can be an excellent way to keep your retreat ‘off the radar’.  In theory, marauders might be able to get very close to your bunker and not realize it is there.

But in reality, there are some limitations to how obscure you can make your bunker.  Unless you create an elaborate filtration system (which will require substantial ongoing filter supplies) the smells from cooking and perhaps from diesel generators will permeate out through the ventilation and particularly in a post-disaster world, which will typically have fewer man-made smells, may be noticed.

And unless you never go in and out of your bunker, there will inevitably be tracks and a worn down pathway leading to the bunker entrance.

So, yes, a bunker may be discreet, but it won’t be invisible.

Plus – Low Energy Cost

A great thing about a buried bunker is that you are surrounded with earth that is probably at a little changing moderate/cool temperature, year round.  In the summer, the outside cool earth will help prevent your bunker from overheating without needing to use as much air conditioning (which is costly from an energy consumption point of view); in the winter, the earth, while still cool, may be much warmer than the outside air and ground temperature, reducing your need to heat your bunker, and again saving on energy.

On the other hand, you’ll probably have absolutely zero natural light.  Every lumen of lighting will have to be generated from electricity, you don’t get any ‘free’ daylight, unlike a regular above ground retreat.

And to get fresh air, you can’t just open a window or two.  Instead, you’ll need some type of active air circulation system which again uses energy (happily, not a lot of energy, but it is still an energy drain).  And if your power should fail, you’ll only have a limited number of hours you can survive in the bunker before you need to evacuate due to lack of oxygen and build up of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

A bunker might conceivably use less energy for most normal activities, but it is more reliant on energy being always present.

Plus – Bulletproof

Most of an underground bunker is – by definition below ground.  As little as a couple of feet of earth above the bunker will provide it with great protection against attackers.  Even if marauders knew exactly which patch of ground was above your bunker structure, they couldn’t penetrate through its protective layer of dirt and its steel or concrete walls with regular rifle rounds.

But if attackers found one of the limited entrance/exits to your bunker, they could attack that, or if not directly attacking that, they could use the location of the entrance/exit as a clue for the likely whereabouts of the bunker itself.  They presumably could then simply get a shovel and dig down until reaching your bunker’s roof.  At that point they could attack the roof with pickaxes or drills or whatever; while there’d be nothing you could do to stop them.

After they have opened up even a small hole in your ceiling/roof, you will be at a massive tactical disadvantage.  They can shoot blindly into your bunker, and the bullet ricochets will go everywhere, damaging possibly valuable and essential equipment and controls, and maybe harming you and the others in the bunker.  But if you shoot blindly up out of the hole, your bullets will just pass harmlessly into the outside world and disappear into the distance.  You might even miss the hole and create your own dangerous ricochets.

Or the attackers could pour gasoline into your bunker then drop a match.  Or simply fill your bunker full of water.  Or run a hose from a vehicle exhaust pipe and gas you out.

So while a bunker is resilient against short-term attack, it – and you all inside – are terribly vulnerable to a determined attack.

Plus – Excellent for Storms

There’s no denying that a below ground bunker is very resistant to above ground storms.  If you need to have a special type of basement/cellar/bunker to protect against extreme storms above and beyond the protection your regular dwelling can provide, a bunker is a great consideration.

Of course, storms are typically short in duration.  If your underground bunker is nearby, it might be a convenient shelter.  But if it is some hundreds of miles away, how often would you choose to go there to weather out a storm, compared to simply strengthening your main dwelling structure?

Plus – Excellent Fallout Shelters

The earth around and above your bunker provides an excellent shield against radioactivity subsequent to most types of radioactive events.  If you wish to incorporate a fallout shelter feature into your retreat, a bunker is a great way to do that.  The strength of a buried bunker can also protect against the destructive effects of nearby nuclear explosions, too – underground shelters can withstand massively greater over-pressure levels than can regular houses.

On the other hand, unless you are living 24/7 in or immediately next to an underground bunker, the bombs might detonate around you without you even realizing they were on their way.  And, if you survived that, the time it would take you to make your way, unprotected, to a remote fallout shelter location is such as to expose you to too much radiation as part of your travel to your shelter.

You’d be better advised to urgently improvise a shelter wherever you were at the time the nuclear event occurred.

Minus – Strategic Visibility

A problem is that when you’re in ‘lockdown’ mode inside your bunker, you really don’t know what is happening above ground in your general vicinity.

Fancier bunkers might have periscopes, and even fancier ones might have remote video cameras.  Top of the line bunkers sometimes even have a remotely piloted drone with wireless video feed.  But none of these are effective substitutes for the good old low tech ‘Mark 1 Human Eyeball’ and its ability to detect movement, and to combine visual and directional sound (and maybe even smell) cues to sense the presence of threats.

Plus, the higher-tech the approach to monitoring the area, the more vulnerable it is, and the more exposed you become when it either fails naturally or is destroyed by an attacker.  Remote piloted drones run out of gas and if you’re in your bunker, you can’t go out to retrieve it and refuel it.  Video cameras can be shot out or simply have the wiring cut.  Periscopes can have their lenses broken or obscured, and their mechanism jammed.

Minus – No Defensive Perimeter or Posture

Not only might you not know what is happening to and around your bunker, but even if you do know what is happening, there is very little you can do to influence what is being done.

In addition to clear 360° vision showing you everything going on around your retreat, any well constructed above ground retreat would have overlapping fields of fire from protected positions within it, allowing you to defend your entire structure from attack, no matter where it was coming from.

That’s just not possible if you’re six feet underground.

In addition, an above ground structure should have a close-in ‘killing zone’ that you have erected to make attackers as vulnerable as possible the closer they get to your structure.  But you can’t do anything like that for a bunker, because you’ve no way to direct firepower at attackers from your sealed bunker.

Some bunker manufacturers talk about remote-controlled weaponry, and that seems like a great idea and excitingly high-tech.  But the problem with any such weaponry is that it will run out of ammunition soon enough, and then how do you reload it while hunkered down in your bunker?

Plus, while the weapons might be remote-controlled or even automatically activated, they can’t get up and move to a new position, like you’d do if you were out there yourself.  Once an enemy has located the position of such devices, they can take their time and then carefully neutralize them with well placed shots.  Your weapons will become sitting ducks and vulnerable once the initial element of surprise has worn off.

There’s a more abstract issue as well.  An imposing well defended above-ground building exudes power and confidence.  An unsuccessfully obscured bunker signals weakness and retreat.  Which do you think a typical marauder would prefer to attack?  We’ll guess the bunker would be their choice, every time.

Minus – You’re Underground

This is a bigger deal than you might think.  Most preppers seek to plan to survive a long-term challenge.  Anyone can manage to exist in an underground bunker for a week or two, but what happens when the weeks become months become years?

Aren’t you going to miss the sun?  Indeed, you’ll find yourself craving not only the sun but the rain and every other type of weather, too.

Minus – Less Sustainable

We’ve seen elaborate plans for underground bunkers that include areas labeled as intended to be used for growing food, and we’ve seen pictures of plants growing inside windowless rooms under strong lighting, designed to imply that you are seeing such a facility, in a bunker, successfully growing healthy abundant crops.

The problem is that without the sun’s energy, you are having to use other scarce energy resources to replace the sun.  Sunlight represents between 50 and 100 W of energy per square foot during the day, so if you are trying to duplicate 5 – 10 hours of sunlight a day, you could be required to burn about a gallon of diesel per square foot of growing space per week.  If you have a single room measuring perhaps 40′ x 40′, that could be 1500 gallons of diesel every week to recreate the effect of the sun.  Oh – and all that light and heat is probably going to make the room way too hot, because you won’t have fresh air and wind blowing through the room, so you’ll have to spend more energy to ventilate and cool the room.

If you’re planning on a 100 day growing season, then you’re up for 21,000 gallons of diesel a year to enable you to grow food underground.  And that 40′ x 40′ room, while seemingly big by ‘indoor’ standards, is only 1/25th of an acre.  Yes, the sun really is that powerful.

Now, okay, you could say ‘We’ll grow our crops normally in the fields and simply go back to our bunker to sleep each night’, but if that is your plan, and you’re going to be in the outdoors, in the open, all day every day, what is the point of the bunker for at night?  If you’re more vulnerable while in it, and out of it as much as you would be with any other type of structure, how is the bunker actually helping your survivability?  Why not settle for a more ‘normal’ and lower cost retreat building above ground.

Minus – More ‘High Tech’ and Complex

A bunker relies on more systems and equipment and processes than a regular above ground house.  It needs 24/7 functional environmental management systems – maintaining your temperature (probably requiring cooling more than heating), maintaining the oxygen levels, the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, and the humidity (which would otherwise soar way too high).  It needs 24/7 lighting.  Even things like sanitation require pump assists to move water and sewer in and out of the bunker.

The failure of any of these systems can quickly create a critical situation that would require you to evacuate the bunker until it was repaired/resolved.

A bunker is a bit like a live-aboard boat.  If you’ve ever owned a boat of 40′ or more in length, you know that you are always spending time and money on repairs and maintenance.  It is a never-ending and expensive process.  The same is inevitably true of a bunker, although with less salt corrosion and motion induced malfunction, a bunker would hopefully be somewhat more reliable.

The need for repairs and replacements is okay when you can simply call up the appropriate repair service and have them come out with their specialist equipment and spare parts, but what happens after a social breakdown when the specialist technical support and the essential spare parts are no longer available?

Minus – The Size of a Bunker Community

We’ll readily concede that you can build an underground bunker complex as huge as you may wish, as long as you have the funds to cover the skyrocketing costs of such a development.  But most people, when choosing to build an underground bunker, are building something small, and having built it, are more or less locked in to the size that they have contracted for.

An above ground retreat can be expanded more readily at any time, and can almost certainly be built at a lower cost per finished square foot right from the get go.

Whether it is in the form of inviting more people into your retreat structure at the start, or having nearby neighbors you can see and wave to out your windows, or adding to your retreat subsequently to fit more people in, an above ground retreat can more readily allow for a larger population of fellow preppers to share the burdens of surviving in a Level 2/3 situation.

There is safety and security and strength in numbers.  You want to create or join as large a survival community as possible.  That’s much more readily done above ground than below ground.

To Summarize :  When a Bunker Is – And Is Not – Appropriate

A bunker can be used to protect against short-term external threats, but is only useful if you can get to the bunker prior to the onset of the threat.  Many short-term threats may not have sufficient notice to enable you to get safely to your bunker prior to the threat occurring.

A bunker is not a valid option as somewhere to live and survive, in an extended Level 2 or 3 type situation.  It is very hard to defend a bunker against marauding attackers, and bunkers are likely to be greatly more maintenance intensive, something that would become increasingly a problem as your spare parts get used up.

If you are adding a bunker to your in-city dwelling, you need to have a strategy in place for when and how you will be able to exit your bunker and evacuate the city.  You’ll literally be stuck like rats in a trap in the potentially apocalyptic and lawless conditions that may prevail in a city after a massive societal collapse.  And whereas, if you were simply planning to abandon the city at the first sign of a problem, which would mean you hopefully get away from dangerous population concentrations before the situation becomes dire; your decision to stay in your bunker for the first phase of the social collapse makes your subsequent evacuation very much more hazardous and difficult.

By all means incorporate defenses against fallout into an above-ground retreat, and maybe even include a bunker as part of your overall retreat.

But we suggest, for the majority of people, your most viable and defendable solution will be a well-built above-ground retreat, ideally as part of a community of like-minded folk (such as our own Code Green community).

Building a Low Cost Underground Bunker

Many websites will sell you a very expensive (and very extensive) underground bunker – for example, here.  But there’s a much lower cost solution if you must have a bunker, but would prefer one at a more affordable price (leaving you more money to allocate towards your above ground retreat).  Get one – or more than one – used shipping container and use that as a basic space for your underground shelter.

With the US importing so much more than it exports, and it being cheaper to sell containers rather than ship them back to China, there is a glut of low-cost shipping containers.  They come in standard sizes, and are approximately 8′ wide and 8′ high, and either 20′ or 40′ long (larger sizes are also made but they are less common and not so good value).  The 20′ containers typically cost $2000 or slightly more, and the 40′ containers cost only another $500 or so extra.  They can be purchased on eBay and many other places.

A single 40′ container gives you almost 320 sq ft of space (similar to a reasonably spacious hotel room).  This would be adequate for a couple for a short-term, and cramped but acceptable for more people.

In addition to adding extra containers, end on end, or in other one level layouts, you could also take advantage of their stackability and create a two or three or more level underground retreat.

Here’s a webpage with a short video showing how one person created their own underground wine cellar from a shipping container.  The same steps would be used to repurpose the container as a shelter/bunker instead.

Jul 012012

The speed and path of the derecho windstorm.

Struggling to bump the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes split-up off the front page has been the unusual ‘derecho’ storm that hit the nation’s capital and nearby states on Friday evening, resulting in at least 22 deaths, widespread damage, and over 4 million residences losing power.  MD, OH, VA, WV and DC have all declared states of emergency.

At the time of writing this – Sunday morning, some 36+ hours later, things have stopped getting worse and are now slowly recovering, and some understanding is evolving about the overall magnitude of what occurred.

Perhaps the most significant challenge remaining is over a million households are still without power.  Many are still also without water and/or phone service (either or both landline and cell phone).  Many gas stations lost power and were unable to provide fuel, and panic buying quickly emptied out ones which remained open.  And while we often associate storms with cold weather, the area is sweltering under a heat wave, aggravated by high humidity levels, making the lack of power for air conditioning a further inconvenience.

Utility companies are working as fast as they can to restore power, but are predicting that some people will be without power for up to a week.  One utility (Pepco) estimates that over 35,000 households will still be without power next Friday at 11pm.  At least six other utilities also have customers currently without power.

This is something approaching a Level 1 type event, albeit on a limited regional nature, and so offers us some useful lessons.

Update Monday :  It is now 2.5 days since the storm, and there are still more than 2 million households without power all the way from IL in the west to DC in the east.  This article reports several utilities as describing the damage to their power grids as ‘catastrophic’ – clearly a bit of rhetoric designed to excuse their slow restoration of power, but nonetheless, some millions of people would probably currently find themselves agreeing with the statement.

Update Tuesday :  It is now 3.5 days since the storm, and media reports are saying ‘millions remain without power’ and adding they are likely to remain powerless for several more days.

Update Wednesday :  Happy July 4th to everyone, but not so happy to the more than one million customers (ie many million people) who remain without power, 4.5 days after the storm.  See this article, for example.  We’ll stop the daily updates because we think the point has by now been well illustrated.

Some Lessons

Perhaps the most interesting lesson of all is that not even people living in the nation’s capital and the extremely affluent adjoining counties are guaranteed uninterrupted utilities.  Disasters can strike anywhere, and while it is true the derecho type storm was unusual, that is the whole thing about prepping.  Prepping is all about preparing for unusual events.  Everyone prepares for normal common frequent events.  Only people with foresight concern themselves with abnormal, uncommon and infrequent events.

Let’s put the strength of this derecho storm in perspective (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s an explanation of what a derecho is).  While destructive, it was far from overwhelming in its power.  It was equivalent to a Level 1 hurricane.  Wind speeds were gusting over 70 mph and occasionally peaking over 80 mph in places.  Our utilities don’t design a huge degree of resilience into their networks, with the largest culprit of all being, of course, trees falling over above ground power lines.  One has to assume the utilities simply find it cheaper to occasionally repair outages than to invest more heavily in preventative maintenance up front.

There is also the fact that the storm was not well forecast, meaning people were ‘unprepared’.  On the one hand, claiming to be ‘unprepared’ is a fairly meaningless statement by many of the utility companies – being as how the only preparation they can do is to pre-position additional repair crews to work on the damage.  On the other hand, it is another reminder that even the United States, arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world, we are far from perfect at both predicting/forecasting significant bad weather events and also in withstanding their effects.

There should be something very humbling to everyone about how a glorified windstorm can do this much damage and catch us unawares in the process.

Although most outcomes were regional, one outcome that was more nationwide were outages to some computer ‘cloud’ services.  Amazon’s cloud services suffered a regional failure that caused various companies (most notably Netflix) to lose some services for periods of time.  This was the second Amazon cloud failure in a month.  As we’ve said before, computer cloud services are very appealing in many respects, but the reliability of cloud computing continues to be proven to be less that what one would hope for.

Clearly, to withstand something like this you need to be able to survive in place for a week or more without needing external resources, although in this particular event, community support shelters were available, and due to the geographically restricted nature of the event, people always had the option of simply traveling out of the affected area.  You need water, food, and energy as your number one, two and three priorities.

Energy is in two forms.  First, energy to power your household’s energy needs (probably in the form of gasoline, diesel or propane to fuel a generator).  Second, and more optionally, energy to power your transportation.

Beyond that point you can start adding increasingly less essential but still nice to have services such as bi-directional communications capabilities – to tell people you are safe, and to ask other people if they are safe, to communicate with emergency services if needed (oh – 911 service was down in many areas, although sometimes it was possible to call police and fire departments on their non-emergency numbers – make sure you have these for your local services), and to get updates on when normal services and utilities will be restored.

An increasing number of people now have only cell phones, not landlines.  It is true that sometimes cell phones are more reliable than landlines, but it is also true that sometimes the opposite is the case.  For the most resilient communication capabilities, you should retain a basic landline service as well as cell phone service.  Also keep in mind that when cell phone networks are overloaded, it is usually easiest to get text messages sent and received, even when you can’t place or receive voice calls.  Make sure your phone is capable of texting, and that you (and the people you’ll want to keep in touch with) know how to do this.

There is also the matter of, ahem, bathroom facilities.  While the news reports didn’t make such a big thing about this (one wonders why not) it is a fairly safe assumption that the municipalities that lost power for their water systems probably also lost power to their sewage systems.

It was also interesting to read about people who were torn between staying in place or ‘retreating’ to some other location.  They didn’t know when they would get power restored, and so didn’t know whether they should attempt to wait it out or go somewhere else until power was restored back home.

This is in line with the projections in our earlier article about when people will decide to bug out.  Our expectation is that most events will result not in a flash sudden decision by everyone at the same time to leave an area, to ‘bug out’, but rather by a gradual process, which means that the roads shouldn’t all jam up instantly and suddenly – and, most important of all – very quickly after an event occurs.

Useless Advice Awards

Some public officials love to offer advice, even if the advice is not necessarily very helpful.  Here are two examples of useless advice.

An award must go to the people who offered this advice – boil all water and let it cool before drinking it.

That’s sensible advice, ordinarily, but for people with no power and 100 degree temperatures, it does beg the two obvious questions – how will the water be boiled, and how will it then cool down again?

Better advice would have been to recommend people either boil their water if they have power, or treat the water, if they have water treatment chemicals or UV water purifiers or other specialty equipment.  But of course, the public officials making these comments realize that very few people have planned and prepared to already have such equipment, and the people who do have such equipment probably don’t need to be advised about its use.

The second award goes to the person who first cautioned that gas-powered generators create a lot of carbon monoxide.  He said that, to be safe, the generator should not be inside either your home or garage.  Okay, we can understand that.  But he also said that you should plug your electrical appliances directly into the generator if possible.

We are trying to understand how a generator, safely located in the open, some distance away from your house, can also have your household appliances – typically with two or three foot cords – directly connected to it.

Better advice would have been to recommend that people install a cut-over switch and run an appropriately rated connecting cable from the generator to the cut-over switch, but that advice doesn’t do much good to people who don’t have such things already pre-installed, and the people who do have such things pre-installed don’t need to be told to use them.  But the official could at least have said ‘run multiple extension cords from the generator to the house, use as heavy a gauge wire as possible, and keep their lengths as short as possible’.

Instead, the official wished to avoid all liability for his ‘helpful advice’ and so offered nonsensical advice that, while – in abstract theory – is correct, in the real world is useless and totally unhelpful.


The derecho storm that impacted on the DC region on Friday night created a minor, localized, and relatively brief Level 1 event for millions of households, some of whom will remain without power for at least a week.

None of what occurred should surprise us as preppers, although non-preppers are probably dismayed to see how vulnerable even the nation’s capital remains to the raw forces of nature.

It is helpful (for those of us who do not live in that area) to mentally put ourselves in the place of people there and quickly run through our checklist of how we’d manage without power and water, and with no gas at the local gas station either, for a week.

Jun 062012

The reliable functioning of our toilets is something we shouldn't take for granted.

So something has gone wrong in part or all of your city or region, but you’re reasonably confident it will be resolved some time in the next few days; a week or two at the most.

In other words, you don’t need to bug-out and move to your retreat location, so this is by definition a Level 1 situation.

However, while you’re not forced to bug-out, you do want to enjoy as comfortable an experience as possible while waiting out the Level 1 event.  You’ve planned and prepped for many of the things that might go wrong.  You’ve stocked up with some food, some water, maybe a generator and gas to power it, perhaps a few propane tanks for emergency cooking on the barbecue, and who knows what else.

But we’ll wager there is still one massive thing you’ve completely forgotten.  We’ll give you a hint.  So you’re anticipating a possible situation where you’ll not be able to get fresh water from your taps – where the city water supply will fail, right?  Okay, good for you.

Now, if the city water supply has failed, what else might fail, too?  And every time you eat something or drink something, what will inevitably need to be done some time subsequently?

Did you guess?  We’re talking about the sewer system.  If something occurs to cause a failure of the city water supply, it is very likely there’ll be a failure of the city sewer system, too.

How are you prepared to handle a failure of your sewer system?  Remember that all the water you use that goes into a sink or drain ends up going out the sewer line.  We automatically think of toilets, but it isn’t just toilets.  With a blocked sewer line, you’ll not be able to shower or bathe, you’ll not be able to empty the sink, or to conveniently do anything that involves waste water.

The biggest issue of course is the toilet.  Other things can have relatively easy workarounds, but the toilet is hard to recreate to a similar level of comfort and convenience.  What will you do?  Porta-potties?  Dig an outhouse and erect a privacy/weather shelter around it?  Or?

Call us spoiled if you like, but we do believe the modern flush toilet to be one of the finest elements of our modern life, and we’d be very reluctant to lose it.  Happily, we don’t need to risk sacrificing the wonders of the porcelain pedestal.  More about that in a minute (or two, depending on how fast you’re reading this!).

First, let’s consider some more about this failure.  The first part is comparatively benign.  If the pipes break and become blocked, and/or if the pumping stations stop pumping, then clearly there will come a point, when you flush your toilet, nothing will go away.  That’s actually the relatively good news, believe it or not.  There’s some bad news too.

Toilet Backflows and Outflows from Higher Elevation Toilets

The bad news depends on where you’re located and the style of house you have.  If you have a one level rambler and your house is at the highest point for miles around, you can stop reading this part and skip down to the next part.

But if you have a multi-level house, and/or if there are other houses around you at the same or higher levels, guess what could happen.  Your upstairs toilets will appear to work, inasmuch as when you flush them, the bowl empties and the contents go away.  The liquid (and, ahem, solids) will be released into your sewer feed pipe, and then will go downhill as far as it can before stopping.  That downhill path would normally take it out of your house, and if the sewer system has now filled all the way up to your house, the results of your flushing won’t just stop and wait patiently for the blockage to clear or the pumps to restart.  Instead, it will ‘find its own level’ and so will start to come out of the bowl of your lowest level toilet (we’ve seen this happen – it isn’t pretty).

But that’s only a small part of the problem.  What happens when your neighbor, on a grade 10 ft above your house, flushes his toilet?  As far as he can tell, it will still work for him.  None of his toilets will turn into fountains.  What came from your neighbor’s toilet will also end up coming out of the lowest toilet in your house (or possibly out of the toilet in someone else’s house lower down).

How can you protect against this?

It is possible to get one-way valves to put into your sewer lines so that waste will flow in one direction only – ie, away from your house.  This doesn’t solve the problem of the higher toilets in your house, but that’s something you can control yourself, hopefully.  It should, however, isolate you from what your neighbors are doing.

We’re not sure we fully trust these one-way valves.  They could get clogged up with ‘stuff’, and because, for 99.9% of their life, they’ll be open and allowing waste to flow in the proper direction, the one time they’re called upon to actually do their thing and stop a backflow, they might not work, or, at best, they might stop some of the backflow but still let a small flow through.

There’s also a low tech solution.  When your toilets start turning into fountains, you can stuff clothing and other things down them to block them.  And you’ll also want to block your baths.  And your sinks.  And everything else.  Not very nice.

There’s a much better solution.

Living Off the (Sewer) Grid

Many people aspire to live off the electricity grid, and some people even manage to do this, to a greater or lesser extent, and with a greater or lesser amount of privation and inconvenience.

But how many people think about living off the ‘sewer grid’ – especially at their primary residence?  Almost next to no-one.

While, in truth, there is not much likelihood of your city sewer system failing, it can happen and has happened, particularly as a result of an earthquake (think not just primitive third world cities, but also places as modern and western as, eg, Christchurch NZ in 2010 and 2011.

As well as natural causes, a total failure of the electricity grid (perhaps caused by solar storm or EMP or cyber-hack-attack) would also kill the pumps and control systems and result in a non-functional sewer system.

You need to consider what you’d do if your sewer line failed – if you have a retreat and if it would be convenient to simply move to your retreat until the sewer system was repaired, that would probably be all the planning you need to do for this eventuality (apart from also having some way to block the sewer line from your house to the street so you don’t end up with any backflows in your absence.  But if you don’t have a retreat, or if moving to your retreat would not be convenient in all but the most extreme of Level 2/3 situations, then you need to consider how you’d handle a loss of sewer service.

Why not add a septic system to your current home?  This is something you could do in one of two forms, and with perhaps some bonus everyday benefits too.

A Standby Simple Septic System

You could simply put a large holding tank in the ground, and have a valve to divert the flow of effluent out of your house, causing it to redirect to the holding tank rather than flowing into the city sewer line.  This valve would also protect you from backflows from other houses around you.

If you cut back on water use in your home, you could readily get down to 50 or fewer gallons of water used per person per day (and of course the same amount flowing into the holding tank).  If there are four of you, maybe this would be 150 gallons a day, and so with a 1,000 gallon tank you’d have close on 7 days at nearly normal rates of water use, and if you really cut back on water use, you could probably get more like two weeks from a 1,000 gallon tank (ie more than 50 ‘person/days’).

If you still have no sewer service after two weeks, and it is a Level 1 situation, there would be septic tank pump out service providers still operating, and you’d simply schedule a pump-out once every ten days or so during the period of the outage.  They’ll probably be busier than normal, so we’d recommend scheduling a service a week in advance after only a few days of using the holding tank, and booking scheduled future servicings well in advance too.

This would be a relatively low-cost enhancement to your primary residence – we’ll guess between $1000 and $2000 depending on how easy it is to get a tank into your back yard and the plumbing lines run to it.

A Full Septic System

The other approach is to put in a full working septic system complete with drainfield.  This would give you a system that would work for years at a time between pumpouts, and would mean you could cut your connection to the city sewer service entirely.  In some jurisdictions, you might even be able to save money by no longer paying a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly sewer fee to the city.

We provide a quick overview of septic tank systems here, and depending on the type of system you had installed, you could be spending as little as $5,000 for a complete system that totally takes you off the septic grid.

If you can get a rebate on city sewer fees, you might be surprised at the ability of your off-grid septic system to pay for itself.  City sewer systems, while very convenient, are also very expensive to operate, so depending on how fairly the costs are being passed back to the users, you might find your own private septic system to not only be more reliable but also less expensive.


While everyone we know keeps a reserve supply of water in their normal residence, very few people have thought further as to how to maintain some type of sewer service for their household’s grey water (ie from washing up and such activities) and black water (ie from toilets).

We’d prefer to suffer a power outage than a sewer outage.  Fortunately, it doesn’t take too ridiculous an amount of prepping to prepare for a sewer system failure and to have a standby system every bit as good as the main system.

May 142012

A simple but impressive rainwater collection system.

A person can survive on much less than a gallon of water a day in an emergency (the actual amount depends on things like the type of food you might be eating, the work you are doing, the temperature and humidity of your environment, and your height, weight and age).

But a common rule of thumb is that in an adverse situation, you should plan on about 1 gallon of water, per person, per day.  This keeps you from being dehydrated, and gives you extra water to cook in, and even some to brush your teeth with, too.

But you don’t get any to flush with.  Even modern low flow toilets use 1.6 gallons every time you flush.

The real-world amount of water we actually use in our comfortable lives every day is much greater than the essential need for several pints to keep dehydration at bay.  In addition to toilet flushing, there is dish washing, clothes washing, showers and baths, car washing, garden watering, and who knows what else.  Estimates vary enormously, and there are doubtless regional variations, but it seems the average American uses between 50 – 100 gallons of fresh water every day.

In a Level 1 event, you are going to want to ‘hunker down’ at home for as much as a week (much more than that and you’re moving into Level 2 territory).  The chances are high that you’ll have water, the same as always.  But that is far from guaranteed.  Maybe you have experienced an earthquake that has broken the water mains, for example.  Or a major power outage that means no electricity to drive the water pumps that send the water to your faucets.

Part of the hope in a Level 1 event is that you can continue to live a reasonably normal life during the short-term nature of the event, and due to the event’s anticipated short-term, you choose to stock enough essentials to ensure as much of your comfort as you wish.

So what should you do about water?  And, if you’re going to store some, how should you do so?

It seems to be prudent to keep at least enough water to allow for the essential ingredients of life to continue – maybe a gallon per person per day for essential uses, and some more for not quite so essential uses such as toilet flushing and at least sponge baths.  (Do we need to remind you of the old saying ‘If its yellow, let it mellow; if its brown, flush it down’?)

So maybe you decide you want to have 10 gallons, per person, per day, and maybe you want to be sure to have a ten day supply for three people.  That’s quite a lot of water – 300 gallons.  To look at it another way, that’s over a ton of water, and with the weight of the containers that hold it, you’re probably up to a ton and a half.  (Water weighs 8.35lb per US gallon.)

One more perspective on this 300 gallon supply.  If you’ve been saving up 2 liter drink bottles to keep water in, you’ll need 568 bottles to hold 300 gallons (there are 3.785 liters in a US gallon of water).

Well, don’t let us stop you from buying plenty of 2 liter bottles of Coke, and some industrial grade shelving to stack and stock your water supplies on.  But there’s one source of water, and one easy way of storing it, that most people overlook.


If you live in a dwelling with a roof (ie not in an apartment complex) your house or condo’s roof can be a great rainwater collector.  Best of all, most of what you need is already there; you don’t need to make many modifications at all to be able to get the rain from the roof and into storage.

To encourage you some more, here’s an interesting statistic.  For every 1,000 sq ft of roof area, your roof will collect 623 gallons of water from each inch of rainfall.  Or, to put it another way, with three people each wishing for 10 gallons of water a day, you need a daily average of only 1/20th of an inch of rain.  Well, actually, that wouldn’t work, because 1/20th of an inch of rain would just wet the roof rather than run off it to be collected, but you get the point, I’m sure.

Better to say that if you had 1/2 an inch of rain fall once every ten days, each 300 sq ft of roof would supply enough water for one person.

Okay, point taken.  If you live somewhere wet (like Seattle!) then here’s one of the good sides to this – even the driest month of July still sees 0.79″ of rain, and apart from August at 0.97″, all the other months are way over an inch of rainfall.  But you probably know that, ‘unscientifically’, just from living here, don’t you!

How to Collect Rainwater

This is dead simple.  Although you can do more complicated things, all you need to do is put a rainwater barrel in your downspouts.  There are a couple of things you can do to make this more useful, however.

The first thing is that you want to have your barrels up as high as possible, so you can gravity feed the water on from the barrel to where you’ll be using it, and the more the height differential, the more the pressure from the water in the barrel down to wherever the water eventually comes out of a tap.

From the point of view of the rain coming off the roof, it makes no difference at all if the barrel is immediately under the eaves, or sunk into the ground.

Don’t put the barrel ridiculously high up, though, because you’re going to need some way to get water out of the barrel as and when needed.  The simplest consideration involves two things.  First, you want to be able to reach a tap on the bottom of the barrel.  Second, you want to be able to run a hose from the tap, through a window, and into your house, with hopefully the hose able to run downhill all the way, even if only on a gentle slope.

You also don’t want to get too carried away with scaffolding to support barrels way up the side of your house, and maybe some of the people in your family won’t think they’re the most appealing of ornaments either.

So work out whatever you can as best you can.  Chances are you have several downspouts around the perimeter of your house, you’ll want to do this at as many of them as you feel motivated to tackle.

This water is also great for the garden too, and if you have a fair amount of collection capacity, it might be useful to use it for gardening, in dry months, especially if your local water authority adds any sort of restrictions or surcharges on ‘excessive’ water use.

Water Barrels

You can collect water in anything you like that is reasonably big, which doesn’t leak too much, and which doesn’t add nasty flavors or chemicals to the water.

Most people will choose plastic food grade type barrels.  These can be purchased new (of course) and sometimes used – they are recycled barrels that held some sort of food product or chemical, and which the supplier may or may not promise to have fully cleaned, although often you’ll see that in one point they talk about ‘triple cleaning’ the barrels, and at another point, they also recommend against using them for storing drinking water.

For non-drinking water purposes, used barrels are fine.  But for drinking water, and unless you want to have to either accept some strange flavors or treat/purify the water, it is probably best to get brand new barrels.

Some people will quite rightly avoid plastic entirely, and have the budget to spring for stainless steel.  Others might use galvanized iron, or even wood (probably not a good idea – don’t let wood dry out too much or else it will shrink and the barrel becomes less water-tight).  Fiberglass works.  Glass is great, but sadly impractical.  You can even make water barrels (more like tanks, really) from concrete if you’re wanting something huge in size.

Whatever type of container you get, it is wise to thoroughly rinse and sanitize it (them) before putting water in them.

Choose an opaque color.  Sunlight is as bad for water storage as it is for anything/everything else, so try and keep the water dark (and ideally cool, too, but that might be asking for a bit much).

As for the size of the barrel, there’s no right or wrong answer to that.  Well, clearly there are upper and lower limits – below a certain size and it isn’t worth the bother, and above a certain size and you’ll never fill it.  If you’re looking at typical sized 30 – 55 gallon drum, you will probably end up with close on your target 300 gallons of water, all stored ‘automatically’ for you outside.

A 55 gallon plastic drum, full of water, will probably weigh about 470 lbs – plus the weight of the structure it is mounted on, of course. A 30 gallon drum would be more like 260 lbs.  Both are way too heavy to ever carry, but the 30 gal drum has the benefit of not needing quite as strong a support structure.

Plastic water barrels will cost you anywhere from less than 50c to more than $2 per gallon of storage capacity, depending on the type, their fittings, and where you source them from.

Multiple Barrels Per Downspout

If you wanted to, you could also put multiple barrels, side by side, at each collection point.  Simply run a pipe between the bottom/lower side of one barrel to the same place on the other barrel.  The two barrels will fill evenly and subsequently empty evenly, too.

Alternatively, you could stack one above the other.  If the bottom barrel can be sealed, you simply run a pipe from the bottom of the top barrel to the top of the second barrel, and you take your water out of the double barrel from a pipe at the bottom of the lower barrel.

If the second barrel is not watertight, you’d want the connector to go from the overflow point on the top barrel down to anywhere on the bottom barrel, and you’d then need two points to take the water out from – the bottom of the top barrel and the bottom of the second barrel.  Maybe the lower barrel is below the window or whatever, and you designate this as your ’emergency spare’ and also for garden water, whereas the top barrel with the more convenient water flow is for your main indoor needs.

Connecting Your Barrel to Your Downspouting

This is easy.  Cut and divert your downspouting so that the water pours into the top of your barrel.  Arrange a generous sized overflow tube, also at the top of the barrel to allow overflow water, after the barrel is full, to then go back into the rest of your downspouting.

Be careful that the water coming into the barrel doesn’t just go straight into the overflow exit pipe.

At the bottom of the barrel, you’ll want to fit (or have fitted for you) a regular outdoor tap with a thread for regular hose, so you can then take the water from the barrel, probably via a regular hose, and into the house (or wherever else you want to use it).

Modify as needed if you are having two or more barrels linked together.

Linking Your Barrels Together

This is a great idea.  Maybe you have four downspouts, and a barrel at each one.  Rather than have four hoses all leading into your house, you could instead link the four barrels together and just have one hose, from whichever is the most convenient barrel, to feed into your house.

Simply run a hose from the bottom of each barrel to the bottom of each other barrel.  The hose can even go down to ground level before going up again to the next barrel, it doesn’t really matter, because the rate of water flow through these balancing/transfer hoses can be reasonably low.

For this to work it is important that the barrels be at close to the same height off the ground.  You are making use of the magical property of water to settle at the same level, even if in multiple barrels in multiple locations.  You can easily test the relative heights just by filling all the barrels with about an inch or two of water (so they don’t get too heavy).  You should see the same amount of water in each barrel.  If one has more water in it than the others, you need to raise it however many inches to balance it to the others.

Is Rainwater from the Roof Safe to Drink

Many people enjoy long and healthy lives drinking untreated rainwater from their roofs.

Indeed, when the writer was a child, he lived for some years in a town where his parent’s house relied exclusively on rainwater.  The roof was made from painted corrugated iron, and the water tanks were of galvanized iron.  He remembers as a little boy playing with the tanks, and never thinking to question the dirt in the gutters that the rainwater passed through, or all the slime and sludge in the bottom of the tanks.

Birds would fly overhead and do what they do, and who knows what else happened to the water as well.  It was not treated in any way; it just went straight from the roof to the holding tanks, and from them to the taps inside (this was well before people started drinking bottled water – 100% of all our water came from the tanks).

There are some common sense issues to consider, however.  Try and keep your water away from zinc (such as sometimes used to reduce moss growth), from lead (in paint or flashings), and from treated timbers.  Any sort of new roof should be treated warily before it has had plenty of rain rinse it off.  You don’t want any overflow or discharge pipes from hot water tanks or a/c units to drain onto the roof and potentially into your water tanks.

Screening the tanks can help prevent large (and small) insects and animals get into your tanks.

If you’re in a polluted area, you have a bit more reason to be validly concerned.  All that pollution up in the air slowly settles down, and some of it lands on your roof.  Rain then washes it into your water tanks.

One rule of thumb is that if the water looks clean, smells clean and tastes clean, it is probably fine to drink, especially for a limited period of time.  But if you are concerned about pollution being washed into the water, or just don’t like the thought of drinking water from your dirty roof, by all means filter and treat the water before drinking it.  Or use your outdoor water for non-drinking purposes (cleaning and toilet flushing) and supplement it with the gallon per day of water you feel to be better for drinking purposes.

One plus about rainwater.  Depending on how you might choose to treat/purify it (sometime it would be great to understand how adding chemicals to water is considered to be purification!), you’ll be getting water with no fluoride added to it, no chlorine, and no other nasty chemicals that may or may not have harmful side effects.

Rainwater is generally ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’.

How Much Water Should You Store

This very essential aspect to do with planning a rainwater system deserves its own page.  And so it now has one – please see How to Calculate How Much Rainwater You Should Store for a mind-numbingly thorough discussion on this point.

 How Long Can You Store Water?

This might seem like a strange question.  Water is just water, right?  H2O.  What can go ‘stale’ with water?

Well, yes, in a perfect world, that is true.  But inevitably, you get biological contamination, and also some other contamination that might become food for the biological contamination.  Add some sun and some nice warm conditions, and even clean pure water will eventually end up with algae and other types of biological contamination.

As the water falls through the air, it picks up contaminants.  It picks up more as it runs over the roof and into your storage.  So rainwater can be somewhat biologically active to start with.

Furthermore, there is always the danger of chemicals leaching out of plastic storage containers and into the water.  This happens slowly over time, so the longer water stays in the same plastic container (and the warmer the temperature and the more the sun) the more leaching will occur.  Smaller containers have a greater surface area to volume ratio, and so need to be emptied and refilled more frequently than larger containers.

Some people recommend changing any stored water once a year.  Others say they’ve had no problems with ‘old’ water many years old.

For ourselves, the nice thing about rainwater is that (depending on your rainfall, storage capacity, and usage patterns) you’re probably turning over the water in your tanks more than once a year anyway.  We definitely renew the plastic bottled water we have indoors every year or so, but the outside water, as long as it is being sort of renewed – either just by surplus rainwater overflowing out of the barrels, or from garden watering and refilling – we don’t worry about, especially if it is water that isn’t our prime drinking water to start with.

Maintaining the Barrels

There’s not a lot that you need to do to maintain the barrels.  Check for leaks, especially around the taps.  Maybe once every five or so years, if you see visible accumulations of algae and sludge in the barrels, clean them out.

An easy way of cleaning the barrels is to use a siphon and just move the end of the siphon tube that is in the tank around to suck up the stuff from the bottom of the barrel.  You won’t need to completely empty the barrel that way.

Needless to say, such activities are best done at a time when rain is forecast in the foreseeable future so as to be able to replenish your water stocks (but there’s no need to do it in the middle of the downpour!).

Legal Issues

Alas, in some jurisdictions, the water that falls on your roof of your house, on your property, may not belong to you!  Anxious environmentalists may be concerned that you are diverting the water from its ‘normal’ path to wherever it would otherwise go (let’s ignore than a house and roof creates an un-normal water collecting/concentrating point to start with, shall we….).

In other states with water shortages and complex water rights, it has been argued that by collecting the rainwater, you are stopping it from mysteriously migrating on to the state’s water supply, and therefore, you are depriving the owners of the water rights of their water (this is definitely the case in Colorado).

The simple act of building structures to hold water barrels may require building permits too.


Adding a water collection facility to your roof’s downspouting can be an easy project you can do yourself, and will provide you with a store of extra water, either for personal use in a Level 1 emergency, or simply to water your garden with and place less stress on the town water system.

There is one difficult paradox – the months when you most need water are the months when it rains the least.  This means that you’ll need to have somewhat larger storage capacity (from the wet months) to carry you through the dry months.

May 122012

A FEMA map showing county by county counts of Presidential declared disasters for the period 1964-2007

It is easy to think of prepping as being one single set of actions, designed to prepare for any and all future challenges as/when/if they occur, and of the differences between types of situations and necessary responses as being on a smooth continuum, from trivial and minor to life changing/threatening and major.

This is only partially true, and masks the very different types of situations and preparations required.  There are very different sets of responses to different types of situations – perhaps best to think of prepping like a plane, which you control very differently while taxiing on the ground compared to when flying through the air.

In fact, rather than just two modes of response (like a plane), we suggest it is most helpful to create three different sets of future challenges, and to identify prepping solutions for each of these, because the three different types of preparations are very different from each other.  These three levels of preparing, and the three levels of future challenges, are :

Level 1 :  Short Term

Short term problems are those which are, obviously enough, of short duration.  They are events that clearly have an expected resolution to them via society’s normal mechanisms, and it is just a case of waiting for the issues to be resolved.

An example of a short term problem would be a major storm, flood, or power outage.  Such events could inconvenience you for anywhere from an hour or two up to perhaps a week or two.  Lesser events can be considered, too – having your car break down on the side of the road late at night, for example.

In such cases your response to such challenges generally does not require evacuating your normal residence – indeed, by definition, any Short Term/Level 1 events are ones which do not require you to leave home.

You may lose power, you may lose other utilities, and you may have transportation challenges, and there may be regional disruptions to normal social support functions.  But the functioning of the country as a whole remains unchallenged, and in some form or another, you know that matters will, in the foreseeable future, return to normal.  Society is not disrupted, you don’t have lawlessness or looting.

How/what do you prepare for and respond to a Level 1/Short Term disruption?  Things like an emergency generator and enough fuel to power it for a couple of weeks.  Extra fuel for at least one of your vehicles.  Food and water for a couple of weeks.  A two-way radio, although there’s a good chance your landline and cell phones will still work, as may also your internet.

You only slightly modify your normal lifestyle, and you are secure in the certainty that life will be back to normal well before you’ve exhausted your emergency supplies.

A person can be well prepared for Level 1 events without needing to outlay more than $10,000, and probably without needing to outlay much more than $1,000.

Level 2 :  Medium Term

These are obviously events which are more major than Level 1 events.  We define Level 2 events by the need to abandon your normal residence and move somewhere else.  Level 2 events disrupt the total fabric of your region, and are more open ended in terms of when and how matters will return to normal.  They might be natural – a solar storm wiping out our power grid, for example.  They might be economic – a collapse in the global economy – something which we seem to be flirting with at present.  They might be the result of military action, or could be any one of many other issues – maybe even something minor which then snowballs and destroys the increasingly fragile and delicate state of today’s modern interdependent society.

Level 2 events may even threaten people’s lives due to interruptions not only to utility services such as water, sewer, power/gas, trash, and communications, but also due to disruptions to the distribution system for food, gasoline, and other essentials – disruptions which appear likely to extend beyond the point at which most non-preppers can cope.

Some lawlessness and looting will develop, as desperate people search for food.

On the other hand, these problems, as severe as they are, have some sort of an eventual happy ending and resolution clearly in sight, such as to see the restoration of normal infrastructure and a return to ‘life as we know it’ (LAWKI) at some reasonable point in the future.

How do you prepare for and respond to a Level 2/Medium Term disruption?  You need a secure location where you can shelter from the lawlessness that may envelope cities and other areas of dense population, and where you can create your own little bubble of comfort, safety, and what passes for civilization.

Possibly your retreat will still have essential services connected to it (power most of all), but you’ll be prepared for an eventuality without power.

You’ll live primarily from stored supplies without worrying too much about replenishing them.  Sure, you’ll try and reduce your reliance on external sources of most things, but you’ll not feel the need to become 100% self-reliant or to adopt a 100% sustainable independent life.  Instead, you’ll happily live off your stockpiles of food, energy sources, and whatever else, because you can see a clear restoration of ‘normalcy’ at some point within a year or so.

You need two way radio communication to supplement any remaining ‘normal’ types of communication, but primarily to communicate among yourselves, and perhaps augmented by a shortwave radio receiver so you can keep updated with news of ‘the rest of the world’ and what is happening to resolve the problems your region has suffered.

You may choose to do this independently by yourself, because you have the supplies and resources you need.  Alternatively, and perhaps for optional social reasons rather than for any essential needs, you may choose to band together with other prepared people too.

Level 2 clearly requires a massively greater amount of preparation (and expenditures) than Level 1.  If you have only prepared for Level 1 contingencies, you’ll have a problem surviving a Level 2 event, primarily due to not having a retreat location to move to.  Cities will quickly become lethal environments, and even if you successfully manage to evacuate the city you live in, so what?  Where will you move to?  See our article about the modern day imbalance between city and rural life – there’s no way that small country towns can suddenly accept four times more people than they had before as refugees from the cities.  If you don’t have somewhere to go to, already prepared, you have in effect nowhere to go to.

Preparing for a Level 2 event will cost you anywhere from $100,000 as an absolute bare-bones minimum up to $1 million or more.  These costs will start to encourage you to adopt group/shared solutions.  While two people can never live (or prepare) as cheaply as one, they sure can do so for much less than double the cost.  There’s not only safety in numbers, but economy too.

If you feel it impractical to consider preparing to Level 2 standards yourself, don’t give up.  The reality is that a Level 2 condition is close to essential.  Maybe Code Green can help.  Ask about becoming a member of our cooperative community and how you can benefit from shared investments in Level 2 and Level 3 preparations.

Level 3 :  Long Term

This is the big one.  Society has broken down.  Something has destroyed much of the infrastructure not just of your region, and not just of the United States, but of most of the entire world.  This might be a bio-disaster (a flu pandemic as has several times come very close in the last decade) or a global conflict, or an EMP pulse, or any one of many other events.Y

ou’re not yet reduced to a stone age life-style, but you’ve no idea when you’ll be able to resupply any of the items you’ve stockpiled, and so your focus now is on sustainable ongoing self-contained living.

Whereas in Level 1 events, you happily lived off and even squandered your stored supplies, sure in the knowledge that the event was short term, and in Level 2 events, you were more prudent and glad you had spares for essential items and generous amounts of ‘just in case’ materials, with Level 3 events, you’re not just focused on spares for essential items, but on how to build replacement products from raw materials and how to adjust to a life with massively fewer modern and complex appliances.

You of course have needed to evacuate if you lived in a city, and the lawlessness (or arbitrary capricious unilateral attempts at imposing draconian ‘order’) is pervasive.  It is an ‘every man for himself’ sort of situation, and yes, it may also become a ‘kill or be killed’ situation too.  Starving people, facing certain death for themselves and their families, will have no choice but to fight for food and shelter, and you in turn will have no choice but to defend that which you have.

You need to change your lifestyle so that you can become self-sustaining and self-sufficient.  Sure, you’ll use up your stockpiled supplies as you devolve down to a level of sustainable self-sufficiency, and as you do so, you realize that you might never be able to replace such things.  You need to become both energy and food independent, and your energy independence needs to be not just in the form of PV solar cells (because what do you do as they degrade and fail, in a situation where you have no replacements and where you can’t create the underlying pre-requisite technology to manufacture more) but rather in the form of some type of energy source that you can maintain and operate indefinitely.

Food independence can be slightly modified by trading off surpluses of the types of food you can grow with surpluses of food developed by other nearby families and communities.

You need to become part of a community because you don’t have enough resources, by yourself and with whatever handful of friends and family are with you, to have all the talents, skills, and resources necessary to optimize your life.  You need to be able to communicate, bi-directionally, not just locally and regionally, but nationally and internationally, so as to understand what has happened to and what is happening to the rest of your country and the world, and to coordinate your activities with those of other pockets of survivors.

If you have already prepared for a Level 2 contingency, you’ll have a ‘parachute’ to cushion your crash-landing down into the post-industrial society that you’ll be entering.  The most important thing is you have a place to retreat to, and enough supplies and resources to buy you some time to urgently start adapting to the new future staring you in the face.

It would be better, of course, if you already have some Level 3 planning and preparations in place, but if you’re already at Level 2, you’re way ahead of most other people.

How much does it cost to be prepared for a Level 3 situation?  That’s a question with a huge range of possible answers, and it depends on how much of life’s former comforts you want to try and preserve and for how long, how much you want to have in place to devolve down to less complex forms of technology, and how far you can split such costs with fellow preppers.

This is where Code Green Prep can help.  Ask about becoming a member of our cooperative community and how you can benefit from shared investments in Level 2 and Level 3 preparations.

Here’s a table showing some of the key differences in these three levels of future event and their implications to us as preppers.


Item Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Duration Short – maybe up to a week or two Medium – perhaps up to a year Longterm
Likelihood of Occuring Varies regionally, but between likely and definite every 5 – 10 years Take your best guess.  A disruptive solar storm = 12% chance every 10 years.  Other risks = you decide. More likely than you’d wish for.  What are the chances of Bird Flu evolving and a global pandemic wiping out a huge slice of the world’s population?  Might Iran or N Korea detonate an EMP over the US?  etc.
Return to Normalcy Assured Very likely Not for a long time, maybe generations
Regional Scope Probably local and limited Extensive, possibly national Definitely national, maybe continental, possibly impacting much/all the world
External Assistance Yes, expected Maybe some, but not much and such resource as there is will be massively over-extended and unable to cope Probably none for extended periods of time
Survivability if Unprepared Yes with some inconvenience and discomfort Marginal to low Very low
Social Disruption Possibly some limited opportunistic rioting and looting, brought under control within a week or so Major, probably new forms of small community government and policing programs will spring up to create pockets of order among much lawlessness Complete.  Organized gangs will dominate
Relocation Can survive in your normal abode Due to breakdown of city services, need to relocate Essential
Food strategy Not a constraint You’ll survive by eating through your stockpiles of food in the hope by the time you’ve eaten it all, order will be restored Your stockpiles of food will give you time to create your own ongoing food sources and to become self sufficient
Energy Some candles, flashlights, warm blankets, open fires, and a generator You’ll reduce your energy needs and rely on a generator and stockpiled fuel, perhaps using some in-place renewable energy sources too. Stockpiled fuel will be used carefully as you transition to energy independence and renewable sources
Defense Stay at home.  Biggest threat will probably be rude/pushy neighbors.  Hopefully no lethal threats or responses needed. Moderately uncoordinated groups of starving people or opportunistic raiders, will probably be able to be repelled by presentation of weapons and maybe occasional skirmishes.  They are looking for easy targets. Organized groups will battle among themselves for regional supremacy, and will ‘fight to the finish’ to take over the assets and resources of others.  Expect stolen military weapons as well as civilian rifles/shotguns/pistols to be used.
Transportation Stay at home Necessary to get to your retreat.  Little need to travel outside your retreat boundaries. Necessary to get to your retreat.  Occasional travel to trade with other groups, roads degraded, few mechanized vehicles.  Pushbikes and horse drawn carts become the norm.  Travel is dangerous due to risks from marauders.
Communication Hopefully some normal forms of comms remain operative – radio, tv, land line, cell phone, internet. Traditional comms largely degraded or disrupted.  Short-range two-way radios to keep in touch with other members of your group.  Shortwave radio receiver for general news. Traditional comms all gone.  Long range two-way radio for comms within your group, and to interact with other groups and to understand the world situation and what the future may bring.
Group Size Small.  You can survive just fine, even if alone. Medium.  Your group/community will essentially be the people who share the retreat with you, providing social interaction, extra skills and additional manpower for some tasks. Large.  You need access to as broad a range of skills as possible, and in a nearby region due to dangers and difficulties of traveling.
Cost of Preparing Low – less than $10,000; probably less than $1,000. High – More than $100,000; potentially as much as $1 million (but possibly shared among a group of people). Maximum :  Everything you can afford and more besides.  Definitely requires group participation to make high-cost items affordable.

When Does Each Level Evolve to the Next Level

Determining the type of event you’re facing depends on three things.  The event itself, the reactions/responses of other people, and the level of preparedness you already have in place.

If you have a realistic 5 year supply of everything you could possibly need, you’re in a Level 2 situation for any event that promises to be resolved within that five year situation.  But if you only have a six month supply, then you’re forced to adopt Level 3 measures even if the event seems likely to be resolved within a year.

And if you’re prepared only for Level 1 events, you’re way short on options for any type of Level 2 or 3 event.

If society ‘gracefully degrades’ without rampant lawlessness, and if support mechanisms remain in place, then what could have become a Level 2 – 3 event may remain as an ‘easy’ Level 2 event.  But if society explodes, then even a survivable Level 1 event assumes Level 2 status due to the need to evacuate the city.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, you need to consider how you can improve your preparedness to be able to respond adequately to Level 2 and Level 3 events.  There’s no real trick to lasting out Level 1 situations, but even a mild Level 2 event will be life threatening to many people in the affected area.  Speak to us about the Code Green Prep cooperative communities, and how it might be possible for you to find strength, safety, security, and financial feasibility as part of a larger group of fellow preppers.

May 092012

Amateur Radio is an invaluable communication tool for after TEOTWAWKI and easily used by anyone with only a moderate amount of training required.

(Note – this article is a mix of ‘easy to understand’ material and some material which requires some knowledge of radio technologies.  You can read and learn from it either as a currently non-expert or as a more knowledgeable person, and so other than this comment, we make no apologies for some of the more complex content herein.)

A key part of any disaster scenario will be keeping in touch with other prepped people.

It is reasonable to assume that traditional methods of communication – landline phone, cell phone, fax and internet will degrade in quality and availability, either slowly or quickly, so if you don’t have some alternate method of communicating, you’ll end up completely out of touch and disconnected from supportive groups of fellow preppers.

Having multi-band radio receivers so you can receive AM, FM, weather, shortwave and miscellaneous other radio broadcasts is clearly an essential tool in your prepping kit.  But before too long, you will feel the need to transmit as well as simply receive information – whether it is to coordinate with other members of your group during the day, or for as simple a matter as to ask your nearest known neighbor if you can trade something you need for something he might need, or for something urgent like needing assistance due to a medical or security emergency.

FCC Regulations on Radio Transmitters

All devices that transmit radio waves are subject to FCC regulations.  Remember that just because there is a breakdown in social order, current regulations don’t just disappear and cease to apply – besides which, you’ll want to practice with your comms equipment prior to any disaster, so you should plan to, as much as possible, conform to existing FCC regulations.

The FCC can sometimes be quite draconian in terms of tracking down and penalizing operators of unlicensed or illegal radio equipment – meaning either people operating on frequencies they are not permitted to use, or people using equipment for unauthorized purposes, or using radio equipment that is too powerful for the terms of their license.

It is best not to run the risk of a confrontation with the FCC, because if you do commit an offense, you could be liable not just for the loss of your equipment and the loss of your license, but also for severe fines and potentially even a two-year prison term.  In addition, many of the FCC rules simply make good sense in terms of how best to use the radio waves on a shared basis with all the other people seeking to use them too.

Most radio transmitters require some sort of license – some licenses can be obtained simply by filling out a form and paying a fee, others require you to pass a technical knowledge exam (so as to become an amateur or ‘ham’ radio operator).

Licenses are sometimes given only to businesses wanting to use radios for business purposes, other times only to individuals for personal non-business use.

In a few cases, it is also possible to legally buy unlicensed radio transmitters.  The most common of these are the ‘old fashioned’ CB radios and the more modern FRS radios.  They suffer from some disadvantages however, including lack of range and sometimes greatly congested channels, made worse by appalling idiots playing on the channels and interfering with people having more sensible needs to use the channels.

For all intents and purposes, all radio receivers are unlicensed.  And note also while it is necessary to get a license before operating a radio transmitter and broadcasting in a frequency band that requires licensing as a condition of its operation, it is possible to buy a transmitter without a license, and to lawfully own it.  You only need the license when you’re going to plug it in, turn it on, and hit the ‘Transmit’ button.

Becoming a Ham Operator

If you become a ham radio operator, you get automatic permission to operate transmitters in more frequency bands.  You’re no longer stuck with the limited number of licensed and unlicensed frequency bands and the equipment limitations also imposed on such uses.  You can also use more powerful equipment with better range, and you can use frequencies that are much less congested.

There are three categories of ham operator, with successively more difficult tests to pass in order to become licensed.  The lowest category is the Technician Class.  To get a Technician class license you need to sit a 35 multi-choice question test, and get at least 26 answers correct.  You no longer need to be proficient at Morse Code (the need to be able to send and receive Morse code was abolished in 2007).

The 35 questions are selected from a published set of 396 possible questions, so it is possible to simply do a bit of ‘rote learning’ and memorize the answers to these questions without needing to learn much in the way of underlying theory or electronics.  But because many of the questions are to do with the rules and regulations rather than technical aspects of radio operation, you do need to do some study prior to sitting the test, even if you truly know all about radios from a technical perspective.

The Limitations of a Technician License and VHF/UHF Operation

Getting a Technician’s license is a great first step, and massively opens up your options for short-range radio communications.  Basically, you will be able to use a variety of types of radios that transmit in the VHF and UHF brands, and all such radios are essentially range limited to ‘line of sight’; and indeed, sometimes it is quite literally line of sight – if there are obstructions between you and the person you’re hoping to communicate with, you’ll not be able to do so, or only at greatly reduced ranges.

There are ways to extend the practical range of your communications by adding repeater stations to rebroadcast your transmissions on to another area, but in an extended period of loss of normal civilization and services, it is unrealistic to expect repeater stations will continue in operation, because they of course rely upon electricity to function.  As soon as the power grid goes down, and possibly after a very short period of battery back up operation, these repeater stations will go off the air, too.

Yes, you could set up a PV (solar cell) array and batteries as a way of making a repeater station into a self-contained independently operating unit, but you’d need a sizeable PV array, good sunlight, and big batteries if the repeater was to operate 24/7 and carry much traffic on it.

HF Gives Preppers a Whole New Use for Ham Radio

There’s another approach which might work better in many cases, and which will also extend the range of your radio communications massively – switching to HF bands instead of VHF and higher.  This will give you the ability not only to have line of sight and repeater-augmented additional range within your local region, but will give you coverage across much of the US and sometimes all the way around the world.

Your use of ham radio then switches from being a tactical level service allowing you to maintain contact with other local members of your own group, to instead becoming a strategic asset, and instead of communicating primarily with fellow group members, you now have the ability to contact fellow hams in the US and beyond (there are about 700,000 hams in the US and perhaps 3 million world-wide; many hams are also, to a greater or lesser extent, also preppers).

You can use the ability to communicate beyond your immediate zone for a huge range of things.  You can coordinate trading of supplies (this is a bit marginal in terms of FCC regulations which prohibit using amateur licenses for commercial purposes), security information, weather information, and general news about the evolution of the problem that disrupted society and the recovery of the country – and world – from that problem.

Information is power.  HF radio gives you access to much more information than you’d otherwise get during any massive disruption to normal society and its services.  And while the news you get from outside your area might not always be good, your sense of isolation is reduced, and with it, you can build up that essential element of your survival – a positive feeling of hope for the future.

The ‘General’ Amateur Radio License Gives You HF Privileges

So now you agree that being able to use some HF bands will be an essential part of your communications strategy.

To be granted permission to use HF bands, you need to pass a second test – the FCC’s General License test.  This is in the same format as the Technician test (35 multi-choice questions, with a need to get 26 correct to pass, and a slightly larger pool of 456 questions from which they are drawn), and indeed some of the questions in the General test are identical to those in the Technician test.  So you’re part-way to passing your General License as soon as you’ve obtained your Technician license.

There is also a third category of ham license which gives you access to slightly larger frequency bands in the HF spectrum – the ‘Extra’ License.  This has a similar test again, with 50 multi-choice questions (and 735 questions in the ‘pool’ from which questions are drawn).  The questions are appreciably more difficult, and you are required to get 37 of them correct.

Of course, although full understanding of the questions/answers requires a huge amount more knowledge, they are as susceptible to ‘cram-learning’ as are any other pre-disclosed multi-choice tests.

Some people will want to get an ‘Extra’ license just because they see it as a challenge.  Others might worry about congestion on the HF bands and want to get into the more exclusive remaining bandwidth that only Extra licensed operators can use.  Our guess is that the congestion on the HF bands will be reduced in some type of post-TEOTWAWKI scenario, and also that some operators will think nothing about ‘trespassing’ into the parts of the spectrum currently reserved only for Extra operators in such a scenario.

Furthermore, with many fewer Extra licensed operators out there to start with, there will be fewer additional people to potentially communicate with if you too get an Extra license, and all those Extra licensees can be reached through General frequencies, too.

So while we urge you to get a General class license, we view the Extra enhancement as being of minimal value for preppers.  Keen ham enthusiasts will of course want to get an Extra license.

Note that although there are about 700,000 ham radio operators in the US, only about half have the General or Extra license that allows them access to HF bands.

Test Taking Strategy

In order to get a Technician license, you need to pass one test (it is called the ‘Element 2’ test).  In order to get a General license, you need to pass both the Element 2 and also the Element 3 test; and you can probably guess – an Extra license requires you to pass three tests – Elements 2, 3 & 4.

You can sit these tests at the same time, and there is no extra testing fee for sitting more than one test at a time.  And because you’ll be busy studying up a lot of stuff for the Element 2 test which will be helpful for Element 3 and even Element 4 too, if you are able to devote some more time, and if you already have a basic grounding in this material, it might make sense to try and do at least two and perhaps even all three tests at the same time, as the result of one single period of intensive prior study.

Not to boast, but the writer found that his general knowledge, augmented by a couple of hours of study, was sufficient to easily pass the Element 2 test and to score better than 50% on the Element 3 test – not a passing grade, but indicative that not a huge amount more study is needed to upgrade your skills from those you develop to pass the Element 2 test to those needed to go on and get the Element 3 certification too.

Otherwise, if you pass Element 2 now, then do nothing for a year, you’ll have forgotten much of the Element 2 material and you’ll need to re-study that as well as the new Element 3 material.  And the same for Element 4, which builds on your knowledge gained in Elements 2 and 3.

Truly Learn – Don’t Just Selectively Cram

It is of course possible to just memorize all the questions and their answers without any understanding of the meaning of either the question or the answer.

Some of the questions are frustrating in the sense that they ask you questions which you’ll probably not need to ever know the answers to, or which due to their complexity and volatility, you’ll probably print out and display on sheets around your transmitter equipment.  In such cases, rote-learning is fine (for example, do you really need to commit to memory which bands allow communication with space stations).  Some of the questions are self-serving – do you need to know the underlying complexity of how the test questions are designed and administered to you?  Again, learn those by rote.

And do you really need to understand all about the ITU, CEPT and IARP agreements before answering the question which asks which one gives reciprocal operating rights between the US and some Central/South American countries and their hams (it is IARP in case you really must know).  This too is something you might simply learn by rote.

But much of the general radio knowledge and theory is stuff you should learn and understand as comprehensively as possible.  If you do find yourself confronting a TEOTWAWKI situation, you’ll probably be the only resource available for maintaining and managing your radio system, and some underlying knowledge and competency could then become essential when you’re trying to work out why your system isn’t working as you think it should, or how and when to best punch out a signal to the other coast or beyond.

License Details

The good news is that the license you receive is good for ten years, and is completely free of charge.  Amazing – the government provides this to you completely for free.

You don’t need to re-sit the tests as long as you keep your license renewed every ten years.

You will be semi-randomly assigned a call sign identifier; and if you wish, you can apply for a vanity call sign to replace the initial random call sign.  This will cost you just under $15 for a ten-year vanity call sign.  Vanity call signs can be shorter and/or might contain some special combination of letters that means something to you such as your initials; but not all number and letter sequences are available, due to a need to coordinate your call sign with those of everyone else, everywhere else in the world.

Make Sure You Are Learning For the Current Test

The questions used for the three tests are updated once every four years.  During the four year life of each set of questions, there are occasionally minor tweaks or changes – primarily in the form of changing the wording in questions and answers to make them clearer, and occasionally withdrawing a question entirely if it is superseded by changes in FCC regulations or general usage and practice.

If you are buying or otherwise accessing study materials and guides, make sure they relate to the test set that is currently in place.  Older versions of books and software might be out of date.

At the time of writing, the current sets of test questions run through :

Technician :  These expire June 30, 2014

General :  These expire June 30, 2015

Extra :  These expire June 30, 2016.  Note that the previous test series expired on 30 June 2012, and there are still some places selling or otherwise providing study test materials based on the older test series.  Make sure you’re basing your study on the new set of questions.


The FCC of course has a website, but it isn’t very immediately helpful or useful to most would-be ham operators.

The major organization for amateur radio enthusiasts is the American Radio Relay League or ARRL as it is generally known, and their website can be considered as the prime starting point for any research you need to do.

You can find details of when and where you can go to sit the tests on their site here.  It seems that you never have to wait more than a few weeks to find a reasonably convenient testing location.

The official question and answer pools for each of the three exams can be seen on the NCVEC website.

This website has a free downloadable program that you can use on a PC to test yourself on all the questions for each exam.  It is reasonably good, but lacks the diagrams that some questions refer to (download those from the NCVEC website).

This site generates sample tests from the test pools, so you can test yourself ‘for real’ and see how you are progressing.

This is another site which generates sample tests, and sometimes also provides study guide material for the questions being asked.

Here is probably the best book to help you learn and prepare for the Technician License, and the companion book for the General License.  This is the third book in the series, for the Extra License, but make sure the link takes you to the correct edition (due to the test series changing in June 2012).

All three books come with excellent software that help you evaluate your study and, if a question puzzles you, they link you to the appropriate section of the book so you can selectively study only the parts you need to know, rather than learn everything in the book in total.


Using radio services that are restricted to licensed ham amateur radio operators will give you enhanced local/tactical communications capabilities.

Getting an advanced ham license (either the General or the Extra license) will allow you to use potentially globe-circling HF bands as well as local/line-of-sight VHF/UHF bands; the ability to communicate with people outside your immediate area might seem like an irrelevant luxury in a time of maximum difficulty, but the information you can share with people further away is more likely to become an essential element of surviving and prospering.