Our principles for emergency preparedness

The following are some principles that we’ve learned, pondered, and/or developed in the area of preparing for the unexpected – particularly for disasters or long emergencies. It’s not a complete list and we’re likely to update it as often as new principles begin to emerge in our thinking.

Fear Not
Fear leads people to make stupid, knee-jerk decisions (believe us, we’ve done it often). Fear will lead you to making poor decisions, secure the wrong resources, not to mention, cause you unnecessary anxiety. Emergency preparedness should not be fueled by fear, but by a sound mind set on wanting to sustain a flourishing lifestyle despite what’s happening in the world –  even in adverse circumstances.

When not If
Plan on a disaster or emergency happening in your lifetime. That might sound apocalyptic or dystopian, and some approach this topic from this point of view. The rest of us think it’s just good sense. Do you keep jumper cables in your car? If so, why? Because it’s reasonable to expect that some day, your car or someone else’ won’t properly start. Planning for disaster or long emergency stems from the same understanding on a larger scale. Instead of you car not starting, maybe the normal food or water supply breaks down. Planning for disaster forces your brain to develop a model for handling the resulting adversity. If you do so without growing fearful, it will be a positive exercise that will result in greater stability during times of crisis for yourself and your community. Furthermore, advanced preparation in many areas will also lead you down the path to sustainable living in those same areas of life – hence why we discuss these issues here on our blog.

Stockpiling is NOT a sustainable strategy
When thinking about preparing your family for a long emergency or disaster, this principle is essential. This idea is the foundational driver behind how we plan for every aspect of emergency planning. The encouragement to stockpile resources is found everywhere in disaster/emergency preparedness literature! Yes, you SHOULD have adequate supplies of certain items, but you cannot stockpile enough resources to be an adequate solution. The length of an emergency or disaster could always be longer than your stockpiled supply will last. Then what? You must have a plan for securing your fundamental needs when your stockpiles are diminished. Otherwise, you’re just delaying your demise rather than preventing it. So, when it comes to stockpiling resources for a long term emergency, you need enough of a given resource (food, shelter, water, etc) to see your family through until you can implement a more sustainable means to secure these resources.

Think of this like the top-down triangle below. At the top (the beginning of an emergency or disaster), your needs of a resource are small and compact. That’s what you need to have on hand for immediate consumption and survival. Next, you have some intermediate needs. That’s the part of your strategy for obtaining additional resources before you can implement a more permanent (if necessary) solution. Lastly, the base of the triangle represents a sustainable and ongoing means for obtaining a given resource. This principal should apply to every aspect of disaster preparation and should guide your preparation strategy.

The Preparation Triangle

The Preparation Triangle

Example: Food. A common idea found on the internet among emergency supply vendors is to stockpile things like “textured vegetable product” (umm, sounds good! NOT!). If you look at the space required to store the amount of food recommended, it’s prohibitive to many people. Not to mention, once the food’s gone, it’s gone! A better strategy might be to store several 1-3 months worth of food, then develop a strategy for hunting, gathering, raising and growing additional food items. To put this in really simple concepts, it’s better to have a fishing pole than a few fish.

No expectations or assumptions
As the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of people in western culture assume that things will always be okay and will always work out. There’s a distinction between faith and optimism. Faith is essential in life. Optimism, while helpful at times, can lead to complacency and a lack of planning for lean times. An overly optimistic worldview is ignorant of world history, modern events, and human nature. An overly optimistic view expects or assumes that if the power goes out for a month, or you run out of water, that the government, neighbors, charity will sweep in with salvation and rapidly meet those needs. The reality that one can see from events like hurricane Katrina, the Northeast blackouts of 1977 and 2003 is that services can take a long time to restore. Meanwhile some people become quite inhumane and criminal rather than helpful. Bottom line – don’t expect someone else to be responsible for the essential needs of your family. Expect nothing from others unless you’ve worked out a plan in harmony and cooperation with your friends and neighbors. That leads us to our next point…

“We COULD do it ourselves” vs. “We CAN do it ourselves”
Americans thrive on a self-sufficiency mindset and attitude. So do survivalist usually. Having the knowledge and preparation to be the sole provider for your essential needs is a good idea, and could save your life. A better ideal is that have this knowledge, share it with your friends and neighbors whom your trust, then work together on a cooperative plan for dealing with emergencies. This allows for the sharing of labor, resources and responsibilities and increases your ability to weather long emergencies and disasters. Aside from the fact that there really is increased safety and security in numbers, there’s also increased happiness in having people to share adverse experiences with rather than being alone. Know how to be on your own in a disaster – because that could always happen, but plan on handling emergencies as part of a group. That’s the ideal.

Saving Money is not preparation

Many people will seek to have three months worth of living expenses in the bank, but not consider having three months of food and water on hand. This view assumes that money is all that will be needed to handle emergencies or disasters. You cannot eat or drink money, and it won’t keep you warm (unless you burn it). Having some cash on hand for emergencies should be part of your preparations for the unexpected, but don’t think that you’ll be able to rely on money alone. You’re better off using your funds to purchase resources that will allow you to be better prepared.

The simpler, the better
Choose the simplest solutions you can find for your needs. Complexity during an emergency is your enemy, not your friend. If everyone in your family cannot be made to understand how something works, work on making it simpler!

Emergency Preparation: Water Strategy

A friend and reader recently posted a comment regarding our recent post, “it’s more than just flashlights and duct tape” asking how we handle securing/storing water. Here’s the comment:

“I’m assuming you have a well. Any advice on stockpiling for those of us who have city water? Water jugs?”

As we pondered our response, it seemed fitting to address this as a new blog posting since this is a practical issue that many people might find worth considering.

While it is nice in some ways to have a well, common domestic wells require pumps which in turn require power. Because of this, those who have wells are often more vulnerable to power-related emergencies than most people – at least in longer-term emergencies.

All that to say that a well is not necessarily the best source of water in an extended emergency – at least not the way North Americans use wells. Having a well does not necessarily aid in emergency preparation, especially if you have no way to produce electricity. In fact, it could actually be detrimental to have well water as a single source of water in an emergency.

In an extended emergency (ie. 14 days or more), a person or family is likely going to require more water than can be realistically stored by the average citizen. Stored water should only provide for your immediate water needs for the first days of an emergency until a plan for a sustainable water source can be implemented. A good preparedness plan should entail a sustainable means for acquiring potable water for as long as necessary (within reason).

At present, we have a multi-tiered water strategy consisting of several elements. Most of this is just common sense and should be tailored to meet the needs of your family. It’s based on a strategy we developed in general about preparation (which we’ll post later on) where we plan for emergencies from an immediate to long-term need. The triangle below represents how we apply this principal to our water strategy.

Progressive Water Strategy for Disaster Preparation

Progressive Water Strategy for Disaster Preparation

Water Storage
We start with storing enough water to maintain life (drinking and essential personal use, not stuff like laundry, coffee, etc) for several days for our entire family. We do that by keeping 7-Gallon containers ( these exact ones ) filled with water and stored in our home – one per person. This gives us at a minimum 1 gallon per person per day for 7 days. We have additional water stored in 55-gallon water drums, should we ever need them.

It’s important to note that clean water in an appropriate container does not go bad. That is, if you have water free of contaminants stored in containers that don’t leach anything into the water, it should not develop problems. It might end up tasting flat, but that is usually rectified by aerating the water.  Keep this in mind when choosing containers and the source to fill them from! Start with good, solid, and sealable containers and then fill them with the clean water. Never let water sit in open containers. This will invite disease and further devastation in an emergency.

Water collection and treatment
Some may have no hope of keeping enough potable water on hand for a long emergency or disaster, our strategy includes measures for treating non-potable water to make it potable. This means water found in streams, lakes, and other outdoor sources. The problem is, the majority of the surface water in the world, including North America, contains viruses, bacteria, organisms, etc. These can cause sickness and discomfort ranging from mild to severe/life-threatening. In an emergency, that last thing our family wants is the trots! We suggest handling this problem through expending effort and resources to do the following:

  1. Maintain the knowledge of where to look for and locate treatable water in the immediate area.
  2. Maintain supplies to boil water.
  3. Maintain supplies to chemically treat some water if necessary (not a good long-term solution – not sustainable).
  4. Maintain supplies to filter water and how to use them.
    In our case, we purchased a Katadyn Vario Microfilter and several replacement cartridges. We do not use this filter for leisure or recreational use but maintain a separate water filter for those sorts of uses (which also serves as a backup).  This too is also not a good long-term strategy since it’s not sustainable if/when the equipment fails. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable!
  5. Maintain the knowledge of how to primitively filter water with natural, or readily available materials. Books like “When Technology Fails“ are an excellent resource for this sort of thing. Make sure you read and understand this stuff as much as possible before you need to know it!

Long Term Water Strategy
One needs a long-term strategy for the collect and storage water. For those in suitable climates, this could be from rain and snow (plentiful in the northeastern United States where we live).  We’ve pondered that next time our roof requires replacement, we’ll replace it with a suitable metal roof then build a cistern to collect this roof runoff, then an additional methodology to filter this water. If you have an occassion to erect an outbuilding, consider a metal roof for this added benefit.

Two books we intend to get are “Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use” and “The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store, and Conserve It“. These books discuss how to use a variety of materials and methods to collect and store water.

Is it worth the investment?
Consider this… in the right emergency context, water would be worth more per ounce than gold! When without water, no other resource abundance matters. Water is fundamental to life, and yet despite this when we were considering these issues, there was plenty of hesitation to spend resources to help us store and secure water!

Much of what has been recommended here can be done for  $250 or less. That is for a water strategy (books, storage containers, filters, etc) which would provide a family with thousands of gallons of potable water.

We consider that a pretty good investment into the health and welfare of our family in the event of an emergency or disaster. This is one area you don’t want to skimp or depend on others!

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

It’s more than just flashlights and duct tape!

For the non-militia member too!
We have some hesitation about writing the topic of emergency preparedness because of some long-held stereotypes people have. As followers of Yeshua, homeschoolers, Pennsylvanians, etc. some people would just naturally expect us to also be of a survivalist or militia mindset. We can assure you, we don’t belong to the NRA (not that we have objections to them), we don’t have a backyard bunker, heck – we don’t even own gas masks! Nevertheless, we do see some value in being prepared for uncommon or exceptional events.

Are you really prepared?
Plenty of people would call themselves “prepared” for an emergency ranging from a few hours to a few days. Several months ago, we began to be challenged to consider whether or not we were prepared for “the long emergency” – that is, longer-term disruptions to food, medicine, public services and utilities, etc. Perhaps to some, this sounds apocalyptic? Maybe, but there are plenty of non-apocalyptic reasons to be considering these sorts of scenarios.

Prepared for what?
We live in an age of increasing natural, political, and ecological turmoil. Is it really beyond reason that an event such as a large hurricane, solar flares, political unrest, or God forbid, a larger terrorist attack could substantially disrupt life as we know it for weeks or months? Ask those victims of Hurricane Katrina their experiences and you’ll see how desperately ill-prepared most people were.

What’s needed?
To weather these sorts of long emergencies requires more than flashlights and duct tape – it requires advanced planning and preparation of both your mind and your resources. It requires having the resources in advance that will permit your family to survive and thrive during these times, should they come. Your family will never find harm in having 1-3 months of food stocks on hand, or from owning a generator, knowing how to garden, hunt or forage, etc. Emergency preparedness offers only benefits since the skills and resources required will benefit any family.

Preparedness builds community
We’re not personally interested in a “survival of the fittest” way of surviving an emergency. Rather, we’d prefer to be in a place of blessing others with the knowledge and resources we’ve gathered to prepare for such a time. When prepared, families are in a position to help others rather than fearing for their own survival. Should the situation never arise, there’s still benefits to your family and community. Working together with your friends and neighbors to acquire resources and plan for these possibilities deepens relationships and strengthens your community.

Where to find information?
There are thousands of resources online that outline good strategies for preparing for such an emergency. We’ll leave that info to those who excel at such. One such resource that we have found to be extremely helpful to our family is a book called “When Technology Fails“. Every family should own this book! This book covers a wide range of topics covering all the basics of food, water, shelter, medicine and then some. It’s also a primer on alternative energy sources, gardening, foraging, food storage, etc. It’s not a survival manual like you’d expect to find in an Army-Navy store, but more like a manual for the average joe to hold up for a while in an extended emergency. We cannot recommend this book enough. If you can only afford one book on the topic of preparedness, this would be it.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency

Hopefully, you and your family and community will give this topic some serious consideration. It could mean the difference between life and death for you, your family, or anyone else whom you’re able to help. Remember – prepared families make for good and strong families and communities! Please give this topic your careful and prayerful consideration.

Eggs at Last!

Well, after nearly four months of waiting, our hens have begun to lay eggs! At the moment, 2 of 10 hens are laying eggs on a daily basis. We purchased them as 6-week old pullets and have been patiently waiting since then for the day when we could begin to collect eggs from the hen house.

Chickens at 5-6 weeks old

Our experience has been mostly good so far as “chickeneers”. We’ve not had any pets in our family history, so the number one pain-in-the-rear so far has been getting people to look after the chickens when we’re headed out-of-town. This hasn’t been overly painful, just hard to always remember to do sometimes!

Aside from that, my only other complaint with raising chickens in a typical-suburban neighborhood is this: Chickens don’t recognize boundaries. Much like shepherds have to herd their sheep, we often have to herd our chickens off our neighbors lawns, etc. We deal with this by only letting them free-range for a portion of the day and staying outside with them during that time. Unlike many others, our chickens don’t seem to have an interest in the neighbors gardens, flowers, etc (or ours PTL!) The only real danger to the neighbors is the occasional chicken turd here and there – which is actually good for the soil in moderation 😉 We still pick it up when we see it and return it to our property.

Our Chicken Coop

So, here’s some other questions we and others have had about raising chickens in a sub-urban environment:

1. Is it legal?
Uh… no comment.

2. Do they smell?
We’ve not noticed any strong smells from our chickens, nor do our neighbors. We clean the droppings out of the hen house about every 2-3 weeks and compost them. At no time has it ever been overwhelming. Growing up cleaning up after dogs was worse in my experience.

3. Are they noisy?
We have all hens – they make very little noise. They more or less murmur. If they squawk beyond that, it’s once a week or so, and usually because they feel in danger.

4. Are they expensive?
We had a few hundred dollars in building a coop – but we wanted a nice one that would compliment our property. Aside from that, feed, shells, grit, etc. might cost less than $10/month for ten hens. Unless you’re planning on selling your eggs,  raising chickens for your own eggs isn’t necessarily economically advantageous. We can get free-range eggs for $1.50/dozen from nearby farmers.

5. Why have them if it’s cheaper to buy local eggs?
We don’t want to assume that buying from others will always be as accessible or affordable – plus it’s a great experience for the whole family learning to look after animals that provide you with an ongoing food supply. Further, chickens provide pest control, a ready source of nitrogen-rich compost material, and quite honestly, many zen-like moments while watching them do their thing.

6. What do they eat?
At first, they ate medicated feed to get them off to a healthy start. We then moved to “grower” meal, then onto “layer” pellets. We give them this every day, although they eat from it quite moderately and prefer scratching for bugs, grubs, etc. They get much of their diet from foraging. They also love table scraps – again in moderation. Grass-clippings is another great food for chickens. Our tomatoes in this area of PA were effected by Late Blight, and so the chickens are given any of the produce we cannot eat because of rot, etc. as well. They’re not quite as versatile as pigs, but they can eat a wide-range of foods!

Reduce Refrigeration Power Consumption up to 95%!

We’re Saving About $135/yr

As I’ve been researching ways to reduce power consumption, I’ve been measuring the annual power use of each appliance in my house (see my post on the Kill-A-Watt for details). When I measured my refrigerator, I found that it used 2.17 Kwh in just 13:22. That means that at our average Kwh cost of $.1007, my fridge costs me $$.3896/day, $11.85/month, and $143.20/year. That might not sound significant, but what if it could be less? A LOT less?!

I’d recently seen some info about using a chest freezer in place of a fridge. I thought the idea sounded whacky at first. It’s being done by many power-miserly people – particularly those who use solar power. You see, refrigerators are inherently inefficient in their design. When you open your fridge door, in goes all sorts of room-temperature air that must now be cooled and the cool air you’ve been paying to cool comes out. This is where a chest freezer has quite an advantage. Aside from being better-insulated than refrigerators, chest freezers don’t lose much cold air when you open them because cold air sinks and hot air rises. You ever notice the open coolers in the grocery store with no lids, yet the contain frozen items? This is because the cold air stays down in the freezer.

So how does this work as a fridge, I mean freezers freeze stuff, and I just want my stuff cool, right? It’s simple:

You take a chest freezer, turn the thermostat to as cold as possible (so that when it’s on, it’s running at full-steam), then purchase a separate thermostat such as this Refrigerator or Freezer Thermostat (Temperature Controller). These have long been used by people who brew their own beer to keep their beverages at given temperature range for long periods of time.

Control your freezer temperature externally

Control your freezer temperature externally

This device (or others like it) plug into the wall, and your freezer plugs into it. It consists of a temperature probe which is placed inside the freezer (no tools required) hooked to a relay that turns the power (at the plug) on and off. This is totally safe and already how your freezer works, so no wear and tear. This just way easier than modifying the freezer’s internal thermostat and voiding warranties, etc.

Once plugged in, your set the external thermostat to your desired temp (mid to high 30’s) When the temperature inside the freezer moves above your set temp, it powers on the outlet, turning on the freezer until it reaches the desired temperature. Once reached, it cuts power to the freezer. Many people who use this arrangement report their freezer compressor running 2-5 minutes per hour!

So just how much does this save? Most people report an electricity use doing this between .10 Kwh to .4 Kwh per day. Our current average Kwh price is $.1007 (just a hair over ten cents). That means that doing the above will cost you between $.01 and $.04 cents per day. That’s between $3.67 and $14.70 per year! You will not find a fridge that approaches even half this energy use. Because I bought a new energy star freezer, I am projecting somewhere in the middle – $.20 Kwh/day. This is twice the cost that many people are experiencing, but I don’t like to get my hopes up. If I am anywhere close, my cost will be just $7.35 to run my freezer fridge for one year. That’s a 95% cost reduction. It could be even better, it could be even worse. Even if it were $.40 Kwh/day, the cost will still be less than $15 for the year, an 89% improvement!

Have a hard time believing that? A brand-new Energy Star freezer will use about $38 per year as a freezer – it’s right on the tag. When it’s used in the energy-sipping capacity like this, it uses a fraction of that energy.

Of course, you have to 1) have or obtain a decent chest freezer 2) have a place to effectively use a chest freezer as a fridge 3) and purchase or make an external thermostat capable of powering the unit on/off frequently. In our case, we had the willingness, the room, but not the freezer or thermostat. We decided on purchasing a new Energy Star 14.8 cu.ft. freezer for $398. We purchased the above thermostat as well. This unit should be going strong for 5-10 years, long after we’ve recovered our purchase price.

If this is something you want to consider, I recommend the following:

  1. Use a Kill-A-Watt to measure your power use and determine your real kwh cost per day
  2. Multiply this cost by 365. If you live in PA, remember that once we experience deregulation this winter, power cost will likely rise at least 30%.
  3. Consider if you can purchase or locate a decent freezer
  4. Consider if you can purchase or construct a thermostat relay (I could not build one for the cost of the one above)
  5. Consider if you could live with a chest freezer rather than a traditional fridge.
  6. If so, Consider the cost savings over 3-5 years after your cost to purchase the freezer (if need be) and a thermostat.
  7. If the cost is justifiable, go for it!

Regarding the last item, my wife was suprisingly willing to do this after going and looking at freezers. There’s some nice benefits of this approach:

  1. It can be hard to see items in the freezer, harder to reach them, etc. The top-down effect of using a chest freezer offers a bird’s eye view of the contents.
  2. The chest freezer doubles as quite a bit of effective work area
  3. The former refrigerator area can be re-factored into a pantry, more counter space, etc.
  4. The right chest freezer can be nicely organized. Ours came with four nice sliding baskets that make it easy to organize.
  5. Should you decide to implement an alternative source of power (solar or wind), the less power you need, the better.

This might not be for everyone, but we’re excited to give it a shot!

I’ll post an update in a few months with my power usage.

Sharing is Key

Corporations have collectively convinced us all that we need so many things to have an enjoyable, prosperous life. To top it all off, they’ve spent nearly a century convincing us that we each need our OWN [insert widget, product, gadget, etc here] in order to live. After all, if you’re a corporation selling widgets, you need to sell them to as many people as possible, right?

It’s in a corporation’s best interst that we don’t share with one another, otherwise the market for the item is smaller. Sharing then is the enemy of corporate greed and capitalism (I am not saying that the two are one in the same).

We’re convinced that a simpler life is highly unlikely without earnest sharing of resources among friends, family, neighbors, and community.

Think about it for a second. Say you need a shovel. A shovel might cost $20 for a good one. Your neighbor might need one too, and perhaps a close friend. What are the chances that you will all need your shovels at the same exact time? Why not collaborate (work together) with your friends and neighbors, and pitch in to purchase one shovel among you? Yeah, you might need to be a little more patient and flexible to do this – but what is the harm in that? Now you have use of a shovel that cost you 1/3 of what it would have cost, and each person’s expenses are lowered.

Now apply this same idea to bigger items (lawn mowers, cars, bicycles, computers, freezers, food, homes, gardens) and you can see that there’s lots of room for lowering our expenses and living a richer life by simply sharing with one another. If we all did that, would we need the incomes that we have? Could we live on less?

We know that there are times when this is not practical or feasible, or perhaps cannot be done for some other reasons. We also acknowledge that this takes a lot of cooperation to pull off. Personally, we’re convinced that this cannot be done without following two commands of Jesus Christ – love God will all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself! Just think how the world would be, heck – even your neighborhood – if everyone just did those two things!

The beautiful thing about sharing is that it’s something we can all do at least a little bit. We need to learn to share, we need to learn to give, and learn to love our neighbors. In doing so, we’ll learn to live a simpler, sustainable, and more prosperous life.