Jul 262014
 
You might be looking at a foot soldier - maybe the only foot soldier - in our next war.

You might be looking at a foot soldier – maybe the only foot soldier – in our next war.

Our notions of modern war and warfare are, in largest part, hopelessly outdated and dangerously inaccurate.

When you ask most people to describe how they would expect any enemy to attack the US – whether a nation/state or an amorphous terrorist group, you’ll probably get responses ranging from nuclear missiles to crashing more planes into buildings or other sensitive areas.

But the most likely future attack may not involve bombs, and may not even require our attackers and their invading force to come within a thousand miles of our shores.  The notion of a gratuitous attack is, after all, not so much simply to kill some people and destroy some things, as it is to harm the enemy as broadly as possible.  War has sometimes been described as ‘An extension of economic bargaining by another means’ and in its ultimate analysis, most wars are either about economic issues, or, if ideologically based, are still about changing each side’s economic status.

Here’s an interesting thought to help explain that thought.  More of us probably suffered more direct harm/cost/inconvenience through the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ that unfolded in 2008 than we did when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11/01.  And, for those of us inconvenienced by 9/11, our inconvenience was probably a derivative effect of the 9/11 attack rather than a direct attack – because our flight was canceled, or the flight of someone coming to see us was canceled, for example.

We say this not to belittle the horror of 9/11, nor to overlook the deaths of the approximately 3,000 people directly killed on 9/11.  But more harm was done to more of us through the bloodless global financial crisis – an event that involved no spectacular events, attacks, explosions or casualties.

Furthermore, our enemies know that if they can harm our economic strength and our infrastructure, they directly harm our military and our ability to project power and influence around the world, and – in particular – in the areas that our enemies are most directly interested in.  The size of our military is of course directly related to the ability of our economy to support it – if our economy can be destroyed, how long will it be before our military is reduced still more in size because we can’t afford it at its previous level?

For an answer to that question, look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of their military.  It is only now that Russia is becoming economically strong once more that it can afford to revitalize its armed forces.

Or, if you prefer, look at China.  Its military might is increasing in direct proportion to its economic might.

Or, for the reverse, look at Britain.  Once the proud possessor of the world’s largest navy and most mighty military forces, but its military has imploded in step with Britain’s economic decline.  Make no mistake.  There is a very direct link between economic and military strength.

Okay, enough of that as introduction.  So what will the next attack on the US look like?  This article suggests it will be a cyber-attack on our economy, rather than a classic soldier based attack on our military.  The article says that Al Qaeda are already probing and seeking ways to uncover and exploit any computer system weaknesses, anywhere in our society.

This is not new.  We‘ve written about our vulnerability to cyber attack before.  But this is the first time (that we’re aware of) that the authorities are now worrying about a targeted cyber-attack by Al Qaeda (you know, the terrorist force that President Obama assured us was broken and on the run in disarray a few years ago…..).

Do a thought experiment and wonder what would happen to your world if even only some computer systems went haywire and stopped working.  It would be a bit like the scenario that was much considered but happily never occurred on January 1, 2000 – do you remember all the concern about the ‘Y2K bug’ lurking in outdated programming code?  (If you don’t remember or didn’t understand what the Y2K bug was all about, it was because many computer programs only used two digits for the year, and so when the year (19)99 because the year (20)00, there was concern that some computer programs would crash because they might misinterpret 00 as meaning 1900 rather than 2000.  It is explained more here.)

The Y2K bug was averted in large part because the world planned and prepared for it.  Almost a third of a trillion dollars were directly spent urgently rewriting software, and who knows how much more was spent less directly on simply dumping old software and old microprocessor hardware and replacing it with more modern products that had four digit dates.  A similar problem is not now expected until 10,000, when there may be another problem due to date fields only having four rather than five digits!

One could argue that it is a shame that the Y2K bug didn’t materially impact our lives back then, because it has made us more complacent about computers and their potential to wreak havoc in our lives.

But, never mind problems 8,000 years in the future.  Please keep reading.

The Next Massive Attack on the US Will be a Cyber Attack

Much more pressing is the stated intention of Al Qaeda to attack our computer systems just as soon as they get resources in place to mount a massive coordinated strike.  We’d not notice it if one or two computers failed, but we’d sure notice it if the nation’s entire banking system crashed, or if the power grid went down, or even if the internet backbone jammed.

As the other articles we’ve written about cyber-vulnerabilities, there are weaknesses in computers and control devices everywhere we turn (for example, this article about 11 million computers at risk from one type of attack), and with the internet, these devices are increasingly accessible remotely, even from other countries.

But – and here’s the worrying thing.  Although there was a high level of public awareness about the potential impact of the Y2K bug, and a worldwide campaign to eliminate the risk prior to 1/1/01, where is the similar global action to harden up our computer systems?  It is just not there, is it.

Think about this the next time you are in an elevator and push the button to go to your chosen floor.  You are relying on the elevator’s control computer to do the right thing – to take you to the correct floor, to stop there, and to open the doors.  What say it gets reprogrammed and jams you, with the doors shut, between floors?  What would happen if almost every elevator in every building failed, simultaneously?  That might not sound life threatening, but if you live or work on the 20th floor of a building, how will you now get up and down those 20 floors?

Okay, so maybe you can struggle up and down the 20 floors.  But what say the building’s HVAC system goes haywire too.  Instead of a nice comfortable 70 degrees, the temperature goes up to 100 degrees.  What do you do then?  Smash the glass of the sealed windows to let some fresh air in (which at some times of year might be still hotter, anyway!)?

Now let’s make the traffic lights malfunction too.  Maybe they’ll just simply fail.  Or maybe they’ll randomly go green and red, encouraging accidents.  Surely you know, on the occasional times when a single traffic light is out of service, how that can back up traffic for some blocks around.  Now imagine if the entire city has failed traffic lights.  How does your daily commute sound now?

With traffic jammed up, what say a building’s heating furnace or something else misbehaves, causing a fire to break out.  How will the fire trucks get to the building to put out the fire?  The sprinklers will activate and do the job for them?  Well, maybe, but that assumes the sprinkler control system hasn’t been made inoperative too, and the water supply pumps haven’t also failed.

What about simpler things such as food and water?  Well, as we’ve already mentioned, stop the water pumps and you stop the water.  Now cause supermarket freezers and coolers to fail, and also disable their computerized re-ordering systems, and they’re down to dried good only with impaired means of resupply (particularly because the trucks will be snarled in the same traffic jams).

In truth, these are difficult and indirect ways to create chaos in our nation.  A much simpler way is just to directly attack our electrical grid.  This attack could either be via the switching control circuits, causing transformers to overload and explode, or it could (also) be via the power generating facilities.  Have the power generating plants control systems fail, or program them to dangerously overload the machinery so the hardware itself fails.  Can a nuclear plant be programmed to explode?  We don’t know, but we bet it could be.

Why not make the computers that control Wall St and our stock exchanges go crazy.  While you might think that the loss of the stock exchanges would not really matter much, the loss of liquidity would see businesses unable to fund their purchases of raw materials, and in turn, be unable to sell their finished goods because their customers also were losing access to their credit facilities.  This would be a slower failure perhaps than just turning off the electrical grid, but if you have some of your retirement savings in any form of electronic/intangible holding (and, unless you have gold bars underneath your mattress, the chances are that most/all of your savings are in electronic abstract form) you’ve lost access to them.  Not just businesses would be harmed.  People could no longer buy and sell houses, cars, or much at all.

More immediately and with much greater direct effect, take out the banking system’s computers, and you can no longer use credit cards for payment, and you can no longer withdraw cash from your bank account.  What happens then when you next go to buy groceries, or gasoline, or anything, anywhere?

The possibilities for harm via attacking our nation’s computers are without limit.

Note that while we rate our risk of cyber-attack as high, most of our adversaries are not similarly at risk, because they are either low-tech nations with less reliance on computers, or alternatively, they are amorphous organizations with no physical territory or computerized infrastructure that could be targeted.

The Benefits of Cyber-Warfare to an Attacking Force

Now, think about it as if you were an attacker.  What would you rather do?  Go to boot camp, endure three months of basic training, learn to shoot, and then be shipped off to invade the US, where you’ll be shot at, likely injured, and possibly killed?  Or take some programming classes, and from the comfort of your own living room, in pyjamas and slippers, with a coke in one hand and a burrito in the other, write a computer program and insert it into a far away computer in another country, totally free of discomfort or personal risk?

There’s another benefit for an attacking force, too.  If you are talking soldiers, obviously a platoon of 12 men requires, yes, 12 people.  A battalion of 900 people similarly requires 900 people, and so on.

But, in cyber warfare, one single person can ‘enlist’ thousands of computers by infecting them with viruses that will, at a particular time, take over the computer.  That one person can then instruct all these thousands of ‘zombie’ computers to attack simultaneously.  An entire massive cyber-invasion can be planned and executed by a single person.

Now, what if you were a defender.  It is one thing to see a line of advancing enemy troops, and as part of your force, to defend your territory against them and to repel them.  But what good are ‘boots on the ground’, aircraft, tanks, guns, night sights and everything else when your enemy is not physically present, but instead is somewhere else, but you don’t know exactly where?

There’s another issue, too.  How do you fight back against a computer virus?  You don’t know where in the world it came from, and even if you did find out, by the time you’ve located the source of the virus, the person has moved, and initiated another attack from another city (or even another country).

As we started off saying, anyone who plans to fight a war with guns and bullets these days is short-sighted and crazy.  Why go to all the hassle and personal risk when you can simply unleash a computer virus that will do more damage than all the bullets and bombs you could carry?

The flipside of this is also relevant.  Anyone who plans their nation’s defense on the assumption that the enemy will only be using bombs and bullets is also crazy.  Sure, we need to keep a national military force, but our most likely attack is going to come through a computer circuit, and rather than being aimed at our troops, it will be aimed at the soft underbelly of our society – its vulnerable and unprotected computer systems.  That’s where we need to be placing the most focus and defensive resource.

Our enemies have told us they want to cyber-attack us, and our enemies are trying, on a daily basis, to infiltrate our computer networks.  The war has already started.

Bottom Line for Preppers

A cyber-attack could bring about an instant disaster, but may instead create a ‘boiling frog’ effect in society.  Our social support systems and structure would slowly degrade, rather than instantly fail.  This would engender tolerance of the problem and hope that it will be resolved, but if the attack is staged and ongoing, instead of improving, more systems will go off-line and problems will get worse.

This makes it very difficult to know when you should evacuate your city area and move to your retreat.  We discuss this in our article ‘Why slow disasters may be as serious as sudden disasters‘.  We urge your to (re)read that article and create your own ‘lines in the sand’ that will trigger your decision to bug-out and switch from every-day mode to TEOTWAWKI mode.

Jul 262014
 
A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

There’s a 50/50 chance that a massive solar storm will hit the earth and destroy most/all our electrical and electronic equipment some time in the next 42 years.  Are you prepared for this?

We’ve written many times before about the vulnerability posed to much/most of our electrical and electronic gear by a major solar storm.  Indeed, noting the expert opinion that suggests there’s a 12% chance of this type of disruptive solar storm destroying most of our modern life and lifestyle within the next decade, a solar storm and its effects should be considered one of the greatest risks of all to prepare for.

There are two issues to consider when thinking about solar storms.  The first is how strong it will be.  The second is whether it will reach the earth or not.

That second point is a bit of a saving grace, because solar storms don’t radiate out equally in all directions from the sun simultaneously.  They flow in a specific direction, and if the earth isn’t in the path of that flow, it has no impact on us.

Here’s a fascinating story of two solar storms that erupted in close succession a couple of years ago (why are we only finding out about this now?) and which had the potential to “disable everything that plugs into a wall socket”.

Fortunately, the direction those two solar storms traveled did not take them past where the earth was at that time.  But imagine if they had come directly to us.  How would your life change if everything plugged into a wall socket was disabled?  Remember, it isn’t just everything plugged into your wall sockets, but everything plugged into everyone’s wall sockets that would be disabled.  Oh yes, to say nothing of the electrical grid and the transformers and switching circuitry that routes the electricity around the country.

The article points out one impact – you’d no longer be able to flush your toilet, due to the city water supplies suffering from electric pump failures.  But not flushing your toilet (oh yes, the sewage lines would back up too, because the sewage pumps would also fail) would surely be the least of your worries.  How about also no fresh water to drink or cook with?  No heat (or cooling) and light for your home.  No food in the stores.  No internet or phones.  Pretty much no anything at all, and potentially for somewhere between weeks, months and years (the super-transformers in particular would take many years to replace).

The good news is that a solar storm would not destroy our retreat or current dwelling structure, and would not instantly emperil ourselves.  If we were quick, we would have time to respond to the event before the general population as a whole realized what had happened and started to panic.

A response (and panic) might actually take longer to occur than you think.  If all radio, television, phone and internet services are down, it would take some time before what people would instinctively assume merely to be a pesky short-term power cut became to be appreciated as a more severe, more global, and longer-term event.

Even as that awareness slowly developed, there would still be a huge passive expectation that ‘the government will help us’ – although of course, the flipside of that expectation is very ugly.  As people realize the government isn’t going to help them and can’t help them, that encourages a feeling of outrage and betrayal and a perception that all normal rules and constraints have been abandoned.  That’s the point when people start rioting, looting, setting fire to things, and becoming mindlessly violent at anyone who they feel deserves to be the focal point of their anger – in particular, anyone they see as being more fortunate than themselves.

It would definitely be a good time to be getting out of Dodge!

Bottom Line for Preppers?

Massive solar storms that could destroy everything plugged into a socket have occurred before (the Carrington event in 1859, and probably more in the past that didn’t matter so much when we had nothing electrical or electronic to be affected by them).  Not quite so severe solar storms have occurred more recently (Quebec in 1989).

It is more a case of when rather than if another solar storm will hit the earth with severe – unimaginable – consequences.  Statistics say there is 12% chance of this happening in the next ten years, which means it is almost sure to happen every 83 years, and there’s a 50/50 chance every 42 years.

Solar storms are survivable because they don’t destroy structures or injure people.  But they require you to be well prepared and able to become fully self-sufficient for probably a decade or more.

One last comment.  Our sense is the authorities underplay this risk.  We feel they prefer to under-rate the chances of this happening, and to under-rate the impact if it does happen.  Even in this most recent article, the example of the disaster that would follow is limited to ‘your toilet won’t flush’!  But think about that – if your toilet won’t flush, you’re in a dozen other worlds of hurt that are much more life threatening, at the same time.  The authorities prefer to downplay this rather than alarm the masses and expose their own inability to protect us the way so many people expect, demand, and assume.

Jul 222014
 
The Tsar Bomba's 35 mile high mushroom cloud, as seen from 100 miles away.

The Tsar Bomba’s 35 mile high mushroom cloud, as seen from 100 miles away.

An interesting new study predicts that a limited nuclear exchange between warring powers would result in a ‘nuclear winter’ scenario.

The study says this would create global famine, cooling, drought and massive increases in UV radiation (due to damage to the ozone layer), lasting some 20 years, and with between hundreds of millions and billions of people dying (the total population on the planet is about 7 billion).

The full study is available here, and there’s a more easily read paraphrase/summary of it here.

This scenario is based on a hypothetical possible war between India and Pakistan, and assumes each side fires 50 nuclear warheads at the other side (ie 100 total), and each of a moderate 15 kiloton yield.

On the face of it, this sounds apocalyptic.  On the other hand, we have major concerns about the underlying assumptions of this computer model, and our email to the study’s authors requesting clarification, which they quickly opened and read, has gone unanswered.  Just like the old computer adage ‘GIGO’ (Garbage In, Garbage Out), if the model’s assumptions are wrong, then its conclusions are also flawed.

It is interesting to look at the study and see where the assumptions may be invalid, and also to draw some lessons for preppers from its projections, whether valid or not.  Although we don’t believe a ‘limited’ 100 warhead exchange would have the apocalyptic results forecast, other events might bring about these effects and so it is helpful to understand what to expect and prepare for in such a case.

The study is based on what would happen if 5 Tg (Teragrams, the same as 5 million metric tons) of ‘black carbon‘ (a fancy way of saying smoke soot) was released into the atmosphere, and suggests this is a likely result from the detonation of 100 15 kiloton nuclear bombs.

We can’t comment on the validity of the model’s projections for the impact of 5 Tg of BC into the atmosphere, and will assume that the model is correct about this – although note that most climatological models are somewhat controversial as the ongoing debate over global warming indicates.  But we do have concerns about the suggestion that 100 typical nuclear explosions, such as might occur in a limited nuclear exchange between warring powers, would have this effect.  Let’s have a look at what we see to be flaws in the model’s underlying assumptions.

The Problems With This Study’s Underlying Assumptions

The first reason for doubting this is that in total 100 15 kiloton explosions would seem to total to about the same as a single 1.5 megaton explosion (there are reasons for and against suggesting that 100 15 kiloton explosions create either more or less effect than one single 1.5 megaton explosion).  Let’s put that in context, to appreciate how ‘trivial’ (on a global scale!) that actually is.

During the days of above ground nuclear testing by both Russia and the US, nuclear explosions of much greater than 1.5 megatons in magnitude were regularly detonated, with the largest ever nuclear explosion, the Russian Tsar Bomba, being estimated at between 50 – 58 megatons in destructive power.  Yes, this one single explosion was almost 40 times greater than the amount this study says would be sufficient to create a 20 year ‘nuclear winter’, but created almost no measurable impact on local, regional, or global climate at all.

So clearly there is more to consider than just the size of the explosions.  There are several other factors built-in to the study assumptions which the authors have not clarified.  Some are described in some of the supporting studies they are relying upon, others are not clear to us and regrettably the authors have chosen not to reply to our queries.

The first thing to appreciate is there is a huge difference between an air burst and a ground burst nuclear explosion.  A ground burst throws up a lot more material into the atmosphere than an airburst.  Most nuclear weapons are designed to be detonated as air burst rather than ground burst devices, because an air burst has a greater blast effect, destroying more buildings for a greater distance than a ground burst.

Ground bursts are only used to destroy ‘hardened’ targets such as missile silos.

We don’t know what the model assumes about air vs ground bursts.

There are two assumptions that are detailed, however.  The first is that all explosions occur over built up areas, meaning there is a lot of combustible material (ie buildings) within the blast radius, making for much larger fires and smoke and black carbon release.

The second assumption is that none of the explosions overlap with the locations of any of the other explosions, meaning that each explosion is assumed to have a complete fresh supply of material to destroy and set fire to.

In other words, these two assumptions create a maximum ‘worst case’ scenario to build upon.

How likely are these two assumptions?  We rate them as unlikely rather than likely.  Nuclear targets tend to first be military installations, secondarily industrial, and only as a very distant lowest priority do we see population concentrations targeted.  Of course, often the industrial and sometimes even the military targets overlap with population clusters, but equally, many times they do not.  Strategic military bases are not in the centers of large cities, they are in outlying areas, and tend to be sprawling over hundreds of acres with a low concentration of buildings and little combustible material.

Furthermore, it is standard military doctrine to have multiple warheads targeting each priority target so as to ensure that if one of the warheads is intercepted, or fails, or goes off target, the backup warheads will still destroy the target.  Alternatively, if attacking a large population concentration, it is still likely that multiple warheads would be set to have overlapping regions of destruction rather than being evenly spaced out such as happens when you use a cookie cutter to cut cookies out of a sheet of dough.  The problem with the cookie cutter model is that it leaves parts of the city unharmed entirely, and other parts with only moderate degrees of harm.  When designing an attack to create maximum harm, it is more common to have overlapping explosions.

Seven Possible Problems with the Study’s Assumptions

So, we see at least seven problems with the study’s underlying assumptions :

1.  No nuclear tests, including some up to 40 times the magnitude of this complete 100 warhead scenario, have resulted in any significant climate change at all.

2.  We suspect the model assumes the ‘worst case scenario’ for air vs ground bursts, a scenario which is unlikely to be reflected by actual ‘best practice’ military doctrine.

3.  We do not believe that all of the 100 explosions would be over high density population centers.  Many – maybe even most – would be over lower density militarily or industrially significant areas with much lower BC release as a result.

4.  We do not agree with the model assumption that there would be no overlap in blast effects and that each and every one of the 100 explosions would occur over high density buildings that had not yet been partially or even completely destroyed by preceding blasts.

5.  There might also be some significance in the study’s choice of India and Pakistan as a location.  These two countries are closer to the equator than most other potential future nuclear battlegrounds, meaning that there will likely be more efficient and rapid transportation of the BC from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere than if the nuclear explosions occurred further away from the equator.  In other words, this is another aspect of the study that might overstate the global implications of a nuclear exchange.

6.  If we are to accept the opinion that current industrial activity is causing global warming and adverse climate effects (and we’re not saying we do!), the depressed effect on the global levels of industrial activity caused by the predicted enormous famine and associated probable social and economic collapse will result in the reduction of other manmade carbon emissions and may therefore provide some counter-balancing relief from the effects of the BC release and accelerate the earth’s recovery.  There is no sign of this being factored into the study model.

7.  It appears their model assumed that all the BC was shot up into the atmosphere in a concentrated area of either 50 or 100 nautical miles in radius.  This is unlikely to be the case – India in particular is an enormous country with many different potential targets for nuclear attack, meaning a more realistic model should have a series of much more diffuse and smaller BC sources.  We also suspect that the model anticipates all 100 explosions occurring more or less simultaneously, whereas in reality, there is likely to be some spread of time during which they occur – possibly only minutes, maybe hours or days.  We don’t know what impacts this would have on the model, but we guess it may slightly soften the outcomes.

Is 5 Million Tons of Black Carbon a Lot?

One more thing.  The study is talking about the release of 5 Tg of black carbon, or 5 million tonnes.  How does that compare to current annual black carbon emissions?

We did some research and found wildly varying figures – for example, on this page almost next to each other are two contradictory claims, one suggesting about 7.5 million tonnes a year are released from all sources at present, and the other claim saying that forest fires alone release between 40 – 250 million tonnes a year.

According to this page, forest fires represent about 40% of total black carbon emissions, so if forest fires contribute 40 – 250 million tons a year, that would suggest in total between 100 and 625 million tonnes are released each year.

The significant part of the 5 million ton release from the nuclear war is that most of it is propelled up very high into the atmosphere and stays there for some time, whereas much of the ‘normal’ black carbon doesn’t go so high and more quickly falls back to earth.

But, at the same time, we have to note that if total black carbon emissions each year are as much as 100 times more than the amount released by this hypothetical nuclear war, is 5 million tons actually a significant amount to consider?  The study also does not put this size release into any sort of contextual perspective.

Prepper Implications of the Study’s Projected Outcomes

So, we think we can confidently state that this hypothetical 100 nuclear bomb scenario is unlikely to release 5 Tg of black carbon, and therefore, a nuclear winter scenario is unlikely from this.

But, maybe a larger scale conflict between major nuclear powers could indeed cause the 5 Tg release, and even a more limited black carbon release will still cause some modification to the global climate.  We also asked the study authors if the effects were linearly proportional – ie a 2.5 Tg release having half the impact of their modelled 5 Tg release, but, yet again, they didn’t reply.

So, while we are dismissive of the study’s basis and assumptions, there are still some valid lessons to be learned for preppers if we simply ask ourselves ‘what if some type of event caused a massive climate change?’.

1.  We often think about the impacts of a nuclear exchange as being one that is an attack on American soil.  It is easy to understand how nuclear explosions close to us would have some direct effects, but harder to realize that nuclear weapons going off on the other side of the world can still impact on us here.  Clearly, the risk is more global than we might first think.  A war between two far away countries can still upset the climate, globally.  From this perspective, the studied model provides more cause for concern than relief, and should encourage us to realize why it is such a bad thing, for, eg, Iran to be allowed to continue down its steady path to becoming a nuclear power.

2.  A probable outcome will be less solar energy for our solar cells.  Although UV levels will rise, these are not efficiently used by solar cells (which are most sensitive to red light, ie the part of white light that is red).  So we should allow for this loss of solar energy and increase our solar arrays accordingly.

3.  The cooling effect and shortened growing season means that we should consider locations that currently have sufficient growing season as to still remain productive with a 10 – 40 day reduction in season length.

4.  Substantial increases in UV radiation levels mean preference should be given to growing UV-resistant crops.

5.  While temperature changes don’t directly threaten our society or its industrial base, the loss of food production does and will threaten much/most of society, particularly when famine starts to cause the death of substantial percentages of the population.  In addition to slower acting famine, there is reason to fear that as the black carbon falls from the sky, there will be a fast and massive rise in respiratory diseases and deaths.

6.  The effects of famine will likely be of greatest impact in third world countries.  Hopefully, in the US, urgent attempts at creating hothouses, hydroponics, and other ‘high tech’ solutions, and simply changing our food habits to waste less and eat less, and buying in more food from other countries (assuming it is still for sale) will cushion the impacts on US society.  If we reduced our food intact to a more appropriate level and if we cut down on waste, we’d instantly halve our food requirements, and if we shifted our food production to most effective yielding crops, we’d probably bring about a doubling in net food production.

7.  It seems we should plan for less rain and – in areas currently short of water – more drought.  Ensure your location has sufficient water access, even in adverse conditions that – worst case scenario – may see rivers dwindle in size and creeks dry up entirely.  Rainwater collection systems will become less effective, and underground water table levels will drop due to reduced rates of replenishment (and possibly accelerated rates of offtake due to increased reliance on wells).

8.  This scenario shows an immediate impact on crop production (depending of course on what time of year the nuclear exchange occurs) and lasting effects extending 25 years or more.  On the other hand, if there are massive population losses in the first few years, it might be possible that the smaller sized population could more quickly balance the reduced agricultural capabilities and allow for a faster return to an industrialized self-sustaining society.

9.  The model shows that global temperatures drop over a five-year period.  This means that maybe the result is less a sudden apocalyptic transition and more a gradual deterioration in weather.

10.  The  climate change effects seem generally more extreme, the further away from the equator you go, and less extreme closer to the equator.  Perhaps this argues in favor of establishing a retreat in a southern rather than northern part of the US.

11.  Damage to crop DNA from increased UV levels will be passed from generation to generation, probably getting worse each time.  It is prudent to have sufficient stocks of seed to enable you to used undamaged seed to restart your crops several times during the period of increased UV.

12.  Air-borne fine particulate black carbon is harmful to health.  It will be beneficial to have filtration systems in your retreats to filter out the particulate matter before air is circulated within the retreat.  HEPA type filters will address this need, and if you get washable ones, that will extend their life (which will probably be much shorter than anticipated due to the much greater concentration of black carbon in the air).  If you’re going outside, you might want to use a respirator to give you protection while outdoors too.

13.  Although also impacted, the southern hemisphere seems to not be as severely affected as the northern hemisphere.  Because this type of climate based calamity would take some days/weeks/months/years to fully develop, it would give you time to fly to your choice of southern locations and set up your retreat there.

Summary

Although this study suggests an apocalyptic outcome of a relatively minor nuclear war, we disagree.  We think that the study may possibly overstate the direct results of a 100 warhead nuclear exchange, and we further feel that the western world – and in particular the United States – may be able to adapt its food sourcing and consumption fast enough to minimize the widespread famine and death projected in the study.

On the other hand, the increase in harmful particulate matter in the air is something that you do need to be able to respond to.

Depending on the importance you attach to this type of sudden climate change risk, you may want to factor it in to your choice of retreat location (ie issues such as water sufficiency, growing season length, and perhaps more generally, closer to the south than the north of the country).

Jul 192014
 
The revised earthquake risk map published by the USGS.  Full size version here.

The revised earthquake risk map published by the USGS. Full size version here.

The US Geological Survey organization – a government department that few of us think about, but which employs over 10,000 people in over 400 locations – has now revised its earlier 2008 earthquake risk projections.

The new projection shows heightened risk in some of the American Redoubt states, but some parts of the country have their risk downgraded, so overall, there is probably no significant change in national overall earthquake risk.

The areas of changed risk do not necessarily mean there have been changes in the underlying geological structures that cause earthquakes in those regions.  More commonly, it means that in the six years since the 2008 risk projections were published, there have been improvements in the data obtained and the understanding of earthquake causes, allowing for an improved projection of likely future earthquakes.

When you’re planning your retreat location, earthquake risk is of course a small factor to consider – both in general terms from the perspective of ‘might there be an earthquake here’ and in specific terms – are there potential risk factors immediately around your retreat location if a large earthquake were to occur.  It would be useful to check local records to see the potential risk for liquefaction in your area, and also to consider things such as if you’re downstream from a major dam that might break, if there is a bridge or other vital connection that could be destroyed and cutting you off from ‘the rest of the world’, etc.

The risk is also from smaller dams and structures failing – what say you have a small dam yourself as part of a micro-hydro power station.  Or a water tower.  And so on.

Also, of course, you should be sure to ensure that your retreat is built to fully comply with best earthquake resistant building practices, and that everything stored within it be reasonably secured so as not to be at risk in the event of a foreseeably strong earthquake (ie, don’t have glass jars of produce unsecured on an open top shelf of racking!).

Here’s a map showing which areas have had their risk increased and which areas have had their risk decreased (for one of several different earthquake measurement factors).

earthquakechangec

The sixteen states deemed at highest risk of a significant earthquake are (alphabetically) Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The full study covers nearly 250 pages and is a 113MB download from the USGS website.  The key summary information can also be found on the USGS site.

Jul 082014
 
An  interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

An interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

Here’s a rather simplistic article that talks about the potential for solar storms to disrupt many aspects of our modern-day life.

What is interesting however is their pie chart analysis of some of the derivative disruptions from a solar storm (shown on the left and more easily seen full size in the linked article).

Like so much that appears in public about our society’s underlying vulnerabilities, we feel their chart is more optimistic than perhaps is appropriate, particularly if the storm were to be a massive scale ‘Carrington Event’ rather than a more moderate storm.  But, optimistic or not, it still shows a wide and – hopefully – eye-opening range of negative outcomes and impacts from a single strong solar storm.

It is a shame this was not prepared with more care.  See, for example, the assumption that a solar storm would simply disrupt satellite communications during the (short) period of the storm, and that things would then quickly return back to normal.  That assumption implies that the satellites would not be damaged, and that’s an assumption we’re not sure is fully valid.

Some things appear  twice on the wheel as well – for example, aviation,  which is shown as having widespread outages (as a result of disruptions to the power grid) but only short-term disruption elsewhere on the wheel.  How can it be both?

There is an interesting point in the article.  It is common to plan for 100 year floods, but few if any businesses seem to be prepared for a once in 100 year solar event.

What about you?  How prepared are you for the disruptions that would follow a solar storm?

May 082014
 
Patterns of volcano ash fallout from past mega eruptions.

Patterns of volcano ash fallout from past mega eruptions.

Although there are plenty of people who are concerned that the Feds are indeed secretly preparing for future problems (ie, not in the way we might wish and hope for), maybe we should also be pleased to learn of such things.  Is it possible the Feds have both a bug-out plan and also a distant safe retreat for us all?  Or, at least, for some lucky souls among us?

Here’s an interesting article which, on a very thin level of evidence, suggests that maybe the Feds have made – or are making – or are trying to make – plans for a mass exodus of Americans in the event of a national disaster such as an eruption of the mega-volcano in Yellowstone (and probably in the case of other major disasters too).

According to the article and its sources, in such a case, the US might send (ie, fly) an unknown number of millions of us to South Africa, or maybe Brazil, Argentina, or Australia (can I put my name down for Australia, please).

But, really and realistically, how practical is this?

First, do you remember the Iceland volcano eruption of a few years ago, and how it disrupted air traffic for weeks?  A mega-volcano eruption in the US may cause similar problems in the air.  Or the ash (and possibly lava too) may impact on runways and ground operations, making it impossible for planes to land, spend time on the ground, and take-off again.  How would the millions of people affected by the eruption get to staging points and to operating international airports?

But, let’s ignore that for now.  Let’s simply consider how long it would take to fly 10 million people to South Africa.  For the sake of argument, let’s say people fly on 500 seater Airbus A380s, the largest passenger planes currently flying.  That means we need 20,000 flights.  At the time of writing, a total of 128 A380s have been delivered by Airbus, none of which are owned/operated by US airlines.  But let’s say the US can charter half of these – 64 planes.  That means each plane has to do 312 roundtrips between the US and South Africa.  In other words, it would take over a year to evacuate all 10 million people.

Okay, so there’s no reason why the US couldn’t also use 400 seater 747s and 300 seater 777s as well.  Could it possibly cobble together a fleet of 250 planes, averaging 400 seats each?  We’re not sure about that, but let’s say it could be done.  That means each roundtrip would see 100,000 people moved out of the US – assuming perhaps 36 hour roundtrip durations, that would mean in five or six months the 10 million people had been successfully evacuated.

But, what if it is 20 million or 200 million?  That means one year, or ten years.

And, ummm, what will people do while patiently waiting weeks, months or years for their turn to be evacuated?  Where will they live?  What will they eat?

Talking about eating, how will the host country then suddenly handle a massive influx of millions of people?  South Africa has a population of 51 million, many (most?) of whom live in severe poverty.  How could it handle a sudden addition of many millions more people?  What living standard could we expect?  (Of the other countries mentioned, Argentina has 41 million people, Australia 23 million, and Brazil 199 million.)

That also begs the question – if it takes six months or six years to evacuate a person, and if there will be major infrastructure and support problems where the people are being relocated, is flying them half-way around the world the best way to handle the disruption?

The article in the South African newspaper says we would have ‘a few weeks or days’ of warning prior to an eruption.  But, with an evacuation rate of 100,000 per day – and an uncertain amount of time to spool up the evacuation process to that rate, combined with the unwillingness of people to suddenly abandon their lives and homes and leave, perhaps forever, with no more than one or two suitcases each, how many people could actually be evacuated in those few days or weeks?  A million?  That’s probably only a very small percentage of the people who would be impacted by the Yellowstone volcano coming cataclysmically to life.

So just how impactful and helpful might any such evacuation program be?  Is this the best the government can come up with – evacuating as many of us as possible to South Africa?  And, oh yes, South Africa doesn’t want us, no matter how much our government is offering to bribe them ($10 billion a year just to have the contingency open!) for fear that their country would be overrun by white people.  Hmmm – why is it only offensive outrageous racism when white people say that about blacks, but never vice versa?  There are 45 million black/colored South Africans at present – just how many white Americans are too many?

One also wonders, based on the objection of being inundated by too many white folk, whether or not such relocation is being proposed as a temporary or permanent measure.  Still it is nice to think that maybe the government is planning to fly us to some exotic location rather than intern us in a FEMA camp!

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the article is the map image at the top (we have a small size version of it at the top of our article, too).  It is interesting to see how the ash from past eruptions has spread across the country – and when you think that radioactivity would follow a similar dispersion/fallout path (assuming similar release locations, of course) it is clear that it is much better to be west rather than east of any potential events.

Oh – and as for the government being there to save us after a national disaster?  And should you keep your passport current, just in case of a sudden unexpected relocation to some far away foreign country?  Call us cynical if you must, but we think you’d be well advised not to rely on this ‘deus ex machina’ coming along to save you.  Continue to plan and prepare to be self-reliant is by far the wiser choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Much Generating Power Do You Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a note of the power requirements for such items.

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

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

Adding it All Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing for Surge and Starting Power

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

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

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

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

Choosing a Suitable Small Generator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inverter/Generators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Measure the Actual Power Being Provided by Your Generator

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

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

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

Two Notes About Fuel Storage

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

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

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

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

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

Maintaining Your Generator

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

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

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

Summary

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

These small units are also invaluable for apartment dwellers.

May 052014
 
Our national power grid spans three interconnected regions.

Our national power grid spans three interconnected regions.

What happened the last time you flicked a light switch?  The power came on, right?  And the time before, and the time before.  More importantly, you also expect it to continue coming on next time you flick the switch, too.

Well, maybe you don’t have such expectations, because you’re a cautious prepper, and the unknown is unsurprising to you.  But all the unaware people around us – their lives would be destroyed if our national electricity distribution grid failed to function as it needs to, distributing electricity from the places in the country where it is generated to the places in the country where it is needed, smoothing out regional peaks and troughs of demand, and so on.

If you look around you, you probably see houses or offices, stores full of goods, cars and trucks on highways, and so on – all the essential things of our society.  But our entire society is built on the thing you don’t see – electricity.  Given the essential nature of this intangible, you might be forgiven for assuming that the integrity of the electrical grid is assured, protected, and robustly engineered to be fail-safe and fault-tolerant.

On the other hand, you know what they say about making assumptions…..

With that as introduction, here now is a semi-secret report by New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) which monitors regional (terrorist) threat levels.  The report is of course written in ‘officialese’ and is careful not to make any comments or express any opinions that are too extreme or upsetting.  But it does note an uptick in probing type activity against grid infrastructure locations across the entire country, including at least three intrusions in NJ located facilities in October 2013 and another three in January 2014.  It focused on three more intrusions over the last year (in AR, AZ and CA) that it says highlights the grid’s vulnerability.

The report’s conclusion?  Our national grid is ‘inherently vulnerable’ to attacks that could wipe out power across vast portions of the country.

The report is as significant for what it doesn’t say as for what it does say.  While it acknowledges that many ‘critical links’ in the grid infrastructure sit open and unprotected in remote locations, and correctly says this makes the grid vulnerable, it fails to consider the implications of a grid failure, and – perhaps most significantly of all – it fails to mention how long it would take to restore the grid after an attack that took out more than one or two or three key locations.

As we’ve reported in previous articles on this topic (and, if nothing else, do read this article in particular – Why Our Electricity Grid is So Vulnerable), the huge problem we have is that the super-transformers that are used in the grid are not made in the US, but instead are made in China, and have to be ordered years in advance of delivery.  If we need one more super-transformer, we might have to wait three years, but what happens if we need ten or a hundred of them?  Sure, the first might be delivered in three years time, but how long until the tenth and the one hundredth arrive?

That’s a problem with no upside, only downside.  Indeed, who really cares about the delivery date for the 100th replacement super-transformer.  The three-year delay to receive the first of them is more than enough cause for concern.  What part of our society can function for three years without electricity?  For three months?  For three weeks?  For many people and businesses, three days will be a struggle, three weeks will see starvation set in, and in way less than three months, unconstrained anarchy will reign.

It is an enormous puzzle as to how our nation happily (?) spends billions of dollars a year on aviation type security, but willfully overlooks a vulnerability that is much easier to exploit and which could have much greater negative impacts on very many more people than could any type of attack on our aviation system.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do as preppers to reduce the national vulnerability to our power grid going down.  But there’s a lot we can do to reduce our personal vulnerability to such things.

Have you done so for yourself?  Are you doing so at present?

Apr 252014
 
The development of hyper-efficient mechanized agricultural production revolutionized our country, but simultaneously increased our dependence and vulnerability on increasingly complex infrastructure.

The development of hyper-efficient mechanized agricultural production revolutionized our country, but simultaneously increased our dependence and vulnerability on increasingly complex infrastructure.

Almost exactly two years ago we wrote an article ‘Urban Drift : A Worrying Trend‘.  The commentary and conclusions in that article remain as valid today as then, only more so.

The last two years have shown a continued move away from rural and non-metropolitan counties and to the cities.  When we wrote our article in May 2012, we said that about 80% of the country lived in urban areas and only 20% in rural areas.

USDA data shows that now only 15% of Americans live in rural and non-urban areas.  That shift from 80/20 to 85/15 is more significant than you might think – it is the difference between a 4:1 ratio and an almost 6:1 ratio.

Of particular significance is that this population shift isn’t just being caused by the cities growing faster – it is caused by people leaving the rural areas and moving to the cities.  There are now fewer people living in 1200 counties than there were in 2010 (in total, a reduction of 400,000 people), and while this has been partially offset by growth in 700 other counties, a net imbalance remains, with the cities an even more unbalanced part of our country (the USDA has an interesting chart showing which counties had growth and which lost people on the page linked above).

The period 2010 through 2013 marks the first ever extended period of rural depopulation.  Sure, often in the past, rural population growth has lagged behind metro growth, both in percent terms and also in absolute numbers, but now we are seeing four years of actual decreases.

Furthermore, many of the remaining rural residents are not productive – they are either retirees, or ‘lifestyle’ dwellers who might actually have non-agricultural type jobs that they telecommute to.  Many more are service/support workers – the people who work in the schools, the stores, and the local governments.  The actual number of people who are self-supporting is remarkably few.

Our cities increasingly rely upon food that has been grown using intensive/mechanized forms of production, and which are located increasing distances from the cities themselves.  If our modern energy-intensive world changes, then the food can no longer be grown so efficiently, and it won’t be able to be transported as far, making for crippling food shortages in our cities and all that implies.

In other words, in the last two years, the situation has got worse, not better.  Cities have become even more dependent on even fewer people supplying them with the food they need.

As preppers, we need to be sure we can supply our own food WTSHTF.