20 July 2009

Survival - Phase 3 - Home

There is a good chance that you are living 'on the grid'.

I am.

What is 'the grid'?

It is popularly put forward that 'the grid' is the electrical grid, actually an interconnection of networks for managing electrical power across the US, extending into Canada and Mexico.

The actual grid is far more complex than just the electrical system.

For most residents of urban and suburban areas, even small towns, the actual grid consists of a number of services that are primary to our technic society:

  1. Electricity - The popular 'grid'.
  2. Potable water supply - This is done at a central water purification plant where the majority of viruses, bacteria, harmful chemicals and other such things are removed and a level of chlorine and other minerals added, and a proper pH balance put together. Without this you would be boiling your water and only using tap water for limited purposes.
  3. Sewage disposal - No civilization can grow or maintain itself without this, as diseases such as cholera then become epidemics that regularly recur due to the mixing of bacteria from sewage with drinking water. Most homes are connected up to a system that removes waste water and human waste so that you don't have to deal with it locally.

Of these three it is the third and second that are the most vital to address for long-term survival in a home without power. As hundreds to thousands of generations of humans can testify: you can live without electricity.

You can live without central water and sewage, but not at high densities unless you prepare for such a lack. Urban areas decay without these things, and their lack is not only an inconvenience, but a public health threat to the general population. War torn Iraq had its systems degraded by Saddam Hussein during the '80s when he was having a nasty war with Iran, tried to pay for it by invading Kuwait, had the infrastructure of his Nation decimated by the alliance to restore Kuwait, and then, after more than a decade of neglect of THAT another war with terrorists blowing up such places came roaring through the Nation. You can live in cities without central electricity, potable water and a sewage system.

Not at the population density levels before all that happened, however.

Still it is a testament to many Iraqi city leaders that the FIRST thing they wanted restored was NOT these civil necessities but factories so that a production base and tax base could be formed so that these necessities could be restored, replaced, rebuilt or built new. In such a war torn country that has had a taste of industrialized supported lifestyles, the understanding that production makes dense urban populations possible is one that shines through the sandstorms of Iraq and smoke clouds generated by political partisans. This is a telling aspect of society, in general: if you live in a society that understands that active production is the source of the goods of society, especially technic society, then they will be prioritized over civil necessities.

On the downwards slope, things aren't so pretty.

Going on the James Burke Connections idea, if something struck civilization either locally or globally to remove the ability to sustain the technology or that ruined the technology we have, what would you do?

This is not that far-fetched an idea as both EMP bursts (on a regional/Nation State basis) and solar storms (regional to global depending on duration) could do that to our sustaining electrical infrastructure. Most particularly targeted are circuits, especially microcircuits, that control so much of our daily life that we take it for granted. These are two of the worst survivable happenings that we can foresee, with lesser ones, like the New Madrid Fault Zone earthquake event, being regionally devastating but leaving much of the area outside of it immediately unaffected and only impacting the Nation in the long term by removing the cross-ties of 'the grid' through that region and destroying the local grids and infrastructure to a high degree in some areas. A Cumbra Vieja event sending massive tsunamis overtopping tall skyscrapers along the eastern seaboard is another event where devastation is regional, losses are high, but the rest of the Nation exists to start recovery. One or more EMP events or a solar storm of magnitude not seen since the start of the electrical age are much harder to deal with as they then leave you with NO outside help.

From those you can start to see the outlines of the necessities for yourself, getting back home (or a ready place of safety you have, say a cabin or some such) and then using your pre-positioned goods to continue surviving the event. For those that cannot afford a cabin in the country this means that where you live determines if you survive. How you survive depends on how you prepare before the event happens. If you survive depends on using your skills to the best of your ability and testing them against what the fates send your way. More skills and supplies means you stack the deck in your favor. Mother Nature plays with unloaded dice, but they are extremely heavy... you can change fate enough by preparing so that you no longer depend on hope to survive. Hope could not stop the ills of mankind nor will it offer you a cold glass of iced tea when you are thirsty.

I will start with staying put, at your home or other place of retreat that is prepared by you before the worst hits. Leaving or 'bugging out' I will address in another piece.

Your strategy will vary upon circumstance, and there are many, many, many websites and places to go to so as to address your particular needs. If you live in an apartment/condo then you have one set of worries. Attached homes, row houses, townhomes all have a different set of worries. Detached homes in suburban settings a third set. And detached homes or cabins in rural settings yet another. No one person can address all your needs, only you can do that, yet your needs will be very much the same no matter if you are 10 stories up in a highrise, sitting off a cul de sac in suburbia, or out in a cabin in the boonies. Most likely you have them addressed in the last area, as you know what you need.

Treating Human Waste

Water, clean water, and getting same are the main problems mankind has had and continues to have to this very day. Desalinization is expensive and/or time consuming. Ridding water of bacteria and viruses is a well known problem and has been addressed since the very first towns got polluted wells from their own human wastes.

Human waste that your body generates, then, is the second problem and goes hand-in-hand with the first. There are as many different ways to get rid of waste as there are communities and climates. Simply put: you cannot survive living in your own wastes for very long, especially if you are coming from a technic era in which health care is at a pinnacle of achievement. In rural areas where you deal with animal waste, you can deal with human waste. In urban areas, that is not such a simple thing to learn or do as the infrastructure did it for you. And if you don't have a very arid climate most of the year, you can't just leave the shit out to dry, either. Iraq does have a rainy season, so that wasn't a year round option there, either.

In that reverse order you have: dump it out the window (the popular method of the pre-modern times and the reason men walked on the outside of women next to buildings) because you now have an open sewer just outside the window, utilize an exterior drain and decomposition system (a form of composting) to dump wastes, create or utilize a system of ponds/large fish tanks and natural organism decomposition (good for small enclaves living on a hillside or on terrain with a slope) that utilizes microorganisms/macroorganisms/sunlight to treat the bacteria in waste, 'brown water re-use systems' for the re-use of previously potable water used for cleaning yourself and your home but it still needs to go somewhere in the sewage cycle, holding tanks (septic tanks) and leech fields. Plus the old 'dig a big hole in the ground and put a half-moon cabin over it'. A system to actually dry wastes to solid and water (purified by systems after that) is also excellent, and solar/thermal systems exist for that, along with bacteria based ones.

Each of these have infrastructure costs, daily/weekly/monthly/annual time investments, upkeep costs and transition time to full utilization of them. The object of these systems is to get the wastes reduced from a state where diseases can be harbored and do so where people will not be impacted by that process. A settlement pond system with bio-degrading and fish uptake reprocessing is one excellent way to do this... but has downsides of space requirements and what is efficient for 100 people is less so for 10. If you are staying in a highrise, then your options become extremely limited to ones of bag, contain and then either cart to disposal or dispose in-place with compost systems designed just for this...then you get fertilizer to sell! How you deal with this is up to you. Or else your lifespan will head markedly downwards, and instead of weighting the dice in your favor you are doing just the opposite.

Where the grid as a whole goes down, that means that your municipal sewage system is out of action, and you will begin to see 'back-up' of waste water and solids in low lying areas. If you LIVE in a low lying area by way of the sewer system, finding a way to STOP that is critical as other, less innovative people, are willing to flush their waste downhill via gravity. Look at all the people uphill from you and you will get an idea of how bad that will be and how quickly. Living uphill or on a ridge means thinking about what to do so as to NOT inflict your waste on others. Plus you will need a way to stop up the drains on back flow if you do live in a low lying area. Shooting wars start over these sorts of things.

There are many, many ways to deal with this, from plastic pots with plastic liners and lids (easy transport) to setting up pre-purchased flush toilets utilizing your brown water or other captured water system that then goes to a septic tank or series of settling ponds. What best makes sense to you changes by your location, and no matter what you do you want human waste to be isolated from your living environment. No toilets in kitchens or sleeping areas. There are many excellent choices from the low cost for a few dollars to the high cost 'you will now live off the grid on a semi-permanent fashion once the grid goes away' deal in the hundreds to thousands of dollar range.

Getting Potable Water

You, of course, have a week's worth of water prepared and ready in your home to last out a storm or other contingency when potable water isn't available.

You did, didn't you? A gallon a day per person for intake and clean-up needs. No skimping on preparing for water as it is the one, vital part of your daily uptake that will kill you the fastest when it goes missing. If you expect to be active during this time (cooking, cleaning, hunting, etc.) then double that to two gallons per day. You are NOT Ghandi, you will not be in bed with people tending to you. He could get by on nothing by doing nothing and then had to take sips and minutes between them to recover after weeks of that. He had a grid. You won't.

Getting more potable water if you stay home requires that water be screened, filtered, decontaminated and biological contaminants be removed (bacteria and viruses). UV coming from the sun does a lovely job on the bio side and, if you arrange a system of enclosed heating space and either a reverse osmosis system or natural condensation catchment system for a solar still, you can get clean water from rain water on the cheap. Water from other sources still requires filtering and treating down to the viral and chemical level.

Here and again, there are many, many choices available and your circumstances will dictate your path. In an urban setting getting clean water when power goes away and the grid along with it, means over-stocking on stored water and having access to a water source you can filter: rivers and flowing water are preferred, ponds next, stagnant water only with the best of filtration systems. You can hike water around only to the limits of your strength and stamina, and water is heavy. Anything over a gallon or so and you will need a pack system to ensure that you can hike water around (be it untreated which you will treat at your safe house or treated on the spot). What this means for apartment dwellers is that you need a good water source... unless you can get access to the roof, then the idea of catchment, tarps, hoses, storage tanks, etc. comes into play. The square footage at the top of a building or catchment from canted roof area is one that can be operational if, and only if, you are either alone or have agreement with others who are staying to convert such roof space to a water catch and containment system. Having that equipment pre-purchased and secured is no easy feat, but it can be done if you prepare.

A standard home, even attached home in a row house arrangement, has some roof space and postage stamp lawn space suitable for catchment of water. If you really do expect the worst, then a means of catching that water, filtering and purifying it thus becomes a system of pre-purchased rain barrels or central water storage tank with filters in-line in the down spouts. Treating is done via reverse-osmosis, direct sunshine and settling, or via solar still. Note that distilled water is missing minerals and other dissolved solids and will slowly demineralize your teeth, so adding in minerals is a necessity in a distilled situation.

Larger properties afford larger systems and even settling ponds as part of the overall system of changing human waste water into drinking water by removing salts.

The final way of bacteria remediation is as old as civilization itself: beer and wine.

Alcohol kills most harmful bacteria.

A shot of hard whiskey in a few cups of water does a great job of killing biological entities.

There is a reason why our ancestors were hard drinking folks: it was the best way to get drinkable water.

Similarly silver, at moderate temperatures, serves to kill of most biologicals in water. Our ancestors who headed west put a silver dollar in their canteens that they filled in the morning and then drank at mid-day. That works. Silver is a means to remove biological agents from water and moderately warm temperatures. That stack of silver coins you had in the expectations of 'barter' now become a long term means of purifying water.

Removing human waste and getting potable water now increase your life expectancy from days to long-term sustainable, so long as your filters and waste treatment plan hold up. A slow shift from a high-tech to a low tech system is not only out of the question but unavoidable: filters will break or no longer function, your waste treatment system will develop leaks. Your supply of duct tape will run out.

Really, just how many rolls of that stuff do you have?

The 'fun' part of living without a grid, the parts that everyone else talks about: the growing of plants for food via gardening, hunting, trapping, fishing, and general food preparation and treatment. This is the stuff everyone loves to talk about. After shelter, sewage treatment, and getting potable water, actually getting food falls into fourth place along with heating and cooling your shelter... you can survive in a place that gets too hot in the summer and provides some windbreak and protection from cold in the winter, but still gets deathly cold all on its own. Next to food, finding a way to cool your living space in the summer becomes a primary concern as well as trapping heat in the winter. Doesn't do you much good if your own wastes are ankle deep in the shelter, however, as that is a health hazard when hot and really nasty bacteria get to it... or when cold and it freezes at that ankle depth. This is why it is second. Water third. The 'fun' stuff gets pretty near the priority of keeping a living temperature for your living space throughout the worst seasons. It isn't 'living space' if you can't, actually, live in it.

Temperature Control

A generator is great, until the fuel runs out. Solar cells are lovely and if you already have them in-place then you can actually run some systems to keep temperature controlled in your living space... and don't mind the annual cleaning to make sure dust and grime doesn't build up on them, as that is part of the deal.

Circulating air from the cooler regions of your living space to the warmer ones and vice-versa is the reason mankind created central air systems for living spaces: it means on-demand temperature control. Passive systems need to be installed before the worst happens. Thus no matter how lovely air circulation vents from basement to attic are, they have to be in-place and functional before the grid goes down. Likewise solar water heating with tanks capturing warm water that then have passive systems to move that downwards and circulate cooler water upwards. Those cost time, money and forethought, plus eat up a good sized chunk of an active budget with a grid to get installed, which means you probably don't have them. Nor do you have canted roof tiles that are black on facing sides to catch low angle sunlight (which is most of it during the winter) and white on the top to reflect sunlight at high angles (yes a young man actually thought that most obvious of all solutions up and is trying to get it out there as a roofing system, with angles varied by your latitude... ingenious, really... warms the house in winter keeps most of the heat out in summer...) as that means you already had it done.

Older, pre-central heating and cooling tells us what is necessary to survive in a given climate, and if you wondered why wood framed buildings with plaster appeared in the mid-south you will find that the bricks, mortar, plaster and white wash all served to allow hot air and humid air to transpire through the building materials and out the cooler side of the building. Modern construction materials often do not have the permeability of older materials as we have more solid construction techniques that are cheap to mass produce. Thus heating and cooling become major issues in modern buildings when the power goes off for any extended period of time as they do not allow moisture to escape and thus condensate on the interiors of the structure. Moving air through ones living space is a necessity, not only to exhaust waste gases but to get rid of humidity. Not only does the climate contribute to this, but so do you, as you use moisture to do the exact same thing older structures did: keep cool. Your moisture in an un-vented space raises humidity levels. Trapped humidity gets absorbed on the interior of modern structures, thus creating a long term problem. In the short term all that extra sweat means you need more water to get into your system, and while food can provide some of that, actual potable water is a better source. If you eat right you can lower your water needs, but if you don't consider your living space and activity levels, then that will not help you very much if you are sweating profusely at night.

Thus, you must have windows that can be opened for cross-ventilation with screens to remove the largest of insect influx.

In a high-rise where you have windows facing towards the sun, this is a major concern, and the upper floors will become unlivable due to trapped heat... mind you they are the ones closest to the roof, too, so a water catch system will help to cool those upper levels some. Lower down, cross-ventilation is achieved by opening doors and windows in unused apartments/condos to the living space you are in. By opening and closing doors in hallways you can regulate air flow and even redirect it to a degree.

In winter there is the problem of retaining heat, and for that, in a high-rise, you are looking to keep the sunward side isolated from the shadow side. If you have the run of an entire floor you can shift your living space sunwards during the winter and into the shadow of the building during the summer. Depending on climate, your health and the general neighborhood you wind up in, this could be either workable or a death trap and only you can make that call. Remember that the idea of 'losing your investment' by leaving after a few months is an emotional one, while a rational one is ensuring that you survive so you can rebuild anew. Still, if the remaining tenants in a building can work out an arrangement, then a high-rise becomes the re-start of civil services as you will have everything from clean water to sewage (via the storm drains) available. And if it doesn't work out, then you are going to do a delayed 'bug out'.

For suburban to rural areas, including small towns, things look up as each family takes care of itself and concentrating resources across families makes more sense than independent living. The current system of governance is unlikely to survive a sudden deprivation of modern systems at the highest level: federal and even State systems may collapse. But County and local ones can adapt the fastest having the most accountability and the greatest need for inter-cooperation. To get to that point you must, indeed, get to it: you must have demonstrated that you and the people you live with (family, relatives, etc.) have the ability to contribute to survival needs. Civilization existed far before our modern time, and did so on that basis as an ongoing concern for millennia.

It did survive because people did and were an asset to themselves, their family, and their community.

And the best way to demonstrate it is to do it.

By preparing now, you are prepared to do later if you need to: you show faith in yourself.

We let other orders of events determine the course of the universe, galaxy, solar system and planet as a whole. You are responsible for yourself and what you do. No one can force you to survive... not and remain free, that is. By exercising your liberty now, you grant your freedom later.

That is what life is about from the moment you are born to the moment you die.

You are born free.

And there is no more precious thing we have in life than our liberty to support that freedom.

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