Department of Redundancy...Redundancy Department.

Before I take off for the weekend, I thought I'd leave you with another re-run on the very basic process of adapting to rapidly changing conditions.

Today I'm starting another Adapting-In-Place Class, beginning with the basics of evaluating whether you have a future where you are, what your other choices are, and then triaging your situation. One of the most basic elements of triaging any system - whether the systems that power your house or the ones that help you keep your head together when the going gets tough, is identifying redundancies.

Why redundant systems? Well, for the simple reason that, as Yeats put, things fall apart. We all know this - in fact, we all rely regularly on redundant systems. For example, when your commuter vehicle breaks, you take the bus, carpool with a neighbor, borrow from your spouse or a friend or rent a car. Implicit in your commitment to your job is the reality that your car will break, and that you will find yourself in need of a redundant system to back you up.

If you have children, you are are intimately familiar with the filling out of forms that list several "emergency contacts" - that is, people who can be trusted to tend your kids if you are not there. This is a form of redundancy - thus, if your son takes sick at school, you have a neighbor or relative who can respond, and if not them, usually another person still who can be tried. The assumption is that with parents plus multiple redundant backups, someone will always be there for your kids.

But most of us don't have good redundant systems for our home and our lives, if the basic assumptions of our existence, which include full access to grid power and other utilities; an immediate government response to a crisis and the availability of replacement parts, utilities and tools, as well as people to install them and the money to pay for it are all available. That is, the redundancy in our system all presumes a fully functional economy, energy system and a fairly stable society. In the absence of each of these things, most of us are tremendously vulnerable.

One of the first and most basic presumptions we all need to make is this - failure is normal. This is not a prediction - I am not claiming that any particular scenario is likely. But the reality is that nearly everything breaks, falls apart or is vulnerable in some way to not-terrifically-unlikely disasters. Your plans for the future should work from the assumption that things will unfold messily, and with copious system failures. I've written more about this here. I wrote about our strange reluctance to seriously consider the possibility of failure on both a personal and world scale,

"...this leads to a painful reality - despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope. They won't have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal. Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal. We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected. Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don't have any food.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don't have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) - in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn't just personal - our society as a whole has very few contingency plans - much less strategies for adapting to failure. We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative. We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture - from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects - we have no contingency plans. Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure. Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as "Ummm...have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?" I'm acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure - and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen. But in fact, we shouldn't be shocked - failure is far more routine and normal than we expect. Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster."

If we do have backup systems, often those systems are themselves vulnerable to failure, and we may or may not have further redundancies in the system. Now some systems don't need much redundancy - for example, if you mostly keep ice cream in your freezer, even if you are very fond of ice cream, you don't actually need a backup plan or system to compensate for the failure of your freezer - one doesn't actually need Ben and Jerry's to live, (even if it is Cherry Garcia), so no redundant system is required. But let's say that your freezer holds most of your stored food, including a lot of high value meats and produce that you rely on, and that would cost you more than 1,000 to replace.

Well, you think, I'll get a generator. Maybe you even install it, and store some gas for it. But the problem is that a generator is a short term solution - it is great for a few days of power outage, and will keep that food cold. But what if, as happened last year in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Texas and several other states, the power is out for more than a few days? What happens when the gas for the generator runs out, and the gas stations have no power to pump more? Your redundancy assumes that things will get back to normal quickly - but what if that's not the case?

The reality is that if your redundancies depend on fossil fuels, on just in time delivery of parts you don't keep on hand, on government response being there on the ground quickly, on disasters being so localized that nearby other places can send help, rather than widespread, on somehow, things working out, your redundancies are vulnerable.

Now this could end up an infinite reduction game - you could make the case that the need for redundancy never stops, and on some level, you'd be right. Let's say my backup plan for that freezer is different - it involves me taking my pressure canner and canning up the meat in the freezer on my wood cookstove. Now someone could legitimately say "well, but what if your stove breaks, or the canner does. Doesn't that mean you need an infinite number of canners, a backup woodstove and an infinite number of monkeys to type while you do the preserving?

There's some truth in this - all things fail, all good things come to an end. On the other hand, the wood cookstove I own comes from a brand where 100 year old models are routinely used. Mine is less than 5 years old. That why I also make sure that there's nothing in my freezer I can't afford to lose - yes, I like what I have there, but I don't allow myself to rely on it as my primary source of food. If worst came to worst, we'd invite all the neighbors for a feast and go forward from there - I don't really need more than that plan in my head, because I know I can lose the stuff there.

And that's another important point - your systems don't always have to be private and personal. And in fact, they can't be for most of us. Most of us lack the money to make private full backups of everything we need, even if we wanted to. Generally speaking, if we live in close proximity to others, we will need to focus more on public resources, and out in more isolated areas, more on private ones. But that's not a universal. I strongly encourage people to find public and collective responses whenever possible - while acknowledging that if we're able to, often those of us with the resources are collecting things used now just by us that can be shared later.

So a set of redundant systems depends on several things. First, a backup that is well made and simple - or if cheap and complex, you need more. Given that I don't like the idea of buying a lot of cheap stuff, I'd prefer the former, but sometimes that may not be viable. Second, if the system is essential, you need the tools and equipment and ability to take care of it and repair it. That means looking critically over your backup systems and asking what parts might break, and how to fix them if they do. I have a box in my closet that contains only repair kits for things - often, when making a major purchase, the item comes with an inexpensive repair kit, that contains replacement pieces of things that are most likely to show wear - rust remover and stove gaskets for a cookstove, bearing oil and replacement bearings for my spinning wheel, a sewing machine belt and replacement needles for a treadle machine, etc... Now occasionally these are a scam, providing cheap parts rather than useful ones, but with well made equipment, often they aren't. Making sure you also know how to use them - that you've downloaded instructions, say for, say mending harness or replacing parts on your water pumping wind turbine. Ideally, try it before you have to do it in the rain, at night, by flashlight, since that's how it always works.

What if you live in an apartment building? Well, now's the time to ask the super if you have repair parts for needed things, get involved with the neighborhood association to get land donated for community gardens, to get together with your neighbors and begin talking about how you might share resources, informaton and aid during tough times.

The other thing that's needed is a mental plan to deal with failure - ok, what if my well pump breaks just when I need it? Well, I know I can filter water from the creek, and from my rainbarrels. Let's just make sure I have enough filters or water purifying tablets, or that the town has a strategy for handling water - maybe you can get manual water pumping stations set up at the schools and in the public parks.

Ask yourself how much do I mind the idea of my final, mental back up plan? I think I'd find hauling all our water from our creek really annoying. If that's the case, and I can afford it, I should probably make sure that we have a backup well pump system.

If you do want a complex, and fossil fuel based backup - ie, you want solar panels to keep your freezer running or a generator or whatever, make sure you a. know how to fix it and b. keep tools and parts on hand. And also make sure you have a non-fossilized backup, just in case.

Redundancies can and should include sharing with others, relying on others for help, etc... We don't always need a tool, so much as we need people who might have that tool. But if your plans include these, ask yourself - am I lending a helping hand now? Am I fully part of the life of my community? Do I have relationships to rely on for this? If not, time to make them happen - that's a redundancy right there.

How much redundancy do you need? At a minimum, I think you should be as unreliant on high energy, high complexity systems as possible. For some people, comfortable living with very little, in a simple way, this will mean almost no complexities. For those tied by major illness to high energy medical systems, or caught in situations where they cannot live without these, it may still be possible to minimize resource use elsewhere, while building up as much of a safety net as possible elsewhere. Not every person will be able to do every thing - but the more you can build redundant systems into your plan, the happier and more comfortable your lives will be.


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Having lived through one recent hurricane in Houston, and voluntary and mandatory evacuations for three others on the Gulf coast, I have to say that planning ahead still has a limited usefulness.

Sure, you can have a generator. You can store gas in advance. However, how long does gasoline last in a can? What about the small but real opportunity for that gas to spill and ruin things, or burn and explode? The solution might be a natural gas powered generator. The gas hardly ever goes out. However, the difference in cost between a gasoline generator from the hardware store and a natural gas generator is about $5,000.

Sure, you can make ice in advance of the hurricane landfall. Forget about buying it at any store within five days of landfall, by the way. About 24 hours into the power outage, that ice is going to start to melt, and the water will flow though your kitchen until you use the last clean towels to mop it up. Laundry? Forgetaboutit. The solution is to have several big coolers available. They take up a lot of room in the garage, however.

Board up the windows? Great idea. Buy the plywood now, and store it. Days before landfall your choices are limited. I have seen windows covered with cabinet grade hardwood plywood ($45 each), due to last minute purchases. Where are you going to store that plywood between boardups? Outdoors is limited to a few years before rot sets in. Indoor space is limited.

Canned food in the cabinet lasts a long time, but five years is perhaps too long. Spam makes good hurricane food because most people won't eat it during the year. Bacon flavored Spam lacks that limitation, however.

Medically necessary powered equipment is a problem. The solution is to have an inverter that can be run from a car battery. Use the battery at night in the house, and charge it during the day in the car. Everyone in the house wants to be in the car during the charging period, because that is where the air conditioning is. Keep the gas tanks (nearly) full during the summer so that you can do this. Two weeks is going to be difficult, however. Also, carrying that battery in and out of the house is a pain. There is a small but real chance that a spark will explode the battery gasses, so watch out.

The list goes on. How prepared can you be?

for example, if you mostly keep ice cream in your freezer, even if you are very fond of ice cream, you don't actually need a backup plan or system to compensate for the failure of your freezer

...though... I could live off the better kinds of peppermint ice cream with chocolate chips ;-)

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink

for example, if you mostly keep ice cream in your freezer, even if you are very fond of ice cream, you don't actually need a backup plan or system to compensate for the failure of your freezer

Presumably because after losing a freezer full of ice cream you'd top yourself making any systems failures officially someone elses problem.

So, here on this semi-rural island in the Puget Sound, it is not unknown to lose power for a week or more. After our first experience of this, we installed a tri-fuel generator and a 250 gallon LP tank (good for ~14 days of 24/7 operation at 5 KW). It is a somewhat larger than lawn-mower engine, so although it has a pull cord, it also has a starter, and I added a battery for that.

OK. Generator, super-sized LP tank, pull-cord or battery to start - seems like enough redundancy? Well, no, as it happened. Not because of outage time, instead because of starting issues.

Power goes out. Head out to start up the generator.

Clunk - whirr - Clunk Clu----

Oh. The battery is dead.

Pull on cord. Get half-way and my recently healed frozen shoulder protests. Loudly. And painfully.

Hmm. OK, I have one of those emergency car-starter battery packs.

Oh. It is flat too.

Hmmm. OK, so what about my telescope power source battery? That's a 175 AH deep cycle RV battery, should be good.


Hmmm Hmmm. Can I move the car close enough to the back door for the jumper cable to reach the generator?


(trips over a plastic-covered lump in the back of the garage)

Oh. My 1KW camping gas-powered Honda generator! Use it once a year, wonder if it has gas?

It does. But its 12V output is way too under-powered for use as a starter.

But wait a minute - the RS battery charger?

SO, carry out the honda and the charger, hook them up to the generator, pull on honda cord twice (easy-peasy, even on bad shoulder). Honda starts right up, charger gives enough for the 10 seconds it takes to pull enough LP gas through for the big guy to start and maintain the gas supply cut-off solenoid open.

Moral? You can never have enough redundancy for all occasions. That time, I exhausted 5 (count-em) levels of back-up before Plan F did the job. And four of those back-ups were fortuitous in that I just happened to have them around for other reasons.

Second moral - keep your batteries charged. The generator now has a large PV panel attached. Lucky I am our LP supplier makes regular top-off visits for the big tank.

Oh, yes the LP tank - I have a serious aversion to keeping petroleum on the premises, even more aversion to pouring it into a generator (I have kittens just putting the 3/4 gal in the Honda once a year), and the thought of having to do that several times a day for days on end was (fortunately) strong in my mind when I initially went generator-shopping. The only thing I would do different next time is get a Honda instead - Honda are the only generator manufacturer who have the confidence to quote dB levels (55 for the 1KW model, almost silent). The Briggs I actually bought is closer to 90 db at 5', and is quite obnoxious.

For a more permanent outage - like months - I have no freezer solution. A PV solution for several KW is a rather large investment. Yes, it would be easier and quieter than the generator, but I'm taking a leap of faith that ice storms or earthquakes are my most likely problems (barring the 9 we're expecting, but I'm sure I'll have larger problems then, like no house).

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink

For us the biggest vulnerability is losing electricity in the winter - not for refrigeration (coolers kept outside will do nicely for that), but for heating. Here in the Midwest, we have cold winters and the occasional ice storm. The last one was in 2006. Our electrical service was out for about 19 hours - and we were lucky to get it back that soon. Many people in our area, a major city, were without it for several days.

We've lately acquired a kerosene heater, a short-term solution at best due to needing to store kerosene and to having to keep a window open while using the heater. This year we're planning to have the south-facing front porch glassed-in for use as a tiny greenhouse and solar heat store. That might help a bit during winter outages. We're still considering a wood stove as a more long-term solution.

I think Matt's comments illustrate something really important - and one of my theme songs ;-) - that the greater degree of complexity in your redundancy, the harder it is to make it work. That is, the more your redundant systems are functionally the same kind of systems (but with backup fuels or other options) as the ones you ordinarily use, the harder it is to keep going. That doesn't necessarily mean multiple redundant fossil fueled stored systems are a bad idea, if you can pull it off (see Gaffer's comment), just that a lot of times, the simplest options are actually the best ones.


For us the biggest vulnerability is losing electricity in the winter - not for refrigeration (coolers kept outside will do nicely for that), but for heating. Here in the Midwest, we have cold winters and the occasional ice storm. The last one was in 2006. Our electrical service was out for about 19 hours - and we were lucky to get it back that soon. Many people in our area, a major city, were without it for several days.

When you talk of trying out a simpler life what comes to mind is: try eating down lower in the food chain. My freezer is mostly full of flour, grains, and garden vegetables. If the power goes out, we store it or cook it. Water shortage is the thing I worry about more...