Aug 292014
 
A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper.

A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper – sighted at a rest stop somewhere between SD and MN.

A little known side effect of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant problems in Japan was a shortage of toilet paper that affected the entire country.

Japan has had toilet paper shortages before, back in the oil crisis of 1973 (you never thought that expensive and scarce oil would create a toilet paper shortage, did you!) and so the nation has become particularly sensitized to the potential of future shortages.  As a result, the Japanese government is now urging the public to stockpile toilet paper, and has even arranged for a special type of toilet paper roll (without the inner cardboard sleeve) that allows more toilet paper to be stored in less space.  You can read more about their public promotional campaign here.

We see two interesting things about this.  The first is the government’s determination that it could take a month for any disruption in supply to be resolved, either due to factories returning to production or by way of importing supplies from other countries, and so they are recommending everyone keeps at least a one month supply in their homes.

Depending on your point of view, a one month supply is either a generous amount or woefully inadequate.  A lot would rest on the type of disruption to local manufacturing, of course, and if it was a broader global disruption (such as another oil shock) then even a one month supply might be exhausted long before new supplies were on hand.  Of course, this is a Level 1 type preparation only, not a Level 2 or 3.

The second interesting thing is the focus on stockpiling a month of toilet paper.  We don’t disagree with this at all, of course, but how about other things, too?  Like, ummm, water and food?  If toilet paper is liable to disruptions in supply, surely food supplies too have to be considered as being at risk of some future disruptions, and if we had to choose between no toilet paper and no food, well, that’s an easy choice, isn’t it!

Don’t get us wrong.  It is great to see a national government advocate a one month stockpile of anything, but we see this as begging the question – why do we need to maintain a one month supply of toilet paper, but not a one month supply of everything else, too?

May 052014
 
The Champion 3100W inverter/generator - currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

The Champion 3100W inverter/generator – currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

(You can see our definition of levels one, two and three type events here.  It is a useful categorization that provides structure to your problem analysis and preparation planning.)

When some people – particularly preppers – start thinking about generators, they immediately think of enormous noisy diesel standby generators, in special generator sheds, and capable of providing tens of kilowatts of power for extended periods, drawing off multi-hundred gallon storage tanks.  Don’t get us wrong.  We love diesel generators with a passion, and we also agree there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ power.

But these types of installations will typically cost $10,000 and up, will guzzle gas at a rate of several gallons an hour, are definitely impractical for apartment dwellers, and frankly are overkill for the times when you have a short power outage lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  In these short time frames, we can compromise some of the convenience we normally enjoy with abundant and available power throughout our home, and also avoid needing to adjourn to our retreat to ride out the problem.

All we want is a small convenient and ‘low profile’ portable generator that we can run without drawing way too much attention to ourselves, and keep the essential parts of our home operating.

No matter if you have major industrial-grade generators or not, we suggest everyone should have one of these small generators – and here’s the key concept.  Get a small one.  Don’t ‘over-engineer’ the problem and end up buying something that generates enough power for you to have every appliance in your house all operating simultaneously.  For a short outage, all you need is lighting, some essential electronics, and some power to share between your fridge and freezer at times, maybe a stove top or other cooking facility at other times, and perhaps heating or cooling at still other times.

How Much Generating Power Do You Need?

We repeat.  Don’t over-engineer things.  And note the question.  We’re not asking how much power you want, or would like.  We’re asking how much you need, in order to sustain life and a moderate level of comfort and security, for a short duration of no more than a few days.

So, to sustain life, you need air, shelter, water and food, right?  Let’s think about each of those.

Air – hopefully you already have air!  And hopefully also you can get fresh air without needing to drive some sort of fan or other motorized appliance.  So presumably this does not need power.

Shelter – a bit more complicated.  We’re assuming that you’re in your regular residence and it is unharmed, so you have four walls and a roof already.  But also part of shelter is some amount of heating or cooling.  You know the seasonal weather extremes for where you live and you also know what you have installed in the form of hvac appliances.  But perhaps for a short-term solution, you should not aim to heat/cool your entire residence, but work out a heating/cooling plan for just a couple of rooms only.

Maybe you have a central hvac system, and in the winter you only need a small amount of power to drive the fan, with heat coming from natural gas.  That would be ideal, and natural gas seems to continue flowing, no matter what happens to the power.  But, even so, humor yourself next winter-time.  Do a ‘what if’ worst case scenario test and see how many 1500 W heaters you would need to keep a central living area warm without your hvac.  Hopefully you’ll be able to get by with only one.

As for summer, again perhaps you have a central air system, but for the purposes of this exercise, can you also have a window unit that controls temperatures in just one room?  A small generator is probably inadequate to handle the power needs of a central air system, but is probably suitable for a typical RV sized 13,500 – 15,000 BTU type unit.

One other part of shelter – some lighting.  Perhaps now is the time to start picking up LED lights when you see them on sale, so that you are getting maximum light for minimum watts.  Indeed, the LED lighting is so good (and so long-lived) that there’s no reason not to use them all the time, in all your lights.

So – heating, cooling, and lights.  That’s pretty much everything you need for short-term shelter requirements, right?  Maybe you have something else to also plan for, like a cellar sump pump?  Try not to overlook anything else that might be essential.

Water – do you have any water pumps (under your control, as opposed to operated by the building you live in)?  If not, then hopefully (maybe) you’ll continue to get water from your taps during a power outage, and if you don’t, that’s a matter for another article.  And what about waste water?  Some people have macerator units on their toilets, or pumps operating their septic system, but other than that, most of us have gravity powered waste water systems (at least out of our house, beyond that, in the city system, there might be other issues, which are again outside the purview of an article about low powered home generators!).

The only other consideration about water would be if you wanted warm/hot water.  If you have gas water heating, maybe you have an electronic pilot light (although these are not so common on hot water heaters) in which case you need power for the hot water to work.  Otherwise, if you have electric hot water heating, that will be a problem, because the elements in your water heater probably draw 5kW – 10kW of power, and that is more than you should reasonably expect from a small portable generator.

There are two workarounds for that.  The first is a small ‘under sink’ type water heater.  The other is to simply heat up or boil water on your stove top.  Worst case scenario, if you have to go without long hot baths/showers for a few days, that’s truly not the end of the world.

Food –  There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to food.  The first is food storage – ie, your fridge and freezer.  Ideally you want to keep these powered up, at least some of the time, so you don’t have all the food in your freezer spoil, and so you are able to maintain a cool temperature in your fridge too, besides which, depending on the nature of the power outage, you might need that food to live on.  Find out how much power your fridge (and freezer, if separate) use when they’re running; we’ll tell you what to do with those numbers in a minute or two.

The second part of food power needs is cooking your food.  There are several ways you can prepare food using relatively small amounts of power.  Your microwave is an efficient and effective way of preparing many food items.  A small toaster oven is another choice, and a stand-alone hotplate/element is a third choice.  You might also want an electric jug/kettle for boiling water for coffee and other purposes.  Indeed, why limit yourself – get all these items (if you don’t have them already).  None of them cost much more than $50 a piece at Costco or on Amazon.

Make a note of the power requirements for such items.

Everything Else – Okay, now we’ve covered the absolute essentials, but what else might also appear on a list of things you really need to be able to provide power to?  We’d certainly agree that you need to have half a dozen watts on hand for your phone charger, and maybe a few more watts for a radio or even a television.  For that matter, in the unlikely event that your internet connection is up, we’d not begrudge you the power cost of turning on your cable modem, Wi-Fi router and computer for an hour or two, a few times a day.

Maybe you have some medical equipment you need to operate.  And maybe you don’t want to have your generator running 24/7, and so have some batteries that you charge during the day and run your essential nighttime electrical circuits from at night.

Adding it All Up

Now that you’ve made a list of all the items you need power for, you’ll see there’s probably nothing on the list that needs to be receiving power, every hour, every day.  So this is where you now get to make a little bit of power go a long way.  You do this by letting your appliances take turns at the power from your generator.

For example, you know you’ll only need cooking appliances on a couple of times a day.  You also know that your fridge and freezer can go quite well for an hour or so (fridge) or half a day or longer (freezer) at a time with no power (especially if you keep their door shut!), and you also know that you can ‘play games’ with any heating or cooling, so that some of the day it is on, but some of the day it is not.

So what you should do is arrange it that you either have a cooking appliance, a fridge or freezer, or some hvac equipment running, but never all of these items at the same time.  How do you do that?  Simple.  Have plugs from all the devices sharing one (or two) sockets.  That way you can only have one item plugged in at a time.  Maybe you have some devices that would take up all the power, and three or four other devices that could run, any two at a time, and one or two devices that can be on or off at any time and it doesn’t really matter, because the power they draw is so low.

What you’d do is you’d have the output from your generator going first to a power strip that has all the small power devices connected to it, and one remaining socket.  You would have a collection of plugs next to this socket, and obviously only one of them can be plugged in at a time.  You might have a plug for your a/c, and another plug going to something else, and then one more plug that goes to a second power strip, on which you’ve blocked out all but two of the sockets, and you have a collection of plugs alongside that, so that any two of them can be connected at the same time.

That way it is physically impossible to overload your system, because the way you have your plugs and sockets lined up prevents that.

You can – and should – also have a power meter in series with all of this to monitor the actual power draw (see below).  Or perhaps manage all this with an Arduino based power management system.

Allowing for Surge and Starting Power

Most electric motors draw considerably more power when they are starting than when they are running at their normal speed.  This surge or starting power draw can be two or three times their running power – in other words, a 1 kW motor might have a surge/start power demand of 2.5 kW.  Some types of motors will draw as much as four, five or six times their normal running power while starting up.

This surge/starting power can last for as little as half a second or as long as three or four seconds, and starts off at the very highest level and then steadily declines down to normal running power at the end of the startup phase.

Most traditional generators will quote you two ratings – a rated or standard load, and a peak or maximum load.  So if your theoretical motor, with its 1 kW normal power draw and its starting power requirement of 2.5kW was to be matched to a generator, you should get one with a rated or standard load of at least 1 kW and a peak or maximum load of at least 2.5 kW.

But what say you have four devices, each of a 1 kW standard load and a 2.5 kW starting load?  Does that mean you need a 4 kW generator that can handle a 10 kW peak?  Happily, no.  It is normal to assume that you’ll never have multiple devices all starting simultaneously.  Because the starting load is so brief, and also quickly starts dropping down from maximum, this assumption is usually acceptable in most environments.  So in this example, you’d want a 4 kW generator with a 5.5 kW max load rating.

Choosing a Suitable Small Generator

Our expectation is that you’ll end up with a power need in the order of about 3kW; maybe a bit less, and if it is much more than that, you’ve failed to correctly differentiate between ‘need’ and ‘would like’!

The good news is that there are very many different models in this general power range to choose from.  But that’s also the bad news.  How to make a sensible buying decision with so many choices?

Well, there are a few things to consider that will help steer you in the right direction.

The first is that you want the generator motor to be four-stroke not two-stroke (ie separate oil and gas, rather than mixing the two together).  Four stroke motors tend to be more fuel-efficient and more reliable.

The second is that you want the generator to be as quiet as possible.  Some generators publish ratings on how noisy they are, but unfortunately there’s no universal standard for how this should be measured.  If you see a noise rating, it should be quoted in either dB, dBA, dBC, or possibly some other type of dB measurement.  It would be helpful to know if it was measured at full load, half load, or idle (there can be more than a 10 dB difference between idle and full load), and at what distance from the generator the measurement was made.  Was it in an open area or an enclosed room?  Was it a hard concrete floor or something more sound absorbing?

It is difficult to convert between the different type of decibel measurements, because the different weightings or adjustments that are implied by the letter A, B, C or D after the dB vary depending on the frequency of the sound being measured.  As a rule of thumb, though, the same sound probably registers lowest on the dBA scale, and slightly low on the dBC scale, and higher on the plain dB scale.  You’ll seldom/never see dBB or dBD.  Oh, to add to the confusion, some suppliers sometimes use the term dB and dBA interchangeably, even though they are actually very different.

You can sometimes get a sense for how loud generators are, even if they are not specified, by reading reviews on sites like Amazon.  Chances are someone will compare any given generator’s sound level to another generator, and then you can start to work from there to understand at least the relative loudnesses, and if one of the generators does have a published sound rating, then you know if the other one is above or below that figure.

A good generator has a sound level of under 60 dBA under at least half load when measured on a concrete floor from 7 meters (23 feet) away and with reflective walls 100 ft (30.4 meters) away, and with a very quiet ambient noise background (ie 45 dB).

Another relevant issue is fuel economy and run time.  These are two slightly different measures.  Fuel economy can be thought of in terms of ‘how many kWh of energy will this generator give me per gallon of gas it burns’.  An easy way to work that out is to see how many gallons of fuel an hour it burns, and at what load level.  For example, a 4 kW generator, running at 50% load, and burning 0.4 gallons of fuel an hour is giving you (4 * 50%) 2 kWh of energy for each 0.4 gallon of fuel, ie, 5 kWh per gallon of fuel.  The more kWh per gallon, the better.

The run time issue is similar but different.  It simply measures how long the generator will run on a single tank of gas.  Sure, the more fuel-efficient the engine, the longer each gallon of gas will last, but probably the biggest factor in run time is simply the size of the gas tank on the generator.  Run time means nothing when trying to get a feeling for gallons/hour of fuel use, unless you know how many gallons in the tank that are being consumed.

In theory, you should turn the generator off when re-fueling, and even if you don’t do this, it is always an inconvenient hassle, and so the longer the run time per tank of fuel, the happier you’ll be.

Make sure you understand, when looking at a run time claim, what the load factor on the generator is.  Needless to say, all generators will run much longer at 25% load than at 100% load.

One other nice feature, although one to be used with caution, is a 12V DC power outlet that might be suitable for some crude battery charging, depending on what its true output voltage might be.  But be careful – charging batteries is a very tricky business and perhaps it is more sensible to charge the batteries through a charge controlling device, and from the generator’s 110V main output.

An obvious consideration, but we mention it, just in case, is the generator’s size and weight.  The smaller it is, the easier it is to store somewhere convenient, and the lighter it is, the easier it will be to deploy when you need it.  Oh – do we need to state the obvious?  Don’t run a generator inside.  You must keep the motor exhaust well away from the air you breathe.

Something that is often underlooked or obscured is the quality of the a/c power and its waveform.  How close to a pure sine wave is the power that comes out of the generator?  This doesn’t really matter for resistive loads like a heater, but for motors and electronic circuitry, the ‘cleaner’ the wave form the better.  The only way to be certain about this is to connect the generator output up to an oscilloscope, but that’s not something that is easy for many of us to do.

There is a new type of generator now becoming more prevalent which not only has an excellent pure sine wave form of a/c power, but offers a number of other benefits too.

Inverter/Generators

(Note – do not confuse an inverter/generator with a standalone inverter.  A standalone inverter converts DC power to AC power, typically from 12V DC up to 110V AC.  It does not have a generator connected to it.)

A typical generator (well, what we call a generator actually is a motor that runs an alternator) runs at a steady speed of 3600 rpm so that the power that comes out of the alternator will be automatically at 60 Hz (mains frequency).  The a/c waveform will be a little bit rough and noisy, which can be a problem when powering more delicate electronics.  Also, the engine is having to run at 3600 rpm, no matter if it is heavily loaded or very lightly loaded with power consuming devices because the frequency of the power generated is dependent on the speed of the motor.  This makes the motor noisier than it needs to be, and at lower power loads, makes it less efficient because it is using a lot of power just to spin itself around.  If the engine speed should fluctuate, so too will the frequency of the supplied power and that also can cause problems with electronic items.

Modern high quality generators take a different approach.  They generate a/c power at any frequency at all – it doesn’t matter what frequency, because they then convert the a/c power into DC power.  Then, in a second stage, they use an electronic inverter to convert the DC power into (at least in theory) a very clean pure a/c sinusoidal wave form at 110V.  You have a much nicer wave form, and because the generator can spin at any speed, the generator does not need to be so powered up if generating only a light load of power, making it typically quieter and more fuel-efficient (up to almost 50% more fuel-efficient).  On the downside, inverter/generators are currently more expensive, and have slightly more complicated electronics.  But for the type of application we are considering, they are usually vastly preferable.

Some inverter generators have a nifty feature.  You can double them up – if you connect the generator to another identical generator, using a special connecting cable that synchronizes the a/c output waveform of the two generators together, you can get twice the power.  You might say that it is better to have two 2kW generators rather than one 4kW generator, because that way, you have redundancy.  Anything could fail and you still have half your generating power.

Another nice thing about most inverter/generators is that they have been designed, right from the get-go, to be small, compact, lightweight, and quiet.  That’s not to say that they will be totally undetectable when operating, but they won’t be anything like as noisy as traditional generators that can be as loud as motor mowers, and if quiet operation is really important to you, some additional external baffling in the form of some sort of operating enclosure could drop the sound level down even further.

Their compact size and generally light weight makes it practical for them to do double duty not just as an emergency generator that gets ceremonially wheeled out of the garage when the power goes off (or, even worse, that resides in its own special building), but also as a go anywhere/take anywhere general purpose generator, useful for outdoors events, camping, remote building sites, and so on.

An obvious consideration for any generator is the cost.  With the constantly changing mix of models, ratings, and prices, we’ll not get too specific other than to observe that at the time of writing, it seems you’re likely going to be writing out a check for a little less than $1000 for a good inverter/generator with about a 3 kW rating, which is about twice what you’d pay for a regular generator without the inverter stage.  We expect this price differential to drop, but please don’t wait for that to happen before you get one!

Here is Amazon’s current listingof gasoline fueled generators.  Some are inverter/generators, others aren’t.  Some are California emissions compliant (CARB), others aren’t.

If we had to select a favorite, we’d probably nominate the Champion 3100W unit, or failing that, one or a doubled up pair of the Champion 2000W units.

How to Measure the Real Current/Power Used by Your Appliances

Devices such as this, costing $16 - $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Devices such as this, costing $16 – $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Maybe you have a computer with a 450 watt power supply.  Does that mean the computer actually is drawing 450 watts of power all the time it is on?  Almost certainly, not (a typical computer might consume only 50W of power, maybe even less, plus another 50W of power separately for its screen).  Maybe you have something else with a power rating plate on the back ‘110V 10A’ – does that mean it is drawing 10 amps all the time it is on?  Again, probably not.  A 10A rated device probably includes all lesser amounts of power too, and they simply put 10A on the plate as a conservative overstatement that wouldn’t cause them problems in the future.  (Note – resistive devices such as heaters tend to have more accurately plated power requirements.)

It is normal for appliances to show their theoretical maximum power draw rather than their normal power draw on their labeling.  While you need to leave a bit of ‘headroom’ to allow for occasionally one or another of your appliances peaking up higher to full power, it is acceptable to assume that most of the time, most of them will be using average rather than maximum power.

So how do you work out how much power your appliances are really truly drawing?  Easy.  There are devices that you plug in between the appliance and the wall, and they measure the power consumption of whatever is plugged into them.  Indeed, you don’t need to plug only one appliance into one of these measuring devices – we’ll sometimes plug a power strip into the measuring device, and then connect a bunch of equipment to it.

As you can see, Amazon sell such units for as little as $16.  Although there are some new low price units, we have always bought the only slightly more expensive Kill a Watt brand monitors.  You only need to get one to be able to work your way around your house testing everything.

In addition to showing you the instantaneous power usage, the Kill a Watt unit has another useful function – it can also show you total energy used over time.  When would this be useful?  Think of something that cycles on and off, such as your fridge.  You can measure how much power it uses when it is on, and you can guesstimate how much extra power to allow for when it first starts up, but how much power does it use per day?  Unless you stand over your fridge nonstop, day and night, carefully noting the minutes it is on and the minutes it is off, you’ll have no accurate way of knowing this.  But with the Kill a Watt meter, you simply plug the fridge in, check it is zeroed, then come back in a day or two and note the total hours elapsed and the total kWh used.  How easy is that!

(Note that if you are doing these calculations, you should check for different total energy consumption rates based on hot and cold weather, on opening the fridge a lot or a little, on placing hot foodstuffs into the fridge, and so on.  You’ll find that your daily average usage will vary enormously from some ‘good’ days to some not so good days.

How to Measure the Actual Power Being Provided by Your Generator

Your objective, much of the time, will be to run your generator at about 75% of full power.  At power levels much above this, or at power levels much below 50%, your economy will start to suffer and you’ll be getting fewer kWh of electricity per gallon of gas.

But how do you know how much power you are taking from the generator?  Easy.  Use the same Kill a Watt meter you used to calculate your power draws, and plug it into the generator then plug all power loads into a power strip plugged into the Kill a Watt.  That will tell you exactly the power you use.

You can use this information to know when you can add extra power loads to your generator, and when you are close to maxed out.

Two Notes About Fuel Storage

Many cities and many landlords have restrictions on how much fuel you can store at your residence, and probably also on the types of containers you can store the fuel in.  Sometimes these limits are per address, sometimes they are per building (which might mean you could keep fuel in a garden shed as well as in your garage and as well as in your house, too).

Enforcement of such bylaws is typically done ‘after the fact’ – ie, if you have a fire and it becomes apparent you had a mega-fuel dump in your garage, then you may find yourself being asked some awkward questions, not only by the fire marshal, but quite likely by your insurance company, too.  By the way, it is not always easy to tell, after a fire, exactly how much fuel was stored in each container, particularly if they were all in the one area.  It is probably possible to see how many fuel cans you had, but harder to tell which ones were full, which were half full, and which had only a couple of pints in the bottom.

It might pay to familiarize yourself with these requirements, and if you have a large number of half empty fuel containers, you better be sure you can explain why.

That also points to another benefit of a fuel-efficient low powered inverter/generator.  If you are trying not to trespass too far into ‘forbidden territory’ in terms of the fuel you store, then the more hours you can run your generator on a small amount of fuel, the better.

Secondly, gasoline (and most other liquid fuels) has a surprisingly limited life.  You can store it for three months with no ill effects, but after about six months, you’ll start to encounter problems.  Our article about fuel storage tells you more about these issues and also recommends the best form of fuel life extending chemicals.

Maintaining Your Generator

We hate internal combustion powered equipment, and avoid it wherever we can, particularly for things we only use rarely.  They can be difficult to store and unreliable in operation after extended storage.  Electrically powered items are generally very much better.

But in the case of a generator, you have no effective alternative to some sort of internal combustion powered device, and so you’ll need to be attentive to the manufacturer’s recommendations about periodic maintenance.  Not quite so clearly stated is the need to also be sensitive to the age of your fuel and managing that, so you aren’t running old untreated fuel in your generator.  Also not stated, but in our opinion very important, is to run your generator for several hours, perhaps once a quarter.  Solstices and equinoxes are the trigger dates we use for all sorts of maintenance items (other people use daylight saving start/end dates for things that need maintaining less frequently).

One other thought.  It might be useful to keep a spray can of engine starter fluid as a way of helping your generator come to life if it has been too long since it last ran and it is proving reluctant to start, particularly on a cold day.  Some generators start more readily than others.

Summary

A small, lightweight, and almost silent emergency generator can allow you to keep power on in your normal home, even when the lights are out all around you.  While we have nothing against larger systems that will power your entire home (and have one ourselves), if you’re not ready for a ‘full-on’ system and the costs and complications associated with it, a simple portable inverter/generator will give you enough power to make the difference between great discomfort and only moderate inconvenience.

These small units are also invaluable for apartment dwellers.

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.

Jun 052013
 
Prepping is open to all, no matter race, color or creed.

Prepping is open to all, no matter race, color or creed.

We received an interesting email from a reader – let’s call him Bill.  He writes :

My family and I are well aware of what is coming down the pike in terms of serious unrest due to a collapsed society.  However we are barely making it financially due to low paying jobs and we have no savings.

We would like to know how can we begin to prepare and most importantly how can we use what little resources to pool with other preppers or like-minded individual so that our family can at least have a chance to survive.

Also because we live in Billings MT, how can we navigate this area to get to people who won’t hold Our RACE (African-American) against us.

Please help us with this if you can.  Thanks, Bill.

Bill raises two very good points (thanks, Bill!).  Let’s look at Bill’s last point, first.

Preppers and Discrimination

Preppers are color blind.  We, perhaps more than any other group in the country, look at a man and first see who he is, what he can do, how he could contribute to our community, what talents and skills he has, and only after considering all these things, notice if he is white, yellow, brown, black or, for that matter, purple with blue stripes (okay, so we’d probably notice that up front!).

Preppers are least likely to be racist in either sense of the word.  They don’t automatically react negatively to any particular race, but also, neither do they automatically believe that any race deserves entitlements or special allowances or anything else.  We treat everyone the same – they are as good as they are.  They’re not any better, but they’re not any worse, either.

It is unfortunate that there is this vague fuzzy linkage that some people perceive between ‘prepping’ and being a ‘survivalist’ which then leads to being a ‘wild mountain man’ which ends up implying either that we are the Unabomber or an Aryan supremacist.

This is unfortunate nonsense.  We are of course nothing more than ordinary folks, added to which is having a responsible concern about our future and a desire to safeguard it.

So, when it comes to discrimination, we know all about it, because we are ourselves discriminated against.  We are sneered at, we are ridiculed, we are insulted, and we are typecast as something we’re not and never have been.

If anything, a typical prepper is probably less concerned about a person’s origins than is common for most other groups in society.  All that matters to us is that you’re not expecting special treatment, and that you’ll pull your own weight as an equal honest productive decent member of society.

This isn’t just me being idealistic.  It is a common thread running through most leading prepper sites and advocates.  I have to believe it is reflected among preppers in general, because it is rational and sensible, and surely preppers, more than anyone else, are the most rational and sensible of people!

So, Bill, hurry to find us and join us.  We understand the challenges you have when people are quick to judge you by applying inappropriate labels just because it is convenient for them to do so; rather than to challenge their prejudices.  But also beware – if you join with us, you might find yourself now doubly pre-judged, being now guilty of being both black and a prepper!  The only good thing is that such stupid people will struggle to also consider you a white supremacist.  🙂

Now for the specific question Bill raises, about how to prepare on a very low-income/budget.

Prepping on a Low Income

This is a huge topic that needs lengthy article series devoted to it (and we’ll doubtless publish some in the future).

But, as some quick commentary in timely reply to Bill’s question, the good news is he isn’t locked in to a high paying job where he currently is.  Maybe it is relatively easy for him to move west some, and to seek alternate employment in one of the small towns in NW Montana.  If he can do that, then he’s much of the way to where he needs to be, both literally and figuratively.

There’s a curious reality in Bill’s position (and that of the many other people in a similar situation).  By not earning a lot of money, he is actually freer to make lifestyle changes than would be the case if he had a job paying, say, $7,000 a month, but with a mortgage, car payments, and other commitments soaking up nearly all of the $7,000.  He has less to lose by changing jobs, and more to gain.

Moving to a safer more viable location is a huge plus, allowing Bill and his family to then consider a future strategy that involves surviving in place rather than needing to create a separate retreat.  That’s a huge plus.  As part of a surviving in place strategy, it is essential to integrate into your local community on as many levels and via as many paths as possible – we’ve several very relevant articles in our section on community related issues, in particular the article on becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem when your community confronts the stresses arising from WTSHTF.

The next thing for Bill to consider is building up a stockpile of essentials to get him and his family through difficult times.

The first essential thing to possess, in a case where you don’t have a lot of cash, is (are) skill(s).  Indeed, if we had to choose between having a bank full of cash or an in-demand skill, we’d take the skill every time.  As we’ve written about at length, cash will quickly become valueless WTSHTF, whereas if you have an appropriate skill, it will become much more valuable.  That’s not to say that cash, now, isn’t a nice thing to have, but longer term, skills are more valuable.  They don’t run out, and they are more easily transported and converted into other things.

Ideally, you should learn a trade that you can simultaneously hopefully work at now, and also which will continue to be needed in the future.  There are very many such trades, and you’ll know if the work you do is a job that is likely to continue to be needed in the future or not.

A computer programmer?  Probably not.  An investment banker?  Also probably not.  And – gulp – an internet writer?  Hmmm…..  But if you are a basic service provider of some sort, with a skill/trade, and if the things you do/work on are things that will continue to be relevant in the future WTSHTF, then you’re well on your way to successfully surviving.

Note that the skill/trade you develop needs to be one that not only will be relevant in a lower-tech, grid-down, fuel and energy scarce economy, but also needs to be one which can be performed using low-tech tools and equipment.  Furthermore, if it is a type of service or activity which requires consumables, you’ll need to stockpile up on those consumables now, with the assumption being any and all supplies you’ll need to continue your work in a Level 2/3 situation will become essentially unavailable.

So the most valuable asset to accumulate is a productive skill.  That will be most beneficial in the medium and longer terms.  But, short-term, there will definitely be challenges as the local economy goes through an upheaval, so you do need to build up an inventory of essential things to live on/with/from, too.  It is very likely that there’ll be a period of some days, weeks, possibly even months as things adjust to the new reality where very little work and income will be available to anyone, no matter how essential their skills and services.  An economist would say this is due to the market becoming very inefficient, we’ll simply say ‘trust us on this’.  🙂

One way to stockpile food and other supplies on a very limited budget is to build a ‘food coop’ with other local families and work it so you buy a bulk and cheaper supply of food items than you’d normally buy yourself, splitting each purchase up between the members of your coop.  Instead of buying food, one meal sized portion at a time, from the local supermarket, you buy food ten or twenty meal sized portions at a time, and buy from Costco or the local wholesale grocery supply store.  Spread that between several different families, and then you’ll discover some magic.  The money you were previously spending to buy one meal is now stretching to buy you two.

Now for the important part.  Put the extra food that you got with your money into your preparedness store, meaning you paid what you’d normally pay for one unit of food, you received the one unit you need, and you also got some extra bonus which you’re now using to grow your food supply.  If you continue that way, you’ll find your store of extra food is slowly growing, and at no cost.

As you start to grow a food supply, the next thing to do is to now start shifting the money you’re saving by buying food in bulk and instead of using it to accumulate food, use the savings to start accumulating other essential items you need.

As for water, the key constraint with water is not the cost of the water, but means to store it.  What we do ourselves is to keep all the empty glass and some of the empty plastic containers we use, thoroughly clean them out, then fill them to the absolute top with boiled water and store them in a cool dark place.

We fill them with boiled water, all the way to the top, so as to keep as little oxygen mixed in with the water as possible, thereby discouraging the growth of whatever nasty things there are that might otherwise start to grow in the water.  We have these stored in date order, and every few years, we’ll empty and refill them again in sequence, on a rolling basis, so we always have a mix of ‘new’ and ‘old’ water.

We also have water purification equipment so that we can ‘make’ our own clean water from whatever other sources come to hand.

We’re not saying any of this is easy, and for sure, we all wish we could win the lottery and be able to prep free of financial constraints.

Don’t expect to instantly create a ten-year supply of everything.  But start off building up a 24 hour reserve, then grow it as best you can, and if you consistently keep doing this, before you know it, you’ll find yourself massively better prepared than you are today.

It is amazing also how some life-style changes can make major differences in the amount of disposable cash remaining out of each paycheck.  We know some people with fairly high incomes who are poor, living from paycheck to paycheck, because they waste so much of their money.  And we know some people with low incomes but who have surplus discretionary cash as a result of living carefully.

Don’t eat out so much.  Cook food from basics, rather than heat up prepared foods.  Eat more vegetables and fruit and less steak.  We’re not saying you should give up smoking and drinking if those are (two of) your vices, but maybe smoke/drink a little less, and choose a slightly cheaper brand.  Downgrade your cable tv package.  Don’t go to movies as often.  Plan your travels in your car so instead of making two separate trips, you do everything in one trip.

Pay down high interest debt, and don’t fall into the careless trap of running up late and overdraft fees.

Stop buying Starbucks coffees, and instead make yourself a coffee at home to take with you.  Even make a box lunch rather than buy take-out each lunchtime.  And so on.

The most important suggestion we have is to remember the old saying about how a successful journey is made not in a single leap, but by a consistent ongoing series of small steps, all in hopefully the correct direction.

It is amazing the difference that small tweaks change.  We estimate that by planning our driving, we save probably $30/week in gas for our vehicle alone, and if you use a rule of thumb that other costs for a vehicle are about the same as the gas cost, that means we’re saving $60 – plus, by better managing our travels, we have more free time and waste less of it stuck in traffic.  More money, and more time to spend it – oooops.  Nope, that’s not right.  More money, and more time to develop new skills.  🙂

Don’t go looking for easy answers.  They don’t exist.  But don’t despair.  Simply dedicate yourself to a slow steady series of steps moving you closer and closer to your goal.

Summary

Although it is true that many very wealthy people do invest heavily into prepping for their future, being a prepper is not something exclusively reserved to members of the unofficial ‘rich white boy’ club alone.

Preppers span the entire spectrum of age, race, income, occupation, education, and every other demographic you can consider.

Prepping is an inclusionary concept – we who currently prep always welcome more people to join us and become preppers too, because the better prepped our neighbors are, the more likely they are to positively ‘add value’ and help us mutually survive in a future adverse scenario, and the less likely they are to become a problem.

So, Bill, please take heart and in good cheer move your own prepping forward as best you can.

Mar 162013
 
Earthquake danger zones in WA, OR, ID, MT.

Earthquake danger zones in WA, OR, ID, MT.

On Monday we quoted officials in Los Angeles who bravely told the truth and agreed it would be more than three days before any type of relief could be deployed to people after a major earthquake.

Their take – people should have enough on hand to be self-sufficient for at least two weeks.

On Friday a second story comes out, this time from Seattle, and with Oregon and San Francisco data also linked.  In a more detailed article and analysis, the Seattle Times looked at the likely consequences of a major but not improbably large earthquake occurring in the WA/OR region.

This chart, using information drawn from a Washington State Seismic Safety Committee report, shows the current shortfall between target recovery times and expected recovery times.

The complete 34 page report is available here and on its page 12 is the earthquake danger zone image we use above and an explanation of what it shows.

An earlier document here is also helpful in understanding weaknesses, vulnerabilities and dependencies.

Not Three Days.  And Not Two Weeks.  More Like Many Months.

We don’t know who started the ‘you should prepare for a three-day outage/disruption’ myth, and perhaps the originator’s intentions were good – on the basis that a three-day supply of life’s essentials are better than no supply at all.

But these reports abundantly show that after three days, there will still be next to no infrastructure or emergency support at all if the disruptive event is substantial in nature.

Furthermore, why do the quoted officials now talk about two weeks as the time period people should prepare for?  Their own studies show that two weeks is also a massively inadequate time frame.  Look at the data in their own reports (click the links above).

You can live without water for three days, but the target to restore water services is a week, and the current reality of when water supplies would be restored is an entire year.  Neither the target nor the reality seem close to acceptable, and clearly we must have our own water supplies.

One month for electricity, oil, gas, phone and internet service restoration – that’s the target.  The actual time to restore these services is currently projected at three months.  Okay, maybe you can live without the internet for three months, but without electricity or gas, and no oil products either (ie no petrol or diesel)?

Oregon data is not so clearly presented, but can be seen on the website of their Office of Emergency Management.  Kent Yu, who chaired their Oregon’s resilience planning, is quoted as saying that the current advice to stock up on enough water and food to last three days is laughable.  But his proposed alternative is only slightly less inappropriate, when he says ‘You need to prepare for at least two weeks’.  Clearly the emphasis in his statement needs to be on the modifying phrase ‘at least’.

The Seattle Times article lightly touches on the inter-connected nature of disaster recovery when it points out that if there’s no petrol and diesel, relief crews can’t get to where they need to go, and heavy machinery can’t operate.  But one wonders just how many inter-connected challenges will only be discovered after a disaster, and one wonders whether the current projected recovery times are realistic or wildly optimistic.

For example, the article correctly explains that replacement high voltage transformers would have to be built overseas and shipped here.  But the article says that this can take six months to a year – a statement that implies 6 – 12 months is an unusually long period of time.  In reality, most other analyses and real world experience points to lead times closer to 3 years from ordering to installing a new high voltage transformer.  And, for sure, if there were a sudden surge in demand for replacement transformers, no matter what the current lead times may be, the lead times for an unexpected sudden increase in demand would stretch way out.

Official Projections for San Francisco, Too

It is also interesting to view the seventh and eighth slides in this presentation that show the shortfall between targeted ideal response/recovery times and actual expected response times in San Francisco.  In particular, note how hospitals, which ideally would be disaster resistant, are expected to be out of service for up to 36 months, and emergency utilities, which ideally should be restored within four hours, are expected to be out for 60 days.  Utilities for non-emergency services, which should be restored within 72 hours, are expected to stay out for 60 days.

Also notable is the desire to allow 95% of citizens to be able to shelter in place in their homes within 24 hours of an emergency, but the reality suggests it could take up to 36 months for 95% of citizens to return to their homes (and longer for the unlucky remaining 5%).

A more detailed analysis on the sixth page of this presentation shows in San Francisco that the authorities actually project that only 85% of residents will be back in their homes within 36 months, leaving now 15% still homeless three years after the event.

So, what about public shelters?  The aim is to have them operating within 24 hours, the current reality is it might take four months to get them online.

So, here’s the question to ask your non-prepped friends.  If it takes three years or more to be able to return home, and four months before you can live in a public shelter, and 60 days before there’s any power or water, what are you going to do until then?

Summary

The Washington State Seismic Safety Committee has, as its objective, a 50 year plan to improve the state’s ability to respond to a major (but not improbable) earthquake.  Who knows how long it will actually take, and at present, it has not received any funding or support even to move forward on its 50 year plan.

So, for apparently the next 50 years or more in WA, the official state studies confirm what you already know.  You’ll be on your own for too long, and if you’re not prepared, your very survival is gravely at risk.

Similar studies in Oregon and San Francisco have similar findings.

We don’t know where the myth of ‘prepare for a three-day outage’ comes from, and even the new claim of two weeks seems wildly optimistic too.  These studies all convincingly point to best case scenarios of weeks, months, and in some cases years of outages.

Share this article and our earlier article with your non-prepper friends to show them it isn’t just you who advocates self-sufficiency.  The very people your non-prepper friends hope to save them are saying that they can’t do this.  It is up to us.

Mar 112013
 
Simultaneous fire and flood after Japan's March 2011 earthquake.

Simultaneous fire and flood after Japan’s March 2011 earthquake.

Even though it is we who should be making fun of them (and of course we don’t – at least not to their faces), non-preppers like to poke fun at us, and to suggest that we’re in some way foolish, maybe paranoid, and definitely being unnecessarily worried about things we have no reason to worry about.

Unspoken in their thoughts is always the concept that if prepping were prudent, surely the government would either do it for us, or encourage us to do it ourselves.

The curious thing about this perception is that – if they only cared to look and listen – they’d see plenty of examples of government departments at city, county, state and federal levels all encouraging us to become semi-self-sufficient for varying amounts of time.

Here’s the most recent example.

Los Angeles held a memorial ceremony today to commemorate the second anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake in Japan, an event that killed 18,000 and destroyed 300,000 homes, to say nothing of the consequential tsunami which damaged three nuclear reactors and caused the second worst ever release of radiation as a result (only Chernobyl was worse), with fallout spreading even to the US (and causing a panic rush on Potassium Iodide supplies to the point where individual tablets started selling for more than entire bottles previously did).

Fire department officials attending the ceremony urged the public to prepare for future disasters, and said people needed to be able to cope for being at least ‘two weeks on your own’.

Fire Battalion Chief Larry Collins added

The message for a lot of us needs to be, ‘Be ready for anything’.  The message used to be 72 hours, but we’ve seen in disasters like [Hurricane] Katrina, even [Hurricane] Sandy recently, that, really, if it’s wiped out your infrastructure, and your electricity grid and your communications, it will be very likely be more than three days before you start getting food, water and other supplies coming in from outside.

So there you have it, right from the horse’s mouth, as it were (here’s a link to the article).  Be ready for anything, and be able to cope for at least two weeks on your own (what we’d term a Level 1 situation).  That’s with no water, no sewage system, no external food supplies, and no electricity.

Update :  An interesting article came out in Seattle just five days later, with more detailed information on likely disaster response/recovery leadtimes in WA, OR and SFO, and quoting more officials rejecting three-day preparations as being adequate.  We discuss this in more detail here.