May 152014
 
In theory, the 55 panels on this roof might be capable of providing up to 14 kW of power.  But, in reality?  Probably closer to 10 kW.

In theory, the 55 panels on this roof might be capable of providing up to 14 kW of power. But, in reality? Probably closer to 10 kW.

So there you are, thinking about buying some solar panels.  You’ve noticed they come in a range of semi-standard shapes and sizes, and maybe you’ve even noticed that the slightly unusual dimensions (such as 39.4″) actually make sense if converted to metrics (ie 39.4″ = 1 meter).

You also notice all sorts of acronyms floating around in the specifications and warranties, and you sort of wonder if, when comparing the power output of Brand X’s 250 watt panel with that of Brand Y’s 255 watt panel, if there truly is 5 watts of difference, and, for that matter, whether either panel will ever produce close to the claimed 250 watt output, and what that actually means in terms of total kWhrs a day.

Perhaps even worse are advertisements with no acronyms or qualifiers at all, just a list of unexplained specifications.  Who is making those claims, and how credible are they?

These are all good questions.  We’ll try to answer them for you.

The good news is that there are some official standards that can apply to how solar panel power outputs are measured.  The not so good news is that while these official standards might provide a level playing field for how to measure one panel’s power output alongside another panel, the results obtained by the standards do not necessarily match the real world experience you’ll get (a bit like how the official mpg figures for new cars are seldom the same as you get yourself in real-world driving).  But first, let’s understand exactly what solar panels give you, and why it so quickly becomes difficult to establish their true power output.

All solar panels provide their power in DC volts and amps.  The actual power they provide (which is measured in watts) is calculated by multiplying their output voltage by the amps of current that flows at that voltage – this might seem like a simple calculation, but it isn’t – the voltage level varies based on the amps that are flowing, and both also vary based on the intensity of the sunlight falling on the panel.  So even a simple seeming power measurement isn’t quite as simple as it should be.

It gets worse.  When you start connecting a series of panels together, the real world practical power you might get is not necessarily the simple sum of the power outputs of each individual panel.

However, simple or not, a DC watt specification is the most direct measure of their power output.  Occasionally you may see panels with an AC wattage rating – these would be panels with individual ‘micro-inverters’ that convert the DC output of the panel immediately to AC, right at the panel.

At least until recently, it has been most common to connect together the DC output from multiple panels, then feed that combined power to a single central inverter that then converts it to AC.  But there are convincing studies to suggest that micro-inverters are a very good thing, and while they might slightly add to the cost of a solar array installation, they might also result in you getting appreciably more power out of the system in real life, as compared to the implied power outputs quoted by the specifications.

For now, simply be aware that all inverters involve a slight and inevitable power loss (typically an inverter is anywhere from 95% to 98% efficient) and so if you are seeing an AC watt rating, this has already had the inverter power loss removed.  For example, a 250W DC panel, after passing through a 96% efficient inverter, would end up giving you 240W of AC power.

In other words, AC watts are generally ‘better’ than DC watts, when comparing numbers.

Now for some official ‘standards’ for solar cell power measurements, and note that usually power measurements are made by the manufacturer, rather than by an independent third-party, so there is a certain amount of trust required when accepting these numbers, no matter what the standard may be that they are claimed to have been measured by.

Many cells are rated based on a STC rating.  STC stands for ‘Standard Test Conditions’.  These are an ambient temperature of 25°C/77°F, sunlight of a 1000 W/sq m intensity falling directly on the panel, an air mass of 1.5, and zero wind speed.

Another rating is the NOCT rating.  This is the Normal Operating Cell Temperature rating, and it will always give a lower rating.  NOCT ratings assume 800 W/sq m of solar power falling on the cell, a 20°C/68°F ambient temperature, and a wind of 1 m/sec (2.24 mph) blowing on the backside of the solar panel for cooling.

Even this is optimistic.  The way most solar panels are laid out prevents any underneath cooling, and so their temperatures can rise appreciably, and as they get hotter, they become less efficient (once the air temperature gets up into the high 80s, you’re probably going to start losing 1% of power for every two degrees F of temperature rise).

But wait – there’s more.  Would you be surprised to learn that California does its own thing?  It uses a different standard, the PTC standard.  Unlike the STC rating, the PTC rating is not a measured rating, but a theoretical rating.  That might seem like a backwards step, but it is based on adjusted realworld data, and unlike the self-assessed STC rating, the PTC rating, at least as expressed by California’s CEC (California Energy Commission) requires independent lab results rather than accepting manufacturer claims.

PTC stands for Photovoltaics for Utility Systems Applications Test Conditions, in case you wondered.

Here is an interesting table of PTC ratings for solar panels.  If you go down the list, you’ll see that sometimes panels with a manufacturer stated lower power capacity than another panel actually test as giving more power, and you’ll see appreciable differences between panels all offering apparently the same output.

So maybe you can decide that your 250 W panel actually produces 225 watts to start with.

But then, you need to start adjusting further down.  Perhaps the panel was slightly under specs when it came from the manufacturer.  It will probably lose almost 1% of its output each year that it is operational – do you want to plan your system based on its best case output when brand new, or its mid-life output when it is 5, 10, even 20 years old?

The allow for inverter losses, additional losses through its wiring, and some shading/uneven lighting losses (both from clouds as well as from things like trees around your site).  Add a bit more for other miscellaneous electrical losses, and some for dirt on the panels, and all of a sudden, that 250W panel is starting to promise you more like 150 watts of real power.

One of the subtle but potential huge power losses is from shading.  Now you sort of understand that if the sunlight halves in ‘strength’, then so too does the power output of your panels halve.  But did you know that a partial bit of shading, on only perhaps 10% of your panel, can reduce its output by 50%?  That’s an amazing but observably true issue.  There’s a good discussion about that issue here.

There’s another related factor to keep in the back of your mind as well.  Not all the power your panels will create is necessarily generically usable power.  For example, let’s say you have 2kWh of power produced in a day – that seems like a meaningful chunk of power.  But that doesn’t mean you can run a 1500 watt appliance for over an hour, because perhaps the power is trickling in at only 300W, over a seven hour period.

You’ll never be able to run your 1500 watt appliance from the 2kW of power you got that day, unless you feel the power into a battery bank over the day and then take it all out at the 1500 watt rate – oh yes, and if you do that, you’ll then have to factor in the additional inefficiencies of converting from the AC power to DC power for the battery charger, then the loss in charging up the battery, then the loss in discharging the battery, and the loss in converting the battery DC power back to AC power for your appliance.

Summary

So, your 250 watt panel will probably never ever give you 250 watts of power, under any conditions.  We’d suggest that you use the Californian PTC test results to convert your panels’ claimed power outputs into more realistic output levels, and then reduce those by at least 10% to convert from panel power output in DC to actual AC power available in your home.  In other words, expect less than 200 watts – in best case conditions – from your 250 watt panels, and in worst case conditions (but still with nice sunny weather) you could be dropping down closer to 150 watts as your theoretical maximum.

The bottom line for us as preppers, and remembering we are planning for a future where solar panels aren’t just a fashionably nice ‘green’ supplement to our normal power from the utility company, but rather are our only power source, is this :  Massively over-build your solar array, because no matter how big it is/becomes, it will disappoint and leave you wanting more when you actually start living off the power.

This is a further part of our series on solar energy.  Please also visit our sections on energy in general and solar energy in particular for more related articles.

May 142014
 
Which is more energy efficient to boil water?  This $10 plastic electric jug, or a $500 microwave oven?  The answer might surprise you!

Which is more energy-efficient to boil water? This $10 plastic electric jug, or a $500 microwave oven? The answer might surprise you!

We recommended either buying or making your own ‘Wonderbag’ type product and using it for an energy-efficient type of slow-cooking yesterday.  But what about cooking items when a slow-cook approach is not practical or possible?  For example, what is the best way of boiling water?

If you want to boil water, you probably have various choices – you can boil a kettle (or a pot) on a stove top element, you might have an electric jug, you could use an oven, or a microwave oven.

Now it goes without saying that using a regular oven would be a very slow and inappropriate process, but what about the difference between, eg, stove top, an electric jug, and the microwave?

We were able to exactly test the difference between an electric jug and a microwave oven, and we can empirically comment on the stove top as another alternative.

For our testing, we used a microwave oven that had a nameplate power rating of 1560 watts, and an electric jug with a nameplate power rating of 1500 watts.  We heated one liter of water in a glass container in the microwave, and one liter of water in the electric jug itself.  The electric jug did not have an immersion exposed element, but rather had a smooth base and the element directly below it.

We observed a rise of 34.9°C by the water in the jug, and 19.1°C by the water in the microwave during the two-minute period.  We also noted that the water in the jug was slowly continuing to rise at the end of the heating period – this was to be expected because the very hot electric element had some thermal inertia and was continuing to transfer energy after it was switched off.

So, a quick result is that there was almost twice as much net heating from the jug as from the microwave, even though the microwave was drawing slightly more power.  That would seem to argue conclusively in favor of using the jug rather than the microwave.

We were interested to know exactly how efficient each process was, so we did the calculation to compare the electrical energy consumed and the thermal energy created.

Two minutes of the jug at 1500 watts represents 50 watt hours of power.  Two minutes of the microwave at 1560 watts is 52 watt hours of power.

Increasing the temperature of 1L of water by 34.9 degrees requires 40.52 watt hours of energy.  So, for the jug, we got 40.52 watt hours of heat from 50 watts of electricity, which is an 81% efficiency rating.

For the microwave, the 19.1 degree temperature rise required 22.18 watt hours of energy, and we used 52 watt hours to create that.  This represents a 43% efficiency.

Clearly, the jug is much better than the microwave for heating water.

Where Did the Rest of the Energy Go?

You might be wondering what happened to the rest of the energy.  In the case of the jug, the balance of the energy was probably radiated away from the jug – heat from the sides of the jug, and more heat from its spout at the top.  An 81% efficiency rating is actually a reasonably good result.

The microwave’s much greater energy loss requires a bit more explanation.  First, we have the efficiency (or perhaps we should say, the inefficiency) of converting electricity to microwave energy.  This is generally thought to involve about a 40% loss of energy.  So, of the 52 watt hours that went into the microwave unit, 20.8 of them got ‘lost’ in the electronics.  More power was spent to spin the turntable, to illuminate the light, and to operate the fan (although these three things are all moderately low power drains).

Not all the microwave energy inside the cavity (and of the 52 watts, probably less than 30 watts actually ended up as microwaves) was absorbed by the water.  In addition, just like the heat that was lost out of the top of the electric jug, the open beaker we had the water contained within definitely was allowing heat to escape from the top.  If we had some sort of lid to put on the beaker, that would have probably made a measurable improvement.

So, the observed efficiencies are in line with the theoretical estimates of energy losses.

The Best Electric Jug?

If you don’t yet have an electric jug, we’d suggest you consider a plastic one, because the plastic will give you better insulation and have less heat loss through the jug sides than is the case with a pretty nice looking stainless steel one.

Our favorite jug (which is not the one we tested with) is this Proctor unit.  It is the one pictured at the top of the article.

It is plastic, it has a small minimum fill requirement, it has a fully exposed element for best heat transfer, and – wow – it is only $9 at Amazon.  What a deal that is.

Hidden Microwave Advantages

On the face of it, you’d think there’s never a reason to use a microwave oven instead of a jug when you want to boil water, right?

Well, actually, wrong.  If you are boiling a jug, you need to put a minimum amount of water in it, no matter how much water you need to heat up.  Indeed, our test jug suggests a 1.3L minimum fill (but note the Proctor unit is happy with only 300 mls).

With the microwave, you only need to put a single cup of water in it, if you are only needing to heat a single cup of water (a cup of coffee requires maybe 400 mls, depending on how large a cup you want).  In such cases, this may compensate for the microwave’s lower efficiency.

Stovetop Cooking Considerations

Okay, so that sort of explains the relativity of microwave ovens to electric jugs.

But what about boiling water on the stove top?  That is a bit harder to establish without special test equipment and digging in to the stove’s wiring or gas pipes to accurately measure energy consumption, and it also varies from case to case depending on the efficiency of the heat transfer from the heat source to the heat recipient (such things as the size and shape of the pot bottom, the size and shape of the element/burner, etc), the pot material (glass, aluminium, copper, steel, etc) and so on.  Two different scenarios could give you two massively different results, with one twice as good/bad as the other.

However, there have been some studies done which have clear and interesting results, and if we assume reasonably optimized setups, we can make some generalizations.

The least efficient form of heating is invariably gas.  You are lucky to get about a 35% – 40% efficiency from a gas burner on a stove – that is, for every three units of gas energy, you get one unit of heat transferred into your pot.

Regular smooth flat electric elements are rated as about 70% – 75% efficient, and induction cookers are about 80% – 85% efficient.

Another source claims 55% efficiency for gas, 65% efficiency for regular electric, and 90% efficiency for induction cooking.  As we said, a lot depends on the specific setup you’re using.  While the numbers are different, the relativity is the same.  Gas is the least efficient, regular electric in the middle, and induction way in the front.

In particular, if you have gas, make sure the flames do not spill over the sides of the pot.  That’s totally wasted heat.  Any time you see the water boiling first around the side of your pot, you know you are wasting gas heat and should turn down the gas.

For electric cooking, make sure the pot bottom sits flat on the element surface, and is clean.  Dirt acts as an insulation barrier, and if there are air gaps, then you are heating the air rather than the pot.

Induction Elements

Normally, when electricity is abundant and relatively inexpensive, no-one cares about the greater energy efficiency of an induction cooktop, and you have to be more specific about the types of pots you use with an induction cooktop, too.  Many of us also prefer the greater control of gas compared to traditional electric elements, and although gas is less efficient, it is also usually cheaper, per unit of energy, to use gas rather than electricity, so the efficiency issue is sort of cancelled out by the cost saving.

But WTSHTF and all energy becomes scarce and costly, it becomes very beneficial to consider an induction cooker.  There are other benefits to induction cooking, too – it is a bit like gas because it too can instantly increase or decrease the energy being applied to your pot, with no ‘thermal lag’ as is the case with regular electricity.  It can also do clever things like detect if your pot has boiled dry or not.

The good news is you don’t need to go out and buy a whole new stove top right now.  You can simply buy a single free-standing induction cooker.  Amazon has them for about $60 – $100, they are available elsewhere too of course.

We see some model induction cooktops are rated at 1300 watts and others at 1800 watts.  While you might instinctively go for the 1800 watt unit, there’s a potential small problem there.  1800 watts on 120 volts requires 15 amps of current.  So make sure you run it off a 20A rated circuit, and make sure you don’t share the circuit with anything else that consumes much power, or else you’ll trip the circuit breaker.

Needless to say, practice with the induction cooker, so you know its quirks and how to get best (and most energy-efficient) use from it.  And make sure you have the appropriate pots to go with it too – ideally pots the same diameter as the induction heating circuit.

Oven Cooking

An oven can be either an efficient or an inefficient means of cooking.  It is efficient if you are cooking large amounts of food for a long time; it is inefficient if you are heating up leftovers the next day.

You can sense this without needing to measure, just by doing a thought experiment.  Say you turn your oven on and heat it up to 350 degrees, then when it is hot, you put something in and cook it for 45 minutes.

How long does it take to heat the oven to 350°?  Probably about 15 minutes, maybe longer.  So there is 15 minutes with the oven elements on full, all the time.  Your oven probably has 3 kW – 5kW of heating elements; let’s average and say it has a 4 kW heater inside.  You’ve used 1 kWh of energy just to heat up the oven prior to cooking in it.  If you have a daily energy budget of 10 kWh, you’ve used 10% of it just to heat up your oven.  Ouch!

If you then have it cooking for a while, the oven is probably only cycling the heating elements on for 25% of the time or thereabouts, so for 45 minutes of heating, you might use another 0.75 kWh of energy.  So 45 minutes of cooking uses 1.75kWh of energy total, but if you were cooking something for more than twice as long, eg, two hours, you’d use much less than twice as much energy (ie 3 kWh for two hours of cooking).  The oven becomes more efficient, the longer it is cooking something.

The other issue to do with oven efficiency is how much food you have in it.  Most of the energy in an oven goes to keeping the air in the oven hot, and the heat transfer to the food is slow and inefficient.  It costs little more to cook ten pounds of meat or whatever in your oven than it does to cook 10 ounces of meat or whatever.

So, an electric oven is good for large quantities of food cooked for a long time, but it is bad – very bad – for a small quantity of food cooked for a short time.

Let’s come back to the ‘heating leftovers’ example.  Maybe you heat your oven to 350° then heat the item for 30 minutes.  That’s 1.5 kWh of energy.  Compare that to perhaps 6 minutes in the microwave, which would be 0.15 kWh – ten times less energy.  That makes for an obvious choice, doesn’t it!

Summary

There are several things we can conclude from all of this.

1.  If heating the same amount of water, an electric jug with immersion water heater is the most efficient way to do this.

2.  If heating less than half the minimum amount of water you’d need to heat in a jug, use a microwave oven.

3.  If cooking on the stove-top, induction elements are the best, and gas elements are by far the worst.

4.  Traditional ovens work best when cooking large amounts of food for a long time.  For small amounts of food, that only need a short time in the oven, it is usually better to use a microwave oven instead.

As preppers, we suggest you ensure you have three cooking appliances as part of your kit.  An electric jug, an induction cooktop, and a microwave oven.

May 132014
 
You can never save too much energy when planning for life after TEOTWAWKI.

The Wonderbag – something you can also easily make yourself – gives you a low energy way to make a high quality meal.
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You can never save too much energy when planning for life after TEOTWAWKI.

But there is more to saving energy than shivering in the cold, in the dark, in your retreat.  We need to rethink the underlying assumptions that are embodied in many of the everyday things in our lives – things that have been designed for maximum convenience and in the belief that energy will remain freely abundant and wonderfully inexpensive.

Trust us – even at 15c or more per kWh of electricity, that is truly ‘wonderfully inexpensive’ compared to what energy will cost you (or be valued at) when you have to make your own.

One of the greater consumers of energy in your house is your kitchen.  Many of the appliances in your kitchen are enormously wasteful of energy.  Think, for example, of your toaster – an efficient toaster would have a radiant element (the same as your normal toaster) but mounted horizontally, and then with the bread placed above it, so that the rising heat hits the bread, rather than goes out the top of the toaster.  We’ve not timed our typical pop-up toaster, but we’ll guess it takes maybe 3 or 4 minutes to toast two slices of bread, and at maybe 1500 watts, that’s about 0.1 kWh of energy for two slices of toast.  If you are setting yourself a total daily energy budget of, say, 10 kWh, you’ve used 1% of it just on your morning toast.

Add another 1% or more to boil water for your morning coffee (the chances are your jug requires you to boil a certain minimum amount of water, most of which is unnecessarily heated if all you want is a cup’s worth of water for a cup of coffee.  Modern jugs are nice and convenient, but are also not as efficient as old-fashioned jugs with an element that is immersed in the water it is heating, causing more/most (heck, pretty much all) of the heat to be transferred to the water it is heating.

Now look at your stove top.  Maybe you are cooking a meal, and you’re boiling potatoes in water for 20 minutes.  Every steam bubble that comes out of the water in the pot is wasted energy.  Potatoes will cook as fast at 211°F – right before the water starts sucking up more energy to boil – as they will at 212°F, and please don’t be like the people who think that food cooks faster in water that has a ‘rolling boil’ with lots of steam being given off, as compared to water that is gently simmering right around the boiling point.

The only reason we cook things in boiling water is because it is easy to control the temperature of boiling water, and makes for predictable cooking times.  How, in a typical kitchen, could you maintain water at a different temperature such as, eg, 210°F instead of at 212°F?

One more thing about boiling.  Did you know it takes five and a half times more energy to boil a given quantity of water (ie to take water at 100°C/212°F and change it to steam at the same temperature) than it does to raise the temperature of that water from 0°C/32°F (ie water right at freezing point but not frozen) to 100°C/212°F.  Converting water to steam requires huge amounts of energy, all of which is being unnecessarily wasted in your pot of boiling water, which would cook your food just as well at 99°C/211°F as it does at 100°C/212°F.

(If you want the actual numbers, it requires 333 J/gm to melt ice, 4.18 J/gm to heat water each degree C, and 2,230 J/gm to convert water to steam at boiling point.  As an interesting aside, this is the underlying principle of how a steam engine works – some of the energy that is absorbed when water becomes steam is then recovered when the steam drives the pistons and condenses back to water again.  The steam is merely another way of transferring and converting the thermal energy of the fire to the kinetic energy from the piston/cylinder.)

One more thing about boiling water in your jug.  Turn the jug off just before the water reaches the boil, and use that water.  You’ll save a measurable amount of energy.  Indeed, the ideal temperature for coffee is about 200°F, and a bit cooler for tea.

Your pot of potatoes isn’t just losing energy through unnecessarily boiling.  Feel the sides of the pot, and its lid too.  Feel around the bottom of the pot where the burner or hot plate/element is.  But be careful, because it is all very hot – and all that heat that you feel, and which is being dissipated away from the cooking food, that is all wasted energy.  About the only good thing that can be said for that wasted energy is that it is helping to heat your kitchen (but that’s actually a bad thing on a hot summer’s day – you then need to turn around and use more energy to run your a/c to take the heat out of the house!).

Now, you probably also have some sort of slow cooker/crockpot in your kitchen cupboards, too.  This confirms the fact that you don’t need to cook food fast (at 100°C/212°F) in order to cook it well, indeed some people say that slow cooked food ends up much better than fast cooked food.  Your slow cooker can be used for meats, vegetables, soups, stews, pretty much most things.  If you are like us, you probably seldom use yours, and in our case, we simultaneously love and hate the ‘slow torture’ of the tantalizing smells that come from it all day during the cooking process.

We are not suggesting you can save energy by using the typical crockpot/slow cooker that you probably have in your kitchen.  At least with the ones we’ve seen, it is still heating the liquid around the edges to beyond boiling, and the overall construction is not well insulated.

A Low Energy Slow Cooking Solution

What we are saying is that these concepts can be combined to create a ‘do it yourself’ low energy slow cooking device that will save you a great deal of energy.  In its simplest form, put whatever you want to cook into a regular pot, heat it up to boiling, then hold it right at about boiling until such time as the food has absorbed the first rush of heat energy from the water, then at that point, take it off the stove and wrap it up in insulation, then leave it to slowly continue cooking for however long it takes.  All the heat in the pot goes into cooking the food, rather than being wasted away.

This will take longer for a meal to be prepared, but it will also use much less energy.  And the time it takes is not personal time you need to spend standing watching, but simply elapsed time while the food ‘does its own thing’, slowly cooking away.  Prepare your evening meal at lunchtime, then come back and eat it at dinner time.

One approach to this concept can be seen in the ‘Wonderbag’.  Although designed and marketed as a device to variously ‘save the planet’ and suchlike, all the benefits they talk about on this page of their website apply with only very little change in context, to what our lives may be like in a Level 2 or 3 scenario.

The Wonderbag itself seems to be nothing more than quite a lot of foam insulation inside a fabric bag that envelopes your pot to keep the heat in the pot, cooking the food, after you’ve originally heated it up.  They sell the bags on Amazon for $50 a piece, which strikes us as expensive, but we’re told we should feel good about paying over the odds for the Wonderbag because we’re helping to save the planet in the process – as you see on their webpage, the more Wonderbags we buy, the fewer the rapes of women in Africa that will occur!

There are plenty of recipes on their site as well, and most slow cooker recipes can be used with little change (possibly slightly longer cooking times because the average temperature will drop down once you insulate the pot off the stove).

Note also some essential safety issues – don’t let the temperature drop below 140°F because if you do that, you’re entering the ‘sweet zone’ where bacteria thrive.  We’d be tempted to stick a remote temperature probe in the pot to monitor the temperature.  There are also some helpful questions and answers on the Amazon product page about how best to optimize your cooking style and pot selection, etc, when using a Wonderbag or any other similar product you create yourself.

How much energy would Wonderbag type cooking save you each day?  The Wonderbag site claims that ‘fuel and water usage extended by 60% or more’ so that seems like you are at least halving the energy required to cook a meal.  How much energy is that?  Hard to say, but coming back to the 20 minutes of boiling potatoes, plus 5 minutes to boil some other vegetable, and however many minutes to somehow cook some meat, it seems to us that you’re probably saving more than 0.5 kWh, but probably not more than 1.0 kWh, per meal you cook via an insulated cooker.  That’s not much when electricity costs you about 10c – 15c per kWh, but in the future, when energy is precious and scarce, this amount of energy saving becomes significant when you’re trying to live within a 10kWh or less a day energy budget.

Best of all, it doesn’t require you to turn down the heat and turn off the lights!  Instead, it gives you lovely flavorful tender and nutritious food.

Note :  Please see, also, our article ‘What is the Most Efficient Form of Cooking‘ for further discussion on the best ways to cook your food when energy is scarce and costly.

May 122014
 
Let our spreadsheet save you the need to employ a team of clerks to calculate your solar energy situation.

Let our spreadsheet save you the need to employ a team of clerks to calculate your solar energy situation.

One of the most important things for you to get right is balancing your retreat’s energy requirements with its energy production and storage.

These three variables – how much energy you use, how much you produce, and how much you store – are all dependent on each other, in a complex series of interlinked relationships, and all you really know for sure is that you never want to run out!

But trying to match together the theoretical output of your solar panels, adjusting for changing weather and sunshine during the year, and adding in some energy storage capacity (batteries or whatever) to tide you over the times when your solar power isn’t producing (every night and much of every day during the winter, too) is a confusing and difficult process, and it just becomes harder still when you try to answer such questions as ‘should I add more panels or more batteries’.  Oh yes, and you’ll also want to know the costs of each different way of designing your system too.

In truth, it is hard to avoid getting out a big piece of paper, a pencil or two, some erasers, and a calculator, then devoting hours to running through the specifics of this.  But we can help you to get very close to knowing the answers to these questions without having to spend too much time or hassle doing so.

We’ve programmed up an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to simply enter in the information related to your retreat and your planned power generating, storage, and consumption numbers.  Then it will instantly do literally thousands of calculations and tell you if your scenario will work or not, and show you where the energy shortfalls will be, and allow you to then try ‘what if’ scenarios such as ‘what if I add another panel’ and ‘what if I add another battery’ to get as close as possible to the point where you can confidently predict you’ll never run out of power, no matter how bad the weather.

Of course, once you’ve worked through the spreadsheet, we suggest you then do the ‘real thing’ and calculate the exact specifics for yourself, but at least the spreadsheet will zero you in on the critical parameters and so you only need to confirm the spreadsheet, rather than start from scratch.

We have a link to the spreadsheet for you to download (and we’ve even filled it with some typical values for Coeur d’Alene so you’ve got a reference point to start from) and some pages of explanatory notes to help you know what to fill in and how to interpret the results, all starting from this page here.

This is the first time we’ve created a spreadsheet for you to work forward from.  Do you like it?  Is it helpful?  Would you like more (and, if so, please give us suggestions).

Note – while we are proud of the spreadsheet and consider it very helpful indeed, it is not perfect.  Please be sure to understand its limitations, which we list also on the linked page.  If the spreadsheet proves popular, we’ll improve the sophistication of the model in the future.

Oh yes, if it all gets too much like rocket science, we can help, over and above the large book sized amount of information we’ve already published on the site!  We are happy to consult with you and do most of this on your behalf, and to walk you through the personal preference/lifestyle choices that we can’t make for you.  Rates for our energy consulting services are reasonable and start at $250.  Let us know if we can assist.

May 102014
 
Will the police protect private property WTSHTF, or will they take it?

Will the police protect private property WTSHTF, or will they take it?

This is the third part of a three-part article series on how everything we’ve saved and stored could be – lawfully – taken from us in an emergency.

If you arrived on this page from a search engine or website link, you might wish to first read the first part of the article, which talks about how our society has evolved to the point where the majority already feel no shame in taking property from people who have it and appropriating it for themselves, and then move on to the second part, pointing out some current legal support for the capricious taking of our personal property, before continuing on with this third part.

As preppers, one of our concerns must be what happens WTSHTF, and 95% or more of the people around us are starving and dying, while we’re ‘sitting pretty’ in our retreat, surrounded by shelter, energy, food, and many of the creature comforts we’ve become used to.

Some preppers anticipate that the unprepped majority of the people in the country will attempt to take their provisions by force.  Others worry that the unprepped majority will attempt to take everything they’ve carefully accumulated and stored through some sort of abusive but semi-legal process.

In many respects, the abusive but semi-legal process is the more threatening.  That’s not to deny the danger of an armed gang of marauders, roaming the region, looting and plundering any which way they choose.  But at least that is something that one can lawfully defend oneself against, and as long as one observes proper protocols, one doesn’t run the risk of breaking any laws in the process.

But what does one do when the local sheriff turns up at your door with a court order compelling you to surrender all your ‘illegally hoarded’ supplies?  You surely can’t shoot the sheriff!

We’ve written before about some of the semi-legal ploys that may be used to try and talk you out of your provisions, and of course, when the judge, jury, and sheriff are starving themselves, your chance of getting a fair hearing is not very great.  Please see our articles ‘The Present Legal Support for Seizing our Food and Other Supplies‘ and ‘Preppers Beware :  Our “Hoarding” Can be Deemed Illegal‘ for more on these issues.

We’ve never suggested that these two articles represent the totality of legal risks we must consider.  And, even if they did, how quickly could a starving local town council, county board of commissioners, or even state/federal legislature pass new laws giving the authorities more ‘perfectly legal’ rights to take more things from people who had prudently prepared?  A day?  A week?

However, it is appropriate to understand the current range of legal ‘threats’ that exist, so today we’re revealing another one.  This is something that – like so many laws – started off with the best of good intentions and then somehow evolved and extended itself to a point now where few people could fairly defend it at all.

You might remember back when laws were being passed that would seize the proceeds of crimes from criminals.  In addition to whatever other punishments a convicted criminal might have imposed on him, he’d also be deprived of his ‘ill gotten gains’.  This made sense, sort of.  What was the point of jailing a drug dealer for a year or so if he got to keep the several million dollars he’d made in profits?  Many people would consider a several million dollar payment more than compensated for a year or two in prison!

This process is called criminal forfeiture.

Civil Forfeiture

We have nothing against criminal forfeiture.  But, we described that process merely as background to what we now are bringing to your attention.  Please read on for the really worrying part of this article.

Something happened, the criminal forfeiture concept evolved and extended way beyond their initial concept and justification.  Nowadays we have laws that allow ‘the authorities’ to take anything – real property, personal property, cash, anything at all – from people when the police or prosecutors suspect the person of wrongdoing.  This is called civil forfeiture.

Whereas in a criminal case, the authorities have to convict someone by going through the due process of the legal system, using a high standard of proof – ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’; in these new scenarios, it seems there is no need for any due process at all, and not even much need for proof.  All that is required is for the police/prosecutor to say ‘we think you’ve done something bad’ and based on that thought, they can then proceed to deprive the person of pretty much whatever they choose.

That sounds impossible to believe, right?  It sounds beyond un-American?  It sounds like only something you’d see in the most corrupt of African republics.

Well, don’t just trust us (and don’t trust anyone else, either).  Do your own research – you could search for civil forfeiture laws on Google, or for civil forfeiture abuse if you preferred (the links take you to the Google searches).  Read any of the articles returned in the search results to get the confirmation of what we’re saying.

Or you could simply read this news item, published yesterday, about a recent case and its implications.

You’ll see in the article that even though some states have legislated against civil forfeiture, there is a loophole whereby federal agencies can still use this concept, and they can (and will) conscript state, county and city authorities to assist them by ‘splitting the winnings’ with the local authorities.

Whatever happened until ‘innocent until proven guilty’?  One could also suggest such actions fly in the face of the Fourth Amendment of our Bill of Rights (unlawful seizures), the Seventh Amendment (a right to jury trials for all matters in controversy exceeding $20) and the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting excessive fines and unusual punishments).

This is appalling law and public policy.  But when you have a situation where bad laws directly benefit the law makers and the law enforcers, then – as the article above points out – it can be very hard to overturn them.

Back to the implications of this to us as preppers.  Do we need to spell it out?  We risk having an officer of some authority confront us, and while struggling to hide the smirk as he says it, tell us that he suspects us of some wrong-doing (and for sure, with so many regulations and requirements these days, we are all guilty of breaking some law or regulation, knowingly or unknowingly) and because of that suspicion, he is taking all our stored food and fuel.  He doesn’t even need a court order.

Police officers we know claim that everyone is always guilty of something, and, if they choose to or need to, they can validly arrest anyone at any time.  They generally consider this a good thing, but should we agree with them?

What Can We Do?

So, if the authorities (meaning way too many people from way too many different government groups) can pretty much take anything they want from us at any time, with little or no due process in the middle, what should we do?

We don’t have a whole heap of suggestions in answer to this problem.  But we can point out that it would be wise to distribute your provisions and supplies over several different locations, so that if you do end up being forced to give up ‘everything you have’, this means that you only have to give up everything you have at your main retreat location, and can then switch to your backup resources.

See also our articles about the essential importance of becoming part of the community so that you can anticipate, influence and moderate such negative actions rather than be blind-sided by them.

May 102014
 
Chances are you'll end up choosing to cover most, if not all your roof with solar panels.

Chances are you’ll end up choosing to cover most, if not all your roof with solar panels.

This is a further part of our series on solar energy.  Please also visit our sections on energy in general and solar energy in particular for more related articles.

What makes a roof better or less suited for having solar panels mounted on it?  How should you design a new retreat structure, and/or, if looking at buying an existing dwelling, how do you know if it is optimized for solar?

Answering these questions is reasonably straightforward.  To start with, if you are looking at buying an existing retreat structure, it absolutely must have a southerly facing roof and an unobstructed view of the southern sky from directly south to about 75° either side of directly south.  You don’t need a full 180° of clearance, but anything much less than 75° either side of south means you’ll start losing some morning or evening sun.

Ideally the roof should have a fairly steep pitch on it.  The ideal angle for solar panels is to have them angled at the same number of degrees as the latitude the panels are at.  That means, if you’re in a northern state, you probably want to have a 45° angle, or even possibly slightly more.  If you think of a line between the two Portlands, the one in Oregon is at 45.5° N and the one in Maine is at 43.7° N, that gives you an intuitive feeling for your likely latitude, and remember that much of the Canadian border follows the 49th parallel, ie, 49° N.  To be more exact, you can instantly see any latitude anywhere from Google Earth and other mapping programs.

It is acceptable to have a somewhat flatter pitch (or a steeper pitch, but that’s less likely!), but once your pitch starts to be more than perhaps 15° away from your latitude, you’re going to start to feel a loss in solar energy production.  A 15° differential will cost you 3.5%, and the loss of power starts to quickly rise from that point forward.

If you are going to build your own retreat, choose a lot that will allow you to build with this southerly aspect, and design your roof for as close to your ideal pitch as is practical.  One thing is likely – you’ll be getting a lot of attic space that way!

Indeed, if you don’t have height restrictions, rather than having a typical ridge line roof with two equal roof sides rising to meet in the middle, why not consider a single sloping roof, going all the way up to the top.  This would give you a lot of extra space above your top level in your structure, and while this space would be facing to the north rather than south, it could surely be used for just about any normal purpose.

How Much Roof Area Do You Need?

Now, the next question becomes either ‘how much roof area do you need’ (if you’re designing a new dwelling) or ‘how much power can you get from the roof you have’ (if you’re buying an existing retreat structure.

The answer to both questions is very much ‘it depends’.  But there are some simple rules of thumb you can use.

At present, it seems that a typical solar panel measures about 39.13″ x 65.04″, and typically generates about 250W according to its official specification sheet.  Some panels will give you fewer watts for this panel size, and some higher priced ones will go up to 275W for the same size.

The panel is close to 18.35 sq ft in size.  So, divide 250W by 18.35 sq ft, and here’s a rule of thumb :  Ideally, with reasonably efficient solar cells in the panels, you can get about 13.5 watts of solar power per square foot of roof area.  If you make adjustments to allow for not every square inch of roof space being usable, and leaving some maintenance walkway space and such like, we’d probably suggest that for quick guesstimate calculations, you figure on 11 watts per square foot of roof.

A 250W panel, which seems to be about the sweet spot for price vs performance, will cost about $250 (plus the associated costs for wiring, installation, control systems, and so on).  This points to another rule of thumb – figure about $1 per watt of panel capacity, plus more to install, etc, the panels and power from them.

Remember that your total roof area will be greater than the footprint of your dwelling.  The slope means it has more length on it, and there is probably some overhang that adds to the roof dimensions too.  But remember also to deduct any parts of the roof that aren’t southerly facing – the ‘other side’ of a typical two-sided roof, the ‘hip’ sides of a hipped roof, and so on.  Also, if there are corners and sides to your roof, possibly the sides might shade the main south-facing roof portion, potentially almost halving the power production on areas that would be shaded.

You probably have a target amount of power generating capacity you would like for your retreat (see our article on ‘How Much Solar Power Generating Capacity Do You Need‘ for more discussion on this).  Multiply your roof square footage by 11, to see an approximate maximum generating capacity for your roof.  Is that above, below, or close to your target capacity?

If your roof clearly has more than enough space for the generating capacity you need/want, then you can relax, and proceed with all the other things to consider when evaluating current retreats or planning your own custom retreat.

If your roof is marginally close to meeting your power requirements, maybe you should calculate things more carefully.  In this case, we suggest the easiest thing to do is to get scissors and paper.  Cut out a large shape that represents the portion of your roof that is southerly facing.  Then cut out, to the same scale, the number of 250W panels you want to place on your roof (maybe, to make things quicker/easier, cut out larger shapes that represent strips of 2, 3, 4 panels).

Lay the panel shapes out on the roof shape.  Leave some aisles for you to walk along (or up and down) so that you can access your roof for maintenance (hopefully seldom) and cleaning (depending on where you live, cleaning will be a reasonably regular activity).  We suggest you allow about 2ft wide corridors, and you design things so you’re readily able to reach panels with a ‘window washing’ type extendable handled cleaning device (which indeed might be a window washer).  Maybe you can plan to reach out 9′ or so from where you are standing.  So that would allow for aisles every 18′ if you access the panels from both sides, and perhaps you’d want the first aisle 9′ from the edge of the roof.

We don’t know why, but we see very few roof installations that leave aisles to make it easy to access the panels, but we feel this to be essential.  It doesn’t take much dust or dirt or leaves or branches or bird poo or whatever to massively reduce a panel’s power output, so we believe regular panel cleaning is essential.  Perhaps the designs with no walk-ways assume that you’ll do the cleaning from a ladder or from the other side of the roof, and those are both possible options.  But if you’re like us, the easier something is to do, the more likely you are to do it, and so we’re keen to make this as easy as possible for us.

So, lay out the panels as best you can and see how many will fit.  The good news is the panels can be laid in either direction – long side horizontal (ie ‘landscape’) or long side vertical (ie ‘portrait’).  While it mightn’t look so nice aesthetically, you can even have a mix of different orientations, any way that will allow for best space utilization.

Measuring Roof Slope and True Roof Surface Area

If you can conveniently climb onto your roof and safely walk around on it, then the easiest thing to do is measure it directly.

But if this is not so practical, you’ll need to measure what you can on the ground and then adjust based on the roof slope for the actual roof surface area.

There are two typical ways of measuring roof slope.  One – less common in the US – is to talk about the angle of the roof slope.  The other is to talk about the slope in terms of units of vertical rise per so many units of horizontal run.

You probably know – or can easily measure – the horizontal length of the building footprint, and you also can probably measure the vertical rise.  It is also possible to measure the degrees of inclination with only some relatively simple tools, but for most of us it will be easier to measure the horizontal length and rise.

Let’s look at a worked example.  Say you have a roof that has a 30 foot ‘footprint’ – ie, it covers 30 ft of horizontal level floor.  It has a single ridge in the middle, and the rise from either end to the middle is 6 feet.

If you remember way back to your trigonometry days, you might remember Pythagoras’ Theorem for finding the length of the third side of a triangle.  The sum of the squares of the other two sides equals the square of the hypotenuse, right?  And in the case of your roof, you now know the two sides around the right angle (ie 6 feet for the rise and 15 ft for the horizontal length).  So

62 + 152 = 36 + 225 = 261, and √261 = 16.2

The roof length is 16.2 ft – not much more than the length on the ground in the case of what would be a fairly moderate slope on the roof.

Oh, and for the sake of completeness, if you do know the angle of the roof and the horizontal length to the ridge point, then you can calculate the roof length by the formula

Roof length = Horizontal length divided by the cosine of the angle.

For example, a roof with a 30 degree pitch and a 15 foot horizontal length to its ridge would have a length of

15/cos(30°) = 15/0.866 = 17.4 ft.

A Sample Calculation

Say you have a 1250 sq ft building footprint (perhaps 25′ x 50′).  Say you extend your roof one foot over this footprint for eaves/overhang (generally it is common to have greater overhang).  And you give the roof a 45° degree pitch.

Of course, you want the long side of the house to be facing south.

If you have a standard single ridged roof, with no hips, and if the roof is in equal halves about the central ridge, then the actual dimensions for each half will be 52′ long (the 50′ width plus an extra foot at each end) and the width will be 37.4′ (the 25 ft flat length becomes a 35.4 ft length on a 45° angle, plus an extra foot of overhang at each end).  But remember that only half of this is facing the sun, so in total, you have 972 sq ft of roof area facing the sun.

Now let’s allow for some maintenance aisles.  Should these lanes run along the roof, or up and down it?  We’re not sure which is better, you can decide.  But let’s simply, for now, set aside 20% of the gross area to leave you room for these aisles.  So your 972 sq ft of panel area has a net usable area of 778 sq ft.

We’d round that down a bit further and call it 750 sq ft.  Or, alternatively, because you are using real dimensions rather than trying to give a generic example, now is a good time to start mixing and matching the actual dimensions of panels to the space on your roof.

For this exercise, we randomly chose a fairly standard size panel, measuring 39.13″ x 65.04″, which we’ll call 40″ x 66″ for our calculation.  These panels are rated at about 250 watts, which means that each ten square inches of panel is giving you almost 1 watt, or, if you prefer, each square foot is giving you about 13.5 watts.

Now let’s first do a ‘perfect world’ calculation.  Our roof has 52′ x 18.7′ dimensions, or 624″ x 224″, which is 139,776 square inches.  Our panels are 2640 sq inches each, so in theory, we can somehow fit up to 52.9 panels on the roof.  If we do the quick rule of thumb and reduce that by 20% (for aisle-ways), that points to 42.4 panels, which we’ll round down to 42.

That suggests our roof can provide a maximum of 250W x 42 panels, = 10.5 kW of power.  That’s actually a reasonably good number for most retreats and most purposes.  These panels would cost about $9,500, plus extra for mounting accessories, mounting, wiring, and so on.

If you were keen to maximize the power from your roof, you could get slightly more efficient panels that generate 275 watts from the same surface area.  But these more efficient panels are also very much more expensive – your cost for 42 panels is likely to increase from about $9,500 up to about $14,600, while your power output will go from 10.5kW up to 11.55 kW.  You’re paying an extra $5,100 for 1 kW of extra generating capacity – that’s a lot of extra money, and maybe it is better to think about spending the money to adapt your roof so it can accept four more of the standard panels (which would add the same additional capacity), or perhaps, use the money to build a shed and put the panels on top of that.  You need an extra 75 sq ft for the four extra panels.

Another approach is to have more of your roof pitching up in the southerly direction, and less or none in the northerly direction.  This will raise the maximum height of the structure, but if that’s not a problem, then go for it.  You’re sure to find a use for the extra internal space you are creating, too.

Personally we generally prefer to have more low efficiency panels rather than fewer high-efficiency panels.  Not only is it cheaper, but the loss of a single panel is not so serious, and our sense is that lower efficiency panels might be more reliable and ‘less stressed’ than higher efficiency panels.  But we have nothing to back up that perception.

If your target power generating capacity is around 10 kW, then you don’t need to do anything more at this stage.  You know that for 10 kW, you’ll need 40 panels, and you know that your roof has enough space for up to 52 panels, depending on layout and service lanes, so clearly that is going to work.

But if you are keen to get every possible watt you can, and you’re thinking of paying a great deal more for higher efficiency panels, now is the time to do an actual layout diagram for how your roof could be set out, using the cut out shapes.

Summary

We provided a couple of rules of thumb in this article.  There’s one more rule of thumb, or perhaps assumption, that seems fair.  It is probable that you’ll want to cover your entire roof with solar panels; especially if you have a multi-level retreat (ie more total floor area, and more living space, but with a smaller footprint and roof area).

The information in this article helps you understand how to calculate how many solar panels you can get on your roof.

May 082014
 
The TYT TH-9800 sets a new high-water mark for excellent value feature-filled two-way radios.

The TYT TH-9800 sets a new high-water mark for excellent value feature-filled two-way radios.

We’ve written before about how wonderful radio repeaters are for extending the range you can communicate with your two-way radios.  No matter what you do to your portable and in-vehicle radio transmitters and receivers, sooner or later you will probably have to consider using a repeater to extend your communications to reliably cover the region you need to be able to keep in contact with.

But maybe you are very fortunate, and your terrain/topography is such that you have reliable radio comms all over your retreat and adjacent areas.  Does that mean you don’t need to think about repeaters any further?

Maybe.  But also, maybe not.  There are two other applications for repeaters that you might want to consider.  Please read on and see if either (or both) might apply to you.

Vehicle Range Extenders

This is something that could be of value to many preppers.  Maybe you have a heavy-duty high-powered radio in your vehicle, and a fully optimized antenna mounted on it as well.  Maybe that gives you the range you need to be able to communicate reliably everywhere you are likely to be, and with everyone else who you might need to communicate with.  But what happens when you step out of your car and switch from the 50 watt (maybe more) unit in your car to a 5 watt (probably less) unit in your hand, from a full size antenna on top of the vehicle roof to a short stubby little thing in your hand?

Quite likely you will find yourself unable to punch out or pull in the signals you need, and you’re now in a position of dual vulnerability.  Out of your car, you’re less protected, and you’re also out of contact with the rest of your community.

You’re not the first person who has struggled with that problem.  It used to be an issue for police officers, the world over.  Now, not so much, because there is a solution that they’ve widely deployed, and which you might wish to consider, too.

This is an in-vehicle repeater.  It uses the high power, high quality circuitry, and optimized antenna on your vehicle not only to send/receive messages to far-away contacts, but it also retransmits the signals it receives, on a different frequency, to allow you to pick up the repeated transmissions more clearly from a hand-held transceiver.  Yes, it is also simultaneously ‘listening’ for the signals you send it from your handheld radio, too.  For you, out of the vehicle, you no longer need the ability to receive signals from people far away, and to be able to transmit back to them.  You only need to be able to receive transmissions from your vehicle, and send back to it.

These days, when you see a police officer talking into his chest microphone, that radio is probably not transmitting all the way to wherever the main receiver tower is, but only to his nearby cruiser.  He is now safely in contact, as long as he is in range of his vehicle.

If you seek a similar capability, and have the appropriate FCC ham or commercial license to operate the radios and repeater, you can do the same.  Many mobile (ie in-vehicle) type two-way radios have what is termed a ‘cross-band repeater’ capability – it is generally easier and less expensive to have the signal that is being repeated to be retransmitted on a very different frequency to that it was received on, which is what ‘cross-band’ means.

These amazing units can be very expensive, but do not need to be, and don’t really cost much more than a normal dual band transceiver.  For some time we have liked the Anytone AT-5888UV dual band mobile radio , currently showing at $313 on Amazon (update, June 2016 – now down to about $250), but we’ve now got a new favorite, the TYT TH-9800 .

This latter radio is not only slightly less expensive, (currently showing at $278 on Amazon – update :  now about $210 in June 2016) but also has four bands in it rather than two.  It has the same 2M and 70cm bands that the AT-5888UV offers, plus also the 6M and 10M bands too.  The 6 meter band is an interesting addition, and – with the right antenna connected – can give considerable extra range compared to the short-range on 2M and 70cm.

Currently the AT-5888UV does have one advantage over the TH-9800.  It is compatible with the CHIRP programming software, and from our perspective, if you can simplify the management of your radios by using the same software interface for multiple radio types, that is an enormous plus.  We hope the TH-9800 will be added to the list of radios CHIRP supports, and because the TH-9800 is relatively very new, it will probably take a while for this to happen.  Update – yes, all good things come to those who wait.  The TH 9800 is also now supported by CHIRP.

Note that you need a radio that has the capability to transmit and receive ‘in both directions’.  If it could only repeat in one direction, you would be able to listen but not transmit (or vice versa) – you need the radio to support the repeating both ways.  The two radios mentioned above would be good choices and have this capability.

Comsec

This is an interesting consideration.  As you know, it is very easy for anyone with a scanner to monitor your radio transmissions, but if you are transmitting on one frequency and listening on another, maybe it becomes harder for a casual person listening on a scanner to hear your complete conversation.

That’s a definite ‘maybe’ because if they pick up the repeater signal, they’ll get both sides of it.  But depending on their location and settings, maybe they’ll only get one side or the other of the conversation.

There’s another side to this coin, however.  If you adopt this approach, you are now doubling the frequencies that are carrying your signals – and the repeater is probably sending them over a wider area.  So is it a good idea or bad idea?  Frankly, we’re unconvinced of its good sense, and mention it here more for the purpose of rebuttal than recommendation.

This concept can be made more ‘semi-secure’ (if there is such a thing) by splitting your transmit and receive frequencies more broadly, perhaps having one in one frequency band and the other in another.  But whatever you do, the repeater signal will be carrying both sides of the conversation – find that, and anyone monitoring can hear the entire conversation.

If you are going to do this type of split transmitting/receiving, you of course need to use a repeater.

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 062014
 
Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there's no reason why you can't create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

If you are fortunate, you have managed to secure a reasonably large lot for your retreat, and if you are very fortunate, the chances are your lot will be larger than what you could work yourself in terms of cultivating crops, grazing livestock, and so on, particularly in a future scenario where mechanical productivity aids like tractors are no longer available to help you in your work.

There are plenty of good reasons why you should wish to have a larger-than-you-can-handle lot size.  For example, it allows you to expand the number of people you admit to your retreat, because extra people can productively be put to work to provide food for themselves and extra for everyone else.  It also gives you a geographical buffer against natural disasters and unexpected misfortunes, ranging from fires to floods, infestations, and who knows what all else.  It also gives you a ‘buffer zone’ and some added isolation and security.

If the commonly held views are correct, if/when a major crisis destroys our society, it is likely there’ll be some sort of exodus of people from the cities and from the towns, too.  These people will be looking for land to settle on and live on, and when they see your large spread, they’ll feel entitled to take some ‘fair’ (in their eyes) portion of it for themselves, especially if it is land that is lying fallow and not being actively in production by yourself.

This is not just conjecture or speculation.  We confidently assert that it will happen, because there is plenty of historical precedence for such things – you only have to look back 150 years in our history to see plenty of examples of such things as our own west was settled.

This is the point where some preppers start to mutter darkly about weapons and tactics and all that sort of stuff.  We’re not so sure that’s the best response because there may likely be some downside to you and your family members if you and the other people truly do start trading shots, and in this type of future, with diminished access to any type of healthcare, and the essential role of everyone in your community, such things are likely to be more impactful than they already are now.

If you do this, you’ll be reliving the range ‘wars’ and recreating the tensions between the cattle barons and the homesteaders in the late 1800s during our country’s ‘cowboy’ era, and such altercations seldom brought any good to any of the people involved.

There’s another consideration, as well.  If you choose to aggressively defend your land, it will be something you will need to do on an ongoing basis.  Some people will appear today, and after you beat them off, another group might appear tomorrow or next week.  You will need to win every one of these ‘battles’, and hopefully to do so bloodlessly too.  Sooner or later, you’ll find you’ll lose rather than win.  To be realistic rather than defeatist, you can’t fight against all 330 million of your fellow Americans (or even the massively smaller percentage who will actually come to your land).

If you have land that is not being used to best purpose at present, why not cooperate with such people and strive to create a win-win arrangement for you and them.  Why not encourage them to settle, and even help them get established.

If you do this, you populate your land and change the dynamic for future encounters – it is no longer a case of you being seen to be selfishly keeping to yourself more land than you can possibly need or use, but instead, it will be land that is being fully developed by people living on the land, which changes the moral equation from a dubious situation to one where you clearly hold the high ground, should other opportunists come along and seek to displace you and the people also sharing your land with you.

Now for the best part of all.  By bringing more people onto your land, you are creating a stronger, more robust and resilient community, and likely with a larger pool of talents and skills.  Furthermore, when you allow these people to start working parts of your land, you don’t just let them do this for free.  You of course charge them a ‘rental’ for the use of your land, and possibly for the use of your tools and other resources and facilities, and for seed, and so on.

Do we need to stress that any ‘rental’ that you charge must be fair, and must allow the people on your land to benefit as well as you.  If you get too greedy, you’ll change the dynamic from ‘win-win’ cooperation to a ‘win-lose’ confrontation that is counter-productive.  Think of it like a tax – we might grumble a bit, but we don’t mind paying a minimal tax when we can see fair value in return for it, but if we were to be slapped with a 90% tax, then many people in such cases feel completely justified in lying and cheating to avoid the tax, and/or will simply not work as hard because they see nearly all their earnings going to the government rather than flowing through to themselves.

Models for Sharing Your Land

There is nothing new about the concept of allowing other people to work part of your land.  For centuries, societies have had various arrangements, from feudal systems in the middle ages, through clan/crofting systems, to much more modern share-cropping, tenant farming, and farming cooperative arrangements.

Some people criticize some of these arrangements, and indeed, some can be validly criticized.  But the criticism should be understood as applying more to the specific allocations and shares rather than to the underlying methodology.  For example, something that might be fair on a 25/75 split might be grossly unfair if all the details were the same except for the split being changed to 75/25.

From your perspective, if you have land that you aren’t using and won’t be using, any sort of return on that land becomes a bonus, and apart from wanting to ensure you get a fair share, there is no need to drive too hard a bargain, particularly in view of the other benefits of growing your local support community.

The return you should expect also depends on what you are doing and how you are helping your new ‘tenants’.  If you simply allow them the use of your land and do nothing else, then a small share of whatever they produce is all you can fairly expect – maybe in the order of 10%.  But if you also provide housing, and if you give them a start by providing them some livestock or seed, and maybe you also provide them with tools and productivity enhancements, and perhaps you also provide some expertise and assistance in how to develop the land, and if you also provide them food until such time as they start to become self-supporting, then each of these value-adds on your part can be fairly reflected in a larger share of the outputs they create.

Needless to say, you should never create a scenario where it is impossible for your tenants to be self-supporting.  You don’t want to create too vast a wealth-inequality as between you and your tenants.  If you are enjoying huge feasts while they’re struggling to put any food on their table at all, that’s a recipe for a tenant uprising, and you truly don’t want that.

In centuries past, exploitive share-cropping arrangements survived because there was no precedent for other arrangements, and because all the power was controlled by the owners rather than by the tenants.  It took a very long time and much evolution of social values for the appallingly exploitive and unfair former arrangements to eventually die out.  We do not feel it would be easy or appropriate to seek a return to such times, because these days, everyone has much more egalitarian expectations for their personal wealth and well-being.

We urge you to be fair to the point of being generous with any such tenancy agreements you enter into.  There is truly not a lot of ‘cost’ to you in allowing your under-utilized land to be better utilized, and there’s an enormous amount of upside if you do so on a win-win basis that fairly rewards the tenant and encourages them to truly ‘treat the land as if it were their own’.

Some Suggested Issues to Record in an Agreement

We would suggest that you record your tenancy agreements formally, in writing, and in as rigorous and extensive a form as possible.  This is simply common sense and gives both you and your future tenant some certainty and protection.

We are not attorneys, and you probably should get a standard agreement blank formally drawn up by an attorney, in advance of any problems, and then use it for all tenancies that might come your way in the future, simply filling in the specific gaps and adjusting the provisions to suit each unique scenario.  So, not to give legal advice, but merely to provide some talking points and suggestions to consider when you discuss this with your attorney, an agreement should cover issues such as :

  • The area being let to your tenant, described both legally and in unambiguous terms that can be understood without recourse to district plans.
  • The term the tenant can have the land for, and on what basis the term can be extended subsequently, or ended prior to its scheduled expiration.
  • In what form should the land and anything else used by the tenant be returned to you at the expiry of the agreement.
  • What happens if the tenant dies or leaves prior to the expiry of the agreement – can the tenant pass the ‘lease’ on to someone else or does the land revert to you, and if the lease is being passed on (or sold) to someone else, who gets the proceeds of the sale.
  • What you are providing to the tenant over and above access to the land – initially and into the future.  How about things such as seed, fertilizer, water, tools and equipment, and storage?  Are there any buildings/sheds included?  What about energy – are you providing any energy in any form?
  • The tenant’s right to things that might come from or through your land such as water in particular, and similarly, your right to the same things that might come from or through the tenant’s land.
  • The tenant’s right of access to his land through your land and your obligations (if any) to maintain such accessways, and in turn, your right of access to your land through the tenant’s land, if applicable.
  • Fencing obligations between the tenant’s land, your land, and possibly other land – who is required to do what.
  • Liability for stray stock or other harm from other things kept on your land that intrudes on the tenant’s land and vice versa.  This might also extend to things like the possibly harmful effects of trees that shelter/shade the other person’s land, or the equally harmful effects if something on one party’s land is removed, causing impacts to the other party’s land (for example a wind break planting of trees, or vegetation that was stabilizing a hillside that once removed caused a landslide, and so on).
  • What the tenant’s obligations are to actually work the land following best practices and doing so full-time, and what the consequences would be if the tenant fails to meet these obligations.  The concept here is that if you are allowing someone to farm your land, you want to have that person do so sensibly and well, and fairly creating additional ‘wealth’ for both you and him.
  • What you will receive from the tenant in return for allowing the tenant to use your land (a share of whatever is produced, or money, or labor, or whatever else – and either a fixed amount or a varying amount, and how it is calculated).
  • If you are getting a share of a harvested crop, who gets to decide when the crop is harvested?  If you are getting a share of the proceeds after selling the crop, who gets to decide how and where it is sold – maybe something might be able to be sold for more money later on, but maybe the tenant (or you) needs the cash immediately – how is that resolved?
  • Will your share of whatever it is you are getting be delivered to you, or are you required to collect it from the field or from somewhere else, or will the tenant store it for you until you decide to collect it, or maybe, if it is something that will be sold on to other people, will the tenant deliver it to an appropriate market location?  For that matter, are you expected to participate in any crop harvesting, livestock slaughter, etc?
  • What aspects of the land use can the tenant independently decide and control and which aspects can you insist on being observed/followed/implemented – for example, can the tenant decide to switch crops from corn to potatoes, or to swap pigs for cows?  Or, for that matter, to swap from crops to animals (and of course, vice versa)?  Can the tenant decide to intensively farm land to the point where the soil fertility is harmed, or can you insist on rotating crops and leaving fields fallow some years?
  • What happens in a bad year if the tenant fails to get the yield he expects from the land, due to no fault of his own?  Maybe the tenant gets a larger share of the first amount of yield from the land, then a lesser share of the extra yield above that.
  • What happens in a good year if the tenant gets a better yield than anticipated?  Following on from the last question, maybe if the tenant gets a better than normal yield, he should get a larger share of the ‘bonus’ extra harvest, because you have now got all the return you fairly anticipated, and the tenant’s own hard labor and/or expertise should be fairly rewarded.
  • Any obligations the tenant has to source supplies from you or from designated suppliers?  On the one hand, you don’t want to play the trick of forcing tenants to buy from you at inflated prices, on the other hand, if you can combine your purchases of some items, maybe you can negotiate better prices for both you and your various tenants.  Also, maybe there are some issues with some suppliers that you are aware of that cause you to be wary of dealing with them and you want to ‘quality control’ your tenants’ actions to prevent them from buying bad product.
  • A process whereby any changes to any of the terms or shares/splits/payments can be negotiated or will be changed in the future.  No matter how diligently you, your attorneys, and also your tenant and his attorneys may work at creating a complete agreement to cover all future eventualities, for sure there will be unforeseen issues arise and assumptions that need to be corrected appearing from time to time, and you need a fair way to be able to negotiate changes that protects both you and the tenant.
  • Your rights of access and inspection to confirm and verify the tenant’s processes, procedures, and calculations of your entitled shares.
  • How you will resolve disputes and misunderstandings about the contents of the agreement (both if the formal legal system remains in place or if it fails) and who will pay the cost of such dispute adjudication.  The consequences and sanctions that either party can levy on the other in the event that one party is found not to be meeting their obligations under the agreement, and how they will be calculated.
  • A recitation of the overarching principles and laws under which the agreement is framed and the parties expect to be used to interpret the agreement in the case of any future disagreement.

Summary

Allowing third parties onto your land, and helping them work that land on a fair and mutually beneficial basis is, well, exactly that – fair and mutually beneficial.

Adding extra people, even at an arm’s length type of tenancy arrangement, can only help the viability of you and your immediate retreat family/community.  This type of tenancy arrangement is a useful midway point as between totally turning people away, at one extreme, and immediately welcoming them into your retreat as equal members at the other extreme.

It truly is a win-win, and so much so that you might choose to anticipate such an occurrence by adding some extra structures on parts of your land that would be suitable for such tenancies.