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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Solar panel recharging a batteryI’ve been learning about solar power. Prior to prepping, I didn’t know anything at all about solar energy. I’d guess that a lot of you are also in the dark when in come to solar. From what I’m reading and learning, I think we’d do well to begin looking into it.

Solar power has been around for a long time and it still hasn’t really caught on. I think my first encounter with practical solar power was with a small calculator that we powered by a photosensitive strip. I still use one of these on my part-time job a couple of times a week.

Solar power has come a long way from the novelty of being able to run a calculator with it. It has many practical applications that can benefit you now and could be a game changer for you if the power grid ever goes down. Let me share some of what I’ve been learning.

Effectiveness
Solar power works well, but it works better in some places than it does others. Solar panels work best when they are exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time. Not surprisingly, solar is a better option in Phoenix than it is in Seattle where the annual Rain Festival begins on January 1st and runs through December 31st. Another area of the U.S. that is not optimal for solar is the Great Lakes region (where your humble blogger happens to live).

If you live in a cloudy area, don’t tune me out just yet. You’ll see that there might still be a place for solar power in your energy plan.

Costs
Solar is still expensive. There are a number of reasons for that. First, it’s still in the developmental phase. New research is continually being done to make solar powered systems more efficient, more durable, more portable, and more economical. All that trial and error costs money. The other major factor in the cost of a solar system is the economy of scale. As soon as solar catches on and becomes more popular, mass production will begin in earnest. Build a few units costs a lot. Building thousands upon thousands drives the cost per unit way down. We’re not there yet, so the early adopters are bearing the brunt of the cost.

But your federal government wants to help you! Yeah, you’ve heard that one before. They’re here to help and you’re glad they’re here. But this time, really! The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on solar systems that help to power your home. Check this out from their website:

A taxpayer may claim a credit of 30% of qualified expenditures for a system that serves a dwelling unit located in the United States that is owned and used as a residence by the taxpayer. Expenditures with respect to the equipment are treated as made when the installation is completed. If the installation is at a new home, the “placed in service” date is the date of occupancy by the homeowner. Expenditures include labor costs for on-site preparation, assembly or original system installation, and for piping or wiring to interconnect a system to the home. If the federal tax credit exceeds tax liability, the excess amount may be carried forward to the succeeding taxable year.
http://energy.gov/savings/residential-renewable-energy-tax-credit

This 30% tax credit applies to solar-electric systems, solar water heating solutions, and fuel cells. Knocking 30% off the price of the hardware and installation can make solar energy much more attractive and affordable. And there may be other credits offered by your state or local governments. Contact your local electric utility for current information regarding your locale. If you want more info about these on-the-grid systems, a good source is Solar Sphere. They’ve got a ton of good information and some interesting looking products. They also have a lot of off-the-grid stuff.

solar educationOn-the-Grid vs. Off-the-Grid Systems
An on-the-grid solar system is one that is hooked into your home’s electric power utility. The solar power that you collect from panels mounted on your roof or elsewhere feeds into your whole-house electrical system. The solar power is used first, causing you to not draw as much juice from the electric company. Your electrical meter will visibly not spin so fast. If at any moment you’re generating more power than you’re consuming, the meter will actually spin in reverse as the excess energy is fed into the grid. At this point, the electric company is paying you for helping to supply energy for your community. How cool is that? While we’re on the topic of saving money, I think the tax credits mentioned above only applies to this type of on-the-grid solar application.

Off-the-grid solar products are those that are not connected into your home’s electrical system. These are portable, stand-alone units that vary greatly in size and capacity. The smaller models are self-contained units, but the larger ones have three main components: the solar panel(s) that collect the energy, a battery that stores the energy, and an inverter that converts the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) electricity that most of our electrical appliances and gadgets run on.

Small units could be the size of a tablet computer and could be used for recharging an iPad or a smartphone. The batteries for medium-sized units would be about the size of a car battery and could power emergency or outdoor lighting systems, recharge laptop computers, or even run a TV for a couple of hours. Large units (think something the size of an ice chest) are sometimes called “gas-free generators” and can power more appliances for a longer period. A large unit fed by a nice array of solar panels could keep your freezer going for a long time.

The Non-Solar Solar Solution
Oddly enough, these solar batteries aren’t just charged by solar panels. You could charge them by plugging them into an electrical outlet and keep them charged until your power goes out or you need to take them away from a conventional electrical source. These systems are used by campers, salesmen in tradeshow booths who don’t want to pay the outrageous electrical hook-up fees charged at some venues, and people who need to do demonstrations or presentations where there is not convenient electrical outlet, etc.

It’s conceivable that you could have a use for one of these gas-free generators and never hook it up to a solar panel at all – just recharge it from your electrical outlet and take the generator out in the field with you. But if you’re going to use it outside, having one or more solar panels to help recharge your generator just makes good sense.

If you want to learn more about off-the-grid solar products, I’d start looking at Goal Zero. They are a leading brand with some very cool looking products.

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Just because I’m a prepper doesn’t mean that I don’t like comfort and convenience. Whether the electricity is off for five minutes, five days, or five weeks, I want to maintain as normal a lifestyle as I possibly can. So I’ve been looking into appliances that will work when the power goes down.

Don’t Curse the Darkness

As a baby step in that direction, I bought two hand-crank powered lanterns. The lanterns were cheap at less than $20 each (when I bought them in September 2012 — they’re almost $25 each now). I keep one on the first floor and the other one in my bedroom. They’re small and lightweight, making them easy to store, transport, and use.

I’ve had the opportunity to use the lanterns during a couple of short power outages we’ve had. In the past, I’ve scurried to find a flashlight and wondered if I’d be able to find one with batteries in it. If it had batteries, would they still work? Would they be corroded? Would the corrosion ruin the whole flashlight? If there were no batteries in it, would I be able to find enough of the right size to make this thing work?

When you’re stumbling around in the dark with no idea how long the power outage will last, you don’t need to be doing a Chinese fire drill just to find a flashlight that works. So in that sense, these little hand-crank lanterns have been a real joy. I know where they both are, I can find them in the dark, and I no longer have to be concerned about batteries for basic lighting.

That said, these little lanterns aren’t a substitute for a good flashlight. A better way to think of them is as a good substitute for a candle. They put out enough light to keep me from bumping into walls, but it’s not like I’m going to read the newspaper with one of them. Not enough lumens. I don’t know how much light they put out, but I know that it’s just enough to not be in the dark anymore. Like I said, this was a baby step for me — one that I’ve been very happy with and can recommend wholeheartedly to others, but don’t expect too much from them.

Tell Me the News

At the same time that I bought the lanterns I also purchased a hand-crank emergency radio. I haven’t had any real need for this device yet, but I’ve tested it and am very pleased to have it as a part of my emergency supplies.

The Ambient Weather model WR-111 Adventurer Emergency Radio has a name so grand that you’d think that it should come with a decoder ring. And it very nearly does! This little radio weighs just half a pound and is small at 5.5” x 2” x 3”, but it has a lot of useful capabilities. First of all, it can be powered in any of three ways: hand-crank, USB port (to power it from a charged laptop, recommended to fully charge the device before use), or its own built-in solar panel. I’ve tried the hand-crank and the solar panel, and both work like a charm.

The radio receives AM, FM, and NOAA weather alerts. Besides being a radio, it also has a built-in LED flashlight and can be used to charge your cell phone. I remember scenes on the news from a couple of the most recent severe hurricanes of seeing crowds of people huddled together around a multi-outlet power strip that was plugged into a generator, all waiting their turn to charge their cell phones. I don’t want to be one of them. Which is the whole point of being a prepper. I don’t wanna live like a refugee.

Getting Cranky in the Kitchen

Besides the lanterns and the radio, I have a couple of hand-crank kitchen appliances that I can recommend. One of them, a hand-powered grain mill for grinding wheat berries into flour, was purchased with preparedness in mind. Anyone who is thinking long-term survival should be storing large quantities of whole wheat. When you’ve invested in the wheat, you’ll want some means to grind it to make flour for your homemade bread and pasta. (Note to self: Add a really good manual pasta maker to my Amazon wish list.)

The other hand-crank kitchen appliance is one that I’ve had for years, long before I ever thought there was a need for prepping for anything. It’s a salsa maker.

If you don’t already have one of these, you need one. I have an expensive electric food processor that I rarely use, but I haul out the cheap hand-crank salsa maker frequently. (OK, not as frequently as Sandy would like me to.) Besides being great for making fresh salsa, it’s terrific for doing a multitude of food processing jobs. Anything that needs to be chopped, whipped, beaten, or stirred can be done in this manually operated machine.

Some people go off the grid because they like to rough it. Others, like me, do it kicking and screaming. I like convenience. I want to take as much of it with me as I can. These hand-crank devices help to maintain normalcy in a time of deprivation. Don’t go off the grid without them.

china-ghost-citiesI watch Doomsday Preppers. I don’t believe everything they say on the show, but I watch it. I know that the producers have their own agenda and they want to include some variety, so they have the featured preppers say that they’re preparing for a volcano to erupt in Wyoming, or an earthquake to hit the Midwest, or an epidemic of some exotic disease. Exciting stuff, but at the end of every episode the voice-over dude comes on and calms our fears by telling us how astronomically improbable these doomsday scenarios are.

The Real Danger

Back in the real world, most preppers are preparing for an event that experts from many, many fields agree is extremely probable in the not-too-distant future: a global economic collapse.

Let’s face it — there has been no real recovery from the Great Recession, as reported in this recent article from the Chicago Sun-Times. (Note: I’m not as rosy about our housing market recovery as their article is.) The government of Cyprus is stealing money from the private bank accounts of their citizens and some have speculated that such options are on the table for handling the debt crisis in this country, too. Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland have been in the news with alarming tales of their economic problems. New stories are coming out about how Japan is printing money like mad (as is America) to try to stimulate their economy.

One of the many problems with America’s economy is that we’ve become a consumer nation. We consume more goods than we produce. It wasn’t always that way. We used to make a lot of stuff here and sell it to the rest of the world. But then the big corporations discovered that they could save a buck by moving their manufacturing centers overseas and exploiting cheap foreign labor. Corporate profits went up as expenses went down, but America lost its manufacturing base. Look at the labels on the products that you buy. Where were they made? A lot of it comes from China, but you’ll find other nations as well. It’s become pretty rare to find a consumer product made in the USA. We’re not just dependent on foreign oil; we’ve also become dependent on imported manufactured goods.

It seems like the only booming economy is China, where (surprise, surprise) all of our manufactured goods are coming from.

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Not so fast, there. China’s economy might not be booming as much as it appears and may in fact be the biggest economic bubble of all.

We said that America has become a consumer nation. China has the opposite problem. Even with their staggering population, they produce far more than they consume. China’s economy is dependent on exporting manufactured goods. For a couple of decades now, we’ve had a vigorous trade relationship with China. We send them our money and they send us their goods. (In case you didn’t catch that, that’s not a good thing.) If the money stops flowing into China, they’re going to be in a world of hurt. It should be obvious that with all the American national debt that’s held by China our eventual inability to pay off our loans will send a shockwave through the Chinese economy. But for now, the money is still flowing.

So what are the Chinese doing with all of our their money? For starters, they’re building factories to manufacture more stuff. Just as it was in America 100 years ago, people are leaving the countryside to move into the cities because that’s where the jobs are, so the cities are growing by leaps and bounds to accommodate both the growing businesses and the influx of new residents. Because of their booming manufacturing base, China has seen a rapid expansion of the middle class, and now they have more expendable income than they know what to do with. Due to Chinese governmental regulations, there are limited investment opportunities for the average person, but one investment opportunity that they are allowed is real estate.

On March 3, 2013, CBS’s news show 60 Minutes ran a chilling story about the building boom in China. You really need to see this video. You’ve hung with this posting this long. This is the pay-off. Here’s the link: China’s Empty Cities.

The implications are scary. The bursting of America’s housing bubble sent us into the Great Recession which we have not recovered from. We’re in a weakened condition. What happens if/when this Chinese real estate speculation bubble pops?

What Can I Do About It?

The reason why I write stuff like this is not to scare you, but to prompt you to not be caught unaware and unprepared. Proverbs 22:3 says, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.” It’s time that we start constructing our place of refuge. You can do it right where you are by stocking up on food and supplies that you might not be able to find or afford when the next economic downturn hits. You can learn skills that will help you through hard times. You can search out other like-minded people and form a supportive community. And you can keep reading this blog…And share it with your friends – click on any of the share buttons below. Thanks!

Tasting Long Term Storage FoodIt’s always a good idea to try before you buy. That’s especially true when it comes to long-term storage (LTS) food. Whether you buy the less expensive dehydrated food or the premium freeze-dried, LTS food isn’t cheap, and those who buy it tend to buy it in bulk.

You buy it to eat when you don’t have anything else to eat, but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK for it to taste bad.

Some people have the mindset that if they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat anything. Remember the line from the movie Crocodile Dundee: “Tastes like crap, but you can live on it.” That isn’t necessarily true. There is such a thing as “food fatigue.” Some people get so tired of eating something over and over again that they stop eating altogether. In a survival situation, that’s not a good thing. Your body is already stressed. You don’t need to add starvation to your list of problems.

Sample Packs are Your Friend
Fortunately, with many brands of LTS food you can buy sample packs or pouches to try a small quantity before you invest a big chunk of change. We recently took advantage of two such offers. One was from Wise Foods, one of the giants in the LTS food industry. Wise Foods is the most heavily advertised of any LTS brand that I’m aware of. Their commercials run over and over again on Doomsday Preppers. Their website has an offer for a free 4-serving sample of one of their entrées. They pick which one you get. Over the past couple of years, I’ve requested and received two samples from them.

The other sample we tested was from eFoods Direct, a much smaller company that you probably have never heard of before. Neither had we until we started shopping for LTS food. eFoods Direct’s website offers a “free” six-meal sampler. I put free in quotes because they charge you $9.95 for shipping, but in their defense you get quite a lot for your ten bucks. They send you three 4-serving samples of entrées or dried soups, a food planning guide to help you determine how much food you need for the number of people and amount of time that you’re planning for, and a 30-minute audio CD (which is essentially a sales pitch).

We decided to compare these two brands head-to-head one evening. We didn’t have the same entrée from both companies, but we hoped that by trying both brands at the same time we would get a feel for the quality of each.

Let the Sampling Begin
The product we sampled from Wise Foods was their Creamy Pasta and Vegetable Rotini. Sounds good to me. I like pasta and I especially enjoy having some veggies with my pasta. We matched it up against eFoods Direct’s Tortilla Soup mix. So how did they compare?

Wise Foods, for all their advertising budget and celebrity endorsements, did not fare very well. Not at all. On the plus side, it was easy to prepare. Boil four cups of water, add the mix, stir it up, remove it from the heat, let it stand covered for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Easy peasy. The resulting dish had eye appeal, but that was all. Our first impression was that it really didn’t smell good at all. It just didn’t have a food product aroma to it. As for taste, it was salty (800 milligrams of sodium per one-cup serving), but otherwise bland and starchy. We gave their Creamy Pasta two stars out of a possible five. And that might have been generous.

On to eFoods Direct’s Tortilla Soup. As I said, this was one of three 4-serving samples they provided. The other two are Creamy Potato Soup and Cheesy Chicken Rice. The rice dish would have been a more direct comparison against Wise’s Creamy Pasta, but we wanted a little variety. I’m a tortilla soup fan, so it’s not like we were comparing something we liked against something we didn’t.

The Tortilla Soup instructions required bringing 4-1/2 cups of water to a boil, whisking in the mix, reducing the heat, and simmering it for 15-20 minutes. This preparation would take significantly more fuel in an emergency situation over the Wise Foods product, where you boiled the water but reconstituted the food with no heat at all. The energy advantage goes to Wise.

But this was a taste test, so how did eFoods come out in that category. Let’s just start by saying that this is not a pretty soup. It was a reddish-gray color, about like a bowl of mashed kidney beans would look. So Wise beats eFoods in eye appeal, at least between these two very dissimilar dishes. As for aroma, the Tortilla Soup smelled just like you would expect tortilla soup to smell. You could tell what it was with your eyes closed. It was ringing my olfactory dinner bell. But the pleasant aroma didn’t fully prepare us for the flavor of the food. As good as it smelled, it tasted even better. This was restaurant-quality tortilla soup. It was very well seasoned, but not overly salty (451mg of sodium per one-cup serving) or what you would call spicy.

One of the things that I liked best about this Tortilla Soup is that the flavor was well saturated. What I mean by that is that the next day I served some of the leftover soup over a bowl of rice and a relatively small amount of soup flavored the rice exquisitely. This is hugely important in an emergency food situation. Having something that flavors and stretches an inexpensive base like rice, pasta, or potatoes is an enormous plus. This takes the number of servings per pouch of the more expensive soup mix up and the cost per serving way down.

Both Sandy and I loved eFoods Direct’s Tortilla Soup mix. We both gave it five stars. A week or two later we took a stab at their Creamy Potato Soup. It was also very good, about on par with a good store-bought dried potato soup mix from a company like Bear Creek. It didn’t ring our bell quite the way the Tortilla Soup did, though, but it still scored a solid four stars out of five. Not too shabby. We would never turn our noses up the Potato Soup.

Wise Food Sample

eFoods Direct Sample

Entre

Creamy Pasta &
Vegetable Rotini

Tortilla Soup Mix

Overall Rating 2 Stars 5 Stars
Ease of Preparation 4 Stars – Easy-peasy 4 Stars – Easy-peasy
Fuel Required for Preparation 4 Stars – Boil 4 Cups water 3 Stars – Boil 4.5 cups water, simmer 15-20 minutes
Eye Appeal 4 Stars – Yum! Let’s eat! 3 Stars – Reddish-gray
Aroma 0 Stars – Hold your nose! 5 Stars – Makes your mouth water!
Taste 0 Stars – Too salty, bland & starchy 5 Stars – May I have some more, please?
Bonus 5 Stars –Great over rice or to add flavor to other dishes

In a Bit of a Quandary…
Like I mentioned near the start of this review, we received another sample from Wise Foods a couple of years ago. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I would guess a Pasta Alfredo. It was just plain awful. Those who know me know that I’m not a picky eater – actually, I tend to be an adventurous eater. I’ve eaten from sidewalk food carts in Tiajuana, Mexico and lived to tell the story. That first sample we got from Wise was so bad that neither of us could eat it. Worse still, I gave it to our dog and even she wouldn’t eat it. There was nothing about it that told your body that it was a food product.

I have an acquaintance who writes an excellent prepper blog. I won’t name the person or identify their website in this context because of what I’m about to say here. This blogger recently did a head-to-head comparison of LTS food from eight companies, all at the same time, using as close to identical entrées as possible. I would have loved to know who all eight companies were and how they ranked, but I didn’t want to press my luck with this person whom I know only slightly, so I just inquired about the winner and the loser. The winner was another small company that I haven’t tried yet — Food Insurance. The clear loser was (…wait for it…) Wise Foods.

These results have placed your humble correspondents in a bit of a quandary. We run ads on this website with two goals in mind. First, we want to make it easy for our readers to find products that will help them get themselves and their families well equipped to face whatever emergency situation might come their way. I do a lot of reading and shopping so you don’t have to. We haven’t purchased from every vendor whose ads we run on this site, but we screen them all as carefully as we can for quality and value. We never want to give any of our readers a bum steer. That’s a great way to make someone a former reader.

Our second goal with the ads is to make money. Both the missus and I spend many hours every week working on this website to make it a worthwhile resource for beginning preppers. We don’t get paid for it. The purpose for this website is to sound an alarm about the delicate condition of the world we live in. We are in danger from the threats of warfare, terrorism, the economy, and ecology. We are under a relentless cyber attack by our enemies and we could get sucker punched by a solar flare or a stray asteroid. How many times have you heard the phrase “the storm of the century” in the past few years? We really want you to be as well prepared as possible if any of these potential calamities becomes a reality in your neighborhood. But we can’t afford to do it for free, so we run ads on our website that pay us a small commission on each purchase that you make when you click through to the vendor’s site from ours.

The Verdict Is In
We’ve been running ads for Wise Foods on our site. They are a leading company in their field. They are one of the two best known players (along with Mountain House Foods) in their industry. A lot of people are buying Wise Foods for their LTS needs. So should we continue to run their ads because some people seem to like their product, even when we and the other blogger I mentioned can’t recommend them?

I can’t do it. Even if I don’t personally endorse Wise’s products, running their ads still promotes them. I have nothing against the folks at Wise. They have been nothing but nice and helpful to me. But when it comes to a sizeable investment in LTS food, you can (and should!) do better than that.  You can buy Wise through almost any other prepper site, but as of today you won’t be able to buy it through ours. I endorse eFoods Direct based upon my limited (but crazy tasty!) experience with them. FYI, I’ve also been very happy with the foods I’ve bought from Emergency Essentials and The Ready Store. Both of those are good, one-stop superstores for all things preparedness. But as of today, Wise Foods is gone from this site.

In the words of one of my favorite foodies, I bid you good eating.