Aug 032014
The sun rises higher in the sky in summer, and travels around more of it, than in winter.

The sun rises higher in the sky in summer, and travels around more of it, than in winter.

Many of the preferred locations for prepper retreats are in areas that have substantial swings in temperatures between hot summers (daytime temperatures often in the 90s and sometimes exceeding 100) and cold winters (where temperatures seldom rise above freezing, even in the middle of the day).

That’s no big deal when you have unlimited utility power for heating and cooling, limited only by your ability to pay the electricity or gas bill each month.  But in a Level 2 or 3 situation, there won’t be any utility power, and creating our own electricity will be expensive and always in short supply.

We need to make our retreat structures as energy efficient as possible so as to minimize the need for heating and cooling.

There are lots of ways to improve the energy efficiency of our retreats, and most of these are totally ignored in ‘normal’ building design and construction because it makes little financial sense to, for example, spend an extra $50,000 when building your retreat, and to get a $500 a year saving in energy consumption as a result.  But in a Level 2/3 situation, the cost of the energy might rise from $500 to $5000 or more, and/or it might simply not be available at any cost, and so the financial equation changes drastically, making it more prudent for us to invest up front in additional energy-saving techniques in order to enjoy the benefits if/when we need to rely on our retreat and make do with less energy.

The good news is that not all these strategies need to be expensive or inconvenient, and some of them actually add to the livability of your retreat.  One such example is adding what in various forms can be considered either an awning, a brise soleil, a shade or a veranda (verandah – both spellings seem acceptable) to your retreat’s southerly (and much lesserly, east and west-facing) aspect.  (We’re not explaining what an awning, shade or veranda is because you probably know, but the term brise soleil might be less familiar.)

The clever aspect of such structures is that they interact with and take advantage of the way the sun rises in the sky.  In the summer, the sun quickly climbs up to a near vertical position before descending again at the end of the day.  In the winter, the sun slowly staggers part-way up the sky before sinking down again.  This difference is also more exaggerated, the further you move from the equator, and most of us are planning our retreats to be far from the equator.


Note – as shown above – the sun rises a bit north of east and sets a bit north of west in the summer, but in the winter it rises south of east and sets south of west.

It covers more of the sky in summer, and you might notice appreciable sun coming in from west and east facing windows, and possibly even a little bit in northern windows too.  But it is the southern facing windows that most need the sun shading.


What this means – and as illustrated above – is that some sort of shading/blocking structure that prevents the sun’s rays from shining onto and into our retreat while the sun is high in the sky will reduce solar heating during the summer – the time of year when we most want to keep the sun off our retreat and out of our windows.  But during the winter, when we’re keen to get all the sunlight and warmth we can, the overhead structure won’t interfere with the sun’s rays at all.  Heads we win, tails we don’t lose!

Because these devices take advantage of the varying seasonal location of the sun, they can be fixed in position, making them potentially robust and low maintenance.

How much sun angle should they block?  One approach is to see the maximum angle in the sky for the sun in mid-winter, the angle at the equinoxes, and block off all angles greater than the equinoxes.  You can get this information from this helpful website – simply put in your location and then choose 21 December as the date, and that tells you the maximum height the sun reaches at your location in the winter.

For example, in Kalispell MT (48º12′ north) the sun struggles to reach 18.4º up into the sky.  Compare that to the summer solstice (21 June) when it reaches 65.2º.  At the equinoxes (21 March and September) the sun goes up to 42.2º – a number which unsurprisingly is sort of halfway between the two other numbers.

One other interesting thing is to note that the sun has risen to 42.2º in mid summer by 10.10am and doesn’t fall below it again until 5.10pm.

So perhaps it makes sense to accept something around the 42.2º point as the transition from when we want to allow sun into the house and when we want to block it.  That gives us full sun for half the year, and successively blocks off more of the sun during the summer season.

This calculation should be modified by an appreciation of what type of heating/cooling needs you’ll have at the equinoxes.  Will you still be wanting to heat the retreat, or will you be starting to need to cool it?  That will also influence how much shade cover you want above your windows.


Having some type of permanent shade over your southerly facing windows is a simple way of ‘automatically’ regulating and cutting down on the sun’s heat that transfers inside your retreat during the summer while not reducing it during the winter.

It is probably the most cost-effective thing to do in terms of improving your retreat’s energy efficiency and reducing its need for cooling during the summer.  Be sure to include shading if designing a new retreat, and be sure to add it if purchasing an existing dwelling structure.

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.

Jun 252013
Part of a diagram explaining how jetstream winds are formed (full size here).

Part of a diagram explaining how jetstream winds are formed (full size here).

This is the second part of a three-part article series on using wind data to evaluate the risk of nuclear fallout at your retreat location.

If you arrived here directly from a search engine or link, you should probably go to the first part of the series that discusses the different types of fallout patterns and read that first before reading this second part (and of course, then following the link at the bottom on to the third part of the series).

Jetstream Considerations

If your nearby potential nuclear target is one which you deem likely to receive an airburst, then your calculation becomes fairly simple.  Sure, there will also be some local fallout too, but most of the fallout will be swept up into the jetstream and then distributed pretty much everywhere the jetstream travels.

There are two main jetstreams to consider in the United States.  In the northern part of the country, there may be a polar jetstream, and in the lower states, there may be a subtropical jetstream.  Both of them have their wind blowing generally from the west to the east, but they can also rise northwards or dip southwards, with such movements varying from day-to-day.

In general it is possible to say that while the winds are predominantly flowing from west to east, they start off, on the west coast, with a slightly southerly direction added to their movement, and by the time they reach the east coast they are flowing in a slightly northerly direction.  You can see the current form of the jetstream here.

Here’s an interesting series of four charts showing how much the jetstream can move, with its location plotted over the course of four days.


What this means for us as preppers is that, in general terms, we want to be mildly concerned about airblasts that might occur to the west of our location – whether they are directly west, to the northwest, or the southwest.

But in reality, jetstream carried fallout is not a great concern, due to it being distributed so widely.

An exception to that is if you’re downwind of the potential jetstream plume from many nuclear blasts – this is of course the case in much of the eastern United States.  Due to the potential distance between the source of radioactive fallout and where it lands, this is about as accurate a statement as one can make – the further east you go, the greater the fallout from the jetstream you might get.

Closer to the Surface Wind Patterns

If you need to evaluate the likely effect of closer to the surface fallout, ie from a surface or subsurface blast, or from a nuclear power plant mishap, then you have a much more complex – and much more important – calculation.

First of all, to show the degree of variability of fallout from a ground burst, have a look at this map of remaining contamination from Chernobyl (as of 1996).  As you can see, some areas close to Chernobyl are looking fairly safe, while other areas, a much greater distance away, are looking still very dangerous.

A much more dramatic view of the fallout from Chernobyl can be seen in this animated graphic which shows how the fallout traveled over time.  It isn’t clear exactly what the colors represent or what the time frame is, and an email to the person who posted the animation on Youtube went unreplied.

We guess this is showing lower atmosphere winds, and in total, probably over a ten to twenty day period.  Another way of ‘calibrating’ this animation is to understand that it took two days for fallout to reach a point in Sweden just out of Stockholm, 700 miles away (in other words, the fallout cloud was traveling at a rate of about 15 mph).

Another example of fallout distribution is shown in this chart, reporting fallout from the largest ever US nuclear explosion – the ground burst of the Castle Bravo device in 1954.  Fairly consistent winds, and less ‘friction’ caused by the sea, rather than the interference and disruption to smooth wind flows on shore (buildings, trees, hills, etc) saw high levels of fallout as much as 280 miles to the east of the explosion, but barely ten miles to the west.

The blast scooped out a crater almost 1¼ miles in diameter, and up to 250 ft deep.

The 15 MT Castle Bravo outcome can be considered a ‘worst case’ scenario.  Currently Russia has some 20 MT warheads on its SS-18 missiles, but most of its missiles are armed with warheads ranging from about 100 kT up to 1 MT.

Learning from Volcano Eruptions Too

More information about how fallout would travel can be obtained, in general, by looking at ash distribution from volcano eruptions.  Volcano ash distribution is interesting, and needs to be considered in light of the height the ash rises to in the atmosphere – sometimes it reaches well up into the jetstream, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland in April 2010 disrupted air traffic over much of Europe for a couple of weeks, due to the enormous amount of ash thrown up by the volcano (about 130 million cubic yards), and its wide spread around much of Northern Europe.  Some of the ash made it up into the jetstream.

Here is an interesting series of maps showing the fallout spread as it evolved during the period of major activity by this volcano, and this page has an interesting discussion of how clouds of volcanic ash (or fallout) are swept along by winds).

Understanding the Relevant Wind Patterns in General

To appreciate your degree of risk from lower level fallout (ie fallout that only rises a limited distance into the atmosphere and then drops back down to ground, missing the jet stream) you need to ‘join the dots’ between wherever the radioactive fallout might be released and where you are.

By this we mean you draw up a series of charts showing the prevailing winds at your location, at the point where the release would occur, and at relevant points in-between.

The first point to focus on are the prevailing winds at your planned retreat.  If your retreat generally has winds blowing towards the possible release location, that’s a very good thing.

But there’s a bit of a trap to consider, which requires you to look at more data to better understand things.  For example, let’s assume you are at Point R and the nuclear fallout comes from Point X, and you ascertain that the wind at your retreat (Point R) is blowing towards Point X, where the radiation release occurred.  So that means you’ve nothing to worry about, right?

Not necessarily.  Let’s also see where the wind at Point X is blowing.  You do that and you believe you’ve found more good news – the wind isn’t blowing directly towards you, instead, it is blowing at right angles to you.  Here’s a sample picture showing this – we use red arrows for winds carrying contamination from the release point, and green arrows for ‘safe’ winds.


So that looks close to optimum, don’t you think?  We’ll agree that you’re a prudent person, and so you obtain some more wind readings, and now you see a more detailed view.


This looks even better, yes?  But let’s not stop, let’s be obsessive and get as much wind data as we can.  You do some more research, and now you see this as a wind flow model.


This would seem to confirm all you need to know, right?  However, with so much information on the internet these days, and remembering just how far fallout can be carried by even mild winds, let’s grab some more data.


What do you think now?  Could it be…?  Let’s get a few more data points, and all of a sudden :


This now shows a very different scenario, doesn’t it.

As you’ve already seen in the real world examples linked to above, winds – and whatever they carry can travel on irregular paths, like a meandering river delta, with lots of crossing and inter-twined threads.  The winds that start blowing down the image in the first example then looped around and started blowing up again, taking the contamination and dumping it directly on you, even though your first data points seemed to suggest completely the opposite.

Clearly, this was a staged example, not a real world one.  But it teaches us two things.  First, we need to trace not just where the wind blows to, from our retreat, but also where winds are coming from prior to getting there.  Second, we need to follow the wind flow from the contamination release point for at least 200 miles to get a feeling for what twists and turns they might take.

Okay, so that’s an easy enough concept to be aware of.  But there’s a complicating factor that you’re probably already thinking of.  Winds don’t blow steadily, all day every day (and all night) and always from and to the same directions.  How do we factor in the variable aspects of wind flows/currents?

Read More in Part Three

To answer the question about understanding and applying the wind data information you have collected, please now click on to the third part of this three-part series, Available Wind Data Sources and How to Use Them.  Also, if you’ve not yet read it, the first part of the series, Using Wind Data to Estimate Fallout Risk, is also, of course, helpful and relevant.

Jun 252013
A NOAA map showing average wind speeds for the month of May.

An NOAA map showing average wind speeds for the month of May.

This is the third part of a three-part article series on using wind data to evaluate the risk of nuclear fallout at your retreat location.

If you arrived here directly from a search engine or link, you should probably go to the first part of the series – Using Wind Data to Estimate Fallout Risk – and read that first, then continue on to the second part – The Two Types of Wind Effects to Consider – before returning to read this final part.

We are fortunate to have a great deal of information available to us which can be used to help us understand which way the wind blows.

But before we look at the data sources, we need to consider four additional issues when interpreting the data.

1.  Use Data Averaged Over Many Years

We know that winds vary by the season, month, day, hour and even sometimes by the minute.  We know that some days are unusually windy, and others are unusually calm.

Clearly we can’t base our expectations for future wind patterns on only one day of observations and history.  Instead, we need to average the data – but not by taking the average of many days together, but rather by taking an average of the wind on the same day of many different years.

You want the wind data for, eg, 15 July, to be the average of the winds on the 15th of July over each of many previous years – the more previous years, the better, although there comes a point where adding more years no longer really adds much extra value to the data.  An average of ideally ten or more years will give you a better feeling for what the general probability will be for the next 15 July.

It would help also to understand the ‘SD’ or standard deviation of the averaged number.  This is a statistical term (click the link for a detailed explanation if you’d like) that simply measures whether most of the data points that you are averaging are close to the average number or not.

For example, if you had seven numbers  1 5 9 13 17 21 25, and another seven numbers, 10 11 12 13 14 15 16, in both cases, the average of the numbers is 13.  But the spread of values is much wider in the first series than the second series.  In the second series, the average is 13, and the maximum is only a bit more, and the minimum only a bit less, but in the first series, the maximum is almost twice the average, and the minimum is 13 times less.  All values are close to the average in the second series, but only a very few values are close to the average in the first series.

In the case of the first series, it has a standard deviation of 8.6, in the second series, a standard deviation of 2.2.  The smaller the standard deviation, the closer the individual data values are to the average and so the more accurately the average predicts the reality of individual days.

2.  Use Monthly Wind Values, Not Annual Wind Values

Sorry, but you’re going to have to do these calculations twelve times (or use data already calculated for you).  As the seasons change, so too can wind patterns – not only wind speeds, but also prevailing wind directions, too.

While ideally you’d do the calculation for every day of the year, you’ll end up drowning in data, and with wind being variable and unpredictable at the best of times, probably it is good enough to simply look at monthly data.

We suggest you create 12 maps, one for each month, and then plot wind directions at your retreat location and other close weather stations to it for each month, and also, as per the examples in part two, also ‘walk back’ the wind to see where it is coming from.

If there are nuclear targets or power plants within 200-300 miles or so of your retreat location, you want to add them to your maps and add wind directions to their locations too, plus then move forward to follow those winds from the possible fallout release points.

3 & 4.  Consider All the Varying Speeds and Directions that Wind Blows Each Month

Okay, now it is time to start to use the understanding you’ve developed and to look at the specifics for what to expect.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind now that you are looking at actual data.

Understanding wind direction descriptions

The first point is very important.  When you are looking at wind direction information, is it telling you the direction the wind is coming from, or the direction that the wind is going to?  Some data will provide information one way, other data will provide data the other way.

To explain, say there is a wind that is moving its air in a direction such that air to the south of you blows past you and then continues traveling north.  This is what is traditionally called a southerly wind – wind is coming from the south, from a 180° direction on a compass heading.  If you had a traditional weather vane, it would swing and point to the south.

But if you were flying a flag, the flag would extend out to the north of the flagpole – the opposite direction to the weather vane.  The wind is blowing to the north (ie 0° or 360°) (as well as from the south).  If you were talking about a car instead of wind, you would say the car was going in a northerly direction.

How should this wind be described.  Is it a wind from the south, or to the north?  It could be either, and it is both!  So be very certain to understand which descriptional method is being used.

Wind height measurements

Wind speeds are slower, the closer to the ground they get.  At 1/10″ above the ground, they are close to zero, and then they increase up from that until reaching a point of maximum speed, then they start decreasing again above that.  It is even possible to have winds traveling in different directions at different heights above the ground (balloonists use this to help them steer their balloons).

When you are comparing wind speed measurements, you need to know at what height the measurement was taken.  Clearly if you are comparing a measurement at one location that was taken at 3 feet above the ground with a measurement somewhere else that was taken at 30 ft or 300 ft, you’re not comparing like with like.

These days the standard measurement height for wind speeds is 10 meters (about 33 ft), and if you are reading official wind data from a weather service, that is probably what is being provided.  Often the actual measuring device is not at exactly 10 m above the ground, and so the speed it displays is then converted to display the theoretical/probable speed at 10 m.

But if you are using data prepared for siting a wind turbine, that will have data on wind flows at much greater heights.  This is useful information too, but be careful not to mix together data from different sources at different heights.

Data Sources

To get you started, here’s a nice simple map showing annual average wind directions and mean speeds.

But this map – while giving you a nice overview, is potentially very misleading.  The national averages can mask huge differences from season to season.  You need to drill down from the annual information to monthly information, and ideally, you want to get information from more locations, too.

First, however, to compare like with like, here’s a series of maps drawn from the same source for each of the twelve months.

January  February  March  April  May  June  July  August  September  October  November  December

(If the links no longer work, you can hopefully recreate them from this page.)

Here is an alternate series of monthly averages for wind speeds and directions, calculated for the period from 1930 (or later) until 1996 here.  That gives you another perspective for monthly variations, and has been provided for a much larger number of locations.  Hopefully the data you see here is sort of consistent with the data in the previous links.

The National Climatic Data Center and its US Climate Reference Network has a lot of data, but only from a few reporting stations, and while it gives wind speeds – typically measured at a nonstandard height of 5 – 15 ft above ground, it does not report wind direction.

If you’d like to see the wind information in a more visual manner, albeit slightly abstracted, here’s a fascinating series of maps.  It seems they only provide monthly data, without averaging the same month over several years, but if you click the link for any given month/year, it then provides both information on the specific month/year and also shows you the 30 year average for the period 1971 – 2000 and thirdly shows you how the specific year’s monthly average varies up or down from the typical month.

But wait, there’s more.  These first maps just show wind speed, not wind direction.  There are two more sets of maps, which between them show direction.  One shows what the call the U component, which is the east-west direction of the wind, and the other shows the V component, the north-south direction.  This is very interesting to see split out.

Wow.  Are you starting to get overloaded with data, yet?  Well, there’s one more wonderful source of summary data for many different locations.  That starts from this page here, and you can then choose the locations you want data about and the data you wish, either from their map interface (perhaps the easiest) or from data searching and other options.

One more resource.  If the previous resources have not had sufficient information for you, go to the appropriate regional climate center (choose from this main menu/map) and you’ll find an enormous amount of extra data for very many different reporting stations in the region.

But, wait – we’ve still not finished.  There are two more things to show you.

Leaving the best until last, remember when we spoke in the previous part of this series about wanting to know not only the average speed and direction of wind each month, but also the range of actual values?  Here’s a totally marvelous site which does exactly that.

Zoom in to the region of the map you are interested in, and you’ll see little wind roses appear for each reporting site.  Click on one of the wind roses, and that brings up a page showing you detailed information.  You can then click on the months in the circle as you wish.  Note if you keep clicking months ‘on’ you get averages of all the months clicked ‘on’; you need to click months off again so as to see the single month patterns.

And, lastly, some eye candy which gives you a fascinating feel for how it all ties together.

You can click to zoom in on any part of the map you wish, and when you start clicking to zoom in, an ‘unzoom’ button appears on the left.

The ‘problem’ with this map is that it is limited to showing you only the wind patterns right now.  It doesn’t give you a feeling for average flows.  But just seeing the ‘right now’ flows is still fascinating and helps you to understand how winds don’t flow consistently in straight lines for long distances.


Nuclear fallout may be transported from the location it was generated to your retreat either by high atmosphere jetstream winds, or lower down ‘regular’ winds.  The jetstream winds move swiftly and in doing so, tend to thinly disperse fallout over a wide area, while the lower down winds, moving much more slowly, tend to drop more concentrated fallout patterns within 200 – 400 miles of the nuclear release.

If you are within several hundred miles of a nuclear power station or a nuclear target, you should understand the degree of risk associated with fallout traveling to your retreat.

Winds are unpredictable on an hourly basis, but they follow certain trends and are more likely to be blowing in some directions than others on a daily and monthly basis.  There are lots of online resources to help you understand exactly what type of wind flows to expect at your retreat, and at potential fallout release sites too.

This was the third part of a three-part series about using wind data to estimate your retreat’s potential risk of being affected by nuclear fallout.  If you’ve not yet done so, we recommend you also read parts one and two of the series.

We have additional information on nuclear power related vulnerabilities in its own section too, and lots more information on weather related topics also.

Jan 222013
Lush crops on fertile land - and massively enhanced by good weather.

Lush crops on fertile land massively enhanced by good weather.

This is the second part of a two-part article on retreat weather issues.  Please click to visit the first part, What Sort of Weather to Hope For at a Retreat Location.

Growing Degree Days

Growing degree days (GDD), and sometimes referred to as Growing degree units (GDU), add an extra layer of sophistication to the growing season measurement that was discussed at the end of the first part of this two-part article.

Growing season measurements don’t distinguish between a season marked by glorious warm to hot days and cool evenings on the one hand, or cool to cold days and cold nights on the other hand.

But, for sure, plants definitely grow at different rates depending on the day’s warmth, and so the GDD calculation is designed to reflect the time it will take for crops to be ready to harvest, expressed in GDUs.  Areas with more GDDs will have faster better crops and more opportunities for double crops.

The calculation for GDDs is not difficult – basically you average each day’s maximum and minimum temperature and subtract it from a ‘floor’ temperature.  For example, if a day had a minimum temperature of 55° and a maximum temperature of 85°, with a floor or base temperature of 50° would calculate to (85 + 55)/2 – 50 = 20 growing degrees.

The concept is explained more in this Wikipedia article.

Growing degree days are another rule of thumb approximation, but the approximation gives a useful measure of the weather related fertility you can expect from an area (while ignoring soil fertility issues, water, pests, etc).

There’s no reason – in theory – you couldn’t get even more sophisticated, tracking growing degree hours instead of growing degree days.  But a practical limitation for this is that most locations don’t have hourly temperature records stretching back many years so as to give you the hourly information you need for each day of the year or season.

Temperature – Heating and Cooling

The last couple of factors have all been to do with growing crops.  But there’s another important weather related factor – your own comfort.

Clearly, you want your retreat to be able to maintain a reasonably comfortable temperature all year.  Even if you economize as much as you can, you’ll still want to keep inside temperatures somewhere in the 60s during the winters and somewhere in the 70s during the summers.  When temperatures go above or below that range, your personal comfort, health, happiness, and productivity starts to severely decline.

Equally clearly, the colder it is outside, and the more of the year it remains cold, the more heating you’re going to need to keep your retreat warm.  Sure, you’ll super-insulate the building structure, but even so, you’ll need some amount of supplemental heat during the winter – and possibly some sort of cooling capability in the hottest parts of the summer too.

You can get an immediate idea about the temperature range simply by looking at monthly temperatures.  Don’t just look at the average for the month, look also at the average high temperature and the average low temperature.  Sometimes it is possible to also see the maximum high and low temperatures too.  If you have all five of these numbers on a graph, you get a sense of the likely, typical, and unlikely best and worst case scenarios, month by month, and that information on its own will be enough to clearly indicate how some places are better or worse than others.

If you’d like to be more scientific about this, you can look variously at heating degree days, and/or cooling degree days.  Some sources of weather data show only heating degree days, some show both or combine the two of them into one single number.

This calculation is very similar to the Growing Degree Day calculation for plants, but uses different baseline numbers (most commonly 60° or 65°) and instead of considering what is best for horticulture, considers what is best for us.  Note that if you are comparing HDD values from different sources, you need to check they are using the same baseline numbers or else you’ll not be fairly comparing similar data.


Wind can be both a positive and a negative factor.  A propensity for wind-storms is clearly a negative factor, requiring stronger construction techniques and more careful agricultural policies.  Strong winds combined with a hot dry climate can also magnify the rate of water loss on the ground and in reservoirs too.

Strong winds also make it harder to insulate your dwelling.

On the other hand, mild cooling winds can be a blessing and can aid in natural unassisted ventilation and regulation of temperatures inside your dwelling, saving you energy.

Winds that are reasonably steady in nature may also be possible to be harnessed for electricity generation via wind turbines.  But whereas solar power works both in bright and obscured sunlight, albeit at different rates of power generation, wind power requires a steady stream of wind with a minimum of about 10 mph in order for it to be feasible.  Some wind power cynics say that there’s a rule of thumb you should use – if a place is suitable for wind power generation, it isn’t suitable for living or for much else.  That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight exaggeration.

Wind turbines can be both expensive and maintenance intensive, so generally we prefer solar cells (with 40+ year lives and no moving parts) as a primary source of energy.  But if you have suitable wind patterns, there’s no reason not to take advantage of them.

Slightly more robust are traditional windmills, capable of working with lower wind speeds, and typically used to pump water up from a well to a holding tank – the ones still being made by Aermotor being perhaps the best known.

It is also relevant to understand both surface and upper atmospheric wind patterns so as to understand your potential risk from up-wind radioactivity releases (that sounds confusing – we mean, radioactivity releases where you are downwind of where the radioactivity is released), whether in the form of accidents at power stations and other facilities, or deliberate in the form of nuclear attack.

Ground bursts tend to release the greatest amount of radioactive material, and much of that into the lower atmosphere, so surface wind patterns can give you a clue for your risks there.  Surface winds vary of course, as you know from personal experience, but most areas have predominant directions for their winds, and in determining your risk you need to understand surface wind flows both at the point of radiation release and also more or less along the path to your location.

Air bursts tend to send more radioactivity up into the jet stream, which can carry the radiation long distances – the good news part of this is that the radiation is spread far and wide and is distributed in a more even and less concentrated form than with the radioactive material from a ground burst, which not only generates a huge amount more radioactive material (hundreds of times more) but also dumps it in a much more concentrated and localized area within a few hundred miles of the event.

Unlike ground winds which might be northerly today then southerly tomorrow, jetstream flows change only moderately and, for the US, flow predominantly in an easterly direction, with the western part of the US having a SE direction, the middle region more or less directly E, and the eastern states a NE direction.

Snow, Ice, Severe Cold

The amount of snow you might receive impacts on several issues.

The first issue is roof design for your retreat (and all other structures on your property).  The greater the snowfall, and the greater the depth of snow that lies on the ground, the more weight of snow that can be expected to lie on your roof – at least until you modify your roof design for a steeper slope.

The second issue is one of transportation.  Without an ongoing program of snow plowing and silting roads, it is entirely possible that you may find yourself snowed in for months at a time each winter.  In a Level 2 scenario, you might choose to use a tractor powered plow for some local snow removal, and a snowmobile for traveling to nearby towns, but longer term, in a Level 3 scenario, you need to consider how you’d manage ongoing winter transportation.

We suggest that year-round access between your retreat and any local population centers is desirable, not only for trade but for support purposes too.  What say, for example, you have a medical emergency.  How would you get to a doctor (or the doctor get to you)?

This is not a problem with an obvious or easy solution, and requires some research to uncover not just the snowfall patterns for your region, but how the fallen snow will translate variously into solid ice and/or hard packed snow, compared to deep drifts of snow, and the type of route you’d normally travel to a nearby community.

Depending on the severity of the snow fall and winter in general, you might need to have shelter – and maybe even some heat too – for your animals to winter-over in as well.

One more thing to do with extreme cold.  Your water supply.  Will you need to invest in additional design considerations in order to protect your water supply and piping so that it doesn’t freeze in the winter, and remains capable of still assuring you a reliable supply of water as needed?


Weather is close to impossible to predict, and its normal variations can sometimes exceed those anticipated by people who have not adequately allowed for random and cyclical variations.  This is an inconvenience in normal times, but can cause starvation and worse in a Level 2/3 situation.

Anything that can be done upfront to optimize the weather issues as part of choosing a retreat location will be enormously beneficial.  Better weather will allow for a more product retreat community, creating more ‘wealth’ (ie surplus food) while requiring less ‘cost’ (energy and time) to produce.

Use the weather categories in this and the first part of this two-part article to compare and rank different locations and to help you select the best location for your retreat.

Jul 112012

Weather will have a much greater impact on our lives in a Level 2/3 situation.

In an earlier part of this article series – Weather Considerations When Choosing a Retreat – we explained how weather is probably the most important issue to consider and optimize when selecting a favorable location for your retreat.  Hopefully you’re now persuaded of that fact.

So, given that choosing a ‘good weather’ location is vitally important, perhaps now we need to consider what exactly ‘good’ weather is.

This might seem simplistic.  We know good weather when we experience it, right?  A nice sunny day, little or no wind, no rain, low humidity, and clear blue sky.

Well, this is undoubtedly a nice day for us to enjoy, but if this was the type of weather your retreat could anticipate, year-round, you’d most likely have major problems.  Sunny weather and low humidity means that soils dry out, and no rain means no water comes naturally to replenish the water being used by crops and evaporated by the sun.

Here’s a list of weather related factors to consider.

We suggest you create spreadsheets, with the various factors ranged in rows across, and different destinations in columns down, so you can tabulate the pluses and minuses of first general regions and then secondly specific locations within those regions.

No Extreme Weather

You want a place that never gets tornadoes or hurricanes.  Not just rarely – never.

Even if a tornado or hurricane doesn’t destroy your main retreat building, it might rip through your crops and other structures, destroying your year’s harvest.  And the same weather event would rip through your neighbors’ properties too, so you’d have no people to readily turn to for assistance.

No Flooding

We suggest you look at a flood plain map for your area and see the limits of any nearby 100 year flood zones, and make sure that your location is either or both a considerable distance away and/or some feet further up in elevation.

Just like the extreme weather mentioned above, flooding isn’t just bad for you.  It is bad for your crops and livestock too.  You can’t afford the risk of flooding.

Rain and Water Issues

Don’t just look at the annual rainfall for your location.  Drill down and have a look at the monthly figures – and look at the average numbers, both annually and the ten-year (or longer) highs and the ten-year (or longer) lows.

Longer period highs and lows are better than ‘only’ ten year periods, because there are some 50+ year cycles of climate that impact on rainfall, making peaks and troughs in annual rainfall cycle through 50 year and longer periods.  See our article on evaluating weather issues and vulnerabilities for more on how to assess likely annual rainfall and its variations.

Ideally, you want some rain just about every month, although depending on the crops you plan on growing, there might be some that need a period reasonably rain-free around harvest time.

The amount of rain you want/need depends on the type of agricultural uses you’re planning on, and also on the type of ground, and other weather issues like heat (more heat = more water evaporates), humidity (less humidity = more water evaporates) and wind (more wind = more water evaporates).

In addition there’s your own personal consumption of water too, of course, but this will be only a very small percentage of your total water needs.

Another issue is how much rainwater you plan to collect from the roofs of your various structures on your site.  Remember the rule of thumb that an inch of steady rainfall on 1000 sq ft of roof represents almost 623 gallons of water (less some which may evaporate off or remain on the roof or soak into the roofing material – the slower the rain falls, and the warmer/windier the weather, the greater your evaporative loss will be).

Ideally it would be great to have at least a couple of inches of rain every month (other than for any period of time you or your crops need to be dry).

Be careful also of how what appears to be a single rain-free month can actually be concealing almost three solidly dry months.  If you are looking only at monthly data, and you see three months with rainfall of 0.3″, 0.0″ and 0.4″, for all you know, the rainfall in the first month might occur in the first few days, leaving three weeks of that month without rain, and the rainfall in the last month might occur in the last few days, adding another 3+ weeks of dry weather at the other end of the officially dry month.

You need to get a feeling for daily rainfall patterns as well as monthly patterns to more accurately project possible rainfall.  We discuss rainfall analysis in some detail in our article on how much rainwater you can store.

Of course, anything is possible with irrigation, but irrigation can be an added layer of cost (in equipment, in time, and in energy) and complication (more things to maintain), and any way you can minimize your reliance on irrigation, the better you’ll be.  Nonetheless, if you need more water, you’ll need to be assured of being able to get it (this is more a derivative than a direct weather issue).


Sunshine is important for several reasons.  It provides heat and growing energy for crops.  It also can be a source of energy for you and your electrical systems, via photo voltaic (ie solar) cells.

In addition to the general rule of thumb zones the country is divided into in terms of average hours of sun a day, you want to drill down and get more specific information for your county and as close to your potential site as possible.

The sun at your exact site will of course be based on regional weather and also on any local unique modifications, either to the weather, or the presence of blocking obstacles that obscure the sun for part of the day (especially in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky).

Some obstructions you might be able to clear (ie trees) but others you’ll have to accept (such as mountains/hills).

You can compensate, to a certain extent, for diminished sunlight by simply adding more and more PV panels, but this of course runs up your capital costs still further.  PV cells still generate current in partial sunlight, in a more or less linear fashion – half as much sun ‘brightness’ means half as much power generated, but shade compared to bright sun means a massive fall-off in power generated.

Growing Season

The ‘growing season’ is a rough rule of thumb way of getting a quick indication of how successful you’ll be at growing crops in any area.  It counts the number of days from the last frost in spring until the first frost in fall.

However, this number can be overstated, because from a point of view of when you can start growing crops, you want to have ground that is unfrozen and no longer covered in snow.  It is possible, particularly on the northern side of slopes where no direct sun reaches, for pockets of snow to sit on the ground well past the end of overnight frosts and for the ground to remain frozen for some time after the final frost.

The benefit of the Growing Season measurement is that it is fairly widely reported and tracked, so it is an easy number to obtain without needing to do a lot of calculations or research, and within certain broad tolerances, all other things being equal, a location with a measurably longer growing season will allow for more bountiful harvests than a location with a shorter growing season.

Growing season length can also indicate if you have a chance of using your garden space for two crops or only for one each spring/summer/fall.

There is another measurement that in some ways is more exact and helpful.  We discuss that in the next part of this article series.

Read More in Part 2

This is the first part of a two-part article on weather issues at your retreat location, and of course, part of the broader series on weather related issues in general.

For the second part of this article, please now click to Evaluating Likely Weather at a Retreat Location.  And please click this following link for a complete listing of weather related articles.

Jul 112012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Term Randomness in Weather

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

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

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

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

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

Longer Term Cyclical Variations in Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working With Long Term Data to Set Acceptable Risks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 042012

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

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

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

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

There are several reasons for this.

Weather Will Impact Us More Directly

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

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

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

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

Snow Will Be More Serious a Challenge

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

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

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

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

Weather Impacts On Our Water and Food Supply

One key element of weather is rainfall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weather and Energy

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

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

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

When Bad Weather Can be Good

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

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

Weather – Very Important.  But Only One of Many Factors

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

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

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

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

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

How to Evaluate Weather Issues to Determine Suitable Retreat Locations

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

May 262012

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

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

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

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

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

Many Different Uses of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money – Maybe you can sell water to others

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

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

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

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

Many Different Sources of Water

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

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

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

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

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

Restrictions on Water Use

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

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

City Water Supply

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

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

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

Selling Water – Building a Community

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

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

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

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

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

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