Jun 042013
Using solar water heating brings two benefits - greater efficiency and an easy way to store energy as hot water for later use when the sun goes down.

Using solar water heating brings two benefits – greater efficiency and an easy way to store energy as hot water for later use when the sun goes down.

This is the final part of a four-part article series about how to store electricity (better thought of as storing energy rather than electricity per se).  If you arrived directly here from a link or search engine, you might wish to start from the first part of the series here, then read on sequentially through the balance of the series.

A Different Sort of Energy Storage – Time-shifting Electricity Demand

Storing electricity is usually both the clumsiest and costliest way of productively using up spare/surplus electricity.  You lose some electricity when you convert it to however it is stored, you lose more during the storage process, and then you lose even more when you convert it back to electricity again.

So it is better to time-shift as much as possible to times when you have spare electricity.  One example of a time-shiftable process would be washing clothes and dishes (assuming you still will use an electric dishwasher in the future, which is unlikely).

With these types of activities, you can wait until a day with lots of electricity coming from the PV cells or wind turbine before washing your clothes (and/or dishes).

If you have an electric range, you should use it to cook food during times of peak electricity production.  Maybe you’ll change your eating habits and have your main meal of the day in the middle of the day (something many societies already do and which many health experts think to be a better approach to eating) so that the cooking energy is sourced when the sun is shining brightly or the wind blowing strongly.

If you are vacuuming, do that when there’s spare electricity, and never when you’re using stored electricity.  There’s almost never an emergency requiring urgent vacuuming in the middle of the night!

Try and match your own sleep and wake times to the sun.  If you’re sleeping during the morning with daylight flooding in to the retreat, but then staying up late at night, using electricity to power lights and possibly heating too, that is more wasteful than using the sun for light as much as possible, and sleeping in a warm bed during the coldest part of the night.

Take your shower/bath in the morning if possible so as to allow the system all day to reheat the water.  Or, alternatively, after using hot water at night, don’t use stored electricity to heat up the replacement water, and instead wait until the morning to do that.

Which leads to another strategy.

A Different Sort of Electricity Storage – Storing the Results of Using Electricity

Another approach to storing electricity is to store the results of using electricity.  We started to get into that in the preceding section – heat your hot water when you have spare electricity to do so, and then deplete it when you do not have spare electricity, and only reheat it again when you have the spare electricity back to do so.

An easy and low tech type of storage is to store heating or cooling energy.  There are special ‘storage’ heaters that will run when you have spare electricity and heat maybe a large vat of oil or even a block of concrete, then at night, you expose this heat source and allow the heat to transfer out and into the surrounding areas of your retreat.

You can also do this for cooling.  When there’s surplus electricity, make large blocks of ice.  Then, when you need extra cooling but no longer have extra electricity, allow the ice to melt, cooling the area around it.

These are low tech but sensible concepts.  Indeed, many large buildings currently use these types of systems for more efficient heating/cooling.  You can do the same.

Replacing Electricity With Other Energy Forms

Electricity is an ‘expensive’ form of energy – it is close to the top of the ‘energy pyramid’, just like beef is close to the top of the food pyramid (in terms of the amount of feed and water needed per pound of meat).

If you can replace electricity with other forms of energy – forms which may be more abundant, and/or lower tech and more sustainable into the indefinite future – you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

One example of this substitution is to mount a solar water heater on your roof.  That way, instead of using solar energy to create electricity and then the electricity to heat the water, you go directly from the solar energy to the hot water, in a much more productive/efficient process, and also in a lower-tech form.

A solar water heater is easy to construct and easy to maintain.  But as your PV cells fail, you’ll absolutely not be able to repair them yourself, and no-way can you fabricate your own additional solar cells in a low-tech future.

Another example is to use wood (or coal or peat) as a heat source for heating your retreat, your hot water, and possibly even for cooking with as well.

Or, if you’re using propane to power a generator, get a propane rather than electric stove and burn the propane in that stove.  You’ll use less propane to directly power your stove than to first convert it to electricity and then to second convert the electricity to heat on your stove.

How Much Extra Electricity Generation Capacity Do You Need

Remember that the first part of an electricity storage system is having ‘spare’ electricity to store!

Once you’ve done what you can to minimize your reliance on stored electricity, the next question becomes how you will get the electricity to store.

Clearly, you will do this by increasing the capacity of your renewable energy sources so they can simultaneously meet your normal electricity needs and also send extra capacity into the storage system you selected.

And, equally clearly, the electricity source(s) you have must be able to generate enough spare electricity each day to be stored to be used each night.

So you need to consider the answer to this question – ‘assuming a less than fully sunny day, or a day with poor rather than optimum wind, how much power do I need generated for the day’s requirements and to recharge for the night ahead as well?’.

Remember that most solar and wind generators are specified as having a certain capacity on a good/close to optimum day.  You’ll need to adjust the claimed daily capacity to more accurately reflect the real-world rather than best-case probability of electricity it will create for you.  Maybe you need to get a system which is apparently twice the capacity you need, just so that in periods of low generating conditions, it still generates enough for both your immediate and your storage needs too.

Now, for an interesting additional factor.  The greater your storage capacity, the smaller your surplus daily generating capacity needs to be.  This is because the extra storage capacity gives you a greater ability to average out the peaks and troughs of actual daily electricity production.

One more consideration.  Most lead-acid batteries require a certain minimum charge rate in order to effectively charge, so you need to be sure that your electricity source will deliver enough charge to actually load electricity into the battery.  Think of a helicopter – it uses a lot of energy just to hover – you don’t want your battery to just hover, you want its charge level to rise, so you need to provide more than this ‘hovering’ amount of energy to actually raise the battery’s charge.

Whatever you come up with, you must have a system that on an average/ordinary day will provide enough electricity during the day for all the daytime needs in your retreat, plus enough left over to replenish a typical night-time’s consumption of electricity, plus perhaps still more left over to replenish one more typical night-time’s consumption, too.

Electricity Will Never Be Cheaper Than Now

Spending $10,000 for a 5 kW solar array might seem like a lot of money, and of course, by any measure, it is indeed a substantial sum.

But – and you can absolutely trust us on this – in a Level 2 and particularly a Level 3 situation – your future lifestyle and ability to survive will be totally linked to your ability to generate your own energy, particularly in the form of electricity.

So get as much electricity generating capacity now as you can afford.  Particularly if it is modular, it can be either used or traded in the future, and you’ll quickly discover the essential nature of energy in a future Level 2/3 situation.

Read the Rest of the Series

If you’ve not yet read them, you might want to read the first three parts of this series too – Storing Electricity, Using Batteries to Store Electricity and Other Energy Storage Methods.

We also have other articles on the general topic of Energy.

Mar 042013
Carbon dioxide (pictured) and monoxide meters are an important safety precaution if you plan on having any type of fires indoors.

Carbon dioxide (pictured) and monoxide meters are an important safety precaution if you plan on having any type of fires indoors.

So there you are, all hunkered down in your retreat.  The temperature is below freezing outside, but you’re happy and warm inside, both because your dwelling is ultra-insulated and also because you’ve a nice low-tech fire burning in the fireplace, providing a warm cheery ambiance and keeping you all nice and toasty.

That’s a nice mental image, isn’t it.  And if you have an open fire in an open fireplace, you’re probably okay, but many people – especially less well prepared people – when they find themselves encountering a situation where their normal source of heat fails, may resort to emergency methods of keeping warm that invariably end up with burning something in a way that isn’t a typical part of their normal living.

The problem is that if you have a fire in an enclosed area, what happens to the products of the fire’s combustion?  The smoke and toxic gases, carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2)?  If they have nowhere to go, or aren’t being vented at the same rate they are being produced, you will start to get accumulations of these products.  And that can be a bad thing.

About Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide is naturally present in the atmosphere at a concentration of about 390 parts per million (by volume; by weight the measure is about 590 parts per million, but most measurements use the volumetric method).

People naturally produce CO2 as an output gas from breathing (assuming we breathe in air with almost no CO2  present then about 4% – 5% of the gas we breathe out is CO2), so any type of enclosed space with people in it starts to have elevated levels of CO2, no matter if there are any fires in the room or not.  The smaller the space, the greater the number of people, and the less the amount of fresh air that flows into the space and the less the amount of stale air that flows out, the higher the CO2 level may become.  Normal buildings typically have anywhere from maybe 1500 – 5000 parts per million of CO2 in them.

When carbon dioxide levels reach 10,000 parts per million (ppm) – or a 1% concentration, more sensitive people might start to feel somewhat drowsy.  At 5% people start to experience shortness of breath, dizziness, faster heart rate, headaches and confusion.  Concentration levels over 8% start to become fatal.

So we are fairly tolerant of elevated CO2 levels and the body quickly recovers from an exposure to higher than optimum levels of CO2.

Carbon monoxide is a much deadlier gas.  Normal concentrations of CO in the atmosphere are about 0.1 ppm (measured by volume not weight – CO is slightly lighter than air, whereas CO2 is slightly heavier than air).  In a typical house, concentrations are perhaps in the order of 0.5 – 5.0 ppm.

Whereas a 1% level of CO2 causes many people no ill effects at all, the same level of CO would cause unconsciousness within a couple of breaths and death within 3 minutes.  And whereas a level of 2500 – 4000 ppm of CO2 is considered normal inside a building, that level of CO would cause headaches, dizziness and nausea in 5 – 10 minutes and death within 30 minutes.

OSHA says that CO levels should be kept below 50 ppm.

Detecting Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide

The good news is that the smoke/toxic gases such as you get from a normal open fire (we’ll oversimplify and consider the two as being the same) are readily detected.  When your eyes start to water, and you find yourself coughing, you know you’ve a ventilation problem, and you’ll be forced to do something to solve the problem.

But what say you are using a clean burning heat source such as a kerosene heater or even just running all the burners on your gas stove full on?  Then there are few or no smoke/toxic gas byproducts that you can readily detect, but the fire is still creating CO and CO2.  It has to – all fires create CO2 and most fires also create CO to a varying extent.  The better fed with oxygen the fire, the less CO; the more oxygen starved, the more CO.

Both of these gases are impossible for us to detect.  They are clear, tasteless and odorless, and cause no irritation on our skin or in our lungs.  They are silent but deadly killers.

The good news is that there are inexpensive and effective detectors for carbon monoxide.

The bad news is that carbon dioxide detectors are more expensive.  However, as a rule of thumb, if the smell of the burning fire becomes objectionable, then you need to do something about that for all reasons, including concern about possible CO2 buildup.  Many people choose not to worry about CO2 levels at all, and certainly our advice to you is to have a carbon monoxide detection/alarm system operational as the higher priority (and regular smoke detectors simply to detect fires as a safety measure too).

You can conveniently buy a wide range of carbon monoxide detectors on Amazon.  Your local hardware store probably has them on the shelf, too, although probably not in quite such a wide range of makes and models.

It is much more difficult to find carbon dioxide detectors, and a Google search typically brings up only carbon monoxide detectors.  This difficulty is made even worse by the propensity for some people to confuse the two gases, and so even when people talk about CO2 detectors maybe they actually mean CO detectors.

Here is one website that clearly does sell CO2 detectors.

Oh – one more important thing.  When buying CO and CO2 detectors, be sure to get ones which are battery-powered.  They won’t be much use to you otherwise, because in an emergency where you need to resort to alternative heating strategies, this almost surely means that you’ve also lost mains power.

Smoke Detectors Won’t Help

Note that smoke detectors do not detect either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.  Although there are two different types of smoke detectors (ionization and photo-electric) both work by detecting particulate matter rather than gas.  They are simply – as their name implies – devices that detect smoke, rather than specific gases or even heat concentrations.

There are some combo units that combine a smoke detector and a CO detector too, but you should not assume your smoke detector also detects CO – and being as how that makes it more expensive, if it doesn’t say it does, then it probably doesn’t.


If there is any expectation that you’ll be burning fuel indoors, it is prudent to have carbon monoxide detectors to monitor the CO levels that will build up from the fire.  Modern super-insulated buildings ‘leak’ less air, and so can trap CO much more readily than older drafty structures.  It is prudent to insulate your retreat and regular dwelling as much as possible to save on energy, both normally and in a crisis, and when you do this, it becomes prudent to add a carbon monoxide detector too.

Carbon dioxide is much less deadly than carbon monoxide, so adding a CO2 detector is less essential, but still good practice.

Jan 032013
This graph, typical of many wind turbines, shows power output (vertical axis) against wind speed for a typical wind turbine.  There is only a very narrow band of wind speeds suitable for measurable power generation.

This graph, typical of many wind turbines, shows power output (vertical axis) against wind speed (m/sec) for a typical wind turbine. There is only a narrow band of wind speeds suitable for measurable power generation.

One of the essential requirements of any retreat has to be some type of renewable energy source.

As we’ve stated elsewhere on the site, the ultimate and paramount issue in any post-WTSHTF scenario is availability of energy.  Almost everything else in your life is or will be energy dependent – certainly shelter, definitely food, and maybe even water too.  Whether the energy comes from yourself (worst case scenario), from hoarded supplies of energy sources such as propane and diesel (which are only good until they run out) or from other sources, sourcing energy is your most important issue.

There are two or three obvious renewable (or ‘free’) energy sources – hydro, solar, and wind.

Wind has some appeal to it, particular in its abstract form, and particularly from reading the glossy brochures, and in terms of cost, the capital cost per kW of generating capacity is very competitive with other renewable energy sources.  But there is a lot more to wind power than meets the eye, and most of the added issues are negative rather than positive.

To help you better understand wind power, we look in this article at some of the less talked about downsides of wind turbines.

Hydro is easily understood, and solar is not much more complicated.  If you’ve got an accessible flow of water dropping from a higher level to a lower level, you’ve a chance at hydro, and the more the sun shines, and the bigger your solar array, the more solar power you can hope for.

Wind Power Only Works in Some Winds, Some of the Time

But wind is a different matter entirely.  With wind power, you need wind speeds that are greater than the minimum which your turbine requires, but less than the maximum.  At greater than maximum speed, the turbine blades will ‘feather’ – they will turn into the wind and the turbine will cease to spin, and no longer generate electricity.  This is different to solar and hydro – there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ sun or ‘too much’ water.

There’s also less of an issue with ‘too little’ water/sun either – sure, no water means no hydro power generated, and so too does nighttime mean no solar power generated.  But the minimum amount of water or sun needed to start the electrons flowing is truly very low, whereas most wind turbines sit lifeless until wind speeds exceed somewhere in the 5 – 15 mph range.

So that’s the first disadvantage of wind.  Wind works best in a location with steady (rather than gusty) winds that flow regularly in the 25 – 40 mph range.  Not many of us have such locations.  Most of us have insufficient ‘suitable’ wind to make a wind turbine a sensible concept under any conditions.

Even if you do have a reasonably good location, you need to have a back up plan for when you have a ‘wind drought’.  We all know that just because a place averages so much rain in a month, that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to rain an even equal amount every day, and the same is true of wind, too.  What happens if you have no wind, or too strong wind, for an entire week and are unable to generate any wind-sourced power during that time?  At least with solar, even the cloudiest day will still give you some power, but with wind, you could conceivably end up with a ‘wind drought’ that lasts a week or longer.

That’s a very big problem to confront.  Most solar systems are backed up by standby batteries, with the idea being that during the day, the solar cells generate enough power for your needs plus a surplus to be stored in the batteries, then when the sun goes down, you switch to the batteries for the night, until sunrise the next day.  Plus, with a bit of planning, you can shift your electricity consumption so that most of it happens during daytime and less of it happens at night, reducing the amount of power you need to store.  That only requires a 12 – 15 hour or so supply of stored power.

But what if you’re planning to be able to withstand a seven-day period with no wind at all?  You need at least ten to fifteen times more batteries (which – trust us – is a lot of batteries), plus the excess wind generating capacity to quickly recharge them.

Now, for the further bad news.  Even if you do have reasonably suitable winds in your area, there are two other problems with wind power.  Reliability/maintenance, and longevity.

Reliability Issues

Next time you drive past a ‘wind farm’ have a look at how many of the turbines aren’t spinning.  If the ones around them are turning, then the ones that aren’t turning have failed for some reason or another (that’s not to say that all the ones which are spinning are actually working properly either, of course – some electrical failures don’t result in the turbine blades stalling).  Depending on the location, the design of turbine, and the speed with which failed turbines are repaired, you’ll probably observe anything from one in 20 to one in 10 are not turning when they should be.

Think about that – if we say it takes on average 4 days for a failed turbine to be repaired, and if you see one in 15 turbines are not turning, that suggests that on average that every turbine is failing once every 60 days, and with four days down out of 60, that is a 93% uptime rate.

Okay, wind enthusiasts, let’s take an optimistic view if you prefer.  Let’s say only one in twenty turbines is failed, and let’s allow an entire week for the turbine to be repaired – that suggests the failure rate is once every 140 days, which is still nearly three failures per turbine per year.  That is a 95% uptime rate.

And, just to be fair, wind naysayers, let’s say one in ten are failed, and they can be repaired in two days.  That means an average time between failures of twenty days – not quite three weeks.  Ouch!

You should also remember that these turbines aren’t working 24/7.  Their duty cycle might be more like 8 – 12 hours a day – in other words, they are only working a third to a half of the time, and even at that low rate of application, they are still failing repeatedly.

In a ‘grid down’ situation and with the progressive loss of high-tech componentry and high quality machining, do you really want to rely on such maintenance intensive things as wind turbines for one of the most essential parts of your ongoing survival?  What will you do when you run out of spare parts?

Longevity Issues

The other dismaying thing is the total service life that you might get out of a wind turbine.  It has generally been considered that you can expect 20 – 30 years out of a turbine before it needs complete replacement.  But what if that’s not so?  What if you can only get ten years of life from it.  What happens when the turbine totally fails?

Here’s an article which reports that the actual life span of wind turbines in Britain is proving to be significantly less than was optimistically projected.  There’s such a huge lobbying effort behind wind power generation (in both the UK and US) that this type of data is unlikely to be widely reported or commented on, but go read the article and form your own conclusions.

It is probably okay to plan for a 25 year life for your Level 2/3 retreat’s power source.  But only ten years?  That’s not as long as you might think – the human mind tends to find it hard to appreciate the time to a future date, so as a way of appreciating it, think back ten years instead.  That’s probably not such an impossibly distant point in time.  And so neither is ten years into the future, either.

As a comparison, solar cells are also often rated vaguely for a 25 year or longer life, but unlike a wind turbine, that doesn’t mean that at the end of their rated life, they stop generating power entirely.  Assuming they don’t suffer ‘catastrophic failure’ (ie someone dropping a brick on them!) the output they provide slowly diminishes over time – generally about 0.5% every year.  So after 25 years, a solar cell array has lost only about 12.5% of its maximum power generating capacity.  This article points out that some solar cell installations are still providing 80% of their initially rated power after 40 years, and show no signs of failing.

Solar cells can easily outlast their owners.  Not so, wind turbines.

Integrating Wind Power into Your Total Energy Sourcing Strategy

You’re probably getting the feeling that we don’t like wind power.  That’s moderately correct – we love the abstract promise of wind power, but we’re not very happy with the present day reality.

We could be persuaded, however, to add a wind turbine or three to provide another semi-redundant source of power to our retreat, but as a supplemental ‘bonus’ power source rather than as a critical must-be-working source.  This not only give more total power, but also adds another fail-safe level of redundancy.

Maybe a ‘once in a thousand years’ hailstorm destroys a large part of your solar cell inventory.  Maybe your hydro dam breaks.  Maybe any one of many other catastrophic events occur, in which case you’d be very appreciative to have spread your risk and to have deployed some wind power too.

If you do choose to adopt wind power, we’d recommend deploying multiple wind turbines.  That way, when one fails, you don’t suddenly lose all your wind power.  You ‘only’ lose half (if you have two), or a quarter (if you have four) and so on.

Needless to say, you’ll need to have a truly impressive inventory of spare parts, and beyond that, a high-end machine shop to allow you to repair and rebuild damaged components as well as simply replace them.

You’ll also want to also add to your battery storage capacity, or deploy some other form of energy storage so that you can take the spare wind power, when it is available to you, and put it to some good use.


Wind power is a very specialized type of power that has many constraints and concerns associated with it.  The wind speeds with which the turbine will actually generate power are concentrated in a very narrow band.  The turbines themselves are very maintenance intensive and prone to failure on a regular basis.  And their total service life may be much shorter than originally anticipated and promised.

Wind power may be acceptable as a ‘top up’ source of power, particularly in our present world where the electricity grid has multiple redundant power sources and can manage even if all wind power was to fail simultaneously.  But we do not recommend wind power as a prime source of power in a retreat/off-grid situation.

If you choose to include wind power as an energy source, you’d need to reduce the impact of turbine failures by investing in multiple turbines – at least three, so that having one turbine go offline would only reduce your power by 33% or less, hopefully giving you still sufficient for your essential needs.  You’d also need an extensive inventory of spare parts, and a much greater reserve bank of batteries to tide you over sometimes lengthy periods when your turbine can’t generate due to the wind being either too weak or too strong.

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.


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.

Nov 032012

A heavy-duty and preferably sound insulated generator is an essential item. Consider a dual-fuel generator than runs on natural gas AND either propane or diesel or petrol.

This letter from reader John has an essential lesson in it for us all – it is not sufficient merely to buy in and stock up on emergency resources, such as a generator.  It is necessary to then test them thoroughly in a simulated emergency situation so as to be sure they will work reliably when called upon to do so.

Oh yes – and read the manuals of all such devices, too.  Sometimes some very significant things can be hidden in the back pages, such as maintenance requirements that are mandatory rather than optional.

One more comment before his letter.  By all means get a generator that can run of natural (piped from the utility) gas, but make sure it will run on some other fuel source too, and make sure you have sufficient fuel.  The whole idea of disaster planning is to become entirely independent and to not need to rely on any external sources or services.  If your whole disaster preparedness plan revolves around an assumption that your natural gas supply will continue to work, the same as normal, then guess what is almost sure to happen?  The gas service will fail, and you’ll find yourself with lots of gas-powered appliances, but no gas to power them.

Hi David,

We are getting back on our feet and adjusting to the lack of electricity.  The big problem here is getting gasoline for our cars and generators.  A lot of stations don’t have power and the USCG limited some barge traffic and some refineries shut down for the storm, etc, etc!  My daughter waited in line for gas at our local station this morning for about three hours.  The police were on hand to make sure that everyone behaved.

NJ is one of the two US states that won’t let you pump your own gas.  That’s probably a very good idea in this situation.  We have two cars and filled up the one that gets the best mileage.  The station is local so I could walk up the street and give my daughter a break while she waited to fill up with some Russian Owned Lukoil gasoline!

Speaking of generators I’m probably going to get one that runs on propane or LNG.  If I get a whole house unit I’ll get one that runs off of my natural gas service.

A good friend built his new house in PA with a backup generator that uses his heating system’s propane tank (600 gallons) for fuel.  Funny thing is that he had a heck of a time getting it to work.  After many years and several replaced engine blocks it was ready to go.  It lasted a couple of days during Irene and then it seized up.  His repair man told him that he had bought a single cylinder engine that was rated for around 50 hours before an oil change was needed.  He said that the two cylinder engine is the continuous duty one!

Oh well, he told me today he had no problems with his new two cylinder engine for the five days he was without commercial power.  Well, that’s not true.  He collects clocks and the ones that have AC motors all ran fast.  He’s probably wasting his time to complain to the service tech.  I wonder if the waveform coming off the generator is even a pure sine wave in the first place.  He’s a retired EE so I guess he can figure it out for himself.

I just have a couple of large and out of date cellphone tower UPS batteries that my brother gave me.  I’m using one of them to charge our cell phone batteries and to make some 110 V AC from a small 12 V inverter to recharge my laptop and Hot-Spot batteries.  I hope the first one lasts a week as they are very heavy to carry up to the dinning room from the basement.

The power company folks are still talking about getting us back by the 14th.  However they also said it could take even longer!  I just finished throwing out a lot of food.  I have an old freezer that doesn’t self defrost.  Good thing I didn’t defrost it as I now have a large “icebox” for our milk and other cold stuff that we use.  Most of the local supermarkets have power and are open and folks all around us have power. My daughter is over at a friend’s house doing the laundry.

The only real problem we all have is getting gasoline for our cars and generators.  By the way, I really have to thank God that someone invented LEDs.  I have one dual LED unit that clips on to the top of a 9 Volt battery. It will run continuously on low for a full year off of a 9V lithium battery!

There is maybe one benefit of losing power…we’re all getting plenty of sleep, maybe even too much!

I better say goodbye as it’s getting darker here and I have to set the table for dinner while I can still see it.  EST will be a nice change for those of us who have no electricity!  We’re lucky, a neighbor and good friend of our family cooked dinner for us tonight.


Jul 022012

There are many reasons to plan a multi-unit condo rather than to build a single family retreat.

In considering a retreat structure – a place to live securely, comfortably and sustainably, a place to store and protect yourselves and your resources, we encourage you to think beyond the obvious.

The obvious is to build a single family dwelling, perhaps slightly altered in design and construction to make it more resilient, but, nonetheless, a single family dwelling all the same.

You doubtless already realize and accept that your dwelling structure will be one of your greatest costs in setting up your retreat, along with the cost of the land it lies upon.  In such a case, surely one of the key things for you to consider in your planning is how to optimize your dwelling structure, and how to get the best possible structure constructed in the most effective and affordable manner.

Here’s an area where two (or three or more) can live almost as cheaply as one.

Our suggestion is simple.  Don’t build a single family dwelling.  Build – at the very least – a duplex, for two families.  Much better still, build a four-plex – two units up and two units down – and for even greater effectiveness, build a squat condo block, maybe two or three levels high, and with four units, each with two common walls, and with shared floor/ceilings as well.

The Cost Benefits of Multi-unit Construction

Why is a condo block (or any other form of multi-unit construction) almost always more cost effective than an equivalent series of single family dwellings?

First, because your construction costs will reduce, when expressed in terms of costs per square foot.  This is because you’ll be sharing some common parts of the structure – each of those common walls are doing the work of two walls, otherwise, for example.  You’ll only need one large roof rather than twelve.  And so on.

You’ll also be sharing exterior elements – the landscaping, driveway, provision of utilities, all these sorts of things will be little increased in cost if done for multiple units as they would be if done for a single residence.

And when contractors need to bring special equipment on site, in a situation where typically their setup up and clean up costs are almost as great as their actual ‘doing the job’ costs, and part of their ‘doing the job’ costs involves in learning what to do, before doing it typically only once rather than repeatedly, there’ll only be one set of these various setup costs but now split over multiple units.  The contractors will also work more efficiently by repeating their tasks over multiple units, and your costs will drop in line with these benefits.

So you’ll end up getting a lot more structure at a lot lower cost per square foot.

The second benefit will be in the ongoing occupancy of the units.  They’ll be massively more energy efficient, and in a Level 2/3 scenario, energy becomes one of the most precious resources of all.  The costs to heat (or cool) will skyrocket up compared to what they are today, so anything to make your dwelling more energy efficient is a huge plus.

A well capable of supporting a dozen residences can sometimes be only slightly more expensive than a well for one residence – a typical well has most of its costs in the digging and provisioning of it – beyond that, its capacity is seldom used anywhere close to maximum.

What goes in must come out – which is our polite way of pointing out that a larger septic system can be constructed at a lower overall cost than could a series of separate individual systems.

The units will also have less maintenance because there are fewer exterior walls exposed to the elements, and less roof too for that matter.

So your ongoing ownership costs will be lower (per unit) than they would be for private residences, too.

Benefits In a Level 2/3 Situation

Looking to a time when a scenario actually unfolds, you’ll get much better value and results from being able to share common resources such as a generator and other services and tools than you would if you had to create these resources uniquely for yourself.

A larger generator is more efficient in terms of translating gallons of diesel into kWhrs of electricity.  And with diesel at a huge premium in a Level 2+ scenario, anything to extend the value out of each precious gallon is definitely a plus.  If you’re considering wind power, you get value benefits from larger units, and reliability benefits from being able to now have two or three units erected rather than just one.  (Note that solar cells are, however, a notable exception – the costs for solar cell arrays increase close to exactly in proportion to the increased sizes of the arrays, with only relatively small economy of scale benefits).

There’s another huge benefit.  If you build a twelve unit condo complex, and get eleven other families to move in with you, then you have instantly created a community of maybe 50 people, possibly more, maybe less.

This is great when you need extra manpower to help with a special task, and it is also great for social reasons and for defense, too.  You immediately have people to turn to for help, people to sell your surplus production to, and people to buy things from that you can’t also produce yourself.  You even have people to share a meal with – there’s another thought – take turns at cooking, because a person can cook for four almost as readily as for two, and it takes almost the same energy to cook a roast and boil vegetables for four as for two.  Talking about sharing meals, you also have people to relax and socialize with.

There are many other areas and examples of how sharing duties can work enormously to everyone’s benefit, making all involved more productive and more content.  The extra people benefit will end up being more valuable to you than the lower construction costs and ongoing operating costs of your dwelling.

Zoning and Building Codes

A possible (probable) constraint could be the applicable building and zoning codes for where you choose to set up your retreat.  But if it is possible, an eight or twelve unit condo complex would be hugely better than a single family dwelling, and the potential benefits more than justify going through some hoops to get the appropriate permissions.

Although zoning may seem to discourage multi-unit condos where you’re looking at setting up, sometimes it is possible to talk your way through these challenges, especially if you have multiple parcels of land – it might be possible to persuade the county to recognize that you have six parcels of land,  each of which allow two residential units, and so you’re simply asking to build all twelve units in one single block, which would create less disruption and allow more of the land to remain in productive agricultural use.

Usually the restriction on multiple dwellings on rural land has an underlying practical desire to leave the land as farmland rather than to have it become semi-urban sprawl.  You don’t represent a semi-urban sprawl, you represent the intended use – people wishing to farm and care for the land they’ll be living on, so you just have to work out the best way to ‘sell’ this to the local authorities (and we use the word ‘sell’ advisedly, sometimes an offer to pay for some ‘offsets’ will help get your permits – offsets are other things that the county would like to do elsewhere, or enhancements to nearby areas, or something like that to increase the overall standard of the area).

Alternatively, maybe you can buy land adjacent to an incorporated city, and get your land annexed into the city, with an agreed upon zoning code from the city to allow for the construction of the units you desire.

Zoning can be a challenge, for sure, but it is not an insuperable problem, particularly if you have friendly local officials –  and you’d be crazy to consider a location where the local officials were not friendly.

Remember our advice to do everything in full compliance with all city, county, state and federal laws, so as not to create any legal vulnerabilities that could subsequently be used against you by people who ‘have not’ and who are keen to take from those who ‘have’.


A multi-family dwelling will cost less per square foot to build, will cost less to own and maintain, and in an actual Level 2/3 scenario, will provide you with an instant and essential support community of friends and fellow preppers.

If it is not practical for you to consider creating your own multi-family mini-community, consider joining someone else’s.  We’d of course encourage you to become a part of a Code Green Community, but there are various other options out there for you as well.

Jun 262012

Trees can grow in places that regular cropping or animal raising may not be so practical, and give an amazingly rich return.

A level 3 situation is a long-term scenario stretching beyond anything we could live through on the basis of stockpiled resources.  We’ll run out of whatever energy we have stored, we’ll run out of whatever food we have stored, and we need to become self-sustaining.

To be sure, we’ll enter a level 3 scenario with hopefully some advantages.  We’ll have a year or more of time to live on our reserves, and to transition to an ongoing sustainable lifestyle for the future.  We’ll have pre-existing shelter, and a range of both high-tech and low-tech equipment and productivity aids, and also a huge knowledge base of information to help us do the right things.

Looking into the medium future, we have some obvious needs.  The ability to maintain our shelter, and the availability of ongoing supplies of drinking water, food, and renewable energy being the biggest four challenges we’ll face.  Ongoing access to Facebook is way down on the list!

There’s a product that, in at least some parts of the US, is abundant, renewable, and very low maintenance in terms of growing and collecting it.  This is a product that should be a central part of our planning.

If the heading of this article hasn’t already given away the name of this product, allow us to now dramatically introduce to you – wood.  Timber.  Lumber.  Logs.  Call it whatever you like, but wood from trees promises to be an invaluable part of our lives in many respects.

Although we can’t eat or drink wood, it can help us with maintaining our shelter, it can help us protect our lands and our crops and livestock, and it can act as a source of both heat (ie something as simple as an open fireplace) and energy (burn wood to fire boilers that drive steam-powered electricity generators).

Think back to images of the pioneering days of the US, and the earlier history of many other countries.  What do you see, wherever you look?  Things made of wood.  Indeed, even today, if you take all the wood out of your house and your life, you’ll have lots of huge gaps.

Sure, the iron age, the steel age, and the industrial revolution are all improvements on the much more primitive wooden age, but without wood, none of the other enhancements would proceed.

We said before that we will enter a level 3 scenario with some pre-existing ‘advantages’ – we use the quotes because, really, there’s nothing good about such a scenario at all, just hopefully some elements which are less bad than they could be.

There’s another advantage that you can give yourself as well, something to keep massively in mind when choosing your retreat location.  And that is having some trees on your land.  What better way of storing energy and building materials than in the form of live, living trees; a resource that continues to grow with each passing year until needed and harvested.

Of course, property that is treed will usually be more expensive than bare land, but you should be thinking not so much in terms of the present day net value of the trees (ie what you could get by selling the wood after meeting the costs of harvesting and probably reforestation) but instead, you should be thinking about the massively increased value to you these trees would represent in a level 3 situation.

Just like a gallon of gas will soar in value ten-fold and more likely one hundred-fold in a level 2+ situation, so too will the value of trees rise.  So the more treed land you can buy with your retreat, the more investment for the future you are getting at today’s bargain basement prices.

If you can afford it, buy as much forested land as possible.  There’s no real downside to this.  Worst case scenario, you have people managing your trees for you, and you get a commercial ongoing return on the land anyway, and probably more so than if you’d left the money in the bank.  Plus – unlike keeping your money in a bank – your trees are a tangible asset and form of wealth that will survive the onset of any level 2+ situation (assuming the situation isn’t initiated by a nearby atomic blast that flattens all your trees, of course – and even if that did happen, you still have the dead trees to convert to some timber and some firewood as best you can).

If you already have a retreat that is without trees, we urge you to consider quickly starting a small tree plantation – perhaps giving yourself a several year head-start by planting saplings that have already been growing in a nursery for some years.

For commercial purposes, it can take as much as 15 – 35 years for trees to mature to the point of it making good sense to harvest them (shorter time periods if you just want to burn the wood, longer time periods if you want to use the wood for construction); so if you can start your tree plantation with saplings that are already perhaps 5 years old, that is a head start for sure.

Of course, in a survival situation, you might choose to start felling trees at the point that you have no choice and urgently need the wood, even if only to use them as firewood rather than as building materials.

Here’s a very quick primer on some relevant issues to do with trees.

How Much Wood Is In Your Trees

If you are looking at some land that already has trees on it, you’ll of course want to know how much wood they comprise.

This is a difficult thing to accurately establish.  Clearly, it is impractical to have someone measuring each tree – not just its height, but its varying diameter and cross-section all the way up, plus adding in the mass in branches, too.

Instead, there are a number of standard industry accepted ‘rules of thumb’ for using some easily determined parameters such as the tree’s circumference or diameter at a particular height above the ground (usually 4.5 ft) and its total height, and then assessing the probable amount of mass in the tree.

These different rules of thumb can sometimes give very different answers.  Some of the better known are the International ¼ inch, Doyle, and Scribner rules.

Wood is also measured in different ways.  If you just want to burn it, perhaps the most relevant measurement is by weight.  If you are hoping to sell it for construction, then it is often measured in board feet – a board foot is one cubic foot of timber, usually thought of as a piece of wood one foot by one foot, and one inch thick.

You’ll also see wood measured by the cord (particularly firewood).  A cord of wood is a neatly tightly stacked pile of wood totaling 128 cu ft (typically in a form such as 4′ x 4′ x 8′).  At least in theory, solid wood takes up about 80% – 85% of the volume of corded wood.

A cord of red oak has the heating equivalent of about 108 gallons of fuel oil.

Choosing the Trees to Grow

You have a number of factors to consider in choosing the type of trees you’ll want to grow.  All other things being equal, a tree that is predisposed to grow more quickly is preferable to one that is a slower growing tree.

But there’s more to your decision than simply the theoretical rate of growth (ie accumulation of mass).

One important issue is the ability of the tree to withstand the climate in your area, and also the presence of any bugs or other bio-hazards that will reduce the viability of your tree plantings.  Water availability, aspect (ie if the land faces to the north or south), wind and of course soil quality and structure are all important issues.

Then there is the issue of what purpose you wish to use the wood for.  If you are growing wood to be used for construction purposes, you generally want to have a type of tree that grows long straight trunks.  Sometimes you might want a hard wood – these typically are much slower growing trees.  Some trees have wood that is more resilient to various types of decay once harvested and in use for construction materials or whatever than other types (for example cedar is more long-lasting outdoors than pine).  But if you’re growing wood purely to burn, these matters become less important.

There is also the matter of tree density.  If you can have more trees closer together, you’ll obviously get a better return in terms of amount of wood per acre of land.

This diversity of ‘best’ tree choice is shown, for example, with the range of species cultivated by Weyerhauser.  In the western US, they primarily grow Douglas Fir and Cedar (122 million cu m as of 31 Dec, 2011), followed by 23 million cu m of Whitewood and 9 million cu m of other types of tree).  But in the south they grow primarily Southern Yellow Pine (105 million cu m) and hardwood (30 million cu m).  In Brazil and Uruguay, they have large holdings of Eucalyptus trees.

How to Choose Trees

Your choice depends on your environment and also on the purpose for which you want to use the trees.  Energy source and construction materials will be your prime choices, whereas at present, trees for burning are very much a secondary use, and another primary use that will be less relevant to you is as a source of raw pulp for paper and cardboard products.

We suggest you consult with local agricultural and horticultural specialists to see what types of trees would be best suited for your retreat area and follow their advice.

How Long Until You Can Harvest Trees

This is one of those ‘how high is up’ type questions, because obviously even after one year you have a bit of growth, and after 100 years you may still be getting some growth.

The optimum time to harvest recognizes that it takes a certain time until the trees are big enough to have sufficient commercial value to be felled and hauled away and then the land cleared and prepared for regrowth.  When trees are young, they are too small to be useful as construction timber, and so they only have low value for firewood.  As they get into their mid 20 years and above, they start to get commercially significant amounts of useful wood that can be used for construction purposes.

It is also necessary to cut down some trees on a regular basis, whether you need to or not, so as to ‘thin’ out the trees, leaving the remaining ones with sufficient space for their leaf and root systems.  You get more overall growth if you thin the trees as needed – and also get a trickle of wood out of your forest each year prior to the major harvest.

Generally, managed pine tree plantations are harvested after something like perhaps 25 – 40 years (in the south).  Over a 35 year period, it is reasonable to expect anywhere from 67 tons to 151 tons of wood harvested (in the course of thinning operations and final harvesting) per acre, based on a planting rate of 700 trees/acre to start with.

In such a model, there will be very little yield until thinning operations commence in about the 15th year.  This article provides helpful information.

It is also possible to delay/defer the time of main tree harvesting.  Clearly you wouldn’t want to have a forest that gives you a supply of timber once every 35 years, and almost nothing in-between times.

To get a new forest development started, you can start felling some areas a bit earlier than optimum, and other areas a bit later than optimum, so as to spread the main harvest time over a decade.  Then if you repeat this for successive generations, in time you’ll end up with steady logging operations each year.

Hardwood trees can take twice as long to reach a harvesting point (ie 60 – 80 years or more).  This makes them impractical for most of our purposes.

A Couple of Lists of Trees Sorted by Growing Speed

The rate at which trees grow depends on many things.  Climate and soil are two very important variables; unfortunately, once we’ve chosen a retreat location, we no longer have much additional input on the climate issue, and soil type and chemistry may or may not be something that it is easy/practical for us to adjust substantially.

However we obviously can make the best choice possible when it comes to choosing tree type, and trying to match the best tree type to the local prevailing situations.

This webpage lists various types of trees that were grown at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago.  They started off as 10 ft tall saplings, and then after ten years, were categorized as fast growing (trees now 25′ tall or taller – ie, they had grown an extra 15 ft), moderate (18 – 25 ft) or slow (less than 18 ft).

We can’t make too many specific statements from this one set of results, but clearly, even if all other things aren’t completely equal, an American Elm is more likely to grow faster than a Yellowwood.

Here’s the list


  • American Elm (Ulmus americana)
  • Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)S
  • Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)


  • Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
  • Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioica)
  • Thornless Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis)
  • Linden (Tilia platyphyllos, T. cordata, T. xeuchlora ‘Redmond’, and T. tomentosa)
  • English Oak (Quercus robur)
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)
  • Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima)
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria)
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
  • Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)


  • European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
  • Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
  • Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
  • European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)
  • Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)
  • Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)

Here’s another list of trees graded as fastest, faster, and fast growing, taken from this page.


  • Hybrid Poplar (Populus hybrid)
  • Weeping Willow (Salix niobe/babylonica)
  • Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)


  • Hardy Pecan (Carya Illinoinensis)
  • Ash (Fraxinus spp.) including Green Ash, Cimmaron Ash, White Ash and Autumn Purple Ash
  • Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
  • Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens glauca)
  • Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii syn. P. taxifola, P. douglasii)
  • Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
  • Dawn Redwood (Metsequoia glyptostroboides)


  • Scotch or Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra)


If your retreat is located in a part of the country that is amendable to forestry, you would be very well advised to allocate some of its land to tree growing.  Better still is to buy a retreat property that already has existing stands of trees on it, so you don’t need to work through the lengthy lead times to the point where you can start harvesting the trees in appreciable quantities.

The amount of yield you get from trees varies enormously, but a reasonable range is from 67 – 151 tons per acre per year (when averaged out over a 35 year cycle, and with trees initially planted at a density of 700 trees/acre).

This translates to, extremely approximately, somewhere between the heating energy equivalent of 4,500 – 10,000 gallons of heating oil per acre of forest per year.  Or to somewhere between 40 MWhr and 100 MWhr of electricity.

To put that in daily terms which might be more meaningful, we’re talking 12 – 27 gallons of heating oil equivalent a day, or about 100 kWhr – 250 kWhr of electricity.

Clearly, even a small stand of only several acres of trees, if optimally planted and managed, can be sufficient to give you true energy independence, as well as material for the construction of everything from furniture to houses, barns and wagons, and also a possibly valuable trading good when buying/selling things with other people.

May 102012

Fuel storage systems vary enormously in capacity, cost,  and sophistication

Some preppers have truly impressive fuel dumps, with literally thousands of gallons of gasoline stored at their retreat, representing a multi-year supply, assuming they are using it regularly.

Ooops – that may be an incorrect assumption to make.  If they’re not living in their retreat full-time, their stored fuel is probably just sitting there from one month and year to the next.

What’s more, if they do occasionally take some fuel out for general consumption, and then subsequently top up their tanks again, what has just happened?  It is like the jug of ‘fresh milk’ in the fridge.

Understanding this issue is an important part of developing an appropriate storage plan for your fuel supplies.

The Always Fresh Jug of Milk (or Pot of Coffee) That Goes Stale

Each morning, a housemaid would take out of the fridge and top up the decorative jug of milk and put it on the breakfast table for the family to pour over their cornflakes, into their coffee, and so on.

After breakfast, the maid would return it to the fridge, and top it up again from the carton of milk bought at the supermarket.

But over time, the milk became staler and staler, because each time it was topped up, a little fresh milk was added to a lot of older milk, so that some of the old milk stayed and stayed and stayed.

You might notice a similar thing in a restaurant – the carafe of coffee gets half emptied, and then the hostess tops it up with a partial fresh carafe of coffee.  The next person who gets a cup gets half a cup of fresh and half a cup of stale coffee.  Then, after half the carafe has been emptied again, and it is topped up with fresh coffee again, the next cup has a quarter mix of double stale coffee, a quarter mix of stale coffee, and a half mix of fresh.  And so on and so on, with the average age of the coffee, milk, or whatever, getting older and older each time it has been topped up.

To avoid this, you need to fully empty the container before refilling it.

What Type of Fuels to Store

Perhaps the ‘big three’ liquid fuels that most people consider storing would be gas (petrol), diesel, and propane (lpg).  Note that we are confining this discussion to liquid fuels – please also see our separate detailed article on coal as another possible energy source for your retreat.

Both gas and diesel have storage life challenges, whereas propane is relatively straightforward to store for extended periods of time with little concern about it deteriorating in quality.

You’ll need liquid fuel for some obvious purposes.  The two biggest requirements will probably be power generation and transportation; you may also use liquid fuel for smaller equipment motors, for heating and for cooking.

Ideally it would be great if you could settle on only one form of liquid fuel for all uses.  Certainly generators can be powered by any of these three fuels, and it is possible to get motor vehicles that run on propane or which are dual fuel, running on either gas or propane.

In terms of storage costs, diesel is slightly the lowest (because each gallon of diesel fuel contains more energy than petrol or propane) and propane is the highest (you need special pressurized tanks and propane has the lowest energy content per gallon).

In terms of cost per unit of energy, this varies depending on how much tax you have to pay on the different fuels, and it would be appropriate to research the costs for all three fuels that you would buy for non road transport purposes (and for road transport purposes too of course).  Some states nowadays include all the ‘road/transportation’ taxes in the cost of gas or diesel, even if it is being used for eg farm equipment, boats, or generators.  Others are not quite so unfair in their approach.

The relative price between petrol and diesel doesn’t change a great deal over time, but the relative cost between propane (which is often made from natural gas) and petrol/diesel (which of course comes from oil rather than natural gas) can vary widely.  At present propane seems to have the lowest cost of the three fuels, with diesel perhaps the middle cost item and gas as the highest cost.

In Washington state, at the time of writing, bulk gasoline is about $3.90/gallon for regular, bulk diesel is about $4.10, and bulk propane is about $2.30.

But it is not very meaningful to simply compare the respective costs per gallon of fuel, because each gallon of fuel delivers a different amount of energy, measured in BTU/gal, or if you prefer, in MJ either per liter or kilogram.

To match these per gallon costs to costs per BTU of energy, gasoline is about 3.12c per 1,000 BTU, diesel is 3.00c (and you’ll get better efficiency – ie more power – from each BTU as well) and propane is 2.52c; clearly the cheapest of the three fuels in terms of ongoing costs of propane.

Diesel motors are typically more expensive than petrol motors, but they are also typically massively more reliable and much better for extended operation (such as with a generator) and also can usually be modified to accept bio-diesel type products of various sorts, making them more flexible for the long-term where your bunkered stores of fuel are diminishing with no replacement in sight.

On the other hand, just about everything from hedge trimmers to chainsaws to cars, trucks, boats and planes can be found with gasoline powered motors.

And while it is hard to envision a situation where you’d feel you had spare fuel you didn’t need, if you wanted to trade fuel for something else with someone else, they are probably most likely to need gasoline first, diesel second, and propane third.

Relative Perishability of Liquid Fuels

Petrol and diesel are perishable.  Both fuels can have a problem with moisture – particularly petrol with alcohol added to it; the complex mixture of chemicals that makes up petrol (petrol is not just one pure liquid, it is a veritable soup of different chemicals) can decompose and change properties, and these days there are bacteria, algae and fungi that enjoy living in and eating diesel.

Here’s an excellent article with a fascinating graph that gives a good overview of the complexity of what is blended into gasoline, and some of the issues associated with modern fuels and the engines that run them.

The bottom line – you can risk harming your engine with older diesel or petrol, and or the engine might simply fail to run at all.  Generally both petrol and diesel starts to become appreciably affected by aging within about 3 – 6 months (or less) of being purchased.

Apart from doing the same things with fuel as you do with food (ie keeping it in a cool dry dark place) you’d want to provide a good seal on the tanks (to stop moisture and oxygen coming in and volatile compounds going out) and should treat the fuel with PRI-G (for petrol) or PRI-D (for diesel) once every year.  Diesel might also require some PRI-SOLV and/or PRI-OCIDE too.

PRI-G and PRI-D need to be applied to fuel annually, although some tests have suggested that a single dose of PRI will have positive effects spanning more than a year.  One gallon of PRI-G/D will treat 2,000 gallons of fuel, at a cost of 4 – 6 cents/gallon/year.  If you buy in bulk drums rather than 1 gallon containers, the price can drop further.

With such a low cost per gallon, and with the desire to have as good quality as possible fuel, you should add PRI each year, at least until such time as you run out of PRI itself.

It is unclear how many years of life you can get by adding the PRI to the fuel each year, but it seems at least ten years, and perhaps more like 15.

There’s another issue to consider as well when planning for an extended period of living on one’s own.  How long does the PRI product itself last?  The manufacturer says that it has a shelf life, in unopened containers, of three years, and recommends it be stored out of sunlight and in a cool place.  We endorse that recommendation, of course, and suggest you keep it somewhere as cool and dark as possible, and plan for perhaps no more than a five-year effective life.

So, in total, it seems you can probably manage to store diesel and petrol for at least six years before needing access to a freshly made supply of PRI.

There is a better known product also for sale, STA-BIL.  It is more expensive and based on their claims, seems to be not as effective (in terms of long life extension) as PRI.

The PRI products also claim to be able to rejuvenate and restore old fuel that hasn’t been treated with PRI previously.  STA-BIL says their product can’t do this.

A fuel ‘polishing’ system – at the very least, some fine filters, and perhaps even a centrifugal system – would also be recommended, particular for diesel, so as to ensure the fuel when you use it is as clean as possible and least likely to block the injectors in a diesel engine.  ‘You are what you eat/drink’ applies not just to the need for us to consume healthy food ourselves, but to our mechanical equipment too.

Propane on the other hand is relatively inert and can last for an uncertain amount of time, but probably some number of decades.

The problem with extended storage of propane will relate more to the integrity of the tank it is stored in and the seals where fittings connect to the tank and each other.  The propane is under pressure in the tank – several hundred pounds per square inch, so even the slightest bit of a leak along a weld seam or seal will see propane slowly escape over the time it is stored.

Your Fuel Dump Needs to Have Multiple Tanks

Remember our comments above about the jug of ‘fresh’ milk or coffee?  If you are going to have a fuel dump at your retreat, you need to have at least two and ideally four or five or more tanks.  You should empty each tank fully, in sequence, and only refill tanks when they are completely empty.

That way the amount of stale fuel carried over from one refueling cycle to the next is minimized, and by having four or five tanks instead of only one or two, you will in theory only have one of your four or five tanks empty at any time, meaning your total fuel supply never drops much below about 80% full.  With only two tanks, you’d not trigger a refill event until after you’d used up half your total supply, a much less positive situation.

Note that this is less a requirement for propane, due to it not appreciably aging.  It is more acceptable to simply top up your propane tanks, mixing new propane in with the old.

Storage Tanks

Some companies will rent you storage tanks if you contract to buy your fuel needs from them.  The rental cost can be anywhere from $1 a year up to much more than that, depending on both the size of the tank and your projected fuel purchases.

While it seems appealing to get a subsidized tank as part of a supply deal, remember that favorite aphorism – TANSTAAFL – and realize that a subsidized tank is actually being subsidized not by your supplier, but by you.  You just don’t necessarily realize this is what is happening, the way the numbers are presented to you, but for sure, the underlying costs of the ‘free’ storage tank are being paid for by you.

You’re also locked into only one supplier.  And you’re more or less stuck with the size tank they agree to lease to you – and for sure this will be much too small a size if you’re wanting to be able to store several years worth of projected supply.

There’s another thing about leasing storage tanks from someone else.  When LAWKI ends, what is to stop the supplier from turning up on your doorstep and saying ‘sorry, we want our tank back, here’s your $1 returned to you’.  They could quite credibly claim that ‘force majeure’ allowed them to terminate their contract.  Sure, they’ll give you a day or two to transfer the fuel which you own out of their tank and to some other storage facility (or probably would agree to buy it back from you at whatever price you earlier paid for it), but where or how are you going to transfer propane?  How many 20lb barbeque sized tanks would it take to hold 1,000 gallons of propane?  (Answer = 210 tanks).

You probably wouldn’t have thousands of gallons of storage facility for gas or diesel either, but the loss of your propane tank would sure be a worst case scenario.

So our suggestion is that you should buy your own tanks for storage.  If you’re storing petrol or diesel, we suggest you use underground tanks – they are discreet, they are temperature controlled and kept cool year round (by the earth around them), and they are protected from many types of physical risk or threat or abuse.

Propane Storage Options

Propane is trickier to store than petrol or diesel, due to it being kept under pressure when in liquid form.

Although it is possible to have underground propane tanks, they are more prone to problems, in particular because they flex and move as between when they are nearly full and nearly empty.  It is possible to create satisfactory underground storage for propane, but the risk of problems is higher, and in a post TEOTWAWKI situation, you can’t simply telephone the local propane tank servicing company and have them repair/replace a tank and refill it with replacement propane if you discover your tank has sprung a leak and emptied out.

On the other hand, an above ground tank is more vulnerable to physical attack/accident and is a more obvious visual clue that you probably have some valuable and tempting fuel on your property.  If fire and building codes permit, it might be appropriate to consider erecting a shell building around your tanks to at least obscure them from prying eyes.

A 1000 gallon above ground propane tank costs $2200 – $2500, and installation is likely to be that much again, so there’s a major cost associated with a propane store.  In other words, you’re looking at an all up price of about $5/gallon for a large-sized propane storage facility.

As an alternative, you could buy a huge propane trailer to be truck hauled.  These could have capacities of 10,000 – 25,000 gallons, and would cost you, ex-China, $30,000 – $50,000 plus shipping.  This would reduce your overall cost per gallon for storage, and you could probably buy propane at even lower costs, but your up-front investment would be larger (this is an understatement) and you’d have additional licensing requirements.

There are smaller sized tanks too – 500 and 250 gallon tanks, and even smaller ones than that, but as the tank size goes down, the cost per gallon of storage capacity starts to increase.  The sweet spot for most people will be in the form of multiple 500 or 1000 gallon tanks.

No matter what the fuel, we’d prefer to have two half sized tanks rather than one full sized tank.  That way if something should happen to a tank, you’re not risking your entire fuel supply.

Tank Maintenance

Diesel and petrol tanks need occasional maintenance – primarily to do with draining any water that may have accumulated on the bottom of the tanks, and repairing any rusting the water may have caused.

In ground tanks probably have sacrificial anodes attached, so these anodes rust away rather than the tanks.  The anodes need to be replaced from time to time.

All tanks (including propane) need to have seals checked.

For these reasons it is good to have a multiple tank storage system, allowing you to take one tank offline for maintenance and repair without compromising the amount of fuel you keep in store.

Lubricant Too

Would we be stating the obvious by mentioning the need to also keep lubricants for whatever engines will be burning the fuels you are storing?

Keeping oil clean and fresh is even more important when engine failures are not just costly and inconvenient, but may become life threatening and mean the difference between power and/or transportation and not.

Fortunately you probably won’t need thousands of gallons of lubricants.


Adopting the best practices detailed in this article, you can realistically expect to be able to store petrol or diesel for at least five years, and propane for pretty much as long as you choose to.

Propane is the best value fuel, but it has the highest up-front costs of buying the storage tanks you’ll need.  Diesel is probably best for generators.  Petrol (gasoline) the usually the most expensive fuel, and harder on engines than propane, but is also the fuel you are most likely to be able to use with the most number of engines.

For ongoing use and general ‘normal’ living, we’d recommend propane, storing enough for a year or so of normal consumption – whatever represents a sweet spot as between cost of the storage units and cost per refill and the quantity discounts you might be able to secure.

For medium/long-term disaster preparedness, and to power vehicles of various sorts, you might want to have bulk supplies of diesel and/or petrol to augment the propane you keep on hand.