Weathering The Storm

Winter Power Outage = Good Chance To Test Preps

Western Washington had a pretty good storm last week. I realize, in the larger category of “winter storms”, this wasn’t anywhere among the worst. That being said, it was a big deal around here – we don’t have storms like that very often. What started off as a good amount of snow coming down, transitioned into an ice storm. The tree branches were weighed down and many broke, taking down power lines and causing a power outage that affected close to 300,000 homes.

We were one of those homes, our power was out for about 36 hours. So when life gives you lemons… I figured this was the perfect opportunity to test our preps! At 7:30 am, as Sarah and I were in the Jeep driving back from the train station (the trains were cancelled because of frozen switches), I got the call the power was out. As I drove up to the house, even though I knew the power was off, I still tried to use the garage door opener (habits). First lesson of the power outage: make sure everyone knows how to manually open the garage door.

Since we have had a couple of “lights-out” drills we knew where to start. We:

  1. ‘Fired-up’ the battery bank and, using a volt meter, checked and recorded the starting voltage (12.6 volts).
  2. Ran a 50 foot, 14-gauge extension cord into the house and plugged it into a surge protector for inside use.
  3. Connected another extension cord to the natural gas furnace to run the blower*.
  4. Put a temperature probe inside the deep freezer (in the garage), with one end out so that it could be easily read, and recorded the starting temperature (10 degrees).
  5. Brought lamps, with low energy bulbs, into the main room and plugged them into the surge protector.

The battery bank operated well that day. My parents, visiting from Colorado, were able to appreciated all our preps. My mom was especially grateful to be able to blow dry and curl her hair (before leaving to see more family) – she felt this alone justified all our preparations. We had heat (though we kept it lower than normal, 62 degrees), light, Ryan was able to play Xbox, and we watched a movie after dinner. Every couple of hours we’d check and record the battery voltage and the deep freezer temperature.

However, when we woke up the next morning I realized the heat wasn’t on. I checked the battery bank and it had powered off. Even though it registered plenty of voltage (11.3 volts) the indicator light showed the batteries had gotten too low – this shouldn’t have happened until it reached 10.0 volts. It’s possible this occurred because I had left the inverter plugged into the wall and the line may have surged, but I don’t know for sure. We got out the generator, fired it up, and connected it to the:

  • inverter, to recharge the battery bank. As soon as it was plugged in the inverter began to charge and work again.
  • freezer, even though the temperature was still below 20 degrees.
  • furnace blower, and turned the heat up to 70 degrees.
  • laptop computer and all other rechargeable devices.

Once the generator was running we used our Volcano Grill and percolator to make coffee, then boiled water for oatmeal.

Sarah and I then left for work. The generator ran for about three hours, then Ryan called and told me it had stopped. I assumed it had run out of gas. I had him plug things back into the inverter and continue to power the house from the battery bank (Repetitive & Redundant). That evening the power came back on. We put everything neatly away, ready for the next time.

(Friday: What I Did This Week To Prep including Storm After Action Review)

*Last summer my good friend, fellow prepper, and HVAC/R technician, Rick helped me rewire the line that powers the blower on my natural gas furnace. This allows me to plug the blower into an alternate power supply if needed. Rick has agreed to guest blog for me next Monday (1/30/12), when he’ll write about how you can do this same project yourself, complete with a detailed how-to video.

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Only Seconds to React

Having Your Fire Extinguisher Ready

Fire is neither good nor bad, it just is. When the right combination of fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source combine there will be fire. It can be a lifesaving asset providing light, cooking, and heat – or can be property and life destroying.

Though fire safety has many aspects* today we’re going to discuss fire extinguishers. As preppers, we build in redundancies. If the power goes out, we start up the generator and cook over propane; if those fail, we light lanterns and cook over a small fire. Most of us aren’t use to having an open flame around on a regular basis and accidents can happen. To mitigate those times, get out the fire extinguisher and place it within arms reach of the fire. No one means to knock over the kerosene lantern, but suddenly the counter is engulfed with flame and you have seconds to make decision.

In that situation, if the fire is small and not spreading, grab the extinguisher. Start with your back to the exit, making sure the fire does not block your escape route. Stand about six feet away from the fire. Then, as fire departments teach, use the PASS word:

  • Pull the pin to unlock the fire extinguisher
  • Aim at the base (bottom) of the fire
  • Squeeze the lever to discharge the agent
  • Sweep the spray from left to right until the flames are totally extinguished

A typical fire extinguisher contains ten seconds of extinguishing power. You cannot use fire extinguishers more than once, they must be replaced or refilled if used.

For home use there are typically two categories: a less expensive, plastic top, disposable type and a metal top, rechargeable type. Professionals recommend the rechargeable ones; they initially cost more, but are far more reliable, can be serviced, and have a longer shelf-life.

There are no laws regarding home fire extinguisher inspections, however it is recommended that twice a year you inspect your extinguisher. You should check:

  • the pressure gauge arrow to be sure it’s full (it should be in the green area straight up on the gauge).
  • the hose and nozzle for cracks, tears or blockage.
  • the pin and tamper seal to ensure they are intact.
  • that the handle-locking device is in place.
  • for dents, leaks, rust, chemical deposits and/or other signs of abuse or wear.

At the end of your inspection turn the extinguisher upside down and hit the bottom sharply with your hand, then shake it well. This will prevent the dry chemical powder from settling or packing down in the cylinder, making it ineffective.

Most rechargeable dry chemical fire extinguishers, if properly handled and maintained, have a lifespan of 5 – 15 years. If your extinguisher is 5 years old bring it in to a local service center and have it inspected (costs about $20). If your extinguisher is over 12 years old, it needs to be hydrostatically tested and recharged by a qualified service technician (they’ll probably just swap you for one that’s been recently tested).

Remember fire doesn’t care, so you need to.

(Friday: What I Did This Week To Prep)

*Dr. Bones, of the Doom & Bloom Show, recently wrote posts on Smoke Inhalation and Natural Burn Treatments. Both of these topics are huge fire safety aspects; these posts  contain good information and are definitely worth reading.

The Hassles of Storing Gasoline

To become more self-reliant we try to determine what ‘needed’ items to store; one to think about is fuel. Though there are several types of fuel preppers store: gasoline, propane, diesel, and kerosene; gasoline is the hardest to store long-term and, yet, is the most commonly used.

My main reason for storing gasoline is for use in our (gasoline) generator during a power failure. When people believe that disaster is looming–recently during Hurricane Irene, for example–they rush out and buy generators. But how many of them think to store fuel to run those generators? Our Generac 5000 generator has a five gallon fuel tank, it will run approximately five to seven hours on a tank of gasoline. My plan is to use our battery bank (four AGM deep cycle batteries) until depleted, then use the generator to recharge the batteries while still maintaining power to needed appliances. To ensure enough energy to last most power outages we need to store a reasonable amount of gasoline. But couldn’t we just drive to the gas station and get more gasoline? Maybe, but does the gas station have power?

We also want to store gasoline for our vehicles if we had to evacuate; gasoline may either be unavailable (gas station closed because of a power outage) or there may be excessively long lines to get it. We’d also like to have enough gasoline to take with us: to ensure we can reach our BOL, and to use there if power and/or gasoline aren’t available at our destination.

As we’re discussing storage it has to be stressed that gasoline is very flammable and must be stored in an appropriate container in a safe place. It is also relatively heavy–approximately 6.1 pounds per gallon–but at about 30 pounds for five gallons it can still be conveniently handled.

It’s hard to find definitive information about how long gasoline can be stored before it goes bad. But what does ‘bad’ even mean? Gasoline is a refined petroleum-derived chemical which–over time, and compounded by improper storing and temperatures–can break down by:

  • evaporation causing it to lose it’s volatile components (necessary for igniting)
  • drawing in water vapor that can cause separation – where water, since it’s heavier, settles to the bottom of the tank
  • oxidation causing it to become sludgy which can build up inside of small parts *

There are other unknowns, beginning with how old was the gasoline when you bought it (was it fresh from the refinery or already a month old?). What temperatures has it been exposed to and for how long? Was it properly stored by keeping it tightly covered, clean, dry, and cool? So, as a rule of thumb, if you plan to store your gasoline for more than a couple of months you should add a gasoline stabilizer.

The most common brand of stabilizer is Sta-Bil Gas Stabilizer. According to Sta-Bil’s website, using their product will keep fuel fresh for 12 months; you can double the dosage and fuel will remain fresh for 24 months. It’s added at a ratio of one ounce of Stabilizer to 2 1/2 gallons of gasoline. A 32-ounces bottle costs about $12, so it’s roughly $0.40 an ounce, which is only $0.80 for each 5-gallon gasoline can you store. If you store 30 gallons (check with local ordinances on amount you can legally store) it’d cost you less than $5.00 per year.

I add three ounces of Stabilizer (I want an extra buffer) to each 5-gallon container of gasoline (including the generator); we rotate the gasoline every 12 months (staggered so we rotate 1/2 every six months). When it’s time to rotate, we just add five gallons into each vehicles half-full tank. We’ve found that pouring gas through the pour spout can get heavy and messy. So instead of pouring we use a Super Syphon; it self-primes, it’s easy to use, and it’s affordable. It takes about three minutes to syphon a 5-gallon can.

Plan ahead. If you invest in a generator, you need to have fuel for it. Remember that generator is for an emergency situation; don’t depend on a one that has old, or not enough, gasoline.

(Wednesday: Self-Reliant vs Self-Sufficient)

* Minnesota’s Dept. of Agriculture article Storing Gasoline, has good information on the specific storage problems of weathering, moisture, and oxidation

What I Did This Week To Prep

We had our first ‘lights out’ drill this week. Unfortunately I can’t call it a success, other than in the sense that we learn from our failures (hopefully).

Coming off the successful test of powering the deep freezer (for over four days), using the batter bank and inverter – I was ready to take the next step. This one was to see how the battery bank would do powering devices inside the house we would like to be able to use during a power outage.

My goal:

  1. Power two lamps, to light the living room / kitchen area, each with two CFL bulbs (compact fluorescent lamp – low energy)
  2. Power our 29 inch TV (older cathode ray tube type) and DVD player
  3. Charge the cell phones
  4. Use the microwave for limited cooking

Outcome:

  1. Batteries were discharged after about 1 1/2 hours of watching the movie (The Sting), and having the lamps on
  2. I forgot to charge the cell phones
  3. The microwave tripped the breaker after less than two minutes

What I learned:

  1. LED flashlights are great; I love our new Duracell Daylite LED two D cell flashlights
  2. Thoroughly check, and be familiar with, your equipment – before the incident
  3. Ensure the battery bank is fully charged
  4. The inverter shuts itself off when the batteries reach 10.50 volts
  5. Buying a quality system and running it through a cheap circuit breaker is dumb

What went well:

  1. Storing the main extension cord near the battery bank (14 gauge, 50 foot)
  2. Taking the opportunity to teach Ryan about the circuit breaker box
  3. Having plenty of accessory extension cords
  4. Once lamps were on (from batteries), putting the flashlights in a central place (easy to find in the dark)

If the power had really been out, we would have fallen back on our redundancy planning and gotten out the lanterns and candles.

The biggest mistake was assuming that since the battery bank, through the inverter, had been plugged in for almost a week that the batteries would be fully charged – so I didn’t think to check first. Yesterday (several days after the drill) I discovered the circuit breaker (a cheap plastic one)–between the batteries and the inverter–had failed and wasn’t allowing the batteries to charge. After seeing that I realized that during our drill our batteries probably weren’t fully charged (likely very low charge to begin with).

I rewired the batteries directly to the inverter (there’s still the inverter’s internal circuit breaker, the external one was a backup) and the batteries immediately began recharging. I’ll order a higher quality circuit breaker this weekend. When the breaker arrives, I’ll do an unofficial drill during the day and see how long the fully charged batteries will run the lamps, TV and DVD player. (Buying stuff is easy, this testing and figuring out is a pain…)

We also transplanted our pepper plants (one jalapeno and one habanero) from the garden into pots so we could bring them into the house for the winter. I hadn’t known until recently that peppers, in their natural habitat, are perennials; we think of them as annuals because our winters get too cold for them to survive. Next year we’ll just put the pot outside for the summer. So instead of starting with brand new plants again, we’ll have mature ones and see how they do. As a baseline, this year we got three, very mild, jalapenos and no habaneros at all.

Lastly, we had budgeted money for buying fish antibiotics this month. So I ordered AQUA-MOX (amoxicillin 500 mg, 100 capsules), AQUA-FLEX (cephalexin 500mg, 100 capsules) and AQUA-ZOLE (metronidazole 250mg, 100 tablets). I stored them away in a cool, dry, dark location in their original containers.

What did you do?

(Monday: The Hassles of Storing Gasoline)

(10/30/11)

What I Did This Week To Prep

Last spring, working on our energy category, I bought a used Generac 5000 generator. My goal is to test it each quarter to ensure it still works properly. I especially wanted to be sure this time of year with the cold winter months approaching. So Ryan, his best friend Chanse, and I got it out. It took us a minute, but once we got the choke properly adjusted it fired up. I need to remember next time that the garage (even with the door open) isn’t the place to test it – it’s loud! Though we haven’t used it other than testing, so far I’ve been pleased with it – but I definitely need more experience using it.

Not long after buying the generator, continuing in the energy category, I bought four slightly used AGM deep cycle batteries and a refurbished Magnum inverter/charger. It took me a while to get all the appropriate knowledge and pieces together. But with the help of a couple TSP forum friends (thanks Dan and Rick), and their electrical/alternative energy knowledge, by early summer I had everything wired together and functional. This past week, after it had quietly sat in the garage for a couple months, I finally did my first test of the system. The test was to see how long our 14 cubic foot deep freezer would run (without opening the freezer) on the batteries. The battery bank, fully charged, started at 12.60 volts. I recorded the time and battery voltage several times a day. It ran for a about 100 hours, until the batteries were at 10.71 volts. A few days after my test I realized that the breaker from the batteries to the inverter had tripped and, after looking at the manual, I determined that the batteries probably should have discharged to 10.50 volts before the inverter tripped off; so add a few more hours to the total. I need to do more testing and develop a better understanding of my backup electric system, but it was a start. Next I’ll do a ‘lights out’ test and see how the battery bank does running some electrical appliances in the house. I also need to use the generator to recharge the discharged battery bank and see how long, and how much gas, that takes.

Ryan & Brynn with our combined order

Lastly, we went to the Mormon Family Home Storage Center (cannery) and canned food to add to our LTS. I previously posted about the Mormon canneries, and included a link to a video of the process, in Long Term Storage (Food Part 2). The staff (Mormon volunteers) were super friendly and helpful. The cannery is scheduled by groups; you can form your own group (Mormon or non-Mormon), or you can be added to a smaller group (we were added to a Mormon group from the Auburn area). A friend had planned to go with me but was unable to go that week, so I offered to do his order as well. Since it was going to be a large order (combined 91 cans) I brought Ryan and Brynn along to help. In addition to us, there were about eight other people in our group. We had each previously submitted our order forms, and all the bulk storage bags we would need had been pulled from the shelves and were ready to go. Start to finish, including orientation and cleanup, took just over two hours. We were assigned a task and, assembly line style, the process started: opening bulk bags, pouring into #10 cans, sealing the metal lid on the can, adding a label, and placing the can in a box for the appropriate order. When all the work was completed, we inventoried and paid for our order. We added 55 #10 cans to our LTS.

What did you do?

(Monday: Antibiotics In Your Preps?)

(10/23/11)

Product Review: Emberlit Stove

In an emergency situation where hypothermia is a risk, my plan–using our BOB–is to quickly make a small fire, heat water, and get warm beverages into people. In our BOBs we have a good fire starting kit, containing: multiple ignition sources, multiple forms of fire starters, and dry kindling. We have a small cook kit, and carry instant coffee and hot chocolate. Having an efficient way to make a fire on a cold night can mean the difference between life and death – hypothermia can set in within a few hours at 40 degrees in a damp climate (i.e. most nights here in Western Washington). I didn’t have a camp stove in our kit, mostly to avoid the extra weight and bulk, and not wanting to carry extra fuel; I felt that our fire starting kit would be good enough to do the job. When I saw the Emberlit Stove it made me reconsider my feeling of ‘good enough’. I realized if being able to quickly and easily make a fire was one of my top survival priorities (and it is) that I needed a stove.

I looked at the Emberlit Stove some more and watched their video. I liked the apparent quality and strength, while balancing a relatively lightweight (11.3 oz) and very compact size. I ordered two from TSP Gear Shop, one for each of our primary BOBs.

our 2 stoves - left: assembled, right: unassembled

When the stove arrived I was immediately impressed by how small and simplistic it is. Unassembled it measures about four inches by five inches and stacks up less than a quarter-inch tall. It felt heavier than I had expected, but I think that’s because it’s so densely packed. It’s made of stamped, stainless steel sheet metal. It consists of three identical sides, a bottom, and a front piece; a total of five separate tabbed and slotted pieces.

The directions to assemble it are simple. The pieces are precisely cut and have very little tolerance. This is very good in quality and stability, but it’s also the cause of my one complaint: it’s a hassle to easily put together. With cold, wet hands and/or in the dark assembly would be very difficult. On the positive side, because of the way it’s designed it would be impossible to put together incorrectly.

Alison with Emberlit Stove

I assembled it and, using a fire starter and small twigs, we easily got a fire going. The front feeder port made it simple to maintain the fire, and the water boiled quickly. The wood burned with almost no smoke and only ash was left behind.

Because I wanted everyone in the family to get familiar with assembling it, and knowing that everything gets easier with practice, we had a Emberlit assembly night. While playing a card game, between hands, we took turns passing it around and each person practiced with it until we all felt proficient at assembling the stove. Sarah, Ryan, and I even tried assembling it blindfolded – that was hard and took a long time, but we were all successful.

Then, to add some stress to the learning process, we had a contest to see who could put it together the fastest. Each person had to sit on the floor, could not set the stove down until it was completed, and was timed. To put times into perspective, when we first got it in the mail Sarah and I, following the directions, each took about three to four minutes to assemble it. When we began timing ourselves it wasn’t long before everyone was able to complete it in less than one minute. Final results at the end of the night: Alison 3rd place with 34.9 seconds, I was 2nd with 27.4 seconds, and Ryan was the hands down winner at 18.5 seconds.

Aside from being a hassle to assemble, which can be mitigated with practice, I love this product. At $37, it’s well made, functions efficiently, is simplistic and would be almost impossible to break. Lastly, I want to mention the stove is made by a member of the TSP community, “By TSP For TSP”. I highly recommend adding the Emberlit Stove to your BOB.

five basic needs: 1) food, 2) water, 3) shelter, 4) security, and 5) energy

(Disclaimer: I have no association with this product or any other dealer or manufacturer. I researched and bought the product to add to my preps and I just wanted to pass along the experience I have had with it.)

When Others Are In The Dark

five basic needs: 1) food, 2) water, 3) shelter, 4) security, and 5) ENERGY

Nothing sends us back a century or two like an electric power outage. So much of what we call civilization lives or dies on the “juice” that we get with the flip of a switch.” (Discovery.com)

Modern energy and technology* is completely taken for granted in our society — until they no longer work. Of course, the world existed for millennia without our modern energy and there’s no doubt that human beings, as a species, can survive. But can we, today’s ultra-specialized, technology-dependent individuals?

What would we do without our cell phones and computers, microwaves and refrigerators, television and internet, central heat and air-conditioning, or simple “flip of a switch” to turn on the light as we walk into a dark room?

The power goes out. For how long? You don’t know. It could be a fallen tree, damaged power pole, lightning strike, ice/snow storm, high winds, or short-circuit from changing a routine part at a minor electrical substation; the list of inevitable ‘disasters’ continues. Since we prepare for the most likely emergencies first–not the Hollywood style mega disasters–let’s talk about what happens when we get sent “back a century or two” with a power failure. Most of us can fake it pretty well if the lights go out for a few hours to a couple of days. But what about after that?

What if it lasts longer? I’m not saying forever in the apocalyptic sense, just a huge storm that knocks out power for a few weeks? Suddenly we’d have to deal with all the disadvantages of not having power, and none of the advantages from “a century or two” ago of knowing how to heat, cook, and just exist on a daily basis without it (hell, the boredom alone would kill many of us).

We understand that to make fire it requires 1) fuel, 2) oxygen, and 3) an ignition source; and have all created it before. These days when most homes don’t even have a wood fireplace; frequently the only time we strike a match or a flick lighter is to light candle (or cigarette). Ironically if we do ‘make’ a fire in our gas fireplace or propane grill, it is literally “the flip of a switch”. But, making a successful wood fire–the key component in basic heat, light, and cooking–is getting to be a lost skill.

As preppers we should strive for far more than to be huddled around a fire to keep warm, turning our latest kill on a spit, and casting furtive glances into the darkness. We know there are systems that fail. We know that we are helpless to prevent them. So when the power fails, what is your plan to keep warm (or cool – though that’s not a big problem up here in Western Washington), cook, stay connected, and provide light?

This will be the last in the series of the ‘five basic needs’ posts. We’ve now established a baseline of those ideas and concepts which we will build on and refer back to.

(Wednesday: Product Review – Emberlit Stove)

*I won’t keep mentioning technology, but assume it’s implied knowing that it can’t exist without modern energy.