Mar 182018
 

Original containers are sometimes a good choice for food storage. But for longest life, often there are better choices.

A large part of prepping is the art of storing provisions and other necessary items in anticipation of a time when they will not be readily available, due to a breakdown in society and its usual services.

Many articles are written about what to store, but very little is written about how to store the things you are collecting.  We suggest, and this article explains, that your choice of storage materials is very important.

The best storage container depends on what it is you’re trying to store, and the environment in which you’ll be storing it.  For example, you might be okay storing some items in cardboard boxes indoors, but clearly you’d probably never use cardboard boxes for outdoor storage.  Or, while you might be okay with storing clothing in plastic containers, you might not want to store food items in the same containers.

Here are some issues to consider when choosing storage containers.

What Are You Protecting For/Against

Some of the biggest reasons for using containers, other than the simple convenience of having everything together, is to protect against one or more external factors.

The most common considerations are

  • Heat or Cold
  • Humidity or Water
  • Oxygen
  • Light (particularly UV light)
  • Insects, Pests, Rodents, etc
  • Grouping items together into convenient and compact collections
  • Miscellaneous External Factors

Understanding the factors you are protecting against will help guide you towards the appropriate container choices.

Container Life

Do you want a container that will last six months, six years, or six decades?  Probably no-one reading this would settle for a six month life, and indeed, most of us would consider six years too short too, but somewhere in the ‘more than six and less than sixty year’ range we’ll likely find a sweet spot.

How do containers age and wear out?  Anything that sees the sun will be impacted by the UV rays from the sun.  Many natural products will dry out or go brittle or in some other way lose their desirable properties.  Plastics will lose their plasticizers and start to crack and break.  Metal might rust.  Rubber will perish.  Wood might rot (or be eaten by termites or chewed through by rodents).

In addition to unavoidable age-related wear and tear, containers might also fail due to things like accidental mishandling and breakage.  Drop a glass jar onto a concrete floor and it will probably smash, and you just know that sooner or later, everything made of glass will be dropped – and even if the glass object is already on the floor and therefore unable to be dropped, something will instead drop on it.

Depending on the product you are storing, and where you are storing it, these life related issues will impact to varying degrees.

Container Reusability

Do you want a container than can be reused countless times, or are you happy with a single use container?  A tin of food is an example of a container that is single use, a Mason jar is an example of a container that can be reused very many times indeed (albeit with new lids each time if you’re using them as a long life canning alternative.

In the middle between the single use and the virtually unlimited use are containers with a varying number of potential reuses – items with plastic hinges, cardboard flaps, flexible metal detents, plastic bags that will eventually get holes in them, or whatever.

One other aspect of container reusability would be what ongoing use you can get from the material the container is made from.  There’s not much you can do with a cardboard container, but with many other materials, you can use them for other purposes.  Metal may be able to be worked into other shapes for other purposes.  Glass could be melted down and then blown or molded into other shapes, and the same possibly for plastic too.

Container Repairability

Maybe you’ve a container with a limited life, but which can be either readily repaired or have key wear items easily replaced, and so given repeated life extensions.  The lids in a Mason jar are an example, gaskets in other lids is another example.

A wooden box can probably be repaired with extra pieces of wood, a hammer and some nails. Maybe super glue can be used to repair other items.  Glue – super or ‘regular’ – can also fix some types of breakages in glassware and ceramic items.

And in other cases, cracks don’t even matter too much.  A crack in a water container would be a problem, but in a container that is simply storing clothing, not so much.

But in choosing your containers, consider not only their susceptibility to wear and damage, and but also their ability to be repaired, and make sure you have the tools and materials to carry out such repairs.

Permeability

Are you storing something that needs to be fully sealed in (or, a similar concept, have external things fully sealed out)?

Water, for example, ideally should be fully sealed into a container to avoid evaporative loss and environmental contamination.  Many food items need to have external things (usually but not exclusively oxygen) fully sealed out.

If so, the permeability of the container becomes an important issue.  Many plastics, and obviously most natural products (wood, fabric) are somewhere between moderately and very porous.

If you want impermeability to gases, then you either should look for mylar or nylon type plastics, or glass, or metal.

Interaction with Contents

If you are storing an acidic food, you don’t want it in an aluminum container.  If you are storing a liquid, you don’t want it in cardboard (obviously enough).  If you are storing water, you don’t want it in a wooden cask or barrel because it will absorb poisonous chemicals and flavors from the wood.  You might also not want water in many plastic containers due to the danger of the plasticizers and release agents leaching out of the plastic and into the water.

Environmental Issues

Will the container be inside or outside?  Does it need to be non-reactive to water?  Does it need to insulate its contents from temperature extremes?  Does it need to be impervious to rodents and other creatures?  Will it need to be strong to resist wind and other external factors?  How about UV issues?  Rust?  Rot?

Clear or Opaque

Do you need (or would you like) to be able to see the contents inside the container?  On the other hand, will light harm the contents of the container?

Container Sizes, Shapes and Weights

Sometimes the size, shape and weight of the container is a relevant issue, other times not so much.  A portable product should of course be in containers that aren’t too bulky or heavy to be moved.

If you are space-constrained for storing certain items, you want containers that are efficiently sized (ie usually with square rather than rounded corners and sides) and with little unused storage space inside them.

Multi-Purpose Use

Ideally, you want containers that can be used to hold different things at different times, rather than containers that only work for one thing.

Sometimes it is unavoidable to have containers that can only be used for one thing, because of the nature of the product you store in it.  It is hard to re-use a gas container (particularly a plastic one) for drinking water, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be reused for transporting waste water.

Container Materials

Containers can obviously be made from many different materials.  Some of the most common are plastic, glass, metal, and wood or cardboard.

But this list should be further subdivided.   Plastics should be divided into permeable or barrier, foodsafe or not, and their ability to resist high/low temperatures and UV.  Metal varies from iron to steel to stainless steel, as well as aluminum and more exotic materials.  Even wood or cardboard comes in many different grades (food quality or not, painted or not) suitable for different types of applications.

Other materials include fabrics and other natural materials, stone, earth, pottery/ceramic/porcelain, and even concrete.

In addition, containers commonly have a different material for their opening section and/or hinge and/or the seal between their top and bottom.

Two Are Twice as Good as One

Sometimes the ideal approach to storage involves using two containers.  For example, putting items first into plastic bags (nylon or mylar) and then putting many of the filled and sealed bags into large multi-gallon plastic pails and sealing the pails.

Even though the pails may not be food-safe, that doesn’t matter.  The plastic bag protects the food inside from the pail, while the pail in turn protects the relatively fragile plastic bags from other external environmental factors.

Smaller is Better than Bigger

Which do you think is better – one huge container that is sufficient to hold all of whatever it is you are storing, or multiple smaller containers?

We suggest that having multiple smaller containers is the better choice for several reasons.

First, when you open a container, the life of the item in the opened container may start expiring much more quickly.  So if you have a multi-year supply of whatever, but the item will only last three months once the container has opened, you’ll want each container to hold no more than three months of product.

Second, smaller items are more conveniently moved and shifted and managed.  You don’t want awkwardly bulky and heavy items that only a strong adult can manhandle – what happens if the strong adult is absent or unwell or indisposed?

A related third factor is one of risk of injury.  No-one is likely to risk serious injury if they drop a ten ounce container on their foot, but if they drop a ten pound (or a 100 lb) container on their foot, that might become a life threatening injury (particularly if healthcare is not conveniently at hand).

A fourth factor is to protect against random unexpected container failure causing the loss of your total supply of something.  As you of course know and are planning/preparing for, ‘shit happens’ in many different forms.  Perhaps one of your containers might have a bad seal or a hairline crack or something in it.  If the container has 10% of your supply of whatever inside it, then that’s a disappointing loss; but if it has your entire supply of the item inside, and the failed container has caused the contents to spoil, then that’s a very serious loss.

In this case, the adage to not put all your eggs in one basket is quite literally true!

This also leads to our next point.

Multiple Storage Locations

We suggest not only storing your provisions in multiple containers, but also to store them in multiple locations.  If you do this, then events that might cause physical harm to the storage location no longer endanger your entire inventory of stored provisions.  Maybe there’s a fire, maybe a flood or even a tornado.  Perhaps a tree falls onto the building, or a car crashes into it, maybe there’s a landslide, maybe a satellite falls out of the sky and lands on the storage area!  Maybe the zombie horde manage to wrest control of one of your supply dumps from you, maybe anything at all.

No matter what might happen, if you have your stores split over two locations rather than one, your risk is reduced so that, hopefully, a worst case scenario sees you losing only half rather than all your provisions.

Needless to say, be sure that your multiple storage locations are safe and appropriate.  You’re just substituting one risk for another if you take some of your provisions and remove them from your protected retreat and instead place them in a shed on the far side of your property, making them vulnerable to anyone passing by.

Containers We Like

We really like glass.  It is one of the most unreactive materials, and has an extremely long life assuming it isn’t broken (its biggest weakness).  Glass containers with glass stoppers are the best of the best, but you might find yourself needing to accept some other type of seal such as metal or plastic, possibly with or without a rubber or plastic or natural material seal.

You really need to think through the potential challenges of glass breaking.  For example, if there’s any chance of earthquakes or other events causing containers to fall off shelving, you need to either ensure the integrity of the shelving or avoid using glass.

For inert products, we like wood and metal, and our favorite metals are either stainless steel (very expensive) or aluminum (a great compromise between strength and weight, but beware of having acids in contact with aluminum).  Note also that in some types of fire, aluminum will either melt or even start burning.  The average house fire reaches temperatures of 1100°F, and aluminum melts at 660°.  Steel on the other hand doesn’t melt until temperatures go above 2500°.

For large liquid storage, either metal or concrete containers seem to be the best solutions.

While we acknowledge the convenience and ubiquity of plastic, we try not to use anything plastic in our long-term storage.  Plastic bags – particularly made with a mylar or nylon component – are probably okay, but most other plastics just have too many issues in our opinion.

Many times, with food storage, it is a great idea to add a desiccant, and/or oxygen absorber, to the container of bulk food before sealing it.

Summary

It isn’t enough just to own a lot of provisions and other ‘stuff’.  You need to very carefully plan out how and where you store your supplies so as to avoid nasty surprises and problems.

Jun 142016
 
A garage sale can seem to be full of tempting bargains. But are they really as great as they seem?

A garage sale can seem to be full of tempting bargains. But are they really as great as they seem?

This is the first part of a two-part article about the wisdom (or lack thereof!) of buying used gear rather than new gear.  Please also see the second part of our article that specifically looks at considerations to do with buying used electronics.

So there you are, browsing through eBay or the local Craigslist; maybe you’re walking through a second-hand store or at a garage sale, but somehow, you find yourself looking at a tempting bargain.  Should you buy it?

Or maybe, instead, you’ve simply decided that the best way to make your dollars go further is to buy as much used gear as possible.  You already know that a used car that has dropped in price down to one-quarter of new can still have many years and tens of thousands of miles of good life in it – surely the same is true of electronics, too?

Well, yes and no.  There are several things to consider when looking at buying used electronics such as radio gear, computers, and pretty much all other ‘gadgets’.

Pricing

The first surprising point is that while some electronic items drop in price very quickly, others do not.  A 5 – 10 year old computer – well, that’s probably going to be available at pennies on the dollar.  But a 5 – 10 year old radio transceiver?  Not so much.

Indeed, something as old as a 15 or 20 year old radio might still be selling for a high percentage not only of its original price but of what you’d pay for comparable gear, new, today.

There’s an interesting implication of this, and the answer is perhaps not what you’d expect.  If a radio still costs 50% of more of its new price when it is 15 – 20 years old, does that mean that it still has half its life to go?  Does this suggest that radio gear has a 30 – 40 year life?

Another consideration that is increasingly becoming relevant – with the growing availability of low-priced Chinese gear, you sometimes find yourself with a choice between a ‘brand name’ product (ie primarily the big three Japanese brands – Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood) that sells new for perhaps $750, which sells if 15 years old for, say, $500, or a brand new Chinese product with similar capabilities, for $250.  How does it make sense to consider the $500 item when the brand new name brand item, several models newer and ‘better’ is not very much more, and a similar and possibly better new Chinese product is half the price?

Plus, whereas used cars have a number of different services that publish valuations to help you understand if you’re getting a good value or not, there’s nothing comparable for used electronics.  This of course works both ways – maybe you’re getting a tremendous value, but maybe you’re being offered something shamefully overpriced.

Age vs State of the Art vs Fashion vs Value

Some things have technological obsolescence long before they actually wear out.  Computers and cell phones are good examples of this, although both product lines seem to be ‘maxing out’ and we’re all buying computers and phones less regularly than we used to.  But, do you really want to buy a ten-year old computer at any price?  Do you really want it with an old-fashioned CRT VGA monitor, some sort of Pentium processor, a mere 1 GB or so of disk, and so on?

We suggest that this is false economy and not a good choice.  Remember, after TEOTWAWKI, there isn’t going to be a repair store to go to, there aren’t going to be online help forums, and there won’t be spare parts.

We might buy a ten-year old refrigerator or vehicle, but no way would we buy a ten-year old computer.  We wouldn’t even accept one, for free.  With many electronic items, the ‘state of the art’ has changed so much as to make the older product truly obsolete, and useless at any price.  It isn’t even useful for spare parts.  What use is incompatible memory; an old and power-hungry screen with such low resolution as to be useless, a hard drive with an out-of-date interface, etc?

The trap in that scenario is buying something that is very inexpensive, but also very useless.

Sometimes the latest ‘state-of-the-art’ features truly are valuable and worth paying extra for.  Before you settle for something ten or more years out of date, make sure you know what you’re missing out on.  And even seemingly ‘old fashioned’ technologies like radio transmitters and receivers are changing (quite drastically due to digitization) and with much/most electronic gear, the newer model with newer features can truly be worth paying extra for.

Another factor that encourages faster replacement than is indicated by simple measurement of things wearing out is fashion.  Mercifully this afflicts women more than men (such as me!), but marketeers even try to encourage us to change our clothing long before it is worn out.  Wide lapels or short.  Bell-bottom flared trousers or straight/narrow/skinny.  And so on.  ‘This season’s colors’ – gack!  Cars used to be sold on an annual model refresh cycle, that has slowed down a bit too, but generally we all buy clothing – and probably cars too – long before the economic and effective life of the item we are replacing has expired.

The opportunity in that scenario is buying something that still has a lot of good working life left, and which has been valued lower than it is worth simply because it isn’t fashionable.

Opportunistic Buying – Yes or No?

By nature, many of us preppers are acquisitive and tend to eagerly accept anything we can get, particularly if it is free.  Anything we have space to store and which might possibly be of some value in the future seems like a no-brainer to accept – no downside to taking it, and who knows what upside, right?

We don’t entirely disagree with that concept, and if you saw the cartons and closets full of junk we have, clearly we’re as bad as anyone else!  We laugh at fashion – we just dig far enough back in our closet to find clothing that matches the ‘new’ fashion but from the previous time it was in fashion.

But there is a danger, if/when you buy opportunistically, that you start confusing irrelevant actions with important results.  Which is better :  To have a double garage you can no longer drive either car into because it is full of old junk that you’ll never actually use, even in an extreme Level 3 situation?  Or to have just a couple of cartons of essential items that you will use and need, for sure?  To buy $1000 worth of junk that maybe is worth much more if you ever have a need for it, but then to lack the money to buy a $1000 item that you will definitely for sure need?

The garage full of junk obscures the fact you might be missing some essential items.  And your ability to repurpose the junk in your garage will also be reduced after TSHTF, because you can’t just go to the local hardware store or wherever/whatever to get an extra piece of two of stuff to modify/repair/adapt the junk item to a practical purpose.

You’ll also have very much less spare time; you’ll need to focus your time on productive essential tasks, and the same will be true of your friends and neighbors (and, excuse us for saying this, but who knows how many of them will survive through the stressful times and still be available as resources for you to turn to).

A useless thing is a useless thing, no matter how little you pay for it.

Why is it Being Sold?

If you like hearing lies, ask any seller of anything ‘Why are you selling this?’.

Now sometimes you don’t need to ask the question, because the answer is sadly obvious.  The item is little better than junk (at least in the seller’s mind); maybe it doesn’t work, maybe the seller doesn’t even know what it is, or maybe it is no longer needed (eg a baby’s crib).  You see a lot of that sort of stuff at garage sales.

But when you’re looking at higher value items that apparently still have value and life left in them, it is a question to ask, even if the answer is meaningless.

Nine times out of ten, the answer will be a lie, and the tenth time, it will probably be an obscured truth.  For example, if the seller says ‘I got the newer model’, then the obscured truth might be ‘This one failed and I had to replace it’.

If you think about yourself, two things are probably usually true.  You only replace things when you uncover limitations or problems with them, and you generally keep things that are working well, even if you buy additional or replacement units.  You’re not alone in this approach – many other people do exactly the same, and only sell items when they absolutely for sure have no remaining value, or when something bad has happened to them.

So, know this :  There’s almost always a ‘bad’ reason why anyone is selling anything.  You may or may not uncover that reason, but expect there to be one.

There are additional lies that specifically relate to electronic gear being sold.  For example, ‘it has a nearly new battery’ and ‘it hasn’t been used much’.  Unless you see a new battery still sealed in its original packing and with a recent manufacturing date stamped on it, you probably should plan on replacing the battery (or at least buying a new one as spare).  The same goes for ‘I’ve just replaced all the tubes’ – unless you can test the tubes, consider them all as near the end of their life – and even if the tubes were recently replaced, you don’t know how much remaining life there is in the new tubes.

Some people might also tell you it has recently been ‘re-capped’ – that all the electrolytic capacitors have been replaced.  Ask to look inside the unit and see for yourself – do they look new or old?  Is the soldering fresh and bright, or older and duller, like everything else?  Has every electrolytic been replaced, or just the ‘easy to get at’ ones?

You might also been told ‘it has just been serviced by an authorized dealer’ – only accept that claim if you see the invoice and perhaps, if it is a high value item, you’ll even want to call the dealer and confirm that the work order was to ‘check/overhaul everything and make the unit in perfect like-new order’ and see if the dealer has any notes about issues they found and weren’t authorized to repair.  Just because you see a $200 invoice that says ‘repair item’ doesn’t mean that every fault with the item was repaired, or that the repair used new replacement parts, etc.

One more lie that some people can tell with a straight face – ‘I haven’t used it for a while, but last time I did it worked perfectly’.  If it can’t be fully operated and demonstrated to you prior to you buying it, you should prudently expect the worst.

Bartering and Negotiating

It should go without saying that you should avoid paying the initial asking price on anything that is being offered for sale.  Experts at negotiating deals consistently tell us two things – the first is that the first person to name their price loses the negotiation, and the second is that the magic phrase to use is, and say this slowly and thoughtfully, in an uncertain but helpful tone, ‘What is the best price you’d accept for this?’.

If you think about it, the two pieces of advice are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they.  By asking the guy to name his best price, he is the first person to put a number out there.  You might be able to talk the guy down further, but for sure, you know there’s no way you’ll have to pay extra above that revised asking price!

Once you’ve done most of the dickering over price, see if you can then switch to another line of bargaining.  ‘Could you throw in the —- as well?’ – see if you can have him include something else as well.

Maybe try to negotiate a deal for two items, but then, when you’ve beaten the guy down as low as you can for a ‘quantity discount’ for the two or more items, then look disappointed and say ‘Thanks for trying to help me with this.  Unfortunately, the price is over what I could afford for all the items we’re talking about.  But, I tell you what.  I’ll take the xxxx off your hands for $—-.’  That way, you’ve managed to get a quantity discount for only buying one thing!

Another thing.  Sometimes you might be able to trade something you have and are willing to dispose of as part or full exchange for the item the other guy is selling.  This can be the best deal of all.  If you have something you don’t need but the other guy wants, and he has something he doesn’t need but you want, then it ends up with you both giving away something unimportant and getting something of value in return.  A ‘win-win’ deal like that is the best of all.

If you don’t really need something, but would be willing to buy it at a bargain price, a useful strategy is to say to the seller ‘I’d be interested in helping you out by taking your xxxxx off your hands, but the thing is, I didn’t come here today looking to buy one, and I don’t really need it.  So I could only justify it to my wife it I got it at a heck of a deal.  What say you try selling it to anyone else for the best price you can for the rest of the day, and I’ll come back at closing time, and if you still have it, then I’ll give you $— for it?’.

This makes best use of the pressure of time in the deal.  If you’re going to a one day sale event somewhere, at the start of the day, there’s a rush of buyers all wanting to get the best bargains, and the sellers are optimistic that the rush will continue and they’ll get their asking price for everything they have.  But that first rush doesn’t last long at all, and half way in to the day, it is over, and sellers are starting to gloomily think to themselves ‘no-one has even shown any interest in my xxxxx at all’ and they’re starting to think they’ll need to pack up unsold items and take them back, instead of the cash they might have sold them for.

By giving the seller a fair chance to sell the item for more, and by making the point that at the end of the day, no-one else is likely to be buying it, you might be able to negotiate a very low price such as to make it sensible to buy the thing you don’t really need or want.

Part Two

Please keep reading for the second part of this article, which talks about the special considerations to do with buying used/old(er) electronics.

May 142016
 
The classic tube powered Collins 75A4 radio, now 50+ years old. Revered by some hams - but a good choice for you?

The classic tube powered Collins 75A4 radio, now 50+ years old. Revered by some hams – but a good choice for you?

This is the second part of a two-part article about buying used gear.  The first part discussed general considerations when buying any type of used gear, and how it is possible to be mislead and to end up buying junk you don’t need, while all the time thinking you’ve bought something useful at a bargain price, and closed with some suggestions and tips on how to bargain for the best possible price.

Now it is time to focus in on the special considerations relating to electronic equipment.

Age and Reliability

Just about everything has a finite life.  The older a thing is when you buy it, the less remaining life it has.  Even ‘your grandfather’s axe’ has a finite life – you have to keep replacing its head and handle every decade or two.

To make things more complex, ‘age’ is measured two different ways.  The first aspect of age is the simple passing of time, no matter if the unit is being used or not.  Some components age even when not being used.  Rubber cracks, plastics lose their plasticizers, springs lose their tension, seals leak, wet things dry out (and dry things get wet) and so on.  Rust never sleeps, right?

The second aspect of age is the number of hours the unit has actually been powered on and in use.  Just about everything has a finite total number of hours of life – sure, sometimes that number might be very high, but it is still a number, and every minute anything is turned on, you’re steadily rolling the dice as the minute hand moves, each time hoping you don’t get an unlucky result and your equipment randomly failing.

There is a third element of age as well – the type of operation and environment.  Something that has been run ‘hard’ at 110% of rated power will age massively more quickly than something that has been run carefully/gently at 90% of rated power.  Something with a ‘dirty’ power supply is going to be stressed more than something with a nice clean stable power supply.  Something that has been in a very hot environment will age very much more quickly than something that has been kept cool.  Heat is the universal enemy of all electronic circuitry, and as a rule of thumb, for every ten degrees hotter that something is operated at, you are halving its life.  Run it 20 degrees hotter, and you’ve reduced its life to one-quarter, and so on.

When you see something, you have no way of guessing about how the unit has been used in the past, and a product that is about to fail seldom gives you any sort of indication that is about to happen.

The simple passing of time affects electronics as much as it does anything else.  A surprising but key aging element is corrosion – the oxidation of the leads on electronic components and the increasing difficulty of soldering them effectively to other devices, and the slow failure of existing soldered joins.  The key factors here are not to store components in regular plastic bags, and to keep them cool and dry.

Regular plastic bags are thought to ‘outgas’ and ‘leach’ out chemicals that accelerate corrosion and harm the materials stored inside them.  Barrier bags (a fancy way of saying ‘nylon’) are okay, and archival plastics probably are too, but regular PE type materials – best to avoid them.  This is a good article about component storage.

Of course, moisture is an enemy and corrosion accelerant, so keep things as dry and humidity as low as possible.  A related thing – bad news if you (or previous owners) live near the sea, with the higher salt levels brought in from sea spray.

Some things have obvious life-limiting factors as part of their design, and may be impractical to maintain.  Other things have very long lives and are practical to maintain.

In the case of electronics, some items will wear out and fail semi-randomly, some will do so moderately predictably, and some will last almost forever.  And it is all overlaid with an element of random chance.  You’ve no way of knowing if your particular piece of gear will end up with a long life or a short life.  The only thing you do know is that the more it is used, the closer it is getting to its ultimate failure.

Semi-conductor and Component Aging

If you have really old gear with tubes inside, then you need to plan for occasional replacements of the tubes.  Just like incandescent light bulbs burn out, so too do tubes.  But, unlike a lightbulb which burns more or less the same every day until suddenly failing, with a tube, it isn’t only just having it fail by sudden total burning out of the filament.  Tubes also have several other factors that influence their longevity, and their performance steadily declines, every hour they are being used.  The more they are used, the less remaining life they have, and the more poorly they will perform.

Most tubes will have a rated life stated on their specification sheet, and you’ll see this life expectancy can vary wildly.  One make/model of tube might be rated for 1,000 hours, another for 10,000 hours.  And, in all these cases, please be sure to understand what this rating means.  A rating of 1,000 hours doesn’t mean ‘all these tubes will work perfectly for 1,000 hours and then fail some time after’.  It means ‘some tubes will fail quickly, some will fail slowly, and on average, you’ll get about 1,000 hours overall’.  That is a very different scenario, isn’t it – some tubes will start failing immediately.

Back in the days of early computers that used thousands of vacuum tubes for their logic, people were employed as a full-time job just going through the racks and non-stop replacing tubes.

There’s another factor with tubes, too.  Unfortunately, ‘new old stock’ tubes might already have some percentage of their working life used up, just by sitting on the shelf (for example, if the vacuum seal is less than perfect).  If you are able to test your tubes on a tube tester, that will show you where on the spectrum each tube lies as between brand new and into the failure zone.

The solid-state components – the transistors and integrated circuits – will fail semi-randomly.  There is an initial period that is sometimes termed ‘infant mortality’ where new components might fail, then there’s a long period of reliability where failures are random and rare, then beyond that, the failure rate starts to inch up again.  The steady declining performance of vacuum tubes is not as pronounced with solid state devices, although it is present, but to a much more subtle degree.

Interestingly, and sadly, the newer and more modern the solid state devices, the faster they will fail.  Increasing miniaturization makes even individual atoms and molecules significant elements in an integrated circuit, and gradual effects such as the migration of materials across substrate barriers are much more significant in miniaturized components than in earlier items that were hundreds of times larger.  The tolerance range between operating voltages and maximum voltages is also greatly reduced in modern semiconductors.

There’s not a lot you can do about that, though, but just because a neighbor has a 50-year-old radio working perfectly absolutely does not guarantee that the new radio you buy tomorrow will outlast it.  Similarly, as you read around the internet and prudently do your research, be sure to understand that the people who confidently point to very long life with their electronics are probably, and by definition, talking about old gear.  When you think about it, it is impossible to say ‘my radio has worked perfectly for 50 years’ when you are talking about a radio you bought just last year, isn’t it!  But if you search out some of the technical papers about semi-conductor longevity, you’ll see the ugly truth that the smaller the componentry, the more delicate it is and the shorter its life.  This is also a factor in terms of EMP vulnerability – an electronic component designed for 2 volt logic and within a thousandth of an inch of the next component on the same chip is going to be fried by an induced 5 volt power surge which can also pass across the tiny gap between it and the next component, whereas an old transistor, 100 times larger in size, and working off 12 volts, will laugh at a 5V surge and not even notice it.

Resistors have a long life, particularly if they are newer metal film rather than older carbon film.  Older style carbon film resistors are cylindrical in shape and usually have a dark brown body; newer metal film resistors are a lighter brown color and typically are ‘bar bell’ shaped – cylindrical but of larger diameter at each end.

And inductors – coils of wire – last about as close to ‘for ever’ as anything ever does.

The ‘Achilles Heel’ of most electronics are the electrolytic capacitors.  These can dry out (or leak) and generally have a life somewhere between 10 – 40 years.  Some people replace all their electrolytic capacitors every 10 – 20 years, whether they need to be replaced or not, particularly because if a capacitor fails, it can cause cascading problems throughout the circuit including the failure of power transistors and other costly/hard to replace components.

Batteries – Both Obvious and Obscured

Perhaps the most regularly replaced item in any piece of electronics are the batteries.  And, in considering this, don’t forget that many electronic items have both the obvious/main battery, but possibly also some other obscured/hidden batteries that are used to do things such as storing the device’s settings in memory so that it doesn’t reset every time you turn it off.  These tiny batteries are invariably overlooked until they fail, so if you are buying any used equipment, it is a good idea to ascertain if they have such secondary batteries and then to replace them if they exist.

A regular rechargeable battery has a very variable life, depending on the conditions in which it has been used, stored, and recharged.  Unless you have special test equipment, and also know the expected values for an optimum conditional representative unit, you can’t really check to see what state of health the batteries are – better to play it safe and treat all batteries as nearly at the end of their lives.

On the other hand, the good news about most rechargeable batteries is that their ‘life’ isn’t defined by a sudden total failure.  Instead, it is just a steady decline, with each subsequent recharge storing less power than the one before, until you get to a point where it is no longer convenient to keep recharging a battery that takes two hours to recharge and then runs for 30 minutes (or whatever).  So in a Level 3 situation, you’d keep using batteries long past the point you’d swap them.

On the other hand, rechargeable batteries can indeed also fail completely, and not hold any charge at all.  All the more reason to replace all rechargeable batteries (or at least to buy a spare set and store them until needed) when you buy used electronic equipment.

Maintainability

So maybe something fails in the electronic item you purchased.  Can you trouble-shoot to find the failure, and can you then fix it?  Years ago, the answer was ‘yes’ – large-scale discrete components, individually soldered to spacious printed circuit boards, were easy to replace, and when something failed, you only needed to replace that one thing.

But now, with tiny SMD components less than half the size of a grain of rice, the ability to troubleshoot and replace is much more complicated than it used to be, and requires a steady and skilled hand and soldering iron.  ICs might contain millions of transistors, so a single transistor failure might take the entire IC out of service.  That is okay if you have spare ICs, but pretty soon, you’ll find you are spending more to build an inventory of spare parts than you are on the gear to start with.  Another difference is that whereas before, it was practical to have a spare parts inventory of all the different resistor, inductor and capacitor values, plus a smattering of the most common diodes and transistors, these days, most products have their own unique integrated circuits so you must have spares for each item rather than a common inventory of spares for everything.

This is also a reason to standardize.  Rather than having a dozen different walkie-talkie radios, for example, buy twelve (or thirteen or more) the same.  If one fails, you then use it as spare parts for the others.  This also makes it enormously easier from an operational perspective if everyone has the same gear.  So that ‘really nice’ and inexpensive piece of gear you’re drooling over has to be considered in the context of the practicality of requiring people to learn how to use a different interface, and the need to keep a separate inventory of spares for it.  Better to use the money to buy another one of the standard model units you already have.

The Future Lifespan You Need

An interesting consideration is to decide how long you need something to last in order to have received fair value from it.  Of course, ideally, everything would last for ever, and equally ideally, we’ll never experience an event that forces us to resort to our emergency equipment and supplies.  The world would just continue on, the same as it has been until now.

But both those scenarios are sadly unrealistic!

Should we consider it as good news or bad news that many of us have been prepping, to some degree or another, for more than two decades?  Is your glass half-full or half-empty?  Are you upset if at the end of a year, you’ve not filed any claims on your car insurance policy?  Do ten or twenty years with no need to activate your preps make next year riskier or safer?

The point behind these (largely unanswerable) questions is that much of the stuff we’ve bought to have for a possible future WTSHTF situation are things we’ve now owned for ten years or longer.  If we bought something that was already 10 – 20 years old when it was purchased, it would therefore of course be up to 30 years old now, and at the point where it would be prudent to think about replacing (or at least giving it a thorough overhaul and replacing many of its components) – or possibly supplementing it with a new set too.

In other words, if you are buying something today that you need to use tomorrow and which will have paid for itself in terms of value and use within a year or so, it doesn’t really matter if its life is two years or twenty years (although of course twenty years would be nicer!).  Your main focus is on an item that will work reliably today and for a long enough period so that it has paid for itself by the time it fails and you replace it.

But if you’re buying something that you won’t even touch for a decade or two, you need something that will be able to sit in storage for that period of time, and then be activated and work for another decade or two or however long you expect to need to rely on it.

This issue – that if you buy something old today, it might be very old by the time you finally get to use it – is another reason to avoid buying old stuff unless you know how to maintain and repair it and have an inventory of the necessary spares to do exactly that.

What We Do

We don’t buy anything essential that was made before 2000 (mainly because it is a nice round number to use as a cut-off) and we generally prefer to buy things that are less than ten years old, unless there is a special reason to choose something older.

And whenever we can cost-justify it (which is most of the time – not because we have lots of money, but simply because the cost/value/benefit equation supports it) we prefer to buy brand new gear, run it for a few months to check for any ‘infant mortality’ and then put it in extended storage until needed.

Part One of This Article

This is the second part of a two-part article.  If you’ve not already done so, you might like to also read the first part, which talks about buying used/second-hand gear in more general terms.

Apr 112016
 
The HP-12C - possibly the finest calculator ever.

The HP-12C – possibly the finest calculator ever and still being made by HP.

So, after TEOTWAWKI, what happens when we need to do ‘figuring’ – to do some sums, to calculate some values?  Our computers are dead, our notepads fried, and our calculators have run out of batteries.

We have several suggestions that will make your life easier.

Solar Powered Calculators

Our first suggestion is to stock up on calculators that use photo-electric cells to power them.  These can be expected to last for probably 15 – 25 years, maybe longer, and if you store them in a cool dryish sort of place that gets neither extremely hot nor cold, that will be a good environment for longest life.  Solar powered calculators are inexpensive, lightweight, and not very large (but note that larger ones are easier to operate and you’re less likely to make errors entering numbers, and have easier to read screens).  Amazon sells a broad selection, many at less than $10 each.  You want to choose display only calculators, not printing calculators – the printing calculators use a lot more power, plus you then need rolls of paper and ink ribbons too.

We recommend you store two or three solar-powered calculators in your Faraday Cages.  Take them out, one at a time, if you need to have one readily accessible.

HP-12C

The second is to get one of the brilliant Hewlett-Packard HP-12C calculators – in our opinion, the finest calculator ever made.  Not only can this calculate just about anything and everything you’d ever want to calculate, but its batteries last almost literally forever.  The record is currently an HP-12C with batteries that are now 22 years old, and it is still going strong.  In other words, the limit is more the storage life of the batteries than the power used by the calculator – we regularly get 10+ years of life out of each set of batteries we use (although with the new non-mercury type silver-oxide button batteries, we suspect their ‘shelf/storage life’ is not as lengthy as with the earlier mercury batteries – we’ve seen figures claiming five years for silver oxide in place of ten years for mercury batteries – yet another case where Congress has legislated a good product out of existence for the thinnest of reasons).

The HP-12C design is now over 30 years old, but it was so perfect when it first came out that customers have resisted every attempt by HP to modernize or replace it.  The closest to a replacement is the latest ‘Platinum edition’ version of the HP-12C, and you can interchangeably get a regular or a Platinum version; the differences are trivial and mainly ‘under the hood’.

The only thing to be aware of is that there’s something missing from the classic HP-12C calculators, and obscured on the Platinum edition versions.  The equals sign.  The calculator uses a different way of calculating – you key in the first number then hit the Enter key, then you key in the second number, then you press whichever function key you wish for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, as well as very many other functions too.  This is called ‘RPN’ or Reverse Polish Notation; it takes a bit of getting used to but is actually surprisingly logical and simple.

We own several of these calculators; they are robustly built and never seem to break.  The best thing about the RPN keyboard is always seeing the puzzled look on other people’s faces.  ‘Can I borrow your calculator?’.  ‘Ummm, yes, sure’ we say, unenthusiastically, maybe adding ‘it is a bit complicated to use’.  But our disclaimer about it being complicated is always ignored.  Then, invariably, two things happen.  ‘How do you clear it’ and ‘Where is the equals sign’, followed, a minute later, by the borrower handing it back to us!  This means that we’ve never lost a calculator by someone ‘borrowing’ it and ‘forgetting’ to return it!  They cost $50 – $60 each these days (used to be more) so we’d rather not have them disappear.

You might also want to consider an HP-11C ‘scientific calculator’ – most of the extra functions on a 12C are financial; if you think you might need some trigonometry functions in particular (useful in surveying and building) then get an 11C too.

Again, keep your HP-12C in a Faraday cage until you need to deploy it.

This shows the stylus and the clearing bar that come with an Addiator adding/subtracting device.

This shows the stylus and the clearing bar that come with an Addiator adding/subtracting device.

Mechanical Adders

Now it is time to go lower tech.  There are two low tech solutions to consider, one being better than the other.

You should consider getting a hand-operated adding machine.  You might immediately think of some of the large boxy machines that used to sit on accountants’ desks – quite possibly with a roll of paper coming out the end as well, and a handle that the user would pull towards them to enter each number.

Those are great units, but you’re going to run out of rolls of paper and ink ribbons very quickly, so we don’t recommend them for a Level 3 type scenario.  However, there’s another more subtle challenge to them, too.  They have dozens, or even hundreds of moving parts, and that’s a lot of things to go out of adjustment, springs to break, or in some other way to have something fail.

Slightly simpler, and generally older, are machines that simply display the running total in a window rather than print on a piece of paper.  Some look like ‘regular’ adding machines, others are more complicated and can be used for multiplication as well as addition.

While it is a long time since machines such as the American Rapid Calculator Co pinwheel adding machines were made, the Soviet Union made similar machines called a Feliks brand Arithmometer.  I’ve seen them dated from the 1930s to the late 1970s – they stopped production in the early 1980s and one of those might be worth considering.  But be aware that although they look to be very solidly built, like much in the Soviet era, that is as much illusion as reality.  It is reported that the gears inside are made of low quality zinc.  As a bit of trivia however, the name ‘Feliks’ is the first name of Felix Dzerzinsky, the first head of what became the KGB, and were originally made in a factory in Moscow that subsequently became the KGB headquarters (on Lubyanka Square).

Some of the German machines (eg Thales up to the late 1960s and Brunsviga) are not all that old, either.  All these ones that look similar spring from the same design, originally by a Swedish-Russian man in St Petersburg.

Make sure you’re getting a non-electric machine, though.  There are lots of Monroe type adding machines that look manual but are electric, and can be trouble-prone and very difficult to repair.  If you’ve ever seen one of those working, you’ll immediately understand how the moving parts are considerably stressed as it crashes and clatters its way through to a solution.

There’s an even simpler solution that is as close to fail-proof and fool-proof as it gets.  An Addiator.  These units are tiny (about 2″ x 6″ x 0.5″), weigh only a couple of ounces, and are totally simplistic to use with almost nothing to break or go wrong.  They can easily be found on eBay and elsewhere, probably costing no more than $10 – $20 a piece.  Search for ‘Addiator’ or ‘Arithma’ on eBay – we just did and found 44 listings.  Make sure the unit comes with its stylus – other things can be used instead of course, but if it has its stylus to start with, so much the better.

Addometers are slightly less common and more expensive, and not quite as intuitively obvious to use.

Other similar products exist, for example, the Sterling Dial-a-matic.  Pick and choose whichever style you like, they’re all reasonably reliable and very easy to use.

Make sure that the unit you select has a lot of digits – ideally eight or more, so you can add up reasonably large numbers.  We’ve seen Dial-a-matics with as few as four, which is hardly worth the hassle of buying, owning and using.  Also make sure the machine can subtract as well as add (as best we can tell, the Resulta mini adding machines won’t subtract).

Slide Rules

Many people say the Faber Castell 2/83N slide rule is the best ever made.

Many people say the Faber Castell 2/83N slide rule is the best ever made.  Last produced in 1976, but still available on eBay and elsewhere.

So your Addiator will see you right for adding and subtracting.  But what say you need to multiply or divide – or, even worse, to work out square roots, or do trigonometry?

Until the early 1970s, everyone used slide rules for such things.  Sure, they don’t have eight glowing digits of instant and near perfect accuracy, but for a century or more, slide rules were used to calculate and build everything, even jet planes and rockets.  The happy reality is that most of the time, we don’t need eight significant digits, and rather than being ‘significant’, most of them are illusory because the measurements we are feeding in to our calculators are imprecise to start with.

Some slide rules might still be manufactured, new, in China perhaps.  But we suggest that the best approach is again to go to eBay and pick up one from there – they have an entire section dedicated to slide rules.  We’ve seen good slide rules sell for $20 – $40.  You want to get one that is 10″ in length, not the half sized ones, and not the double sized ones.  Make sure it isn’t missing its cursor (the clear plastic thing that slides along it), and the more scales it has, the merrier.  The very best slide rules have a pair of ‘folded’ scales that in effect give you the benefit of a 20″ rule without any of the attendant disadvantages – one scale set goes from about 1 – 3.2 and the second scale set goes from about 3.2 – 10, and easy set has more graduations to give you a bit more accuracy.  We know that some of the double-sided Faber Castell slide rules (ie the W scales on the 2/83 and 2/83N rules) have these folded scales, and some of the other brands have them on their high-end slide rules too.

Other than these considerations, you can’t really go wrong with any of the different brands or models.

Ideally if it comes with instructions (and in English – some of the slide rules are sold from other countries and their instructions aren’t always in English) that will save you from any need to buy a book on how to use a slide rule, too.

Giving you the best of both worlds, the German company Faber Castell bought the Addiator adding machine company and made combo units – slide rule on one side and Addiator on the other.  Some of them are still available.

The Ultimate in Low-Tech Calculating?

So, there you are with your Addiator and slide-rule (as well as a solar-powered calculator and perhaps even an HP-12C).  You’re all set to calculate whatever the future holds, right?

Yes, you probably are.  But if you wanted to regress back one further step in calculating, you could always get an abacus too.  A skilled user of an abacus can do calculations almost as quickly as a modern person with a calculator, but it does require skill and practice/training to become that proficient.

So you might decide to pass on that for now, but if you want to be totally prepared for everything, get a book on how abacuses work so you can simply build your own if needed in the future, and have the information you need for how they work.

Jul 302013
 
Follow these six strategies to get more of this stuff in your pocket.

Follow these six strategies to get more of this stuff in your pocket.

Many of us feel a sense of anxious urgency about our prepping.  We know that if we suddenly find ourselves trapped in a Level 2 or 3 situation, we are not yet ready to be able to survive such a challenge; but what we don’t know is if/when a Level 2/3 situation might suddenly appear.

To put it as bluntly as possible, the biggest constraint we have is the lack of cash to invest in our preparing.

Well, we can’t give each and every one of you many thousands of dollars of cash, but we can equip you with the tools to cut down on your own monthly outgoings.  In this, the second part of our new series about prepping on a low budget (please also see part one), we look at how you can get out of debt more quickly, freeing up the money you currently spend on paying off what you owe, and enabling you to use it on more productive things instead.

Strategy 1 – Prioritize Paying Off Your Debts

So what is the first thing you should pay off?  Generally it will be the balance with the highest interest rate.  Look at all the debts you have, and understand what the APR is on each of them.  You might be amazed to see the difference in APRs.  For example, maybe you have a discounted car loan at 1.9%, a student loan at 5%, a revolving line of credit at 7%, and two credit card debts, one at 15% and one at 24%.

In such a case, you should make nothing more than the minimum payments due on everything except the 24% credit card debt, and you should do all you can to get that 24% balance reduced down.  At 24%, you are paying $20 a month on every $1000 you owe; if you can reduce the total owed by an extra $100 in payment this month, then next month that will give you a $2 reduction in interest you pay on the now lower total amount outstanding.  $2 might not sound like much after having paid off $100 extra the previous month, but if you are making payments over, maybe, two years, then in approximate terms, that $2 is a recurring benefit over the 24 months of the loan and will (sort of) save you $48 over the remaining period of the loan.  That’s a much more significant saving, isn’t it.

That is one of the key things about reducing your interest payments.  A trivial seeming $1 a month reduction in interest payments might seem of no value at all, but it is saving you $1 a month for every subsequent month, as long as the loan remains open, and over many years, that really adds up.

The other key thing is that if your interest bill is now lowered by $1, next month your payment is going more to paying off the balance and less to paying interest, so you are paying off more principal, which means that the following month, there will be even less interest to pay and even more principle paid off, and so on.

You might already know that if you start missing payments, your debts start to spiral out of control.  The flipside of that is that if you start paying more than your minimums each month, you quickly start to reduce your balances much more positively than you’d have thought possible.

After you’ve paid off the worst loan (in terms of interest rates) you’ll then successively move through everything else you owe money on.

Generally, the last thing to pay off would be your house mortgage, because that probably has the lowest interest rate associated with it.  Plus, for most of us, the interest is tax-deductible, reducing the real interest cost by as much as 30% or more (depending on whatever your top marginal tax rate is).

There’s no better way to control your outgoings without making any impacts on your lifestyle at all than by simply prioritizing how you pay off your debt, starting with the highest interest bearing debts first, and then working successively down to lower and lower interest bearing debts.

Exception – Prepayment Penalties

Some types of loan might have prepayment penalties associated with them.

Make sure that the loans you are focused on paying off as quickly as possible have no prepayment penalties associated with them.  If there are penalties, you are probably advised to concentrate on paying off other debts first.

Strategy 2 – Keep a Credit Card with No Carried Over Balance

Many credit cards have a deal whereby if you pay off your balance completely when it is due, then each month’s charges don’t incur any interest if you keep paying them off when the balance comes due.  Okay, we probably understand that already.

But did you know that if you don’t pay off your card entirely, then all charges immediately start accruing interest without the grace period you’d otherwise get if you were clearing the balance each month?

In other words, if you have to keep some balance on a credit card, have two credit cards.  One which you are paying off, but on which you add no new charges, and a second one which you keep current, so when you add new charges to it, you can pay them off when they come due, next month, without incurring any fees on those.

Strategy 3 – Consolidate Costly Credit

If you can, it is very helpful to consolidate your debts and to move them to the lowest cost source of money.

For some of us, this can best be done by getting a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC).  You’ll probably get an interest rate around 4% – 5%, and possibly might even be able to claim the interest as a mortgage/tax deduction on your 1040, depending on your circumstances and the nature of the amounts owed.

Let’s say you owe $5,000 at 12% and $5,000 at 18%, and you manage to get this transferred to a HELOC at 6%.  That means your monthly interest payment will instantly reduce by $75 every month – more if you can make your new interest payments tax-deductible.  That’s another $75 a month that you’ve suddenly created – and it is money you should then use to keep paying down your debt, at a new faster rate.

If you can’t get a HELOC, maybe you can still get some smaller loan from your bank or credit union, and if not at 6%, definitely still at much less than what you’re paying to the worst of the credit card and other lending sources.

Move the money you owe to the lowest cost lender.

Strategy 4 – Refinance Your House

We just spoke about rolling credit card balances to a HELOC.  But what if you have a home mortgage with a high interest rate on it?  Why not ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – refinance your home to a lower rate and also increase the amount you’ve borrowed to pay off other debt.

At the time of writing, there’s even a federal scheme that allows some home borrowers to get a federally subsidized new home loan with no origination fees and no qualification requirements.  Ask if you qualify for one of those.

Strategy 5 – Roll Balances to a New Card

Maybe you sometimes get offers in the mail giving you ‘pre-approved’ credit cards and allowing you to roll over a balance from another credit card, with an initial grace period of no interest charge applying.

Make sure there truly are no charges – no ‘cash advance’ type charges or anything else at all, and if it truly is a way of getting some months of free interest, then if the interest rate that commences at the end of the free period isn’t worse than what you’re paying now, why not cut up one credit card and start using the ‘free money’ offer on the new credit card?

We know some people who have done this repeatedly, each time getting a new grace period of some months before any interest starts being charged.

Needless to say, don’t go into debt initially with the plan to do this into the future, but if you are already in debt, this might help reduce the cost of paying off the money you owe.

Strategy 6 – Renegotiate Your Interest Rate

You mightn’t realize this, but many times you’ll find you are able to negotiate the interest rate you are charged on your credit card balances.  The credit card company doesn’t just have one interest rate that everyone, everywhere in the US, uniformly pays.  It sets interest rates more or less individually, based on your credit score, your history with the card issuer, your address, and many other factors.

If you have been making your payments regularly – or sometimes even if you haven’t – you might be able to negotiate a lower interest rate.  Even if you only get a 1% reduction in your interest rate, this could save you thousands of dollars.  Look at our table of interest costs in the middle of the previous article in this series, Seven Thoughts About Borrowing Money.  Say you had a $10,000 loan at 18% and were making payments over a 10 year period.  If you can reduce that to 17%, and if you keep your monthly payment much the same as it was before, that means you now pay your loan off over nine years instead of ten, and your total interest paid drops from $11,922 to $9,587.

You pay your debt off a year sooner, and you save yourself $2335 in interest, all as a result of getting ‘only’ a ‘small’ one percent reduction in interest charged.

That’s sure worth making a phone call and asking for, isn’t it!

Why would a credit card company/bank drop your interest rate?  Because it costs them a lot of money to get a new customer; and it costs them much less to keep you as a good customer than it does to lose you and buy in another customer – the marketing cost of getting each customer, and the promotional cost of a ‘no fee for the first year’ and/or a ‘100,000 mile frequent flier bonus if your sign up for our card’ and/or a ‘no interest on balances rolled over for six months’ or whatever other offer they are giving to new customers is massive.

Summary

There are sometimes good reasons and sometimes unavoidable reasons to go into debt (we discuss them here).  But there are almost never valid reasons to delay paying off the debt you’ve incurred.  The most compelling reason of all is that getting out of debt is just plain smart – your disposable income will skyrocket when you no longer have so much of your paycheck already committed to debt repayments.

The six steps above will help speed you towards a debt free future.  It will help, but you’ve still got to do some heavy lifting too – make paying off your debt a priority, and accept some lifestyle sacrifices while doing so.  In return, you’ll have a much healthier financial future.

Jul 292013
 
Borrowing money is nothing new, but the many ways of getting into debt these days make it easier to find yourself in financial trouble.

Borrowing money is nothing new, but the many ways of getting into debt these days make it easier to find yourself in financial trouble.

None of us have as much money to spend on prepping as we wish.  So we’re starting a new article series to help you become more financially free, and better able to invest in more complete prepping.

Our financial lives revolve around two main factors.  The income we generate each month, and the money we spend each month.  Hopefully we spend less than we earn, of course.

The issue isn’t so much the actual numbers as it is ensuring there’s a positive gap such that you are earning more than you are spending.  If you want to widen that gap, you can do either or both of two things, and only two things.  You either increase your income and/or reduce your expenses.

An exception to that rule seems to be if you’re managing a city, county, state or the entire federal budget.  Deficit spending seems to be something that these public bodies can do with impunity, but don’t you be tricked into believing that either you can safely spend money you don’t have, or that the public bodies can, either.  Detroit declared bankruptcy last week, other cities have already done so with less publicity, and some other cities similar in size to Detroit also have massive unfunded liabilities.

The only difference between us and a public body is that the speed of our crash would be quicker and harder, and that it is our own personal money and future at risk – the administrators of public bodies are seldom personally at risk when they spend their way into deficit oblivion.

So, how to reconcile the need to not spend more than you earn with the easy availability of money to borrow?  And how to borrow money as inexpensively as possible?

1.  Should You Ever Borrow Money?

Chances are you currently owe money, like most of us.  Maybe you have a house mortgage, a car payment, a balance on a credit card, a store card, a student loan, maybe payments on some furniture or something else you financed, and so on.

Some people say you should never borrow money.  We’re not saying that, and as we said, most of us do owe money.  But we will agree that many of us should probably borrow/owe less than we do.  There are times when it makes sense to borrow money – buying a house being the classic example of that.

Sometimes you might have no choice but to borrow money, it might be literally life or death.  Medical and dental bills would be an example of that.

A third category when it can make sense to borrow money up front is when the thing you are paying for is something that will provide an ongoing financial benefit to you – an educational qualification to advance your career, or a new tool that you can use to work more productively and more profitably (sometimes a new(er) car can be justified under this heading too).

A related category would be when you must spend money up front to save needing to spend more money later on.  For example, if your house needs repainting or your roof needs replacing, you are better advised to get that done in a timely manner, for fear of having much greater costs subsequently if you delay.

There is a final, fifth category where it makes sense to borrow money.  If you are in an unusual situation where an item is going up in price at a greater rate than the cost of borrowing money, maybe it is better to borrow so you can buy the item now, rather than save and buy the item later when you have saved enough money.  This has often been true of real estate, and can sometimes be true of other things too, although be very cautious when it seems you are being presented with any sort of ‘amazing short-term opportunity to save money’.  More often than not, the deal isn’t as amazing as it seems, and the short-term opportunity might be longer term than it seems to be.

It never makes any sense for any seller to sell anything for less than its fair normal market value; if someone is trying to tell you they are selling you something for less than it is worth, you have to wonder what sort of fool they are to do that.  If something is truly worth, say, $50,000, then why wouldn’t the seller ask $50,000 for the thing?  Why would he only ask $25,000?  Yes, there sometimes are valid reasons why real true bargains come along, but be very wary of deals that seem ‘too good to be true’.

So, there are five situations when it may make sense to borrow money.  On the other hand, there are also many times when it makes no sense to borrow money at all, because the ability to easily borrow money merely tempts us into buying something we didn’t and don’t need.  A bigger screen television, for example; a newer car, a hot tub, an extravagant vacation, or whatever else it is that is currently tempting you.

Manufacturers and retailers spend billions of dollars every year tempting us to buy as much as we can – and then to borrow more money to buy more things that we shouldn’t be buying – because if we all reduced our levels of spending and consumption, our economy, which has become ever more dependent on people spending more than they should, would implode.

But don’t worry about the national economy.  You should be ‘selfish’.  Never mind about the national or international economy, and don’t think about what the other 330 million people in the US are doing.  Think only of yourself, and what is best for you – our economy can probably withstand the effects of you reducing your own level of consumption slightly.  🙂

For the future, if an item doesn’t clearly fall within the five appropriate-to-borrow-money categories above, you should discipline yourself to not buy it until you have spare available cash in your bank account to pay for it.

This will save you much more money than you think, because not only are you saving on the interest costs of borrowing money, but you’ll find you end up buying fewer things, and those you do buy will be more sensible appropriate things.  You’ll have a better life style, you’ll own better things, and you’ll have more money in the bank and fewer monthly outgoings.

You’ll also discover the joys of being able to negotiate cash discounts, of being able to buy things when they are at the lowest price, and so on.  So let’s hurry your forward on your path to a much stronger financial situation.

2.  The Subtle But Massive Costs of Interest

Some of us go to ridiculous lengths to ‘save money’ – we know a person who proudly drives ten miles to fill their car up with gas at a cheaper gas station, but (by our calculations) the cost of driving there and back exceeds the money they save each time.  There are lots of examples of people who are ‘penny wise and pound foolish’, and hopefully you’re not guilty of any of these failings, yourself.

But there is one failing that many of us have.  We are sometimes so appreciative of any source of credit that we seldom stop to look at the cost of the credit, and to comparison shop when borrowing money.  The cost of credit – the interest rate we are charged – should be as important to us as the price of gasoline or the cost per pound of potatoes in the store.

Because interest ‘compounds’, there is a huge difference in total cost to you between a higher and lower interest rate, and between paying a loan off quickly or slowly.  The best thing to do is to get your interest rate down as low as you can, and to pay the loan off as quickly as you can.

Let’s look at several different scenarios to see how this works out, using a $10,000 loan amount every time.  If your loan is more, just multiply the amounts by how many times more it is to see the impact.

Interest % Years = Monthly Payment = Total Interest Paid
21% 10 $199.93 $13,992
21% 5 $270.53 $6,232
18% 10 $180.19 $11,622
18% 5 $253.93 $5,236
17% 10 $173.80 $10,856
17% 9 $181.36 $9,587
15% 10 $161.33 $9,360
15% 9 $169.24 $8,278
15% 8 $179.45 $7,228
15% 5 $237.90 $4,274
15% 4.5 $255.78 $3,812
10.5% 10 $134.93 $6,192
0% 10 $83.33 $0

 

You’ll notice several things here.  If you halve the time it takes you to pay off your loan, your monthly payments don’t double.  The increase by more like 50%.  As for the other 50% that doesn’t increase, most of that saving is due to you paying much less interest – half as much interest, sometimes even less.

The longer your loan, the massively greater your total payments will be.  Keep your loan periods as short as you can, and any time you have spare money, use it to pay the loan down still faster and further.  Remember that each extra dollar you pay, over and above your monthly minimum, is going entirely to paying off the principal amount owing, and that once you’ve reduced the principal, you no longer pay any more interest on it in any of the remaining months of the loan.

You can also see the huge difference in total interest payments at different interest rates.  Reducing your interest rate by only a few percentage points can save you thousands of dollars over the period of your loan.

Most of all though, hopefully you’ll vividly see the massive costs associated with borrowing money.  Say you’re thinking of going on a vacation – $5000 for the two of you.  Does it really make sense to borrow that money on your credit card, and to pay it off over 5 years at 21%, making the total cost of the $5000 vacation into $8100, and to be making payments for long years after you’re returned home and already forgotten about the great time you hopefully enjoyed?

Remember the five (and only five) scenarios for borrowing money, above.  If something isn’t clearly within one of those five scenarios, don’t be tricked into borrowing money to pay for it.

Now, talking about tricking, let’s look some more at issues to do with borrowing money.

3.  Avoid Unnecessary Fees

Lenders love late fees.  They massively increase the amount of profit they make from the money they’ve lent you.  So don’t be tricked into incurring them.  Plus every late payment – even by only a day – becomes a downcheck on your credit report.

Know when payments are due, and make sure your payments are always safely and surely received a couple of days before they are due.

Banks also love the fees they charge when you go into an unapproved overdraft, and/or the fees they charge if they bounce your checks.  Many times the bounce fee can be more than the check amount itself!  There’s no excuse for writing checks when you don’t have money in your account; make sure you never end up incurring these fees.

We know one person who regularly writes checks he doesn’t have money in his account to cover, and boasts that the bank always honors his checks.  That’s very kind of the bank, but he also confirmed the bank charges $30 every time.  A $30 fee for what is in effect a one or two day loan of $100 or $200?  Say it was a $200 check for two days.  That $30 fee is the same as a 2760% interest rate, and if I ever found myself paying that interest rate, I’d sure not boast about it.

We know another person who is often late paying his water bill.  He says he only really feels the pressure to pay it when he gets a notice of pending cut-off hung on his door handle at home, and then he pays it immediately.  He says it doesn’t matter, because it is not reported on his credit report.  But what he doesn’t say is that he is assessed a $20 late fee each time that happens.

A $20 late fee might not seem like a huge amount, but what a total waste of $20 for no benefit in return.  He still had to take the time to pay the bill, but by being slack, he wastes $20.  And one time, he was out-of-town, and returned home to no water, a late fee, a reconnection fee, and an emergency call-out fee.  Almost $100 in fees.

So pay your bills on time, even the ‘nasty’ ones you don’t like (like parking tickets, before they double) and the ‘unimportant’ ones like water bills.

In general, you should have a look and see how much each of your credit cards is costing you in annual membership fees, and how much your bank account is costing you too.

Do you really need three different Visa cards – especially if they each charge you $50/year?  Almost certainly not!  We generally have one Amex card, one Visa card, and one Mastercard in our wallet.  That way, if we have a problem with our Visa or Mastercard for whatever reason, we have an alternate to use, and we also have an Amex which we mainly use only at Costco (Costco has a deal on a combined Amex/Costco card membership).

Trim down the credit cards you possess.  And choose credit cards with no annual fee, or a low annual fee.  Some credit cards charge $100 or more a year, some are free.  Unless there’s some way you’re clearly getting the value from the annual fee (maybe it gives you a free companion airline ticket or something), don’t use that type of card.  If you do need that particular card, see if you can negotiate a lower annual fee with them – you’d be surprised how much you can negotiate with the credit card companies when they think you’ll otherwise leave them and go elsewhere.

You should also look at your monthly bank fees.  Banks change their fee structures all the time, and while they send out notices of changes to their terms and conditions, who has time to read through them all and try to work out what has actually changed?  Although you might have got the best deal at the time you opened your account, almost surely, over the years, it has changed and other deals have come along so you no longer have the most appropriate account type and fee structure.

Many banks have some type of ‘free checking’ account, or if not, they very probably have a lower cost account than the one you currently have.  If you’re paying more than $10/month, go ask for a better deal.

Many people report better experiences with smaller banks and local credit unions rather than with larger banks.  If you’re looking at changing banks, be sure to speak to a small bank or credit union as part of your shopping around.

If you sometimes need emergency loans, in small amounts and for short periods, make that part of your bank shopping too – find out what their policies are and what the fees will be.

4.  Negotiate Down the Fees You Pay

If you are borrowing money through an independent mortgage broker, ask them to split their fee with you.  The chances are they are getting 1%, 2%, or maybe even more of the money you are borrowing as their fee/commission, and just like realtors will generally give back some of their commission, so too will mortgage brokers give some of their fee back to you, too.

But be careful how you approach this matter.  If you ask the mortgage broker about the fee up front, he might say ‘sure, of course’ and then present you with loan rates that he has inflated the fee, so that he can then ‘reduce’ the fee and ‘give you back’ some money but still end up with as much money as he would have got anyway!

When borrowing money, it pays to shop around and compare, and when you’ve found the best two or three, then negotiate between them to see who will trim their own margin the most.

Even if you’re not negotiating by asking for a fee giveback, you can simply instead ask for a fee reduction.  We’d not recommend you ask a full-time bank employee to share their fee with you, but you can ask the bank employee for a reduction in the loan fee.  Remember these loan officers are in the business of making loans, not refusing loans, and they have some discretionary ability to vary the rates they first offer you.

If you make a mistake and the bank charges you a bunch of fees for bouncing a series of checks, and if this is not something you make a habit of doing, go into the bank, meet a banker in person, and ask for them to reverse out the fees.  If you discover that your ‘free checking’ account requires a minimum $5000 balance, and you dropped below that, ask for that fee to be waived too – but you can only do this once or twice.  However, if you’ve been with the bank for a while, you can simply say ‘I forgot’ or ‘I didn’t realize’ and they’ll probably cooperate with you.

You might be surprised to see how quickly many institutions will take their fees off again, but you have to ask them (politely!) first.

5.  How to Borrow Money Cheaply

Just as important as paying off your debt is avoiding incurring new debt as much as possible.  But sometimes there is no alternative to needing to borrow some money.  When you absolutely must borrow money, try to do so on the most favorable terms possible.

If you have a credit card, try to never take a cash advance from your available credit limit.  This is a very costly thing to do.  You will be charged an immediate cash advance fee (usually 2% – 3% of the amount withdrawn) and then the amount instantly starts accruing interest.  Worse still, many credit cards then make all the other current charges on your card start accruing interest, too.

One way around this, if you’re short of cash, is to simply pay for more things by credit card, and pay for fewer things with cash.  You’ll probably get a month or two of time, interest free, to pay for the new charges on your card if you’re keeping it current each month.  That’s a lot better than paying all the fees for a cash withdrawal.  You’d be amazed at how much you can buy with a credit card these days.

Payday loans and pawn shops are even more expensive than credit card loans.  As nasty as they are, it is probably better to make a cash withdrawal off a credit card than to enter into one of these transactions.

6.  Take Advantage of Special Deals

Maybe you have a chance to buy something on a ’90 days same as cash’ basis.  If you see such a deal, you should consider several things.  First, ask the store if they also have a cash discount offer at the same time – maybe you can get a 5% or greater discount for paying cash (because it probably costs them at least 5% to give a ’90 days same as cash’ deal).

If they don’t, then if you can afford to pay cash for the deal anyway, you could buy it on the ’90 days same as cash’ basis, and make sure you make the payments as is needed to avoid having interest kick in, including paying everything off the day before the 90 day point.

If you need something that is offering the 90 day deal, you should take it, and understand what happens on the 91st day.  Does that mean that suddenly all the past interest over the previous 90 days will then be billed to you?  Or do the 90 interest free days remain, no matter what?

Then at the end of the 90 days, you then use a credit union loan or something like that with a lower interest rate to then pay the balance, and make your payments on the credit union loan.

Maybe you are offered a deal on a new car with 1.9% financing.  You have already saved up the money for the car, so you don’t need it.  But here’s an idea – why not borrow the money for the car, and then with the money you’ve saved up, use it to pay down any other monies you owe – even your house mortgage.  If you have a house mortgage at (say) 6%, you’ve managed to suddenly replace perhaps $30,000 or more of it with money you borrowed at 1.9% as part of your car purchase.  That’s a good deal, even after allowing for the tax benefits on the house interest.

Be careful if you use the money to pay down your house mortgage though, because your monthly house mortgage payment will stay the same, and you’ll also then have to find more money to pay for the car payment.

7.  What to Do With the Money You Save

Each time you save yourself some money, don’t spend the money you’ve just freed up, and don’t let it just disappear into all the rest of your money.

Instead, take the money you’ve just now saved and either use it to pay down the money you owe on something, or use it to build up your preps.  Either which way, you end up with a lasting benefit, and at no extra cost to you.

Jul 262013
 
So just exactly how many cans of spam do you need?  :)

So just exactly how many cans of spam do you need? 🙂

This question is a bit like asking ‘How high is up?’.  Clearly, the more food you store, the better you will be able to withstand a Level 1 or 2 event (Level 3 events assume, more or less by definition, that the problem will last longer than any stores you might have amassed).

There probably is an upper limit to how much food you could/should store, but few of us are going to reach that.  In case you wonder, there are two situations where you might end up with ‘too much’ food.  The first is if you have so much food that you can’t eat it all (or give it away or trade/sell/exchange it) before such time as it passes both its official and its real expiry dates.  The second would be having such a lot that you find yourself with food to last much longer than you have energy or water or other essentials.

In all cases, you need to balance your prepping.  Until you can – in all respects – survive a one week event, there is no point adding a second week of food.  Who needs food when you no longer have water?  When your heat has gone, and it is midwinter and you’re dying of exposure, food is again probably the least of your worries.  And so on.

So it is important to keep your prepping balanced.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the same with prepping.  When you run out of any essential item, your survival is threatened, no matter how much of other things you still have on hand.

But having said that, it is relatively straightforward to get a retreat that will provide shelter for an extended many year period, to get a well that will provide you with all the water you’ll ever need, and to get perhaps a solar cell array to provide you with at least some ongoing power.  At that point, food becomes a key consideration because you’re in the happy point of having open-ended indefinite solutions to your need for water, shelter and energy.

Of course, you need a lot more than the most minimalist amounts of food, water, shelter and energy, but you truly do need these big four categories of preps.  Other things you might be able to improvise or make do without, but you can’t make do without these four major categories.

So, assuming you have resolved everything to do with water, shelter and energy, how much food should you store?  You might say ‘Oh, I’ll store a year’s worth’, – this seems to be a commonly cited quantity to aspire to.  However, that answer in turn begs some other questions – just how many cans and bags and other forms of food is a year’s worth?

To answer these questions, you need to consider five factors, and to ignore one distractor.

The distractor is the claim you’ll often see made in prepackaged collections of long life foods – ‘Contains a three-month supply’ or maybe ‘contains 240 entrees’ or something else.  You need to see exactly how many calories the supplier is basing these claims on, and contrast it with your expected calorie need (point 2, below); and dollars to donuts, you’ll almost surely find that their ‘three month supply’ is more like a two month supply, their 240 entrees are more like 240 appetizers, and so on!

So let’s now look at the five factors to consider.

1.  How Many People Will You Feed?

This question has some overtones that you should consider.  You probably already know how many people you’re planning to have in your retreat.  But might you have some unexpected extra people join you?

Maybe someone gets married and brings their new spouse.  Maybe a couple has a new child.  Maybe a friend or two come along and ask to be accepted into your community.  Maybe you meet someone after moving to your retreat who has an excellent set of skills and you want to have them join you, too.

In addition, you should also consider how you will handle people who come begging for food.  Will you send them away with nothing, or will you give them a token small amount of food?

However you answer these questions, you’ll probably end up realizing that it is likely you’ll have more mouths to feed than you originally plan for.

2.  How Much Daily Food Will Each Person Need?

You may already be familiar with the US Recommended Daily Allowances that specify how much of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and other elements a person should consume each day.  Here’s a link to them if you’re not.

Perhaps the most relevant issue though is not how much of each vitamin and mineral is in your diet (in theory, most ‘healthy’ diets contain plenty of all of these, in practice you’ll probably augment your stored food with a multi-vitamin supplement), but instead how many calories of energy you are getting from the food you eat each day.  This number isn’t an official standard because it varies depending on your gender, age, height/weight, and your level of activity.

So when you see labels on foods talking about ‘based on a daily allowance of xxxx calories’ they are not saying ‘this is the scientifically calculated exact number of calories you need’; they are simply basing their percentages on a somewhat arbitrary number.

The harder you work, the more you need to eat.  A daily intake of 2,000 calories a day may be enough for someone who does little or nothing every day, but if you’re going to be working in the fields, then you can expect to see your needs increase to maybe 3,000 or more calories a day.  Here’s a helpful table.

So you should adjust the quantities of food people will consume upwards to reflect the probability that people will be working harder than formerly, and so will eat more, too.

3.  Non-Essential Foods Actually Are Essential

We’ve written before about the surprisingly serious potential problem of appetite fatigue.  What this means, in part, is that you can’t optimize your food storage and serve the same food item, the same way, every day for a year, even if it is the cheapest and easiest product to store and prepare.

You need variety and so you’ll need to add some non-essential items into your food store too.

Good food can be a morale booster, and bad food a morale drainer.  In difficult times, good food can help people remain positive, and for sure, you are prepping for what will be difficult times.  So you will want to also supplement your food supplies with non-essential comfort and luxury food items.  At the end of a long hard day with everything going wrong, it will be a wonderful thing to then break out something like maybe a retort pouched piece of shelf-stable long-life smoked salmon and treat everyone to a ‘feel-good’ delicacy.

4.  Allowing for Wastage and Spoilage

We know you’re planning on not wasting a single ounce of everything.  Everything you have will be cooked, and everything you cook will be eaten.

But we also know that the real world isn’t quite as perfect as you might hope for.  For example, what happens if a water pipe bursts and water floods onto and into your dry stores?  What happens if you have a problem with rats or mice?  At a smaller level, what happens when something goes wrong with a meal?

Depending on your degree of vulnerability to such unexpected things, we’d probably add another 5% or more to adjust for these imperfections.

5.  Food as a Trading Good Too

We suggest you add further food to your minimum calculations to give you some ‘currency’ that can be used to trade for other things in the future.

We’ve written several pieces about how current US currency will lose its value in a Level 2 or 3 situation, and until such time as a new currency replaces it, all manner of different things will be used as trade goods.  When time allows, please visit our complete subsection on the site about the future economy and how it will evolve.  Understanding these issues is important.

In particular, it goes without saying that food will be greatly in demand, and would be almost universally accepted in payment for just about any other thing you might wish to exchange or trade.  You might want to have a mix of staples and also higher value items (herbs and spices and flavorings in particular) for future trading purposes.

6. How Many Months/Years of Food to Store

Now for the big question.  You know, from answering the previous five points, how much food a day or week or month you should set aside.  But now – how long a supply do you need?

We suggest that you must have at least one year of food, and ideally closer to two years.  Indeed, if you can go to three years, better still.

Think about a worst case scenario.  TEOTWAWKI occurs after the planting season one year, meaning you’ll not be able to get any measurable amount of food from your own gardening until the harvest season next year – maybe 15 months later.  (Is this the point where we extol the great sense of having a greenhouse? 🙂 )

Let’s also say that things go very wrong with your first year of gardening, and you only get six months worth of food from your efforts.  So add another 6 months to the stockpile you need, and you’re now at 21 months.

Now let’s say the next year has a flood, or spring frosts, or a drought, or something.  Let’s say you only get six months worth of food that year, too.  Now you need 27 months of stored food.

Furthermore, you really need to always keep at least 6 – 12 months of stored food in reserve, because it is an unavoidable truism in agriculture that some years are good and some are terrible.  So add another 6 months to your stored supply and now you’re at 33 months.

Make your own decisions as to how you’ll plan and project your food needs, but be pessimistic rather than optimistic, and we expect you’ll end up agreeing with us that you must have one year, should have two, and ideally would love to have three year’s worth of food in your store.

Avoiding Stored Food Expiration

You don’t want to have to regularly junk your stored food and replace it with a fresh set of unexpired food, and neither do you want to go into an emergency situation with your food nearing its expiration dates.

There’s an easy answer to this concern.  Eat what you store, and store what you eat.  That way, you are steadily eating your stored food as part of your normal everyday diet.  It means you are turning over your stores regularly, and hopefully eat everything before it expires.

It also means there is less disruption WTSHTF.  You keep eating much of the same food you’ve been eating prior to then.  That can be a bit of a comfort in itself, reassuring you that not all has been lost and destroyed in your world.

It also imposes a bit of a discipline on you when choosing food supplies.  If you’re like us, you probably have some 25-year-shelf-life pails of long life shelf stable freeze-dried foods – perhaps you bought them on special, and perhaps you thought ‘This stuff is barely better than prison grub, but in an emergency, I can’t expect to enjoy good food’.

But what is the point of buying food you don’t like and wouldn’t normally eat?  To save money?  Think about that – you’re happy spending, shall we say, $10 on a meal today, but you’re not willing to spend a comparable amount to set aside a meal for the future.  That’s a bit contradictory, surely!

So, as much as you can, considering shelf life issues, buy and stock up with the types of food you like to eat, not the types that are cheapest or which have the longest lives.  As long as you are able to eat what you have stored before it expires and keep regularly replenishing it, shelf life isn’t such an issue.

Shelf life only matters when you’re storing food you won’t eat, not when you’re storing food you will eat!

Summary

You’ll eat more food than you expect in a Level 2 or 3 situation; and you’ll probably have more mouths to feed as well.  Add to that a greater need for food variety, and allow some extra to use as trading goods, and you’ll soon realize that there’s no such thing as ‘too much food’ in your stockpile.

When you plan for some worst case scenarios, you’ll quickly realize that a one year supply is probably insufficient, a two-year supply barely enough, and a three-year supply a much more comfortable level to keep.

Jul 132013
 
This is a wonderful portable generator, costing only $135 and providing both 12V and 110-120V power.

This is a wonderful portable generator, costing only $135 and providing both 12V and 110-120V power.

We previously wrote a detailed four part series about storing electricity which assumed you wanted to live off-grid, long-term, and needed a high-capacity and very long-lived energy storage solution for such a scenario.

That is of course a valid need, and there’s a lot of good information in that series about all aspects of storing electricity – when time allows, you should read it. 🙂

This article, however, is about one special type of energy storage application – a need to have a short-term emergency supply of power when the mains supply fails.  If the failure is a simple short-term thing such as high winds blowing over power lines, then you just need a little bit of electricity ‘to get by’ until the mains power is restored.  These are Level 1 type situations.

If the failure is caused by a major disruption that will escalate to a Level 2 or 3 scenario, you might need some power for a short while to operate radios to communicate and co-ordinate with other members of your group, prior to bugging out to your retreat location.

There are many different ways you can have an emergency power source always on hand, with many different amounts of electrical storage capacity, complexity, and cost. This article considers two approaches.  There are others, but these two are the simplest, and being the simplest is, for our purposes, an essential consideration – simple things are easier to deploy and less likely to fail.

Portable Generators

For almost any non-trivial amount of electrical power, your best solution will always be a generator.

While they are typically heavy, noisy and expensive, you can also get smaller, lightweight, affordable and very quiet generators that would be suitable for use pretty much anywhere – including for apartment dwellers, too.

For example, here’s a portable generator for only $135 on Amazon (pictured above).  This unit is quiet, lightweight, and runs for 8.5 hours on each 1.2 gallon tank of fuel, providing about 400W – 500W of 120V power during that time.  That’s a great value, and with a five gallon container of fuel and running the generator sparingly rather than 24/7, you’ve enough power for maybe three days.

The above generator is a two-stroke generator.  A similar four-stroke generator generates twice as much power using almost the same amount of fuel (four-stroke engines are more efficient than two-stroke), and is similarly quiet, while weighing an extra 10lbs (54lbs instead of 44 lbs) and being slightly bulkier.  It costs just a hair less than $200.

Amazon has plenty of other portable generators, albeit more expensive than these two, as well. Here’s a listing of some of the nicer modelsthat would be excellent as portable, use anywhere, low-sound type generators.

Four quick comments about generators.

First, no matter what generator you might choose, you must operate it outside, due to all the exhaust gases it produces.

Second, you should run your generator once every few months to be sure it is still in good order and condition, and be sure to stabilize your fuel so it doesn’t ‘go off’ while sitting in the generator or fuel can.  There are several types of fuel stabilizer available, the best is PRI.  Don’t settle for any other brand, use only PRI.

Third, these low power generators are very limited in what they can handle (because of their low power output) and you’ll need to be very careful to match the current drains with the generator capacity.  Using a Kill A Watt meter is an easy way to monitor the power being drawn from the generator, and be very careful of peak loads – when motors first start up, they draw a great deal more current than when they are running at normal speed.   These peak loads can fry your generator if you don’t plan carefully for not just average but also peak loads.

Fourth, keep the cords from the generator to the devices using the power as short as possible, and as heavy-duty as possible.  Short heavy-duty cables will waste less power and provide a better voltage level than would be otherwise the case with lighter and/or longer cables.

Lead-Acid Battery and Trickle Charger

The $135 portable generator we linked to at the start of the previous section is probably the least expensive solution for most people, and when you match that with a single five gallon tank of gas, you’ve got the equivalent of about 15 kWhrs of power, and/or about 35 hours of running time.  If that’s not enough, you can simply store as much extra fuel as you need and are legally allowed to have, and/or get a higher capacity generator.

But if you’re in a situation where either you can’t run a generator – maybe you’re in an apartment with no balcony or outside space to operate the generator, or if you’re in a situation where you need a guaranteed, absolutely-must-work source of power for a short but essential period of time, there’s another solution to consider.

Buy a 12V ‘golf cart’ or other ‘deep cycle’ battery (or two 6V batteries that you’d connect in series).  Note that these are very different to auto starting batteries – do not get a regular car battery.

You also will need a trickle charger to maintain it (them) at full charge.  If the mains power fails, the fully charged battery becomes a source of 12V DC power, and if you connect an inverter, you can get 120V AC power from it too.

This is a clean, totally silent and reasonably compact form of electricity generation and storage.  There is almost no maintenance you need to do – you can just set it up and then forget about it for several years before then testing the battery, perhaps once every six months after that, until you note its capacity has diminished to an unacceptable level.

There might be restrictions on how much fuel you can store in an apartment (either from the landlord or the fire department) and there might be restrictions on running a generator, and you might not want to attract attention to yourself and your generator, either; but none of these constraints apply to batteries and battery power.  They don’t need to be stored outside, and modern non-gassing batteries are perfectly fine indoors to store, to charge, and to use as a power source, especially when connected to an intelligent charger.

If you need a lot of standby power, we’d suggest batteries such as these or these.  Other highly respected battery suppliers include Concorde/Lifeline and Rolls/Surrette.

If you don’t need such an expensive high-capacity battery, then a Trojan U1-AGM is a good entry-level battery, probably costing about $125 or thereabouts.  Trojan make other batteries with successively greater capacities, too.

You then need some sort of trickle charger to keep the battery charged.  We consider the NOCO Genius products to be the very best, and you’ll probably find either the G750 or G1100 to be adequate for your needs.  Neither is very expensive, and because your need is more to maintain a charge rather than to recharge the battery, you don’t need a higher current capacity unit.

If you want your battery to run 110-120V appliances, you’ll need an inverter as well.  Get the lowest powered inverter you need, and use it with caution, because any/all 120V appliances will use up your 12V battery very quickly.  We’d suggest you consider getting whatever emergency appliances you need that are designed to operate off 12V DC (and which are designed to be ultra-efficient, too).  That way you don’t ‘waste’ some of your energy by converting it to 120V and then using it in a device that does not have energy efficiency as its main design criteria.  Many appliances designed for sail boats are high-efficiency 12V units, and you can get many different sorts of 12V LED lighting that provide the most energy efficient source of emergency light.

You could also consider getting a set of solar panels to recharge your battery if you were planning for an extended period of needing the battery, but this would likely only give you a very little bit of top up charge each day, unless you had large panels, and then you’re moving beyond the scope of this article (and should read our full four-part series on storing electricity).  Here’s a single panel system that claims to provide 100W of power, and complete with the necessary charge controller unit too; this is about as good a simple choice as possible before needing to move into complicated bulky and fixed installations.  In reality, we expect you’re more likely to get 50W rather than 100W of charging power from the cells, but if you’ve no other way of recharging your battery, this could give you up to as much as 500 W hrs of extra power each day during the period of your power outage.

If you do get a solar panel system like this, you should trial it to understand how it works and how much power to realistically expect, then carefully put it away and not touch it again until you need to start recharging your battery during your power outage.

One more thing to add to your setup.  A 12V to USB charger/connector – a device that will enable you to recharge all your electronic things that can be charged from a USB port.  These devices typically come in the form of a cigarette lighter type adapter for a motor vehicle – they are perfectly good in that form; although you will then either need to solder leads to the adapter or else get a matching socket to connect to your battery.

Make sure that any such USB power supplies are high current (ie more than 2 Amps) so as to be able to recharge tablets as well as phones and other low current devices.

Summary

Many of us have our homes wired up with heavy-duty generators and transfer switches, and many of us have extensive other power storage facilities of various sorts too.

But sometimes these requirements are overkill.  Sometimes we just need a small amount of power, for a short term solution.  Perhaps it is a relatively benign brief power outage, or perhaps it is such a severe event that we’re forced to get out of Dodge just as quickly as we can rendezvous with the other members of our group.

In such cases, a simple small portable generator, or a fully charged golf cart type battery can give us everything we need, and for under $200.

Jul 132013
 
Perhaps a broken window that lets in wildlife and weather, six months of unattended decay, and your retreat might end up being like this when you arrive.

Perhaps a broken window that lets in wildlife and weather, six months of unattended decay, and your retreat might end up being like this when you arrive.

So you finally find yourself confronted with the need to bug out to your retreat.  The good news is at least you have a bug out location, and you’ve practiced and prepared for the eventuality of having to bug out, unlike most of your neighbors and friends.

You load up your vehicle with everything you need to safely and successfully travel to your retreat, feeling confident and relaxed about having prepared prudently, and set forth.  Because you’ve planned and even practiced this before, you’ve nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong!

In this two-part article series we first look at the problems inevitably associated with bugging out, and then in the second part, consider how to address and solve these problems.

Part One – The Four Problems

It is true that you’re in a better position and have a better prospective future than your un-prepared friends, but your future is far from guaranteed.  Until you get to your retreat, you are as vulnerable as anyone/everyone else – perhaps even more so as you are limited to only what you have in your vehicle – something that offers very little security or resource.  You are now confronting a terrible number of unknowns and variables and risks where anything from random bad luck to more serious things may interfere with your journey to your retreat, your future plans and your future life.

Let’s look at four sets of risks that may interfere with your optimistic expectations.

1.  Getting There Safely

This is probably a risk you’ve thought about already, but just because you’ve thought about it, that doesn’t mean you can protect against it.

Clearly you need to bug out as early as possible, before the rule of law has totally collapsed, before the roads get jam-packed full of other evacuees from your city, and before modern-day ‘highwaymen’ start preying on travelers.

Maybe you are successful at doing this, and manage to beat the rush out of your city, but what happens if you have to travel through other cities on the way to your retreat?  It is one thing to beat everyone out of your city by (say) four hours, but if you need to pass through another city that is four hours driving from the start of your travels, you’ll have no headstart at all on the outflows of desperate people from the second city.  Maybe you beat the rush by a day, but have a two-day drive to your retreat – you’ll be no better off than anyone else on the second day of your travels.

How far is it from where you live to your retreat?  Each mile that you must travel is 1760 yards of potential for a puncture, a radiator hose bursting, or any other sort of unexpected problem with your vehicle.  Each mile that you travel is 5280 feet of risk from any type of unexpected ‘third party’ event – not just evil people doing evil things to you, but ‘innocent’ acts of bad luck such as a traffic accident, perhaps.

Maybe you don’t get involved in an accident yourself, but maybe a semi some miles ahead of you on the freeway has jackknifed and is blocking the freeway, with traffic backed up for miles, and with hours of delay.  Meanwhile you’re burning through your precious gas to keep the car warm (or cool) and you’re at risk of anything and everything in a stationary vehicle.

Talking about weather, do you have any seasonal issues to be concerned about?  Have forest fires ever closed the roads in the summer?  What about snow in the winter?  Remember that you don’t just need the highways to be ploughed and drivable, you need the last few miles of dirt road to your retreat to be passable too.  How will you handle that, if it is an issue?

If you’re in a vehicle visibly loaded with supplies (or, even worse and more conspicuously, towing a trailer), and if word has got out about whatever disaster it is you’re fleeing, you’ve become a tempting tasty target for evil-doers all the way along your route, haven’t you.  Our feeling is that you need to be in an ‘ordinary’ vehicle with no visible amount of extra supplies in it.

It isn’t just evil-doers you need to worry about.  It is do-gooders too.  Maybe the state’s governor has declared martial law and requires all people and vehicles to be off the road during hours of darkness.  So instead of driving all day and all night to your retreat, you suddenly find yourself needing to pull over and anxiously/uncomfortably wait until the morning before you can continue your travels.

Sure, we know that you drive many thousands of miles a year normally, and never have any sorts of problems at all.  But this isn’t normal.  This is anything but normal, and with Murphy’s Law waiting to trap you every possible way, the ‘simple’ act of getting to your retreat will be fraught with risk.

2.  Will Your Retreat be Secure

Okay, we’ll say that you managed the drive to your retreat safely and successfully.  Congratulations.  🙂  And now you’re driving up the driveway, and round the corner, there’s your retreat, ready and waiting to welcome you.

You hope.

What say someone else has decided to make your retreat into their retreat?  What say you arrive to find it already occupied by people who could care less that you say it belongs to you.  They’ve got the retreat, and they’ve got guns and are willing to use them if you don’t leave and abandon your claims to ‘their’ retreat.

Or maybe you find your retreat looted, burned out, vandalized, abandoned, and unlivable.  All your precious preps have disappeared.

Now, please don’t tell us proudly about your ‘op-sec’ and how no-one knows about your retreat.  That’s sadly not true, no matter what you might think and hope.  We discuss the impossibility and the ill-advisedness of trying to keep your retreat secret in our two articles, ‘Is It Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Will Not Be Found‘ and ‘The Ugly Flip-sides of Opsec‘.

Here’s an alarming thought.  Maybe you hire a local person to protect your retreat, and to visit it once or twice a week to make sure it is safe and secure.  But how do you know that he won’t then turn around and make your retreat into his retreat when things go bad?

3.  Will Your Retreat be Functional

Let’s hope for the best, and assume you not only safely made it to your retreat, but that the retreat is still standing, secure, and unoccupied.  Great.  But your problems are not yet over.

You unlock the main door and go in to the house.  You are immediately overwhelmed with the smell of rat urine and feces.  You go to your store rooms and find that you’ve a happy thriving colony of rats, enjoying your supplies, with little or nothing left for you to now survive on.

Or maybe you discover that a pipe burst in the last freeze, and you’ve got water damage throughout the house.

Or maybe some tiles blew off the roof and you’ve had rain and other things coming in through the roof.

Maybe all those things work fine, but you go to flush the toilet and you discover it is blocked.  You don’t know it, but some time over the last year, a tree’s roots broke through the pipe to your septic tank, blocking the flow of water and, ahem, other stuff, and you’re going to have to somehow troubleshoot your problem and fix it.

Maybe you discover that your fuel tanks have rusted through and all your fuel has seeped away, leaving you with empty tanks and polluted ground.

Maybe everything works well, but after a week or two, you discover that there’s a design problem with your heating system, and it keeps giving problems and eventually becomes totally broken.  Or perhaps bad wiring burns out/shorts out your battery system.  Maybe ‘infant mortality’ (the propensity for electronic devices to sometimes fail early in their life) strikes and destroys your charging system or some other essential element of your retreat.

Maybe it is a more low tech problem.  Your well proves not to be capable of sustained supply of water – sure, it tested fine for a 15 minute test, but now you’re using it, day in and day out, it runs dry.  Or the reality of the power your solar cells can provide proves to be massively less than the theoretical amount they should have delivered.  You can probably think of many more vulnerabilities.

There are countless things that can go wrong with a property, both while it is occupied and also while it is unoccupied.  Unless you’ve been using the retreat on a regular and sustained basis, you have no way of knowing if the reality of its practical ability to support you will be the same as its theoretical promises.  You’ve no way of knowing if the equipment and services you’ve built into it will prove to be reliable low-maintenance and sufficient for your needs – indeed, you don’t even know for sure what your actual needs may be.

4.  No Ongoing Farming Activity or Experience

Okay, now let’s assume that none of these preceding three potential problem areas are giving you any grief.  Lucky you!  So let’s now look at the fourth potential issue.

Depending on when you arrive at your retreat, sooner or later you’re going to need to switch from eating from stored food supplies to growing your own future food needs.  And when you do this, if you are doing it for the first time, you’ve a huge new Pandora’s Box of unknown uncertain issues to confront and resolve.

Sure, you’ve got books galore on how to grow your own food, but have you actually ever done it, for real, before?  More to the point, have you done it for several seasons in a row at your actual retreat location?  The answer to this question is almost certainly no.

So now – for the first time – you find yourself grappling with who knows how many problems and issues.  Insects and other infestations and wildlife might attack/destroy/kill/eat all your harvest.  The soil might be lacking in some sort of nutrient – or it might have too much of another type of chemical in it – do you know how to understand and correct that?

You might do a great job of planting and caring for the crops, but when it comes to harvesting, you might discover that you lack the manpower to harvest the food before it spoils.  Sure, you grew a perfect crop, but you only managed to harvest a quarter of it.

You might discover that one part of your property has the wrong type of soil and another part has too much water (or too little water).  Another part might have too little sun.  And protecting your crops from wildlife and diseases will be a full-time job.  All the deer you were so enchanted to see when you first bought the property – what do you think they eat?  Yes, your food!

Farming is something that requires more than book learning.  It requires skill and experience – both in general terms and also in the specific issues and challenges posed by your particular property.  It is more than likely that your first few years of cropping will be full of challenges and disappointments.

If you are raising animals, that too is far from a guaranteed ‘can’t lose’ scenario.  Where do the animals come from to start with?  Who will care for their health?  Where will their feed come from?  Who will slaughter/butcher them?  Where will the meat be stored?

None of these issues are impossible to resolve, but they all assume a great supply of experience and know-how.

Read About Solutions in Part Two

If you’ve read this far, you now understand that bugging out is not as easy as it sounds, and, perhaps more importantly, moving into an empty unused retreat and relying on it instantly becoming the resource you hope it to be is something fraught with many uncertainties and possible problems.

The good news is that these problems are not impossible to solve.  Please now click on to the second part of this article – ‘The Three Solutions to the Four Problems of Bugging Out‘.