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

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

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

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

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

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

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  But if/when TSHTF, those assumptions become no longer valid, and any type of repair and maintenance activity becomes challenging and somewhere between difficult and impossible.

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

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

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

The Most Likely Risk for Most of Us

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

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

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

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

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

You have at least three types of fire risk.

1.  External Semi-Random Risk

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

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

2.  Deliberate External Causes

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

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

3.  Accidental Factors

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

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


Prevention 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).

Smoke Detectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Jun 182014
A freestanding device such as this allows you to conveniently convert any regular toilet for use by someone with mobility impairments.

A freestanding device such as this allows you to conveniently convert any regular toilet for use by someone with mobility impairments.

When we consider living at our retreat after TEOTWAWKI, we probably have a semi-heroic vision of ourselves and our fellow community members acting as modern-day Robinson Crusoes, struggling – successfully – against the various problems we expectedly and unexpectedly encounter in the very changed world that we suddenly find ourselves in.

Let’s hope that’s the way things happen.

But we must also realize that there’s every good chance that this vision is likely to be subject to some major changes due to all manner of unexpected and semi-random events, and the key part of being a prudent prepper is to try and identify and anticipate as many of these unexpected events as possible, and to have solutions in place for them.  I’ve just now had such an event occur personally, and so am sharing the lessons I’m now learning at considerable cost and inconvenience with you in the hope your own future won’t be as impacted as mine has been.

I’ve lived for over half a century.  During that time, each ski season, and occasionally at other times of year too, I’ve seen people in various casts and other devices, clearly recovering from various sprained/fractured/broken bones.  And, of course, from time to time, I see people in wheelchairs too.  But – and I’m embarrassed to make this confession – I’d never really ever expected such a misfortune to happen to me.

The how and why of it doesn’t matter, but suffice it to say that I now find myself massively ‘mobility impaired’ and expect to remain that way for an extended time into the future.  It has been an interesting experience at every step along the way, and I’ve been wondering as to how many of the issues and needs experienced could/would be handled in the future, right from the first step of calling 911 from my cell phone and having seven paramedics attend (okay, so they probably could have managed with three or four, but it demonstrated, yet again, why you need your retreat to be part of a broader community of like-minded folk who you can turn to when needed in emergencies such as this).

I’m also wondering how any future medical center can operate without an X-ray machine.  That’s a topic for another time, but yes, you can buy used X-ray machines on eBay!

The chances of members of your retreat community experiencing all manner of different injuries is much greater than you might expect.  WTSHTF, you’ll all find yourselves suddenly in a somewhat unfamiliar environment, and for many of you, your life which prior to then may have been fairly sedentary and ‘safe’ will now involve much greater degrees of exercise and physical stress, creating lots of unexpected nasty ways for accidents to happen.

Note also that accidents need not involve machinery and such awful things as attacking yourself with a runaway chainsaw.  Accidents can also happen from simple things like slipping/falling on an icy pathway, or doing something else which on the face of it seems totally safe and commonplace, but which ends up going unexpectedly wrong (and when you’re physically fatigued, the chances of all such misadventures greatly increase).  Falling off a bicycle (or horse), or possibly combat wounds of any and all types – whatever it might be, there are an abundant series of ways in which your life could suddenly change.

Indeed, at present, in our ‘normal’ world, one out of three adults over the age of 65 experiences a fall each year, and falls are the leading cause of injury to people in this age group.

The point of this article is to urge you to design your retreat structure and immediately surrounding exterior access-ways so as to be convenient for people who are or who may become disabled in some form or another.  Fortunately, the basics of this can be covered simply and with little hassle, particularly if in the planning stages of your retreat.

The key requirements are to have a living area that has no steps in any part of it, a bathroom that is also disabled friendly, and dimensions for doorways and corridors that allow for wheelchair access.  Maybe you have a multi-level retreat structure (indeed, we recommend you should) but you need to ensure that a person can reasonably live for an extended time while only on one level.  At its most simplistic, that means having a bathroom on every level, and some space that can do duty as a living/sleeping area.  This is particularly valuable on the lowest level, making it easiest for any injured person to enter and exit the retreat, either for the purpose of visiting nearby healthcare services or in the case of any sort of emergency.

One more thought about location.  The chances are your retreat will not have a lot of spare manpower, and so you might want to think about the type of tasks that people suffering various forms of injury and mobility impairment can conduct, and design/locate such task spaces to make them conveniently accessible as a result.

Outside your retreat, if you have steps leading up/down to your entry-way, you should either supplement them with a ramp or alternatively, have hand rails – ideally on both sides of the steps.  Maybe you don’t want the handrails as permanent fixtures, but at least have mounting points for posts and rails to be added if/when the need arises.

The Terrible Barrier that even a Small Step Poses

Maybe you’re the kind of person who bounds up half a dozen flights of stairs, taking them two at a time, and not needing to pause to catch your breath at the top.  Maybe instead, you take stairs easily and slowly, and can manage to go between floors but with a certain amount of exertion and exhaustion.

But no matter how hard you find it to go up or down a typical 14/15 step flight of stairs, you have no inkling of how difficult even a one inch rise becomes to the mobility impaired.

Yes, read that again and remember it.  Even a one inch rise becomes an appreciable barrier to someone in a wheelchair, and much more than two or three inches becomes a challenge for a person using a walker or crutches.

You need to have a core part of your retreat with no rises/falls at all.

One more thing about stairs.  Make sure all stairs have handrails, ideally on both sides.  In addition – and this is something you’ll only appreciate when you’re trying to struggle up them on one leg and crutches – it is very helpful to have extensions on the handrails beyond the top of each flight of stairs, so a person climbing up the stairs can still reach forward for support, even when about to go from the last stair in the flight to the landing beyond.

Designing for a Wheelchair

A typical wheelchair is specified as being 26″ wide, but there are of course variations, and while you’ll not have problems with fitting narrower wheelchairs into wider spaces, if for some reason you end up with a wider chair, then you may be creating more issues than the extra width is worth to you.

It is ‘good practice’ to look for doorway openings of at least 32″ to accommodate a wheelchair that is able to go directly through the door, and 36″ wide if the wheelchair has to do some turning or go through on an angle.  Many interior doors are 30″ wide, and that’s okay in a pinch, but in such cases, be careful of what the true net width of the doorway is.  If the door itself can not fully swing almost 180 degrees, then the width of the door will reduce the effective width of the door frame, and if there is any type of fascia/strip around the door frame, that might narrow down the actual effective width too.

Strangely, it is far from uncommon to see bathrooms with narrower doorways, often only 24″ wide.  You clearly can’t fit a 26″ wide wheelchair through a 24″ doorway and will need to remodel at least one bathroom for a wider entrance.  Frame walkers will generally not exceed 24″ in width, but sometimes you might need to swap the wheels from being on the outside of the legs to the inside to get them to conform to that width.  Generally the broader/wider the walker base, the more stable it is, so only do this if necessary.

In confined rooms (again, most commonly bathrooms) the swept area the door covers as it swings open and shut might be a concern as well.  Make sure the door can be opened and closed by a wheelchair-bound person, and that they can move around the room as needed while the door is opening and closing.

If you are designing wheelchair ramps, you should probably build them out of concrete, because this gives you simultaneously the most permanent and long-lasting material and also one with good non-slip properties.  Wooden ramps would likely be short-lived, higher maintenance, and slippery when wet.

The official ADA specification for wheelchair ramps (which does not apply to private dwellings) is for a slope/rise of no more than one inch per foot of length (ie 1:12) and a maximum length before a rest/level area of 30 ft.  You could use a slightly steeper rise if you needed to, up to as much as 2:12, particularly if the person in the wheelchair can be sure to have someone assisting them.

A standard wheelchair is 42″ long from the back of the rear wheels to the front of the footrests, and you should allow another 6″ or so in front of that for your full foot.  Lap height is about 27″ and the arms are at about 30″, while the seat is 19″.

Bathrooms and Toilets

Much of your dwelling can ignore accessibility issues if necessary, as long as you realize that doing so may make such areas into ‘no go’ areas when/while a person becomes mobility impaired.  An example of such optional areas could be the laundry room, storage and utility rooms, and even functional rooms such as kitchens (as long as there are other people to do the cooking).

But one room that will be essential is a bathroom/toilet.  You can design toilets right from the get-go to be accessible, which basically means giving them a higher seat height and support rails alongside, but there’s another approach that might also be worth considering – getting a toilet seat on a frame that stands around/over a normal toilet and which can be positioned in place as, when and if needed.

This can also be a dual purpose device that can be a portable commode as well as a toilet seat extender.  Amazon have plenty to choose from; indeed, I’ve been using Amazon as a primary supplier for much/most of the various things I’ve needed during my present situation.  Amazingly, some seemingly very common medical supplies have proven either to be totally unavailable locally or else stocked only in such limited supply (and great cost) as to be impractical, whereas Amazon and their two-day delivery has reliably arranged for bulk supplies of everything I’ve needed.

If/when the person’s injury allows them to shower, a walk-in/wheel-in shower is a wonderful thing, or, failing that, some type of shower seat would be necessary for them to sit on.  Needless to say, you’ll want all bathroom surfaces to be as non-slip as possible, particularly when wet either with water or condensation.  Small bathrooms are better than big ones, because you can put support rails all the way around and the affected person is therefore always close to solid stable support as they move around the room.

Aids, Devices and Supplies

Talking about bulk supplies, the chances are your first aid kit has all the ‘usual stuff’ in it, but how much of such things do you actually have?  Maybe you have a dozen gauze bandages, maybe more.

To put things in context, during the course of three weeks I used up 168 rolls of gauze, each measuring 4″ wide by 4 yards long – that’s over 1/3 of a mile of 4″ gauze, for dressing a single set of wounds.  I’m sure that I could have made do with less, but go count your rolls of gauze in your medical supply lockers and the chances are you’ll appreciate that whatever supply you have will become inadequate after only one or two unfortunate events.

Oh yes, and in among the rest of your meds, do you have a generous supply of laxatives?  Not a ‘nice’ topic to talk about, but an essential one for someone who becomes practically bed-bound, and all the more so with many of the likely meds they might be taking having a strong constipative side effect.  Currently, our strong recommendation is for Mira-lax or a generic equivalent.  We’ll spare you the details, but trust us.  It works much better than many of the sennosides based products.

Do you also have a pair of crutches in your medical locker?  A walker?  A wheelchair?  Other assistive devices and mobility aids?

The good news is that a lot of this type of gear is remarkably inexpensive when purchased from Craigslist or local charities who recycle such things.  Even a reasonable wheelchair can be yours for perhaps as little as $50.  On the other hand, brand new gear on Amazon is also often very affordable – for example, not only the commodes mentioned above, but pairs of crutches for under $30, and at those sorts of price points, maybe it is better to get new rather than used.

You know that new gear is reasonably sterile, and you know that it still has a decent amount of life and use ahead of it, whereas some second-hand gear such as walkers get increasingly wobbly and less secure, the more they are used.

Depending on where and how you expect your community members to live while afflicted with a disability (and with reduced access to any type of medical care, disabilities are not only more likely, but are also likely to be more impactful and longer lasting) you might need to add extra things such as grab rails in strategic locations around showers and beds, and perhaps it might be best to keep an inventory of such things uninstalled, and then add them to locations as may be indicated.  Ummm – do we need to point out that towel rails are not load bearing structures and will rip out of the wall with only a very slight amount of force being placed on them.

Talking about such things, there are also devices such as transfer boards to make it easier to move from one thing to another, and Hoyer lifts to help people get in and out of bed.

A further word of advice.  Some of these things are of course manufactured to different weight limits.  Maybe no-one in your retreat weighs over 200 lbs, so you think you’ll never need anything with a weight capacity over 250lbs?  Not necessarily so.  We know people who have put on well over 100 lbs of extra weight as a result of an extended period of forced inactivity.

This is also a further reason to buy new rather than used.  You have no knowledge of the history of anything you buy used, and for all you know, it may have been massively overstressed in the past and be about to fail after only a slight amount of very gentle additional use.


Some people plan for an uncertain future as if it will be little more than a slightly fun adventure.  The reality is and will be much grimmer, and in some form or another, there is a dismayingly high probability that some members of your community will experience injuries that will impair their mobility, possibly for extended time periods, and which will require assistive devices and appropriate design of your retreat.

Plan for it now so you’ll be prepared for it when it happens.

May 102014
Chances are you'll end up choosing to cover most, if not all your roof with solar panels.

Chances are you’ll end up choosing to cover most, if not all your roof with solar panels.

This is a further part of our series on solar energy.  Please also visit our sections on energy in general and solar energy in particular for more related articles.

What makes a roof better or less suited for having solar panels mounted on it?  How should you design a new retreat structure, and/or, if looking at buying an existing dwelling, how do you know if it is optimized for solar?

Answering these questions is reasonably straightforward.  To start with, if you are looking at buying an existing retreat structure, it absolutely must have a southerly facing roof and an unobstructed view of the southern sky from directly south to about 75° either side of directly south.  You don’t need a full 180° of clearance, but anything much less than 75° either side of south means you’ll start losing some morning or evening sun.

Ideally the roof should have a fairly steep pitch on it.  The ideal angle for solar panels is to have them angled at the same number of degrees as the latitude the panels are at.  That means, if you’re in a northern state, you probably want to have a 45° angle, or even possibly slightly more.  If you think of a line between the two Portlands, the one in Oregon is at 45.5° N and the one in Maine is at 43.7° N, that gives you an intuitive feeling for your likely latitude, and remember that much of the Canadian border follows the 49th parallel, ie, 49° N.  To be more exact, you can instantly see any latitude anywhere from Google Earth and other mapping programs.

It is acceptable to have a somewhat flatter pitch (or a steeper pitch, but that’s less likely!), but once your pitch starts to be more than perhaps 15° away from your latitude, you’re going to start to feel a loss in solar energy production.  A 15° differential will cost you 3.5%, and the loss of power starts to quickly rise from that point forward.

If you are going to build your own retreat, choose a lot that will allow you to build with this southerly aspect, and design your roof for as close to your ideal pitch as is practical.  One thing is likely – you’ll be getting a lot of attic space that way!

Indeed, if you don’t have height restrictions, rather than having a typical ridge line roof with two equal roof sides rising to meet in the middle, why not consider a single sloping roof, going all the way up to the top.  This would give you a lot of extra space above your top level in your structure, and while this space would be facing to the north rather than south, it could surely be used for just about any normal purpose.

How Much Roof Area Do You Need?

Now, the next question becomes either ‘how much roof area do you need’ (if you’re designing a new dwelling) or ‘how much power can you get from the roof you have’ (if you’re buying an existing retreat structure.

The answer to both questions is very much ‘it depends’.  But there are some simple rules of thumb you can use.

At present, it seems that a typical solar panel measures about 39.13″ x 65.04″, and typically generates about 250W according to its official specification sheet.  Some panels will give you fewer watts for this panel size, and some higher priced ones will go up to 275W for the same size.

The panel is close to 18.35 sq ft in size.  So, divide 250W by 18.35 sq ft, and here’s a rule of thumb :  Ideally, with reasonably efficient solar cells in the panels, you can get about 13.5 watts of solar power per square foot of roof area.  If you make adjustments to allow for not every square inch of roof space being usable, and leaving some maintenance walkway space and such like, we’d probably suggest that for quick guesstimate calculations, you figure on 11 watts per square foot of roof.

A 250W panel, which seems to be about the sweet spot for price vs performance, will cost about $250 (plus the associated costs for wiring, installation, control systems, and so on).  This points to another rule of thumb – figure about $1 per watt of panel capacity, plus more to install, etc, the panels and power from them.

Remember that your total roof area will be greater than the footprint of your dwelling.  The slope means it has more length on it, and there is probably some overhang that adds to the roof dimensions too.  But remember also to deduct any parts of the roof that aren’t southerly facing – the ‘other side’ of a typical two-sided roof, the ‘hip’ sides of a hipped roof, and so on.  Also, if there are corners and sides to your roof, possibly the sides might shade the main south-facing roof portion, potentially almost halving the power production on areas that would be shaded.

You probably have a target amount of power generating capacity you would like for your retreat (see our article on ‘How Much Solar Power Generating Capacity Do You Need‘ for more discussion on this).  Multiply your roof square footage by 11, to see an approximate maximum generating capacity for your roof.  Is that above, below, or close to your target capacity?

If your roof clearly has more than enough space for the generating capacity you need/want, then you can relax, and proceed with all the other things to consider when evaluating current retreats or planning your own custom retreat.

If your roof is marginally close to meeting your power requirements, maybe you should calculate things more carefully.  In this case, we suggest the easiest thing to do is to get scissors and paper.  Cut out a large shape that represents the portion of your roof that is southerly facing.  Then cut out, to the same scale, the number of 250W panels you want to place on your roof (maybe, to make things quicker/easier, cut out larger shapes that represent strips of 2, 3, 4 panels).

Lay the panel shapes out on the roof shape.  Leave some aisles for you to walk along (or up and down) so that you can access your roof for maintenance (hopefully seldom) and cleaning (depending on where you live, cleaning will be a reasonably regular activity).  We suggest you allow about 2ft wide corridors, and you design things so you’re readily able to reach panels with a ‘window washing’ type extendable handled cleaning device (which indeed might be a window washer).  Maybe you can plan to reach out 9′ or so from where you are standing.  So that would allow for aisles every 18′ if you access the panels from both sides, and perhaps you’d want the first aisle 9′ from the edge of the roof.

We don’t know why, but we see very few roof installations that leave aisles to make it easy to access the panels, but we feel this to be essential.  It doesn’t take much dust or dirt or leaves or branches or bird poo or whatever to massively reduce a panel’s power output, so we believe regular panel cleaning is essential.  Perhaps the designs with no walk-ways assume that you’ll do the cleaning from a ladder or from the other side of the roof, and those are both possible options.  But if you’re like us, the easier something is to do, the more likely you are to do it, and so we’re keen to make this as easy as possible for us.

So, lay out the panels as best you can and see how many will fit.  The good news is the panels can be laid in either direction – long side horizontal (ie ‘landscape’) or long side vertical (ie ‘portrait’).  While it mightn’t look so nice aesthetically, you can even have a mix of different orientations, any way that will allow for best space utilization.

Measuring Roof Slope and True Roof Surface Area

If you can conveniently climb onto your roof and safely walk around on it, then the easiest thing to do is measure it directly.

But if this is not so practical, you’ll need to measure what you can on the ground and then adjust based on the roof slope for the actual roof surface area.

There are two typical ways of measuring roof slope.  One – less common in the US – is to talk about the angle of the roof slope.  The other is to talk about the slope in terms of units of vertical rise per so many units of horizontal run.

You probably know – or can easily measure – the horizontal length of the building footprint, and you also can probably measure the vertical rise.  It is also possible to measure the degrees of inclination with only some relatively simple tools, but for most of us it will be easier to measure the horizontal length and rise.

Let’s look at a worked example.  Say you have a roof that has a 30 foot ‘footprint’ – ie, it covers 30 ft of horizontal level floor.  It has a single ridge in the middle, and the rise from either end to the middle is 6 feet.

If you remember way back to your trigonometry days, you might remember Pythagoras’ Theorem for finding the length of the third side of a triangle.  The sum of the squares of the other two sides equals the square of the hypotenuse, right?  And in the case of your roof, you now know the two sides around the right angle (ie 6 feet for the rise and 15 ft for the horizontal length).  So

62 + 152 = 36 + 225 = 261, and √261 = 16.2

The roof length is 16.2 ft – not much more than the length on the ground in the case of what would be a fairly moderate slope on the roof.

Oh, and for the sake of completeness, if you do know the angle of the roof and the horizontal length to the ridge point, then you can calculate the roof length by the formula

Roof length = Horizontal length divided by the cosine of the angle.

For example, a roof with a 30 degree pitch and a 15 foot horizontal length to its ridge would have a length of

15/cos(30°) = 15/0.866 = 17.4 ft.

A Sample Calculation

Say you have a 1250 sq ft building footprint (perhaps 25′ x 50′).  Say you extend your roof one foot over this footprint for eaves/overhang (generally it is common to have greater overhang).  And you give the roof a 45° degree pitch.

Of course, you want the long side of the house to be facing south.

If you have a standard single ridged roof, with no hips, and if the roof is in equal halves about the central ridge, then the actual dimensions for each half will be 52′ long (the 50′ width plus an extra foot at each end) and the width will be 37.4′ (the 25 ft flat length becomes a 35.4 ft length on a 45° angle, plus an extra foot of overhang at each end).  But remember that only half of this is facing the sun, so in total, you have 972 sq ft of roof area facing the sun.

Now let’s allow for some maintenance aisles.  Should these lanes run along the roof, or up and down it?  We’re not sure which is better, you can decide.  But let’s simply, for now, set aside 20% of the gross area to leave you room for these aisles.  So your 972 sq ft of panel area has a net usable area of 778 sq ft.

We’d round that down a bit further and call it 750 sq ft.  Or, alternatively, because you are using real dimensions rather than trying to give a generic example, now is a good time to start mixing and matching the actual dimensions of panels to the space on your roof.

For this exercise, we randomly chose a fairly standard size panel, measuring 39.13″ x 65.04″, which we’ll call 40″ x 66″ for our calculation.  These panels are rated at about 250 watts, which means that each ten square inches of panel is giving you almost 1 watt, or, if you prefer, each square foot is giving you about 13.5 watts.

Now let’s first do a ‘perfect world’ calculation.  Our roof has 52′ x 18.7′ dimensions, or 624″ x 224″, which is 139,776 square inches.  Our panels are 2640 sq inches each, so in theory, we can somehow fit up to 52.9 panels on the roof.  If we do the quick rule of thumb and reduce that by 20% (for aisle-ways), that points to 42.4 panels, which we’ll round down to 42.

That suggests our roof can provide a maximum of 250W x 42 panels, = 10.5 kW of power.  That’s actually a reasonably good number for most retreats and most purposes.  These panels would cost about $9,500, plus extra for mounting accessories, mounting, wiring, and so on.

If you were keen to maximize the power from your roof, you could get slightly more efficient panels that generate 275 watts from the same surface area.  But these more efficient panels are also very much more expensive – your cost for 42 panels is likely to increase from about $9,500 up to about $14,600, while your power output will go from 10.5kW up to 11.55 kW.  You’re paying an extra $5,100 for 1 kW of extra generating capacity – that’s a lot of extra money, and maybe it is better to think about spending the money to adapt your roof so it can accept four more of the standard panels (which would add the same additional capacity), or perhaps, use the money to build a shed and put the panels on top of that.  You need an extra 75 sq ft for the four extra panels.

Another approach is to have more of your roof pitching up in the southerly direction, and less or none in the northerly direction.  This will raise the maximum height of the structure, but if that’s not a problem, then go for it.  You’re sure to find a use for the extra internal space you are creating, too.

Personally we generally prefer to have more low efficiency panels rather than fewer high-efficiency panels.  Not only is it cheaper, but the loss of a single panel is not so serious, and our sense is that lower efficiency panels might be more reliable and ‘less stressed’ than higher efficiency panels.  But we have nothing to back up that perception.

If your target power generating capacity is around 10 kW, then you don’t need to do anything more at this stage.  You know that for 10 kW, you’ll need 40 panels, and you know that your roof has enough space for up to 52 panels, depending on layout and service lanes, so clearly that is going to work.

But if you are keen to get every possible watt you can, and you’re thinking of paying a great deal more for higher efficiency panels, now is the time to do an actual layout diagram for how your roof could be set out, using the cut out shapes.


We provided a couple of rules of thumb in this article.  There’s one more rule of thumb, or perhaps assumption, that seems fair.  It is probable that you’ll want to cover your entire roof with solar panels; especially if you have a multi-level retreat (ie more total floor area, and more living space, but with a smaller footprint and roof area).

The information in this article helps you understand how to calculate how many solar panels you can get on your roof.

Mar 212014
A split system heat pump for heating and cooling your retreat might be surprisingly practical to consider.

A split system heat pump for heating and cooling your retreat might be surprisingly practical to consider.

One of the basic principles of planning a retreat is to minimize your energy needs, and a key part of that is the design of the retreat so as to make it as well insulated as possible.  This will cut down on your heating energy requirements in the colder months, and should also cut down on your cooling energy requirements in the warmer months.

Well, that’s the theory of it, anyway.  The reality is a bit different.

The thing is that while a well insulated house will slow down the rate at which outside heat comes in to your house, it also traps the heat inside and, well, keeps it there, which can mean that inside temperatures will rise to match the outside temperatures, no matter how extreme it may be outside, and you’ll be forced to ‘give in’ and open up all the doors and windows in the summer months, just to get some air flow, even if of hot ambient air.

You’ll also try to also flush out the hot air in the coolest hours of the night, so you start off each day with as low an indoor temperature as possible, and for the first part of the day, as it inexorably rises, you’ll be moderately comfortable, then when inside and outside temperatures approach the same point, you switch from an all shut up to an all open strategy for the rest of the day.

A related issue may be humidity control, depending on if you’re blessed with a relatively dry climate or cursed with a humid one.

This heating effect is of course more pronounced in summer than winter.  In winter, it is a good thing, but in summer, not so good.  Our bodies are radiating heat all the time (100W – 150W for a typical moderately active adult, less while we sleep, more when doing strenuous physical activity), and all the energy we use indoors eventually ends up as heat, too.  So, depending on your energy consumption each day, you probably have the equivalent of a one bar heater on all day every day, which is why, all year round, your indoors temperature is warmer than outdoors, even before you start adding specific additional heating.

We, ourselves, hate being hot, and productivity studies have shown people become materially less productive whenever temperatures start to climb above 70°.  We also hate trying to sleep in a hot stuffy room, and can confirm from personal experience the additional studies that correlate good or bad sleeping with the ambient room temperature.  We love air conditioning.

On the other hand, air conditioning can consume large amounts of energy.  A typical 110V a/c window unit will run at about 1 watt for every 10 BTU of cooling – a 10,000 BTU unit would draw 1000 watts, although note that its duty cycle – that is, the amount of time it will be on – will be maybe 25% – 50%, so you’re getting an hour of cooling for maybe only 250 – 500 watt hours of energy.  Larger a/c systems, and using higher voltages and/or three-phase power, can be more efficient than this and give you more cooling per Watt hour.

As an interesting additional comment, did you know that because a/c units simply shift heat rather than create cold, they move more heat than the energy they consume.  This has implications for both winter and summer – if you have a heat pump, it will create probably two to three times as much heat per kWh of energy as would a normal resistance heater, depending on the temperature of the outside air.  Cooling units typically ‘suck out’ three or four times as much energy as they consume.

Energy Efficiency Issues

Needless to say, if you are installing a/c at your retreat, you want it to be as energy-efficient as possible.

In the US, a/c systems are given a SEER rating or sometimes an EER rating.  Both are a measure of their energy efficiency – the higher the number, the better.  SEER numbers are higher than EER numbers for the same unit by about 15% (ie something with a 14 EER rating would be the closely similar to something else with a 17 SEER rating.

Normally, when a person buys an a/c unit, they give some passing thought to the SEER rating, but pay more attention to other issues like the cost, the noise level, and so on.  However, for a grid-down situation, where energy is never plentiful and always ‘expensive’ in some form or another, you’ll want to make the SEER rating one of your primary focuses.

Generally, split systems, with a unit outside and a separate unit inside are more efficient than all-in-one units such as are typically installed in window frames.  Split systems can give you SEER ratings into the mid to high 20s; all-in-one units struggle to reach 15.

Heating Too?

As we hinted at obliquely above, if you’ll be needing to use electrical heating in the winter, do consider a heat pump rather than just basic simple resistance heaters, because you’ll get two or three times as much heat from each unit of electrical energy with a heat pump than a regular resistance heater.

The efficiency of a heat pump, for heating purposes, depends on its design and the outside temperatures you’ll likely encounter.  The colder it is outside, the less efficient the heat pump becomes.

There are heat pumps specifically designed to work better in very low outside temperatures, and beyond that, you can also switch from an air-exchange heat pump to one with underground piping, transferring the heat from the warmer ground rather than from the cooler air.  Underground piped systems can become quite a lot more complicated and expensive, so we’d consider those with caution, unless you really need an electrically powered heating solution for your retreat.

In general, we’d hesitate to recommend relying primarily on a solar based electrical heating system, unless you’re so overflowing with solar power that you have plenty spare, even on the coldest and least sunny winter days.  If, for whatever reason, you have no other sources of energy from which to create heat (such as firewood), then maybe you have to use solar, and in such a case, it might be a better and more direct approach to simply install a solar heating system, directly transferring what heat there might be from the sun from outside to inside.

Whereas with cooling, the more sun there is, the more you need cooling, and the more solar power you have available to meet that need, with heating, the equation is the opposite.  The less there is sun, the more you need heating, but the less solar energy you have available, in any form, to use for heat.

But, having said that, we’d probably look at the cost difference between getting a cooling-only a/c system and a dual heat/cool system.  If there’s not a lot of difference in cost, we’d get the dual purpose system, because on the days when we do have surplus solar power, why not save our firewood or other energy sources and use the solar power for our heating needs.

Your A/C Needs are Matched by Your Solar Power Outputs

So, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there’s a wonderful thing about solar power that makes it sensible to consider about using your solar power to drive an a/c unit.  The stronger the sun, the higher the temperatures, and, at the same time, the greater the power output from your solar panels.  Okay, so that’s a bit of a simplification – in some areas, it can be hot, humid and horrible, even if there’s little or no sun at all, but in other areas, if the sun is obscured, the temperatures drop.

Our point is simply this.  You’ve probably tailored your solar power system to provide you all the power you need in the winter months with little sunlight.  So, now you’re in the summer months, with more and stronger sun each day, you’ll be getting a lot more energy from your solar setup – maybe even more than you need.  Because of the close relationship between your solar panels generating more ‘bonus’ energy for your use, and the times when you’d most benefit from a/c, it becomes possible to plan to use your a/c only when you have surplus spare power, because those times are also the times you most want your a/c running.

So, if the climate warrants it, go ahead and treat yourself, and fit some a/c to your retreat.

Jul 172013
Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Maybe you’ve decided that town living is a better choice for you.  There’s nothing wrong with that decision.

Many of us have little ability or interest in a farming lifestyle, and particularly if we have some other type of non-farming/rural talent or ability we can use to survive on in the future, it not only becomes sensible for us to consider living in a town, it becomes essential, because the town contains the concentration of people needed to be your future customers.

There’s no need to feel like you’re becoming a second-class prepper by not buying a dozen acres in the middle of nowhere and becoming totally self-sufficient, because in reality, the concept of living by yourself, and being fully self-sufficient, is an impossibility to start with.  The solitary farming family will need help in many different aspects of their life, plus they’ll need people to trade with – to sell the surplus food they’ve grown themselves, and to buy other food items to supplement the diet of their own food.

That has been the historical role of towns since mankind stopped being nomadic hunter gatherers and started to settle on land.  The towns provide a focus for the farmers around them, and the supplemental services and support the farmers need.

As towns grew larger, they started to then add extra people and extra services for the existing townsfolk as well as for the farmers nearby, and then of course, with the industrial revolution, towns started to be centers for factories, and so it went from there to the mega-millions of people in some of our massive sprawling cities of today.

But, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, towns will revert back to essentially being support resources for the surrounding farmers, and you’ll want to either have something that farmers will want/need, or something that the other people in the town will want/need.  There will only be a reduced level of trade between nearby towns, and almost no trade with more distant locations, because transport will become expensive, slow, difficult and probably dangerous.

House or Apartment?  Big or Small Lot?

So, do you want to have an apartment above a store on the main street of the town?  A condo in a block of condos?  A house on a 1/8th acre lot a street back from the main street?  A house on a 1/4 acre lot several streets back from the main street?  Or a house on a one acre lot more or less at the town limits?

As a rule of thumb, the closer to the town center, the smaller your lot will be.  Of course, lot size is probably not your prime consideration, but we’d suggest you should consider this somewhat, and in particular, we’d urge you to consider having a freestanding dwelling rather than a condo/apartment/townhouse.

We’re not saying you need a large house – a smaller house would be fine, but you should probably allow for being able to accept some ‘guests’ who will want to join you WTSHTF.  A spare bedroom or two might be much appreciated by all.  Generally you want to choose an average sort of house consistent with its surrounding houses – ‘security by obscurity’ in a sense.

Having your own freestanding dwelling on your own lot gives you much more security, independence and privacy than sharing a structure and common areas and land with others, and in an uncertain future, you’ve no idea who might be living next to you.  The ability to have a buffer zone between your residence and the next residence/street gives you a very slight warning and a ‘no-man’s land’ where you can choose how to respond to unwanted visitors with less than lethal force.  When they’re breaking down your door – or, even worse, coming at you through the shared common wall with the adjoining apartment – your options are much more limited!

You can also use the land around your residence to erect a ‘garden shed’ or two in which you can store additional supplies and materials, in addition to whatever is in your home itself.  If you have your own land, you can have your own septic tank, or at the very least, dig a privy.

Talking about such things, some distance also gives you a sanitary/quarantine gap from your neighbors as well.  High density housing combined with a failure of services such as water and sewer is a huge invitation for dysentery and all sorts of other nasty diseases to spread like wildfire; and in a situation with diminished healthcare resource and fewer modern medications, what is currently inconvenient can quickly become lethal.

It also gives you a firebreak.  With the loss of public water services, fires can be harder to fight, and spread quickly between nearby buildings.  Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to modify the house you buy to ‘harden’ it against fire, or, even better, you will get an empty lot so you can build a house the way you want it, right from the start.

When you’re very close to your neighbors, and especially if you’re sharing a common structure, you’re beholden to them and you will be vulnerable to the consequences of their mistakes.

Your own extra space does a lot more than insulate you from the mistakes of your neighbors.  You have some space to set out some solar cells (in addition to whatever might be on your roof, or perhaps instead of being on your roof, so as not to draw attention to yourself).  You also have space for a generator and can park several vehicles securely.

Talking about being insulated from your neighbors, we’d urge you to avoid any type of property that is subject to a Home Owners’ Association, and be very wary of any attached covenants, codes and restrictions.  Home Owners’ Associations can run amok and cause no end of problems to people like ourselves – people who may not be willing to conform to the most excessively politically correct mandates of the HOA.

Not only do you want to avoid the constraints of an HOA, you want to have a moderate amount of privacy on your lot – you don’t want to be looking out your living room windows and straight into your neighbor’s living room, and so on.

If you have your own freestanding dwelling structure, you also have your own roof, and so you can collect rainwater from it without any complicating factors.  You can fireproof the structure too, and – while you’re at it – also make it ballistically stronger.

Even Non-Gardeners Should Have a (Small) Garden

One more thing about having some land.  Yes, you’ve already decided you’re not going to live a life as a rural farmer, spending all days doing back-breaking work in the fields.

But we’d urge you to have a few rows of veggies in your back yard, or perhaps erect a small greenhouse (then you can even raise plants up off the ground and not have to bend over so much).  Even a small bit of food independence (or, more accurately, less food dependence) might make a lot of difference when things get really tight and really tough.  Grow some easy, resilient, fun things.

You’re growing such things to supplement your other food and income, rather than to survive from, and if you grow some non-standard food items, you might find them much appreciated by other people, too.

So, one of the framing factors in your location choice within the town will be the varying costs of having some land together with a freestanding dwelling – how much you feel you need and how much you can afford.

Having acknowledged that, you should choose a place as centrally located as possible.  Sure, convenience is a good thing, and the ability to only walk for three or four minutes to get to your nearby Starbucks store in the morning is definitely a plus – well, okay then, maybe you’ve found the one town in the US that doesn’t yet have a Starbucks or analogous coffee shop.  🙂

For sure, you need to plan your future based on walking or riding a bicycle wherever you go in town, rather than driving a car.

Security Issues

There’s another reason for choosing to be close in to the center of the town as well.  If your town gets attacked by marauding bandits, two things will happen.

First, unlike the wild west movies we see, the bad guys won’t ride into the middle of the main street, a yelling and a hollering as they come, then shoot up everything they see, then ride out of town again.  Whereas, in the movies, the center of town seems to always be the most dangerous spot, in real life, we think it will be the safest.

Just like German U-boats against convoys in WW2 that would pick off the stragglers – the bad guys will attack, by stealth, the furthest out properties – the ones in the sort of grey zone where lot sizes have got larger, houses are further apart, and if you didn’t know the official city boundary line, you’d not be sure if they were in the town or not.

The second thing that will happen is a response to the first.  Outlying residents will come in to the center of the town for protection, and at the same time, the people who live closer in will band together to protect themselves – and themselves only.

The city limits sign will have no meaning.  The townsfolk in the center of the town will band together and protect only the inner enclave of their town.  This will be the area where an attack on one building is ‘dangerously close’ to other nearby buildings, such that the neighbors feel they have to help defend.  When the population density thins out some, if one building is attacked, neighbors will either cower under the kitchen table or run away, but when the population density rises, neighbors will feel that it is safer to help repulse the attackers, because they’ll perceive the direct danger to themselves much more starkly.

We’ve also seen analogous examples of this in history too – towns where the inner part was defended by a city wall, and the outer part – outside the city wall, was on their own.

Okay, we know our advice seems contradictory.  On the one hand, you want to have a reasonable lot size, and a bit of privacy and buffer zone between you and the neighbors.  On the other hand, you want to be close in to the town center for security and safety.  Where do you compromise?  That really depends on the layout of the town (and your budget).

When we talk about town layout we don’t just mean the streets and houses and plat maps, although that is of course relevant.  We also mean the ways in and out of the town, and any geographic buffers/barriers that might provide protection – rivers and hills, for example.

Clearly, attackers will be very likely to approach from some directions and less likely to approach from others.  This isn’t a military campaign, they are looking for ‘low-lying fruit’ and will leave difficult situations well alone (because there will be plenty of low lying fruit).  So consider degrees of risk when choosing your location in a town, although the most important thing to appreciate is that if/when threatened, the town will ‘shrink in’ on itself, and only the dense central area will end up with the residents effectively uniting against external problems.


If you have a skill that can be used in a rural town after WTSHTF, then by all means plan your prepping on the basis of setting up your retreat in a town.

We discuss how to choose a suitable town separately.  Once you have chosen a suitable town, in this article we explain where in the town is best to locate yourself.

Jul 012013
This shelter/bunker has easy access and would allow people to quickly make their way to safety.

This shelter/bunker has easy access and would allow people to quickly make their way to safety.

If you have a shelter and are unfortunately in a region where there’s a danger of being caught by the initial immediate effects of a nuclear explosion, then of course you must get into the shelter and have it secured, shut, prior to any bombs being detonated.

Assuming you even get any warning about an imminent attack (and that’s a very big assumption which we evaluate in a separate article), you almost certainly won’t know how long it will be from when you receive the warning to when the warheads might arrive and explode above you.  In another article, we calculate that the very best case scenario might see you with a five minute warning, maximum; and the more likely scenarios have warnings being too late and not being sent out (and/or not being received by you) until after the missiles have arrived.

So you truly are in a situation where seconds count.  Best case scenario, you have no more than 300 seconds (ie five minutes) from the start of a warning message until the explosion.  More likely, you may have only one or two minutes to get into your shelter.

It goes without saying that of course you want for you and as many other members of your group as are presently close to your shelter, to get into it and have it secured prior to the bomb(s) going off.  Read on for some thoughts about how to make this as achievable as possible.

With most retreat/shelter layouts, you should be able to get to your shelter and inside it in less than 60 seconds (depends how quickly you can get its door open and closed, of course).  Some people might be closer and able to do so in under 30 seconds.  Others may be more distant (we talk about that a bit further on).

You and everyone else must, the instant you get a warning, stop anything/everything you are doing and move immediately to the shelter, because you have no way of knowing if the warning you have received leaves you with 10 seconds or 10 minutes of time before the bombs start exploding around you.

Warning/Alerting Others in Your Group

The only thing you need to do, prior to rushing to your shelter as urgently as possible, is to warn the other people in your group and summon them to the shelter.  We suggest the best way to do this is not by calling out to them, but by sounding a (very loud) audible alarm.

Do not use a method that puts the responsibility on you to make sure other people have heard and understood the alarm.  And do not use some type of alarm system that will delay your own rush to the shelter.  All you should have to do is flip a switch somewhere close by on your likely route to the shelter.

Use some type of general alarm and make sure it is clearly understood that there will be no checking up, so when the alarm goes off, it is everyone’s personal responsibility to hear it, recognize it, respond to it, and get to the shelter before it closes, without assistance.  Sadly, we as a nation have largely turned out back on the concept of personal responsibility, so this may require a paradigm shift, and some passive aggressive responses from some of your group who are slowest to accept this concept (you may uncover this when you do rehearsals – see below).

The only exception to personal responsibility would be, of course, for people who genuinely truly do need assistance.  The aged, infirm, and the very young.

Perhaps the best alarm system would be to have a series of sirens or alarm bells installed around your residence, connected up to a car battery that is being trickle charged by a standby battery charger.  These would be all activated by any one of a series of switches around the house, all in parallel, so that turning any one of them on will activate all the alarms.  The battery/mains power source means that if there’s a power cut, your alarm system will still remain functional, potentially for days or weeks until the power is restored (the alarm system will not be drawing appreciable power until it is activated).

With multiple alarm devices, you can locate them wherever people may be and wherever distracting noises may be present.

If this is too complicated, then a simple system could be to use warning horns that run off cans of compressed air, and have those in multiple locations in your house on the route to your shelter.  Have them in a cradle with a lever so that you can pull the lever down to actuate the device and have it stay actuated for however long there is air in the can.  You can just quickly flip it on and then continue on your way to the shelter.

Failing that, even simple whistles that you can blow, in several places around the house, might be a suitable alternate way of providing a loud can’t be missed urgent alarm sound, but if you’re blowing a whistle as hard as you can, you’re going to be slowing yourself down on your own rush to the shelter.

You’ll be able to test this of course and get a feeling for how clearly a whistle or air horn can be heard in the furthest away nooks and crannies of your residence and the grounds immediately outside.  Probably you’ll find it necessary to use an electric siren system with multiple sirens – these are easy to design and construct.

Note that the human ear will detect an intermittent sound better than a steady sound.  So instead of one long blast of the air horn, or one huge blow of the whistle, you want repeated multiple short blasts.  Each sound should be at least half a second in duration.  Electronic siren devices with programmable siren tones might be better, from this perspective, than steadily sounding alarm bells.

Three final suggestions about this.

First, make sure the alarm sound is very different to other alarms and warnings and sounds in and around your house.  You don’t want it to be confused with your alarm clock, the timer on the microwave, a carbon monoxide detector, a smoke detector, the neighbor’s burglar alarm, your car alarm, etc.

Second, don’t make the alarms ridiculously deafeningly loud, and don’t choose a siren sound pattern that is disorienting (fast warbles are particularly disorienting).  You want to alert people, not disorient and confuse them.

Third, have an alarm cut-off switch in your shelter, so that when you close up your shelter, you can turn off the alarms.  This does two things.  First, it gets rid of the noise in the background that might otherwise continue for many hours.  Secondly, people know that if/when the alert siren stops, that means the shelter has been closed and they should make other emergency arrangements for shelter.

Whatever method of warning other people in and around your house you choose, of course you must test it to ensure that everyone can hear it, everywhere in the house, no matter what they’re doing.  The person singing in the shower, the person with headphones on listening to their iPod, the person laughing and giggling with friends, the person watching a loud movie, the heavy sleeper in their far away bedroom, the person mowing the lawn outside and so on – all of them must be absolutely able to clearly hear the alarm.

Map Out Travel Times to the Shelter

The next part of your planning is to understand how long it will take people to get to the shelter from different parts of your residence and adjoining property.

You want to do test drills from various locations so you build up an understanding of what the range of times will be to take people to get to your shelter.  Time both faster/nimbler members of your group and slower/less dextrous members too, so as to get best and worst case scenarios.

As you do this, you’ll quickly see that, for example, people can get from everywhere in your house to the shelter in a maximum of (whatever number) seconds, and where the furthest away (from a traveling time point of view) locations are.

If you have some people who are less agile on stairs or whatever, of course their travel times will prove to be significantly different if there are stairs or other complicating factors.

Please understand, at this point, that mapping out the times is not the same as setting a policy for how long you’ll wait for people to get to the shelter, but it certainly is the step prior to that and provides you with helpful data to consider when making those difficult decisions, discussed in the next article.

There’s also one other thing to consider when looking at time it takes to get to the shelter.  The key issue is how much more time it will take people from further away to get to the shelter than it will take people close by.  That is the most difficult time, when some people are already in the shelter and waiting anxiously for the door to be closed and for safety to envelop them.

Rehearsing Shelter Alerts

You need to carry out rehearsal drills to instill the appropriate instincts in everyone in your group to move to your shelter instantly and also to check for things like the ability for your alert/warning sound to be heard.

Do we need to tell you that once an alarm is sounded, don’t pause to grab anything (because everything you need for an extended stay in the shelter must be already pre-positioned in the shelter), don’t fuss over opening/closing doors/windows, don’t turn anything on or off, just go directly to your shelter.  Nothing else matters, because you’re anticipating a scenario where everything outside the shelter is about to be completely destroyed, after all!

Some rehearsals can be simple timed exercises to see how long it takes each person to get to the shelter, and see what issues each person experienced in terms of delays and problems, then work on fixes to optimize those issues.

Depending on the type of entrance to your shelter, you might also discover problems having a number of people all transit through it at once.  If that is the case, see which way works best – slow people first, fast people second, or vice versa, and see if there’s a way for more able-bodied people to assist the less able-bodied people.

If you have a vertical shaft with a ladder leading down into a shelter, maybe there’s a way you could augment that with a ‘fireman’s pole’ on the other side of the shaft, opposite the ladder?  That way some people could use the pole to quickly go down while others use the ladder.

We suggest you never have a total surprise alert, because the adrenalin caused by an unexpected and apparently for real alert might prove too much for the weaker hearted among you.  But it would be acceptable to say ‘Some time today or tomorrow I’ll sound the alarm’ – there’s no need to have everyone ready, waiting, and already prepared.

Now for an important thing.  After a few ‘normal’ rehearsals, you want to then start adding a new element into the practicing.  You want to deliberately be late, yourself, and subsequently secretly arrange with other individuals for them to be late.  You are now rehearsing not just the ‘getting to the shelter in time’ scenario but also the ‘closing the door in the face of late-comers’ scenario, and this is an essential thing to rehearse.  Not only does it give the door closer the confidence to do so, but it also impresses on the stragglers that the door will close at the agreed upon time (see our separate article on how to set these policies).

A Policy For Unexpected Guests

What say you have friends visiting when an alarm is sounded.  What do you do – leave them staring in amazement as you suddenly all get up, open a hitherto unseen ‘secret panel’ in the wall behind them, and rush down a flight of stairs without a word of explanation?  Or try to hastily tell them what is happening and invite them in to your shelter with you?

On the basis of safety in numbers, and on the basis of it is probably easier to include them than to exclude them, you probably should plan your shelter to have some extra capacity – extra space, extra beds, extra food, and so on.  So, in the event an alarm should occur when you have guests visiting, and all other things being equal, you invite them too.

This assumes that the visitors are people who you are generally compatible with and who truly would add to the overall dynamics and resilience of your group.  The problem is that your group will have had time to already prepare their attitudes and mindset to the scenario that is now unfolding, and hopefully have some fortitude with which to face the future.  Non-prepping friends might bring with them all the dysfunctional attitudes and expectations that have made our society as unstable as it presently is.  Which would be worse?  To exclude them from entry to your shelter at the get-go (quite possibly at gunpoint) or to eject them from the shelter some days later (again quite possibly at gunpoint)?


All your investment in a shelter is wasted if you and the rest of your family/group can’t get there in time, before any bombs start to go off around you.

You need to plan and then practice the process of making your way to your shelter as quickly as possible, because if an alert is ever sounded, you may have mere seconds to get from wherever you are to the safety of your shelter.

Jul 012013
A nice shelter entrance, designed so blast waves will be partially deflected off the door.

A nice shelter entrance, designed so blast waves will be partially deflected off the door.

So you have invested in a blast/radiation shelter, and done all the necessary things to stock it and prepare for an emergency.  And then, one day, an emergency truly occurs.  You all (presumably) rush to the shelter, but inevitably, some of you get there before others of your group or family.

How long do you keep the shelter door open, waiting for the slower and slowest people to get there?

This is probably the most difficult consideration for you to grapple with.  How long do you keep the shelter open (and thereby imperiling everyone already inside it) while you want for the slowest (or furthest away) members of your group to reach it?   For example, what do you do if you have four family members in/around the house, and when the warning sounds, two of you are able to get to the shelter within 30 seconds, the third is somewhere that will take a minute, and the fourth is two minutes away.  Do you wait the extra minute and a half for the fourth person to arrive, or do you shut and lock the shelter after the third person?  For that matter, do you even wait for the third person?

Another way of looking at it is should the three of you who have made it to the shelter now risk your safety by leaving the shelter open for the fourth person to join you?  Remember, you have no way of knowing if there’ll be an explosion in your area in 5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 hours, or maybe not at all.

There are a couple of ways you could create a policy to cover this situation, and probably the first thing to do would be to understand the likely ‘worst case scenario’ times it would take people who are outside the house, but close to it, to get from where they are to the shelter.  If our next article we talk about, amongst other things, creating a type of time/distance map so everyone knows how long it will take to get to the shelter from wherever they are when the alarm is sounded.

This can also help people to understand, based on their location, if they will be able to get to the shelter or not.  If they know in advance they are out of range, they can consider alternate temporary shelter arrangements and then go the rest of the way to the main shelter subsequently.

A Recommended Solution to This Problem

The best approach to allowing stragglers to be admitted without risking the people who arrived in plenty of time is to consider an ‘airlock’ sort of design for the main entrance to your shelter.  This will allow a person in through the outer-most door into an intermediate chamber.  After they have closed the outer-most door, you open the inner door and allow them the rest of the way in.  This would be a suitable solution that allows additional people in to your shelter safely, while not requiring the people who have already reached the shelter to compromise their own safety in the process.

If you do this, we recommend you have some simple mechanical interlocks that will make it impossible for both doors to be open simultaneously.  That way there can’t be any ‘cheating’ or mistakes that cause both doors to be open, risking everyone inside if a blast occurs during this vulnerable period.

The ‘air lock’ section should be large enough for several people to easily be in it at a time, so as not to slow down the process too much for everyone.

This type of approach will also be helpful when you start venturing out of the shelter during the period of time after the bombing has ended, but while you need to stay in the shelter for protection against dangerous nearby radioactivity.  The ‘airlock’ design (with the two doors offset so that if both doors were open at the same time, it would not be possible to see from the shelter, through both doors, and to the outside) and augmented with a decontamination facility in the airlock passage would allow people to go in and out without allowing radiation or fallout contamination to enter.

As a much less desirable alternative, and depending on the type of shelter design, maybe it is possible to quickly reopen and reclose the door again to let other people in – that way the door would only briefly open for a few seconds for another person or two to quickly come in, then the door would close again.  If you have some baffles protecting the door so that, even if the door were fully open, there would be no direct radiation or heat path from a possible explosion point to inside your shelter, and the force of the blast wave would be dissipated, that would help reduce that risk, but of course, there’s a tremendous and potentially fatal difference, particularly if you’re within the radius of the initial fireball, as between having your door even slightly open and securely shut.

Our preference and recommendation is for an ‘airlock’ type approach – this will also be useful when people venture out and return during any subsequent period of dangerous outside radioactivity.

Have a Formal Policy that Determines When You Shut Your Shelter Door

If you don’t end up with an ‘airlock’ type arrangement, then you need a policy for when the door will be shut and locked.  Whatever you settle on, you first need to fully discuss and then mutually agree on it, and then, put it in writing so that there is no misunderstanding and everyone knows what to do and when to close the door.  That way, there are no feelings of guilt or blame attached, either for people who get there in time or for those who might not.

A formal policy also means that people who know they won’t be able to make it to the shelter will know that up front, and instead of wasting valuable time unsuccessfully getting to the shelter, can immediately work on whatever alternate option might exist.

The first possible formal policy approach would be to say that you will wait for everyone to arrive.  That’s for sure one approach, although it then ties the fate of all of you to the actions of the slowest of you, and also removes the pressure on the slowest person to be as ultimately fast as they can be, because they know you’ll wait for them.  It is probably the worst policy to consider, so while we mention it, we don’t recommend it.

A second policy would be to say that the first person to the shelter starts a timer with a pre-agreed upon time period.  When the timer finishes, the shelter door closes, no matter who or how many of you are still out there.  You could decide if that timer would be for 30 seconds, a minute, or however long you feel necessary.

A related approach is for the activation of the alarm to also activate a timer, and when the alarm has been sounding for a specified time, as agreed in advance and shown on the timer, whoever is in the shelter will then close it, no matter who is not yet there.

The third approach would be to say that if there are, eg, four of you in your group in total, then the shelter will stay open for so many seconds after the second or third of you arrive.

A fourth approach would be, and let’s again say there are four of you, then you say that when the third person gets into the shelter, if the fourth person isn’t in sight of the shelter door and within a couple of seconds of entering, the door will shut.  Of course, you can set a policy so it isn’t just the second to last person who triggers the conditional door closing, you could decide that ‘the majority rules’ and as soon as half your group have reached the shelter, then there is only a very few seconds before the door closes.

There are many other ways you could agree on when the door will be closed.

Our own preference would be to set a timer based on either from the start of the alarm signal or when the very first or second person arrives.  If you wait until most of your group has arrived, there’s a danger that some people will say ‘don’t worry, we’ll wait for you, Bill, and with all three of us not yet there, they won’t close the door’.  But if you make it so the first or second person activates the timer, and that the door should close at the end of that time period, no matter who or how many people remain outside, then there can’t be any ‘collusion’ and everyone will be headed as fast as they can to the shelter.

One more thing.  When the time to close the door is reached, you must then close the door, no matter if there is someone only seconds away.  Because if you delay for that person, then maybe when they have got in, there will then be another person coming into view, also only seconds away.  So you delay a second time, and now you’ve added however longer of risk with the door open to the entire group inside the shelter.  When the time to close is reached, the door shuts, even if it slams shut in the face of someone within inches of reaching it.

Your group also needs to understand that this is all about the survival of the fittest and the most committed, which will be the way of the new world.  The person in charge of closing the door needs to give most priority to protecting the well-being of those people who did get to the shelter in the agreed upon time.  It is not appropriate to risk the safety of all who did comply in the possibly futile hope of allowing non-compliant group members to get to the shelter too.

We also urge you to use a timer, because that makes it an impersonal decision.  As soon as the timer signals the end of the timing period, the door must be closed.  It is no-one’s fault, and no individual’s personal mean-minded decision to close the door in the face of people rushing towards the shelter.  It was a group decision to set the process the way it has been set, and a group responsibility to now honor the arrangement agreed.

Temporary Shelters

Your main shelter will be equipped for you to live there for a month, ideally for longer.  But if you don’t have an airlock system to allow people to come in at any time, and if you have a significant probability that some people won’t be able to make it to the main shelter before you close and lock the entrance, perhaps you might need to consider a temporary shelter that would be suitable for protection from the initial blast effects only, and in which people could stay in briefly and then make their way the rest of the way to the main shelter as soon as it was safe.

There will be a window of safety between when the bombs have stopped exploding and when the fallout starts to come down where there’ll be little radioactivity outside, making it safe for people to quickly move from a temporary shelter to the main shelter.  That will only be for 30 minutes or so, however, so in such a case, we’d suggest timing from the first blast, waiting maybe 20 minutes or so (in case of additional bombs), then rushing from the temporary shelter to the main shelter.


We recommend you design your shelter with an ‘airlock’ type entry so as to allow for people to safely enter the shelter even as a blast is occurring nearby.  This avoids the ugly issue which you’d otherwise need to consider and plan for – what to do with stragglers when you’re all rushing to your shelter.

If you don’t have this type of airlock, you need to agree that it is not fair that everyone else in your group is put at risk while the shelter remains open and vulnerable due to some people being slow to get to the shelter.  You need to be prepared to close and lock the door after an agreed upon time period, no matter who remains outside.

Jun 272013
The effects of the bomb at Hiroshima were greatly magnified by the flimsy construction methods used in the city.  The few buildings constructed to western standards proved comparatively robust.

The effects of the bomb at Hiroshima were greatly magnified by the flimsy construction methods used in the city. The few buildings constructed to western standards proved comparatively robust.

This is the first part of a two-part article about surviving nuclear blasts.  In this first part, we look at the immediate effects of nuclear blasts, in the second part, we will look at longer term effects.

Few things are more horrific in many people’s minds than the thought of being close to a nuclear explosion.  Some people have gone to great lengths, constructing massive bunkers/shelters in their basements, to do what they believe may be necessary to optimize their chances of survival in such cases.  But – two questions :  Are such things really necessary?  And, if they are necessary, will they truly protect you?

Sure, we agree that ground zero would not be a nice place to be at, but the horror and the power of nuclear weapons are often overstated and misunderstood – especially by the ‘anti-nuke’ campaigners; oh yes, and by bunker salesmen, too!  So, let’s first investigate the question – how survivable is a nuclear explosion, and then in a subsequent article series we’ll evaluate the best type of bunker or other shelter structure that would be appropriate for most of us.

The survivability of a nuclear blast depends on several variables (of course).  In particular, it depends on how powerful the nuclear bomb is – and that’s the first variable most civilians fail to account for.  A second variable is how far you are likely to be from the blast (and we consider some of the surprising unexpected considerations related to determining that in the second part of this two-part article).

Other variables include the weather (obviously wind has a massive impact on fallout patterns, so too does rain), the time of day (the nuclear flash will blind more people at night), topography (you might be sheltered by a hill) and ‘urban clutter’ (buildings and other things that occlude and slow down a blast wave more quickly than most theoretical models allow for).

One more huge variable is whether the blast is an air blast (most likely), a surface blast (less blast effect but massively more fallout) or a sub-surface blast (effects depend on how deep the blast is).

How Powerful Are Nuclear Weapons?

Nuclear bombs are measured in terms of the equivalent amount of TNT required to create a similar blast.  Actually, due to various imprecisions, these days they are measured in terms of total energy released which is converted to a theoretical equivalent amount of TNT to make it sound more scary and also more meaningful – if you were told that a bomb had a power of 4.184 petajoules you’d have no idea what that meant, but most people can vaguely comprehend that a one megaton bomb is awesomely powerful.

The 1 MT rating is equivalent to the 4.184 petajoule rating.  You might not be familiar with the ‘peta’ prefix – a petajoule is  1000 terajoules, or 1,000,000 gigajoules or 1,000,000,000 megajoules, or, in the ultimate, 1,000,000,000,000,000 joules – a very big number indeed!

But, back to the usual common measurement of nuclear weapons.  The power of such weapons is usually measured either in kilotons (kT) or megatons (MT), being respectively 1000 tons or 1,000,000 tons of TNT equivalent.

Nuclear bombs range in size from a few kilotons of TNT equivalent power to possibly over 100 megatons of TNT equivalent power.  The smallest that we are more or less aware of were the (withdrawn from inventory more than 30 years ago) W54 series of warheads, with explosive blasts measured in the mere tons or tens of tons of TNT equivalent.

The biggest ever exploded was a Russian bomb, called  the Tsar Bomba, which created an estimated 57 megaton blast, in 1961.

To put these sizes into context, conventional ‘high explosive’ type bombs range from some tens of pounds of TNT equivalent up to the largest GBU-43/B bombs with an 11 ton yield.  Russia might have an even larger bomb with a 44 ton yield.  Most conventional bombs have an under half ton yield.

So that’s the first take-away point.  A ‘nuclear bomb’ can range from something less powerful than a conventional technology bomb, to something of hard to comprehend power and magnitude.

There’s as much as a million times difference in power between a small nuclear bomb and a huge one – that’s like comparing the tiniest firework cracker with a huge 6000 lb conventional ‘bunker buster’ bomb.  Except that, of course, even the smallest nuclear weapon is sort of like a huge 6,000 lb conventional bunker buster bomb, and they just go up from there in scale!

Nuclear Bombs Are Getting Smaller

A related piece of good news.  Although the first decade or two of nuclear bomb development saw a steady increase in size/power, that trend has now reversed.  The two bombs used against Japan were approximately 13 – 18 kT for the Hiroshima bomb and 20 – 22 kT for the Nagasaki bomb; and then for the next fifteen years or so after that, bomb sizes got bigger and bigger.

The largest bombs ever tested were the US Castle Bravo test in 1954 (15 MT – this was actually a mistake, it was planned to be only half that size) and the Russian Tsar Bomba test in 1961 (57 MT).

Since that time, the typical warhead size has gone down again rather than up.  Happily, bigger is not necessarily ‘better’ when it comes to nuclear weapons.  There are several reasons for this.

Due to the increased accuracy of the delivery systems, there has become less need for a massively powerful bomb – a smaller bomb delivered with precision would generally have the same or better effect than a bigger bomb that arrives some distance off target.  Earlier missiles were only accurate to within a mile or so of their target, the latest generation are thought to be accurate to 200 ft or so, so there is no longer a need to have a weapon so powerful that it will be capable of destroying its target, even if it is a mile further away than expected.

Secondly, the evolution of multi-warheaded missiles means that instead of a missile delivering one big bomb to one target, they can now deliver two, three, or many bombs to many different targets, but this requires each warhead to be smaller and lighter (ie less powerful) than otherwise would be the case.

With a single missile having a limited amount of space available and weight carrying capability to transport warheads, and with a fairly direct relationship between a bomb’s power and its weight (and lesserly space), there has been a general favoring to the smaller warheads, although Russia still has a few enormous 20 MT warheads in its inventory.

There is also the surprising and counter-intuitive fact that the effects of a nuclear explosion do not increase directly with the increase in its power – that is to say, a bomb with twice the rated TNT equivalent explosive power does not also have twice as much destructive power; it has more like perhaps 1.6 times the destructive power (the actual relationship is x0.67).

This means it is better to have two bombs, each of half the power of a single bomb (and better still to have four bombs, each of one-quarter the power).  In terms of maximizing the total destroyed area, if you have a single missile that could have, say one 8 MT warhead, two 4 MT warheads, or four 2 MT warheads, generally this last option would be the most desirable one.  It also means the attacker can choose between sending multiple warheads to one target, or being able to attack more targets.

Furthermore, having four warheads all splitting off from the one missile gives the enemy four times as many objects to intercept.  It is much harder to safely defend against four incoming warheads than one.

So, for all these reasons, multiple small bombs are now usually the preferred approach.

Bigger Bombs Don’t Have Proportionally Greater Destructive Ranges

This statement needs explaining.  There are two factors at play here – the first is that if a bomb is eight times bigger than another bomb, it doesn’t destroy eight times as many square miles (due to the power of the bomb not increasing linearly with its TNT equivalent, as explained in the preceding section).  At the bottom of this page it says that eight small bombs might cover 160 sq miles of area (ie 20 sq miles each), whereas one single bomb, eight times the size, would only cover 80 sq miles.

The second factor is to do with the difference between a bomb’s destructive area and its destructive range.  A bomb’s destructive area spreads out more or less in a circular pattern, but the area of a circle is proportional to the square of its radius.  In other words, for a bomb to have a radius of destruction twice as far as another bomb, it would need to be four times more powerful, not two times as powerful.

So, continuing this example, 80 square miles require a circle with a radius of 5.0 miles, and a 20 sq mile circle has a radius of 2.5 miles.  In other words, to double the distance within which a bomb will destroy everything, and after allowing for both the square relationship between distance and area, and the less than doubling of explosive effect when you double the power of a bomb, you have to increase its explosive power not twice, not four times, but eight times.

This is presented visually in the following diagram, which shows the radius of the fireball created by bombs of different sizes, ranging from small to the largest ever detonated (sourced from this page).


Don’t go getting too complacent, though.  This is only the close-in fireball – the blast and temperature effects would extend much further than this (although subject to the same proportionality).

Actual Effects and Safe Distances

Now that we start to talk about actual damage and death, it is important to realize that these things are not clear-cut.  Apart from extremely close to a bomb’s detonation, where everyone will be killed, and everything destroyed, and extremely far from its detonation, where no-one will be killed and nothing destroyed, in the range between ‘very close’ and ‘safely far away’ there is a sliding scale of death and destruction.  There are zones where 90% of ‘average’ buildings will be destroyed, and other zones where only 10% of average buildings will be destroyed, and the same for where varying percentages of people may be killed or injured.

As can be seen from pictures taken after the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even very close to the blast centers, some buildings remained standing, while other buildings, relatively far away, were destroyed.  There’s a lot more to whether buildings and people survive than just distance from the blast, and one of the factors is best described as ‘luck’.

So the numbers we give below are very approximate.

To be specific, a 20 MT warhead (the largest in Russia’s arsenal) would send lethal radiation about 3 miles, almost all buildings and many people would be killed by blast effects up to 4 miles away, and third degree burns (the most serious) would be inflicted on people in direct line of the blast up to 24 miles away (see the table below, taken from the Wikipedia article on this page).



Explosive yield / Height of Burst

1 kt / 200 m

20 kt / 540 m

1 Mt / 2.0 km

20 Mt / 5.4 km

Blast—effective ground range GR / measured in km

Urban areas completely levelled (20 psi or 140 kPa)





Destruction of most civilian buildings (5 psi or 34 kPa)





Moderate damage to civilian buildings (1 psi or 6.9 kPa)





Railway cars thrown from tracks and crushed (62 kPa; values for other than 20 kt are extrapolated using the cube-root scaling)





Thermal radiation—effective ground range GR / measured in km






Third degree burns





Second degree burns





First degree burns





Effects of instant nuclear radiation—effective slant range SR / in km

Lethal total dose (neutrons and gamma rays)





Total dose for acute radiation syndrome






With most bombs likely to be 1 MT or less, the column in the table for 1 MT devices is perhaps most relevant.  If you have a well-built retreat, then as long as you are, say, 5 miles or more away from the detonation, your retreat will remain standing.

As for yourself, it would be nice to be a similar distance away to keep your own overpressure experience to a minimum (ie under 20 psi, although the body may survive up to 30 psi according to page 4-5 of this FEMA document).

There is also a need to avoid the lethal radiation, which will reach out about 2 miles, with diminishing degrees of lethality as you get further away from the blast – for example, you’ll have a 50% chance of dying from radiation (but not so quickly) if you are within 5 miles.

But your biggest worry (ie the threat reaching out the furthest) will be the flash and temperature effects.  If you are outside, you don’t want to have the bad luck to be looking at the bomb (especially at night), and ideally you’d be more than 13 miles from it to avoid even first degree burns.  At 10 miles, you’ll start to get more severe second degree burns, and while normally survivable, in a situation with diminished medical care available, these would be life threatening.  However, if you are inside, you can safely be closer, because the walls of the structure will insulate you from the heat and flash.

So, to summarize, with a 1 MT bomb, you’ll die from either burns or radiation or blast if you are within 5 miles of the blast.  If you’re not sheltered from the direct heat flash, you’ll die from burns if you’re within about 13 miles of the blast.

If you are indoors, then your structure may collapse around you (and on top of you) if it is within 5 miles of the blast, and if it is constructed from flammable materials (ie wood in particular), it might catch fire if within 7 miles.

There is one more immediate risk to be considered.  The blast is going to transform all sorts of things into dangerous flying objects.  You might survive the initial blast itself, only to be skewered by a flying telegraph pole a minute later, or be cut and bleed out from splinters of flying glass.

Here’s the thing – the blast wave travels more slowly than the initial flash.  So if you perceive an enormous flash, you should urgently take cover away from windows or weaker external structures, and wait several minutes until the hail of debris has subsided before venturing out.

Lastly for this part, here’s an interesting web program that shows the estimated ranges of the various effects of a nuclear explosion.  You can choose the power of bomb and where it is detonated, and see its coverage effects accordingly.

In our opinion, the ranges it shows are slightly over-estimated and fail to consider topography and other real-world factors, but it is probably acceptably accurate for the purposes it was created for, and on the basis of ‘better safe than sorry’ it does no harm to consider its results carefully.

Read More in Part Two

This first part of our two-part article has covered the immediate dangerous effects of a nuclear explosion that will occur within the first five minutes or so of a bomb blast.

But unlike a conventional bomb, don’t think that if you survive the first five minutes, then you’re safe.  There’s much more to consider, starting from perhaps about thirty minutes after the blast first occurred.  Please now turn to the second part to learn about the secondary and longer term effects of a nuclear explosion.

Jun 272013
A Civil Defense map from 1990 showing likely fallout patterns after a moderate intensity nuclear war.

A Civil Defense map from 1990 showing likely fallout patterns after a moderate intensity nuclear war.

This is the second part of a two-part article about how close you can be to a nuclear explosion and survive.  If you arrived direct to this page from a search engine or link, we suggest you first read the first part which talks about the immediate effects and dangers of a nuclear blast (covering the first five minutes or so) and how close you can be and still survive those.

Once you have survived the immediate effects of a nuclear blast – the fireball, the flash, the heat, the radiation, the blast wave and the flying debris, you have no time to relax.  There are two more dangers still to consider.

The first danger is that this first nuclear blast may not be the only one.  In a full-out nuclear war, all significant targets will likely be targeted to receive multiple bombs.  We’d suggest that if a first blast occurs, you anticipate that additional blasts may follow, and potentially over a period of an hour or two.  There could be several blasts within ten to twenty minutes from the first wave of missile attacks, and then there might be a second wave of attacks that follow an hour or so later.  Assuming you are in a moderately appropriate place to shelter, stay there for an hour or two in case of additional bombings.

Unhappily, the concern about additional bombs following the first is only one of the reasons to stay sheltered (or to urgently get to shelter).  There’s another major factor that will start to come into play, about 30 minutes after the explosion.

The Danger of Fallout

This is where some type of shelter facility becomes essential.  The bad news part of the immediate effects of a nuclear blast is that you might not have a chance to get to your shelter in time to be protected from them; the good news part is that they are lethal only over a surprisingly short distance (see the first part of this article for a discussion on the range of the lethal initial effects of a bomb blast).

But the fallout from the blast may start arriving at your location as soon as a few minutes after the blast, and might continue arriving for hours or even days afterwards, depending on issues such as wind and rain (see our series on Using Wind Data to Estimate Fallout Risk).

You have two problems with fallout.  Firstly, you don’t want it falling on you or getting in to your retreat/shelter.  Secondly, it will remain ‘out there’ – on the ground, on exposed surfaces, and anywhere/everywhere dust can settle – for a very long time until either washed away, removed, or radioactive levels subside.

Even though the radiation levels from the fallout may be low, they will be continuous and the effects on your health will be cumulative.  Controlling your exposure to fallout radiation is essential.

We talk about fallout in detail on our page Radiation and Fallout Risks.

There is a new concept to introduce to you now – and that is the difference between early and delayed fallout.

Depending on the particle sizes of the fallout material, some fallout will rise further than other fallout.  The heavier pieces go up a shorter distance and come down more quickly – this is termed early fallout.  The lighter pieces will go further up into the atmosphere – some objects may even be shot out into space, happily never to return.  The lighter pieces may get caught up in the jetstreams and be whisked away from where you are.

The immediate problem for you, if you are reasonably close to a bomb blast, is the early fallout.  This will start landing on the ground within 30 minutes of the explosion in the immediate vicinity of where the explosion occurred, and closer to an hour later by the time you get 20 miles away.  By the time you are 100 miles away, it may not start landing until 4 – 6 hours after the event.  These distances are largely determined by the wind speeds and directions, the fallout will not land evenly in neat concentric circles, but will skew strongly in some directions and might not appear at all in other directions.  We can be reasonably sure about the time it will take for the early fallout to come back down again, but we can not guess as to the specifics of where it will land.

All of the early fallout is usually deposited within 24 hours.  The remaining lighter particles can take months before they return to the ground, and may do so anywhere in the world (information taken from p 14 of this excellent 1961 guide).

So even if you survived the initial blast from the bomb, you still need to quickly get to shelter to avoid the fallout.  Depending on how far you are from the explosion, you can expect fallout to start arriving some time from 30 minutes after the blast, and to continue for a day.

How Long to Shelter For

The next part of the process is sheltering until the radiation from the fallout has reduced down to an acceptable level.  How long will this take?  That depends on how much fallout is surrounding you, and also on its rate of decay.

You probably should plan to stay inside for several days before even thinking about what is out there, then at that point, warily stick a radiation meter out a door and see what it says.  If it starts chattering away at an alarming level, quickly retreat back inside and wait a few more days before repeating.  The two readings will also give you a feeling for rate of decline, helping you get a feeling for how much further you are likely to need to keep waiting.  We have a page here about detecting and measuring radiation and will shortly be releasing an article about how much radiation is safe and when it instead becomes dangerous.

Realistically, you should be prepared to shelter for as long as a month or more, and as we discuss in our article on detecting and measuring radiation, if after a month, radiation levels remain dangerously elevated after a month, and show only low rates of reduction, then maybe you are unlucky and have had a particularly large deposit of fallout around your retreat, and maybe you need to consider abandoning your retreat entirely.

Note that while you might choose to shelter for a month or more, you can almost certainly venture outside for very short periods of time during your period of sheltering, although you need to be very careful not to bring contamination with you back into your shelter.  Shoes/boots in particular will have fallout on them after walking around outside, and your outer clothes may too.

While outside you should cover up as much as possible, and we’d suggest breathing through a mask as well, particularly if there is wind and dust outside.  You’d want to remove your footwear and clothing outside the shelter, and shower outside, before coming back into the shelter.

What Is Your Likely Distance From a Nuclear Blast

So we have established that as long as you are inside a strongly built structure and 5 – 10 miles away from a 1 MT blast, or outside and 15 – 20 miles from a 1 MT blast, you will probably survive.

This of course begs the question – how close to a blast are you likely to be?  This is the second of the two key variables to consider (the first being the strength of the blast).  Your distance from any possible blasts is clearly a very important question, but answering it with exactness is difficult, for two reasons.

The first reason is we can’t accurately guess exactly where any possible enemy may choose to target and attack.  But we can probably guess some places they won’t attack – rural locations with no significant industry or airports or harbors or major transportation hubs or other economic or industrial or military objects of value.

The only difficult part of making that prediction is not knowing for sure if there isn’t some super-secret government installation, or similarly secret commercial installation, something/anything of relevant strategic value, and known to the enemy but not to you.  Maybe there’s a huge big data-center or internet resource somewhere in the fields, or who knows what, where.

And even if there isn’t, maybe the enemy mistakenly believes there is!

The second reason is that no-one really knows what would happen in a high intensity nuclear attack. In addition to the unknown reliability and accuracy of enemy missiles to start with, there are three interesting complications.

The first complication is what might happen to the guidance systems of missiles as they go over the north pole.  Depending on how the missiles are guided, this could possibly cause errors to occur.  There have been no missile tests over the pole, so this is all untested theory.

The second complication is what might happen when our defense forces try to counter any incoming missile attack.  Alas, our anti-missile forces are pitifully weak and very few in number, and no-one would suggest they would have any tangible impact on a major attack featuring tens or hundreds of missiles and hundreds or thousands of warheads.

But even if we managed to deploy five or ten ABMs, they might possibly knock some incoming missiles off course rather than completely destroy them, causing the warheads to go and explode in the ‘wrong’ locations – and ending up hundreds or thousands of miles away from their original target.  What if the wrong location they arrived at was, by a bad turn of fate, directly above our retreat?  That’s definitely a consideration, albeit a very unlikely one.

The third complication is similar to the second.  It is not clear what happens to incoming warheads when one that arrived a minute or two or three before the later ones, detonates.  Will the incoming warheads immediately behind still operate, or be destroyed in the blast (a concept known as ‘fratricide’)?

That’s a question of little relevance to us if we’re hundreds of miles away, but a more relevant question is whether the force of the first warhead’s blast might not knock other warheads off course and cause them to veer off target and again end up detonating closer to us than was intended.

Such course deviations are probably not likely to push warheads hundreds of miles off course, but it is certainly conceivable they might deflect a warhead ten or twenty miles.  This is because whereas the ABM attacks take place earlier on the missile’s trajectory, where a small deflection ends up with a larger movement at the end of the journey, the effects of other explosions would impact only on the last twenty or so miles of travel.  Depending on your location, that might be relevant.

So, with a reasonable but not absolute degree of certainty, you can probably determine whether you are in a location that has a high or low ‘appeal’ as a nuclear target.  If your retreat is located in an area that has anything other than a very low degree of appeal, you’ve made a bad location choice!


We don’t mean to understate the potential devastation and catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons.  They are beyond terrible.  But, none of us should overstate their effects, either.  The anti-nuke campaigners, in a manner very similar to anti-gunners, have chosen to magnify the public perception of the outcomes of nuclear explosions, and while many people will die and many buildings will be destroyed, the good news is that very many more people will live.

This is a two-part article.  In the first part we looked at the deadly immediate effects of a nuclear explosion and how far they reached from the explosion’s center; if you have not yet read it, you should probably now do so.

We have a great deal of additional resources on nuclear issues and responses here.