You know that when you design and build your retreat structure(s) you want to ‘overbuild’ and build it (them) way above minimum code requirements, right?
Although building codes sometimes seem unnecessary and adding extra layers of cost to what should be a simple process that you are free to do as you wish, there are two parts to the reality of building codes that people seldom appreciate.
The first is that most of the code requirements represent good sense and good design/build practice, and are in place to protect the investment that you (and your mortgagor) make in your residence. You don’t want to sign up for a 30 year loan against a building that will fail after 10 or 20 years, and neither does the mortgagor want to have the ‘security’ of a building that is not well constructed. From this perspective, building codes protect us all.
The second concept is to realize that in most cases, building codes represent the bare minimum needed rather than the best case ‘deluxe’ option. Whether it be the spacing between studs in the wall or the amount of foundation needed or anything else, most building codes have been written to reflect the requirements of developers who want to be able to build houses as cheaply as possible.
Yet another – a third concept to realize, is that it is acceptable to construct any sort of structure and to expect it to require ongoing maintenance, based on the assumption that materials and labor will remain freely available, convenient, and affordable. That is why many houses and other structures have short-lived roofs, even shorter lasting carpet, fewer coats of paint than optimum, and so on. But if/when TSHTF, those assumptions become no longer valid, and any type of repair and maintenance activity becomes challenging and somewhere between difficult and impossible.
For our purposes, it is better to spend more money up front to build a more robust, lower-maintenance and longer lasting structure in the first place. We discuss these issues in more detail here. In this article, we concentrate on one specific type of ‘hardening’ to make your retreat structure more long-lasting and secure.
Okay, now with that as lengthy introduction, what do you think is the biggest risk to your structure? What is most likely to be the thing that causes it massive problems at some possible time in the future? Is it an earthquake? Flood? Tornado? Attacking marauders? Or something entirely different?
Depending on where you live, you of course can evaluate and guess at the risks of earthquake, tornado, flood, and other types of natural disasters (hurricanes, etc). If you’re in the American Redoubt states, then these risks are generally low rather than appreciable.
The Most Likely Risk for Most of Us
But there’s one really big risk that, for most of us, is probably the biggest potential problem of all. Have you thought of it already?
We are referring to – if you’ve not already thought of it – fire. Most of us have lived our lives and never had direct close personal contact with an uncontained fire, and that has lulled us into a false sense of security. You really have to be personally threatened by a fire to understand the awesome and evil nature of a fire – there’s a reason that hell is said to be in flames, and it is easy to understand how some people view fires as living entities, possessed of a ravening destructive sense that seeks to destroy as much as it can, as quickly as it can.
Indeed, many of us think of fire as a friendly nice good thing. In a fireplace, it brings warmth, and possibly a hint of romance to a room. It enlivens the room with its sounds, its smells, its ever-changing light patterns, and not just the temperature type warmth but the ‘warmth’ of the light it throws off, too.
Outside, a bonfire or campfire is also associated with fun times and leisure. But friendly fun bonfires for toasting s’mores are as different to a ‘real’ fire as is a child’s plastic toy gun to a Barrett .50 caliber rifle, or, if you prefer, as different as a candle is from a 2500 gallon napalm drop on a village, as different as a water pistol to a 250 ft flame-thrower.
Until you’ve stood and watched, helplessly, as a fire either destroys your home from inside, or approaches it unstoppably from the outside, you have little or no comprehension of the power and magnitude of a ‘real’ fire. Unless you’ve been up close, you’ve not experienced the primal fear that lies within most animals and, at a deeper level, within us too when confronted by an out of control fire. Please do not ever underestimate the danger of fire.
You have at least three types of fire risk.
1. External Semi-Random Risk
We are referring here to something like a forest fire (if in a rural area) or a spreading urban fire leapfrogging from building to building if in a city or town. You know your area and so can assess the risk of some of these events, but after you’ve done so, you then need to upgrade the threat rating for two reasons. First, particularly in urban areas, there is a much greater danger of a fire starting after TEOTWAWKI, and secondly, if/when a fire does start (anywhere) there will be much less fire-fighting resource to contain and control it.
There’ll be no city water supply or even fire department and fire trucks in an urban area, and in a rural area, there’ll be no helicopters dumping monsoon bucketloads of water, no planes dumping even greater loads of special fire-retardant chemicals, and there won’t be hundreds of firefighters from all over the county, state and nation rushing to help put the fire out.
2. Deliberate External Causes
The dark side of human nature seems to embrace the evil of destructive fire. Just look at Detroit with its ‘Devil’s Night’ when arsonists go on the rampage, and suffering over 9,000 fires a year in the city limits alone, 95% of which are the result of arson.
In the future, you’ll not only have to anticipate random acts of senseless arson and how they might impact on your retreat and lands, but also, if you do encounter attacking marauders, they are more likely to be throwing Molotov cocktails at your retreat than grenades. If your attackers want to ‘smoke you out’ then they’ll attempt to do so quite literally, by trying to burn your retreat down around you.
3. Accidental Factors
Even at present, the risk of an accidental household fire is much greater than you might guess. Although we’ve seen varying statistics from various sources, this page, citing the National Fire Protection Association, seems very credible. It says that over a lifetime, we’ve a one in four chance of having a fire in our house that is sufficiently major as to require us to need to call the fire department.
When you think about an uncertain future, when we’re more likely to have open flames in our retreats, whether as a heat source, a cooking source, a light source, or whatever else, it is reasonable to predict that the risk factor will increase in such a case.
Prevention is always better than cure, right? And particularly, in the future, there will be very little resource available to help you with fire fighting, and even less resource to help you rebuild if your retreat is destroyed, so your main focus needs to be on fire prevention.
The most important part of fire prevention is to construct your retreat from fire-proof materials as much as possible. This means no wood on the building exterior. Have concrete, stone, ICF, fiber cement stucco, or brick exterior, and absolutely do not have a wooden shake roof! Use long run roofing iron or some type of slate, stone or brick/tile for your roof.
Be sure to seal up any gaps in your roofing and exterior walls so cinders can’t blow in and ignite anything within.
With an eye to being attacked, make sure that your windows have sturdy shutters (and not made of wood) that can be pulled across them so that attackers can’t break windows and throw Molotov cocktail type fire bombs into the interior of your retreat.
Your windows should also have heat-resistant glass in them, so that outside fires don’t cause them to break, and to insulate your interior from any high temperatures outside. Steel is the best material for window framing, and of course, plastic and wood the worst.
Inside your retreat you will unavoidably have things that can burn. But you want to keep the use of wood to a minimum, and have some firewalls within the retreat that will contain a fire within part of your structure rather than allowing it to spread throughout. Line your rooms with fire-rated drywall rather than regular drywall and use as much metal rather than timber framing as you can.
Use ‘fireproof’ carpet, and spray ‘fireproof’ retardant on your furniture and rugs (these things are in no way fire-proof, but they do slow down the propagation of a fire).
Keep vegetation, bushes, trees, etc, back from your retreat structures a way, so if there is any type of approaching fire, there is a ‘fire break’ of sorts separating your house from the closest point the fire can easily reach.
If you are adding decking around your retreat, use fire-resistant composite materials or wood that has been treated to a Class A fire rating.
If there is an appreciable chance of major forest fires getting very close to you, maybe you need to add a ‘wash down’ feature to your roof – basically this just means a way to have water trickling down from the apex of your roof, cooling the roof and both extinguishing and washing off any burning embers that might fall onto it.
You might augment this with a sprinkler system that trickled water down the sides of your retreat as well. If nothing else, it might help to cool the interior of your retreat if there was a major fire passing by.
The easiest way to fight a fire is with water. Lots of water, lots of flow, and lots of pressure so it can be delivered at a high rate and from a safe distance.
You need to have an onsite supply of fire-fighting water and a way of delivering the water at suitable pressure and volume to wherever the fire is located. Ideally, the water supply should be gravity fed, because no matter what else might go wrong, you know you can always rely on gravity. But this might pose problems, particularly if it requires an external water tower which adds a new high visibility structure to your retreat compound and which is, itself, vulnerable to attack.
Each foot of height gives you 0.43 pounds per square inch of water pressure. A typical domestic water supply has water pressure in the range of 40 – 60 psi, and city mains water supplies are usually somewhat higher.
So to get even 40 psi would require your water tank to be 100 ft above the outlet. In other words, you’ll probably need to have an ultra-reliable booster pump with an ultra-reliable power source – and make sure that all parts of your water supply system are themselves protected from fire impacts.
If your water comes from a well, you probably should augment this with a holding tank, unless you are sure your well pump will be able to deliver sufficient pressure and volume not just for normal household needs but for fire-fighting as well.
As well as pressure, the other important consideration is flow rate – how many gallons per minute of water can the service provide. A typical 5/8″ garden hose usually delivers about 10-17 gallons of water a minute. A fire hydrant can sometimes deliver up to 1500 gpm, and even a smaller hydrant can probably provide about 500 gpm. How much water do you need to be able to deliver to the fire? The more, the merrier. If you can deliver 100 gpm, that would be good, and 250 gpm would be even better. Water damage issues to one side, there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ water when fighting a fire, and just because you have a very high potential volume of water to be used, you don’t need to use any more of it than you need at the time.
This leads to the next part of the equation – how many gallons of water do you need in your fire fighting reservoir? That’s a bit like asking ‘how high is up’, because clearly the more you have, the better.
A typical multi-purpose fire truck that carries some water but which isn’t a dedicated tanker probably holds about 1000 gallons of water (and can pump it out at maybe 1500 gpm, so in theory, could use up its entire on-board supply in merely a minute). A garden swimming pool can have many thousands of gallons of water, and as long as you were sure to have adequate and reliable pumping capacity, might be a great way to keep water on hand for fire fighting.
If you’re having to establish a specific water tank for fire fighting, we’d suggest you have at least 500 gallons of water in the tank, and of course, it will presumably have a lower flow-rate pump replenishing it as soon as the level begins to drop, so maybe by the time you’ve used up your 500 gallons, you have added another 100 or 200 gallons to the tank, and so on.
One study (the ‘Scottsdale Report’ – a 15 year study on fire sprinklers) suggests that fire-fighters typically use 2,935 gallons of water to control a fire. (Sprinklers used only 341 gallons.) So the more water you have, the better.
A Stitch in Time
Our point here is that it takes very little time for a fire to go from a spark to a conflagration. Truly, in five minutes, a fire can go from a tiny thing to a monster, raging unstoppably through your house.
If a fire starts, every second counts. You need to detect it as soon as possible and respond to it immediately thereafter.
You can’t have a system that when you have a fire, you have to go somewhere to turn on the water supply pump, then grab a fire hose, take it to an outlet, connect it up, turn it on, and deploy it. By the time you’ve done all of this, the fire has enormously grown. Where possible, you should have hoses pre-deployed (but sheltered from the sun so they don’t age and crack from the UV, and also sheltered from any extreme cold), and activating the pump should be something that can be done from several convenient locations.
You also should have extinguishers at strategic locations throughout your retreat. These will probably/unavoidably be single use devices, but when you need one, don’t stop to think about saving it for another time. Use it without hesitation. Almost every fire that ends up defeating multiple fire trucks, and which destroys the building it started in, could have been extinguished in the first minute or so of its life if a fire extinguisher were at hand and effectively used.
We suggest having fire alarm buttons throughout your house so that people can push the alarm if they encounter any type of fire, to alert and mobilize everyone else in the house – both to get them to assist and possibly to get them to evacuate. A loud distinctive alarm should be sounded that can not be confused with other types of alarms you might also have (in particular a security alarm).
You of course have one or more smoke detectors in your residence at present – building and fire codes require them pretty much everywhere these days, and good practice suggests one per bedroom, one per floor, and maybe some more in other strategic places too.
We’re not arguing against this at all, quite the opposite. The more smoke detectors, the better.
Did you also know there are two different types of smoke detectors? One sort detects the smoke by way of the cloudiness of the smoke interrupting a light beam, the other sort detects the ‘burning products’ associated with a fire, but not necessarily the smoke itself. They are referred to as photoelectric and ionization type detectors.
Photo-electric detectors work better with ‘smoldering’ type fires – fires that start first with a whisp of smoke, and only slowly change to a flicker of flame, and on from there. Ionization detectors respond to flames and ‘invisible’ byproducts of the fire.
Neither sort is heat-sensitive. Note also that carbon monoxide detectors are not very helpful at detecting fires.
Which sort of detector is best? They are both good. Some units have both types of detection built in. We suggest you have some of each in your retreat.
Oh yes – do we need to add the bit about testing the batteries? Probably not, because most good smoke detectors also include a ‘low battery’ alarm.
This is something you normally associate with commercial buildings, but there’s no reason not to install them in private residences. Indeed some local authorities are now requiring them in some private residences, even single family dwellings (including the entire states of CA and PA), and either supplied with water from an oversized line from the city mains or from an on-site tank. If you do have sprinklers installed, you’ll probably get a small reduction in your insurance premiums, too.
There are many different types of sprinklers and designs of sprinkler systems. A typical system in a low fire hazard area would be designed to provide 0.1 gallons of water per square foot per minute – in a 150 sq ft room, for example, that would require a water flow of 15 gallons per minute, and in a 2500 sq ft residence, if all sprinklers were operating simultaneously (an unlikely scenario), that would be 250 gpm.
Most sprinkler systems are automatic, and (unlike in the movies) activate one by one as they each individually detect a certain level of heat. In the movies, it is common to see the activation of a single sprinkler result in an entire floor or building having all sprinklers start operating – looks good in the movie but doesn’t normally happen that way in real life.
There are a range of different heat-activated capsules that will be triggered by different heat levels, from as ‘low’ as 135°F up to as high as 500°F. Perhaps the best type of sprinkler systems these days use water mist rather than water spray, and will give similarly effective results while using massively less water.
It makes sense for sprinklers to automatically activate, and on an ‘as required’ basis. But for a retreat which usually has people living in it, we’d be tempted to suggest a simpler approach. Manual sprinklers, on a per room ‘deluge’ basis, whereby you simply turn a lever (probably by the room’s entrance, or at a central control station) and that causes all the sprinklers in the room to activate simultaneously.
The downside of this is also its upside. The system doesn’t automatically activate, but it also won’t accidentally activate or leak water or in other ways be maintenance-prone or problematic. If you have dual-mode smoke detectors in most rooms, you’ll have reasonably appropriate warning of a fire in an unattended room, and can then quickly react and activate the sprinklers in the affected areas.
Needless to say, you’ll probably want your sprinklers to operate from a reservoir (perhaps with boost pump) than from a city mains water supply, so as to have your water supply guaranteed.
House fires are more common than you think, and will become even more prevalent WTSHTF.
A fire can potentially destroy your retreat and everything in it. There goes your shelter, your food, your everything – and possibly also your own lives.
In addition to accidental fires, deliberate fires will be more prevalent too when law and order disintegrates, and a common technique by roaming marauders may be to ‘smoke you out’ of your retreat by setting fire to it.
On the other hand, making your retreat at least fire-resistant and as close to fire-proof as possible is not an unduly expensive proposition and is a prudent part of generally ‘hardening’ your retreat and making it long-lived and low maintenance.
We urge you to ensure your retreat is as close to fire-proof as possible.