Aug 222014
 
A backup hand operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

A backup hand-operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

Many of us rely on wells for our water supply, and in such cases, we have an electric pump that lifts the water up and into a supply tank.

These pumps are usually long-lived and reliable, and draw little power (at least by present day standards where we have access to virtually unlimited electrical power at comparatively low cost).

But what happens in a future adverse scenario where first our power fails and then secondly our pump fails?  The obvious answers are backups and spares, but there are also some design issues that should be considered well before any such problems occur.

Operating Electric Pumps When Electricity is Scarce

The first problem – power failing – will hopefully be addressed by your on-site power generation needs.  One of the ‘good’ things about needing power for a water pump is that – assuming you have a reasonably sized holding tank above the well, the power your water pump needs can be time-shifted to those times of day when you have a surplus of (eg solar) power – use the power at those times to pump up water and to fill your above ground storage tank, and use the water from the storage tank at those times of day (eg night-time) when you have no free power.

Water pumps vary in terms of how much power they require, depending on the lifting height they need to bring the water, and the number of gallons per minute of water desired.  Obviously, greater heights and greater gpm rates require more power.  Fortunately, assuming moderate lifting heights and gpm requirements, you can get a lot of water from a pump that uses only 1000 or 2000 watts of power.  From an energy management point of view, you would probably prefer to have a less powerful pump running for longer, than a more powerful pump running for a shorter time.

This also allows you to get good use from a well with a low replenishment rate.  When specifying your well and water needs in the first place, you should give more importance to assured continuity of water supply at a low instantaneous flow rate but with sufficient total flow each day to meet your needs, rather than limiting yourself only to wells that can support rapid draws down of water via a high-capacity pump.

Chances are you can get the better part of a gallon of water lifted up your well and into your holding tank for every watt-hour of power – 1000 gallons per kWh if you prefer to think in those terms.

We discuss the energy costs of pumping water in this article.

So the first problem – loss of utility sourced electricity – is hopefully not a huge problem (and see below for a discussion on hand pumps).

Planning for Pump Problems

However, the second problem – pump failure – quite likely may be a big problem, and so we offer several solutions to consider.

The first solution is a very simple one.  If your water pump fails, simply replace it with a spare one that you’ve kept in storage, in anticipation of just such an event occurring, as it undoubtedly will, sooner or later.

Water pumps aren’t very expensive (probably under $500) and are fairly long-lived.  You’re unlikely to need to be replacing pumps every year, indeed, assuming that the duty cycle for the pump is moderate and appropriate, it is realistic to at least 10 – 15 years of trouble-free life.  With clean water and a light cycling rate, some pumps give up to 40 years of service.

When you do have a water pump problem, it is probably something you could – at least in theory – repair rather than fix by a complete replacement, and many of the problems actually relate to the fixtures and fittings and tanks outside the well, not the pump inside the well.  But, if it is a pump problem, and to keep things really simple, obviously a total replacement should work (assuming the problem isn’t somewhere above ground, outside of the well, in particular the electrical and control wiring that goes to the pump to turn it on and off as needed).

Depending on your level of skill, your supply of spare parts, and how long you can manage with the pump system down, repair would always be preferable to replacement, of course.  It would be a good strategy to talk to whoever installed and/or maintains your pump currently to find out what the likely failure points may be and to keep those appropriate spare parts, as well as a complete second pump assembly too.

For many of us, having a complete spare water pump would be all the protection and preparing we feel we need.

Here’s a useful but slightly muddled website with a lot of information about troubleshooting and repairing well based water systems.

A Large Temporary Holding Tank

These considerations point to a related point.  You should have a larger than normal above ground temporary tank, and keep it full to half full all the time.  Your choice of above ground holding tank should be such that you can live off the remaining half of its capacity for a reasonable number of days, if the pump does fail.  That gives you the luxury of some time in which to respond to the failed pump and get it fixed, before the toilets stop flushing and the taps stop running.

There’s a related benefit to a large temporary tank.  It means your pump doesn’t cycle as frequently.  It is the starting part of the pump’s operation that is most stressful; you’ll get much more life out of the pump by reducing its frequency of cycling on and off.

It is common for the well water to be pumped to a small pressure reservoir, and then to travel from there to the taps as needed, primarily by the force of the pressure in the reservoir.  In such cases, we suggest adding a temporary holding tank between the well and the pressure reservoir (rather than creating an enormous pressure reservoir).  We also suggest locating the holding tank as high above ground as possible, so as to reduce your dependence on the pressure reservoir.  A gravity fed system from the reservoir to your taps would be much more reliable.

Typical domestic water supplies have pressures in the order of 40 – 60 psi, sometimes a little less, and sometimes going up as high as 80 psi.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much water pressure.  We’d recommend keeping the water pressure to around the 40 – 50 psi point so as to minimize stress on taps and pipes.  Each foot of water height creates 0.43 lbs/sq in of water pressure.  So even a 40 psi service would require the water level at the top of the holding tank to be 93 ft above the tap level – this is almost certainly impractical.

There are two workarounds.  The first is to have large diameter piping and high flow rate taps.  This will compensate for the lower pressure in all situations except showers.  If you want to have good showers, you’ll need to have a pressure booster of some type, either just for the shower, or perhaps for the entire house.

The problem with holding tanks appreciably above ground level is that they are insecure.  A vandal or attacker will see the tank, and almost certainly, rifle rounds will penetrate through the tank wall and while the holes might be readily repairable, the water you lose may or may not be so easily replaceable.  Without wishing to over-engineer a solution, our preference sometimes is for two holding tanks.  A large one that is mainly underground, and then a smaller ‘day tank’ type tank that is above ground at a high up point.  That way your main holding tank is relatively secure, and your vulnerability reduced; indeed, you could even have your day tank built into the attic/inside the roof of your retreat.

Adding a Hand Pump to the Well

So far, we’ve recommended adding a large temporary holding tank, set into the ground, and a smaller ‘day tank’ located in the ceiling/attic of your retreat.  We’ve also suggested keeping a complete spare pump and some replacement spares for those parts most likely to wear out.

But wait.  There’s still more!  We’d feel more comfortable if we also had some type of hand pump, so that pretty much no matter what else happens, we can always get water.  It goes without saying that if we can’t get water to our retreat, everything else becomes irrelevant and our entire retreat becomes unlivable.  Water is an essential part of any retreat, and abundant water allows our lifestyle to move massively up the scale.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind our water needs probably extend way beyond what we directly personally use in our retreat.  We have agricultural needs too, for our crops and livestock.  We might even have ‘industrial’ type needs if we have any sort of manufacturing processes.  You’ll probably find a hand pump, while able to provide the essential water for living, would be inadequate to provide all the other water you might need over and above your domestic and personal needs.  Perhaps better to say – the pump may be adequate, but your supply of pumping manpower may be inadequate!

Hand pumps come in many different shapes and sizes, and come with various types of claims and promises about being easy to operate and providing so many gallons per minute of water from your pumping actions.

There are, however, two main types of hand pump (and many other types of less relevant ways of raising water too, starting with a traditional well and bucket that is lowered down to the water level and then lifted up again).

Pumps that are designed to lift water only a short height are probably suction pumps (also called pitcher pumps) – their piston is above ground, directly connected to the pump’s operating handle, and simply sucks the water up the pipe and eject it out the other end of the piston.

But suction pumps quickly become less effective when the distance the water needs to be lifted increases.  A sometimes cited rule of thumb is that suction pumps are good for about 25 ft of lifting.  At that point, a totally different type of pump comes into its own, the lift or piston pump.

pumpoperationdiagThese pumps have their operating mechanism at the far end of the pipe, down where the water is.  Each stroke of the pump handle causes the cylinder to lift another measure of water up into the pipe.  Eventually, the water has been lifted all the way to the top and comes out the spout.

These pumps can lift water hundreds of feet, but the greater the lift height, the more effort is required to lift the water, and the more stress on the cylinder’s seals and the tubing in general.

Treat all the claims of gallon per minute (gpm) outputs and ease of use of hand pumps with a grain of salt.  There are unavoidable physical laws of nature which dictate how much energy is required to lift water from your well to your holding tank, and while a hand pump can operate with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency, thereby influencing how easy/hard it is to pump the water, it can never be more than 100% efficient (and more likely, never more than perhaps 70% efficient) so you’re always going to have to put some effort into the pumping.

Adding a hand pump to your current well system is probably much easier than you’d think.  Well, it is easy now while society is still functioning; it would be much harder subsequently!

The good news is that your current well comprises a pipe that is probably 6″ in diameter, and the pipe for the electrically powered pump water that comes up is probably only 1″ – 1 1/4″ in diameter.  This leaves lots of room for more pipes, so you simply lower down an extra pipe, and mount a hand pump on the well head.

Now for a clever extra idea.  You can have the output of the hand pump go to a valve, which can direct the water either to an outlet/tap or to feed into the water line from the electric pump (through a check-valve of course).  That way, if your electric pump fails for any reason, you can still feed water into your holding tank, your pressure tank, and your household water system.  This is a bit like having a distribution panel for your electricity, allowing your house wiring to be fed from utility power, a generator, batteries, or whatever other power source you wished to use.

What sort of hand pump do you need?  Our first point is one of warning.  Hand pumps are not necessarily long-lasting just because they operate by hand rather than by electricity.  We’ve heard of people having their hand pumps fail on them after less than a year of moderately light use.  In alphabetical order, we’re aware of Baker Monitor, Bison, Flojak, Simple Pump and Waterbuck Pump brands.  You might also find used Hitzer pumps out there, but after some years of struggling, the company finally liquidated a short while ago this year (2014).

There are other brands as well, but we’ve not uncovered as much information on them so hesitate to mention them.  We’ve not experimented with all the different makes and models of hand pumps, and hesitate to make a recommendation.  We suggest you speak to a couple of different well digging and maintaining companies and see what they recommend, and roam around online user forums and see what type of feedback the different makes and models of pumps are getting from bona fide users.

The Waterbuck product seems impressive, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it is or how it has the apparent advantage and extra efficiency it claims.  It seems to still be a fairly new to market product – maybe by the time you read this there is more feedback from people who have been using it for a while and who can comment accordingly.

aermotorbWindmill Powered Pumps

If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere with a reasonable amount of wind, maybe you can supplement your water supply with a windmill.

The classic American windmill can provide a reliable regular supply of water, ideally into a reasonably sized holding tank so as to buffer the differences in supply and demand as between the vagaries of wind powered pumping and the water draws for your various requirements.

Windmill powered pumps can lift water up to almost 1000 ft, and the more powerful pumps can lift up to 1000 gallons per hour (albeit more moderate heights).

Windmills can therefore work well, even as primary water supply pumps, just as long as there is a reasonable amount of wind to drive them.

Well Depth Issues

There’s no avoiding gravity.  The deeper you have to drill for water, the more hassle it becomes to then lift the water up to the surface and on into your retreat, the more energy it requires, and the more stressed every part of the pumping process becomes.

It would be time and money very well spent to explore widely around your retreat property to find the best location for the shallowest well.  A well digger can probably tell you fairly quickly, based on logs from past drilling projects in your area, what the typical well depths might be and if there’s likely to be much variation in the distance down to the water table around your property.

It is massively less costly, from an energy point of view, to run a water line horizontally across your property than it is to dig down in the first place.  Our point here is that if you had to choose between a 50 ft well, half a mile away, and a 200 ft well, right next to your retreat, we’d probably choose the 50 ft well (assuming there were no other risks or negative factors associated with then running half a mile of pipe from the well head to your retreat).

Best of all, of course, would be to do both wells, giving you another element of redundancy and assuredness of water supply.

Summary

Typical well water supplies have water feeding from a well to a relatively small and pressurized reservoir and then from there to the household plumbing.

We suggest a better design for a prepper has the well feeding to a holding tank, of sufficient size to store several days of water.  The well pump should be configured to deliver water infrequently with fewer starts and stops, making it less stressed and therefore more reliable and longer lived.  A second system then feeds from the holding tank to a pressurized reservoir and into the house.  This makes it easier to troubleshoot your water supply system and, in the event of the well pump failure, gives you some time to fix the pump before running low on pumped water on hand.

In addition to the electric well pump, you should have a second pump line going down your well tube, with a hand-operated pump at the top.  The pump should also feed into your main holding tank supply, plus have the ability to have water drawn direct from the pump itself.

Lastly, a backup system to feed water from the holding tank to your retreat would make sense also.

Aug 102014
 
A store of 3.5 gallon 'brick' water containers.

A store of 3.5 gallon ‘brick’ water containers.

Water is the third of the survival essentials.  Air is first, shelter is second, and food is fourth, and you’re probably familiar with sayings like ‘you can go without air for three minutes, shelter for three hours, water for three days and food for three weeks’.

Actually, we’d not like to have to prove any of those four claims!  But you get the general point that they try to make.

So, having acknowledged the essential need for water, the next question becomes ‘How much water do you need to store?’.  That’s an easy eight word question to ask, but we’re going to take just over 3500 words to answer it, because the first part of the answer is ‘it depends’.

Let’s have a look at some of the dependencies that go into answering this essential question.

How Many Days of Water Do You Need to Store?

The first thing that is a massive dependent variable is how long you believe you will be without water.  Are you planning for a Level 1, 2 or 3 type situation?

If you’re planning for a short-term Level 1 situation – something that you’ll stay at your normal residence for, then probably it is prudent to consider a two-week outage as a sort of reasonable period to have water on hand for.  If you’re still without water by the time two weeks approaches, you’ve probably got other very pressing worries on your mind as well as water (ie probably no utilities and no food and increasing problems with the maintenance of law and order) and you will be needing to consider ‘getting out of Dodge’ for all these reasons.

That’s not to say that having more than a two-week supply of water is a bad thing.  We’re simply suggesting, that for a Level 1 type response, two weeks of water should be the minimum you have.

In a Level 2 situation, you may also choose to prepare for that with stored water, or you may instead ensure that you have some type of ongoing water source/supply (such as a well).  Quite possibly, you’ll have a mix of both.

Pretty much by definition, Level 3 preparations require you to have a viable ongoing supply of water rather than be relying on stored supplies.

However, although both these other types of more severe scenarios have a growing dependence on renewable sources of everything, you should still keep an emergency backup supply of stored water too.  For example, what happens if your well pump fails?  You’ll still need water until such time as the pump is repaired.  What happens if the well runs dry?  You’ll doubly definitely need some stored water while urgently seeking a new ongoing source.

Note that even a Level 1 response can also consider sources of ongoing water as well as relying on stored water.  Maybe you have a rainwater collection system, maybe you have a creek and water purification capability.  But in most parts of the country, there are times of year when no rain will fall for more than two weeks in a row, and if your creek is seasonal, that’s not a guarantee of water either.  So we suggest that you probably should keep at least two weeks of water on hand.

How Much Water is Needed per Day?

The classic rule of thumb is to allow one gallon of water per person for each day of water you are storing.  Now that’s not the same as saying you all need to drink a gallon of water a day, although many people confuse these two points.

The amount of water you need to drink to maintain reasonably good health depends on how much work you are doing, what you are eating, and the temperatures around you.  The more work you do, the more water you need.  Similarly, the hotter it is, the more water you need.  But some – most – of the foods you eat contain water within them and so help you get towards your daily water needs.

One rule of thumb says you should drink eight glasses of water a day, each with 8 oz of water, making a total of 64 oz, 4 pints, 2 quarts, or half a gallon.  This is probably on the high side of normal, and also can be adjusted down for the water you also receive from food (and, ahem, from wine or beer too!).

In addition to drinking water for basic survival, there are other close to essential needs for water.  The most immediate is water for cooking.  Try boiling vegetables without water to boil them in!  Try steaming rice without water to steam.  And so on.  (Actually, there are ‘dry’ steamers that use little or no water to cook vegetables, and also fatless fryers too.)

If you are able to keep the water you’ve used for boiling vegetables chilled, you can store this water and reuse it for several days, and then use it as a soup base.  This is a very good thing to do because you are capturing all the vitamins and minerals and flavors that leach out of the vegetables and into the cooking water.  It improves each batch of vegetables that reuses the same water and makes for wonderful soup at the end, as well as reducing your water consumption, too.

You also have some water needs for basic hygiene.  Try brushing your teeth without water.  Or washing your hands.

Beyond these essentials – drinking water, cooking water, cleaning water, you then start to move towards more ‘luxury’ type water uses.  For example, one of the greatest aspects of modern civilization is surely the flush toilet, and each time you push the flush lever, you are using 1.2 gallons or more of water, depending on your toilet design.  If you still have a working sewer system, how many times a day will you treat yourself to flushing your toilet?

Note that it may be possible to re-use your washing up water for flushing the toilet (ie using your ‘grey’ water).  There are some issues and considerations if you were going to do this long-term, but for short-term needs, it is perfectly fine to fill the toilet cistern with the water you used for washing your hands or dishes or whatever else.

In normal life, a typical American uses an average of between 50 – 100 gallons of water a day for all purposes, possibly also including outdoor/gardening activities as well.

So there’s an enormous gap between our normal lifestyle consumption of 50 – 100 gallons of water a day, and our bare minimum need of – well, of what?  Is the one gallon of water per person per day a useful number of rely upon?

A one gallon per person per day allows for half the gallon for drinking and half the gallon for all other uses.  In a dire emergency, this is sufficient to survive, but clearly, the more you can add, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Doing the Sums

So let’s see what happens now that we are saying we want to store at least one gallon of water per person per day, and at least 14 days of water in total.  If you have three people in your residence, that would be something in excess of a 42 gallon store of water.

Our point, in case it is not obvious, with the ‘at least’ emphasis is that there’s really no such thing as storing too much water, but there definitely might be a problem if you have too little.

How much is 42 gallons?  A couple of easy ways to visualize this is that it is less than a single 55 gallon drum, and it is the same as about seven or eight typical 5.5 – 6 gallon plastic gas ‘cans’.  It is also the same as about 80 2-liter plastic soda containers.

Hopefully you’ll agree this is not a ridiculous or impractical amount of water to store (and based on the calculation above, we’d massively increase the amount we stored, to something more than 100 gallons).  Water weighs 8.34 lbs/gallon, so 42 gallons has a total weight of 350 lbs – you’re not going to have any floor loading problems.  And you can already visualize the very limited amount of space you’ll need (there are 7.48 gallons of water per cubic foot so in total there is 5.6 cu ft of space required – think of a cube with each side measuring 20″ and that’s how much space 42 gallons needs, if stored in the most efficient manner possible).

Which of course then begs the question – if you can easily store one gallon of water per person per day and keep 14 days worth of water on hand, why not store more than this?  That’s a great question, and we’re delighted you’re asking it!  Yes, absolutely, you should keep very much more than this so as to be able to treat yourself to a more comfortable lifestyle during the water outage, and/or so as to have additional essential water supplies if you are sheltering other people, or have unexpected water needs, or need to survive for more than 14 days.  Water is cheap and easily stored.  You’ve no conceivable excuse for not having a lot on hand.

And more water – some ‘spare’ water – would also to allow you to occasionally flush a toilet!  Make sure at least one of your toilets is a modern very low water consumption per flush type – it seems that currently you can find them using as little as 1.2 or 1.3 gallons per flush.

What to Store Water In?

recycleThe two best types of storage containers for water are stainless steel and glass.  These are the most impervious, longest lasting, least reactive and easiest to clean.

The other obvious alternative is some type of plastic container – either a container you’ve purpose-purchased specially for water storage or one you’ve repurposed from some prior use.  Plastic is ideal for portable water storage, because it is less breakable than glass and lighter than both steel and glass, and is more likely to be shaped into suitable sizes for storing and carrying.

If you are using plastic, you want to limit yourself to food-grade plastic that won’t leach out any of the moderately poisonous chemicals that are often used in the manufacture of plastic containers, and which aren’t made of poisonous plastic to start with.

The recycling number shown on the side of most plastic containers (and illustrated here) allows you to understand if it is suitable for storing food and water or not.  If it is type 1, 2, 4 or 5, then it is made of a suitable type of plastic.  Some types of #7 plastics might also be okay, but you probably have no way of knowing if it is a suitable or unsuitable type 7 plastic, so best to leave well alone.

This page tells you more about each type of plastic.

Note also that plastic is somewhat permeable and allows gases to migrate through itself.  Water can’t leak out, of course, but smells can leak in.

That means that if you are storing your water in an area with strong smells or other gaseous products, the water will gradually acquire those smells through the plastic.  Glass and steel are, for all intents and purposes, totally impermeable.

Because of the permeability of plastic, when we are reusing plastic containers, our preferred choice is to use soda type plastic bottles that originally held some sort of carbonated beverage, because these types of plastic containers have lower permeability (so that the soda or sparkling mineral water inside doesn’t lose its fizz).  The least desirable are the small size plastic bottles that hold regular water.  These are so thin these days that they offer very little gaseous barrier.

If you are re-using a container, you want to be sure that it is thoroughly clean prior to adding water to it.  Some things are easier to clean than others, and according to this page, milk jugs are surprisingly difficult to clean.

The chances are that you’ll be storing your water not in the same place that you’ll want to use the water, so we’d be tempted to keep the water in carry-sized containers – ie, probably less than ten gallons per container.  Otherwise, if you have a more ‘industrial grade’ bulk tank of water, you’d simply want a tap (or a siphon or a hand-operated pump) that you can use to then fill transfer type containers to take the water from where it is stored to where you’ll be using it.

We obviously suggest hand rather than electrical operation of a water pump because electricity might not be available, and to keep the pump’s operation as simple and trouble-free as possible.

Note that if you’re using a hand-operated siphon/pump, that too needs to be food grade.

There is an obscured issue with large-sized water storage containers.  As you’ll see below, we recommend replacing the water every year or so.  This is relatively easy to do when you just need to carry the containers to the sink, pour out the old water, and run new water in from the tap.  It is harder to do when you have to drain in place a large container of water, then refill it also in place.  That’s a lot of water transferring.

Needless to say, Amazon has a wide variety of water storage containers of varying shapes and sizes and costs.  Even if you don’t buy from Amazon, it is a useful reference to start from and gives you a great range of idea generators and a feeling for costs.

When looking at cost, we consider both the utility/good sense of the container and also what the cost works out in terms of dollars per gallon of water stored within the container.

We do like the stackable 3.5 gallon water bricks (see image at the top of this article), even though they are fairly expensive in terms of dollars per gallon of water stored.  They are easily carried, emptied, filled, stacked, and moved about and generally ‘managed’.  They are an efficient size and shape that allows you to make best use of the storage space available.

Their ease of use encourages people to actually do what they should be doing and rotate their water supplies, disposing of the oldest and refilling with fresh water (see the next point below).  Even the children in our group can usually carry one of these at a time, and most adults have no problem carrying two.

Note that most water containers should not be stacked on top of each other unless specifically designed to handle the weight of the extra containers on top.

There are also some excellent 7 gallon water containers that we like as well.  When full, these weigh just under 60 lbs.  Some people can carry two of these, others prefer to carry one at a time.

Anything heavier than this is not really portable and becomes too hard to pour small measured amounts from, and instead becomes more ‘fixed in place’ storage that you then transfer water to and from.

Containers should have lids or in some other way be sealed, and should be filled with water to as close to the top as possible.  This not only keeps out obvious sources of contamination, but it also stops oxygen from getting into the water and possibly feeding any micro-organisms present.

Some people have wondered about storing water in old-fashioned type wooden barrels.  These are acceptable for very short-term storage of water, but not for longer term storage.  Sure, wine and whisky is stored in wooden barrels, sometimes for years, but you don’t then drink half a gallon of wine/whisky every day, and cook with it too.

There are not only flavor-imparting and flavor-modifying chemicals in wood that react to the wine/whisky, but there are also poisons in the wood.  They’re not too poisonous when enjoying the occasional sip of bourbon or glass of wine, but not only would they flavor your drinking water, they’d eventually start to cause some undesirable heath issues too.

The Optimum Storage Environment for Water

Water should be kept in a cool dark environment, and the containers should be filled and sealed prior to storage.

The colder the water is, the better, and if you can freeze it, that is even better still.

Note that if you are freezing water, the water will expand 9% when it freezes, so make sure you have some headspace for this within the container and the cap on loosely, or else it may burst.

Talking about freezing water, we recommend filling up your freezer(s) with containers of water to use up any available spare space.  This does two things.  It gives you more water, and it also gives you a ‘battery bank’ – a thermal reservoir – of cold so that if the power fails in your freezer, it will take longer for the cold to leak out of the freezer and for the food in it to spoil.

The reason to keep water both cold and dark is because even the purest water probably has some micro-organisms in it, and over time, these will tend to grow and make your water taste bad and possibly even be harmful.  These organisms need warmth, light and oxygen to grow.  There’s probably enough dissolved oxygen in the water to allow them to grow to a certain extent, so your best way to slow down their growth is to keep the water as cold as possible and as dark as possible.

How Long Can You Store Water For?

This might at first seem like a ridiculous question.  We know that food has a finite storage life, but water?  What can age in water?

The answer to this question is that the water itself will remain stable and not change.  The concern instead is with the various micro-organisms that might be found within the water.

The best type of water to store is of course water that has as low a contamination level to start with as possible.  Where do you get that from?  The answer might surprise you.

Most of the time, the water direct from the tap in your kitchen is a better choice than any sort of special ‘triple distilled’ ‘ion exchanged’ or whatever else water you might buy from a supermarket or water supply service or anywhere else.

Not only is most city water purified to a very high standard to start with, but it is almost always also chlorinated, which acts as an inhibitor to slow down the future growth of things inside your stored water.  Some people add a splash more chlorine (ie bleach, or iodine instead of chlorine) to the water they store to extend its life still further.

This type of water, optimally stored as we suggested above, will be good for a year or more.  You’ll pretty much know, when you open it, if it remains good or not.  If it looks clean, smells clean, and – yes, tastes clean (by all means have a test sip) then it is clean.

If it isn’t, well, at least you have slightly impure water, which you can variously use for secondary purposes and also which you can then filter or boil (actually, you don’t need to boil water to make it safe, but an easy rule of thumb is that by the time you’ve brought water to the boil, you’ve probably killed off anything within it during the heating time up to boiling) to use for drinking purposes too.

Fortunately, water is cheap, so apart from the hassle factor, there’s no reason not to turn your water over every year or so.  What we do, to try and control the hassle factor some, is we recycle some of it every month, meaning that at any time, we have water of different ages from nearly brand new to about a year old.  Of course, if we ever had to start using it, we’d start from the oldest first, although being as how there is only a few weeks of supply, it probably doesn’t matter too much what order you then drink it!

Obviously, the cooler and darker the water, the purer it was to start, and the more airtight the container, the longer it will last.  The opposite is of course also true – if you’re storing water in ambient temperatures in the 80s or 90s, then it will need replacing very quickly – definitely at the end of every summer and maybe partway through the summer, too.

A Tip for When You are Filling Containers With Water

When you fill a container with water that you intend to store for the next year or whatever, try to pour the water into the container ‘smoothly’ without introducing a lot of air.  Think of filling a beer growler, perhaps, as an example of how to do this.

You should ideally have a plastic hose that runs from the tap to the bottom of the container.  Turn the water on slowly, and only increase the flow rate as the bottom of the container is covered, and make sure there is no bubbling or undue agitation of the water while the container fills.  Don’t shake it after you’ve filled it, although if you do find air bubbles on the sides of the container, definitely tap the sides to dislodge them.

If you’re filling straight from the tap, have the water run down the side of the container.  Again, think of the water as if it were beer, and your objective is to avoid the ‘beer’ foaming and getting a big head as a result of your pour.

Level 2 & 3 Storage Requirements and Considerations

This article is primarily focused on how much water you need to store to get you through a short-term disruption to your water supply.  As per the definition of a Level 1 situation, this is a short-term problem where you can realistically foresee a relatively fast and certain restoration of normal service, and in such cases, a fairly limited store of water is all you need.

If a scenario lengthens and becomes more a Level 2 or worse situation, then your issues and your preparing changes.  Your focus becomes on bulk water storage and ongoing water resupply strategies.  We suggestion you read through our other articles on water for further ideas and suggestions.

Note we also suggest you keep a supply of water stored, even as part of your Level 2/3 preparation.  So that probably means stored water both at your normal residence and at your retreat.

Summary

How much water do you need to see everyone in your normal residence through a Level 1 event?  Do you have that much water, and hopefully a bit more too, stored and not too stale?

If you don’t have sufficient water, we urge you to start adding to your water supplies right now.  Even if you do nothing more than clean out 2L soda bottles and fill them with water as you occasionally may buy and consume such things, that is at least making progress (and at close to zero cost) towards having sufficient water for Level 1 problems.

Ideally, we recommend you keep your water in 3.5 – 7 gallon sized containers, because they are easiest to manage – easiest to fill, to store, to rotate, to empty/refill, and to work from if you ever need to use them in a water-down scenario.

Jul 152014
 
Suffering a flood would be devastating, but such a risk is foreseeable and can in large part be prevented/minimized.  There's a much graver risk you should be considering.

Suffering a flood would be devastating, but such a risk is foreseeable and can in large part be prevented/minimized. There’s a much graver risk you should be considering.

You know that when you design and build your retreat structure(s) you want to ‘overbuild’ and build it (them) way above minimum code requirements, right?

Although building codes sometimes seem unnecessary and adding extra layers of cost to what should be a simple process that you are free to do as you wish, there are two parts to the reality of building codes that people seldom appreciate.

The first is that most of the code requirements represent good sense and good design/build practice, and are in place to protect the investment that you (and your mortgagor) make in your residence.  You don’t want to sign up for a 30 year loan against a building that will fail after 10 or 20 years, and neither does the mortgagor want to have the ‘security’ of a building that is not well constructed.  From this perspective, building codes protect us all.

The second concept is to realize that in most cases, building codes represent the bare minimum needed rather than the best case ‘deluxe’ option.  Whether it be the spacing between studs in the wall or the amount of foundation needed or anything else, most building codes have been written to reflect the requirements of developers who want to be able to build houses as cheaply as possible.

Yet another – a third concept to realize, is that it is acceptable to construct any sort of structure and to expect it to require ongoing maintenance, based on the assumption that materials and labor will remain freely available, convenient, and affordable.  That is why many houses and other structures have short-lived roofs, even shorter lasting carpet, fewer coats of paint than optimum, and so on.  But if/when TSHTF, those assumptions become no longer valid, and any type of repair and maintenance activity becomes challenging and somewhere between difficult and impossible.

For our purposes, it is better to spend more money up front to build a more robust, lower-maintenance and longer lasting structure in the first place.  We discuss these issues in more detail here.  In this article, we concentrate on one specific type of ‘hardening’ to make your retreat structure more long-lasting and secure.

Okay, now with that as lengthy introduction, what do you think is the biggest risk to your structure?  What is most likely to be the thing that causes it massive problems at some possible time in the future?  Is it an earthquake?  Flood?  Tornado?  Attacking marauders?  Or something entirely different?

Depending on where you live, you of course can evaluate and guess at the risks of earthquake, tornado, flood, and other types of natural disasters (hurricanes, etc).  If you’re in the American Redoubt states, then these risks are generally low rather than appreciable.

The Most Likely Risk for Most of Us

But there’s one really big risk that, for most of us, is probably the biggest potential problem of all.  Have you thought of it already?

We are referring to – if you’ve not already thought of it – fire.  Most of us have lived our lives and never had direct close personal contact with an uncontained fire, and that has lulled us into a false sense of security.  You really have to be personally threatened by a fire to understand the awesome and evil nature of a fire – there’s a reason that hell is said to be in flames, and it is easy to understand how some people view fires as living entities, possessed of a ravening destructive sense that seeks to destroy as much as it can, as quickly as it can.

Indeed, many of us think of fire as a friendly nice good thing.  In a fireplace, it brings warmth, and possibly a hint of romance to a room.  It enlivens the room with its sounds, its smells, its ever-changing light patterns, and not just the temperature type warmth but the ‘warmth’ of the light it throws off, too.

Outside, a bonfire or campfire is also associated with fun times and leisure.  But friendly fun bonfires for toasting s’mores are as different to a ‘real’ fire as is a child’s plastic toy gun to a Barrett .50 caliber rifle, or, if you prefer, as different as a candle is from a 2500 gallon napalm drop on a village, as different as a water pistol to a 250 ft flame-thrower.

Until you’ve stood and watched, helplessly, as a fire either destroys your home from inside, or approaches it unstoppably from the outside, you have little or no comprehension of the power and magnitude of a ‘real’ fire.  Unless you’ve been up close, you’ve not experienced the primal fear that lies within most animals and, at a deeper level, within us too when confronted by an out of control fire.  Please do not ever underestimate the danger of fire.

You have at least three types of fire risk.

1.  External Semi-Random Risk

We are referring here to something like a forest fire (if in a rural area) or a spreading urban fire leapfrogging from building to building if in a city or town.  You know your area and so can assess the risk of some of these events, but after you’ve done so, you then need to upgrade the threat rating for two reasons.  First, particularly in urban areas, there is a much greater danger of a fire starting after TEOTWAWKI, and secondly, if/when a fire does start (anywhere) there will be much less fire-fighting resource to contain and control it.

There’ll be no city water supply or even fire department and fire trucks in an urban area, and in a rural area, there’ll be no helicopters dumping monsoon bucketloads of water, no planes dumping even greater loads of special fire-retardant chemicals, and there won’t be hundreds of firefighters from all over the county, state and nation rushing to help put the fire out.

2.  Deliberate External Causes

The dark side of human nature seems to embrace the evil of destructive fire.  Just look at Detroit with its ‘Devil’s Night’ when arsonists go on the rampage, and suffering over 9,000 fires a year in the city limits alone, 95% of which are the result of arson.

In the future, you’ll not only have to anticipate random acts of senseless arson and how they might impact on your retreat and lands, but also, if you do encounter attacking marauders, they are more likely to be throwing Molotov cocktails at your retreat than grenades.  If your attackers want to ‘smoke you out’ then they’ll attempt to do so quite literally, by trying to burn your retreat down around you.

3.  Accidental Factors

Even at present, the risk of an accidental household fire is much greater than you might guess.  Although we’ve seen varying statistics from various sources, this page, citing the National Fire Protection Association, seems very credible.  It says that over a lifetime, we’ve a one in four chance of having a fire in our house that is sufficiently major as to require us to need to call the fire department.

When you think about an uncertain future, when we’re more likely to have open flames in our retreats, whether as a heat source, a cooking source, a light source, or whatever else, it is reasonable to predict that the risk factor will increase in such a case.

Prevention

Prevention is always better than cure, right?  And particularly, in the future, there will be very little resource available to help you with fire fighting, and even less resource to help you rebuild if your retreat is destroyed, so your main focus needs to be on fire prevention.

The most important part of fire prevention is to construct your retreat from fire-proof materials as much as possible.  This means no wood on the building exterior.  Have concrete, stone, ICF, fiber cement stucco, or brick exterior, and absolutely do not have a wooden shake roof!  Use long run roofing iron or some type of slate, stone or brick/tile for your roof.

Be sure to seal up any gaps in your roofing and exterior walls so cinders can’t blow in and ignite anything within.

With an eye to being attacked, make sure that your windows have sturdy shutters (and not made of wood) that can be pulled across them so that attackers can’t break windows and throw Molotov cocktail type fire bombs into the interior of your retreat.

Your windows should also have heat-resistant glass in them, so that outside fires don’t cause them to break, and to insulate your interior from any high temperatures outside.  Steel is the best material for window framing, and of course, plastic and wood the worst.

Inside your retreat you will unavoidably have things that can burn.  But you want to keep the use of wood to a minimum, and have some firewalls within the retreat that will contain a fire within part of your structure rather than allowing it to spread throughout.  Line your rooms with fire-rated drywall rather than regular drywall and use as much metal rather than timber framing as you can.

Use ‘fireproof’ carpet, and spray ‘fireproof’ retardant on your furniture and rugs (these things are in no way fire-proof, but they do slow down the propagation of a fire).

Keep vegetation, bushes, trees, etc, back from your retreat structures a way, so if there is any type of approaching fire, there is a ‘fire break’ of sorts separating your house from the closest point the fire can easily reach.

If you are adding decking around your retreat, use fire-resistant composite materials or wood that has been treated to a Class A fire rating.

If there is an appreciable chance of major forest fires getting very close to you, maybe you need to add a ‘wash down’ feature to your roof – basically this just means a way to have water trickling down from the apex of your roof, cooling the roof and both extinguishing and washing off any burning embers that might fall onto it.

You might augment this with a sprinkler system that trickled water down the sides of your retreat as well.  If nothing else, it might help to cool the interior of your retreat if there was a major fire passing by.

Cure

The easiest way to fight a fire is with water.  Lots of water, lots of flow, and lots of pressure so it can be delivered at a high rate and from a safe distance.

You need to have an onsite supply of fire-fighting water and a way of delivering the water at suitable pressure and volume to wherever the fire is located.  Ideally, the water supply should be gravity fed, because no matter what else might go wrong, you know you can always rely on gravity.  But this might pose problems, particularly if it requires an external water tower which adds a new high visibility structure to your retreat compound and which is, itself, vulnerable to attack.

Each foot of height gives you 0.43 pounds per square inch of water pressure.  A typical domestic water supply has water pressure in the range of 40 – 60 psi, and city mains water supplies are usually somewhat higher.

So to get even 40 psi would require your water tank to be 100 ft above the outlet.  In other words, you’ll probably need to have an ultra-reliable booster pump with an ultra-reliable power source – and make sure that all parts of your water supply system are themselves protected from fire impacts.

If your water comes from a well, you probably should augment this with a holding tank, unless you are sure your well pump will be able to deliver sufficient pressure and volume not just for normal household needs but for fire-fighting as well.

As well as pressure, the other important consideration is flow rate – how many gallons per minute of water can the service provide.  A typical 5/8″ garden hose usually delivers about 10-17 gallons of water a minute.  A fire hydrant can sometimes deliver up to 1500 gpm, and even a smaller hydrant can probably provide about 500 gpm.  How much water do you need to be able to deliver to the fire?  The more, the merrier.  If you can deliver 100 gpm, that would be good, and 250 gpm would be even better.  Water damage issues to one side, there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ water when fighting a fire, and just because you have a very high potential volume of water to be used, you don’t need to use any more of it than you need at the time.

This leads to the next part of the equation – how many gallons of water do you need in your fire fighting reservoir?  That’s a bit like asking ‘how high is up’, because clearly the more you have, the better.

A typical multi-purpose fire truck that carries some water but which isn’t a dedicated tanker probably holds about 1000 gallons of water (and can pump it out at maybe 1500 gpm, so in theory, could use up its entire on-board supply in merely a minute).  A garden swimming pool can have many thousands of gallons of water, and as long as you were sure to have adequate and reliable pumping capacity, might be a great way to keep water on hand for fire fighting.

If you’re having to establish a specific water tank for fire fighting, we’d suggest you have at least 500 gallons of water in the tank, and of course, it will presumably have a lower flow-rate pump replenishing it as soon as the level begins to drop, so maybe by the time you’ve used up your 500 gallons, you have added another 100 or 200 gallons to the tank, and so on.

One study (the ‘Scottsdale Report’ – a 15 year study on fire sprinklers) suggests that fire-fighters typically use 2,935 gallons of water to control a fire.  (Sprinklers used only 341 gallons.)  So the more water you have, the better.

A Stitch in Time

Our point here is that it takes very little time for a fire to go from a spark to a conflagration.  Truly, in five minutes, a fire can go from a tiny thing to a monster, raging unstoppably through your house.

If a fire starts, every second counts.  You need to detect it as soon as possible and respond to it immediately thereafter.

You can’t have a system that when you have a fire, you have to go somewhere to turn on the water supply pump, then grab a fire hose, take it to an outlet, connect it up, turn it on, and deploy it.  By the time you’ve done all of this, the fire has enormously grown.  Where possible, you should have hoses pre-deployed (but sheltered from the sun so they don’t age and crack from the UV, and also sheltered from any extreme cold), and activating the pump should be something that can be done from several convenient locations.

You also should have extinguishers at strategic locations throughout your retreat.  These will probably/unavoidably be single use devices, but when you need one, don’t stop to think about saving it for another time.  Use it without hesitation.  Almost every fire that ends up defeating multiple fire trucks, and which destroys the building it started in, could have been extinguished in the first minute or so of its life if a fire extinguisher were at hand and effectively used.

We suggest having fire alarm buttons throughout your house so that people can push the alarm if they encounter any type of fire, to alert and mobilize everyone else in the house – both to get them to assist and possibly to get them to evacuate.  A loud distinctive alarm should be sounded that can not be confused with other types of alarms you might also have (in particular a security alarm).

Smoke Detectors

You of course have one or more smoke detectors in your residence at present – building and fire codes require them pretty much everywhere these days, and good practice suggests one per bedroom, one per floor, and maybe some more in other strategic places too.

We’re not arguing against this at all, quite the opposite.  The more smoke detectors, the better.

Did you also know there are two different types of smoke detectors?  One sort detects the smoke by way of the cloudiness of the smoke interrupting a light beam, the other sort detects the ‘burning products’ associated with a fire, but not necessarily the smoke itself.  They are referred to as photoelectric and ionization type detectors.

Photo-electric detectors work better with ‘smoldering’ type fires – fires that start first with a whisp of smoke, and only slowly change to a flicker of flame, and on from there.  Ionization detectors respond to flames and ‘invisible’ byproducts of the fire.

Neither sort is heat-sensitive.  Note also that carbon monoxide detectors are not very helpful at detecting fires.

Which sort of detector is best?  They are both good.  Some units have both types of detection built in.  We suggest you have some of each in your retreat.

Oh yes – do we need to add the bit about testing the batteries?  Probably not, because most good smoke detectors also include a ‘low battery’ alarm.

Sprinklers

This is something you normally associate with commercial buildings, but there’s no reason not to install them in private residences.  Indeed some local authorities are now requiring them in some private residences, even single family dwellings (including the entire states of CA and PA), and either supplied with water from an oversized line from the city mains or from an on-site tank.  If you do have sprinklers installed, you’ll probably get a small reduction in your insurance premiums, too.

There are many different types of sprinklers and designs of sprinkler systems.  A typical system in a low fire hazard area would be designed to provide 0.1 gallons of water per square foot per minute – in a 150 sq ft room, for example, that would require a water flow of 15 gallons per minute, and in a 2500 sq ft residence, if all sprinklers were operating simultaneously (an unlikely scenario), that would be 250 gpm.

Most sprinkler systems are automatic, and (unlike in the movies) activate one by one as they each individually detect a certain level of heat.  In the movies, it is common to see the activation of a single sprinkler result in an entire floor or building having all sprinklers start operating – looks good in the movie but doesn’t normally happen that way in real life.

There are a range of different heat-activated capsules that will be triggered by different heat levels, from as ‘low’ as 135°F up to as high as 500°F.  Perhaps the best type of sprinkler systems these days use water mist rather than water spray, and will give similarly effective results while using massively less water.

It makes sense for sprinklers to automatically activate, and on an ‘as required’ basis. But for a retreat which usually has people living in it, we’d be tempted to suggest a simpler approach.  Manual sprinklers, on a per room ‘deluge’ basis, whereby you simply turn a lever (probably by the room’s entrance, or at a central control station) and that causes all the sprinklers in the room to activate simultaneously.

The downside of this is also its upside.  The system doesn’t automatically activate, but it also won’t accidentally activate or leak water or in other ways be maintenance-prone or problematic.  If you have dual-mode smoke detectors in most rooms, you’ll have reasonably appropriate warning of a fire in an unattended room, and can then quickly react and activate the sprinklers in the affected areas.

Needless to say, you’ll probably want your sprinklers to operate from a reservoir (perhaps with boost pump) than from a city mains water supply, so as to have your water supply guaranteed.

Summary

House fires are more common than you think, and will become even more prevalent WTSHTF.

A fire can potentially destroy your retreat and everything in it.  There goes your shelter, your food, your everything – and possibly also your own lives.

In addition to accidental fires, deliberate fires will be more prevalent too when law and order disintegrates, and a common technique by roaming marauders may be to ‘smoke you out’ of your retreat by setting fire to it.

On the other hand, making your retreat at least fire-resistant and as close to fire-proof as possible is not an unduly expensive proposition and is a prudent part of generally ‘hardening’ your retreat and making it long-lived and low maintenance.

We urge you to ensure your retreat is as close to fire-proof as possible.

Feb 252013
 
A beautiful country scene, for sure.  But is it also a viable source of water for your retreat?

A beautiful country scene, for sure. But is it also a viable source of water for your retreat?

We are writing this on Oscar night 2013, so let’s use an Oscar linked concept for this article.

Did you ever watch the Oscar-winning movie, Chinatown?  It was nominated for 11 Oscar awards in 1975 and won the best screenplay award.  The movie starred Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, and – yes, here now is the segue to this article – featured a plot to do with the struggle for water rights in California.

Access to water is a very contentious thing, both in modern times and historically.  A Google search for ‘water right disputes’ brings up 39 million pages.  Depending on where you are, your ability to use the water on your land – indeed, in states such as Oregon, even your ability to use the rainwater that falls freely from the sky – is almost certainly restricted by a mess of state and federal statutes.

While many of these restrictions may seem overly onerous and interfering, at least they provide some sort of certainty and guarantee as to what we can expect with the water that passes through our properties.

And perhaps because of the comfortable certainties we sometimes take for granted, we’ve often had people proudly tell us about their retreat, and how it has a river or stream or creek running through/alongside their property.  This, we are told, guarantees them all the water they will need, and perhaps also promises them a rich bounty of fish too.

They are more or less correct, but only in terms of today.  But what happens WTSHTF and the rule of law crumbles and disappears?  What happens when people still need water, but their other sources of water (perhaps an electrically pumped well, or city water, or whatever else) are no longer available?  They have no choice but to turn to any nearby river or stream and start taking water from it, surely.

So, depending on where you are along the flow of the river, stream, creek, or whatever you wish to call the body of water moving through your property, its normal flow of water, that is currently protected, with any offtakes and uses controlled, restricted and limited, could change drastically if people simply start taking whatever they believe they need.

That’s a problem, but it is only part of the problem.  What also happens when people lose their sewer service too?  Will they start feeding sewage into their stream?  Will they start washing their clothes in the river?  With the loss of electric pumping, will they take their herd of cattle to the river to drink, rather than having water taken up to cisterns and troughs, with the cattle defecating, urinating, and disturbing the water while there?

Maybe the person upstream from you will even throw dead animals in and generally use ‘your’ stream as ‘nature’s automatic trash removal service’?

All of a sudden, you find yourself either with no water at all, or with polluted water that’s not safe to drink.

Oh – and the fishing?  How well is that going to work when the guy upstream from you, and the guy downstream from you, both throw nets across the entire river, preventing any fish from getting to your stretch of water?

Now – don’t get us wrong.  We like water, and there’s nothing more scenically enhancing than having a ‘safe’ water flow through your property year round.  If there’s a chance to use it for hydro power generation, then so much the better – but note our careful use of the word ‘safe’.  You don’t want a river that has such a volume of water that it is changing its path, eroding its banks, and possibly prone to flooding your fields on occasion.

When evaluating any water that flows through your property as a suitable source of water and possibly fish, you need to very carefully understand what happens to every foot of that water flow from where it first starts, and all the way along its journey to where it enters your property, and some distance beyond as well.  Maybe the guy upstream might build a dam and divert the water’s flow entirely.  And if there’s any danger of someone downstream of you building a dam or in some other way blocking the water flow or causing the river to burst its banks and spill out over your land, that’s something you want to know about too.

It isn’t just your immediate neighbor upstream of you.  Each person from the water source to you can impact on the quality and quantity of water available to you.

And your problems may not only relate to ‘good’ uses of the water.  Maybe the guy upstream from you – or the guy upstream from him – wants to force you (or your neighbor, or both of you) off your land and so they will simply block the river upstream of you and suddenly what was fertile land and easily irrigated becomes neither.

Go watch some more movies.  There’s a dozen or more westerns involving disputes over water rights.  Should we also point out that, at least in the movies, the disputes were seldom peaceably resolved?

There’s another flip-side to this issue too.  If you are planning on being able to help yourself to water from the stream WTSHTF, how do you think the people downstream of you will feel if the water that they too may be relying on diminishes in flow?  Someone, somewhere, is not going to passively accept the change from a healthy flow of water to a muddy polluted trickle of effluent, and is going to start going upstream and ‘persuading’ people to ensure that he can get ‘his’ ‘fair’ ration of water, too.  Note the quotes around those two terms; water rights are truly a contentious subject and people have very different perspectives as to what is right and fair, depending on their situation and needs.

Our point is simply this :  You can’t rely on the current state of water flow on your property, with the underlying assumption being that everyone who potentially could do something to the state of the waterway will continue to abide by every one of the sometimes annoying and restrictive regulations that attach to the rivers and streams that may flow through our land.

If you are in an area which needs supplemental water, and if it is realistic to expect that people will turn to the water source flowing through your property for their water needs (which, after all, is actually exactly what you may be planning to do yourself, too!) then you need to be sure that there’ll be enough water for everyone, including the people downstream of you, because if everyone doesn’t get enough water, disputes will break out, and with people’s survival at stake, the disputes won’t merely involve writing nasty letters and filing law suits to be litigated through the courts over the course of many years and many appeals.  They will get violent.

This also points to another thing.  After TEOTWAWKI, people’s use of the land they are on will surely change.  In some cases, land will be abandoned, but in other cases, land will start to be farmed more extensively and, as best possible, more intensively too.  It is not enough to only understand what might happen to the water flowing through your property today, you also have to guess how this might change in the future.

Some of these future changes could be entirely unexpected.  What happens if someone starts some sort of factory that either consumes a significant amount of ‘your’ water, and/or discharges waste into the stream?

The more you think about that beautiful stream currently flowing through your property, the more you should come to realize that you can’t take it for granted in a Level 3 or even Level 2 situation.  In other words, even if you have what seems to be a perfectly good river/stream providing water to your property today, check out alternate sources of water so that you’re not relying on a single water source in the future.

Jul 112012
 

Short term randomness in weather patterns mask longer term repeating cycles. We need to base our calculations on extended time periods to factor in cycle peaks and troughs.

At the time of writing this, parts of the midwest (most notably Wyoming) are suffering major agricultural/economic impacts due to suffering the worst drought in ten years.

Excuse us?  The worst drought in ten years?  The worst drought in 100 years – they could be excused for being tripped up by that.  Many of us would even allow a person the benefit of the doubt for the worst drought in 50 years.  But to be blindsided by something that happens once a decade?  That’s imprudent planning and greed on the part of the farmers, who simply gambled that they’d have a good year this year, and so over-extended their water consumption, and now have had their calculated gamble, based on greed, turn around and bite them.

It is hard to feel too sympathetic for such people.  But at least they may qualify for various assistance programs, and if they have to end up selling off livestock, they have people to sell the livestock to (potentially located thousands of miles away), and will be able to buy new livestock next year (and potentially source them from a considerable distance).  The current infrastructure of the country, its economy, and even its social support mechanisms all act to minimize the still unfortunate impacts on these farmers at present.

But in a Level 2/3 situation, and with any farmer’s market being reduced to a very local region, there’d not be such broader resources to rely upon.  Quite the opposite – the market for cattle would become massively depressed, and next year, there’d be precious little in the way of breeding stock to make up the shortfall.  This begs the question – how much weather risk is it prudent to accept – not so much in the present day situation, but with an eye to a less forgiving future scenario?

The answer is obviously that we can’t accept any risk that would threaten our ongoing viability.  So how much weather risk is too much risk?  This is very hard to establish, in large part because weather isn’t a ‘constant variable’ (a concept that sounds like an oxymoron to start with).  Let us explain.

Short Term Randomness in Weather

There are many factors impacting on the weather we experience each day.  For our purposes, most of these factors can be perceived as semi-random in the medium term.  For sure, in the very short-term, we can make a reasonable guess about tomorrow’s weather based on what we know of the weather today, what the barometer tells us, the direction of the winds, and how we read the sky.  We can make a somewhat less accurate guess about the day after tomorrow’s weather, too.  But the degree of accuracy continues to erode with each extra day into the future we look.

Will it rain on Tuesday in five weeks time?  Maybe, maybe not.  Will next year’s growing season be shorter or longer than normal?  And so on.  Apart from making a statistical guess based on past rainfall patterns, it is hard for us to otherwise give an accurate prediction based on any factual modeling of how the weather will act between now and then (although weather forecasting services, with super-computers and data inputs from weather stations all around the world make attempts to answer these types of questions, and with varying and not always impressive results).  So, for this purpose, the weather becomes more or less random, within the constrains of certain probabilities.

Another way to think of this is like rolling a dice.  You are playing a game where the rules are that for the first 15 minutes of each hour, you’ll win if the dice shows a 1 or 2.  For the second 15 minutes, you’ll win if the dice shows a 1, 2 or 3.  For the next 15 minutes, you’ll only win if the dice shows a 6.  And for the last 15 minutes, you’ll win if the dice comes up 1,2,3,4 or 5.

So depending on the time of each hour, while you still have a totally random chance of winning, your overall chance of winning changes from very favorable to very unfavorable.  You can think of, eg, rainfall in a similar manner.  While there’s no guarantee about levels of rainfall on any day, the chance of rainfall goes more or less predictably up and down depending on the season.

This randomness applies in the ‘short-term’ which in this context we consider to span periods of five to ten years, more or less.

Longer Term Cyclical Variations in Weather

Now that you understand the random nature of weather on a short-term basis, we can now move on to considering other factors that also impact on weather, but in the long-term.  There are various cycles that see regions go through periods of predominantly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ weather, cycles that can last for ten, twenty and even more years.  Indeed the length of these cycles from the start of one complete cycle to the start of the next can extend out as long as 50 – 75 years or so.

Here’s an interesting web page with a fairly bewildering array of charts and graphs, but if you scroll much of the way down (and you don’t really need to read or understand everything that is being presented), you’ll see an interesting graph headed ‘The PDO + AMO cycles are not in phase:’ and immediately below that, four fascinating maps of the US showing drought conditions over the course of the cycles, and right at the very bottom, a 500 year time series based on tree growth and clearly showing cyclical variations.

These longer cycles are creating part of the uncertainty about alleged global warming.  Was the observed warming trend of a couple of decades ago the result of manmade activities, or was it a normal cyclical thing?  And is the lack of global warming for the last 15 years also cyclical, or is it significant?

These graphics give a very good indication of how weather is not only random in the short-term, but also follows longer term cycles.

These long cycles can create a major trap for people trying to understand what type of weather to expect in the future.  If people only sample years that are at one part of the overall cycle, they get an erroneous impression of the future.  What should be obvious and predictable based on a long enough historical time view so that you can clearly see the cyclical nature of the weather variations, instead is perceived to be unusual, unexpected, and exceptional, even though in truth it is none of those things.

Clearly, in understanding the weather, you need to understand not only the short-term semi-random variations but the overall longer term cyclical impacts on the range of short-term variations.

Working With Long Term Data to Set Acceptable Risks

We said above to steer well clear of even a conservative 100 year flood plain – the good news part of that is that someone else has already calculated what the 100 year flood plain area is likely to be.  But for some other measures of possible weather extremes, you’ll probably have to do your own figuring.

Clearly you need to be conservative in assessing the acceptable level of risk for weather extremes like droughts, because if you guess wrong, you could be endangering the livelihood and survival of you and your entire community.

There’s no sense to setting yourself a ‘less than once every hundred years’ target for flood avoidance, but accepting a ‘once every ten years or so’ level for drought avoidance.

Our point, however, in this context is that in order to make such decisions, you must have more than five or ten years of historical data.  There are statistical techniques that can analyze shorter periods of data to project the probability of what longer data series would reveal, and maybe you need to get an expert to do such things for you (we offer these types of services ourselves), but this analysis can not factor in the presence of cyclical impacts.

The best thing to do is not guess, but instead to use as many years of weather data as possible.

But be careful in doing so.  As the whole climate change controversy indicates, weather data is subject to interpretation.  Maybe, over an extended period of many decades, the weather station location was changed.  Or maybe other things changed around the weather station – maybe it went from being in the middle of nowhere to now being in the middle of a medium-sized city.  Maybe it changed its sampling methodology so that the same weather now results in different numbers being recorded, compared to some years previously.

And, whether due to man-made causes, the influence of the sun, regular cycling, or just random variations over time, most people will accept that climate conditions have changed over the last 50 years or more – there was a steady period of increase, and then – at least through 2011 – temperatures started trending down somewhat again.

So if you can’t get a full 100 years of weather data, that’s perhaps not a great loss; and indeed, if you did, you probably should attach less statistical weight to old data compared to new data.

See also our analysis in our water storage calculations article about combining the worst year’s results, month by month, compared to the worst year’s results for multiple months in a row, as a way of further stressing your projections.

So, while the historical numbers might seem very exact and certain, interpreting them for probable and worst case future outcomes becomes a very subjective undertaking.  However you do it, you’re sure to arrive at better final numbers if you have more raw data to start with.

To summarize all of the above, don’t, for example, base your rainfall expectation for a location on only the last two or five or ten years of data.  Maybe the region was going through a very rainy cycle, and maybe, as soon as you move there, it will flip over to a very dry decade, making the land you thought to be fertile and well watered suddenly become dry, arid, and expensive/impossible to work.

The more data you have, the more informed your decision will become, and the less risk you’ll be confronting in the future.

Jul 042012
 

Weather changes from an optional bonus part of our choice of location at present, to a mandatory component of choosing a suitable retreat location.

We all know about weather, right?  Warm and sunny with a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze is nice.  Cold, windy, rainy or snowy – all that is nasty.

Perhaps weather has even had a moderate impact on your choice of where you live at present.  And/or maybe it is something you like to complain about.

Well, whatever you formerly felt about weather, and however important weather was to you in your choice of current location, multiply that by, oh, let’s say one hundred times, to now appreciate how important weather will be to you in your retreat.

There are several reasons for this.

Weather Will Impact Us More Directly

First, currently we massively modify the weather as we experience it personally, without even really thinking about it.  We heat or cool our homes, our cars, our offices, our shopping malls.  If the weather is too hot, we can stay out of the sun, somewhere air-conditioned to be cool.  If it is too cold, we can get out of the cold, and turn the heating up a bit more.

In a Level 2/3 situation, we won’t be able to conveniently do any of those things.  We won’t work in a nice comfortable air-conditioned office – we’ll be working outdoors, in the fields, much of the time.  If it is hot out there, we just have to suck it in, and the same if it is cold.

Heating or cooling our houses will be problematic.  Energy will be in short supply, rather than essentially limitless as it is at present, and that which might be available will be massively more expensive.  We may be able to heat our homes by way of a wood burning stove or fireplace, although even a convenient ongoing supply of firewood is far from assured (imagine if you had to hand carry every log you burn, several miles from where you felled a tree to your dwelling).

Cooling our houses will be even more difficult – a/c units use a lot of energy and are moderately complex – if they fail, they’ll probably then be out of service for the duration of the Level 2/3 event.

Snow Will Be More Serious a Challenge

Another weather impact that will become more severe is snow.  Currently, and particularly if you live in an area with regular snow falls in the winter, snow removal is more or less something you almost take for granted.  The good news part of that is that, almost certainly, your local city roads department have teams of men and machinery that keep your roads passable.  They start off by laying chemicals down on the road surface to stop ice forming, then they go through with snow plows and grit/salt spreaders, and although there may be many feet of snow on the fields, the roads are, most of the time, passable.

Little or none of that will happen in a Level 2/3 situation.  There’ll be no working machinery, and even if there was, there’d be more essential uses for any remaining diesel fuel.

If you’re in an area that gets significant snow accumulation during the winter, you need to figure on being essentially cut off from other places, other than travel by snowmobile or horse – both of which are – albeit in their differing ways, complex and expensive solutions.

So, at our retreat, our personal life experience will be massively more impacted by weather than it is at present.

Weather Impacts On Our Water and Food Supply

One key element of weather is rainfall.

If an area doesn’t have an adequate supply of rainfall through most of the year – hopefully balancing carefully between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ than you’re either not going to be able to live there, or will need to have an absolutely certain alternate supply of water – either from a well (or wells) or spring(s) or from a river/stream (and you’ll have no end of hassle getting the rights to take water from ‘your’ river/stream if such rights don’t come already attached to the property title).

Of course you need water for yourself, and of course you will also need water for growing crops and for any animals you may be raising too.

Note also that the hotter the temperatures, the more water you’ll need (due to increasing amounts of water being baked out of the ground by the sun, and due to evaporative losses from any holding tanks you have.  Sure, you’ll drink more water too, but that is a totally trivial consideration compared to the extra hundreds/thousands of gallons of water you’ll need each day to care for your crops.

Another key element of weather is what is termed the ‘growing season’ – which in the US is a fairly arbitrary measure that simply tells you the number of days between the last frost in spring and the first frost in fall, or, even more simply, between the last day that night temperatures fall below 32° in spring and the first day in fall that they start to drop below 32° again.

As such it isn’t really telling you much about how fast your crops may grow or how bountiful they will be, but it is one of a number of quick easy measures that gives you some rules of thumb to apply to the weather and its impacts on your ability to grow crops.

Other factors that impact on crop growing range from things like soil type to average and peak temperatures to sunlight hours and intensity to elevation.  And, as already discussed, rainfall or compensatory irrigation.

A more meaningful measure to assess plant growth rates is Growing Degree Days (click the link for a definition).

In your present life, you probably don’t need to grow all the food you eat.  Indeed, more likely, you don’t grow any of it at all.  But when you’re at your retreat, you’ll either need to grow all the food you need, or alternatively have some other product or service you can trade with other local residents for their surplus food.

If you’re hoping to trade some other product or service for food, that requires two things – first, it requires you to have some other product or service you can create or provide on a renewable ongoing basis, and secondly, it requires people conveniently close to you who both have a need for your product/service and who are able to exchange surplus food of their own for your product service.  Unless all of these requirements are met, you’ll go hungry.  From this perspective, there are less variables outside your control if you make your first priority to be able to grow sufficient food, directly, yourself, on your own land.

Either which way, either you or your neighbors need to be able to grow food readily and in generous amounts – there’s no way you’ll be getting in regular twice weekly air freighted shipments of fresh food from South America!  If your retreat location is not in a fertile area that readily grows crops, both you and all your neighbors will suffer a depressed – or even an unsustainable – standard of living.

It is definitely a positive if the general area you choose is good for everyone in that area and their food production.  It is much better to be part of a moderately prosperous and sustaining region than it is to be surrounded by people even more desperate than you in their attempts to survive in a future adverse situation.

Choose a location with better weather.  You could potentially grow twice as much food there, and enjoy a substantially better lifestyle, than if you go somewhere with bad weather.

Weather and Energy

We mentioned before about how extreme weather can require us to consume more energy to compensate for the bad weather.  But weather can also help us with energy.  For example, if we’re somewhere with lots of clear skies and sunny days, then we can get more energy from solar cell arrays than we could from somewhere bedeviled by constant cloudy overcast days.

And if we’re somewhere that has wind that is neither too strong nor too weak, and reliably steady, day in and day out, maybe we could get some wind power too from a wind turbine.

If we had to choose between a place optimized for solar or a place optimized for wind power, we’d probably advocate choosing the better solar location.  Solar cells have no moving parts and are reasonably resilient and can be expected to last 20, 30, even 40 years and more with little or no maintenance required (other than keeping them clean).  Wind generators, on the other hand, are complex, unreliable, and maintenance intensive.

When Bad Weather Can be Good

There’s one situation when bad weather can be a good thing.  If a Level 2/3 event occurs in winter, it is reasonable to assume that most people, when evacuating the cities, will probably stream south or in whichever other direction most quickly gets them to warmer parts of the country.  They’ll hurry through the colder areas with no intention of attempting to settle there.

This would not so strongly apply if the Phase 3 and 4 stages of an event occurred during a balmy warm summer.  Some people, gifted with some foresight, would still head towards warmer climate areas, but others would live in the moment and go anywhere nearby where food and shelter were possibly present.

Weather – Very Important.  But Only One of Many Factors

Okay, so we’ve spent the last little while talking about how vitally important weather will be to you in your retreat.  All of that is true.

But it isn’t the only factor to keep in mind when determining where to locate your retreat.  Unfortunately, the parts of the US with the best overall weather are usually totally unsuited for retreating to, due to other factors that also have to be considered.

If one considered only weather, much of California would be great to retreat to, for example.  But the state laws make it close to impossible to realistically plan for a viable retreat in California (either before or after WTSHTF), and many of the other great locations are too close to major cities, too.

All the best weather locations have already been settled in – sad, but close to true.  That makes evaluating weather issues harder, not easier, because you’re going to have to decide which parts of the overall weather subject you can most and least compromise on, and to balance out the better or worse weather with other issues that relate to your retreat location as well.

But, having said that, and recognizing you will never get a ‘perfect’ location by any measure at all, while it is acceptable to allow some compromise in weather, you mustn’t go beyond the point that prevents you and your neighbors from being able to grow more than enough food to survive and have a bit left over besides.

How to Evaluate Weather Issues to Determine Suitable Retreat Locations

Please see related articles for more on this vital topic (weather) and a discussion on how to actually rate different locations on their weather suitability.  Here’s a category listing of weather related articles.

May 262012
 

Water is life, particularly after a Level 2/3 event.

Finding the ideal retreat location is a bit like finding the ideal spouse.  Almost impossible.

There are many different factors to consider in evaluating different retreat locations, including for most of us the key issue of affordability (although when it comes to Level 3 scenarios, it could be argued that a bad retreat location is only slightly better than no retreat location at all).

How to juggle the many different factors for a ‘perfect’ retreat (or, better to say, a ‘least imperfect’ one) involves trying to balance out the different issues, and accordingly different priorities to each issue.  For example, it may be helpful to be close to a railroad track (our guess is that in a Level 3 scenario, trains will start long distance freight and passenger service long before regular road vehicles).  But would you rather be close to a rail line or a river – both may offer transportation options, and a river has another possibly vital plus point too.

Which brings us to the content of this article.  The essential importance of a water supply at your retreat location.

Many Different Uses of Water

Now you probably already know that you need water, right?  You know, that thing about dehydration being fatal after three days with no water, and the rule of thumb about allowing a gallon of water a day for essential minimal uses.  But that’s not the end of the story.  It is barely the beginning of the story.

For a Level 3 scenario, you don’t just need a gallon of water a day – you might potentially need 1,000 gallons a day (to water crops and feed animals) or even more (to run a micro-hydro power station), as well as the modest quantity for yourself.

Let’s think about all the ways that water can help you :

Drinking water – Must be free of contamination, only needed in low quantities

Other Household water – For cooking/washing/flushing type purposes – of successively lower quality

Agricultural water – Some bio-contamination fine, but free of chemicals and poisons, needed in potentially large quantities

Power – Hydro-electric power requires freely flowing water running down a grade, watermills can work on lower flows and lesser drops; needs huge quantities of water

Food – Lakes, rivers and streams could be sources of fish, a more ambitious project is to consider aquaculture

Transportation – Some rivers and lakes are navigable, and water transport is energy-efficient (particularly sail powered)

Security – A water obstacle won’t necessarily make it impossible for attackers to reach you, but it will slow them down and make them more vulnerable while crossing it

Fire-fighting – If you should have a fire, you’ll need a plentiful supply of water to fight it

Money – Maybe you can sell water to others

Community – See our last point, below.  Becoming the community water source helps the community coalesce.

So water is a vital resource, and easy access to large amounts of it – large amounts that don’t require major energy costs to retrieve – is a very important part of choosing your retreat location.

You need to think beyond the simple ‘can I get my gallon of water a day’ concept and consider issues that might require tens of thousands of gallons of water a day, such as the ‘bonus’ of being able to use a water source for hydro-electric power generation.

A further bonus is the potential for catching fish and providing food.  With so many people talking about ‘I’ll go out and hunt deer’, we wonder just how scarce wild game may become; but if you have access to a reasonably private lake or river, maybe your fish supply will not be so threatened.  Maybe.

Many Different Sources of Water

So where can you get water from?  Many different places is the happy answer.

Rainwater – an unreliable seasonal source, better in some areas than others, possibly sufficient for basic household needs.  Almost always of very high quality.  Requires potentially extensive (and therefore expensive) storage capacity so as to keep it available for use in dry months.

Free-flowing springs – These are wonderful but rare.  If you can come up with a spring/well where the water comes out of the ground ‘all by itself’ you are extremely blessed.  Need to check the water quality, and confirm the reliability of the spring flow year-round, and from one year to the next to the next.  Assuming reliable and adequate flow rates, no need for storage.

Wells – These can be prodigious sources of water, but require energy to lift the water up from the level it is found in the well.  We discuss this in our article The Energy Cost of Pumping Water from a Well.  More likely to be reasonably pure, but need occasional testing.  Assuming reliable and adequate flow rates, no need for storage.

Rivers and streams – Possibly of varying reliability.  May freeze over in the winter and dry up in the summer.  Will probably require energy expenditure to transfer water from river/stream to retreat.  Of uncertain purity, and need ongoing testing to keep on top of changes in the water quality.  Assuming the water is available year round, no need for storage.

Restrictions on Water Use

The more arid the state, the greater the legislative focus on the ‘ownership’ of water.  And also the ‘greener’ the state (ie the more eco-focused) again the greater the focus on leaving water flows undisturbed.  The welfare of fish is considered more important than the welfare of the state’s citizens.

Restrictions may exist at a state-wide level or at a county level – possibly even at a city level.  Bearing in mind our strong suggestion that everything you do be fully compliant with all current laws, you need to be aware of possible restrictions on your use of water that flows through or near to your property.

City Water Supply

We hopefully don’t need to tell you this, but if you are at a location which provides city water, you should not base your retreat planning on the assumption that the city water supply will continue uninterrupted WTSHTF.

While there is a temptation to using the very inexpensive city water prior to a Level 2/3 event, we recommend you use your own water supply right from when you set up your retreat.  This will give you a chance to identify any problems and issues, and will give you the opportunity to resolve them while you still have all the wonderful resources of modern civilization at hand.

If you just sink a well then leave it, untouched, for years, while happily using the city water instead, you have no way of knowing if something has happened to the pump or maybe the water table has lowered and the well is no longer able to supply you with water.  It is probably better to use your well and pump on a regular basis than to leave it unused and have parts dry out or rust up or whatever else.

Selling Water – Building a Community

You should get a feeling for how other people in your general area get their water.  And think it through to ‘could they continue to get water from this source WTSHTF’.  If everyone has wells, the question becomes ‘Do they have storage tanks, and do they have some way of powering their pump’.

If you live a long way from your nearest neighbor, and if there are some hundred feet of altitude separating you from your neighbors too (especially if you are lower) then maybe you would not be a convenient source of water, especially if there was a good river running by closer to them.  But if water is in short supply, and if you have an abundant source of it, then maybe you can make money by selling water to your neighbors.

We’d suggest you not be greedy in such a case.  You obviously need to cover your energy costs, and the time/hassle factor.  Beyond that, though, being able to help your local community provides a common tie to unite you all – the need to protect your water source from outsiders.  That’s an obvious benefit to you, as is anything that helps a community work together and to establish their self-sufficiency.

How should you be paid for the water you sell?  That’s an entirely different topic, and it depends on the likelihood of the dollar staying as the currency of the country when life returns back to something close to normal.  It also depends on what you most need and what the people buying the water from you have the most of.

If you are using diesel to drive a generator to power the water pump, maybe you say ‘500 gallons of water for one gallon of diesel’.  That sounds very fair, but with your underlying ‘cost’ of diesel to pump the water being more like one gallon of diesel for 7,000 gallons of water, you’ve not only covered the cost of the water, but more than 7 of the 8 pints of diesel you received in exchange can be used for powering other things for other purposes, too.

If you become the community water supply, you could also become the community trading post for other things too – you could even allow (encourage) your neighbors to set up stalls selling and trading the foodstuffs and other items they have for sale in exchange for things they need.  It makes you a community leader, and helps encourage the community to in turn protect and assist you.

May 172012
 

When all else fails, a hand operated pump may yet become necessary!

If you have a well, you need a pump to do two things for you – one obvious, the other perhaps not quite so obvious.

First, you need to pump the water from whatever level the water table is underground up to the surface.  Second, you need to then pressurize the water for ongoing distribution from the well-head.

Considering the second point first, home water pressures are typically in the range of 30 – 80 psi, with 45 – 60 being considered optimum.  Each pound per square inch (psi) of water pressure is equivalent to raising the water 2.31 ft, so a 20 psi pressure can be thought of as the same as adding another 46.2 ft, 40 psi is more like another 92.4 ft, and 60 psi is 138.6 ft.

So simply add however many feet of desired ‘pressure equivalent’ to the depth the water is at to find a total water lifting height.  We recommend you consider a lower pressure rather than a higher pressure – sure, your showers won’t be quite so wonderful, but your plumbing system will be less stressed and less likely to leak – probably a more than satisfactory trade-off for most of us.

In a perfectly efficient pumping situation, you would be able to lift 319.5 gallons one foot by using one Watt hour of power.

But pumps are rarely perfectly efficient.  Typical efficiencies range from around 40% up to about 70% in the best case scenario.  Smaller pumps are typically less efficient than larger pumps.  If we aim for 55% as a mid point, this suggests 175 gallons can be lifted one foot with one Watt hour of power.

Note – usually efficiency trade-offs are balanced in part by cost considerations (the other part being unavoidable design issues), and these considerations are based on an assumption that energy is freely available and affordable.  Neither is a valid assumption in a Level 2 or 3 scenario, so we urge you to pay extra up front for the best efficiency possible.  A more efficient system in any scenario might have an impractically long apparent pay-back period in today’s situation, but when your energy becomes in short supply and massively more precious than it is today, the pay-back periods will become very short indeed.

If you have a 100 ft deep well, and if you want to pressurize your water to a bare minimum of 30 psi (ie another 69 ft of lifting), each gallon of water you pump will require almost exactly 1 Watt hour of power (assuming the 55% efficiency).  You could pump 1000 gallons for a kWh of power.

Here’s an excellent explanation of how these figures were derived.

So that is the energy cost of pumping water – about one kWh for 1000 gallons lifted 169 ft (a combination of well depth and pressure height) in a realistic type of scenario.  More lift means more energy, of course.

In an off-grid situation, where are you going to get that 1 kWh of energy from?  Let’s see what it might require in meaningful terms.

Solar Power

A 10 sq ft solar cell array would generate about 100 – 125 Watt hours in an hour of bright sun; allow for inefficiencies in converting to battery power or whatever else, and say best case scenario is 100 Watt hours per hour of direct sun.  So this one solar cell array would provide sufficient power to pump 100 gallons/hour of water in bright sun.  In not quite so bright sun, of course, you’ll get less energy and it will take more hours of ordinary obscured sun and cloudy days to generate the same amount of accumulated Watt hours of power.

You’d need to work out how many gallons a day of water you need to be able to pump, and match that to a suitably sized solar cell array; and probably you’d add some storage – either battery or water to balance out between bright sunny days and dark cloudy days.  On bright sunny days you’d either divert the extra energy into a bank of batteries or simply pump more water than you consume, storing the surplus in tanks, and on dark cloudy days you’ll either run the pump from batteries or take your water from the tank storage.

Our personal preference is to store the surplus energy in the form of water in tanks.  It is the simplest and lowest-tech solution, and there is much less to go wrong and fewer inefficiencies in having water sitting in a tank than in having electricity being converted into and out of a bank of storage batteries.

Generator Power

If you were running a diesel generator, a rule of thumb is that a gallon of diesel will convert to about 10 kWh of energy.

Allow for inefficiencies in storing the electricity from the generator into and out of a battery bank, and say perhaps 7 kWh net of energy from a gallon of diesel, which means a gallon of diesel will be good for about 7,000 gallons of water pumped.

A gasoline powered generator would deliver appreciably fewer kWh of energy per gallon of gas, and is also less reliable, so we generally don’t recommend gasoline generators.

Alternatively a diesel powered water pump could be used at the well.  You’d have fewer energy conversion losses and might get better efficiency, closer to the 10 kWh of energy per gallon theoretical maximum, but this gives you another diesel motor to maintain and care for, adding to the complexity of the equipment you have at your retreat.

The other consideration of course is that sooner or later, you will run out of stored diesel and may not be able to replace it, while the sun will continue shining hopefully for as long as we need it to.

Summary

Well water is not ‘free’.  It has a clear energy cost associated with it, depending on the depth of your well – the deeper the well, the greater the energy needed to lift the water up to the surface and to pressurize it for distribution.

Fortunately, the energy required to bring water to the surface is not excessive.  Depending on the amount of sun where you live, a solar cell array that probably costs $1000 or so would be enough to power a pump capable of giving you several hundred gallons of water on most average not-too-cloudy days, and some storage tanks for the pumped water would give you a store of water for cloudy days when insufficient water could be pumped by the solar powered pump.

May 162012
 

Rainwater tanks come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and materials.

Storing rainwater of course has cost associated with it.

You’ll want to store enough to make sense, but not too much.  There’s another issue too – in some drier areas, the amount of water you need for the dry months exceeds the amount of water you can collect and store in the wet months, so you need to calculate both the amount of water to store and then to confirm you’ll actually be able to collect that much during the wetter months.

Sadly, the final calculation is not as exact as it might seem.  Sure, you’ll have surrounded yourself with vast masses of rainfall data as part of your calculating, but as you’ll see from the worked example below, at the end of the process, you end up making some subjective guesses.  Feel free to ask us if you have questions or need help.

Getting the Raw Data You Need to Do Your Calculation

The key issue now is understanding the rainfall pattern you’ll experience at your location.  This involves both some science and some art.

The science is simply retrieving historical rainfall data.  The art lies in translating historic rainfall data, which varies from year to year, into the acceptably likely/moderately worst case scenarios that you want to build into your planning, and in taking rainfall data from weather stations that might not be close to your location and equating their rainfall data to what will actually happen at your location.

It is an easy thing to go to various different websites and get average monthly rainfall data for a range of different locations around the country.  We have some links in this article, just a bit further down.

Equating Rainfall at Weather Stations to Rainfall at Your Location

So how to equate this rainfall data with what happens where you are.  Maybe you are 50 miles away from where the nearest data is collected.  That could be okay, but maybe you’re in the rain shadow on the other side of a mountain range from where the data is obtained.  Ooops.  That’s not going to work, is it!

So find the best data you can, and if you can’t find any good data, maybe consider averaging the data from several reasonably close locations.  It is better than nothing.  In particular, use the National Weather Service rainfall maps (link below) to get a sense of the rainfall patterns and distributions for where you live compared to where the sampling stations are.

You can also ask local residents for reality checks about what they might remember or have recorded for past years.  Perhaps they can at least answer some simple questions like ‘how often is there no rain at all in July’ and ‘what is the longest gap between decent rains’ and ‘which month do you need to water the crops the most’.

If you want to get really obsessive, you can even go to the archives of the local newspaper and track daily weather from back issues of the paper.

How Much Information is Enough/Too Much

This last suggestion (going through back issues of the local paper) points out a happy fact.  Much of this information is ‘scientific guesswork’ – sure, the historical rain data is a matter of fact, but applying what happened last year, last decade, last century, to predict what will happen next week or month or year – there comes the guesswork.

So there’s only so much data you need.  There’s little point in spending lots of time and money to go from a 75% understanding of past rainfall to a 90% understanding, if you then go and make a guess with a huge +/- 100% factor in it anyway.

Averages, Maximums, Minimums

Now for the second part of the puzzle.  You’ve probably managed to find a chart of average monthly rainfall measurements, and you might have adjusted this a bit for any variations between the data you’ve found and the reality of your exact location.

But – here’s the problem.  To start off with an example, the average US family formerly used to consist of two adults and 2.5 children.  But have you ever seen a half child?  You can visit as many houses as you like, and while you’ll find many with two and many with three children, you’ll never find a house with half a child.

Another way of looking at an average is to say that an average is the number whereby half the time the reality is higher than this number, and the other half the time, the number is lower than this number.

What that means with rainfall numbers is that the monthly average rainfall will be, for half the time, higher than the actual rainfall.  Sometimes the actual rainfall might be a little less than the monthly average, and sometimes it might be a lot less.  This doesn’t matter to the statistician who has neatly calculated his 100 yr average number, but for you, it could mean the difference between having water and not having water – yes, the difference between life and death.

What you need to do is to establish a number a bit like flood plain numbers (you know, the 50 year and 100 year flood plain zones).  Do you want to base your needs on an average monthly rainfall figure that is half the time more positive than the actual rainfall will be in reality?  We suggest not.

But now comes the guesswork.  Do you want to use a monthly rainfall figure in your planning that is too high one year in three?  Or one year in five?  One year in ten?  How about one year in 50 or 100?

There is a cost associated with this, of course.  The more you want to plan for drier than normal years, the larger you’ll need to make your water storage capacity to carry you over from the good/wet months to the bad/dry months, and so the greater your cost will be.  Plus, sooner or later, you’ll end up with a number so huge that you’ll never be able to fill it based on the rainfall from the preceding wetter months (which circles us back, in such cases, to the need for a second water source).

You must look at a minimum of 10 years of data for each month you are studying.  If there is little variation from one year to the next, then you don’t have to build as big a safety margin into your figuring.  But if the numbers are all over the place, clearly you’re going to have to assume something close to the worst for planning your water needs.

But within what looks like a consistent set of data for perhaps 10 years can be other hidden longer term cycles – some weather cycles have a 60 or longer year period to go from minimum to maximum and back to minimum again.  Maybe the ten years you are looking at are the ten years at the best part of the cycle, which is now trending towards the worst part, which could show extremely different numbers.

At the very least, get an extended data series on an annual basis so you can see what overall variation there is, and if you’re looking at marginal weather and rainfall, you will need to be more careful about the data you are using.

Daily or Monthly or What Data

The longer the time period, the less variation in the numbers you’ll get.  If you look at annual rainfall totals, these will vary much less from year to year than if you look at each month’s data.  Whereas the chances are that your region’s annual rainfall is never zero, the chances may be that some months in some years, there’ll be an inch or more of rain, but in some months of other years, there might be not the slightest sprinkle for the entire 30 days.

The time period you need to drill down to depends to an extent on the size of the storage capacity you’ll be building.  The smaller the capacity, the more accurately you need to know when water will come in to replace the water going out.

Generally the monthly data is sufficient for most purposes.

However, daily data is useful for understanding how the rain falls during a month, so as to know whether to adjust the total rainfall to reflect light sprinkles that have little collectable net rain or not (see our section on Real World Imperfections in our earlier article on rainwater collection).

A Worked Example

Let’s have a look at some real world data for Seattle – not because we recommend that as a bug out location, of course, but just because there is readily obtainable information for the area.

First, let’s state our assumptions that we are using, above.  To be consistent with our earlier article on How Much Rainwater Can You Collect From Your Roof, let’s keep the same figure – 50 gallons of water a day or 1500 gallons a month for our basic household needs.  We also said that each inch of rain on our hypothetical roof will give us up to 763 gallons of collectible water.  So, by happy coincidence, it seems that as long as we are getting 2″ of water a month, we’re in good shape.

Can we be sure of getting at least 2″ of rain every month?  The first thing we do is look at the monthly average rainfall figures.  Let’s have a look at them on this page (other pages will have slightly different figures) :

 

Month Rainfall
January 5.5
February 4.2
March 3.7
April 2.5
May 1.7
June 1.5
July 0.8
August 1.1
September 1.9
October 3.5
November 5.9
December 5.9
Annual Total  38.1

 

Which brings us to the first important point.  If we looked just at the total rainfall for the year, we’d see 38.1″.  We need 24″, so upon seeing 38.1″, we might mistakenly think ‘Great, we have no problem’ and not look any further.

But look at the individual months.  You’ll see that the five month block from May through September all show less than 2″ of rain per month.  And if we look back at April, its 2.5″ figure looks a bit anxiety-causing too – remember this average is the number which will be too high half the time.  So with a need to have 2″ of rain in April, and no opportunity to top up with extra rain in May, we need to get an understanding for the possible variation of rain in April too.

Let’s now look carefully at the six months we’re worried about (April through September) and not only look at their monthly averages, but at the actual real rainfall that was measured in recent years.

We’ll take the information from this site.  The next table took a lot of time to type in, so please be appropriately respectful of the information presented to you!  And, just to show another thing, we are using their averages rather than those in the preceding table – quite a big difference in some cases, too.  (It seems this service changes their averages on a shorter sample of years than some of the other time bases).

We immediately noticed that regularly, the September rainfall was less than the 2″ we needed, so for those years, we looked at the October rainfall too, and with a shaky 2.17″ in 2008 for October, we looked at that year’s November.  The same thing happened in 2006, although massive rains in November helped the region catch up on its very dry summer.  Although the averages above suggested there’d be no problem in October, for one of the ten years in this sample there was.  If we don’t want to risk running out of water in October one year in ten, we need to look at that month too.

There’s more, with another deceptive average.  We also noticed that April couldn’t guarantee us 2″ of rain in three of the ten years either, so we added March data for years where that was necessary.  Fortunately, March rain was always above the 2″ we needed, so there was no need to look further back.

Month Avg  2011  2010  2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002 
March 3.75 3.65 4.42 2.18 2.13 6.49
April 2.59 4.47 3.49 3.36 1.90 0.69 2.73 3.68 0.65 2.74 4.29
May 1.78 3.20 2.83 3.61 0.89 1.46 1.65 3.32 2.53 1.16 1.11
June 1.49 1.42 2.49 0.18 1.64 1.34 1.67 1.63 0.81 0.51 1.73
July 0.79 0.71 0.31 0.06 0.48 1.44 0.06 1.03 0.16 0.06 0.64
August 0.88 0.13 0.64 1.16 2.87 0.73 0.02 0.29 3.00 0.32 0.04
September 1.50 1.29 4.80 1.75 0.78 3.16 1.43 0.95 2.80 0.89 0.42
October 3.48 3.45 5.54 2.17 1.55 3.01 8.95 0.66
November 6.57 6.52 15.63 3.71

 

Okay, hopefully your eyes aren’t glazing over from the over 80 data points in the above table.  Let’s first quickly skim through the data, month by month, and note the huge difference between wet years and dry years.  August went from 0.02″ all the way up to 3.00″.  October in 2002 had a mere 0.66″ of rain, but the next year, it had 8.95″.

Clearly the average monthly figures obscure massive swings from one year to the next.

Let’s now look at both the worst and the second worst rainfall figures for each month.  If we want to allow for a ‘one time in ten’ being wrong, we’d take the worst figure.  If we were prepared to consider a ‘one time in five years’ then we’d take the second worst figure.

Month Worst  Second
March 2.13 n/a
April 0.65 0.69
May 0.89 1.11
June 0.18 0.51
July 0.06 0.06
August 0.02 0.04
September 0.42 0.78
October 0.66 1.55
November 3.71 n/a

 

So we are now starting to make sort of progress, with an easy conclusion to draw and a difficult piece of further analysis.

The easy conclusion is that we can say we can reliably expect, on 1 April each year, to have full tanks due to having had more rain than we needed in March (and February and before).

We can also say that we can reliably expect, more or less on 1 November, that the rate of rainfall will start to increase above our offtake level.  We’d probably want to have a week or so remaining supply in case the November rains came late, but we know, for sure, that by the end of November, we’ll have received more rain than we consumed, and will end up the month with more water in our tanks than we started with.

Now for the really important part – the seven months of April through October.

If we wanted to be super conservative, we could simply take the lowest reading for each of these seven months and use that as the figure to work from.

But here’s an interesting thought.  Look at any of these months – let’s say August, for example.  In our table of lowest values, the lowest rainfall for August is 0.02″ (in 2006).  Now look at September.  Our lowest rainfall for September is 0.42″, in 2002.  Add these together, and you get 0.44″ for the two months.

But – and here’s the complicating factor.  In August 2006, we had the 0.02″, but in September 2006, we then had 1.43″ of rain – add these together and you get 1.45″ over two months.

If we look at the lowest September figure of 0.42″ in 2002, if we add the 2002 August figure of 0.04″ to that, we end up with 0.46″ – not very much more than the two lows, but still more.

So here’s the question.  We have one chance in ten that any given month’s figure is the lowest.  But what is the chance of the next month after that also being the lowest?  Does the weather in one month influence the weather the next month?  Sure, people talk about ‘dry summers’ or whatever, but is that a perception or a reality?

Let’s create another table, for the three most critical months (June, July, August).  We’ll compare the total of the lowest numbers from any year with the totals for each year.

Lowest  Second  2011  2010  2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002
0.26 0.61 2.26 3.44 1.40 4.99 3.51 1.75 2.95 3.97 0.89 2.41

 

So now we know that if we cherry pick the lowest months from each year, we can end up with the lowest total of 0.26″, and if we go to the second lowest, we are at 0.61″.  But if we insist that each month be linked to the month before and after, the lowest number now is 0.89″ and the next lowest number is 1.49″.

Confused yet?  So, what is your feeling – how much rain should we project to be sure of receiving in the three months of June, July and August?  We’re not going to answer that ourselves, because clearly there is no single right answer.

When you’ve answered that question to your own satisfaction, it is time for the key question :  How much rain do you think we’ll get for the entire period from 1 April through to sometime in early/mid November?

Clearly, there’s no exact or correct answer.  Depending on the level of risk you are prepared to accept for being wrong depends on the number you’ll choose.  If you guess wrong, then during the course of the dry months, you’ll realize the rain isn’t coming as it should, and you’ll see your water levels dropping below the levels you projected them to be, so you can start to adjust your water usage habits some.

That is relatively practical when you started off with a fair/generous projection of water usage to start with, and of course much harder if you were rather optimistic/aggressive about your water savings, giving you little room to cut back.

Further Interpretation of the Data

We’re going to look across the entire dry spell, from 1 April through to some time in November (let’s allow 500 gallons for November), and use our second worst numbers for each month.

But then we’re going to look at the individual months and see how the rain fell in those months and start adjusting for the less efficient collection of light sprinkles compared to the more efficient collection of downpours.

For example, in September’s 0.78″ result for 2008, we look at the relevant data and analyze the rainfall, day by day.

The first day with rain was the 20th, when temperatures ranged from 54 – 58, and the wind was 3.7 mph, and 0.54″ of rain fell.  We’ll say that 0.51″ of that was collected – after a long dry spell, albeit a damp day or two prior, there was probably a lot of moisture absorption and some evaporation off the roof going on.

On the next day another 0.02″ of rain fell, but the temperatures were warmer and the winds stronger, so we’re going to say none of that was collected.

On the 22nd, 0.01″ of rain fell, and that’s the minimum needed just to wet the roof, so we’ll ignore that.

On the 24th, we had 0.12″ of rain, and we’ll count 0.10″ as collectible.

On the 25th, temperatures were warm, the wind was strong, and 0.09″ of rain fell.  We’re going to say that only 0.045″ of that was collectible.

So add these adjusted figures together and round down, and instead of 0.78″, we have a net collection of 0.65″ of usable rain.

Let’s say after doing similar calculations for the other months, we end up with 3.8″ of rain in total that we can be sure will actually make it into our tanks.  This provides us with 2900 gallons of water.  But we are going to use 7 months of consumption at 1500 gallons a month, and we want 500 gallons left over on 1 November – a total requirement of 11,000 gallons.

So after adjusting for the rain that will come in , we need to start on 1 April with 8,100 gallons of water stored.  Now let’s adjust for evaporation – 0.25% a day, perhaps.  This means, for the seven month, 210 day period, we’ll lose 52.5% of our water.  We need to increase our storage from 8100 gallons up to say 12,500 gallons.

Can We Get the Rain We Need in the Wet Months to Fill Our Tanks

12,500 gallons is a lot of water.  It represents 16.4″ of rainfall.  Can we be sure of getting 16.4″ of rain during the wet months of November through March?

Yes, we probably can, even in a worst case scenario, but only just.  We’d simply repeat the analysis that we’ve already done for the dry season, and this time do it for the wet season to get a feeling for likely worst case scenarios.

In this case, our tanks will take the rest of the year to fill, and sometimes might not fill until early in the new year, giving only a few months of happily overflowing tanks and water-richness, before entering into another extended period of anxiously looking up at the sky each day.

The point to be aware of here, slightly obscured from using rainy Seattle’s data, is that the amount of rain we can collect in rainy months is sometimes insufficient for the drier months.  There’s no point in making the storage capacity any larger than the total amount of water likely to be collected off the roof.

Summary

So, we have learned both a general and a specific lesson from this example.  The specific lesson is how to work through a calculation for the water you’ll need based on your area’s rainfall patterns and your family’s water consumption.

The general lesson hasn’t yet been stated until now, but it needs to be considered.  Creating a water storage system capable of storing 12,500 gallons of water requires a sizeable amount of tankerage, and probably they will be at ground level so you’ll then need a water pump to transfer the water up to a holding tank in the ceiling for regular usage, so the water isn’t energy free.

Even a teensy-tiny well (2 gallons/hour capacity – barely a trickle) and perhaps a single 1500 gallon buffer/holding tank would give you the same results as your enormous 12,500 gallon rainwater collection system, and at massively lower cost.

These numbers were based on the climate in Seattle, an area renowned for its rain (albeit, as we’ve now seen in detail, somewhat unfairly).  Imagine how much worse it would be in a drier climate.  If we say 8 months with no water, that would call for 12,000 gallons, plus 500 for early November, and then if we say a higher 0.3% evaporation rate over 240 days, and you’d need to start off the dry season with 21,500 gallons of water stored.

There’s probably no way you could collect that much water during the shorter rainy season in this hypothetical alternate location, so like it or not, you’ll need a secondary water source right from the get-go in such cases.

One last point, if we may.  If you’re in a water scarce scenario, all other buildings on your property should also collect the water off their roofs too.  If you have a tool shed/workshop, an animal shed/barn, or whatever else, these could potentially double or more the rain you can collect.  And here’s the strange outcome of that.  If you are collecting twice as much rain, you don’t need as much storage.