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Energy

wonderbag_mainWe’ve never run an article verbatim from another site before, but yesterday I stumbled upon this one while I was searching for something else and the story moved me. It’s about a product that was conceived of during a blackout. It doesn’t just solve a problem. It changes people’s lives. Here’s the article, with some further comments by me at the end:

Sarah Collins couldn’t sleep. It was 2008, and rolling blackouts had darkened the city of Johannesburg. There were severe, ongoing energy shortages throughout South Africa, and everyone was affected. Cities and towns, hospitals and schools — all had power only once every several days, and then only for a few hours. It was during one of these blackouts that Sarah leapt out of bed at two in the morning and woke up her roommate. “I’ve got it!” she said. “I know how I’m going to change the world.”

Sarah had devoted her entire life to searching for ways to empower people in rural Africa, especially women. She worked in AIDS orphans clinics. She did environmental conservation work. She started community-based businesses to help rural women generate an income. She even created a political party and ran for government.

But the night of the blackout, Sarah flashed back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm in a remote part of the country, she had watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking and conserve her limited fuel. “Why wouldn’t that work?” she thought. Then she remembered watching the San people bury food in the ground while they were cooking. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the oldest technology in the world.’”

The next day, Sarah created the prototype for her heat-retention cooker, the Wonderbag. After food is brought to a boil, the pot is placed in the heavily-lined bag where it slow-cooks for up to 12 hours. “Finding firewood for cooking takes a huge amount of rural women’s time,” explains Sarah, “and gathering it is very dangerous. The wood fires used to cook then cause indoor pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide in children under five. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time.”

“Right away I knew it would work,” says Sarah, “I just knew it. I called my brother and said, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found my life, I’ve found my destiny, I found the way I can help make a difference.’ And I described the idea, and he joked, ‘Sarah, for years the family has been looking for an excuse to have you institutionalized, and I think I just found it.’”

Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire, but still struggled to meet her family’s basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren’t in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. “I said to her, ‘I’ll live with you while we see whether this works.’ But she got the idea right away,” says Sarah. “Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them.”

Five years later, Sarah has sold or donated more than 700,000 Wonderbags throughout Africa.

The Wonderbag is now available in the U.S., through Amazon, and Sarah’s new goal is to sell one million to people worldwide. For every bag sold, one is donated to a family in need. “I chose Amazon because I loved the idea of combining the oldest technology in the world with the most high-tech, efficient, environmentally-friendly way of doing your shopping,” says Sarah.

“Having the Wonderbag on Amazon brings healthy, wholesome, slow-cooked portable food into mainstream kitchens. Just as important,” says Sarah, “it empowers consumers, by giving them innovative ways to be part of the solutions that the world is looking for.”

Phil’s Comments

  •  This is a prepper story. I wasn’t aware of the rolling blackout problems that this story talks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they occurred in America eventually. As flaky as our crumbling infrastructure is, the most vulnerable element seems to be our aging power grid. Prepping is about more than just storing beans, bullets, and band-aids for a potential future emergency. It’s also about making changes to our lifestyle now, before anything happens, to better train and equip ourselves to deal with hardship when it comes. One huge aspect of that lifestyle change is learning to make do with less. The less you use, the less you need. The slogan “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” is beginning to resonate with me. A great place to start is to find ways in which you can meet your needs while using less energy. Sarah found a way to use less fuel energy by cooking in a Wonderbag.
  • The Wonderbag isn’t a new idea. Sarah plainly says as much in the article. She watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking. She got this brainstorm for  a new product that was actually a very old idea. “Old school” techniques and technology rock, especially in a prepper situation. Keep your eyes peeled for information on how people got by in the pioneer days or during the Great Depression. It might be helpful someday. And look for ways to update some of these old ways. You might be able to put a new spin on an old technology and have a life-changing impact on many people like Sarah did.
  • Because this is “the oldest technology in the world” and Sarah’s grandmother was able to accomplish the same thing with blankets and cushions, you don’t have to buy a Wonderbag to cook your meals. Use your own blankets, or dig a hole in the ground and put your pot in it. Sarah’s new-fangled Wonderbag may work better than those approaches, or it may not. I don’t know. Clearly, more research is called for. (Perhaps I should apply for a government grant.) The answer to your problem isn’t always to spend more money or to buy a new product. Sometimes you just need to use what God has already put in your hand in a new and different way.
  • At the a selling price of $56.57 (as of the time of this writing), the Wonderbag is over-priced. Intentionally. For every one you buy, they give one to a needy person or family in Africa. You can’t buy one for a lower price and not have one go to Africa. They don’t give you that option. If that bugs you, you can always try making your own or try the digging-a-hole-in-your-backyard approach. If their forced philanthropy appeals to you (as I’m certain it does to many), you can buy two Wonderbags. Keep one for yourself and give the second one to the person of your choice. (I strongly believe that prepping is about sharing, but I very strongly believe that I should be the one who gets to decide who I share my stuff with.) And you can feel good about blessing two families in Africa.
  • If the Wonderbag works as well as the reviews suggest (out of 237 customer reviews on Amazon, 166 of them are 5-stars), it’s selling price of $56.57 is a bargain. When I read the article, my mind instantly went to a group of  contemporary products that do the same thing. They’re called thermal cookers, and they use the exact same principle — bring your food to a simmer and then transfer it to a thermal-retention unit. It continues to slow-cook on residual heat for hours. The one I’ve seen the most positive comments about on other prepper sites is Saratoga Jack’s thermal cooker. People rave about it, but at $110 plus $13.50 in shipping it makes the Wonderbag look like a bargain. And Saratoga Jack’s isn’t the most expensive such product by a long shot. Zojirushi (whose products I hold in high regard) sells one for $194.65, which makes the highly-rated Wonderbag looking down-right cheap by comparison.

The bottom line is that necessity is the mother of invention. Plato said that, a very long time ago, and it still holds true today. Whether you buy a Wonderbag or try to cook stew in your sleeping bag, we need to get creative about using less and making due with what we have. It will save money in the short-run, which could enable you to buy more stuff that you need in the long-run.

solar panel and batteryEver since I became aware of the need to be prepared for a disruption of life as we know it, I’ve been drawn to solar power. I’ve been impressed with solar power since the first time I saw a solar powered calculator many, many years ago. A tiny photovoltaic chip generated enough energy from ambient light to run a calculator. How cool is that?

I’ve wanted to dip my foot in the solar pool (so to speak) as part of my preps. What has kept me from it so far is that I wanted to start small. Why? Because solar can be expensive and I’m on a low budget, and because I’m a solar power dummy. Unfortunately, the problem with starting small in solar power is that there just aren’t a lot of small applications that would be of any real value to me. (Beyond the nifty calculator mentioned above, that is…but these days that doesn’t have a lot of value either.) Yes, I could shell out $100 for a solar gadget that would recharge a cell phone or power an LED light, but it just didn’t meet a real need or solve a real problem in my life, so I put solar power on the back burner.

I’ve Finally Got a Problem that Solar Power Solves!

But now I’ve acquired a problem for which solar power is the ideal solution. In my last blog I discussed our decision to purchase a pellet-burning stove (as opposed to a more conventional wood-burning stove) as an alternative heat source for our home. You can read about my contrarian reasoning in that blog. But one of the key factors that impacted my decision to go with pellets was a critical piece of information provided by my stove vendor. He told me that a pellet stove, while it requires electrical power to operate, uses so little electricity that you can get a battery back-up unit to run it when there is a power outage. I asked our stove guy how much a back-up system like he was talking about would cost and he said $500.

I’m no stranger to battery back-up systems. We’ve been using battery-powered back-ups with surge suppressors and voltage regulators on all of our desktop computer systems in our office for over 20 years. The problem with those battery back-up units is that they don’t run very long. The battery just isn’t big enough to provide power for very long. They have to be recharged from a working electrical outlet. That’s not a long-term solution in a grid-down situation. And that’s when I knew that I had found my perfect small-scale application for solar power. I could get a battery back-up that recharges from a solar panel. No need for an electrical outlet. So long as the sun keeps coming up each day, I would be in business.

What Components Do You Need for a Solar Power System?

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I’m a guy who knew nothing about prepping when I started. Dumber than a bag of hammers when it came to gardening, guns, first aid, ham radio, solar power — you name it. But I like doing research. I read a lot. I like to shop online. So I set about to learn what I needed to meet my modest solar power need.

My research soon took me to a line of products offered by Goal Zero, a company that I liked well enough to add as an advertiser to this site. They make a nice line of products that address a wide range of small-to-medium sized solar applications, including three sizes of portable “solar generators.” Sounds like just the thing. And at $460 for the Yeti 400 model, the price was in line with the stove guy’s quote of $500 for a conventional battery back-up for the pellet stove.

Not content to be taken in by Goal Zero’s slick website, I dug further online looking for reviews of their products from people who weren’t selling them. I lurked online in solar power forums and off-grid websites. What I found were two types of people: those who actually used Goal Zero products and liked them, and those who claimed that you could easily assemble components to build your own system for half the price. The second option intrigued me. If I can put my own kit together, be able to upgrade bits and pieces as needed, and save a buck in the process, I’m all for it. (More on Goal Zero vs. DIY below.)

What components do you need to build a solar powered battery back-up system? You’ll be pleased at how simple it is:

  • ­­­­An energy source. Since we’re talking solar here, solar panels are the obvious choice. Just to expand your thinking a little bit, the power source could also be a windmill or a water wheel, but for our purposes, we’re sticking to solar panels for now.
  • A charge controller. Solar panels capture energy from the sun, but they don’t store it. You need a battery to store the energy until needed, but you can’t tie your solar panels directly into the battery. You need a charge controller between your panels and your batteries to control the flow of energy into the batteries. As it turns out, batteries are kind of fussy about such things. Too much juice all at once will ruin them, so you need a charge controller.
  • One or more batteries. Batteries store the electrical energy until you tap into it. Be advised that there are a lot of types of batteries that can be used with solar systems, and some kinds are better for some applications than others. I’ll do a blog that discusses battery types and features in the future, but this one is about solar power for dummies, so we’re keeping it simple. But I will say this — not all batteries are suitable for indoor use. Some of them emit fumes that require that they be for outdoor use only. Read the small print before you buy.
  • An inverter. Solar panels and the batteries used with them have something important in common. They work with direct current (DC) power. Your car battery also uses DC power. Nothing in your house does. All the electrical appliances and gadgets that we use run on alternating current (AC). So how does one get the DC power stored in your batteries into the AC power that your electrical stuff craves? With an inverter. Don’t ask me how it does it. I’ve already told you more than I know. But the bottom line is that you plug your stuff into the outlets on your inverter and it works, just like plugging into your home’s electrical outlets.

Just four pieces. Panels, charge controller, battery, and inverter. Mystery solved. schematic of a basic solar power system

Is that really all you need? If you’re keeping it small, portable, and simple, the answer is yes. If you’re going to expand your system, which you can do to meet your growing needs, you’ll want to add fuses and input/output meters and who knows what else. But at that point you’ve gone beyond small, portable, and simple, which is what we’re shooting for today.

More on Inverters

I told my stove guy that I was looking into a solar powered solution to my electrical back-up need for the pellet stove. He was dubious. While he was pro-solar in general, he had heard a number of reports from customers who had tried solar powered back-up systems and had poor results. The electrical components of the pellet stoves ran erratically or not at all when running on solar power. He didn’t know why.

a pure sine wave and a modified sine waveAh, but I do! It all goes back to the inverter, the magic box that coverts the battery’s DC power to usable AC. The electricity coming out of your wall socket comes out in nice, smooth “sine waves.” All of your electrical devices love these pure sine waves, but less expensive inverters don’t generate pure sine waves. They generate “modified” sine waves. In this case, modified means chunky. Depending on how good the modification is, the waves can be almost pure or they can be clunky, chunky stair steps. A modified sine wave is good enough for many electrical devices, but not all of them. You’ll get a lot of “noise” on TVs or audio devices — and apparently, pellet stoves don’t like modified sine waves at all. For my purposes, I would need an inverter that generates pure sine waves. You can buy them, but they’re more expensive than modified sine wave units.

DIY vs Goal Zero

So how does the home brew system match up with the sleek and sexy Goal Zero equipment? I put a lot of time and effort into finding the right components to beat the price of the Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar generator, but I just couldn’t do it. Too many trade-offs. I wanted small, simple, and portable. I wanted something that was safe for indoor use. I wanted a pure sine wave inverter. The expandability of a homemade component system would be nice, but not absolutely necessary for a starter purchase. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 provides all of the features I wanted and more.

If (when) my power goes down, I’ll want more than just my pellet stove to work. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 has two AC outlets and two USB ports. It doesn’t come with solar panels. You have to buy them separately (just as you would with a homebrew system). But here’s a huge plus — you can also charge the battery on the Yeti 400 by just plugging it into a wall outlet. Your home’s electrical system can keep the Yeti fully charged and ready to rock until your power goes off. This is a feature that I really, really like, because recharging the Yeti from solar panels might not always be a better option than from a wall outlet while the grid is up. It also meant that I didn’t need to buy solar panels right away (which my dwindling budget appreciated). A wall outlet recharger would be a fifth piece to a DIY setup, and I only found one vendor that carries anything like that. You can buy them online from Northern Arizona Wind & Sun, but it adds $154 to the price of the component system. This made the Yeti the clear winner for my needs in terms of both features and price. Another added plus is that you can also recharge the Yeti from a car battery. That feature might be the icing on the cake for some users, but it’s not something that I feel a need for right now. But it’s there if I need it. Better to have it and not need it… And the Yeti also has a simple meter built into its control panel that shows you how much charge is currently in the battery and how much power is being drawn by the stuff that you’re running off of it. A meter like this would be another expenditure in a homemade system.

Getting back to the expandability issue that I said would be nice, the Yeti 400 allows you to daisy-chain more batteries to the system, giving you more capacity than what comes in the box. You can’t add on to it infinitely like you could with a homemade system, but it provides a degree of flexibility while staying small and simple. I’ll most almost certainly go to a component-based solar setup at some future date, but that doesn’t negate my preference for a Goal Zero Yeti for my particular current need. Having a solar unit that was designed from the ground up to be grab-and-go portable just makes good sense to me, for bug-out or any number of other uses.

The Bottom Line

I haven’t had my new pellet stove delivered and installed yet because I’ve been gone on vacation, so the solar back-up unit hasn’t been an immediate need, but I knew going into the pellet stove purchase that this would be a vital part of the stove system. I never would have bought the pellet stove without this capability being available to me, but by the time you read this, I may have already placed my order with Goal Zero.

As a closing remark, I said up front that I wanted something small to get into solar power, but it had to be something that met an actual need cost-effectively. I’m guessing that most of you don’t have a burning need for a back-up power system for a pellet stove (yet, but many of you may have a need for an electrical outlet where none exist. It could be while you’re camping or doing something in your yard or elsewhere outdoors. Goal Zero has a lot of products that meet these kinds of needs head on. Simple, portable, rechargeable electric power. I know some folks who use the dreaded CPAP masks for sleeping with apnea. A battery back-up system like one of the Yetis could be wonderful to have for when your power goes off. CPAP users can even go camping with them. There are probably other medical devices that aren’t coming to my mind right now that could be run off a Yeti when the power goes down.

I’m not trying to sell you anything (although, in the interest of full disclosure, we make a little money from the purchases made when you click on the ads on this site). We NEVER want to nudge anyone toward buying something they don’t want or need) — just doing a little brainstorming. At the risk of nullifying what I’ve just said about not trying to sell you anything, allow me to inform you that Goal Zero is having a Buy 2, Get 1 Free sale on their 15-watt solar panels. It’s a $90 value (nothing to sneeze at), and is good through October 31, 2014 when you use the code EXTRASOLAR at checkout. Just thought you’ like to know.

Heating Your Home Off the GridWe live in a drafty, 50-year-old house. Despite having a good furnace in our basement, the ductwork was done in such a crazy way that what little air gets to the second floor couldn’t begin to be called warm. We’ve explored various options with multiple HVAC vendors over the years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be fixed. So our furnace doesn’t do a great job of heating our whole house. We’ve tolerated the situation by supplementing our heat with space heaters in the three mostly commonly used rooms. Not a great option and an expensive one.

Also, if we get hit with a power outage of any duration, we have no heat at all. Our forced air natural gas furnace requires electricity. That means we need something that would become our primary heating solution in a power outage situation. So last year we started to think about installing a wood-burning stove.

Wood-Burning Stoves Are Great!

Wood stoves are the darlings of the prepper crowd. They’re simple, durable, affordable, and about as old-school as you can get. And now there are also catalytic wood-burners that are much more efficient than basic models. As it turns out, nearly half of what makes up a log is smoke and creosote, both of which are merely wasted byproducts when you burn logs in a conventional wood-burner. A catalytic wood stove gets so hot that it burns the smoke and creosote too, making your wood-burner almost twice as efficient. If you have an adequate source of free timber, a wood stove becomes a no-brainer. Sign me up!

So why don’t we have one yet? Why did we spend all of last winter living out of a bedroom with a space heater to try to save the cost of heating the whole house? What was the deal breaker for us?

Our Problems with Wood Stoves

With a wood-burning stove, you are required to have a substantial chimney that can sustain a lot of heat. The chimney has to extend above your roof. Since we live in a two-story house, the new chimney would cost as much as the stove itself, doubling the price of the new heating system. The affordable wood stove was no longer affordable for us. We don’t have deep pockets. The addition of the chimney requirement knocked the wood stove out of our price range. We made do without, and hoped for no power outages. But the need was still there, and so was the desire.

OK, we could take a little time and save some money to build the chimney that we would need, but there are other downsides to a wood burner for our set of circumstances. We may decide to move elsewhere. We could presumably take our wood stove with us, but the chimney is staying put. That money is gone. If we took the wood stove with us, we would most likely have to pay to construct a new one at the new location. More money.

Any other problems? Yes, at least for us.Wood stoves put out inconsistent heat. They’re cold until you start a fire in them, then they get blazing hot for a while, then they burn with a steady heat for number of hours, but they eventually burn down and get cold again. A moderate-sized stove would need to be stoked about three times a day to keep the house from getting cold. Call me lazy (it’s been done before), but that’s a bit high-maintenance for me.

What else? For the time being, we live in a rural area, but we’re “townies.” We live on an unwooded quarter-acre lot. We don’t have any friends that own acres of forest that would give us wood for free. That means that we would have to buy firewood and have it delivered to our home (because we don’t own a truck, either). Yes, we want a truck. (At least I do. Sandy isn’t sold on buying one yet.) Yes, we want to live on land that has a lot of trees. But right now we just aren’t there and we need to do something that will meet our current needs within our current limitations.

For all these reasons, we abandoned our pursuit of a wood-burning stove last year and just decided to wait things out a bit longer.

Pellets for Preppers?

Being city kids and fairly new preppers, we didn’t know anything about wood stoves until we started shopping for them last year. We visited a couple of dealerships and found that there was another alternative to wood stoves that is pretty popular now — the pellet-burning stove.

Pellet stoves are high-tech wonders dressed in wood stove clothing. They look like a wood stove, but they don’t work like a wood stove. Instead of burning logs, pellet stoves burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. Pellets come in 40-pound bags, like buying a big bag of dog food. Dump a bag in the hopper and a motor feeds a small quantity of pellets to the burn pan. Pellet stoves are more efficient than wood-burners and need to be cleaned less frequently.

Pellet stoves are popular because they are a blend of the time-honored effectiveness of a wood stove with modern technology. Many pellet stoves are thermostatically controlled to maintain a consistent temperature in your home. The thermostat on a pellet stove controls the rate that the pellets are fed into the burn pan. If no more burn is needed for a while, the thermostat will shut the stove off and then electronically reignite itself when a new burn is required, keeping the heat consistent all day and night. And you only need to fill the hopper once a day. Pellet stoves are a cleaner and more efficient alternative to wood stoves, which is why they’re so popular these days. At least with the non-prepper crowd.

The Problems with Pellets

But we didn’t even give pellet stoves a second glance last year. They just aren’t “prepper.” The big issue is that they require electricity to feed pellets into the burn chamber and to ignite them. We want to go closer to being off-grid and any major appliance that requires electricity is a step in the wrong direction.

Besides that, pellet stoves aren’t simple or old-school. They are full of moving parts and electronics (even a motherboard, for crying out loud!) that can fail and need to be replaced. Where are you going to get a new motherboard in a TEOTWAWKI situation? Very un-prepper.

You want more unprepperliness? Pellet stoves can’t burn logs. They aren’t built for it. Instead of cutting down a tree and throwing hunks of it in the stove, you have to buy pellets that are made in a factory. If (when) the grid goes down, it will be mighty hard to procure a few tons of factory-made pellets.

Not very prepperly at all. No thank you. What self-respecting prepper in his or her right mind would choose a pellet stove over a wood stove?

If you guessed us, you’d be correct.

What Were You Thinking?

Yes, we are the proud owners of a new pellet stove, just awaiting delivery and installation in a month or so. “What!?” you say. “What were you thinking? How could you possibly choose pellet stove over a wood-burner?”

This summer, we ran into one of the local wood stove dealers at our county fair. He had a pellet stove set up for a demo. We told him that we were close to buying a wood stove last year, but the cost of the chimney installation killed that plan. He told us that we should consider a pellet stove. Instead of an expensive chimney that extends above your roof, you just need to vent them out of the side of your house like a clothes dryer vent. Cheap and easy!

Yeah, but pellet stoves had one inherent drawback that we just couldn’t get past. We wanted an off-the-grid heating solution, and pellet stoves require electricity. The stove guy smiled when we said “off-the-grid” and told us that he was very like-minded himself — and that the electrical components in the pellet stove only required six watts of electricity to run. So little that we would never see it on our electricity bill if we installed one. So little that we could hook it up to a battery back-up unit to power the stove if our electricity goes down. And we could recharge the battery with solar panels. This electric appliance could do it’s thing off the grid.

Overcoming Objections

It’s amazing how a little additional information can cause your train of thought to go in a radically different direction. Our objections to a wood stove were still fully in effect, but our major objections to the pellet-burner were being overcome.

OK, but what about the issue of burning logs versus manufactured pellets? In our case, that was a tie. Since we don’t have access to free firewood, we would have to buy it and truck it in, the same as we will for pellets. In our situation, neither works well in a long-term grid-down situation. But we’re not going to let the potential of the grid going down stop us from getting a supplemental heating system that meets our needs now. We’re looking into a small solar-charged battery system to serve as our electrical back-up unit. It will be my excuse to dive into the world of solar energy on a small scale with a very practical application.

Another factor is that we may decide to move to a better location someday. The pellet stove can come with us. It’s much lighter than a wood-burner, making it easier to transport. It doesn’t require an expensive chimney in the new location — just a vent out the side of the wall. It’s even safe and approved for use in a mobile home. And we won’t have to leave an expensive chimney behind when we leave this house.

Pellets are fairly cheap right now. If you keep them dry, they can be stored for years. The don’t attract pests like logs do. We can stock up on pellets and be good for a while. Just two or three tons of pellets would give us a whole year to figure out our what to do next in a true TEOTWAWKI situation.

So with much lower cost of installation, our no-power-grid objection mitigated, and the portability of the pellet stove benefit, we opted for a Harman pellet stove. Can’t wait to have it installed – our weather is already hitting 45° in the early hours of the morning.

I imagine some of you are still thinking “Dude…it’s not prepper!” Perhaps not, but what works for one prepper doesn’t work for every prepper. We’re surprised we ended up with a pellet stove, but are confident it’s the best option for us. You can’t let yourself get stuck in a single mindset. Sometimes the best solution to your needs is something that goes against the flow.

We’ll let you know how well our new pellet stove heats our drafty home in February or March.

EDIT: This bundle is no longer available. It was a great deal, but the consortium of prepper authors who put this together were true to their word about this being a very limited time offer. They’re talking about some other products in the future. We’ll let you know of any worthwhile specials that we find.

We don’t do a lot of selling on this site. That’s not what we’re about. The purpose of this site is this:

  • To inform people of the potential dangers we all face in these unstable days we live in
  • To motivate people to take steps to prepare themselves for an emergency
  • To educate people about what they can do to make those preparations

But sometimes the best way to accomplish one or more of those goals is to recommend a product. This is one of those times.

A group of preparedness authors have banded together to offer a package deal of their books and instructional materials at a discount so deep it’s too good to pass up. It’s only $29, but that price is only good until this coming Monday (September 23, 2013). I don’t know what the price will jump to then, but it is an absolute steal at this introductory price of $29. They say the retail value of the package is $700. I haven’t done the math, but a cursory glance at the wealth of materials will confirm that they’re darned close. I bought one for myself right away. It was a no-brainer. I got enough stuff in this bundle to keep me learning and prepping through the cold winter months to come.

Ultimate Survival BundleThe Ultimate Survival Bundle is a collection of downloadable books, videos, and audio presentations that covers most of the critical areas of emergency preparedness or survival. Included in the package are a couple of books that give a comprehensive treatment of preparedness and it is well worth the bundle price of $29 just to get those two books. They are Making the Best of Basics (edition 12.5) by James “Doctor Prepper” Stevens, which sells on Amazon for $28.99 (one cent less than this entire bundle); and The Untrained Housewife’s Guide to Getting Prepared (also sold on Amazon).

Topics covered by resources in the Ultimate Survival Bundle include food storage, gardening, alternative energy, security, homesteading, medical preparedness, raising animals, and ethical issues. A total of 46 resources from 36 different authors. Some are very broad while others are highly specialized. Here are some examples:

  • A 150-page book on dehydrating food, written by the author of a book on the same topic for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series that you’ve seen in bookstores
  • A 101-page guide to herbal medicines, which sells for $29.67 on Amazon (I’ve looked up all of these Amazon prices myself to get a sense of the value of this package)
  • A 266-page book about wind power from a consumer’s point of view
  • A 106-page book on “apartment gardening” – growing your own food in limited spaces
  • A book on solar energy that sells for $19 on Amazon
  • A 40-page booklet on how to build a fire
  • A 228-page book on raising goats
  • A 62-page book on building and living in a yurt (after browsing this bad boy I am really wanting to get me a yurt!)

Click on this link to go to a page that gives details about all of the many products included in this package.

Besides books, there are also a few videos that you can download. Two of them are instructions on how to build a greenhouse, companion videos to a book on that topic that is also a part of the package. These video files are very large and will take a while to download. One is two hours long (2 gigabyte file size) and the second in a little over an hour long (1 gigabyte). Another video is a half-hour presentation on hand-to-hand self-defense techniques.

I could go on, but I’m going to try to contain my enthusiasm. The bottom line is that if there’s not something in the Ultimate Survival Bundle that gets your juices flowing, you’re not a prepper. At $29, this is one of the biggest bangs for the buck that I’ve encountered in a very long time. I can blow that much on pizza in a week. This is a deal that will give me something to chew on for much longer than that. When you’re ready to order, click here. Get it while you can get it cheap.
UltimateSurvivalBundle.com

gasoline shortageI read a lot of prepper and survivalist websites and have email subscriptions to a several related newsletters. They provide ideas and inspiration for many of the blog postings that I write. One of my favorite readiness sites is Jeff Anderson’s Modern Combat and Survival. I like Jeff’s site because he provides practical, real-world tips in articles that (unlike mine) are short and sweet. As Bill O’Reilly would say, Jeff “keeps it pithy.”

I recently got an email from Jeff in which he talked about four places you don’t want to be during a disaster. These are places that the unprepared flock to in order to address problems that they could have prepared themselves for far in advance. Here is Jeff’s pithy list with my verbose commentary and addendum:

  • Gas station. Amen to that! I’ve lived through a couple of gasoline shortages in my lifetime. I’ve seen the long lines of cars that extend down the block and the news reports of shootings as tempers flare out of control. In a disaster, everyone is going to want to fill their gas tanks. Fuel storage is one of the most challenging aspects of prepping. In a collapse scenario, acquiring fuel of all types will be one of the biggest problems most people will face.How many of us have the means of safely storing a significant amount of fuel, keeping it stable for long-term storage, and keeping it secure from those who would want to take it from us? I know that I don’t. I don’t have a place to put a tank like that on my property that wouldn’t be a huge fire hazard. Nor do I have a way of protecting it 24 hours a day from desperate, determined thieves. So what can we do? For those of you who live in a location where you could store and secure a reasonable amount of gasoline, I urge you to think about doing so. For the vast majority of the rest of us, I would encourage you to never let the gas tank in any of your vehicles to go below half full. I would also recommend that you have at least one vehicle that gets good gas mileage. And you should also consider acquiring a bicycle for every member of your family. They’re fun and good exercise right now. Down the road, they could become your primary means of transportation.
  • Grocery store. This one should be obvious to all. While I’ve been a witness to gas shortage lines, I’ve had the good fortune to never be in a place where there was a run on the grocery stores. But I’ve seen pictures of stores whose shelves have been picked clean by people stocking up on anything and everything they could get their hands on in advance of a coming storm. Food storage is so basic that I don’t feel a need to beat that drum again in this article.
  • Hardware store. I’ve also seen pictures of people standing in endless lines to buy plywood and supplies for boarding up their windows as a storm threatens them. These are people who waited until the last minute to make any preparations to ride out their storm. They could have taken note of the natural disasters that their area is prone to and prepared for them in advance. They could have observed the season that they were in (tornados in the spring, hurricanes in the summer and fall, ice storms or blizzards in the winter) and equipped themselves in advance to deal with it. What do you lack for surviving in the location where you live?
  • Hospital. I work in the Emergency Room of a small, rural hospital. My hospital is a 50-bed facility next door to a cornfield. Even a place like that can get really busy on any given night. A nurse does an assessment of every patient as they come in before they are put in an examining room to be seen by the doctor. On busy nights when we fill up all the examining rooms we have to bounce patients back out to the waiting room until an examining room opens up. Patients are admitted to an examining room in the order of the severity of their ailment. On busy nights, patients with relatively minor conditions can wait for hours to see the doctor. Some patients decide that they can deal with it on their own, rather than wait all night to be treated. And this is what it’s like in a rural hospital, in a non-emergency situation. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work at a much larger hospital in a big city. And then I take a moment to thank God that I live and work where I do. Medicine and first aid supplies are often overlooked or assigned too low of a priority by people who are beginning to prep. What medicines (both over-the-counter and prescription) do you take now? You need to lay in a supply of them and rotate your stock. Do you know how to perform first aid? You probably need to take a class or two, and stock up on first aid supplies. Trust me. You DO NOT want to find yourself at a hospital during or after a disaster of any sort.

That rounds out Jeff Anderson’s list of the places that you don’t want to be during or after a disaster. As I pondered his list, I came up with a couple of other locations that I thought should be added:

  • Sporting goods store. No, I’m not talking about stocking up on soccer balls and catcher’s mitts. How about camping equipment, sleeping bags, outdoor cooking equipment, lanterns, fishing gear, knives, firearms, and ammunition? Sporting goods stores are chock full of things that people will need to live in the aftermath of a disaster. You should plan a trip to a sporting goods superstore and spend some time there. As you browse the entire store, including areas that you have never had any interest in before, consider it from a prepping point of view and make a list of items that you will need or want in an emergency. Incorporate this list into your priority ranking of things you need to buy.
  • Bank. The late, great, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar was fond of saying, “Money isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s reasonably close to oxygen.” Zig was right about this, as he was about most things. There are many other things that we need more than money, but money still has a prominent place near the top of the list. You need to have some cash that you can access quickly in an emergency, without going to a bank to get it. It should be enough to tide you over for a while, and much of it should be in small bills. You don’t want to have to give someone a $100 bill for something that you could have bought for $5. You might want to buy a couple of small, fireproof safes or boxes that you could hide in your house or elsewhere. As with all aspects of prepping, you need to take a balanced approach with the stockpiling of cash. You need to have a supply of cash, but it needs to be proportional to your other preps. You shouldn’t set so much cash aside that you deprive yourself of buying other things that you need; but you also shouldn’t go on a shopping spree and leave yourself with no cash reserves. As your stockpile of material goods increases, you can increase your cash supply as well. Balance and proportion, people! Balance and proportion!

The bottom line on all of this boils down to forethought, planning, and action. A real emergency situation will find the establishments list above to be mobbed by desperate people. They will become violent. You don’t want to be where they are. You must address your needs in advance to the best of your ability. What will you need first? What will you need most desperately? What do you use the most of? Think about what you’re going to need before you need it, and buy it now. Make a list, prioritize it, and start shopping. And don’t just think in terms of material goods, but also skills. What will you need to do? What will you need to know? What skills to you lack? Learn them and start practicing them now.

Retro pressure cookerAre you stocking up on dried beans in anticipation of hard times to come? Me, too. Dried beans are nearly perfect prepper food. They store well, they’re versatile in recipes, they’re high in protein and fiber while being low in fat, and they’re crazy tasty. Nearly perfect.

Nearly. But not quite.

The downside of dried beans is that it takes a long time to cook them. Long cooking times generally means lots of energy consumption. Preppers are all about energy conservation, so the challenge becomes finding ways to cook foods that require long cooking times without burning huge amounts of energy. There are a number of good solutions to this problem, but if you took the time to read the title of this posting you’ve probably been waiting for me to stop beating around the bush and get to the topic of pressure cookers.

Your patience has been rewarded.

Pressure cookers are old school, but you may have noticed that a lot of prepping skills are old school. When it comes to prepping, we all need to “unplug” and step away from the gadgets (says the guy who’s writing this blog on his laptop while watching satellite TV on his HD big-screen). But I digress.

Pressure cookers cook slow foods really quickly. Pinto beans cook in 12 minutes. Compare that to anywhere from one to three hours of cooking in a conventional pot. Lentils are ready to eat in just 7 minutes.

Sandy asked what I was writing about and said, “What do you know about pressure cookers?” The true answer is “not much,” but I’m about to get a lot smarter because I’m about to read this awesome infographic that I downloaded from www.HipPressureCooking.com. They have graciously given permission for this excellent graphic to be used on our humble site. Be prepared to be entertained while you’re being educated.

pressure_cooker_infographic

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.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with a friend!

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.

Heating Your Home Off the GridMy house isn’t very old, but it’s cold. I have furnace and ductwork problems that can’t be fixed without throwing a ton of money at them. That’s not an option. Not for me, at least. And the ductwork issue prevents me from just adding a supplemental heat source into the existing system, so I’ve been exploring other options.

Being a prepper-minded individual, I don’t just want something that will supplement my furnace right now. I’m thinking emergency heating. If my power goes out, I lose my furnace altogether and will need a new primary heat source. There must be a decent way of heating your home off the grid.

My house is a two-story, 2300 sq. ft. colonial. It’s rectangular, wider along the front than it is deep. I have a perfectly good wood burning fireplace in my family room, which is in the left front corner of the house. Looks like help is on the way, right? But nothing is that easy.

That’s because my living room, where we spend all of our free time, is on the right side of the house, separated from the family room by the entryway. And my bedroom, which is the coldest room in the house because of the ductwork issue, is directly above the living room. Is there a fireplace solution that would make the whole house warm?

Building a Fire in a Fireplace

It’s been widely reported that using your fireplace actually makes your house colder. How can that be? First, it should be obvious that most of the heat is going to go straight up your chimney. Heat rises and you have a big hole in your house just above the fire. The only heat that you get is radiant heat. Second, the fire requires oxygen, which it sucks from the room the fireplace is in. The fireplace room then replaces the escaping air with air from adjacent rooms. Where to do these rooms replace their air from? Outside. So while your fireplace is making your den warm and cozy, it’s causing the rest of your house to suck cold air in from the outside, causing a net loss of heat and creating drafts. Don’t believe me? According to many sources, including the Canadian government, Mother Earth News, and the cable TV show Mythbusters, it’s true. Google it for yourself.

Does that eliminate my perfectly good fireplace from consideration as an alternative heat source? Thankfully, no.

The Better Mousetrap – A Fireplace Insert

A fireplace insert corrects many of the problems caused by a standard fireplace. A fireplace insert is essentially a wood-burning stove set into a fireplace. It is much more efficient than a plain fireplace because it is a closed combustion system — heat radiates out from the insert, but it doesn’t cause your house to suck cold air in from the outside. You can also add an electric blower that will help to circulate the warm air farther.

You can buy a fireplace inserts that burns a number of types of fuel, including electricity, natural gas, propane, wood, coal, wood pellets, or corn. The type that you buy will be dependent upon what type of fuel you think will be most readily available to you during whatever emergency you are preparing for. For me, that rules out electricity, natural gas, propane, and coal right away.

The Appeal of Pellets

I’m drawn to pellet burners for a lot of reasons. While wood is the most traditional fuel and is still a leading contender, it’s messy. I don’t live on a wood farm, so I don’t have access to my own wood supply. I’m a “townie,” so I’d have to buy my wood, haul it here, and store it outside away from the house. If I were facing a long-term disaster, the acquisition and transportation of the wood would become a problem. Once here, I would have to secure it so that others didn’t steal it from me. The wood has to be split and seasoned properly (allowed to dry for a year or more). It’s heavy, attracts bugs, and has to be lugged into the house every day. Wood is nice, but all of these negatives make it less than attractive to me.

Pellets, on the other hand, come in tidy 40-pound bags. You pour a bag into the hopper of your pellet-burner and it feeds them into the fire box, burns them dumps the small amount of ash that it creates into an ash pot. They are cleaner and more efficient than a wood-burner. Very appealing.

The Problem with Pellets

Except…pellet burners only burn pellets. You can’t convert them to burn wood when your source of pellets runs out. And worst of all, they run on electricity. The pellets are fed from the hopper to the fire box by an electric-powered auger. The ignition system is electronic. The blower is electric. I could run all the electrical stuff from a generator for a short-term emergency, but I’m planning for medium to long-term. Anything electrical isn’t going to cut it. We’ve got to kick it old school. And that leaves me with wood.

The more research I did, the less I was leaning toward a fireplace insert. For starters, there is the issue with where my fireplace is located— at the opposite side in my house of where I spend most of my time. Then there’s the issue of how much heat an insert puts out. As I said, it’s essentially a wood stove that has been inserted into a fireplace opening. It’s cube shaped. A cube has six sides, but the fireplace insert is only presenting one of sides to my room. The other five are covered up.

The Old School Solution

A real freestanding wood-burning stove radiates heat from all six sides. Because of that, it has a much higher BTU rating. That means greater efficiency, which equals less cost to operate. My major gripe about going with a stove is that I will have to vent it to an insulated chimney pipe. I recently priced the cost of the pipe alone at almost $1,800. Cost of the total system installed would be in the neighborhood of $5,000. (Join me in saying, “Yikes!!!”)

But what am I supposed to do? I need something now (or at least by next fall) that will supplement my existing furnace, and I need something off-the-grid for when the lights go off.

Looks like I’m going to have to have a bake sale or something to raise the money.

More on this, plus an alternative to messy wood for a wood-burner, in a future blog.