Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alabama Tornado Disaster

As long-time readers know, I lived 100% offgrid for several years. I do not currently, though. At least I didn't until Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at about 1 PM. That is when the tornado disaster began in my part of north Alabama. As I write this, it is just after 1 PM on Saturday, so it has been just about 72 hours. Even those somewhat prepared folks who had a 72 hour bug-out bag are wondering what to do now.
We are doing OK. Here at the new place I do not have my full offgrid setup, nor even a portable generator. What I do have is an experimental DC generator that I put together awhile back for a Youtube video, consisting of a Chinese 10 horsepower air-cooled diesel engine powering an automotive alternator. This is charging a spare truck battery, which in turn is powering a portable 1500 watt Statpower inverter. This has been enough to run the refrigerator for a cycle a couple of times per day, power the satellite Internet transceiver/modem for long enough to check in once a day, keep my laptop charged, power the TV and its satellite receiver for an hour or so each day, keep other assorted battery-powered devices charged, power a few lights, etc. That puts us in far better condition than most people in north Alabama.
When all this started, the reports were that power would be restored within 72 hours. Now they have revised that to one week. Who knows how long it will really last. What if the storms come through again? The power utility spokesman said that even when the power is restored, they will not have the normal system redundancy for several weeks.
I woke up this morning thinking about all that, and wondering if I should perhaps work on bringing one of my serious continuous-duty generators here, so that we can power the water heater and air conditioners. I've decided to hold off on that, because it would take at least a full day of labor to do so. Instead, I have been working on improving my existing setup, switching the portable inverter out for the commercial-grade hard mount inverter I used in my offgrid setup, and swapping out the truck battery for a pair of golf-cart batteries from the original battery bank. They showed only a couple of volts each when I tested them, but I connected the 10 amp battery-charge stator of the engine to them yesterday, and they seem to be coming back to life. If they work OK today and tomorrow, maybe I will get the other six out of storage Monday. That will go a long way toward improving matters here.
I have been shooting some video of the makeshift generator in operation, through a couple of stages of improvement. I don't plan to upload them until the utilities are restored, because even a few minutes of video takes all day to upload with my satellite connection. When I do upload them, I will embed the videos here.
Update: OK, here's the first video, and here's another one. You can go here to watch the original video of the genny.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; a real 60-cycle AC generator head is far, far better than any automotive alternator. Automotive alternators are horribly inefficient and produce very little power for the fuel they consume. I built it not because it makes a good generator, but just to show people what can be done if it is all you have. You can put together a workable generator for minimal, short-term electrical power generation for under $100, especially if you already own a lawn mower from whence to source the engine. In fact, if you have a riding mower, you can add an alternator to it, and still be able to use it for mowing.

Update: since I wrote the above, our utilities have been restored. The news outlet I was monitoring is in a nearby large city. Their utilities are still off, as far as I know. But we live in a different county and our electricity is coming from a different direction, so even though we are in a quite rural area, having a smaller system worked in our favor. This time.
Nevertheless, I put in several hours of work, improving my makeshift power plant so that if the utilities go down again I can react immediately.
Lessons learned:
  • Have a generator. While I didn't totally fail in that regard, I'm really happy that these past few nights have been cool, as I didn't have enough generating capacity to run an air conditioner. I really need to set up one of my "real" gensets here.
  • Have fuel. Again, not a total failure, because I did have a bit of diesel fuel, and was able to pump some out of the tractor to make up the difference. But I used to store a 55 gallon drum of diesel fuel, and I need to do that again. We took a road trip for more fuel to make sure we would have enough. One thing I noticed was that diesel fuel was in far more plentiful supply than gasoline. Also, diesel fuel lasts much longer in storage than gasoline. That should tell you something about what kind of generator you should have.
  • Cooking and heating fuel, too. I had one 20 lb tank of propane and one gallon of Coleman fuel. Also a little kerosene and one bag of charcoal briquettes. And I have the means of cooking with all of the above. Of course, I also have a nearly unlimited supply of dry wood, so I will definitely be able to cook and heat stuff. But I really need to keep a couple of 20 lb propane tanks and my two, 100 lb tanks full at all times, a couple of additional gallons of Coleman fuel, and more kerosene. It is nice to know that you don't have to worry about cooking and heating fuel, especially if this had been a winter event.
  • Food. We were a bit low of food, but we certainly had enough to last a week. More canned goods would be good though, both store-bought and home-canned varieties.
  • Cash. It is a good idea to keep at least $100 on hand.
A few thoughts are in order about the road trip. I was amazed to see no fuel stations up and running on generator power the day after the event, although by the second day I was hearing reports that some local stations did have generator power. But I'll bet somebody drove to Nashville to buy generators.
We took the road trip to buy diesel to make sure we had enough to last at least a week, and to fill up one vehicle. We took a gasoline-powered vehicle, but in retrospect it would have been better to drive the diesel truck and bring back gas and diesel in cans. We thought we would only have to go to the Tennessee state line, which is fairly close, since we had it on good authority that the power was on there. What we didn't count on was that everybody else in north Alabama had the same idea. There was a long line extending down the road from most gas stations, traffic jams in between, and many stations were running out of gasoline (but not diesel, as I mentioned). All of the stations were accepting cash only. Remember where I said it is a good idea to keep $100 on hand? We only had $40 on hand. And there was price gouging. Between the time I pulled up to the pump and when I reached the register after standing in line, the price went up. We got $20 worth of diesel at the new higher price, and saw the tanker truck pulling in to replenish the gasoline supply, so we waited and got $20 of gas, too. Then we headed for the Interstate to find a place that would take the card. We found one, but everyone was sitting around waiting while the station raised the prices. Literally. They made everyone stop pumping, and shut the pumps down so they could price gouge right before our eyes. So we left, with the intention of driving all the way to Nashville if we had to, to conduct a normal business transaction. We found success in Columbia, TN.
So, do I think "there oughtta be a law?" No, but unfortunately, the state legislature is talking about it now. I think governmental price controls are a very bad idea. I just think the consumer should make note of businesses that price gouge, and take their business elsewhere. Permanently. And tell other people about it, too. I don't want to deal with jerks like that anyway, even if the government forces them to set prices at a reasonable level.
But if we were more prepared, we wouldn't have to venture out during the disaster in the first place. And that applies to bugging out, too. Sometimes it is necessary. But it is far better and safer to "bug in", if the situation allows and you are prepared to do so.
By the way, if you would like a small diesel engine like the one I am using in this application, you can get one at this link:
10 hp air-cooled diesel engine
The last time I checked, they had 10 in stock, with free shipping to the lower 48. This is the same company, located in Michigan, that I bought mine from in 2007, and they are still in business. So they are a reliable company.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lock Up Your Cell Phone!

In this post, I reported on the new legal reality that police can view the contents of your cell phone under the Supreme Court's "closed container" ruling. Michigan is now taking that further than even I would have expected, this soon at least.
Michigan State Police are now asking for your cell phone along with the standard travelling papers you are required to present. If you hand it over, they use a device called UFED to download its contents. Everything. Contacts, texts, GPS data tracking everywhere you have been, photos, videos, notes. Probably even GPS records of how fast you have driven and where, which they could conceivably use as probable cause for the search in the first place, if speeding is what they pulled you over for.

The UFED is not some new tool designed for the police, by the way. A company called CelleBrite produces it for use by your cell phone provider, to program your phone. That brings up another possibility: suppose the police, after downloading your data, upload a backdoor into your phone so they can access it remotely at will? The phones certainly have this capability, as this 2006 story shows, but it may not be accessible to local cops. That immediately changes for any police agency that has a UFED.
The ACLU is fighting this in Michigan, but the police are stonewalling and refusing to give them information. Well, okay, not quite refusing: they have agreed to give them access to some data from five of the UFEDs, for a small administrative fee of just $544,680, a bit over a half million dollars. ACLU must be getting the word out that you are not required to hand over your cell phone though, because TV networks in the Detroit area are airing "public service" ads by the state police advising you to comply if you have nothing to hide.
Believe me, you have everything to hide.

As for my advice in my earlier article to password protect your cellphone, that is no longer enough. UFED bypasses the password. So I would still password protect it, but also never leave the phone out where a cop can see it, and don't reply if he asks for it. Don't lie and say you don't have one, just remain silent on the issue. In fact, I think it would be a good idea to put a lockable container of some sort in your car to keep things you don't want to hand over to cops, and just reach over and lock it anytime you are pulled over or see a roadblock ahead. Preferably, this container will be something that can be locked into the vehicle as well, so bad guys of all description will not be able to easily remove it from your car. It is sad indeed that law-abiding folks need to take such precautions, but that is the way things have gotten here.

Oh, by the way: just because only Michigan is mentioned in the article, don't assume your local or state police aren't doing it too. If they aren't now, it is a near certainty that they will be, or that you will eventually encounter some agency who does.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why Are We So Dependent on Foreign Oil?

Vlad just sent me this:


Prices are quoted in US dollars per gallon for regular unleaded as of March 2011

Oslo, Norway $6.82

Hong Kong$6.25

Brussels, Belgium $6.16

London, UK $5.96

Rome, Italy $5.80
CANADA $5.36

Tokyo, Japan $5.25

Sao Paul o , Brazil $4.42

New Delhi, India $3.71

Sidney, Australia $3.42

Johannesburg , South Africa $3.39

Mexico City$2.22

Buenos Aires, Argentina $2.09

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia $0.09

Kuwait $0.08

Caracas, Venezuela $0.12

Gee, if only the U.S. was an oil producing nation....."

Those countries subsidize fuel prices for the citizenry. It's smoke and mirrors, exactly the same way that prescription meds in the US are sometimes 50 cents a bottle for those with good insurance, while the same stuff is $300 without the insurance. That is the real reason most gasoline in the US contains ethanol, and most US-built cars are now "flexi-fuel": because the US government subsidizes corn. It is also in what the market will carry. Most Americans make enough money to pay $3.00 per gallon, and a large percentage of Americans are leftists who think it should be even higher.
Some of those oil-producing countries are having monetary troubles of their own, at least partially as a result of those subsidies. But we mustn't allow the proles to become alarmed by suddenly having to pay market price for fuel, right?
Instead of bellyaching about the price of oil, Americans need to wake up and start buying natural gas fuel conversion kits for their vehicles. They are available now, emissions are lower, operating cost is much lower, and the car can still be operated on gasoline same as before. Besides all those advantages, America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Not from the standpoint of subsidies, but from the standpoint of supply. That means that every CNG-powered car or truck out there reduces our dependence on foreign oil. I'm pretty sure you can buy a CNG ready vehicle directly from the dealer, too. If not, it wouldn't take very long for the automakers to get the message if we started refusing to buy ethanol-oriented cars and demanded CNG-powered cars. I mean, gasoline-electric hybrids don't even make economic sense, yet the automakers build them. Why? Consumer demand.

Look, I don't claim to have all the answers. But I have a few little pieces of information I have gleaned here and there, and I have learned to recognize mass-control rhetoric when I hear it.
There is one man who has proven himself to know what he is talking about, at least when it comes to the energy situation, and he seems to be straight up about it. By that I mean, the end result of what he says doesn't lead to ever more government control. That man is T. Boone Pickens, and anyone who is interested in the politics and realities of energy owes it to themselves to spend ten bucks for his book. Here is a link:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ultimate Survival Tablet

Jesse at Repair Launch just sent me this. In the opening paragraph it says: "As tech nerds we don’t like to think of the day when the power grid goes kaboom and our favorite toys become absolutely useless. Our solution comes in the form of the ultimate survival tab or the SHTF Tab."  I've gotta admit, it got me thinking. After all, I'm not just a DIY get-by-on-a-shoestring survivalist; I'm a tech geek on top of all that. I remember going into a daydreaming trance the first time I saw the communicators, tricorders and phasers on Star Trek. But I wanted all that stuff in one compact unit. So I'll play along, but I've gotta make a few changes to the basic idea.

First, no Apple stuff for me. It's gotta be open source. I want mine to run on a replaceable 18650 lithium ion rechargeable cell, too. They're cheap, the latest ones hold a 3 amp-hour charge, and any old 5 volt source can power an internal charging circuit. It needs to have removable storage; I like the SD form factor. I want internal, user-accessible GPS (the government requires it in cellphones, but it is usually not accessible to the owner, who is paying for it.

What else? A shortwave receiver would be nice. And how about a transmitter, too? Low power; you would be amazed what 50 milliwatts will do on HF. CW (Morse code) only, for power efficiency. You don't know Morse code, you say? It has a keyboard and a computer, so you don't really need to know Morse.
And how about wifi networking and digipeating? That you can disable of course, for opsec.
Might as well add a bright LED flashlight. Everybody uses their cellphone as a flashlight anyway; I don't know why the manufacturers haven't caught on.
And how about a capacitive-discharge firestarter? It could double as that weapon they were talking about.
What else? Night-vision viewer. They already have CCD cameras and LCD monitors; CCDs are night vision capable already. Add a bright IR LED for illumination, and you have a night vision device.

OK, that's enough for now. Note that these are all functions that could be realistically built into a small device, or in some cases are already there, ready to be hacked into functionality.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Are Your Emails Secure From Government Intrusion?

In a recent article, warns that email left on a third-party server, such as your webmail account, loses its fourth-Amendment protection after six months. That means government types can access it at will without a search warrant, your permission or even knowledge. A group of ISPs and other groups, including Google and AT&T, are pushing legislation to change that. But the government is having none of it, saying that requiring a court order or search warrant to access your and my emails would be "an unnecessary burden" on the government.

"James A. Baker, associate deputy attorney general, testified:
"Congress should recognize the collateral consequences to criminal law enforcement and the national security of the United States if ECPA were to provide only one means — a probable cause warrant — for compelling disclosure of all stored content. For example, in order to obtain a search warrant for a particular e-mail account, law enforcement has to establish probable cause to believe that evidence will be found in that particular account. In some cases, this link can be hard to establish. In one recent case, for example, law enforcement officers knew that a child exploitation subject had used one account to send and receive child pornography, and officers discovered that he had another email account, but they lacked evidence about his use of the second account.""

"Don’t expect Congress to come out in favor of expanding Americans’ civil liberties in the post–Sept. 11 world."

Or more importantly, upholding our natural rights. But they didn't prior to 9/11, either.

"CNET reported that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said demanding warrants would be a burden to law enforcement in addition to “the court system.”

Yeah, I know. Don't we members of the great collective known as "the public" know that it is our primary duty to make cops' and courts' jobs easier? 

By the way, I found out about this from Dr. Gary North, one of the smartest men I know.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bolger on Shantyboat Living

Phil Bolger is a name well known to anyone who builds, or contemplates building, their own boat at home. Here are some excerpts from a commentary he wrote by way of introducing a design for a live-aboard boat.

"Most readers live in a house of sorts, paying rent or mortgage, i.e., using significant portions of their budget for comfortable shelter. That money can be used effectively on the water as well, spending it first on a suitable craft, and then on supplies, repairs, fuel, etc. Indeed, depending on where, when, and how you care to live afloat, it may well be the cheapest and least regulated form of "living in comfortable shelter," assuming you actually like your local roots to be not much deeper than the bury of your anchors.

We are not talking here about dedicated mileage eating, cruising under sail or power. We are talking here about the usually overlooked option of moving rather limited distances at a time, under perfect choice of weather conditions, to a place you can either see already a few hundred yards away or can readily scout in a faster runabout carried aboard. We are talking here about "lifting your anchor every two weeks" as a local ordinance! harbormasters may require. We are talking here about living cleanly without discharge, be it in full view of but without annoying property owners ashore, or quietly tucked away in a marsh creek or an oxbow surrounded by nothing but nature. We are talking about the option of "staying around the area" for the full year, within reach of your post box ~ or gently "drifting" up and down the waters with the seasons, covering just a few miles or ten a day. Some formal berths, such as marinas and wharves, are suddenly very affordable in winter when the fair-weather yachties are all gone and ice and snow could make access to the shore unpredictable from day to day if you stayed out in the local bay or backwaters. Or you may already live in/move to a milder region in which a moderate amount of insulation won’t require much of a heating budget during the shorter days.

Between cell phones, photovoltaics, and windmills, working together with affordable huge industrial batteries, modern low electrical consumption radios, TVs and PCs, common availability of gasoline or #2 diesel, propane if you like it aboard, and endless square miles of empty dryout or flooded coastal marshland on the East and Gulf Coasts at least, and equally endless rivers, canals, estuaries, a formally itinerant lifestyle is perfectly possible around the town where your (temporary) job is, with true itinerant intentions unrestricted to last as long as you like it.

After the initial investment of savings, sweat, and some blood in the chosen craft, and a small emergency fund stashed away, onboard living can be pulled off with fixed income or periodic temp jobs to pad your budget a bit. If you can work out of your floating home, the better. But apart from getting supplies, including fuel, hitting formal pump-out stations (instead of going 3-plus miles offshore before pumping out waste), or tying up for repairs impossible afloat and by yourself, contact with people, authorities, and costly support services can be kept at a minimum if so desired. If you are determined and set it up right, you won’t be bothered by property taxes, building codes, snow in the driveway, flooding in the basement, termites in the roof, home improvement junk mail, and missionaries knocking on your door eager to convert you one more time.

You won’t be stuck with intolerable neighbors, nor the advances of the local cable company. You will have other problems, but as a lifestyle choice, they may be part of the experience you like, or at least tolerable side effects. If you want to be rational about any such choices, figure out what you might like better, see how you can get there, and have some reserves/plan to change your mind again eventually. Being aware of your options, the pluses and the minuses, is the rational part of it. The rest is obvious and hopefully fun. Ergo, this discussion of options.

Living aboard with minimal interest in actual miles-per-day-traveled allows equally overlooked opportunities in the choice/design of respective craft. To do this, you certainly would neither need a trust fund to finance the "suede lush life" on a large, complex, and costly power cruiser (or worse, offshore capable auxiliary), nor need to be cooped up in a tiny space with odd ergonomics, Spartan accommodations, surrounded by hardware and hull geometries fit to sail the coast but useless for your purpose. Ergo big budget power and sailing cruisers are off the table, why blow that much money, as should be much less pretentious but often tortured ideas of converting an aged and cheap fiberglass sailboat of moderate size.

What should be on the table for this particular purpose would be a craft with limited but reliable mechanics, with an easy to maintain and stout shape able to live upright on the mud in tidal waters, all quite obvious points. But it also has to more or less look like a boat! If the neighbors ashore dislike your craft, the accessible universe shrinks immediately, all the way to the harbormaster sending you packing for good, with the Coast Guard lurking outside to get you trying to head out of the harbor with your "thing." It has to resemble a real boat! You can not risk looking like a squatter, notwithstanding the fact that you actually are sort of."

From "Messing About In Boats," Volume 16 No. 14.