Kerosene Heaters

Emergencies that take place during the winter months in the northern climates present a special challenge - keeping warm.  Kerosene space heaters provide a simple, safe, cost-effective solution.  They are indeed quite safe, contrary to the opinions of some who have never used them.  Unfortunately, they seem to be falling out of favor in the United States, and at the present time the available selection of new heaters is small.

Key to maintaining efficiency and conserving fuel in an emergency situation is to limit your heating to one or two rooms.  Move all that you need into these rooms, and to the extent possible, try to seal these rooms off from the rest of the house.  Bring in as many blankets, quilts, or sleeping bags as you own and dress warmly.  You are trying to get by with the minimum amount of heat, to conserve fuel and extend the amount of time that you are able to run your heater.

There are two main types of kerosene heater - radiant and convection.  A radiant heater radiates heat (Imfrared energy) and directly warms objects in the room, including your body.  They are generally box shaped.  A convection heater heats the air, which then circulates and heats everything else, so the effect is indirect.  They are generally tower shaped.  Radiant heaters tend to be smaller, putting out on the order of 10k BTUs.  Convection heaters tend to be larger, on the order of 23k BTUs.  Each has its purpose.  Convection heaters work best in large spaces (such as when trying to heat an entire house) but must be centrally located to work best.  Radiant heaters work best in smaller confined spaces.  Since they only give heat in one direction, they can be placed against a wall.  Most heaters do not require electricity though some take batteries for the igniter.  If you don’t have batteries or if they die, no worries, it is simple to light the heater with a match or lighter.

Be sure to follow the directions that come with your heater closely.  Never burn anything other that K1 clear kerosene in them.  Follow the break-in procedure, be sure to burn down the wick at the recommended frequency, and keep pets and small children away from the heater.  Also be sure to keep a few extra wicks on hand, as they are a consumable item.

My personal approach was to buy one radiant heater and one convection heater.  The convection heater can be run for a couple of hours early in the morning to get the air up to temp, and then it can be turned off and the radiant heater used to maintain the temps from there on out.

For a radiant heater, I recommend the Heat Mate HMHR 1101.  This heater is sold under several other labels, including the Kero Heat CT-1100 and the Mega Heat Mega-110.  For a convection heater, I recommend the Heat Mat HMHR 2230.  This heater is also sold under several other labels, including the Kero Heat CV-2230 and KH-250, and the Mega Heat Mega-230.  These heaters can be found sometimes at Ace Hardware or ordered from Northern Tool or other online sellers.  The Dynaglow models typically carried by Home Depot and Wal-Mart are not recommended.

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Stoves

In the event of a disaster, you’ll want to make sure that you have some means of cooking the food that you have hopefully stored. 

The good news is that, if you have a natural gas connection to your house, your natural gas stove (and outside grill if you have one) will continue functioning just fine.  I have experience numerous electricity outages over the past few years, but not a single natural gas outage.  You will have to light the range with a match as the automatic igniters require electricity and you probably won’t be able to use the oven (unless you have an older model with manual rather than electronic controls).

The reason for this reliability is that the natural gas pipeline operates under high pressure and that pressure is maintained by compressors along the way which actually run on natural gas and do not require electricity to keep the pipeline functioning.  Nevertheless, a sustained power outage would likely cause shutdown at the central command centers, which could impact service, and additionally, there’s always the possibility that the disaster situation could involved damaged pipelines.  Also, not everyone has natural gas, and obviously an electric range won’t do you much good in the event of a power failure.

That brings us to backup stoves.  There are a variety of camping oriented stoves that make great home backup stoves.  They are also portable, and can easily be taken with you in the event you need to evacuate.  Stoves run on different fuels, some being designed only for white gas (AKA Coleman Fuel), some for kerosene, some for propane, some for alcohol, and finally, some are designed for multi-fuel use.  In general, stoves designed for white gas can also run on automobile gasoline and stoves designed for kerosene can also run on diesel, though neither is really recommended as it will produce a fair bit of smoke and stink.  Kerosene is one of the best fuels for a number of reasons - it stores much better than gasoline, is less dangerous than gasoline or propane, and can also be used in heaters.

My personal favorite backup stove is the Optimus 111.  There are several different models to choose from.  Optimus made these stoves for decades and they were used by the US Marines, Swedish armed forces, the US Antarctic Program, and campers around the world.  They are rugged bulletproof stoves that will provide a lifetime of service and beyond.  Sadly, Optimus no longer makes them, though there is a ready supply on eBay and through other second hand sources.  A quick rundown of the models is as follows:   111 - kerosene roarer burner, 111B - white gas roarer burner, 111T - triple fuel (white gas, kerosene, alcohol) silent burner, 111C - multifuel silent burner (update of the 111T).  Of these, my favorite is the 111T.  The burner and fuel tank are mounted in a steel clamshell case measuring approx 7″X7″X4″ and weighing just under 4lbs empty.  You can learn all you care to know and more, about classic camping stoves over at http://www.spiritburner.com (collecting stoves is fun and addicting).

Here is a photo of an Optimus 111 that I recently bought new in box:

Optimus 111 Stove

Optimus 111 Stove

In addition to having a backup stove such as the one above, don’t discount the usefulness of a natural gas, propane, and/or charcoal grill for cooking outdoors.
 
Posted in Food storage and cooking | 4 Comments

Generators

With the winter season approaching, and the possibility of downed trees and power outages picking up, getting an emergency generator is a very good idea.

Before you rush out and buy an el-cheapo from the local big box store, there are a few questions you should answer to help make an informed decision.

Do I want a permanent standby generator or a portable generator?
What are my output wattage requirements?
What fuel do I want to use?
Do I want a cutover switch installed, and if so, a manual or automatic one?

Standby vs Portable

A permanent standby generator is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s designed to be hardwired into your house’s electrical system, remaining on standby to provide electrical power when the public grid fails.  Those designed for residential use will typically be a fully enclosed metal box roughly the size of a central air conditioning unit.  Most are connected to your house’s electrical system with an automatic cutover switch that detects power outage conditions and quickly switches your house to generator power in such an event.  Most are powered by natural gas (a potential concern should your natural gas utility service be interrupted), although some are powered by diesel.

A portable generator consists of an engine and generator set bolted inside of a tubular frame, often with a pair of wheels at one end.  It offers the benefit of being able to provide power anywhere you take it.  It can be connected directly to your house via either a manual or automatic cutover swith; alternatively, it will have receptacles into which you can directly plug appliances via extension cords.  Most are either gasoline powered or diesel powered, although the gasoline powered models can easily be converted into tri-fuel capability (gasoline/propane/natural gas) and some companies sell tri-fuel models as a turn key package.

The decision between a permanent standby generator and a portable one is driven by a number of factors.  Once installed, a permanent standby generator with an automatic cutover switch is much more convenient.  You literally don’t need to do anything in the event of an outage, the system will automatically switch you from grid power to generator power and back again when the grid comes back up.  If you have frequent power outages or a medical condition that makes you dependent upon equipment that requires electricity, this would be a good choice.  A portable generator requires you to go outside, start the generator (some offer optional remote starters), and then either throw a manual cutover switch or plugg your appliances directly into the generator.  On the flipside, should you need to evacuate, you can take it with you and have power wherever you go.

Wattage Requirements

There are a number of websites, run by both generator manufacturers and dealers, that have calculators to help determine the appropiate size generator for your needs.  Since this information is widely available, I won’t duplicate it here.  Instead, I’ll offer some key points and guidelines to keep in mind when sizing a generator.

Any appliance that has an electric motor will have two different requirements - a running requirement and a starting requirement.  This is because electric motors require additional current to start, often times the additional current alone is more than the the running requirement for the appliance.

Most generators have two ratings - a load rating and a peak rating.  The peak rating is intended to address the starting requirements of motors above.  Many manufacturers are a little liberal with their peak rating and for the most part you should ignore it and focus on the average or load rating.

While you have to account for the starting requirements of motor driven devices, not all of your appliances are going to start at the same time, so you really just need to be able to account for the starting requirement of the largest one.

Any estimates of requirements for various appliances and devices you find online should be treated as ballpark estimates.  A much more accurate estimate will be found on the sticker on the device itself or in its owners manual.  You should probably add 10% to even that number, just to be safe.

If, as I recommend, you only use the generator for intermittently powering your primary refrigerator/freezer, a chest freezer, sump/well pump, and a radio and laptop computer, you should be fine with a 5000 watt generator.  If you’re extra careful, and only run a couple of devices at a time, you could probably get away with a 3500 watt generator.  If, on the other hand, you want to be able to run all of the above devices simultaneously, then you should look into a 6000-7000 watt system.  Anything beyond that, and you’re starting to get beyond the sweet spot of portable generators and should start looking at permanent standby generators.  The really big consumers of electricity are things like central A/C (2500-5000 watts running, 3000-6000 additional starting), furnaces (500-750 running, 750-1500 starting), washing machine (750 running, 2300 starting), gas clothes dryer (700 running , 1800 starting), electric clothes dryer (5700 running, 1800 starting), electric range (2000 running), dishwasher (1400 running, 1400 starting).  While you could run any of these in isolation with a large portable generator, running them in combination will quickly exceed the limits of most portable, particularly if central A/C is involved.  Potential ways around these problems include keeping a window A/C unit handy for power outages and using it instead of central A/C when power is out, using space heaters in the winter, cooking on a natural gas range or liquid fuel camping stove, air drying clothes, and hand washing dishes.

Fuel Selection

Virtually all generators start life with either diesel engines or gasoline engines.  The ones with gasoline engines can be further converted to run either natural gas or to be tri-fuel and able to run on gasoline, propane, and natural gas.

Diesel generators tend to be very heavy duty and very reliable and can stand to run uninterrupted for long periods of time.  For this reason, they are a favorite amongst commercial and industrial users.  The main downside is the need to store significant quantites of diesel fuel in order to run them.  Diesel, like gasoline, begins to break down after a couple of months of storage and also can attract water and algae.  Fuel stabilizer treatments can reduce this tendency and extend storage life, but nowhere near indefinitely.

Gasoline generators make up the largest segment of consumer grade portables.  While not quite as heavy duty as diesels, they are more than adequate for emergency backup use in the typical residential environment.  However, the same fuel storage problem that arises with diesels also arises with gasoline.  You would need to store a significant amount of fuel, and in addition to degrading quickly, gasoline presents significant fire/explosion dangers unlike diesel.

With most permanent standby generators designed for residential use being natural gas fired, there is not much choice to make there.  The real choice comes into play with selecting a fuel for a portable generator.  For most situations, it is my opinion that a tri-fuel generator is the best choice.  It certainly provides the most flexibility.

There are a couple of companies that sell tri-fuel conversion kits that consist of a plate that fits either over or underneath the carburetor, to meter the propane or natural gas to the engine in place of gasoline.  It’s generally a straightforward installation.  Be aware that some of the kits (and even some of the turn key models) offer a fuel shutoff solenoid as an option.  It really isn’t an option, it’s a necessity - without one, there’s no way of turning off the generator while running on Propane/NG short of turning off the valve on the propane cylinder or natural gas line manually.  Be sure to pick up a solenoid.  Be aware that some tri-fuel models require you to always START the generator on gasoline power before switching to run on propane or natural gas.  Also be aware that a given generator will generally produce about 10% less output on propane than on gasoline and will see a further 10% power decline going from propane to natural gas.

Cutover Switches

A cutover switch is used to connect your generator to your house main power supply.  In the absence of a cutover switch, you will need to connect appliances directly to your generator with heavy duty extension cords.  In additon to connecting your generator to your house electrical system, a cutover switch also disconnects your house from the public grid.  This is important in order to prevent feeding electricity back into the public grid, which poses an electrocution hazard for utility workers who think they’re working on dead lines.  There are two basic types of cutover switches - automatic and manual.  Automatic cutover switches detect a power outage condition and automatically and quickly switch the house over to generator power.  They also tend to be hardwired directly to the generator.  Manual cutover switches require throwing a switch after firing up the generator to switch the house to generator power.  While they can be hardwired to the generator, more often they are not.  If not hard wired, they require a special extension cord with a male plug on both ends.  Any cutover switch should be installed by a professional electrician.

Miscellaneous

Depending on the sort of exhaust system utilized, noise levels can vary widely between generators.  A noisy generator will annoy you, annoy your neighbors, and also attract unwarranted attention.  It’s worthwhile to spend a little extra and get a quieter model.  Generator thefts have unfortunately become fairly common, so also look to spend a little money and effort anchoring your generator down.  Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that Honda engines tend to be much more reliable than others, though it comes with a cost.  Since other manufacturers often use Honda engines in their generators, you may be able to get the best of both worlds - modest cost and reliability.  Also, avoid brush-style generators and get a brushless model, again for reasons of reliability.  Since most consumer grade generators only run at one speed, buying too big of a generator will waste fuel.

Final Thoughts

For most people, a portable tri-fuel makes the most sense, though there are circumstances where a permanent standby generator is a better choice.  In a protracted emergency situation, where fuel supply is likely to be limited, the generator should really only be used sporadically to maintain temperatures in your refrigerator/freezer, to operate sump pumps and well pumps as needed, and to power electronics/communications gear on a limited basis.  Cooking and heating are more efficiently carried out using fuel-burning stoves and space heaters (which will both be the subject of future blog entries).  Wattage requirements should be carefully calculated when selecting a generator.  The choice of a cutover switch is largely a matter of individual preference.

Posted in Power | 2 Comments

Living off-grid versus de-gridding

One of the recurring themes of this blog will be optimizing your dependence on the grid.  In most cases, this means lessening your dependence on the grid, but still maintaining some level of dependence where it makes sense.  There is an inverse relationship between efficiency and reliability.  Efficiency simply refers to how much of an output you get for a given amount of inputs.  Reliability refers to a system’s ability to continue functioning, even in the face of adverse conditions.  An analogy is the human kidney.  We have two of them.  We can survive just fine with one, but it would leave less margin for error.  Having one kidney would be more efficient than having two, but less reliable.  On the other hand, having three or four would be even more reliable due to the extra redundancy, but the efficiency penalty isn’t worth it.  The point is - don’t worry about living off-grid and completely disconnecting yourself from the public infrastructure.  In many cases, you should rely on it, because it’s far more efficient to do so.  But be sure to build some redundancy into your plans, and be sure to retain the ability to be disconnected if need be.  Balance efficency with reliability in all that you do.

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Essential Kits

Today’s topic is kits.  Different kits serve different purposes, so there are a few listed.

First is the Bug Out Bag or the 72 hour kit.  The idea is to keep this bag handy should you have to evacuate quickly in an emergency.  It’s designed to keep you going for up to 3 days as you get from point A to point B.

  • 1 4″ blade full tang fixed blade knife
  • Pocket sharpening stone
  • Lifeboat matches in waterproof container
  • Army model Firesteel
  • Firestraws or other waterproof tinder
  • 2 emergency candles
  • 100 ft Paracord
  • Flashlight, LED, 1AA cell.
  • 2 extra Lithium Batteries
  • First Aid Kit (band aids, gauze pads, gauze roll, tape, nosporin, medicines)
  • HD Space Blanket
  • Compass and maps
  • Micropur Tablets
  • Nalgene Bottle w/ duct tape wraparound
  • Platypus water bladder
  • Extra pair wool socks
  • Leather work gloves
  • Bandana
  • Barrel Liner
  • Poncho
  • Stainless Steel Drinking Cup
  • Dehydrated food/MRE

Next is the Personal Survival Kit (PSK).  This is a small kit, often kept in a plastic pouch or an Altoids tin, designed to fit in your pocket.  The idea is to always have it on your person when outdoors on a hike or trip.  The focus is on the bare essentials - firestarting gear and signaling gear.  A good starting point is the Adventure Medical Pocket Survival Pak with a few additions and deletions.

  • 2 razor blades or scalpel blades
  • 1 Spark-Lite Firestarter
  • 4 Spark-Lite tinders
  • 4 Strike Anywhere matches wrapped in foil
  • 1 Mini Bic Lighter
  • 50 feet of fishing line (10 lb mono or 30 lb Spiderwire)
  • 20 ft brass or stainless steel wire
  • 1 Button Compass
  • 10 ft braided nylon cord
  • 2ft duct tape roll
  • 1 Whistle
  • 1 Signal Mirror
  • 1 Fresnel Lens
  • 4 Safety Pins
  • 3 sq ft HD aluminum foil
  • 1 small pencil
  • Carry with a Swiss Army Knife at all times

Finally we come to the full fledged kit, which is really just a large backpack stocked with camping gear.  In addition to the contents of the above two kits, you’d have the following:

  • 2-3 person tent
  • sleeping bag
  • sleeping pad
  • large knife (9″ blade Bowie or Khukuri)
  • entrenching tool (folding shovel)
  • Leatherman
  • folding saw
  • extra clothes
  • Water purifier pump w/ 2 extra filters
  • camping pots and pans and utensils
  • liquid fuel stove - MSR XGK, Optimus Nova, etc.
  • dehydrated food
  • toiletries
  • insect repellant
  • sunscreen
  • sewing kit

It’s always a good idea to have a second BOB in your car, along with the following items:

  • Road flares
  • Small fire extinguisher
  • Tools (ratchet set, adjustable wrench, pliers)
  • Can of fix- a-flat
  • Spare hoses, belts, plugs, plug wires, fuses
  • Antifreeze, oil, winshield washer fluid
  • Jumper cables
Posted in The Homefront | 1 Comment

The well-stocked pantry (and freezer)

At some point, I’ll write an entry on longer term food storage, but for the moment I just wanted to run down what everyone should have on hand at all times.  Many people never seem to have more than a few days worth of food on hand, particularly in the cities, where it’s always convenient to just pick something up from the corner store.  Bear in mind that most supermarkets only have 2-3 days worth of food on hand at any time, with small convenience stores having even less.  In the event of situation that may cause a supply interruption (e.g., a severe storm) shelves can be bared within hours.  Having a few weeks worth of food on hand means you can ride out these events without blinking an eye.

You’ll notice that I don’t have a lot of prepared foods listed.  That’s intentional.  With a small number of staples, assuming a little bit of cooking knowledge (or a having a couple of cookbooks handy) you can make just about anything.

Non-perishable Staples:

  • Bread Flour - 2 X 10 lb bags
  • All Purpose Flour - 2 X 10 lb bags
  • Yellow Corn Meal - 2 X 1.5 lb cannisters
  • Oatmeal - 2 X 2.5 lb cannisters
  • Pasta (Assorted) - 10 X 1 lb boxes
  • White Rice - 10 lb bag
  • Sugar - 2 X 5 lb bags
  • Honey - 5 lb jar
  • Molasses - 2 X 12 oz jars
  • Brown Sugar - 2 lb bag
  • Baking Soda - 2 X 1 lb boxes
  • Baking Powder - 2 X 10 oz cans
  • Salt - 3 lbs
  • Dry Milk - 5 X 2 lb boxes (envelopes)
  • Vegetable Oil - 1 gallon
  • White Vinegar - 1 gallon
  • Dried Beans/Legumes (Lima, Pinto, Kidney, Lentils, Chickpeas, Pearled Barley) - 5 lbs
  • Cous Cous - 2 lb jar
  • Yeast - 2 X 4 oz jars
  • Mashed Potato Flakes - few boxes
  • Dry Buttermilk - 12 oz can
  • Dry Soup Mixes - Couple dozen envelopes
  • Gelatin - Dozen boxes
  • Gravy Mix Envelopes (Assorted)
  • Peanut Butter
  • Soy Sauce
  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Tabasco Sauce
  • Coffee
  • Tea Bags
  • Canned Goods - Tuna, Sardines, Salmon, Chicken Breast, Vegetables (half dozen to a dozen of each)
  • Spices (Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Black Pepper, Cayenne Pepper, Oregano, Rosemary, Cumin, Ginger, Cinnamon, Lemon Zest, Cream of Tartar)

Perishables (require refrigeration)

  • Butter
  • Salad Dressing
  • Mayo
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard

All of the above require very little space.  In addition to basic kitchen appliances like a mixer, blender, microwave oven, I also highly recommend a bread machine.  Bread is something with a short shelf life, so being able to make your own will cut down on the number of trips to the store you need to make.

Another must have is a deep freezer, AKA a chest freezer.  Load it up with frozen meat and vegetables.  Just be sure to rotate your food out of the chest freezer and into your standard freezer on a regular basis as your freezer runs low so that you are automatically rotating your stocks as you eat.  Also, give serious thought to getting a generator (which will be the subject of a future entry) as you don’t want to have all that wonderful food spoil in the event of a prolonged power outage.

By keeping a well stocked pantry and freezer, you’ll be able to continue eating well for weeks should you get snowed in or face some other problem that interrupts your regular shopping.

Posted in Food storage and cooking | Leave a comment

De-Grid!

Welcome to De-Grid, the blog dedicated to promoting preparedness and helping you lessen your dependence on the grid.

This blog is designed to help people prepare for unforeseen circumstances.

It differs from survivalist sites in a couple of key ways.  There is no religious or political agenda being pushed here.  Preparedness is something that should be important to everyone regardless of religious or political inclinations.  Also, it is my belief that we should devote our efforts to preparing for likely scenarios - natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc.), power outages, food and energy supply disruptions, and economic difficulties, not unrealistic end of world scenarios.  In preparedness, as in all else, we have limited time, money, and effort and so must allocate those resources efficiently.

The name “de-grid” was chosen deliberately.  Living completely “off-grid” is unrealistic for the vast majority of people.  The goal should instead be to lessen and optimize one’s reliance on public infrsatructure, not to eliminate it.  There is a fundamental trade-off between efficiency and reliability; seek to strike the appropriate balance.

Look for upcoming entries on a wide variety of topics related to the above.

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