Dec 262012
 
This four panel solar array measures 13.5' x 4.6', generates up to 920W of power, and costs $3500 (in Dec 2012).

This four panel solar array measures 13.5′ x 4.6′, generates up to 920W of power, and costs $3500 (in Dec 2012).

The ‘comfort’ level – some might say, the degree of advancement – of a civilization or life style can be closely approximated to its energy usage.

There’s a reason that we in the US are among the world’s largest consumers of energy, and it’s not that we’re wasteful.  It is because we enjoy a lifestyle that is generally better than most other nations around the world.  Just about anything and everything you do involves consuming energy.  Some of this energy consumption is obscured (for example, do you ever think of the energy consumed by shipping the 40 tons of goods we each require a year).  Some of it is assumed (for example, the energy that is required to make aluminum).  And much of the rest is taken for granted, even if energy used directly by you.

All of this ‘works’ for us because we are blessed with abundant and affordable energy supplies.

That will massively change in a Level 2 or 3 situation (see definitions here).

Life is both good and simple at present, and you seldom if ever consider the cost of the energy you enjoy.  And if you did want to, you could work out how much it costs to switch on a light, to run the television. to turn up the heating.

Well, perhaps better to say that in theory you can work out all these things.  Your utility supply company has a tariff, probably shown at least in part on every invoice you receive, showing the cost of each unit of power or gas you consume.  A bit of figuring and converting, and you can soon work out that, eg, if you’re paying 10c per kilowatt-hour (kWhr) for electricity, your computer is costing you 3.5c/hour to run, and the reading light in your bedroom is costing you less than a penny an hour, and so on.

These costs are generally so low that we don’t even think about them individually, although we might wince a bit when seeing our monthly or bi-monthly utility bill.

What will it cost us to do the same things if the grid goes down and if we have to live with only the energy we can make (or have stockpiled) ourselves?

The answer might surprise you.  Some things will be (sort of) free.  Other things will be so expensive that no amount of money will make them affordable (for example, an electric clothes drier).  Most of all, expressing costs in dollars and cents terms is no longer as relevant (because money, as an abstraction, will no longer be relevant).

Some Energy Might Be Almost Free

Let’s say you have some solar cells on your roof.  How much does that electricity cost you?  Sort of nothing.

Sure, it cost you a lot of money to buy and mount the array on your roof, and to buy a controller and run wiring and whatever else, but those costs are all now fully incurred.  So, in a sense, solar power is free, which leads to an obvious question and a necessary answer.

If Solar Power is Free, Why Don’t We All Have it Now?

The ‘variable cost’ of using the solar array you have installed for generating some power today might indeed be zero.  But while that cost today is zero, there was a substantial cost involved to install it in the first place, right?  You needed to buy the cells, install them, add electronic controllers, run wiring, patch them into your home power supply, and possibly set up a bank of batteries and regulators, too.

An accountant would also point out that sooner or later, the cells, wiring, controllers, and other related parts of the system will wear out, break, or in some other way fail and need to be repaired or replaced, so there are some future costs to be considered.

An accountant would depreciate or amortize the cost of the system over the total likely power generated during its life, and give you an average cost per unit of power as a result.

Furthermore, at present most of us enjoy amazingly inexpensive power from our utility companies.  The number of years it would take to pay for the up-front installation costs of a solar array can be substantial, and too long to make sense for many of us, in a situation where we are prepared to assume that we will continue to be guaranteed 24/7 access to unlimited affordable power, whenever we need it.

That is why everyone hasn’t rushed to buy solar arrays, yet.  But keep an eye on pricing – the payback time for solar arrays has been getting shorter and shorter, due to the massive reductions in the cost of the cells (thank you, China!) and the steady increase in regular utility-sourced electricity.  On the other hand, the US government has deemed that China has been ‘dumping’ solar cells into the US, and while you or I might be delighted at a chance to get bargain basement priced solar cells, and while you might think the greenies in the government would be delighted at China in effect subsidizing the US renewable energy movement by selling us product at below cost, that is, alas, not the case, and the government is looking at various trade sanctions to force China to sell them to us more expensively.

Anyway, back to the cost of solar.  These various accounting and costing issues are all correct, of course, but once you’ve installed and paid for a solar installation, then in terms of the actual incremental variable cost of using your solar cell array right now, the electricity flows with no extra money being spent by you, and with no need to ‘feed’ the solar cells with diesel or any other consumable.

About the only thing you’ll want to do is occasionally clean the cells, and even that is something you do at the same intervals, whether you’re using all the electricity generated by the cells or not.

So – from one perspective – this electricity is free.  Enjoy it while it lasts (which happily will probably be for 25+ years).

Some Energy Might Be Impossibly Expensive

Maybe you have an electric furnace, or an electric stove top.  Let’s say that one of these devices can take up to 10 kW of electricity when in use.  And let’s say that you can only produce 5 kW of electricity maximum from your generator set.

There’s nothing you can do.  No amount of money will get more electricity out of the generator.  You’re stuck.

Furthermore, how much does the energy created by your diesel generator cost?  There are two schools of thought on that, so please read on.

Some Energy Has a Very Different Historical and Replacement Cost

Talking about that generator – and let’s assume it is a diesel-powered generator – you know how much energy you get from the generator per gallon of diesel burned (we’ll say 10 kWhr per gallon which is a reasonably good rule of thumb to use).  You know that when you bought the diesel you are burning, it was costing you $4/gallon, so you know that each kWhr has an underlying cost of 40c.

But that is only correct if you can conveniently replace the diesel you are using, and at the same cost.  You are best advised to consider the cost of anything like this in terms of the replacement cost of the source fuel you are consuming, rather than in terms of the historical cost.

If there’s no more diesel to be had, then the cost of the diesel you do have has just gone up massively, hasn’t it.  What is the replacement cost of a gallon of irreplaceable diesel fuel?

You’ll need to start thinking of sourcing/creating bio-diesel for the future, or other completely different means of being able to generate electricity as and when needed, and you’ll need to consider what the costs will be and how sizeable the supply may be.

Note the phrase ‘as and when needed’.  That is the very significant difference between solar and wind power on the one hand, and a diesel generator on the other.  Solar and wind power only flows when the sun shines or the wind blows.  Much of our power needs would normally be later in the day and at night when it is cold and dark, and when we want to cook our evening meal, and this is a time when the winds typically calm down and of course, the solar cells stop entirely.

So a diesel generator and its diesel fuel can not be replaced by solar or wind power, unless there is some way of storing up the power so it can be used when it is needed rather than when it is generated.  The most common means of power storage – lead acid batteries – is clumsy and the batteries have finite lives, both in terms of years and also in terms of the number of charge/discharge cycles they can withstand.

The True Cost of Energy in the Future

Replacement cost is the true cost of energy in the future.  And when we talk about ‘cost’, we don’t mean dollars and cents.  We mean ‘How long will you have to work, what will you have to do, in order to create the energy you are about to consume?’.

We see a future where energy becomes the key measure of one’s ‘wealth’ and the means of measuring one’s energy value is the amount of time it takes to create the energy you have and use.  This will give you a meaningful way to appraise the appropriateness of any particular energy use.

For example, if running your electric dishwasher saves you 30 minutes of time, but if the work required to provide the power for the dishwasher requires two hours of your time, then who will want to use their dishwasher any more?  It just doesn’t make sense to work for two hours in order to save 30 minutes of time.

But if one hour of work provides you with light and video or audio entertainment for four hours, that is probably an acceptable ‘cost’ – assuming, of course, that you have a spare hour of time to allocate to creating that energy.

Which touches on the other part of this equation.  How much is your time worth and how much extra time do you have?  If you are locked in a desperate struggle for survival, all day every day, simply working your land to create food to subsist on, then you probably don’t have either the time to create the energy to power your home entertainment system or the spare time to then enjoy it in the evening.

Some things are harder to equivalate.  It is easy to say, in the dishwasher example, that it makes no sense to work for two hours to save 30 minutes, but what say you are instead considering ‘I have to work for two hours to increase the temperature inside by residence by 5 degrees for a day’?  Which is better?  More clothes and blankets and less work, or more work and more comfortable home temperatures?  Of course, that depends – if the ambient temperature is 40 degrees, you’d probably work to bring the temperature up, but if the temperature is already 65 or 70 degrees, maybe it becomes less important and other things take higher priority.

Nonetheless, a key measure of energy will become the number of man-hours it takes to create a given amount of energy.

Energy Opportunity Costs

So we’ve just said the key measure of energy ‘costs’ in the future is the number of man-hours it takes to create a given amount of energy.  Yes, that is true, but there is more to it than that.

Another issue is the ‘opportunity cost’ of any particular energy use.  By ‘opportunity cost’ we mean that you will typically find yourself in an ‘either/or’ situation – either you use some energy for one thing or for another thing; whereas at present we seldom have to choose, and can happily choose ‘both’ as our preferred option, that will not be the case in the future.

So you might find yourself with ‘low cost’ energy (eg solar) but with insufficient of it to power everything you want.  You then have to decide on an either/or basis – either I can use it for this or for that – and the value/benefit of the thing that you don’t use it for represents the ‘opportunity cost’ of the energy.

Only when you can have every electrical appliance switched on at the same time does the opportunity cost dwindle down to zero.

At any given time, your energy cost needs to be considered as a measure of the most expensive energy source you are using for the final ultimate kWhrs of energy you are consuming.  Sure, some of the total energy being consumed might be ‘free’ solar, but the fact clearly is that if you reduce (or increase) your energy consumption, the thing that changes first is your use of your least desirable/most expensive energy.

Energy Covers More than Just Electricity

You need to consider your energy needs – and the solutions/sources for them – not just narrowly in terms of electricity.

While electricity – if in abundance and appropriately priced – has the benefit of being able to provide energy for almost any and all requirements, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, the chances are that you will almost certainly not has as much electricity as you would like, and the cost of at least some of the electricity you use, at some times of day, will be very high indeed.

Furthermore, by diversifying your energy sources, you reduce your dependency on a single source.

Some examples of non-electrical energy sources and applications would include solar heating for your hot water, a wood stove for interior heating (and possibly also to heat water too), or a piped hot water system for heating powered by a wood burning boiler.  A gas-powered cooking range is another example, as is a wind powered water pump, maybe even a water powered mill if you’re fortunate to be close to a river.  A horse-drawn cart is an alternative to a gas or diesel-powered wagon.  Hanging washing out to dry on a clothesline rather than using an electric tumble drier.

Your best energy sources will depend on where you live and what is available to you, and may vary depending on the season.

Some Energy Will Cost More at Some Times than Others

The law of supply and demand will of course apply much more strongly than it does at present, and particularly because it is very difficult to conveniently store energy at times when it is being generated in quantities greater than needed at the same time.  Lead-acid batteries of some type or another are the best choice for many people when it comes to storing surplus energy, but they have a very finite life and when that has expired, you will find it difficult to replace the batteries with new batteries.

A more promising technology is a flywheel with magnetic bearings.  This can store energy with little loss for 4 – 8 hours or even more – enough to tide you over an evening until the next day and the resumption of solar power generation.

However, as an interesting aside and an insight into the considerations you’ll have to think through when you become, in effect, your own electricity utility, although most of us pay the same amount for every kWhr of energy we consume, the underlying cost to the utility company can vary enormously depending on the time of day we are consuming it.

For example, a utility might have some of its power sourced from hydro-electric power, some from gas/oil/coal fired power stations, and some from nuclear power.  In addition, it has an agreement with other utilities to sell its excess capacity to them, and a matching agreement to buy excess capacity from the other utilities if/when needed.

Maybe the utility’s cheapest electricity is from its hydro stations, then its next cheapest from its gas-powered stations, then from nuclear, then from oil/coal, and its most expensive electricity is when it has to buy it in from other utilities.

At some times of day, the utility might be able to provide all the power needed by its consumers via its hydro generating capabilities.  But at higher demand periods, it has to ramp up its other power generating capabilities, and at peak demand, it might have to buy in more power, possibly at a cost of as much as ten times greater than its hydro-power.

A similar situation will apply to you in your retreat.

During the day, with the sun shining strongly on your photo-voltaic cells, you might be able to meet all your energy needs from the solar array(s) you have.  This is sort of ‘free’ energy, other than perhaps having an opportunity cost because maybe there is insufficient surplus to concurrently recharge up your lead-acid battery bank – power that you’ll need overnight when the sun has set.

If you have wind power, that too will rise and fall in terms of the amount available to you, and at times may be abundant, while at other times may be inadequate.

In an evening, you might have multiple sources of energy.  You might have a wood burning stove to provide warmth in your dwelling and perhaps to also heat up your hot water supply.  You might have a propane powered stove to cook on.  Electrical appliances might be powered by a bank of lead-acid batteries, and/or possibly by a diesel generator.

Your hot water might be solar heated, but if you use too much of it, you’ll either end up with cold water or need to use an additional energy source to heat the water until the solar heat returns the next day.

You might think that the wood for the stove is free, but just because you’ve not handed over cash to someone in exchange for the wood does not mean it is free.  You’ve had to first grow the tree, then you’ve had to fell it, cut up the logs into fireplace sized chunks, and transport it from where the tree grew to where your residence is.  All of that consumes a lot of your time and effort.

Adapting Your Lifestyle to Your Energy Sources

Many years ago, rural dwellers kept much simpler lives and schedules.  For example, they would tend to get up when the sun rose, and go to bed after the sun set.  This concept has been partially applied to the notion of daylight saving time which possibly saves a small amount of energy each daylight saving season, as well as probably enhancing our lives by matching our waking hours more closely to the daylight hours.

You need to adopt similar strategies in a Level 3 situation, and probably also in an extended Level 2 situation.  There are other things you can do as well.  For example, use electricity for tasks when it is most abundant – if you are fortunate to be able to power an electric washing machine, only run it when the sun is brightly shining (or the wind blowing) and you have an abundant inflow of electricity.

If you have solar heated hot water, plan your main hot water draws at times when the water is most likely to be sufficiently hot to use, and ideally when there is still a chance for the replacement water to be heated some, too.  In other words, take showers and baths in the afternoon rather than in the morning or at night (oh, and one of the first things to go will be our current ‘indulgence’ of showering/bathing every day and sometimes even more than once a day!).

Time your energy needs for cooking to an appropriate time of day that aligns with your energy source availability and chance your meal schedule to match.  If this means you have your main meal at lunchtime rather than dinner, so be it.  Many people do so already, and indeed, it is generally considered healthier to do so.  Some medical experts say that we should eat our food in a direct inversion of the way people often eat at present.  Instead of a small breakfast, medium lunch and large dinner, we should have a large breakfast, medium lunch and small dinner.

And, of course, set your sleep patterns so that you’re not ‘wasting’ daylight hours asleep at one time of day and then needing to use energy to create light at a different time of day.  Although lights are one of the smaller energy consumers, they are generally needed at a time of day when energy is most expensive (ie no solar) and so it is important to minimize your light requirements.

The Ideal Energy Source

If we were in a perfect world, we’d choose hydro-electric power as our energy source.  Why?  Because it is a 24 hour a day source of reliable power, limited only by the daily water flow and any seasonal reductions in water volumes.

But hydro-power requires lots of water and a sizeable drop in water levels to work.  As a rule of thumb, to calculate the power generation capabilities of a hydro station, ,multiply the water head in feet by the water flow in gallons/minute, and divide the answer by 10 to get the number of watts being generated.  In other words, with a 10′ head, you get one kWhr of electricity from every 60,000 gallons of water.  A greater water drop (ie head) would reduce the water volume required, and as a practical matter, if you have much less than 10 ft you start to have too little water pressure to effectively harness (about 8′ is currently considered the minimum).

Even if you have a possible water source on your property, EPA and other restrictions (both federal, state and possibly even county level too) may restrict your ability to take over any streams/rivers on your property, and therefore will constrain your ability to construct a dam and micro/mini hydro generating facility.  You’d need to carefully check this out, but if you have water rights to the stream, that is a good first step that may lead to approval.

Hydro electric power is characterized by high capital costs to create possibly a dam and the generating facility, but once it is in place, it then has of course no ongoing costs and is relatively undemanding in maintenance requirements.  A close to ideal source for after TEOTWAWKI – and, of course, noting the essential need to diversify risk in everything you do, you’d want to back it up with solar and other energy sources as well, ‘just in case’.

There are types of ‘in river’ turbine generators that you can simply drop in a river and use to extract some of the energy from the water that flows past, but these are very low powered units.  On the other hand, they might provide a useful source of power for night-times when your main solar sources become inactive.

Planning Ahead

When you design and build a retreat, you need to plan its design based not on the current energy abundant situation we enjoy today, but on an adverse situation in which we need to move to our retreat and become self-sufficient.

This means that a major focus on your retreat construction has to be energy efficiency.  Construction techniques that make no sense when energy costs only 10c/kWhr become much more appropriate when energy costs spiral to a future equivalent of, say, $1 or $2/kWhr, or the even uglier reality whereby you’ll be ‘energy poor’ and have insufficient energy for your basic needs, no matter what the cost.

Before you even start to design and construct your retreat, you need to apply these considerations to where your retreat will be located.  In a hot climate, you might prefer a sheltered area that doesn’t get so much sun, but in a cold climate, you might need an area with great southerly exposure.

Clearly the dwelling will need to be super-insulated, and built around its incorporated heat (and possibly cooling too) sources, rather than having them added on almost as an after-thought and as a low priority.  You might have to compromise some eye-appeal for functional survivability and energy efficiency.

For example, don’t run heating/cooling ducts through the basement areas or crawl spaces – run them through the living areas of the house.  You probably don’t need to heat or cool the basement and crawl spaces, but by keeping all the ducting inside your house’s living areas, there is no ‘wasted’ heating/cooling.

One happy coincidence – walls with enhanced insulating properties tend to be stronger walls in general, better resistant to hostile attack and adverse weather.

Here’s one resource to get you started on considering such things.  Here’s another, but it aims to merely enhance your home’s energy efficiency by 15% over a 2004 published standard – that’s massively underachieving in terms of what your objectives should be.

Summary

The biggest change in our lives, come a Level 2 or 3 situation, will be our transitioning from our current ‘energy rich’ lives to a future ‘energy poor’ existence.

At present, we happily never really need to consider about reducing our energy consumption, other than being motivated by a (probably misplaced and altruistic) desire to ‘save the planet’ by cutting down on our energy use, and energy is so cheap that most advanced energy-saving strategies fail to be cost-justified.

This will massively change when we have to create our own energy rather than have it appear, as if by magic, out of the sockets in the wall.

We need to plan and prepare for an energy-scarce future, and to take steps to reduce our dependence on energy so that we can still live comfortable lives, with massively reduced ‘energy footprints’.  We need to build our retreats based not on present energy costs, but on the future costs (and availability) of energy after TEOTWAWKI.

Solar is becoming affordable and effective, but only when the sun shines, and probably not for all of the energy-consuming devices in a typical house (unless you have a large budget and are in a very sunny location).  Additional energy availability for evening and winter times will be the biggest challenge for most people.

Dec 262012
 
An exciting new way to power a low intensity light

An exciting new way to power a low intensity light

Here’s a very interesting new concept currently in its development stage, with first trial units slated to ship in March 2013.

Expressed simply, just like how old clocks were powered by weights that you’d lift up and then slowly sink down as they drove the clock’s mechanism, here is a light that uses a similar weight system for power.  The user pulls the 20lb weight at the end of the cord to the top and then as it slowly descends, the weight drives a generator to produce electricity which is used to power a LED light.

Currently, the potential energy created by lifting this 20lb weight just a few feet, and taking just a few seconds, creates enough power for the light to function for 20 – 30 minutes, depending on if it is set for high or low brightness.  It can also be used as a power source to recharge small electronic items.

When mass production is commenced, it is expected the unit cost will drop down to $5 or less.

A second model is already being planned, and is targeted to have improved efficiencies to create twice as much power per pound/foot of weight movement – ie, it could give twice as bright a light, or twice the length of illumination.

Looking into the future, with heavier weights and longer drop distances, the underlying concept becomes an interesting way of storing modest amounts of energy for subsequent use – for example, power from solar cells or a wind turbine could be used to life up the weight while the sun was shining or wind blowing, and then at night or during calm conditions, the stored power could be slowly released as needed.  The great thing about such a system is that there is no energy loss during its period of being stored, and it is a very ‘low tech’ and long-lived system good for many thousands of cycles.

Although currently intended as a low-cost light source for African villages and villagers, this has a clear application for preppers, too.  We’re not suggesting you should invest in the company’s funding request, but we are suggesting you should keep an eye on the technology.  The comments section on the funding site have some interesting suggestions for additional applications, too.

More details can also be seen on the developer’s website, here.

Dec 252012
 
The Unabomber was portrayed as a 'survivalist' - and vice versa, alas.  Make sure people understand the huge difference between people like that and preppers like yourself.

The Unabomber was portrayed as a ‘survivalist’ – and vice versa, alas. Make sure people understand the huge difference between people like that and preppers like yourself.

It is hard to know what exactly to call ourselves, isn’t it.  And the name we use has been largely chosen for us, and in some cases, has been stolen away from us again.

It is probably fair to agree that we used to consider ourselves – and I hesitate to use this word now – as survivalists.  That was our whole shtick, wasn’t it – we wanted to be sure we could survive whatever adverse situations occurred.

But somehow, the media took over the term whether through ignorance, laziness, or wilfulness (probably equal measures of all three) started using it to describe people very different to ourselves.  White supremacists were now labeled survivalists, as were religious groups, gun lovers, people seeking off-grid lifestyles, and anyone strange and non-mainstream.

Survivalist became increasingly a negative term and concept, via this ‘guilt by association’ trend.  Some people and businesses have found themselves trapped with the name – for example, the very popular survivalblog.com site can not easily rename itself now.

However, the community of people-formerly-known-as-survivalists cast around for another term, and it seems the most common term now is to describe oneself as a prepper – one who prepares for future challenges and problems.  That’s a fine term, and one which hopefully can’t be so easily taken from us and twisted to mean something negative again.

While we now know we are preppers, not survivalists, the general public and the media don’t.  So we need to now help educate them and explain that we are very different to people who are now commonly termed survivalists.  Rather than fight the confusion in the term survivalist, we need to now use it to our own advantage, we should turn a negative into a positive.

The basic concept you want to share is ‘Oh, no, we aren’t survivalists.  We are preppers.  That is a whole different thing!’

Here are some differences between preppers and survivalists.

  • Survivalists reject society, and even encourage and possibly seek its downfall.  Preppers enjoy and like our present society, and hope it never fails.
  • Survivalists choose to live a life outside society.  Preppers are happily integrated into the societies they belong to.
  • Survivalists feel less constrained by the rule of law and normal social convention.  Preppers accept and follow normal social conventions and legal obligations.
  • Survivalists are happy with the most basic of existences.  Preppers realize that our current lifestyles probably can’t be supported or sustained after a major collapse in society, but do the best they can to make their future as comfortable and convenient as possible.
  • Survivalists might happily live in unlined earthen caves and cramped underground bunkers (and sometimes even before a collapse in society).  Preppers seek to create sustainable ongoing positive lives above ground, and will transition to growing their own food rather than living off canned rations as quickly as they can.
  • Survivalists have transitioned to their alternate lifestyle already.  Preppers generally remain leading ‘normal’ lives, but are ready to adapt to future challenges and constraints when and if necessary.
  • Survivalists probably don’t have large inventories of supplies and stores over and above basic food items.  Preppers, probably, do.
  • Both preppers and survivalists probably have guns.  But a prepper lawfully owns the guns he has, and does not seek out fully auto weapons, and owns his guns only for hunting and defensive rather than aggressive reasons.
  • Survivalists generally tend to be more solitary.  Preppers, ideally, would prefer to be part of a larger community of like-minded folk.

You can probably think of more differences too between being a survivalist and being a prepper.  But these preceding eight points should get you started if you ever need to differentiate between being a survivalist and a prepper, and to explain to friends (or media) what it is you are and what it is you aren’t.

In other words, being a prepper is all about positively preparing to succeed in an uncertain future.  That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, right?  While people might be anxious at having a survivalist next door, they should welcome the presence of a prepper.

Dec 252012
 
What happens if your credit and debit cards stop working?

What happens if your credit and debit cards stop working?

The concept of a banking system failure is often thought of generically, together with other concepts such as, at the present, the ‘fiscal cliff’, and past things such as the S&L crisis, the mortgage crisis, over-paid greedy investment bankers, and other vague and hard to completely comprehend concepts that while clearly not good, generally have no immediate impact on us directly.

Yes, it is true that all of these issues represent downsides to our current financial system, but few of them are, of themselves, potentially catastrophic.  So let’s instead consider a risk which could indeed be catastrophic, and depending on its duration, could plunge the nation into a situation that might start at Level 1 but which could quickly become Level 2 (hopefully not reaching Level 3) (definitions here).

Think about this – what would happen if your credit and debit cards stopped working?  How much cash do you have in your pocket?  How would you get some more?

What would happen if the computers controlling the nation’s banking system were attacked and disabled?  With all banking records and processes now being computerized, there’s clearly the potential for disaster if the computers stop working, and who wants to be the first to say that would be impossible?

The immediate problem would be that we’d all run out of cash.  How much cash does your family have in total?  How long would that last you – a couple of gas fill-ups, a few trips to the supermarket, and that’s probably much of it gone.

Maybe you think you could write a check.  But who will accept a check when the bank is unable to accept it, process it, and transfer the money from your account to someone else’s account.  Without their computer systems up, the bank won’t even know how much cash is in your account, so neither you nor someone you paid with a check could walk into your home bank branch and ask for it to be converted to cash while waiting.

So, at an immediate level, commerce would grind to a halt.

The Problem Extends All the Way and Back to You Again

Now, let’s think about the derivative levels.  It is one thing for you to run into difficulties when trying to buy $50 worth of gas or groceries.  But what happens when the gas station or supermarket then needs to place an order from their suppliers for $50,000 of product?  How do they pay for that?

This question repeats up the distribution chain, and then loops around right back to you.  Your employer somehow makes money by delivering a product or service to someone else.  When that someone else can’t pay your employer as they usually do, how can your employer in turn pay you the weekly/monthly wages/salary you normally get?

For that matter, even if they could pay you, how would they do that?  With a bank auto-transfer?  Not possible when the bank computers are down.  Maybe with a check?  That’s not going to do you much good either, is it!  Could you take your $3000 check to the gas station and say ‘take one tiny corner of my check to pay for a tank of gas’?

And what happens when the farmers don’t get paid for the crops and livestock, and can’t afford to then buy new seed, animals, food, fertilizer, and so on?

What happens when the oil refineries no longer have money to buy raw oil from the Middle East or wherever?  When we can’t even pay for natural gas from Canada?

Part of the problem is that our economy is essentially cashless these days; indeed, cash has become so obsolete that many financial institutions have stopped reporting on or analyzing the actual amount of currency in the economy.  This measure – referred to as M0 – has been an ever decreasing percentage of the total ‘virtual’ money that our economy uses – here’s an interesting chart showing the increasing discrepancy between M0 and broader definitions that include successively more and more virtual money.

global_money_supply_trend

The difference between M0 and all the other types of ‘money’ is that only M0 has a physical form – banknotes and coins.  The rest is nothing more than entries in computer systems, perhaps duplicated in the form of fancy ‘certificates of deposit’ and such like.

An outage of the banking system computers means an outage of the rest of this money, too.

Is This Likely or Unlikely?

So, how likely is it that the banking system could suffer a sudden catastrophic failure?  As a random event from nowhere, very unlikely.

But as an outcome of a skillfully designed and directed computer hacker attack – that is an appreciable risk.  Don’t just take our word for it.  Instead, consider this article which quotes US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who says, in October, that foreign hackers have the potential to take down our nation’s power grid, financial networks, and transport systems.  He said that such an attack could ‘paralyze and shock the nation’, and further pointed to exploratory attacks against banks earlier in the year.  He terms this a potential ‘Cyber Pearl Harbor’.

His solution is, in part, to seek authorization to mount pre-emptive attacks against potential cyber-aggressors.  Maybe that is a good thing to be able to do, although we’re actually not too sure about that.  Most of the major cyber-terrorism sponsor countries (ie Russia, China, Iran, North Korea) are nuclear powers, and depending on what form our pre-emptive attacking might take, these nations could choose to respond in ways that could have even worse consequences than a cyber attack.

In addition, how do you pre-emptively attack when the source of the cyber-aggression isn’t a nation/state, but rather a shadowy group of individuals, possibly living in our very midst, or else distributed randomly throughout the rest of the free world.

Remember, there’s no such thing as distance when it comes to attacking computers on the internet.  It is as easy to take down a computer (electronically) from the next room as it is from the far side of the planet.  And – paradoxically – mounting a cyber-attack is a very low-tech process.  All the hacker/attacker needs is a simple laptop computer and a modem or internet connection.

So, much as Secretary Panetta might wish otherwise, the reality is that he most likely either won’t or can’t do anything to pre-emptively take-out cyber-aggressors prior to them in turn taking out our computer-based infrastructure.  And the only surefire defensive measure is to isolate the computer systems that are being attacked.  But that ‘cure’ is worse than the problem – isolating the computer systems means no more external sources of inputs and no more external outputs, either.  No more computing network.  No more banking system.

How to Prepare for a Banking System Failure

You might think that the obvious solution is to keep a large supply of cash on hand.  But that is not an adequate solution, because it only addresses one part of the problem.

Just because you can pay the gas station $50 for the tank of gas you need doesn’t mean that the gas station can in turn pay the refinery the $50,000 it needs to pay for its next shipment of gasoline.  The same at the supermarket, and everywhere else.

Rather than stock up on cash, your solution is better to stock up on goods, so that you can survive for an extended period without needing to spend money, in any form, on additional supplies.

You also need to assume your utilities will deteriorate in service – raw materials will be hard for the utilities to source, and if they can’t pay their employees, they’ll start to suffer absenteeism, made worse by the need for employees to start to focus full-time on their own immediate survival needs.  Similarly, the food and other essential supplies at your normal retail purchase points will become in gravely short supply or disappear entirely.

If the banking systems aren’t up and running again within a day, we’d view the situation as making it prudent and sensible to bug out entirely to your retreat.

Dec 252012
 
It is said that if you slowly increase the water temperature, a frog won't notice and will eventually and passively die in the pot.

It is said that if you slowly increase the water temperature, a frog won’t notice and will eventually and passively die in the pot.

Much of what we think about and prepare for involves a sudden massive disaster that occurs with little or no warning.  We consider the effects of a sudden EMP or power grid failure that almost literally switches our lives and lifestyles from normal to nothing as quickly as flicking a light switch.

These are all valid concerns and preparations, of course.  But we sometimes overlook the slower sorts of disasters that might also overwhelm society as we know it, and end up, not immediately, but gradually over time, with a Level 2 or 3 scenario just as seriously as a sudden unexpected disaster.

The real danger of the slower unfolding disasters is that by the time we even realize they are enveloping us, we might find our options have become constrained and reduced.  This is akin to the story of how to kill a frog – you place it in warm water, then very slowly increase the temperature, and the frog won’t even realize it is being cooked, and by the time the water has reached boiling point, the frog has succumbed.

To look at it from another perspective, activists seeking to change some thing have learned that the best way to make a major social change is not to attempt a sudden revolution in public thought, but rather to make a series of gradual changes.  There are many examples of this.  To offer up several – and without expressing any moral judgment, but merely observing the huge change in social values that have occurred, we point to :

(a)  Drunk driving.  Two or three decades ago it was normal and acceptable for people to drink as much as they wished and then to drive home, somehow.  People would boast about their crazy/dangerous driving the next day; and if they were pulled over, they’d usually be let off with little more than a warning.  As you surely know, today people are ashamed to admit to driving drunk; the fines and penalties (including imprisonment and alcoholism treatments) have gone up and up, and the permissible levels of blood/alcohol have gone down and down.

(b)  Gay marriage.  It is not all that long ago that people could be sent to prison in some western nations if they admitted being homosexual, and it was widely ridiculed and decried by most people in general.  Now the opposite applies – people can be sent to prison for ‘hate crimes’ if they express a dislike for gay people, and society is now inexorably tilting towards allowing not just gay relationships but also passing to such people all the rights and privileges of marriage and allowing gay people to be married.  One advocacy method used by gay rights advocates is to ‘name and shame’ people who oppose them – people are now embarrassed and ashamed to admit they dislike the thought of gay sex.

(c)  Guns.  A couple of generations ago, gun ranges were to be found in the basements of many schools.  Guns were common in schools and in society as a whole.  Nowadays, if a child even draws a picture of a gun in a schoolroom, they are liable to be expelled under a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards guns in schools, and anyone bringing guns into a school is likely committing both a federal and state crime.

Okay, enough on that – point well taken, we hope.  In all these cases, the changes did not occur overnight, but have instead evolved, little by little, over years and even decades and common social custom now is pretty much the complete opposite of what it was a generation or so back.

It can be the same thing with negative situations – they start off subtly and slowly, and at first seem temporary, but as time passes, what was temporary becomes permanent, what was a problem becomes the new normal, and so it goes.  By the time we realize we’re in a severe situation, our options and ability to respond positively have diminished.

We’re not saying that an EOTW disaster would happen quite that slowly (although it might), but we are pointing out that things have a habit of ‘catching us unawares’ if we’re not closely monitoring whatever the process is that is evolving and thinking through its implications.

Furthermore, the reality is that no matter how keen a prepper we are, few of us really want to activate our prepping plans, possibly prematurely, and there’s also a subconscious inertia and resistance to change that will unduly delay our responding to events that need a timely response.  We need to be alert to changes and ready/willing/able to respond to them at the appropriate point – a point which of course should be before rather than after the time at which it becomes too late!

Some Slow Disasters

Let’s now think about some types of slowly evolving ‘disasters’ that might occur.  These tend to be more economic in nature than anything else – the first two examples are country-wide in nature, the third is regional, and the last two are more personal.

Electricity cost/shortages

We have seen electricity shortages come and go over the years, particularly in California in 2000 – 2001.  With the continued restrictions on building just about any type of new power station these days, it is far from inconceivable that electricity may not become in short supply again – a situation initially masked by it simply becoming more and more expensive, and then perhaps becoming rationed.

The ugly flip-side of ‘smart energy management’ is a move away from a universal expectation that electricity should always be available to us, 24/7, whenever we want it, and for whatever purpose we need it for.  As we know from our planning for ‘grid-down’ futures, electricity today truly is one of society’s greatest blessings, and whether we pay 5c or 50c per kWhr, it is a great value.

At what point would you decide that electricity had become too expensive and too short in supply, and in effect respond by going ‘off-grid’ and ‘growing your own’?

Petrol cost/shortages

Some parts of the country have seen gas prices brush and even break through $5/gallon on occasion in the past, sometimes for months at a time.  How long will it be before gas prices reach $5/gallon, all the time, everywhere?  And then $6?  And $7?  Even $10 and $15?

If that sounds unlikely, think of this.  Less than 25 years ago, gas was under $1/gallon.  It has gone up in price almost five-fold in 25 years.  For decades, petrol and other oil products were steadily reducing in price each year (in real terms after adjusting for inflation), and then they sort of flattened out, and now they are increasing at rates greater than inflation.  Here’s a useful graph showing prices from 1896 forwards in the UK, and here’s a spreadsheet of prices in the US from 1949.

Proponents of the ‘peak oil’ theory predict that gas prices will skyrocket in the next decade or less.  At the same time, it will become in shorter and shorter supply.  The latest move towards shale recovery has bought us some more time, and some more oil, but the ‘greenies’ are objecting and fighting this as furiously as they can.  A large – and growing – sector in our society doesn’t wish us to have access to cheap oil products.  They wish us to become oil-poor, as a way of – they believe – ‘saving the planet’.

At what point, at what price, will you say ‘enough already’ and give up on your present gas-based lifestyle?  And what will you have as an alternative?

Water cost/shortages

One of the biggest constraints on growth in much of the country is the availability of fresh pure water.  It is hard to know which is the bigger blessing in our modern lives – abundant affordable electricity, or abundant affordable water.  Happily, we presently have both, with the worst form of water shortages typically being nothing more severe than some restrictions on watering our lawns and washing our cars during some of the summer months.

But the cost of water is steadily increasing, while its availability is becoming more and more constrained.  This year (2012) we saw some of the worst droughts in decades affect crop production in much of the mid-west; all that means to us as consumers currently is little more than increased prices for meat, wheat and corn based products.  But with a decent steak now costing $15/lb or more – three times what it cost a decade or so back – how much further will we allow the costs of the basic essentials of our diet rise?

At what point do water (and sewage) costs and possible water restrictions cause you either to move to a new region, or to retreat from normal society and to set up an alternate lifestyle, independent of your increasingly problematic and expensive city water and sewer services?

Unemployment

Maybe you lose your job.  Maybe you don’t get another job.  Month after month, you see your savings dwindle, and also, month by month, as time passes you become less and less appealing to potential employers.  All employers prefer to hire someone who is already employed, and all employers feel uncomfortable and worried if they see a person who has been out of work for many months.

As each month passes, you have less and less remaining capital.  At what point do you switch gears and change objectives and either move to another city to find work there, or instead ‘bug out’ for economic reasons, and switch to building a self-sustainable life elsewhere?

Neighborhood Decay

This is an interesting one (it has happened to me).  What happens if the area you live in – the area you own a home in – starts to suffer from evolving urban demographics and becomes increasingly down-market?  Property prices and relative values compared to other parts in your region start to drop, and keep on dropping.  The nice middle class people who used to be your neighbors are leaving, and are being replaced by people you’re less comfortable living alongside.  Crime rates start to increase, and so on and so on.

At what point do you bail out yourself?  Do you simply move across town, or to a different city entirely, or is that the point where you move to your retreat?  Each month of delay sees your property value diminish, slowly but steadily.

Faster Evolving Disasters Can Catch You Unawares Too

Although we’re talking primarily about how a slow change in something can catch you unawares, by becoming something unexpectedly different without you realizing it, similar affects can come from faster developing problems too.

For example, a forest fire heading your way.  At what point do you respond to the potential of being trapped?  Sure, you could rely on waiting for the authorities to officially notify you and command you to evacuate, but you might then find yourself with too little time to do a well planned well prepared bug-out.

The Longer You Wait, the Fewer Your Choices

It is most obvious from the last two examples that the longer you wait to respond to a negative event, the less well able you are able to do so.  As you burn through your cash, it becomes harder and harder for you to consider options that don’t immediately start to bring in a cash flow again.

We’re not saying that you should panic the first time things turn sour on you in any part of life and living.  But we are saying to be careful about slow creeping problems that take away your independence and freedom, little by little.

The biggest problem people face is knowing when to say ‘enough, already’ and to activate some sort of formal response to a problem that has been gradually worsening.  Which brings us to :

The Need to Create Lines in the Sand

If you’ve ever been taught a good self-defense class, you’ve been taught about the need to create clear ‘lines in the sand’ – events that clearly signal that the person who you are concerned about has evil intent, and events which cause you to confidently respond appropriately.

For example, you don’t like the look of the people walking towards you, so you cross the road.  If they cross the road to intersect with your path, that’s a clear ‘line in the sand’ that has been crossed.  You then might choose to turn the corner or cross the road back again – if they cross the road again too, then you know, for sure, this is not random circumstance.  You might then call out – ‘Stop, Back Off, Go Away’.  If they continue towards you, you then present your pistol and say ‘Stop or I shoot!  Back Off!  Go Away!’

If the person still moves towards you, you then know ‘Okay, so he crossed the road to follow me when I did, then he crossed the road back to keep following me when I did, he ignored my warning, and now, with my gun pointed at him, he is still ignoring me’ and that gives you the confidence to know that your next action – an extreme one, but now an essential one, is justified and appropriate.

It is the same with anything else in your life.  You need to set lines in the sand so that when they are crossed, you are aware of the event and ready with an appropriate response.

For example, you might decide ‘If gas prices reach $x, I will get an ultra-fuel efficient car’ and you might further decide ‘if gas prices reach $(x+y) then I will move from my current suburban lifestyle in which I need a car to an alternate lifestyle where the essential things are either within walking distance or conveniently served by public transport, or reachable by bicycle’.

For example, you might decide ‘When electricity prices reach a point that solar cells can be paid off within x years, I will invest in a solar cell array on my roof’.  You might also decide ‘When electricity prices reach a price of $0.xx/kWhr, I will re-insulate the house, and when they reach a price of $0.yy/kWhr, I will replace the windows with new energy-efficient windows and insulating blinds’.

You might decide ‘If my house price drops by x% relative to the broader region I live in, and if it is due to the changing demographic nature of my sub-region, I’ll sell up and move on’.

You might decide ‘When food prices reach x% of my weekly budget, I’m going to start growing my own vegetables and start raising some animals, and if I have to move to where I can do that, that’ll be part of the deal’.

There are other things, too.  You might decide ‘When the taxes in this state exceed the taxes in (another state you’d like to live in) then I’m going to make the move’.  You might decide ‘If this state restricts firearms and my right to self-defense, then I’ll move to a state with a more enlightened social policy on such things’.

Summary

Don’t risk becoming a boiled frog.

Create ‘lines in the sand’ that will sound alarms in your life when events cross over them, so that you realize ‘Hey, this is very different to what it used to be and what I want it to be’ and to allow you the freedom and flexibility to respond to changes in your life and lifestyle and life standards before it becomes too late to do so.

In particular, monitor the changes in your local environment and compare/contrast them to the changes in possible bug-out locations.  Maybe things truly are better somewhere else in the US, and maybe you should act positively to respond to the chance of a life-style improvement in such a better location.

Dec 162012
 
Our amazingly convenient and increasingly essential GPS service is also terribly vulnerable to five different forms of attack.

Our amazingly convenient and increasingly essential GPS service is also terribly vulnerable to five different forms of attack.

We offer this report to you not as an example of how the world as we know it might end, but just as another example of how the more sophisticated the systems and services we surround ourselves with, the more vulnerable we become.  The convenience they offer us blinds us to the added degree of dependence on which our lives and life styles are based.

Back in the ‘good old days’ – ie before ubiquitous GPS, people would go places based on maps.  Remember the annual Rand McNally books of maps?  And remember how they’d pressure us into buying a new one every year, due to ‘50,000 changes since last year’s edition’ or something like that?  Remember also buying (or being given!) maps at the gas station?

Do you even have a map book now?  For many of us, the answer is no.

Now – here’s the thing.  Your map book was failure-proof.  Apart from leaving it behind, or the dog eating it, it couldn’t fail, right?  Maybe it wasn’t the most convenient way to navigate your way from Point A to Point B, but it always worked.

If we go off-road, we might formerly have augmented our maps with a compass as well.  A compass relies on the earth’s magnetic field, and although there are some thoughts that the magnetic field could flip around some time in the next some thousands of years, for our lifetimes, it is probably safe to say the earth’s magnetic field is about as reliable a thing as the sun rising in the east every morning and setting in the west each night.  Apart from the compass itself breaking, the underlying principle of compasses is 100% reliable, and compasses themselves are relatively easy to repair or improvise in an emergency.  A compass is a perfect low tech device that relies on nothing external to operate.  It doesn’t even require any electricity.

Nowadays, maps and compasses have been superseded by digital GPS units that rely on signals from satellites in space, 12,000 or so miles away that the units use to calculate their position, their heading, their altitude, and their velocity.  Unfortunately, those signals are vulnerable to interference, and the receiver units are vulnerable not only to jammed signals but also to fake signals that can upset their logic and calculations.

This article tells of how researchers at Carnegie Mellon University created a device that cost no more than $2500 to build, and which caused every GPS unit it then broadcast a signal towards, to crash and cease operating.

Puzzlingly the article’s lede says that up to 30% of GPS receivers could be taken offline by one of these units.  The puzzle is – where did the ‘up to 30%’ come from, when every unit tested was made to crash?  Shouldn’t the article say ‘100%’?  Or would that be too frightening for the general public?

Maybe the 30% figure means that a single 45 second broadcast from one of these $2500 devices would disable 30% of all GPS units, everywhere on the planet.  In other words, position the device in the center of the US, turn it on, and in less than a minute, every GPS receiver in or above the US, or in the waters around the country, will crash.

Never mind.  The purpose of our commentary is simply to point out how something that has become so ubiquitous and almost essential (not so much for our navigating between home and work each day, but for ships at sea and airplanes in the sky, especially if flying through or above clouds) and also now very much taken for granted, is also something terribly vulnerable to electronic attack.

Indeed, there are five different vulnerabilities that GPS units suffer.  The first is an attack on the GPS satellites.  If an enemy power was able to destroy some or most of the satellites, our receivers would no longer have enough satellites to lock onto and calculate a reliable position from.

The second vulnerability is from EMP attack – an EMP pulse would likely destroy the electronics in most GPS receivers.

The third vulnerability is having the GPS signal jammed.  That is very easy to do.  The GPS satellites have very weak radio transmitters which are also far away from the receivers (about 25W transmitters, which are 12,000 and more miles away from the receiver), and so stronger transmitters that are closer can easily obscure the ‘real’ GPS signal and confuse the receiver as to where it is.

The fourth vulnerability is GPS spoofing.  Instead of just jamming the real GPS signal with random jamming ‘noise’, a sophisticated enemy can replace the weak real GPS signal with a stronger overriding fake GPS signal that makes the GPS receiver think it is somewhere else.  This type of technique has been used by terrorist cells to take over our reconnaissance drones.

The fifth vulnerability is sending confusing signals that cause the micro-processor inside the receiver to crash – the vulnerability the article discusses.

Note that the researchers concede that a determined attacker faces no huge obstacles (to mounting an attack that would cripple the world’s GPS).

Implications for Preppers

This teaches us two things.  The first thing is that we can’t take anything for granted.  Although GPS seems stable, mature, and ultra-reliable, it has five different forms of vulnerability which could be exploited at any time.  Sure, losing GPS across the country won’t threaten a plunge into a nightmarish level 3 situation, and we’re not suggesting it would.  But if something so stable and certain and safe as GPS is actually totally vulnerable to attack, what else is out there that could also be similarly vulnerable?

The second teaching point here is that as preppers we need to have backup systems and solutions that are low-tech rather than high-tech.  An EMP type attack is a real danger, and if such an event were to occur, we – and the rest of the country – would suddenly find that 95% of our electronics had failed.

Are you prepared to convert your existence to one with no electronics and no electricity?  Unless and until you can say ‘yes’ to that, you’re not truly prepared.

Dec 042012
 

You have an accident in a deserted middle-of-nowhere location. How do you survive for possibly several days until help arrives?

You are probably prepared – in your home – for Level 1 events (see our definition of Level 1/2/3 events here).  But what say you are somewhere else – such as, for example, your car, when something occurs, not to much to the region, but to you directly?  How prepared are you for that?

We’ve ourselves several times experienced what might perhaps be a personal Level ¼ or Level ½ event in a vehicle – a short-term event that may be either happily trivial or alarmingly impactful, depending on our state of preparedness and the randomness of various factors such as time of day and weather.

If your vehicle breaks down in an unsafe location, for example, you’re going to have to evacuate the vehicle and wait for assistance in a place of safety.  No big deal, you might say.  But what if it is snowing, with a bitterly cold wind, and what say when you got into your vehicle in your nice warm garage, all you were wearing was a shirt and trousers?  How long are you going to last, standing around outside, in thin trousers and a short-sleeved shirt when the wind chill factor is bringing the temperature down to -20°?

Temperature extremes are probably the biggest thing you need to prepare for and protect against.  And it isn’t just extremes of cold.  Heat can be a concern, too.  Maybe you’re driving in a remote area and your vehicle stalls and won’t restart.  You’re on a road which has maybe one, maybe two cars a day, and let’s say, instead of a blizzard, this time you’re in the desert in 100° heat (massively more in the car due to the ‘hothouse’ effect as the sun shines in the window, and outside the car, you’ve still got the sun bearing straight down on you.  How much water do you have, if you end up out there for a day or two or three before someone comes along and agrees to help?

Or maybe the car runs just fine, but a tire punctured, and your spare is either missing or flat.  Maybe it is something even more frustrating such as not being able to take the nuts off the lugs that secure the wheel to the axle due to a missing tire tool.  The good news is you can shelter inside the car, with the engine running, and you can use the vehicle’s heater or a/c to maintain a comfortable temperature.  The bad news is, you’re burning gas at a rate of 0.5 – 1.0 gallons/hour.  How many gallons of gas do you have with you?

What happens if your car runs off the road, down a cliff, and ends up in a stream at the bottom.  Maybe you have broken a limb, and can’t go far from the vehicle for help.  Will you have warm clothing, and some water and food, to keep you alive and comfortable until rescuers find you?

Another issue/risk is any type of vehicle accident at all that might injure people in your or another car.

Our point is simply this.  We spend large amounts of our lives in our cars, and there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong in the car.  These problems aren’t always life threatening, but they sometimes could be, and even if not life threatening, they can certainly be massively inconvenient and mini Level 1 situations for you and anyone else in the car with you.

Checklists of Things to Keep in Your Vehicles

We recommend you should keep the following things in your car at all times to assist you in an emergency :

  • Warm clothing and blankets sufficient for one person more than normally travels in your car
  • Wet weather gear – ponchos, umbrellas
  • Fresh water (a gallon or more), maybe some long life food as well
  • First Aid Kit – the more extensive, the better, ideally in a professional green colored carry bag
  • Fuses (at least three of each type)
  • Spare windshield wipers
  • Everything you need to change a tire
  • Spare engine fluids (anti-freeze, washer fluid, brake fluid, transmission fluid, engine oil)
  • LED flashlight
  • Car charger for your and other family members’ cell phones
  • Emergency Cash
  • Whistle
  • Knife – perhaps a Swiss Army type multifunction knife
  • Five gallon can of fuel

Beyond these high priority essentials, you might want to add some additional items :

  • Jumper cables
  • Tow strap
  • CB Radio (and external antenna) that will run from car battery or included internal batteries
  • Roadside Flares
  • In-the-air signaling flares
  • Emergency (LED) strobe lights
  • Duct tape
  • Air compressor for tires and tire pressure gauge
  • Fire extinguisher (1A10BC or a 5lb ABC or larger unit)
  • Basic tool kit – assorted screwdrivers, pliers, adjustable wrenches
  • Gloves, cloths/towels, and wetwipes

Extra Cold Weather Gear

If you are going somewhere cold, you should add some or all of these extra items :

  • Chains/cables
  • Shovel – with a handle that, when extended, can reach at least half way under the vehicle
  • Windshield scraper
  • Gumboots/snow boots
  • Gloves and hats and scarves
  • Spare batteries for flashlights
  • Handwarmers

Extra Remote Location Gear

If you are going somewhere remote, you might want to add extra spare parts such as fan belts, hoses, and more tools such as a complete socket set.  How about some spare headlight bulbs, too?

Ask your car dealer’s repair department what items occasionally (regularly!) fail on your model vehicle, and if they are user replaceable, keep spares of those.  Maybe a service manual would be helpful, too.

If you’ll be spending some time in a remote location, check on the coverage maps for your wireless service provider.  Will there be cell phone coverage where you’ll be?

If it is very marginal, you might want to consider a cell phone repeater/signal booster – Wilson Electronics make the best ones.  Even their entry-level cradle model units (under $100 on Amazon) can make a big difference to the range of your phone.  Don’t get the $10 sticker things you stick on your phone – they do absolutely nothing at all.

Even More Things

Here is a list of additional items to consider for you and your vehicle.  You can decide which might be useful or justifiable based on your vehicles, your travel habits, and your lifestyle.

For example, if you’re a lady often driving in high-heeled shoes, keeping a pair of walking shoes in the car would be a good thing to do; but if you’re a man driving to and from outdoor work sites, you probably have functional shoes on already.

  • Foam tire sealant
  • Traffic cones or triangles
  • Hi-viz jacket
  • Walking shoes
  • Battery powered AM/FM/Weather radio
  • Paper, pens, pencils
  • Paracord – 100ft or more of 550 paracord
  • Signaling mirror
  • List of emergency contacts, numbers, details
  • Self defense items such as pepper spray or firearms
  • Toilet paper and tissues
  • Books, games, cards
  • Tarpaulin
  • Kitty litter – lighter than sand to sprinkle on ice/snow for traction

The Weight Penalty of Emergency Equipment

You might be thinking ‘If I load all of this into my vehicle’s trunk, I’ve added another 100lbs to the deadweight of the car.  That’ll kill my fuel efficiency and engine performance.’

As for engine performance, the chances are your vehicle weighs something over 4000lbs already.  Adding 100 lbs to it is a very small percentage of its total (2.5% in this example) and is the same as adding a young teenager into the car.  The difference in performance will be minimal and almost not noticed.

Fuel efficiency is generally believed to reduce by about 1% – 2% for every 100lbs of load you add (see, for example, this site).  That’s hardly material, either.

So don’t let these concerns prevent you from having a full emergency kit in all your vehicles, all the time.  Chances are it isn’t going to weigh 100lbs anyway!

Summary

Unless you live in mid-town Manhattan and never drive off the island, you’ll at times be driving in places which could pose problems to you if your car were to fail or be in an accident.

You should always keep a core of essential items in your car, and augment them any time you are driving somewhere out of the ordinary.  Furthermore, you should regularly check the contents of your emergency kit, replacing things that have been ‘borrowed’ or which have expired.

Dec 032012
 

Bugarach, France; pop 176 and its mountain – the only safe place on 12/21/12?

Are you worried about the Mayan prophecy about the world coming to an end on 21 December, 2012?

For the record, while we worry about and prepare for many things, this is one thing we’re not at all concerned about, but if it is a worry of yours, then, and observing the Prepper Code of Politeness, we’ll pass this bit of information on to you without (too much) comment.

It seems that some ‘experts’ on the topic of the Mayan end-of-the-world meme have established that there is one place on the planet that will be safe and its residents saved.  This is the tiny French town of Bugarach, in the south-east of France and in its mountainous Pyrenees region.

This is because aliens will emerge from a nearby 4,040 ft high mountain in their space ships and save the locals.

So, if this is your ‘thing’, you better rush over to Bugarach in the short while remaining, where the crush of people is such that accommodation is now costing as much as £1200 ($1900) a night, a bottle of special local spring water can cost €15 ($19.50) and pieces of rock from the ‘mysterious’ mountain are selling for $55 an ounce.

More details here and here.  And if you’re really interested, here’s a NY Times article from 2011 that talks about the area a bit more dispassionately, and an article in French that talks about it more sensationally.

Dec 022012
 

Bulk freeze-dried food for sale at Wal-Mart. Although their prices are prominently displayed, their real values are obscured.

Most preppers keep three sorts of food supplies.

The first type of supply is to keep larger than normal stocks of ordinary food items with typical two or three year expirations.  They simply eat this as they wish, in careful rotation, so that all food is eaten prior to it expiring, and as/when they see specials on these food items, they replenish their supplies at the best prices.

This sort of food supply will be enough to see you through a typical Level 1 scenario of from at least a few days to some weeks in a severe Level 1 event, without access to external supplies of food.

The second type of supply is to consciously buy some food products in bulk – food products which have moderately extended shelf lives (say 3 – 5 or more years) – an obvious example could be rice – and hopefully to use those up, prior to expiry, in the ordinary course of day-to-day living and eating too.

This sort of food supply will come handy if you are moving into a Level 2 type scenario, and hopefully you have many months of these types of bulk foods available to you.

The third type of supply is to buy some stocks of freeze-dried foods, typically with a 25 year shelf life.  These are put into the far corner of your storage area, and as for what happens in 25 years time, few of us have yet to have kept such things for so long that they are now starting to approach the end of their shelf life.

This sort of food supply is your ultimate emergency reserve – for example, if things have degenerated still further into a Level 3 situation, and you’ve had a bad year for your harvest, then you might supplement whatever food you did grow with a top up from your emergency long-term supplies.

It goes without saying that the freeze-dried food is the most expensive, and the bulk food the cheapest.  That’s unsurprising, and unavoidable, and fortunately, you don’t need to tie up a lot of your money in the 25 year freeze-dried foods.  The money you invest in the first and second types of food storage is not money you’ll never see again; indeed, by buying bulk foods and regular foods in larger quantities when on special, your food prices overall will drop appreciably.

But you should buy some long-life freeze-dried foods as well.  How much?  That’s something for a separate discussion, and it really has to be considered as part of what other foods you have available, how much storage space you have, and – of course – how much money you have, too.

This article is here to give you a very useful tip about how to select the freeze-dried foods you choose to buy and store.  The difference in cost as between the best value and the worst value freeze-dried foods is enormous, and the manufacturers don’t make it easy for you to understand and compare values – either within their own product ranges, or as a comparison between Brand X and Brand Y.

You’ll note that most freeze-dried foods are described in three ways – their cost (of course), the net weight of food within the pail or can, and the number of servings that the manufacturer claims the food can be subdivided into.  There is another piece of information, required by US food packaging laws, but it isn’t boldly shown; you have to look carefully for it, and this is a vital piece of information – the number of calories per serving.

What is a Serving

You probably already know, from normal life, normal foods, and normal eating, that the concept of ‘a serving’ is a very abstract and non-standard concept.  Sometimes you’ll find yourself eating multiple servings of something and still feeling hungry – as well as very guilty for your apparent gluttony; other times, you might find that a single serving is plenty.

There is no formal legal definition of what a serving is.  Generally, manufacturers prefer to define their servings as small as possible.  This does two things – it makes the amount of food they are selling you seem to be more than it truly is, and it makes all the ‘bad’ things in the food seem less prominent than they are.  Clearly, if they can split a portion of food into three suggested servings instead of two, then each serving will have 50% less fat and 50% less cholesterol and so on than if the servings were more realistically sized.

So, in evaluating any types of food, ignore the concept of how many servings you are buying for your money.  Read on for the most important measure.

How Much Food is Enough?

The answer to that depends on if you are eating brussels sprouts or chocolate, I guess!  Nutritionists can discuss and debate this topic at great length, but we’ll cut straight to the key points that matter from a point of view of prepping and surviving in adversity.  Warning – some gross over-simplifications follow, but the basic concepts are fair and properly stated.

The amount of food we need each day can be considered in three categories.  The first category is the number of calories it contains.  Our body needs energy to keep operating, and it gets that energy from the food we eat, and the amount of energy any given piece of food contains is represented by the calories it has.  More calories = more energy.

The second category is a need for ‘raw materials’ for our bodies – material to replenish our blood supply, our dead cells, and so on.  This is where a consideration for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and that sort of thing comes into play.  But these issues, while potentially important longer term, are not so immediately vital in the short-term.  Our body can last longer without a complete supply of raw materials than it can without energy, and furthermore, most of the time if you are eating enough food for energy purposes, and with a reasonable mix of different components in the food, you’ll ‘automatically’ be getting sufficient raw materials as well, without needing to consider the issues in any detail.

The third category is a simple need to fill one’s stomach.  Swallowing a single magic concentrated energy pill once a day might supply us the energy we need, but it would be an enormously unsatisfying way of doing so and would leave us feeling hungry for food, even if we didn’t actually need energy.  It is good to actually have some volume of food pass through our system, and it is what our bodies expect and desire.

There’s a semi-related fourth point as well – the need for variety in foods eaten to avoid appetite fatigue – an unlikely sounding ailment which can actually become fatal (click the link for a relevant article).

So, the key parameter we need to consider when working out how much food we require, each day, is to understand how many calories of energy we will need.  The answer to that question depends on what we are doing each day.

If we’re sitting around at home, doing nothing, we’re not working as much and not using energy.  If we’re spending a hard day working outside, then we’re using a great deal more energy.  If you’re young and growing, you need more energy than if you’re old and with a slower metabolic rate.  If you’re in a warm environment, you need considerably less energy than if you’re somewhere cold (just like your residence, the colder it is outside, the more energy you use to keep the inside warm).

The number of calories you need also depends on your weight – the heavier you are, the more calories you need because there’s simply more of you to keep energized and powered up.  You can browse through the internet and come up with a dozen different suggested numbers, all of which are reasonably similar, but having slightly different assumptions about how active and how heavy you are.  Here’s one such page, and here’s a somewhat more helpful page that helps you to work out your own calculation for the energy you need.

Note also, as explained on the second of these two pages, that 10% (more or less) of the energy you take in from the food you eat gets used up in processing the food you eat.  Only 90% of the energy you eat is actually available for your body to use.

So, pick a number, any number (some say to use 2000 calories for adult women and 2500 for adult men, but increase these numbers if you’re actively doing manual labor) and that tells you about how much energy you need a day.

Equating ‘Servings’ to Daily Food Needs

Now, as you evaluate different freeze-dried food products, ignore the count of the servings they allegedly contain, and ignore also their net dry weight of food.  The only thing that really matters, for our purposes of surviving in adversity, is how many calories they provide.

You will quickly notice a surprising truth.  The number of calories in a ‘serving’ can vary enormously, from as few as 30 and up to as many as 300 or more.  You’d need to eat ten times as many servings of the low caloric food as you would of the high caloric food, but the manufacturers consider both to be ‘a serving’, which provides further proof, if you need it, of the nonsense of considering food in terms of servings.

We’re now so close that we’ve almost revealed the strategy for how to maximize your food storage budget in terms of the freeze-dried food you buy.  You don’t need to know the simple cost of a #10 can of food, and neither do you care what the net weight of food is contained inside it.  Even more, you could care less how many servings it can provide.

The only thing that matters is how many calories you are getting per dollar you spend.  The more calories you get, the better the value.

The difference in calories per dollar is stunningly enormous.  Here’s a table where we went to one well-known supplier of freeze-dried food – Mountain Home – and simply took the first twenty items on their website and calculated out how many calories you were getting per dollar spent on each item.  Then, for no reason other than abstract interest, we also showed the cost in calories per dollar for some generic foodstuffs.

Our point is not to show that freeze-dried foods are more expensive than bulk rice and flour.  We all know that, already, and if we were looking for the cheapest freeze-dried foods, we’d be looking at large pails rather than #10 cans.  Our point is simply to show the huge variation in value, not only by carefully shopping between different manufacturers and package sizes, but also by simply looking at one single manufacturer’s range of #10 can sized bulk foods.

Item Price Servings   cal/serving   $/serving   cal/$
MH Beef Stew $35.49 10 210 $3.55 59
MH Chicken Stew $35.99 10 240 $3.60 67
MH Chicken a la King $35.99 11 280 $5.33 53
MH Chicken Alfredo $34.49 9 250 $3.83 65
MH Chicken Teriyaki $29.99 10 230 $3.00 77
MH Diced Chicken $48.39 14 170 $3.46 49
MH Ground Beef $44.59 18 290 $2.48 117
MH Macaroni & Cheese $28.99 9 310 $3.22 96
MH Beef Stroganoff $28.29 10 260 $2.83 92
MH Diced Beef $54.99 15 130 $3.67 35
MH Creamed Beef $46.19 54 120 $0.86 140
MH Chili Mac with Beef $25.49 10 240 $2.55 94
MH Corn $21.49 22 90 $0.98 92
MH Green Beans $23.69 20 30 $1.18 25
MH Peas $20.99 23 80 $0.91 88
MH White Rice Instant $17.99 24 180 $0.75 240
MH Cottage Cheese $65.39 20 110 $3.27 34
MH Crackers – Pilot Bread $20.29 67 50 $0.30 167
MH Sliced Strawberries $29.99 16 40 $1.87 21
MH Sliced Bananas $25.69 20 70 $1.28 55
Bulk raw rice (per lb) 90c/lb 1616 1796
Bulk raw flour (per lb) 50c/lb 1592 3184
Bulk raw potatoes (per lb) 20c/lb 352 1760
Bulk raw carrots (per lb) 50c/lb 192 384

Summary

Freeze-dried foods seem to be all similarly priced in terms of dollars per container of food.  But in terms of the most relevant measure – the number of calories of food value/energy you get per dollar spent, there is a twelve-fold spread between the best and worst values.

For reasons of preventing appetite fatigue, you don’t want to only buy one type of freeze-dried food.  But, in choosing a range of different items, clearly you want to concentrate on the higher value items and avoid the items with very low values.