January 2, 2011

SO YESTERDAY’S POST ON LOW-BUDGET DISASTER PREP has produced still more email. Mostly it’s suggestions for what more people can do. That, of course, goes all the way up to a custom bomb-shelter / retreat in the mountains somewhere. But for most people, resources are limited. What are some things you can do that go beyond just keeping some extra groceries and bottled water? But not too far beyond?

You can keep a case or two of self-heating MREs around. They last a long time, they aren’t bad, and they’re more portable than canned foods if you have to leave home, but they don’t need separate water to prepare them like freeze-dried foods.

You might invest in a water filter, which will let you turn iffy water into drinkable water.

You should stock first-aid supplies and extra needed medications, in case you can’t get prescriptions refilled.

You might want some sort of backup power, ranging from a big uninterruptible power supply (keeps laptops and internet going for a long time, recharges cellphones, etc.) to a generator. Generators take annoying degrees of maintenance; a UPS can back up your computer or modem/wireless router until needed for more. But they put out a lot less power than a generator, and won’t keep your freezer from thawing. But generators cross the line into “more serious” as opposed to “slightly serious” preparedness, which is what this post is about.

Some additional source of heat. If you have a gas fireplace, make sure you know how to start it without an electric igniter. If you have a woodburning fireplace or stove, make sure you have plenty of wood, and matches and kindling, etc. (Woodburning fireplaces aren’t much good for heat, really; stoves on the other hand put out a lot). A backup kerosene or propane heater is good, too. Propane is easier to store than kerosene, and there are some propane heaters that are supposed to be safe for indoor use — though I’d invest in a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector to go with any kind of backup indoor heat. Also, extra blankets. And wool socks! Maybe even a Snuggie or two. In case the power goes out in the summer, make sure you have screens on your windows so that you can open them without filling your house with bugs. A small battery-powered fan is nice, too — clip it on to the headboard of your bed and it’ll be easier to sleep on a sticky night. Keep plenty of batteries, too.

Backup lamps and lanterns. One nice thing I have are plug-in nightlights that turn on when the power goes off, so that stairs, etc., remain navigable. I have them at the top and bottom of stairs, and in parts of the house that would be really dark if the power went off. They double as flashlights. These look good, too.

A list of phone numbers for family, friends, neighbors, and various services — plumbers, doctors, etc. — that you won’t be able to look up on the Internet if the power’s out.

A shovel, a crowbar, a water shutoff tool that fits your hookup — make sure you know that it works, how to use it, and where your hookup is in advance — and other simple tools.

A couple of tarps. During the Great Water Incident of a couple of years ago, one of these saved my basement carpet when water started coming out of the ceiling. . . .

Duct tape, duct tape, duct tape. And extra plastic garbage bags. Very versatile.

Any other reader suggestions for things that don’t cost too much, but would take disaster-prep up a level from yesterday’s post?

UPDATE: Reader Thomas Leahy writes: “Don’t forget a little extra food for the pets.” Good point.

Reader Peter Gookins emails:

This goes a bit beyond “prep on the cheap,” but you asked…

Generators-most people get one that’s much bigger than they actually need. Back north, I needed a large 240 volt generator (Honda ES 6500) to power the well pump, fridge and freezer when power went out (“locked rotor current,” which is the technical name for the high amperage required to start an electric motor from rest, on a 1 HP deep well pump is a LOT higher than the 8-12 amps (which, at 240 volts, is 1/2 the amperage it would be at 120; figure starting draw on most motors will be about 4X-5X running current; the 6500 puts out 52 amps and at pump start you could tell it picker up a lot of load) it takes to run the pump, and don’t forget that some stuff – like most -but not all- deep well pumps – are 240 volt only); here in Florida I’m on county water. During the 2004 hurricanes I loaned the big one to a neighbor, and it wound up feeding three houses for refrigerators, fans and TVs. I ran off a portable 120 volt 3K watt portable Honda RV generator (EU 3000) just fine, which powered the fridge, fans, lights and and a window AC at night for sleeping. Since then I’ve picked up a 2K watt Honda to use as “an infinite extension cord” at the gun club – it’ll power ONE saw, or a couple of floodlights and a fan, run cordless drill battery chargers, etc, and it weights 47 lbs. so it’s portable. Turns out it will run my fridge, some lights and a fan OR my window AC and some lights, all on less gas than the 3K watt Honda used. The fuel tank is small, but the RV crowd has solutions for that, just Google “EU2000+fuel tank.” And, Honda sells kits (but it’s cheaper to make your own) that allow tying two EU2000s together to get 3200 watts at 120 volts (about 26 amps) steady output. RVers do it all the time.

Remember, the smaller the generator the less fuel it uses. You can get aftermarket propane conversion kits for the Hondas, which I’ve considered doing with the 6500 when I move back north next year, because even with wheels under it it’s not very portable. I haven’t considered doing it with the 3K or the 2000 because having to drag around a propane tank reduces the portability, but if one expected a semi-stationary use, a propane conversion kit and a couple of 70 lb propane tanks would be a good investment. If I were staying in Florida I’d convert from electric water heater to propane tankless, and replace the electric range with a dual-fuel range, and stick a 250 gallon propane tank in the back corner of the yard. All the propane dealers here brag about how their trucks are propane-powered and they never missed a delivery during the hurricanes.

Speaking of well pumps…there is a great advantage to replacing the small well tank ( about 3.5 gallon draw down – one flush with old style toilets, so your pump is starting up a lot) builders always put in because it’s cheap with multiple large tanks. Well-X-Trol makes one that has a 46 gallon draw down from full before the pump needs to start and refill it. I put in two back north; in daily use the pump starts fewer times and runs longer, which extends its life, and when the power went out I ran the pump on generator until the tanks were full, which gave us 92 gallons before we needed the pump again. With water saving shower heads and minimal flushing we could get through an entire day (BTW, with a little judicious circuit breaker adjusting, one can power only one of the heating elements in an electric water heater with one’s generator, preferably the bottom element; takes a little while, but in 30 minutes or so you have a tank full of hot water. Check what wattage the elements are and replace the bottom one with a 4500 watt or 3800 watt (assuming the original is a 5500 watt) to ease the load on the generator. During normal use you won’t notice the difference.

If I were building my house from scratch, I’d consider putting in an underground propane tank and running everything off propane instead of natural gas, with a propane-powered generator thrown into the mix. A couple of deliveries a year and you’re semi self-sufficient.

Reader Anthony Swenson writes with a low-budget point that’s more in the spirit I meant for this post:

One of the cheapest things you can do – it won’t cost you anything but a nice smell in your laundry – is to make sure you always buy plain, unscented, unflavored chlorine bleach.

“In an emergency, think of this (one gallon of Regular Clorox Bleach) as 3,800 gallons of drinking water.”

Yeah, bleach is good for sanitizing stuff, too. I keep extra around — but it’s harder and harder to find plain old Clorox bleach anymore amid all the scented, splash-resistant, etc. stuff on the shelf. Read the label carefully. . . .

UPDATE: Reader Henry Bowman writes:

Another item to consider if you have a hybrid vehicle: a large inverter. I read an article a couple of years ago about a fellow in Connecticut who ran many of his electric appliances in his house for three days off his Prius, with inverter. He claimed it cost him 5 gallons of fuel. Seems like an inexpensive backup, and one for which you don’t need to worry about starting often, as is the case with a portable generator.

My sister and brother-in-law, who live in the Houston vicinity, were without power for 13 days after Hurricane Ike. They have two Priuses: they could have used a couple of inverters.

A big inverter is a lot cheaper than a comparable generator, and probably safer, too. And you can use it to recharge your UPS. But the hybrid thing isn’t as easy as it sounds. The guy you mention modded his Prius, because the big honking battery that drives the electric motors doesn’t put out 12v DC, and the 12v power system that starts the motor in the Prius (or in my Highlander) is separate. So I’m not sure there’s any special benefit to having a hybrid unless it’s modified, but correct me if I’m missing something.

Speaking of cars, think about when you’re not at home. Reader Mike von Cannon writes:

A note about disaster kits: I work for the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office and starting the morning of Dec 26 our dispatch center was flooded with calls from tourists in rental cabins who were stranded and running out of food (it was even worse during the blizzard in 93, which also hit on a weekend), so even on vacation it would pay to buy extra in case we get more snow than you expect. many tourists who thought they’d be going home sunday were stranded til Wed or Thur.

Good advice. And you should travel with at least a bit of helpful stuff. I keep some emergency stuff in the back of the car — some food bars, water, a spare pair of shoes in case mine get nasty while changing a tire, etc., and assorted minor toiletries and hygiene products and, very important, a roll of toilet paper — which helps. (And if you can produce tampons in a pinch, you can be a hero to women everywhere.)

I use these food bars, because they stand up to the heat in the summer better and they’re not appetizing enough that people will snitch ‘em just for a quick snack, and these water packets because they don’t burst if they freeze. Most of this stuff never gets used, but being stuck by the side of the road for an extended period just once makes it worth having.

Also: Some survival blankets, some basic tools, and a Swiss Army knife or a Leatherman. (Make sure it’s one with a can opener/bottle opener). And a roll of duct tape! I keep all of this in a small pack that takes up very little room in the back; there’s one in Helen’s car, too.

Reader Gary Saffer writes:

A couple of things that I didn’t notice in your disaster preparedness posts.

Chemical light sticks. A friend of mine suggested these for general use. They’re cheap, they provide enough light to move around, and they save batteries for more light intensive tasks. And of course, you can get them at Amazon.

Consider that under most circumstances, it’s going to be 48-72 hours before rescue or relief shows up. If you are planning for much longer periods of being off the grid, consider moving to a rural area where you can build you entire house around being off the grid for long periods of time.

Firearms. You don’t mention them, but everyone should have a means of self defense. The veneer of civilization is thin at the best of times, it vaporizes in a real emergency. The predators will be out fairly quickly because their disaster plan is to use your prepared material to survive on. They don’t know specifically who you are, but they’ll keep looking until they find someone who has the stuff they want. Or a firearm they want no part of.

Yeah, light sticks are cool, even if Joe Biden thinks they’re drug paraphernalia. The gun issue is a whole separate post, but a gun (or several) is important disaster-prep, but that moves beyond the “easy steps” focus of this post. And the rural retreat approach goes way beyond it.

Reader Tina Howard writes:

For those who actually have a landline: an old-fashioned, non-electric telephone that plugs into the phone jack & has the handset attached to the phone. Easy to identify because there is no electric cord with it. Our phone lines worked after 2003′s Hurricane Claudette but the cordless phones wouldn’t. Very cheap at Salvation Army Thrift shops.

In the same vein, keep the necessary cords to plug a computer directly into the phone modem, because the wireless router is also electric. We were able to get online and check weather and news reports, as well as make posts to update others.

Good advice. Yeah, an old-fashioned landline phone that uses line power is good to have. Cellphone batteries die. Phone company line power is more reliable than utility power. Some multi-handset wireless phone setups or answering machines have a handset at the base that still works when the power is out. (Mine does). Most don’t. You can also hook the base into a big UPS — they don’t draw much power so they’ll work for days that way if you do. Ditto your cable/DSL modem and wireless router.

Reader J.R. Ott writes:

Three lengths of sturdy rope,5/8 climbing rope,inexpensive clothesline type,for bundling up stuff,para chute chord,All three are handy for bug out 50′ min and a few short hunks.Each bundle of rope has a snap knife taped to it (about a dollar each from the paint dept) . . . . Lastly if folks can afford it a Westie dog or a Shepard,good alarm and a Westie will shred an attacker as they are very possessive Terriers and if the dogs women folk are attacked you would not believe how damaging the dog can be.

Dogs are good to have around. More advice on low-cost preparation here, from a reader.

I should also note that while having extra stuff is handy — if the roads are blocked, and you don’t have enough food, there’s not much you can do — it’s also important to have skills. Most of the survival books are aimed at somebody lost in the woods, but, again, a low-budget approach means being able to deal with home-based small-scale disasters. This book, When Duct Tape Just Isn’t Enough, is a good focus. My own skillset is nothing to brag about: I can do basic plumbing, electrical, and carpentry stuff, but I don’t really like it because I’m a perfectionist, but not skilled enough to make it perfect very fast so I get frustrated. (Plus, I’ve usually got an article I should be writing, or something) However, it suffices for quick-and-dirty solutions to problems like clogged or burst pipes, etc. Being able to deal with that sort of thing is a big leg-up, and that’s the kind of thing this book addresses.

FINALLY: Good advice from reader Spencer Reiss: Keep some cash around. Preferably in relatively small denominations: “The universal solvent–gets anything else you need. and no power, no phone=no ATM, no credit cards. Post-Andrew desperate Miamians were driving halfway to Orlando to get some (and in some areas systems were down for up to two weeks). Much easier/smarter to keep $1000 stashed somewhere.”