Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handling a power outage

It is that time of year here in New England when heavy snow fall and ice storms are a real threat. Each year I expect us to lose power a few times, at least one of which will be for a day or more. The year before we moved into our current house, the area was without power for 2 weeks due to ice, so we know long term power loss is a reality we might face. In classic Yankee style, people here cope. This is true in many parts of the country for various reasons. Let's talk about how to do it.

Depending on where you are in the US when you lose power, this can be your biggest concern. While areas in places like Texas and California can experience power outages during very hot months, living without AC is primarily a concern to the elderly and very young. This can be dangerous and something I will briefly touch on as well. However, if it's below freezing out, EVERYONE is in danger, so we'll focus there.

The best option is to have a heat source not dependent on electricity. Many homes in the north have either a primary or secondary heat source not tied to the grid. Of course, those in apartment complexes or many more modern homes may have nothing but electric baseboard or forced hot air, both of which are useless without power. Let's talk first about the large options, then dive into heating without them.

Wood -
Fireplaces are pretty common in many older homes and are still built in modern houses for appearance and ambiance. The problem with a fire place, especially in new construction, is that our homes are now not built in a fashion to take advantage of the way they work. room layouts have changed, insulation methods have improved, and people are less used to waking up in a cold house. Round the clock warmth is a fairly new thing in the scope of human history. Still, a fireplace might be your best bet in an emergency, but there are dangers and caveats to keep in mind.

With ANY wood burning option, you'll have a chimney with which to deal. This means maintenance in the form of regular cleanings. Many people neglect this important need, especially if they only use the fireplace on occasion. In an unlined chimney, soot and residue build up pretty quickly. Even in a lined one, getting a chimney sweep (yes, they're really out there, and no, they don't sing and dance like Dick Van Dyke) in once a year to clean it out is a good idea. If you use the fireplace a lot, get it lined. A metal tube is put inside the brick chimney to prevent residue building as quickly. Also, NEVER burn pine in your fireplace as the creosote will cling to the chimney walls more quickly, catching more soot along the way. Stick to burning hardwoods, they provide more heat anyway.

Many people have opted to replace or supplement their fireplace with a wood stove or fireplace insert. This may be less aesthetically pleasing, but provides much better heat production. We put an insert into our old fireplace within a year of moving in and couldn't be happier. The insert takes up a lot less room than a wood stove and provides a glass front for viewing the fire. A blower helps move the heat out of the insert and into the room while the large amount of iron in the insert holds the heat and radiates it back into the house. Even when there is no fire, it helps to prevent the warm air in the house from going up the chimney. The downsides are needing a lot of firewood to keep it going, and the overall dirt and detritus that goes with handling wood a lot. That and keeping it stocked. Since our primary heat in the house is oil, we do use it very regularly to help keep our oil bill down. When the power goes out, it is our only heat source, though the blower doesn't work without power. I'll talk about how that gets handled in a bit.

Pellet stoves -
These have become hugely popular in the last few decades. Using compressed sawdust or cherry pits, they make use of fuel sources that would otherwise be wasted. They do require a chimney and stick out from the wall, but many have found they can place one in their basement, especially with a large feed hopper, and forget about them when there is power. Their biggest drawback in an outage is that they use electricity for both their blower and the auger that feeds the fire. This is something to consider if this is to be your backup heat sorce.

As we're starting to see, electricity is everywhere in our heat! Oil and gas heat sources primarily rely on electricity to power the blowers that move heat from the furnace throughout the house. This is not true of old gas systems, but most of those have been removed from modern homes for safety concerns. If you don't have a wood option, you're going to need something to keep you going. Let's look at a few alternate, short term solutions.

Kerosene and propane heaters -
These are very popular short-term choices. They are relatively small and portable and kick out a lot of heat for their size. The danger is partially caused by that high heat output - they can quickly use up the oxygen in an area and/or produce carbon monoxide. As such, they need ventilation to avoid serious risk. There are some designed to burn slower and longer which provide less risk, but it is generally wise to use them in only short bursts indoors and try to keep them ventilated. NEVER go to sleep with one burning in the house, as there is a serious risk that you won't wake up! Do your research when purchasing, and follow the warnings.

Gas -
Without electricity, your big gas furnace may not be working, but all may not be lost! Gas stoves and ovens are often put into service as heaters. In fact, many have a heating element on the side of the stove. These are a good way to heat the kitchen and surrounding rooms, but may not get into bedrooms too easily. This leads us to the smartest, first thing to do when you expect a large power outage where heat (or cool!) will be a concern. Think small!

Other options -
One reason older homes could get by with central fireplaces is that they used less space than we do today. Even large colonial homes would shut off rooms during the winter. Our modern, open-style homes require heat everywhere. When faced with a power outage, it is wise to quickly shrink your living space to the bare essentials. This may mean moving out of bedrooms into the living room, using tarps and blankets in open doorways, and covering large windows when the sun goes down to better trap heat in the area. If you have kids, make this a fun thing, a family camping trip to the living room, and you might come out of it all with some great memories!

If you're stuck without heat sources for your new, smaller living space, I recently saw a great idea floating out on the interwebs. Using just a few flower pots and tea light candles, you can make a small heater. I have yet to try it out, but shall be doing so shortly and will report back. You can learn about it HERE. If it works as well as stated, you should be able to keep toasty with just a little prep.

Food storage
My first concern whenever we lose power is less about our heat (since the house will take a while to get too cold) but instead out our food storage. While a modern fridge is insulated and acts as a cooler, it tends to get opened a lot, more so by kids. The freezer, especially the "up top" versions, will lose their cool into the fridge, so have limited time as well. I usually figure I have about 24 hours before everything needs a new home, and plan accordingly.

Coolers -
Pretty evident, move your food into a cooler. Of course, you'll need ice for this, and a cooler is only a few day solution for the most part. It will help significantly if you have some ice stored up - storing frozen bottles of water (which thaw into drinking water) is a big help - and pack it with the coldest stuff you have. We own a few coolers of various sizes that do OK for a few days. I also recently decided to take the plunge and get a Pelican cooler. I'll telly you, I've never encountered a more impressive cooler. I recently went away for a weekend and packed it with beer and a few Blue Ice packs. I intended to add more ice to it but never did, yet the beer stayed cool for 3 days. The plan is to use that one for frozen meat that I want to make sure doesn't defrost if we have an outage more than a day or 2.

Cooking -
This is a good plan for things in the fridge. Make meals that use the items you're most worried about loosing. Prioritize. Things like bacon, certain sandwich meats, cheeses, juices, and even eggs can last for longer than milk, meats, and the like. I recommend taking a quick picture first thing after an outage of what is in the fridge so you can plan accordingly. Oh, and eat the ice cream quickly, it is probably calorie free in the circumstances.

Throw it out -
No, I don't mean get rid of it. If, like often is the case in the north, you lose power in the winter, put your food outside! Put it in plastic bins and tubs and put it right in a snow drift. Keep an eye on the outside temps to make sure you won't have major thaws that cause you to lose the food, but otherwise enjoy nature's cooler.

For thousands of years, mankind lived with the idea that the sun going down was the end of the productive part of our day. Eventually we developed candles, then gas lights, and, yet again, electricity. This last step fundamentally changed how we work and live in the developed world. No longer were we limited to daylight hours for work and entertainment. But when the power goes out, we experience more of what our ancestors did. Chances are good that your biology will kick in and cause you to get tired sooner than you normally would. Don't fight it, but you still will need some light, especially during the winter months where darkness comes so early.

Candles -
These are great for reading and general lighting, but they don't put out a ton of (wait for it) candlepower. They're also pretty cheap, and can fuel that heat lamp above. You can up the illumination by putting them in front of mirrors and reflective surfaces. Make certain you protect surfaces from dripping wax and keep them away from pets and small children. And pre-teen boys, trust me on the last one.

Oil lamps -
You can lump other lamps, like lanterns and kerosene lamps in this category as well. As they can be refilled, they'll last a lot longer than candles will, making them a decent investment. The fire hazard is a potential risk, but people figured out how to live with them for years, so you should get by for a day or 3. The ability to adjust the flame size is a big benefit in my book.

Battery operated electric light -
A broad category, there are a lot of great options here. handheld flashlights are nice for getting around, but generally suck for lighting up a room. Some can convert into more of a lamp or lantern style. You also have to weigh rechargeable versus disposable battery, too. I like to have a few dedicated lantern types charged and ready to go, then have standard flashlights where I know how to find them. One always needs to live at the top of any stairs you might have as a safety precaution. Having dedicated power failure lights that come on when the power dies can be a huge help, just make sure you check them once in a while as they can die from constant charging.

Like folks anywhere in the first world today, electricity has become a matter of dependence, not just convenience. We're used to light on demand, constant entertainment, and running any and every kitchen appliance we can imagine. Then Mother Nature comes along and puts the brakes on our fun!

Generators -
OK, yes, you can run a generator. I'll admit it, I do. But if you're going to make that much noise and suck down the gas, make it worth while. In our house, we use a large portable generator, not the wired in propane style. This means I need to plan for when and what we will run. We set about 3 hours a day to handle it, during which time the fridge and deep freezer run constantly. A power strip is used to charge up all the vital electronics, like cell phones, so that we have constant communication with the outside world. The TV used to go on to check on the outside world, but smart phones have made that less vital in our house. Your needs may very.

The critical thing, and I can't stress this enough, is to do everything you can to be able to shut the generator off overnight. First off, leaving it unattended while asleep is a bad idea. Secondly, nothing seems quieter than a neighborhood without electricity. Don't be that one house keeping people up with their noisy power generation at a time when you aren't even using it!

Battery Backups -
While many are familiar with UPS systems for computers, you may not realize you can build or buy a battery system to use for the house and car. There are instructions all over the web for building a system, like this one on Instructables, but I opted for a more portable option that generally lives in our cars. The Power Dome can recharge in the car or through AC current, making it very flexible, but it is remarkably compact. When we need to run the blower for our heat, this is what I turn to. The draw of a blower is fairly low, allowing this to run a long time. It will also recharge in my generator window with no difficulty. This could also power a fan should you need to keep cool during hot months.

What do you do to entertain yourself without power? This should be an easy one to figure out. Pull out those old board games or cards, tell stories, sing songs, or read books by candlelight. If you need to, run the laptop battery down to nothing watching a DVD, but maybe now is a time to do all those things you've been planning to do, as long as they don't take electricity. Otherwise, test the battery life on your iPad.

So, some general thoughts here on dealing with power outages. They really aren't a big deal with a bit of planning. In fact, they can be a bit of a vacation, assuming you aren't shivering and wishing you'd been better prepared! Share your thoughts and plans below, I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Survival fit

One aspect of preparedness I have fairly well ignored on this blog is that of general health and fitness. Considering how every single day of your life is impacted by your health, this is a massive oversight on my part. I'll post at a later time specifically on medical conditions, for right now I want to talk about general fitness and how I'm working to improve mine.

I know a lot of preppers who are not what I would call fit. I've been one of them, heck, I still AM one of them if I'm completely honest. Whether you're waiting for the Zombie Apocalypse, peak oil, economic meltdown, or a super storm, all your preparedness will be for not if you don't have the physical ability to get things done. I'm not saying you have to be a body builder (actually, that could be really bad!) or an Olympic runner, but having the base level to get through a rough day or 14 until your body adjusts to its new situation would serve you incredibly well. This means building up stamina more than anything else, with additional strength and weight loss being a nice side effect.

Back in January, a friend of mine and I challenged each other to do a Spartan Sprint in August. For those who don't know, the Spartan Sprint is one of the 'fad' obstacle courses that have sprung up in recent years. This is an entry level race of 5k with about 18 obstacles of various sorts thrown in. Things like rope climbing, balance beams, and the like. While I'm not planning to make a career out of running these sorts of things, it served as a wake-up call and goal post for my general fitness. I found myself looking in the mirror and seriously disappointed in the belly bulge I saw there and knowing I had to get into some kind of shape if I was going to survive this race. Of course, I put doing something off for as long as possible.

Age and years of working desk jobs had slowed my metabolism significantly from its insane rate in my teens and 20s. Between high school graduation and the age of 30, I'd put on @15-20 pounds and 5 inches in height. I was thin by any standard, but I couldn't say I was in great shape. I was fighting regularly (both staged and armoured combat, good work outs!) and had enough reserves to bail my body out of whatever it got itself into, but I was putting no further effort into stamina or strength. Now in my middle years, I found myself at my heaviest (215...ok, 220 instead of that svelte 185), lethargic, and struggling with heavy objects. Had the SHTF, I would have had a very rough time hiking with any weight or living off a lower calorie count. As I hit the end of April and saw the race date looming, I knew I needed to get into gear.

While the race was the immediate impetus, general health and ability is my real goal. This meant cardio for improving my stamina and lungs (I'm asthmatic, so this is a big concern for me), dieting to lose excess fat, and strength training to avoid losing muscle mass while dieting and improve overall strength. Quite a lot on paper. One of my problems is that I don't like gyms for this sort of thing. I dislike running on treadmills, I find gyms noisy and often crowded when I want to work out, and I tend to not actually go, defeating the purpose. That meant coming up with a plan that I could do on my own when I could. Since I wasn't going to be using a trainer, it also meant I had to motivate myself to get it all done.

Spoiler alert here - Between the time I kicked this all off at the end of April and the end of July, I've lost 20+ pounds and gained a ton of stamina and general strength. That's just under 5 pounds a month. I'm now putting on muscle mass without putting on fat. I tell you that now only so you'll understand that, yes, you CAN get your own ass into shape. It might add more weight (ha!) to what you read below.

Number 1 on the list was diet. I knew this would be the biggest impact on weight-loss and keeping the weight I didn't want off. I dislike fad diets as I don't think they're sustainable. Making it worse is the fact that I LOVE good food! I'll admit that I looked at things like the Paleo Diet and briefly considered it, but I'm not a fan of denying myself things I want. I prefer, instead, to follow the Julia Child philosophy, "Everything in moderation... including moderation". To top it off, I'm a huge fan of beer. The stuff is incredible, tasty, and so varied I knew I couldn't give it up. I travel a lot for business, especially to Portland, OR, the craft beer Mecca, and cutting it out wasn't going to be an option. Travel also means you don't always get the choice of what/when you want to eat, or you might find yourself somewhere with amazing food you simply MUST try. The only option left was to watch calories.

I don't like counting calories. It used to be you carried a little book around and looked things up, writing down items in a diary or keeping it all in your head. Fortunately, in the smart phone age, it's gotten easier. Friends recommended MyFitnessPal, and app I'd used briefly before that has an easy interface, good website, and massive database of foods. It also lets you set certain targets and goals, which helps tremendously, and accounts for exercise so you don't underfeed on days you work out. I set my daily target a few hundred calories below my needed daily need for maintaining my weight and started plugging away. I made this something I do after every time I eat and it has become habit. I use it less now since my eating levels having become more habitual, but I'll keep using it a few days a week until I've hit all my goals and move into more of a maintenance zone. Time wise, I spend less than 5-10 minutes a day on this app, but I credit it with a major portion of my weight loss.

Truth be told, I have modified some of what I eat, as well. the top thing I did was eliminate soda from my diet. Gone. I actually drink nothing but water and, occasionally, juice at meals. And beer, of course beer. But even then, it's a beer, not beers. This means all my calories are in food to fill me up. I've seriously reduced my complex carb intake as well. Less bread, very, very few donuts, and few sugary treats. This was HARD! My standard breakfast for years on the road has been a Dunkin Donuts coffee (decaf) with cream and sugar and 2 donuts. No more! My breakfast at home is always a smoothie made of apple juice, banana, yogurt, frozen mixed berries, and soy protein. I cannot describe how much I enjoy having this for breakfast. In fact, my company's new office isn't near a smoothie place and I've had to start planning a morning walk while there to get something similar. I do still snack, usually eating things like veggies or peanut butter crackers. I have cake and cookies once in a while, and ice cream even a few times a week. I just eat less of it all than I once did. I don't need to be a garbage disposal, and I don't need to always clean my plate like I did as a kid.

The other half of the equation is getting off my butt and exercising. While exercise is more like 20% of the weight loss equation, it is critical to my overall fitness goals. In many ways, this is tougher than dieting. While dieting was changing existing habits, this requires starting completely new ones. That meant deciding on an approach then sticking to it.

Early in 2012, I decided to try out running. It worked pretty well for me until I injured my knee in May that year and never went back to it. Since I had decent shoes, I carried them with me for, well, months on trips until I finally went out for a run at the end of April. From there, I kept going every other day to get 3 runs in a week. My first few weeks were BRUTAL, but I did 30 minutes each time. I began by walking for 2 minutes, then running for 2. That was tough for me. I built up to 2 walk, 5 run, then walking for 1 minute, then run 7, walk 1, then 15 with a 2 minute break. I was at the end of my 4th week when I realized I could run the full 30 minutes! To make it a little more interesting for me, I noted key milestones, like the first time I ran a full mile without stopping, 2 miles, and eventually 3. I'm excited by the fact that my "lazy day" run is around 3 miles at this point, something I had never accomplished in my life prior to this summer.

Cardio played a big part in my weight loss and overall stamina. I was at a point where I was using my emergency inhaler for my asthma multiple times a day. I was always tired and not sleeping well. In addition, as I watched my calories it proved a big boon as I'd have 3 days a week when I could eat more, but still be under my goals for the day. I now find myself sleeping better, energized all day, and there are even days I don't use my inhaler, even during the summer which is traditionally my worst time.

While I was losing weight, I didn't want to lose muscle, which can be a serious concern. Running helped, but on days I didn't run I started doing a body weight circuit I found at Nerd Fitness. I really liked Steve's approach when I came across it, and his geekiness didn't hurt. Sure, he's making his living off a "gimmick" side of fitness, but his straight forward approach and focus on everybody, regardless of equipment, fits well with mine. I've since picked up his Rebel Strength guide and am following it to build up strength.

So, how'd all this work out? Well, A few weeks ago I ran the aforementioned Spartan Sprint. I didn't "place" or make great time, but I did complete the entire thing. Over 3 miles and 18 very tough obstacles beat the crap out of me, being the most physically challenging thing I've done in my life, but I pulled it off. Not only pulled it off, but decided to go back next year and do better, because I know I can. More importantly, I've gone from this:


To this:

August 28Late August

I'm not going to win any beauty contests, but I do feel like I can get myself and my family through some tough times if it came to it. Your plan and goals may vary, and they need be something you want to do. If I can get into the best shape of my life at 43, so can you. Do it for yourself, or do it for those who depend on you!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The value of basic handy-man skills

Let's say the world comes to an end tomorrow. Will knowing how to paint your walls or fix a leaky pipe matter? No, we'd all be gone. But, since that's unlikely to happen, we might as well plan for things to move on and for smaller emergencies to impact our life. Things like stuck doors, torn screens, and leaky sinks crop up all the time. Yes, you could call in a professional to deal with it, but you can save a few bucks and learn some things by doing them yourself.

For months, nay, years now, we've been living with bad plumbing in our kitchen. Not the constant drip that drives you slowly insane and you notice all the time. Instead, we had a few small issues that occasionally piled up. A faucet that leaked around the base when in use, but never really caused a problem was the most minor. Poor plumbing run in such a way as to interfere with under-the-sink storage was another. The worst was that the drains from both sides of the double-basin sink didn't like to stay attached. Maybe the trash can would knock it out of line, or placing a heavy item for filling, such as a bucket or dog waterer, would shake things loose. Next think you knew you had a trash can full of water, or worse if it was on the side without a receptacle to catch it! This would crop up occasionally, I would get upset and declare this needed to end, fix it "for now", and then life would get in the way and I'd forget until the next incident. A few weeks ago I declared that enough was enough.

Now, what could have been a simple project wasn't likely to stay that way for long. Neither my wife nor I much cared for the existing faucet, so just replacing it seemed the best bet. And while I could just fix the drain issue, the sink itself was a bit old and uninspiring, so it had to go. So far, not bad. But what needs to be understood by anyone who has never done such a project is that nothing will remain simple.

Step one in the whole process was to pick out the pieces we wanted. We hit the local Lowes and started to look at sinks. There's a new trend towards composites, but I'm not yet convinced of their long-term look, so we ruled them out. Most of the stainless models were little better than what we were ripping out. Then we spotted it, a beautiful porcelain white number up out of reach. It featured a larger left basin, meaning I could demand the right stay devoid of dishes for food prep. The sinks were deeper than our existing model, which would provide more room to fill the dog waterer and ease the plumbing. And it was enameled cast iron, one of my favorite combinations of all time. We needed this sink!

Sadly, our Lowes didn't have it in stock. However, a nearby one did and my wife agreed to pick it up after work. Neither of us pieced together that this sink was going to weigh in the neighborhood of 80 pounds when this plan was conceived. Thankfully, she got help to load it up and then we both lugged it into the kitchen to sit until needed.

For a new faucet, we picked a pretty cheap one that looked nice. Turns out much of it is plastic, so durability may be a problem, but we hope to sell the place before that becomes a serious issue.

Armed with these materials, I tried to determine what I would need for plumbing supplies. After numerous calculations and measurements, I felt ready to roll. I decided to wait on purchasing items until I took the old sink out. This brings us, really, to the first critical skill in home repair: home demolition.

Breaking things is easy. Breaking just the parts you want can be much tougher. The night before everything went in I set about to rip the old sink out. This meant everything was gone from that part of the counter and all dishes were clean. Knowing that I would be out of town for a week the day after this sink went in meant I had no room to wiggle. If I broke it too badly, I'd have a very, very unhappy home situation when I returned.

When removing the sink, I broke the seal (OK, it was broken, but not all of it) of silicone around the lip using a screwdriver. Our counter top is tile, so this was pretty easy to do. I then SHUT OFF THE WATER and disconnected all the plumbing. Really, shut off the water under the sink before any of it, so you can then bleed the lines and let it drain somewhere other than your cabinet floor. Once this was all done, I tried to remove the sink before leaning there were clips keeping it attached to the counter. With those removed, the sink came out and went outside.

Now the fun began. I realized that the water lines were actually PEX hose, a form of flexible plastic pipe. I don't much care for this and decided to use braided steel lines instead. I realized, too, that the base of the new sink placed the plumbing further back than the old one, so all those measurements and calculations were for not. I opted for bed instead of starting any more, hoping the next day would go smoothly.

Before heading out for a run in the morning, I took some more measurements. I stopped at the Home Depot on the way back (I'm equal opportunity on the box stores) and grabbed everything I thought I would need. Hah! Never, ever believe this will be the case. I got home and started in by cutting the old plumbing off at the highest point I could. This was at the floor of the cabinet, which I proceeded to fall through due to rot. Oh good, more fun! I proceeded to rip this rotting press board out as well, then measure for a replacement. It was now a plumbing AND carpentry project. At this point I decided I should take a picture or two.


The first part of putting it all back together was to replace the floor of the cabinet. I had enough plywood around to make that happen, so I dragged out the saws and got to work. Learn how to use different saws, as they all have their place. My table and jig saws came out for this one, though the circular would have worked as well. As I the original floor had been stapled and channeled in place, I needed to make blocks to brace the new floor up. The prior floor had 2 holes in it as it was pre-fabbed to fit a variety of situations. My new one only needed a hole exactly where the plumbing was, which is what I did. Everything cut, I took it inside to see if I'd measured properly. Apparently, I did:


Now, back to plumbing. I quickly realized I had purchased the wrong size pipe, but before my return to the store I set up the new sink with drains to take even more measurements.


You might notice that the sink is sitting between 2 chairs. Had I thought this out, I would have gotten help to do this, but as I was home alone at this point, I had to do it on my own. I started by placing it on cardboard, one side at a time, then putting the chairs in place and giving it a go. Doing this pointed out to me that I could never get it into the sink hole on my own without breaking the tiles around it. I still had plenty to do before help got home, so I checked some fittings, glued up the PVC for the new drain, and installed the faucet (which is actually in place on the picture above). I decided that the drain plumbing would go in after the sink was in place to verify that I had everything right.

When our teenager got home from work, I immediately conscripted her. First we ran a bead of silicone around where the sink would go. The opening was a little wider than I would have liked, but had enough overlap to handle the weight of the new sink. Once the seal was down, we hoisted the sink up and in by first lowering my edge, then having me slide under the sink to slowly lower hers. I cleaned up the seal and crawled underneath to tie it all in.


One thing you should realize on modern plumbing is that much of it doesn't require soldering. Screw on fittings, glue, and pressure hold a lot of parts together. That means that the entire setup can go together in a matter of 20 minutes that looks like this:


While I know I didn't go into much in the way of plumbing technique in this post, the point was more to convince you this stuff isn't rocket science. Doing this myself saved us a few hundred dollars in labor and meant I felt pretty accomplished when all was said and done. It's all stuff I've learned over the years and improved on by doing. Try crawling under you sink and just seeing how it all goes together. Maybe you'll realize it isn't as horrible as you thought. And maybe you'll someday use this to plumb up a water purifier when the zombies come!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Critical preparedness skills

It's been a while since I've talked about specific skills. Let's leave the political crap behind for a bit, shall we?

I realized when thinking about posts, specifically skill related ones, that it might make sense to build out a list of what I consider critical skills, then get your input to expand it. Without further fanfare, here we go (with "brief" explanations/justifications). I'll also list what critical slot they fill

CookingFood - if you can't eat, life without takeout will suck.
Water treatmentWater - easy to pick up, but even more vital than cooking
Fire buildingEnergy - including fire starting
PioneeringShelter - knot-tying and lashing, allows shelter and tool building on the fly
FirearmsSecurity/Food - good to know about even if they don't fit into your security philosophy, if only to handle safely
ArcherySecurity/Food - your standard backup/predecessor to the gun, takes way more time to become proficient

GardeningFood - growing your own assures a constant source, especially if you add greenhouses
Handheld radio basicsCommunication - when there's more than one of you, you need to talk
Knife use and careFood/Shelter/Security - as your most versatile tool, it needs to be in working order
Food and water storageFood/Water - keeping the basics around
Land navigationNavigation - getting around without electronics
First aidBasic Health - from boo-boos to heart attacks
Foot careBasic Health - if you can't walk, you're a sitting duck
Emergency planningGeneral - without planning, it can all fall apart
Mental fitnessBasic Health - keeping your head (and those of your group) together
Leadership/group dynamicsCommunication - even if you aren't a born leader, you need to know how to deal with them and people
Basic hand tool useGeneral - shovels, hammers, screwdrivers, oh my!
SignalingCommunication - getting found or passing on messages without electronics

Let me know what I missed, and maybe what topics you'd like me to expand on sooner than later. No, really, just take a few minutes and comment right below!

Edited for added skills from readers:

Gathering woodEnergy/Shelter - for firewood, pioneering, and tool making
ForagingFood - Non-animal wild nutrition gathering
Hunting/TrappingFood - Animal wild nutrition gathering
Survival hygieneBasic Health - keeping healthy without running water
Alternate medicineBasic Health - getting by when there isn't 'modern' medicine
Tool makingGeneral - fixing broken tools or crafting from scratch
Primitive laundry and dishesBasic Health - cause getting sick during tough times would suck
Preserving foodFood - making what you gather last
Keeping fitBasic Health - being in shape keeps you in shape when you're working harder
RationingFood/Water - how much do you really need?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Liberty: Use it or lose it

There has been a lot of talk in the past few months about a number of our rights as citizens of the US and how they should or shouldn't be interpreted. It should come as no surprise that I have thoughts and opinions on these incursions. I've already shared my thoughts on the Second Amendment, but it might surprise you that this is not the most important of those "magical" first 10 for which I care. That is a privilege that goes to whichever one is currently the most under attack. Unfortunately, that list keeps growing.

PRISM, metadata, FISA courts...these are the buzzwords now. Why should we be upset that the government has access to our personal data while we willingly give it away to private companies more interested in adding to our stock-pile of consumed junk than watching gout for threats to our way of life? To me, the answer lies right in the question. When you get a credit card, order from Amazon, or sign up for a gmail account, you agree to allow them to collect that data and use it. True, most of us just click "accept" and never read an EULA, but when we do this we make the choice that we don't care enough to do so. Yet when a government institution gathers broad details in search of crimes that may or may not be happening, they are not seeking our permission and are (IMO) going past the 4th Amendment and the intent of illegal search and seizure. No longer do you have to be suspected of a crime to start an investigation, you simply need to have a phone number or email going to the wrong person.

Combine this with the Supreme Court's decision that gathering DNA from a suspect and keeping it in a national database is acceptable. Now we're moving in on the 5th Amendment, too. Should a crime ever occur, even one where you are not a suspect, your DNA can be searched and compared to crime scene evidence. As wrongful arrests occur more than we care to admit, the possibilities painted are grim, allowing for a future where crimes are pinned to an individual before he is interviewed or aware he might be a suspect. Simply having your DNA on file implies a level of criminal nature that should make us uncomfortable. Being wrongfully or maliciously accused of a serious crime as a minor could lead to a point where you remain tagged for your entire life, worried that having contact with someone unfortunate enough to fall victim to a crime places you instantly on a path of defending your innocence.

Incursions like these, combined with the way in which the snooping was exposed, not to mention other recent scandals around the IRS and the AP, lead to a building distrust of our government. To be clear, I in no way am implying this is strictly an issue with the current administration as it was obviously occurring in prior ones. It does, however, add fuel to the fire of those who are worried about what else the government might be capable of encroaching on. Is free speech truly safe, or by opining on such issues might we expose ourselves to incursions on our personal freedom? Do blogs such as mine put a person on a watch list of those who might be dangerous to national security as defined by those who seek to preserve the power they have gained at the expense of the American people?

Thus do we come to the crossroads of preparedness and liberty. You're all aware by now that I like to plan for the worst, but you also hopefully realize I want to live for the best. To me, this means living the life that I feel is my right as a citizen of this country. That is not a life free from all danger, safely wrapped in a security blanket of declining civil liberties. It is not a life where success, comfort, or wealth are promised me, but rather a life where I can pursue those items within the confines and opportunities afforded me by a document hundreds of years old, yet crafted with hard work and deep thought. That means being ready for the worst that can come from that liberty, but living to make the most of it.

I have a duty as a citizen of this country to live up to those very same ideals. Rights that are not exercised will disappear. We see that erosion today, we've seen it over the history of this country, and we see it in other nations around the world. I have been told implicitly by folks whose advice I treasure dearly that I would be well served by staying quiet. This is something I simply cannot do as a patriot, as a citizen, and as a believer in the ideals upon which this nation was founded. My opinions are put here exactly because we need to exercise and stretch our rights lest we lose them.

Live free, my friends, as best you can. But prepare in the event that freedom is taken from you, by nature, by fate, or by the very government sworn to uphold it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Gear Pods, First pass

I recently ran across Gear Pods in an article on ITS Tactical. After seeing the pro and looking over their website, I decided they might be worth checking out, especially for specific applications where you want a durable kit that won't take up a ton of room. I'll talk about that more in a later post.

The idea behind Gear Pods is simple - ram as much needed survival equipment into a small, durable tube. What options you decide to go with will vary largely on what you plan to do and where you will keep the tube. They have varying sizes of interlocking tubes, many of them already configured for use. I opted to get their Survival Pro as the base, having read about their small but powerful stove. I added to that their Bivy for a simple shelter option. I then chose to tie it all together using an interlocking ring, which you can buy separate from the core kits. Here's what it all looks like just out of the tube.


Everything fits pretty snug into it's container, though there is a little space in the bivy one I might fit a tiny Altoid can into. I'll fill it with spare meds like Advil and Claritan. Otherwise, not a lot of space is left unused. You can see why here.


Let's break it down a bit more. The bivy fits in the small container. It's the emergency model from American Medical, not a multi use option, but good in a pinch. The sack it comes in might prove useful as well. Not much excitement here, and something I hope never to need. Still, a body-sized waterproof and thermal bag isn't a bad thing to have.

There's a lot more to ogle in the Pro itself. There are 2 major divisions here; the items in the stove, an those in the mug. We'll start with the stove.


Gear Pods is apparently fond of stuff sacks, and I'm OK with that. The stove fits neatly into one and helps keep everything in place when you take it out, so you don't dump all your valuable survival gear (value on such inexpensive things going up considerable when you need them) all over the ground. The obvious item in the bag is the stove itself. Small, compact, but sturdy enough to get the job done. I haven't tested it yet, but it's a heat tablet stove, so no great mysteries to be found. Gear Pods does offer a denatured alcohol adapter, but for an emergency stove that seems above and beyond for me. If I were to use it for backpacking I might feel differently.

The stove itself holds the heat tablets for cooking, some emergency tinder (great stuff, used it before), emergency whistle, compass, thread/fishing line, snare wire, nylon cord, and an LED keychain light. The quality on most of these items seems solid overall. Yes, the keychain LED light is limited in what it puts out and the nylon cord is far less useful than paracord, but all good items to have around. I've seen much cheaper in kits. I'd say it's all on par with those items found in any of the kits American Medical puts out, and I mean that in a good way.

Now, onto the mug...


I'm pretty impressed by the mug itself. The construction is solid and includes a strip of (I assume) kevlar around the top to grab the mug when it's hot. The bottom of the mug is somewhat concave which slightly limits its storage space, but will aid in cooking. The capacity with the lid is just over 9oz, so not enough to make many freeze dried meals. You could move half of my meal into the storage bag or a tube and cook it in stages with little problem

This is also where the bulk of the supplies are stored, and there's some good stuff here. Outside the mug and it's lid, everything is wrapped up in the windscreen enclosed in plastic to protect the mug's non-stick coating. "Everything" includes: a pencil and some sheets of paper; a signal mirror;fresnel lens; plastic bag for water; storm matches with striker; folding knife; folding saw; 6 water-purifying tablets; a vial with a needle, fishing supplies, and safety pins; duct tape; and a flint striker. All this is a little tough to pack into the mug and you need to do it fairly specifically with the pencil in the center, but it does all fit.

While there might be a fey items I would add, there really isn't anything I would take out to make room. Together it makes for a pretty sweet kit, and the tubes themselves are valuable for protecting the goods inside and transporting and/or treating water. I do plan to try out the stove and report back on how it works, but this is going immediately into the side case of my motorcycle, in the hopes I never need it!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Preparedness books

I really need to get more of a bibliography going up here. It’s something my wife does well on her blog, but I haven’t talked about here. My plan is to therefore put up reviews of books then link to them on the side. Let’s jump into review numero uno!

The Prepper's Pocket Guide: 101 Easy Things You Can Do to Ready Your Home for a Disaster

The basics
I came across this book as a recommendation from Amazon on my Kindle account. It was affordable and I decided to pick it up, mostly because I get asked at times by people, "How do I start prepping?" I knew going in that I wasn't necessarily the target audience, but I figured, what the heck, I'll give it a try. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.

The book's formatting groups action items by topics. The categories are as follows: Getting Started, Financial Readiness, Water Needs, Food Supplies, Ready Your Home, Personal Health and Safety, When the Power is Out, and When You Have to Get Out. Each of these is broken out into areas of specific actions that can be taken, skills to learn, and items to acquire. The book caps off with a conclusion and a list of resources for further follow up. At 224 pages, it doesn't take long to get through. The paperback appears to be standard size, though I have the Kindle version myself. This might change

The introduction lays out the point of the book very succinctly. Everyone who preps started somewhere, so can you. It took me a while to realize that the author, Bernie Carr, was a woman as these books are so often written by men. The writing style and approach were part of the tip off which was confirmed by comments deeper in the book. I mean this entirely as a good thing as the book is written to be very useful and focused on real life, day-to-day needs. The focus is less on security, collecting a lot of guns, and defending what you have; instead it gravitates towards the no-nonsense, easy to do things that will help you out in a variety of situations.

Each of the book's topics has solid, well categorized action items underpinning it. Instead of most books in this genre which load you up on information but little to do with it, Carr gives you very specific, deliberate items that feel attainable. Well, most of the time. There are a few times when she goes into a bit of a laundry list, such as acquiring specific skills, and others when the action item is very broad. The assumption here is that you will pursue more information on those topics yourself. While some might find this annoying, I think it is impossible to expect a book of this nature to go into too much detail. I found the information presented was more than enough to get you going down the right path in any area. Even as someone who's been at this for a while, I found a fair bit of meat here and items I'd never thought about (like draining my water heater for more drinking water!)

Final Thoughts
Carr does a good job of sticking to her original intent of providing real life benefit. There is very little in the way of explanation about what might go wrong and more focus on how to prevent and cope with it. This book will not scare you into preparing, but instead make the prospect of prepping itself less scary. Her tone and approach have a broader appeal than many books in this genre. She does move quickly through personal security (firearms are covered in 2 short paragraphs) but that is an asset, in my opinion. She avoids alienating a portion of her audience by suggesting further research elsewhere. I also like the fact that she comes through as knowledgeable without seeming a know it all.

For me, the final endorsement of a book needs to be whether or not I would recommend it. Not only would I recommend this book, I would suggest it as the very first book a budding prepper should own. For those already on the path, this book can act as an excellent yardstick to see where you are and where you want to be. In short, buy it!