Electricity in a Post-Tech World

I asked Odd Questioner if he’d be interested in writing a guest post about electricity and he came through beyond my wildest dreams!  He sent so much information we decided to break it up into a multi-part document that will eventually be available for download as a PDF.

This series is broken up into four parts and I’ll be posting them over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Thanks OQ!

-Jarhead Survivor



by Odd Questioner


Okay: Let’s say the excrement has hit the oscillating air-handler. Fox News and CNN report, well, nothing. Come to think of it, that nationally syndicated talk show you love listening to on a daily basis is permanently quiet too. The Internet has become pretty useless, because it became pretty dead. Nearly everyone else is either praying, shooting, running around, or looting. You yourself, if properly prepped, are either well-stocked and able to ride it out (no matter the location), or you’ve just moved in to your bug-out retreat.

You (and hopefully, your compadres, trusted neighbors, etc) have gone over all of your inventory, set up security, and have already begun making long-term plans to survive, and hopefully thrive.

So, now what? Well, you may not want to throw out all the trappings of civilization just yet. They may come in handy. I already know what you’re thinking – ‘you’re kidding, right?’ Why not just light up a candle, curl up with a good book (or a fireplace, or your ‘shelter bunny’, or…) and be done with it? I mean, seriously? The industrial age, the information age… they’ll be just as dead as the hordes of unprepared city folk are fast becoming, right? We’re going right back to the Dark Ages right now, and we may as well just party like it’s 1399!

Well, maybe not.

Consider the following items of interest:

A good quality LED light can last for upwards of at least a decade, and they do not rot, so any spares you have will hang around practically forever. You can count on at least 5-10 solid years (or more) of not having to burn/make/scrounge candles and oil lamps, and you won’t have nearly the fire risk.

A quality CD player that’s kept clean (with an inexpensive cleaning CD) can last for up to 10-20 years if you take care of it (and the CDs).

A good quality small television can last up to 20 years or more (and why would you want one of those? we’ll cover that in a bit).

A top-quality laptop (think “MacBook Pro” here, not “Wal-Mart Special”) can last up to a decade or more even without the battery (True Story: I had a well-kept 1994-era Apple PowerBook that still ran just fine in 2005, when I gave it to a buddy’s kid as a toy of sorts). A solidly-built (not cheap) desktop can last even longer if you keep the dust, crumbs, and moisture out of it.

Okay… so solid-state electronics can last awhile if taken care of. Big deal, right? It’s not like you’re going to have a few decades worth of gasoline and generator parts loafing around…

Well, this is where the alternate power sources come in. Instead of brushing over lightly upon the obvious, or bore you to death with heavy technical details, allow me to introduce you to the practical design of alternate power, and their pros and cons as they actually apply after civilization becomes a total crapsack. But, before we do, well, why electricity, and what good is it for you?

Things you can use electricity for:

* Light. After all, why burn candles if you don’t have to? Candles wear out, and good luck trading for any, since everyone else w/o power will be rather busy using and hoarding theirs. You can of course always make more candles – if you have a beehive handy, know how to render fat (mind the stench), or have a private oil well from which you can refine paraffin from crude. The beehive is a good idea, but honestly, you’ll be plenty busy as it is, so the less you have to do (especially when the excrement is still hitting the air handler), the better you can conserve your calories and energy for other stuff (like, you know, living). As mentioned before, a good LED light or three will cost a bit, but they’re solid-state, so they’ll last for a very, very long time before burning out. As an added bonus, they don’t eat all that much power, either.

* Entertainment. No, seriously. A big morale booster (especially for kids) on rare occasion could involve listening to music, or even watching a small TV for an hour or two. A coffee pot may be a bit on the luxury side, but once in awhile it can really lift your spirits up, even if you’re just making tea with it. Even better than all of them? A good, solid laptop. Why? Because in one package, you can play music, a DVD, or even a few games.

* World news. Oh, you still feel like laughing? Sorry. I’ll wait. All done? Good, because the world may not exactly end all at once, and (barring, oh, a 200-mile-wide asteroid) definitely won’t come apart all at once. A small shortwave radio (even a hand-cranked one) will be extremely useful for getting information about the outside world, especially if the local news, CNN, or etc. are permanently off-air. Note that many shortwave stations will be in their native language, but the BBC, Radio Australia, and lots of others are in perfect/usable English. A handy list can be had (and printed out!) here:

http://support.radioshack.com/support_tutorials/communications/swave-6.htm (Google can also cough up many other comprehensive listings). In a situation where everything seems to be coming apart, getting news is paramount (that is, real news – not rumors, guesses, frantic hysteria, etc.)

* Surveillance. From simple low-wattage motion detectors (which can last for 5 years or so outdoors) to more complex setups, you can assemble a good, solid, and unblinking watchguard to supplement anything else you already have. It will make sleeping a whole lot easier to do. Personally, it’s not going to replace the best alarm system out there (a four-legged small dog, preferably a dachshund – they bark at anything, they’re fearless, and they’re stubborn as all get-out. Plus, they don’t eat a lot). However, every little bit counts, no?

* Medical stuff. While I don’t expect anyone to have an MRI scanner stashed in their bug-out palace, some small bits can be pretty helpful. We’re talking things like small blood-pressure checkers, blood sugar meters, heating pads, things of that nature. While it sounds superfluous, a blood sugar meter (even if no one is diabetic) can tell you a lot about your state of nutrition, and the blood pressure meter can tell you if someone is in a state of shock, or how much blood they may have lost. The heating pad can help with muscle cramps and joint sprains. Just don’t go nuts, and use your head before you buy anything.

* Communication, Location. A set of rechargeable walkie-talkies can be had for a good price (don’t skimp!) and have a range of up to 3 miles line-of-sight.

It’ll make a whole lot of things easier. Hand-held CB radios with a base station back at the place can be mighty useful as well. A good GPS-enabled smartphone (yes, you read that correctly) can be recharged for up to 3 years before you have to start worrying about the battery, and as a bonus can be a very reliable tool for those first couple years (note that after 3-5 years, clock sync/drift and orbit decay will very likely make GPS more and more inaccurate, so you’ll want paper maps and good orientation skills anyway).

* Telling time and temperature. A moderately-priced “home weather station” can draw very low power, and with rechargeable batteries, it can last a very long time. While accuracy will suffer a bit as time passes and the battery gets changed out for a recharged one, it should last for up to a year between refreshes, and can give a good idea as to what day/date it is as well as temperature and barometric pressure. This can give you a valuable heads-up when the weather changes, and help you keep track of the day and date, which in turn helps keeps you at least somewhat civilized.

* A hot plate. Sounds silly, but if you have to heat something up in a hurry (boiling water comes to mind), and don’t have time to start a fire? No problem… Now note that a hot plate will eat a ton of power in one go, but it can certainly come in handy if an emergency arises.

Things you do *not* want to use electricity for:

* Heating/Cooling. No, really… an electric heater consumes power like there’s no tomorrow (mind the pun). So does an air conditioner.

* General Refrigeration/Freezing. I know what you’re thinking, but seriously, most models suck down power. Relying on them for food is just plain crazy. Maybe a small 12-volt RV fridge for essentials that you cannot live without but must refrigerate (insulin and certain other medications, for instance), but get a sturdy one. The reason why is simple: You want things that not only last, but things that you do not want to rely on for the rest of your life. Why? Well, once the balloon goes up, what you have is what you get, unless you want to pin all your survival hopes on someday maybe being able to trade for something. Note that a freezer or fridge makes sense to some extent if you are already living completely off-grid, and you have spare parts, R-132/freon and refill gear, a spare compressor or two, etc. However, whatever you do, do not rely on it unless absolutely necessary.

* Watching TV All Day. While the newer flat-screen TVs can conserve power very well, none have been tested to last beyond 10 years. The old-school televisions can last well over 20-30 years, but they can consume enormous amounts of power to keep the tube warm – and they use power even when shut off, if still plugged in. To top that off, in order to use the thing, you have to have some kind of media to feed it – DVD/Blu-Ray player, cable/satellite, and such… which will also require power. After all, what exactly (outside of certain satellite setups) will be coming down that little dish or up that cable to you?

* Cooking. Unless you have a hot plate and use it only for emergencies, why bother with the bulk that a power-hungry electric stove brings? Again, it’s one of those things you should only use if you’re already living off the grid.

* A big desktop computer. Replace that 450-600 watt fire-eater with something small but useful – a laptop is best overall, a netbook best of all.

Okay, but what about EMPs? (insert evil, ominous music here…)

Lets get this out of the way, shall we? In spite of the hoopla (and Jericho, and One Second After), an EMP burst sufficient to turn nearly all US electronics into butter requires, basically, a very large thermonuclear blast *in outer space*. No, seriously – the bomb would have to go off 300 miles above ground level, or approximately 2x as high as the orbit of the International Space Station. Oh, and it would have to be at least a megaton in yield, but probably 5-10 MT if you want it done right. Yes, there are rockets that can do this and bombs that big (and way bigger), but pretty much all of them belong to nations friendly with the US.

I won’t drag out the whole controversy, but some bits worth reading can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse (a light primer on what EMP is, and how it works)

http://www.ornl.gov/sci/ees/etsd/pes/pubs/ferc_Meta-R-320.pdf (yes, a government report, but accurate to physics).

As for the effects of an EMP burst? Hysteria aside, it’s debatable at best, and a pretty remote thing. If you’re that worried about it, make up a couple of cardboard boxes, wrap the outside in thick tinfoil, then put it in another cardboard box. Use that box to store your essential electronics gear.

Overall, barring a full Cold-War style MAD-style nuclear exchange? You can almost safely put the EMP threat down there between, say, that

of a global pandemic and an asteroid strike.

Let’s just say that there are many, many more likely things that would happen first.

In the next article, we’re going to cover the first two of many options to power your abode – Solar and Wind power. We want to give you the marketing spiel, the drawbacks, general maintenance guidelines, and to give you an idea of how it would fit in your situation.


Next:  In Part 2 Odd Questioner discusses Solar and Wind power.