Wednesday, September 18, 2019

New Book Underway: Low-Nonsense Doomsteading.

   Doomsteading.  An admittedly sensationalized term for taking what country folk have always done (making ready for lapses in infrastructure) up a few notches.  Building a rural homestead that can endure extended, even permanent loss of utilities, services, and regular supply sources.  That sort of thing.

   We've been quietly doing this for quite a while.  Thought of doing a book on the subject a year or two back, but it seemed like it might have been be too late.  Appeared to be time to focus on actually hunkering down for the collapse ourselves...

   Then, somewhat to my amazement, Western Civilization managed to dodge the kill shot in November, hopefully buying us a little more time to prepare.

   So the composition of Low-Nonsense Doomsteading is underway.  I'll rotate rough draft pages through this blog as the work proceeds...


- - -


Communications: Internet of Last Resort.

   TEOTWAWKI Doomstead is in the hills on the far end of a rural county, more than a mile (rough and rocky access 'road' with a creek to ford) back into the woods.  Forget about cable, fiber, or even passable cell signal out here.  We do have a line from the old phone company, and have been able to get the ragged edge of a DSL connection.  But, since Windstream bought out the local co-op, maintenance hasn't been a thing.  I can only patch the brittle, aging copper wires and corroding junction boxes together for just so long myself.  And we were paying way too much for under 5Mbps at best, when it worked at all.

   So we finally decided to try the only alternative there is for us.  Satellite Internet.  Despite the horrific reputation it has online...

The Deceptions!

   One of the complaints I often read about Satellite is that the companies (all both of them) lie to get people to buy...  There's some truth to this.  But I have to wonder if the complainers are "new" or something.  In my day, we were educated young by comic book ads for X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys.  Advertisers have been known to stretch the truth just a bit!  The pretty lady in the Satellite commercial has like 30 seconds to get you interested.  She's gonna keep it simple and positive, but not entirely honest!

   "FAST SPEEDS"...    Well, I suppose they're fast relative to dial-up or a bad DSL.  But not really anything to brag-on in the world of cable, fiber, 4G, etc.  Folks just a few miles closer into town are supposed to be able to get DSL with twice Hughesnet Satellite's advertised speed.

   "UNLIMITED DATA"...   Hughesnet is fibbing pretty bad with this one.  They don't cut you off or charge you extra if you overshoot your monthly data cap, but they do throttle your access speed down to under 3Mbps for the rest of the month.  ViaSat is a little harder to pin-down.  But they will also throttle your service for a while if their algorithm determines you are using too much data too quickly. 

   "STREAM VIDEO"...  Some.  But you're gonna need the super-premium package to stream HD NetFlix, Hulu, or whatever for binge-watching.  Even then, you'll be astonished how quickly you burn through your data.

   "ALL THE THINGS YOU LOVE ON THE INTERNET"...  Unless you love real-time gaming, sensitive content (to the degree that you need a VPN), or using your home WiFi as a hotspot for your cellphones.  Latency (the delay created by the time it takes your signal to make the side-trip to a satellite 25,000 miles away) makes these things difficult to impossible.

   "AFFORDABLE PRICE"...  Well, compared to paying to have enough infrastructure privately installed to reach good Internet hard wire, it's affordable.  But it's more money for less value than any other broadband on the market, subscription-wise. (Especially if you remember to include the equipment rental!)

   Funny thing is, five to ten minutes reading the Hughesnet website would have consumers forewarned of all this.  They give a pretty good estimate of how much you can do with a gigabyte of data.  They admit that latency ruins gaming, screws-up VPNs, and makes cellphone-through-WiFi a mess.  You just have to scroll down the page a bit.  Go to the FAQs.

   Instead, people chat with a rep on the phone...  Forgetting that these are SALESPEOPLE.  They are paid to get you to order the service, not to talk you out of it!  Most of them don't even use Satellite themselves.  They probably aren't intentionally lying when they tell you that you can do games, HD video binging, etc.  They're just guessing that you can, because they figure that's just regular Internet stuff!

   I read the site.  Knew about the confessed shortcomings.  Ordered it anyway.  'Cause I'm getting too damned old, and have too much else to do, to be spending days Tarzanning around in the trees re-stringing broken telecom lines!


   Because Satellite Internet requires transmitting as well as receiving, you're not legally allowed to self-install like you can with Satellite TV.  But there's no way that the Satellite Internet companies, with only a little over a million subscribers apiece, spread-out over the hemisphere, can maintain a fleet of trucks and crews to do installation and service.  So they have to rely on independent contractors.  (Some of whom then rely on sub-contractors!) 

   So the folks who show up to mount your dish and set-up your router are a mixed bag.  Lots of horror stories about obnoxious installers who left a mess and / or did a lousy installation.  (Even though HughesNet and ViaSat both have detailed installation standards and requirements, with photo verification and post-surveys.)

   The lad they sent 'round to do our set-up was polite, knew his job, and got it done well and efficiently.  He was driving an old, somewhat battered pickup truck, which is really for the best considering the kinds of places that need HughesNet Residential.  I would've felt bad if he'd had to drive a shiny, new vehicle through the rough brush and rocky, rutted path that we call a driveway.

   I suspect a lot of the complaints about Satellite Internet have to do with poor installation.  It's difficult to hold on a target at 25,000 miles!  The dish may get a good signal through trees in the Winter, then lose it when they fill with leaves in the Spring.  A dish mounted to a shaky structure isn't going to have consistent reception.  Even a fairly solid wooden structure may swell and shrink with the weather and throw your alignment off.


   Only six weeks in at this writing, so just getting a feel for this Buck Rogers tech...

   Speed...  I've been checking regularly, and I usually get the advertised 25Mbps or better from HughesNet with proper, long-format tests.  The more common quick tests indicate how erratic the speed is though.  Ranging from 2 to 50Mbps from one moment to the next.  Latency / ping is so high that some tests can't even measure it correctly.

  Reliability...  Severe storms have taken us offline a couple of times so far. (Naturally the weather goes to Hell in a handbasket the week after I get the dish.)  Both times, the system came back online when the weather started to let-up.  Other than that, the connection has been constant.

   Ease of use...  At the user end, it's your basic broadband router.  Four Ethernet ports and WiFi.  You can access the modem's internal software through your browser to see current satellite signal strength, remaining plan data, etc.

   Basic Internet Functions...  Email, web browsing, research, message boards, social media, private messages, online shopping, etc.  All these pretty much work normally.

   Video streaming...  I don't know about NetFlix, Hulu, or the rest of the subscription services.  (We get Gunsmoke and Svengoogie via an old-fashioned antenna. Who needs anything else?)  Other Internet videos work, but can be a bit tricky.
   Video servers usually check your connection speed, use an algorithm to decide what resolution to send you, at which data rate, with what amount of buffer.  At the same time it's doing this, the video page is sending you advertisements, annotations, suggested videos (with thumbnails and maybe previews), and the comments section.   With the satellite latency and erratic transfer speed making this a bad case of cyber-hiccups, the server often gets confused and sticks you in the super-slow lane with repeated buffering.
   An ad blocker helps.  I pause the video immediately, then switch off annotations, manually set the resolution to SD (480), scroll down a bit to load the comments, let the suggested videos thumbnails load...  By this point the video should have a bit of buffer loaded, and should play well when I resume it.

   Uploading...  No problems so-far.  Much faster than the DSL was on its best day.

   Downloading...  No matter how fast your connection speed, you can only download as fast as the servers will  feed you the file.  Downloading from a monolithic host has been very fast.  Downloading from any sort of torrent/P2P type server tends to be horribly slow.  I suspect this is due to the satellite latency slowing down the ever-switching connections involved, bottlenecking the flow.  Still looking for a workaround.

   VoIP...  Saying "goodbye" to Windstream also meant losing our land-line phone.  With no cell service back here, we would have to rely on phone via Internet.  Due to the connection switching latency, this has known issues with Satellite.  Both Satellite providers have their own VoIP services that are supposed to be optimized for the purpose.  But we're trying the third party VoIP we already had, which costs well under half as much. 
   Aside from the inevitable lag, it works well with outgoing calls.  But it doesn't ring-through for incoming.  Those go to voicemail/email.  Need to check with VoIPly to see if they have a fix on their end.

   Data...  I was in for a surprise when we started.  I knew we were being frugal, but the needle on our 'fuel gauge' not only didn't go down quickly, it seemed to be going back up now and then!
   Turns out this wasn't a delusion.  Although they don't promise/advertise it, HughesNet seems to give new users a 20 day breaking-in period during which data consumption doesn't count.  Now that this is over, I see that the plan data is being consumed at a rate that will probably have us run out of data before the end of the month this time around.  Then we'll see how much of a handicap the throttled speed is, and whether the throttle is lifted during the bonus hours.




Friday, February 1, 2019

LND: On Guns...

   When it comes to guns, the LATOC, prepper, and survivalist folks run quite the gamut.  From hippies who think the oncoming discontinuity will finally give Mankind the chance to discard evil weaponry and live together in harmony (good luck with that), to Rambo wannabes who are obsessed with having enough military-style firepower to hold-off the Zombie Masses, all the way back around to Apocalypse Absolutists who argue that pointed sticks and fists are the way to go because guns will become useless when the ammo dries-up...

   In practical terms, guns are useful, sometimes essential tools for the doomsteader.  Calling 911 is already an iffy proposition out in the country, and will become more so as the collapse continues.   We're even less likely to be able to rely on Animal Control to deal with feral dogs, coyotes, and other menaces to the livestock.  Hunting has usually been a way to augment rural diets.  And farm animals sometimes need to be dispatched.  (If you think Old Yeller was sad, imagine if Travis had to use a fence post instead of a rifle!)

   Even if it were a good idea, you can't un-invent technology.  Guns are going to be around whether you're a fan of shootin' irons or not.  So you'd best familiarize yourself with them.

Gun Tech...

   Guns are really pretty simple technology.  If it were somehow possible for the Authorities to eliminate enough of the hundreds of millions of guns that are already out there in America to create a shortage, making more would be no great difficulty.  Never mind the new 3D printable firearms.  Anyone with a little skill and access to a typical garage can whip-up zip-guns and slam-fire shotguns easily.  A hobbyist with a decent backyard machine shop can produce fully-functional, modern firearms.  In fact, it is far easier to fabricate a modern submachine gun than a common revolver.  So attempts to disarm the public could actually result in weapons upgrades.

Training Hype...

   "Get training!" the parrots love to squawk when you talk about guns.  And it certainly is important that anyone handling firearms know how to do so safely and with a reasonable degree of skill.  But the obsession with formal, standardized instruction and certification plays into the hands of hoplophobes.  Modern guns are designed to be simple and easy to carry and use safely.  Stick to a few rules (covered in another chapter) and you won't shoot anyone you don't mean to.  A modest amount of practice, and you'll be able to competently shoot someone or something when you need to.  It just isn't rocket science.

   There are also a lot of folks out there selling tactical / combat / advanced defense shooting courses.  If it looks like something you'd enjoy, go for it.  But don't take it too seriously.  More than a few of the wannabe gunfighting experts are working to prove Barnum's theory about suckers being born every minute.  Even those with legit combat or police cred have training and experience in something that has rather little bearing on anything we're likely to face defending our doomsteads.

Guns Do Not Imbue Superpowers...
Biggest gun doesn't automatically win!

   After a much-publicized incident where one jihadi reportedly gunned-down dozens of people in a nightclub, some noted that one patron with a handgun might have cut short the rampage and saved many lives.  I was struck by how many people thought this was ridiculous because there's no way someone with a pistol could stop a maniac wielding an "assault weapon".

   Picking up a gun... Even a scary, black, modern-looking rifle, does not make a person invulnerable to a humble .38 Special bullet from a cheap revolver.  Or a tire-iron to the the back of the head for that matter.  Remember that a gun isn't a magical trump card, whether it's in your hands or someone else's.

Gun Jocks, Range Snobs...

   Guns are like a lot of other things in that you can go cheap and get junk, spend a bit more and get decent quality, or spend a king's ransom to get something just a little bit better.  Most people find the price-to-quality balance that suits them, and the brand / design type they find most appealing, and are comfortable with their choice.  They also respect that others have their own priorities and will choose differently.

   Then there are jackasses who hang around firing ranges and Internet forums and seem to think that anyone who buys less than the Super-Elite Deluxe Custom Special Platinum model firearm is pathetic trailer trash.   Sometimes it's a Fudd who believes his engraved and inlaid over-under fowling piece is morally superior to your economy model pump shotgun.  Other times it's a wannabe Operator who belittles any rifle not chambered in the latest super-cartridge and fitted with optics that cost more than a nice used car.  Frequently it's someone with an irrational fixation on their favorite brand.  (Looking at you, Glocktards.)

   Also acting as the rain on everyone else's parade are the know-it-all types who have to rag on anyone who doesn't (yet) shoot quite as well as they do.  Or uses a different grip or stance, even if they DO shoot better!

   Basically, try to ignore these jerks.  If you need to shoot a deer to feed your family, an old thutty-thutty with factory irons will get it done just fine.  If you have to stop a punk who just kicked-in your front door, it's not going to matter if you can shoot 100% in the ten-ring, or if you teacup your grip.  And the bullet holes will be the same whether you use a Kimber or a Hi-Point.  If today turns out to be the day you have to defend yourself, a Taurus revolver in the hand is worth much more than a Colt Python you're saving-up for.

Safety Sally...

   You can't emphasize safety too much, right?  ...WRONG!  Harping on something incessantly doesn't get your point across.  It gets you tuned-out and ignored.  And, after a point, it becomes lame "virtue signalling".

   Yes, it is essential to employ safe gun handling habits and procedures.  But check out Internet videos and you'll see it taken to weird levels.  Some gun reviewers verify their guns are unloaded so many times I think they are going to wear the things out with all that compulsive slide-racking.  What?  Do you think it magically reloaded in the two seconds since you last checked it? 

   Then come the comments.  "You swept somebody/something!"  "Can't you see that traffic downrange?!"  "You don't have a good enough backstop!"

   Of course everyone muzzle-sweeps themselves and other people sometimes.  It is impossible not to.  That traffic downrange is miles beyond the range of the shotguns we're shooting.  (You can't judge distance on a video screen.)  We know what is beyond that treeline or hill rise you think we're counting on as a backstop. 

   So chill-out.  You can practice and encourage safe firearms handling without being an obnoxious nag.

Shot Placement Is Everything...

   When discussions turn to choice of caliber, someone is bound to spout the old chestnut about shot placement.  And it is true that a hit with a BB gun will do more damage than a miss with a 12 gauge slug.  But, given the same shot placement, caliber can make a huge difference.  When you're a split second from dying if you don't shoot the other guy first, you will not be a perfect marksman, no matter how much time you've put in on the range.  Caliber can be the difference between a bullet that slows down in clothes and surface flesh before stopping against a rib, and a bullet that crashes through that rib and the vital organs beyond.

   Yes, the humble .22 rimfire has an impressive record of lethality.  But having a maniac die of internal bleeding or peritonitis hours or days after you shoot him won't do you much good.  You need something that is going to end the threat immediately.

   Choose the most potent caliber you can shoot well and reasonably carry.


- 30 -


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

LND: Communication.

   Science Fiction of yesterday sure overestimated us in most regards.  Here we are, well into the 21st Century.  No condos on the Moon.  No robot butlers.  No practical jet-packs. 

   But SciFi seriously underestimated the development of computer and communication technology.  Almost everyone these days is walking around with a device in their pocket that can outperform Mr. Spock's communicator and tricorder combined.  We've got broadband Internet, WiFi, cellular networks, hundreds of television channels via cable or satellite, etc.  People can communicate instantaneously with voice, text, images, and video to and from nearly everywhere.

   This incredible, multi-layered grid of communications technology doesn't just happen though.  Like most of the Cornucopian world, it requires a constant flow of resources and perpetual skilled maintenance.  It is almost inevitable that these requirements will eventually fail to be met, and modern communications will collapse.

   Those of us who remember living with telephone party lines and three channels of snowy over-the-air analog standard definition TV may not be quite as devastated at losing hundred megabit per second digital communication as the Millennials will be.  But we'll all need some alternatives as the Information Age breaks down.

HAM Radio.

   Amateur Radio covers a lot of ground.  It is relatively high-powered, long-range, two-way radio using many signal formats and bands, including shortwave, which can 'skip' very long distances.  Entry-level equipment starts at a few hundred dollars, but you can quickly get into thousands as an enthusiast.

   In most countries, including the US, HAM Radio is regulated by law, and a license is required to broadcast.  The fact that Little Tin God bureaucrats think they own the electromagnetic spectrum, and that usually proud, nonconformist Preppers are oddly supportive of this notion has long baffled me.

   HAM is one of those things that people get into mainly because they enjoy it as a hobby, then use prepping as a justification.  In practical terms, it is obsolete in today's era of layered global communications.  Ordinary events, like storms or earthquakes, may disable modern communications for a brief time on a local or regional basis.  But it would take a continental or global catastrophe to cause the final breakdown of modern communication networks.  When this happens, long-distance communications will become all but irrelevant anyway.    (A post-apocalyptic world is a localized world!)

   There may be a period in the later stages of collapse, as current networks fail, but before we're all fully hunkered into place, when HAM Radio will prove invaluable.  But I expect that, by the time the Internet and telecom services go bye-bye, sending out long-range messages may not be the wisest of things for a doomsteader to be up to.

CB Radio.

   Citizen's Band Radio in America is a two-way, shortwave, usually AM, analog voice communication system.  Stock CB radios are low-powered (four watts) and short-range (around ten miles).  They come in automotive mount, home base station, and handheld form, and can still be purchased new for under $100.

   CB was enormously popular for a time in the 1970s.  So much so, that, even when the number of channels was increased from twenty-three to forty in the later in the decade, you still had trouble getting a word in edgewise on any of them.  It didn't help that the AM analog signals were subject to static, fading, and bleed-over.  Plus, the potential for shortwave skip meant that users might be competing for a channel with signals coming-in from far outside normal range.  It was a glorious mess, but the only means the Average Joe had for mobile communication.

   Today, CB is effectively obsolete.  We've got cellphones for mobile communication.  Internet forums for the semi-anonymous socializing that CB once provided.  Truckers still use CB, and, without the zillions of voices trying to use it all at the same time, it is easier to hail and talk with people these days than it was in the disco era.

   CB originally required a license, but at the peak of the craze, the FCC gave up on any serious regulation and enforcement.  Enthusiasts routinely (and technically illegally) boost their CB radio transmitting power dramatically, using CB as a sort of redneck HAM Radio capable of interstate communication.  You can receive these souped-up signals with a stock radio, but you won't have the broadcasting power to reply.

   Providence only knows how many million CB radios are laying around in attics, basements, and garages across America.  They are pretty easy to set-up and use.  As communications infrastructure crumbles, I'd be surprised if a great many of them weren't fished-out and put back into use.  Handy for maintaining contact with your neighbors, and perhaps making first contact with strangers from a safe distance.

   1970s era kids' walkie-talkies usually operated on CB channel 14.  Their pathetic broadcast power makes them nearly useless for practical two-way communication.  (You can holler farther than they can transmit.)  But they can receive strong signals at long range.


   The General Mobile Radio Service is a whole 'nother kettle of fish with pro-grade handhelds, vehicular mobiles,  base stations, repeater networks, etc.  Licenses are required to use it in the US, and many regulations apply.

   But we're not interested in all that here.  (SEE DISCLAIMER AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS BOOK.)  Inexpensive bubble-pack GMRS walkie-talkies have long been available in America, and hardly anyone bothers with licensing.  There are new regulations on the manufacture and sale of these, but millions are already out there.

   GMRS operates with frequency modulation (FM) on UHF bandwidth.  This tends to provide clearer voice communications with less static interference than old CB, with no need for long antennas.  The drawback is that GMRS signals don't bounce and skip like CB, so radio-opaque obstacles like hills and buildings can block transmission more easily.  Modern electronics allow pocket-sized, short antenna GMRS walkie-talkies to exceed the transmission power of stock CB radios, giving them five to ten miles of range.  (Never mind the advertised ranges.  Those are only going to happen with zero obstructions.)

   The Family Radio Service is basically GMRS Junior.  It requires no license, but has fewer channels, and operates at lower wattage and range.  The modern equivalent of the Channel 14 CB walkie-talkies from the '70s.   Primarily used by kids.

   The popular bubble-pack radios were usually GMRS/FRS hybrids.  This gave them twenty-two channels.  1-7 were shared by GMRS and FRS.  8-14 were FRS only.  15-22 were GMRS only.  Because 8-14 were strictly FRS, it was illegal to transmit at over half a watt on them (regardless of GMRS license), and most radios automatically switch to low power on those channels.  So using 8-14 could be handy if you don't want anyone picking up your signals beyond about one mile...  Channels 1-7 and 15-22 would broadcast at the full five watts unless you intentionally set them to low power.

   At this writing, GMRS/FRS hybrids are still available new, but rule changes are supposed to end sales in late 2019.  After that, new FRS radios will be allowed to transmit at up to two watts on channels 1-7 and 15-22.  8-14 remain limited to half-watt. 

   GMRS gets eight new channels.  Supposed to be used for high-power repeaters.  Not much change in the radios, except they'll probably be explicitly labeled for licensed use only.  (And no one will care.)

Antenna Television.

   Those of us with a touch of gray remember the days before cable and/or satellite TV was considered the norm.  When most people got their TV programming through a simple antenna.

   Some folks don't seem to realize that over-the-air antenna television broadcasting never ceased in America.  In fact, it got substantially better, with taller transmission towers, and more independent channels, which later formed the foundation for new networks.  Then came the digital transition, which added an array of digital subchannel programming to the mix.

   All you need to get free programming over-the-air is a TV manufactured since roughly 2005 (or an older TV with a digital converter set-top box) and an antenna.  Contrary to advertising hype, it doesn't have to be a special "HD" or digital antenna.  The modern ATSC digital signals are broadcast on the same UHF / VHF radio bandwidth that American television has always used.  Plain old rabbit ears with UHF loop, or a rooftop antenna like Granny used, will work fine.

   We use a home made antenna mounted on a mast.  We're out in the boonies, but on a hilltop, and get forty to fifty channels in decent weather.

   We haven't had to pay for TV in over a decade.  Frees up money for beans, bullets, bandages, etc.

   Since our signals come directly from the various stations' transmission towers, rather than from a central up-link like a satellite provider, antenna TV is a bit more bomb-proof.

AM/FM/Shortwave/NOAA Radio.

   Listen-only radio became a revolutionary thing about a century ago, and it's still highly useful today.  The Clear Station blowtorch AM stations that blast news, weather, and more across large swaths of the American continent (especially at night) will probably be the last vestiges of modern communication technology to go silent, and they require the simplest of equipment to tune-in.

Crank Radios: 

   There are a ton of off-grid "emergency" radios on the market now, powered by crank handles and solar panels.  Most of them use a hand crank to turn a dynamo that charges a battery which powers the radio.  Problem is that the rechargeable battery is the weakest link in this set-up, and may go bad from either frequent use, or extended storage!

   There have been clockwork radios in which the crank winds a spring which turns the dynamo to power the radio directly with no battery involved.  The BayGen Freeplay was to best-known of these, and their spring-driven radios are still available on eBay.  But the company has gone to the cheaper, battery-powered design with their new models.  So shop carefully.

Crystal Radios:

   There is a way to get AM radio without any power source at all.  The simplest form of radio receiver there is still works, and can be assembled from widely available components.  In fact, people have put them together without any proper electronic parts at all.  (Known as "foxhole radios".)

   Crystal radios do require a fairly strong signal, a large antenna, and a ground, making them immobile while in use.  They also produce only low-volume audio, best listened to with an earbud. 

   If you really want to have the ultimate in primitive wireless two-way wireless communications, you can learn Morse Code and pair your crystal radios with equally simple to fabricate spark-gap transmitters.

Wired Telephony.

   A simple way to maintain communication between people in fixed positions not too many miles apart is to run a simple telephone line.  (Or re-purpose existing land lines that have become defunct.)  Telephone communications are reliable, resistant to interference, require relatively little power, are difficult to intercept, and even more difficult to intercept without being detected.

   The military has been using self-powered Field Telephones since the late 19th Century, and used military models are widely available at a reasonable price online.  Ordinary land line phones can be modified (mostly involves adding a battery) pretty easily. 


   Coping with collapse and disasters can take a bit of jury-rigging.

   Hurricane Hugo caught us without a decent battery radio, so I dug out an old car stereo, speakers, rigged a wire antenna, mounted the whole thing to a plastic milk crate, and powered it with lantern batteries wired in series.

   With just a little understanding of basic electrical circuitry, it should be possible to cobble together functional, if primitive, communication networks from materials and parts available.

Note: Include schematics of crystal radio, spark gap transmitter, simple phone.  PD HAM materials.





Tuesday, November 20, 2018

LND: Heating.

   Not freezing to death ranks pretty high on the "to do" list when it comes to survival.  It's also pretty beneficial to be able to have water pipes and liquid stores that don't burst when Old Man Winter asserts himself.  Of course, this is a greater problem for the poor souls not fortunate enough to live in Dixie, but even here in the Uwharrie hills, we're not fully immune to the Snow Miser's wrath.

   Here on the doomstead, we have several ways to keep the chill out of the house...

Passive Solar.

   Sounds fancy, but it's really old school for the most part.  The house is surrounded with deciduous trees (primarily big fruit trees for dual purpose) which provide shade in the Summer, but shed off and let the Sun warm the place up in the Winter.  May make it look like the Addams Family or Munsters live here by Hallowe'en, but on a bright day it'll be comfortable inside even when it's a deep freeze outside.  Decent insulation, storm windows, and heavy curtains to hold the warmth in gives us a good head start on the cold nights.

Wood Stove.

   Unfortunately, ol' Sol can be a stranger in the Winter, and the nights do get long.  So we need another way to heat up the cabin.  And it's hard to beat good old fire for the job.  If your place was built with a fireplace, you're ahead of the game.  But, if not, there's still a practical alternative.

   A wood stove is basically a cast iron box that allows you to build a fire indoors without burning the house down or choking on smoke.  (Hopefully!)

   There are modern wood stoves which are airtight, super-efficient, thermostat-regulated, with built-in blowers, soapstone segments to enhance heat radiation, water coils, etc.  If you are in a position to buy one of these and have it professionally installed, by all means do so.  But, if you can't budget five figures right now, 18th Century tech can still get the job done a lot cheaper.


   I was recently a little surprised to learn that you can still buy a plain old cast iron wood stove brand new from major retailers today.  I figured the lawyers and regulators would have put a stop to that by now.  Must be an oversight on their part.  As of this writing, these cost a few hundred dollars.

   We bought ours for $30 at the antique junkyard.  A rusty mess, but all the pieces were there and intact.  Cleaned it up with an electric wire brush, put it together, built a fire in it out in the barnyard to heat it up enough to paint-on and smoke-off linseed oil to re-season the surface. 

   Ours is a simple two burner stove with no oven section.  There are bigger cook stoves with multiple burners, ovens, and greater heating capacity.  There are also smaller single burner (and no burner) caboose or parlor stoves designed to take the chill off one room.  What you'll need depends on the space you need to heat and the kind of Winters your area experiences.

Stove Installation:

   Where you'll put your stove depends on which room you want the warmest, the kind of use you expect to put it to, and where it is most practical to fit it and its pipe.

   Old type wood stoves can get very hot, and radiate that intense heat upward and to all sides.  So you're going to need plenty of space between the stove and anything flammable, including most walls.  Like a few feet.  Even then, you might need to set up some reflective heat shields.  You'll want to monitor the situation closely during your first several fires to make sure that you aren't getting things around the stove too hot.

   Since heat rises, and stoves are normally on raised feet, the floor under the stove isn't likely to be cooked.  Many old cabins and country stores have had stoves burning on hardwood floors for decades without problems.  But it's safer to put thick tile (that can withstand the stove weight), brick/concrete pavers, or a fireproof pad down before putting in the stove.  This floor protection should extend well out from the stove on the sides with doors, because sparks and embers will sometimes sneak out when you open the box to tend the fire.  (I really hope I don't have to tell anyone not to install a wood stove over carpet, which has no place in a doomstead or farm house to begin with.  See the "House" chapter.)

   Then there's the exhaust...  There must be a big pipe from the stove to a point well above the peak of your house to consistently draw the smoke out.  You can do this by having the pipe run straight up through the roof, which provides the most effective draw, but allows more heat to escape with the exhaust, and requires a hole in the roof which almost always winds up leaking.

   The more common way in cabin style installation is to have an elbow pipe above the stove, a horizontal pipe out through a wall, then a T connector to a vertical smokestack pipe outside the house.  The downward-facing branch of the T pipe is capped, but can be opened for provide cleaning access.  The two bends will slightly reduce draw, but the horizontal pipe will radiate heat into the house that would have been wasted with a straight-up pipe.

   All the stove pipes will get dangerously hot in use, and cannot be positioned close to anything flammable.  Passing the stove pipe through a combustible wall or roof will require a kit that insulates the building from the hot pipe.  The vertical smokestack outside the house must be well away from the outer wall and eaves. 

   If there isn't an exhaust damper built into the stove, you can easily install one in the pipe where you can reach it.  This will give you a bit more control over your burn rate.

   You'll need some sort of cap to keep the rain out of your smokestack.  A simple shanty-cap works fine, but line the openings with offset layers of chicken wire or something to keep birds from crawling down the pipe.  Those little idiots can never find their way back up, and you will seriously get a pipe full of feathered mummies over the Summer.

   We put the wood stove in our bedroom, where we can keep an eye on it.  (This does mean the bedroom door has to be kept open when a fire is going.)  There was a convenient, big window in the wall.  I removed the glass and replaced it with a double layer of corrugated steel, which is impervious to the stovepipe heat.  There is a second big window in the room, so we could afford to lose the use of one.  Running the pipe through the steel that replaced the window saved me from cutting a hole through the wall proper and made the stove installation fully reversible.

   The vertical smokestack outside the house is primarily supported by a thick steel pole driven into the ground.  This also serves to independently ground the smokestack if it is hit by lightning.   Guy wires and long stainless steel brackets help support the stack against wind.

   We've used our wood stove for primary home heating for many years.  The original galvanized pipes failed catastrophically due to rust after the first few.  We switched to black stovepipe, but they also started to rust through after a couple years.  We then upgraded to heavier stainless steel pipes.  These are harder to find, don't look very rustic, and are much more expensive.  But they've lasted twice as long as the previous pipes, and are going strong.

Fire Extinguishers:

   Every doomstead should have multiple fire extinguishers strategically placed through all the buildings.  This definitely includes placing a big one in the room with the wood stove.  A smaller, disposable aerosol can extinguisher for minor mishaps, and a simple spray bottle of water to douse the odd spark are also handy. 

   Dousing the fire in the box, especially with a chemical extinguisher, will make a godawful mess and fill the house with smoke.  Don't ever do it unless you absolutely have to. 


   One advantage of old-fashioned, simple wood stoves is that they can burn just about anything flammable in a pinch.  But, to avoid toxic fumes and troublesome leftovers in the fire box, you'd best stick with wood.

   Of course, the availability of wood is a factor you should consider before installing a wood stove.  Our doomstead has enough wooded acreage to allow us to cut all the firewood we need from deadfall.  If you have to truck-in wood from elsewhere and store it, a wood stove may benefit you less.

   Well dried, small sticks and splits start easily then burn fast and hot.  So does conifer wood, though it will create more creosote residue in your pipe.  Green (less cured) wood and bigger pieces burn cooler and slower.  Adjusting the kind of wood or mix of woods you use is a good way to regulate the heat of your stove and duration of your fire, especially with an old school stove that allows only limited regulation via venting and the damper.


   Being a tall guy, it's easier for me to lift the top plate off the stove so I can build the fire from above when starting with a cold box.  Of course, not all stoves have a lift-off top.

   As with a camp fire, you begin with easy to light, fast burning materials at the bottom.  Paper and cardboard are good.  Crumpled, individual sheets.  Air has to be able to get in-between them.  Intact magazines, stacks of junk mail, etc., won't burn well.  Then twigs, sticks, arranged in crosses for breathing.  Smaller splits midway up the stack.  Bigger pieces on top.  You need to make sure you can get a match to the paper at the bottom through a front or side door.  It might be wise to avoid putting heavier wood in until later, as there's a possibility your light materials will burn away before the logs get going, and they will be left on the bottom, forcing you to pull them out to start over.

   You really shouldn't need an accelerant, but I have been known to add a little used cooking oil.  Just make sure it doesn't run out the stove onto the floor.  Don't even think about gasoline.  Not only are you likely to wind up in a hospital burn ward, but it won't even work!  (Burns away too quickly, before the wood can even warm-up!)

   With the top plate (and all burner plates) in-place, I open the exhaust damper and the stove intake ports all the way.  Then I light the paper at the bottom through the front door.  (A butane BBQ lighter is handy for this.)  Then I let the blaze grow until I'm confident that wood, rather than just starter material, is burning.

   My old stove is usually able to pull enough air in through its various seams for a good heating fire, so I close the intake ports.  For a low-intensity, fuel-efficient fire, I close the exhaust damper until smoke starts to escape from the seams, then open it back up a bit.

   Once you've got a nice fire with a bed of glowing coals at the base, you just add splits or logs as needed.  It's best to just let the fire burn itself out when you no longer need it, so cease fueling accordingly.  You really shouldn't leave an old style wood stove unsupervised with much of a fire going in it.

   Wood stoves seem to pull all the moisture out of the air.  Even to the point of discomfort.  So we usually keep an old tea kettle full of water on top of the stove to act as a humidifier.
   Traditional stoves seem to work best with an inch or two of wood ash in bottom.  But it will build-up more than that pretty quickly.  Let the stove burn itself out and go completely cold before cleaning out the ashes.  It's a pretty simple matter.  Use a steel fireplace shovel and a steel bucket, just in case there are a few hot coals hiding in the mix.  Get the bucket of ashes outside the house and away from anything flammable.  Ash is a good insulator, and can keep an ember or two alive in the pile for days.

   Once cool, hardwood ash is alkaline and can be used much like slaked lime to counter acid in stall floors, latrine pits, and gardening soil.  It is also used to make traditional lye soap.

Kerosene Heater.

   This one is easy.  Modern indoor kerosene heaters are reasonably priced, widely available, easy to use, and quite effective.  No installation.  Portable.  The kerosene heater is our first back-up to the wood stove.  (The electric central heat furnace is the back-up's back-up.)

   Kerosene is a handy fuel in general.  It keeps a bit better than gasoline, especially if you use a stabilizer.  We use it to fuel our old tractor, as diesel fuel seems to break-down rather quickly these days.  (Biodiesel mixed-in?)  And old-style kerosene lamps can provide a lot of light for hours on very little fuel.  So keeping a few jerrycans of kerosene around is no problem.  It gets used.

   You'll want a few spare wicks.  They don't need to be replaced very often.  And a simple siphon pump to fill the heater's tank.  These are cheap, and prevent you dumping fuel all over everything trying to pour it directly from the can.

   Follow the directions that come with the heater.  Keep it away from flammables. Turn it off before refueling.  Don't feed it diesel fuel or vegetable oil...  (These might work, but could imbalance the burn and release carbon monoxide.)

   Ours has been working well for over twenty years.  Comes in handy when we just want to take the chill off one room, or when we get caught with an insufficient supply of dry wood when Winter suddenly decides to assert itself.



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Sunday, December 17, 2017


   Hard to believe we're already into the final week before Christmas...  Time flies when you're gettin' old!

   In America, we have a near logjam of holidays from late November through early January.  It used to be understood that "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" were shorthand for "Happy Thanksgiving, Feast of Nicholas, Hanukkah, Christmas Eve/Day, Boxing Day/Feast of Stephen, New year's Eve/Day, and Epiphany!"

   Now when you say "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings", many people think you're doing it to avoid saying "Christmas".   Sad state of affairs the PC police have brought upon us, 'tis.

   So MERRY CHRISTMAS to all, and a prosperous New Year to come!



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Friday, November 24, 2017

Millwater's FARRIERY: Black Friday / Cyber Monday and Beyond...

   Well, now that we're all turkey'd up and the Christmas season is officially upon us, just a reminder that Millwater's FARRIERY: The Illustrated Dictionary of Horseshoeing and Hoofcare is available from Amazon and other book sellers in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle forms!

   More information about the book available on the Millwater Publishing website.

   Follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds throughout the season for specials and discount codes.  Also check out eBay, where we usually have promotional copies available at discount prices.


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