Thursday, April 30, 2015

Wood Heat, Part 2

Last week I went over the basics of wood heat and I got a few questions and requests for clarification, so I'll try to expand on the areas that I didn't cover in detail. It was kind of hard to sort the questions into groups, so there is no logical flow to the answers.

Curing Firewood
Fire wood is “cured” by letting it sit in a place with good air flow and protected from precipitation. The actual curing is letting the wood dry out and letting some of the “lighter” chemicals (mostly alcohols and ketones) evaporate off, which promotes a more efficient burn. The water content of wood varies from 40% to 75% when it is green, and green wood tossed into an established fire will burn very slowly, because most of the heat of the fire is being used to boil off the water to allow the wood will burn. Water takes a lot of heat to convert to steam, so burning green wood makes for a very inefficient fire that will provide very little heat output and a lot of smoke.

Stoking (feeding) a Fire
Fireplaces are like campfires: feeding them consists of shoving a piece of wood into the existing fire and hoping it catches. Wood stoves have a few more steps.
  1. Open the air intake to get the embers as hot as you can. This will also help move any ashes away from the air intakes.
  2. Open the damper to allow the smoke out of the firebox. On windy days, or if your chimney isn't tall enough, smoke will come back down the chimney and can quickly fill a room. Trying to stuff a 16 inch long piece of wood through a 20 inch opening while your eyes are tearing up due to smoke is no fun. 
  3. Open the firebox door and use your poker to level out the embers and ashes. Having a level bed gives you a more stable place to stack your fuel. Unstable stacks tend to burn unevenly and it's disquieting to hear loud bangs coming from your heater, even if it is nothing more than the wood falling against the side as it burns and shifts. 
  4. Start placing firewood into the stove. If the fire has burned down to just embers, you'll want to start with thinner splits or smaller pieces and add the larger pieces on top of them. This give the embers more surface area to ignite the new fuel, just like building a campfire from twigs and increasing the size of the firewood as you build it up. 
  5. Close the door and reset the damper and air intakes to positions that will provide the heat you want.
Banking a Fire
When you're getting ready for bed, or going to be leaving the heated space for a while, it makes sense to “bank” the fire. Banking a fire means consolidating the hot embers into a pile in the stove and cover them with ashes. This insulates the embers and cuts down on the air that can get to them, slowing the fire. Cutting back on the air going in and closing the damper creates an environment where the fire can barely burn, which will give you a better chance of having a bed of embers to start your next fire. Banking also gives wood a chance to cook off the volatile chemicals and turn into charcoal, which burns clean and evenly.

Overnight Fires
When I cut firewood, I always leave 10% of the pieces unsplit. These pieces, between 10 and 15 inches in diameter, are my “night logs”, and are the last piece of wood fed into the wood stove before I go to bed. Large pieces burn slower (less surface area), and provide more fuel per unit of volume, than splits. This is  another way of ensuring that I have a bed of hot embers in the morning to use for starting a fire that would heat the house. Lifting a heavy piece of wood to burn overnight beats having to wake up during the night to make sure the fire is still burning, or waking up in the morning to a freezing cold house.

Cleaning a Wood Stove or Fireplace
There are two ways to clean a wood-burner: hot cleaning and cold cleaning. A hot cleaning is when you let the fire burn down to embers and ashes and use a shovel or rake to separate the two, removing the ashes but leaving the hot embers or coals to use as a starting point for the next fire. You can also run a brush through the chimney with a banked or low fire.

Cold cleaning is letting the fire burn out completely and emptying the firebox. Cold cleaning is better at clearing room for more fuel (important if your stove is small), but requires starting a fire from scratch every time.

Chimney Sweeping
Whether you have a chimney or stove pipe, you will need to clean it. Burning green, uncured wood will create more soot and residue than burning dry, cured wood will, and the soot (carbon residue) and creosote (tars and gums that condense on the cooler chimney walls)  will be deposited on the inner surface of your flue. Keeping the chimney clean serves two purposes:
  1. A clean chimney allows better air flow or draft to carry the smoke away from the fire box, leading to a more efficient fire. As the chimney fills in with deposits, you'll have to open the damper more to get the same draft, so be careful with the first fire after a cleaning.
  2. A chimney full of soot and creosote is an invitation to a chimney fire. 
If the built-up crap in your chimney catches fire, you'll hear a roar like a jet engine as it sucks heated air through the firebox and you'll see flames and sparks shooting out of the top of the chimney. A chimney fire is a poorly contained blast furnace and can generate the same levels of heat. Chimney fires are dangerous because they can get hot enough to melt metal stove pipes and ignite nearby wood, destroy the mortar holding a brick chimney together (leading to leaks and collapse), and spew sparks all over your roof. I've seen quarter inch steel glow red, and several houses destroyed, from chimney fires. In case of a chimney fire, shut down all sources of air to the fire and close the damper to try and smother the fire. 

For fireplaces, there are extinguishing blocks that you can toss into the fire. They work by burning rapidly and consuming the oxygen before it gets to the fuel on the walls of the chimney. Don't relight the fire until after everything has cooled off and you have inspected the flue for damage.

Tools to Use
  • All of your tools for working with fires and hot materials should be made of metal, preferably steel. Aluminum and thin pot metal (mostly zinc) have a much lower melting temperature than steel and may not last long in daily use. 
  • Chimney brush. Get a brush of the proper shape and size for your chimney. 8 inch round brushes are common, but you can get square ones for masonry chimneys. Your brush should have handles that can be added onto each other to extend the length, allowing you to store and carry them with less hassle. Flexible twisted-steel and sectional fiberglass handles are cheap and last a long time with minimal care. 
  • Ash bucket. Find a metal bucket or coal scuttle for carrying ashes from the firebox to wherever you are disposing of them. Plastic buckets will only last until you get one hot coal mixed in with the ashes, which will happen. 
  • Metal scoop. A coal shovel or small metal shovel will allow you to dig out the ashes and dump them into your bucket. 
  • Rake or poker. A metal rake will help separate the ashes from the embers, while a poker will help rearrange burning wood to get a better burn or make room for more fuel.

Tools to NEVER Use
  • Never use anything plastic. Plastics just become more fuel when working around fires. 
  • All metal, solid handles. If you're working with a fire for a while, a solid handle will allow heat to travel up the handle and burn your hand. Look for tools with insulated or ventilated handles.
  • Painted tools. Paint will burn off and the fumes released may not be healthy to breathe. Burning paint may also spook a user into dropping the tool, creating a fire hazard. 

Disposal of Ashes 
Ashes have a variety of uses, so they're not just a waste material. If you refrain from burning trash, the ashes produced by a fireplace or wood stove can be used as a base for making lye (for home-made soap) and as a preservative for meat (more in a later article). Even if your ashes get contaminated with minor bits of metals, inks, plastics, or other trash, you can still use them as a fertilizer for gardens and lawns. Ashes are all of the minerals left over once you remove the water and carbon from plant matter, so it makes sense that they would be usable as a source of those minerals for other plant growth. Use them sparingly, since the addition of water will create lye, a very strong base that will raise the pH of your soil.

If you're not going to re-use your ashes, make sure they are disposed of in a manner that will not allow any run-off or leachate to damage plants or structures downhill from them. Dumping them into a deep pit or on a gravel lane are two safe ways to dispose of them, and they'll keep weeds from growing in gravel if you get the ashes thick enough.

Tips for a more efficient fire

Flame Height
The flames you see rising from a fire are actually the combustion of gasses released from the wood as it heats up. Flames are pretty, but anything over 6 or 8 inches high is a sign that you're burning the fuel too fast. Flames generate light but not much heat, you get more heat from the dark red glowing coals of a fire.

Fuel Size
Fire is a chemical reaction, and therefore takes place mainly on the surface of the fuel. Small twigs or sawdust have a lot of surface area and will burn much faster than a solid piece of wood of the same weight. You'll need some small pieces of wood for kindling when you start a fire, but if you use the hot clean method of removing ashes, you'll rarely have to start from scratch. Use wood cut to a length that will fit through the opening of your firebox and as big around as you can keep burning. A slow, deep fire will put out more heat and be more efficient than a roaring bonfire in a box.

Air Control
Balancing the air going in through the intakes, and the smoke going out through the damper, takes a bit of experience. You want to keep enough air moving through to remove the smoke, but you want the fire to burn as low and slow as you can to stretch your wood supply.

Circulation Fans
Fans move air; that's what they're for. Wood heat is generally good for heating only the room that the heater is in, and maybe the room above it. Having fans to move the air around will make a multi-room dwelling more comfortable. There are some neat heat powered fans on the market that use the heat of the stove to run a small fan -- no electricity needed. Ceiling fans are low-powered and an excellent way to move air near a wood-burner. Having air movement allows a smaller fire to heat a larger space more evenly.

Construction Tips

Chimney vs Stovepipe
Depending on if you are moving into a house with an existing wood-burner, or are adding one to an existing home, you may have a choice between a metal stove pipe and a masonry chimney. Pipe is much cheaper and easy to replace, but a masonry chimney will last for decades if not centuries. The house I grew up in had a metal stove pipe and it has been replaced twice in about 40 years, while the house I live in now has a lined brick chimney that has been in use for more than 100 years with little to no maintenance.

Wall/Roof Penetrations
Anywhere the stove pipe or chimney goes through a wall or roof, special construction methods are required to keep the hot flue from igniting the wood framework of the house. Stove pipe building codes vary slightly, but most require a double- or triple-wall section of pipe for any penetration. Triple-wall pipe is quite expensive (~$50 per foot) but is cheap fire insurance.

You will also have to pay attention to the flashing around the pipe or chimney that ties in with the shingles or other roofing material. Cheap flashing will allow rain and snow melt to run down the pipe and cause water damage to your roof and ceilings.

The hearth is a non-flammable material placed under and in front of a wood-burner. Its main purpose is to catch any hot bits that may fall or fly out of a fire without catching fire, but it also does a good job of making cleaning around the heater easier.

Spark Screen
As I explain below, a spark screen is a must for fireplaces and stoves designed to run with the door open. Made of fairly coarse metal mesh, chain mail, or miniature chain-link fence, they provide a physical barrier to sparks and embers flying out of an open fire.

Most chimneys are built with a door on the side below the firebox as a reservoir for ashes. Opening the door provides a convenient way to clean out ashes, but also provides a large opening for air to enter the firebox.

If your wood stove has a horizontal exhaust pipe, there may be a "T" in the pipe where it goes vertical. This serves as a handy drain for debris when you clean the pipe with a brush.

Flue Height for Proper Draft
There is a requirement for how high the top of the chimney/pipe must be above the peak of your roof for proper air flow (draft) and safety. Read the linked article for a good explanation of all of the factors involved.

Rain Caps
Simple rain caps are just a metal plate suspended above the top of the chimney/pipe, but they are usually not enough to satisfy insurance agents and fire marshals. You need to look for one with a spark arrestor screen around the openings, but be aware that the screen will plug with soot and tar fast. You'll be cleaning it several times a season, so make sure you can get to it even with ice on the roof.

Downsides to Wood Heat
Having control of your fuel supply and being able to keep your house as warm as you like (provided you have the wood for it) are nice benefits, but there are some disadvantages to wood heat.
  • Your insurance company will want to inspect the installation. Expect an increase in your rates (or cancellation of the policy) just for having a wood burner. If you have a wood (shake shingle) roof, you may have to treat the roof with fire retardant in order to get coverage.
  • Fire/burn hazard. This is especially true of fireplaces, but some wood stoves can also be a hazard to young children and clumsy adults. Single-walled wood stoves get hot on all sides; the top will be the hottest, but the sides can get hot enough to cause serious burns. Double-wall stoves and masonry stoves are a better choice if you expect this to be a possibility. 
  • Fireplaces without a spark screen are stupid. I don't use that word often, but it is warranted in this case. I equate lighting a fireplace without a spark screen to changing targets on a rifle range while people are still using it. Wood with any knots or burls in it will trap pockets of moisture inside the wood. When that moisture heats up and expands, it literally explodes that portion of the wood and sends hot embers flying. Even with a proper hearth, having hot coals spit out of the fire is never a good idea. Children and animals like to lie next to fires and can be seriously injured by the flying bits of fire. 
  • They're dirty. Wood fires create ashes, which tend to be considered “dirty” even though they have many uses. Any smoke that escapes from the flue will stain fabric and walls/ceilings. It's a slow staining (sometimes takes years to see), but it's there. I've seen an OCD sufferer wipe a child's hand print off a wall and end up cleaning every wall in the room because the clean spot was too obvious. 
  • Our wonderful EPA doesn't like wood stoves and is trying to place so many restrictions on them that they will be too expensive to buy. Local municipalities have also placed restrictions or outright bans on them in some areas due to the smoke and fine particulates they create. Even though wood heat is carbon-neutral (trees grow back using the CO2 released by burning wood), some environmental groups lobby against their use. 
  • Wood smoke has a distinct odor and can travel a long way. From an OPSEC standpoint, a wood-burner is a waving flag that someone has heat and fuel. 
Everything considered, I like having wood heat available. It works even if the electricity goes out. It is a pleasant heat with the advantage of giving a room a temperature gradient from hot near the stove to cool near the far wall -- this means people can always find a place in the room that is the “right” temperature.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Prudent Prepping: Gear Check

The dust has settled and the First 72 Hours have passed. Now we concentrate  on what to do in, and how to plan for, the long term via Prudent Prepping.

Gearing Up
After going through my stored food last week, it is time to look after the more permanent items in my emergency supplies like stoves, stored flashlights, lanterns, shelters, sleeping bags and rain gear. One item that is missing on my Must Have list is a tent. I have been looking for a good used tent for almost a year now, with no luck. I have been to garage sales, looked at Craigslist, and checked back with two local college outdoor clubs, all with no luck finding what I need in my price range.

But this is changing! My local Gear Nut friend pointed me to a site for folks wanting to move extra camping gear and anything else remotely outdoor related called Gear Trade. My friend has sold items through them, and has made several purchases, with no problems on either end of the transaction. Looking through the listed items, I found several tents that fit my needs and (very limited) budget. I am in the process of getting more info from two different sellers where the posted pictures and descriptions were not as detailed as I would like. This is still going on as of this afternoon, so there will have to be a 'to be continued' tag on this story.

In addition to Gear Trade, I'm also using the link Erin posted to Woot! with their blow-out prices on all sorts of really cool outdoor and camping items You have until May 3rd to get those deals, and then the clearance ends.

Repairs and Cleaning
I have an old but good working Whisperlite fuel stove as my backpack/bug out stove, along with an equally old 2 burner Coleman stove (link is closest I can find to mine) that is my car camping /bug in stove. I am not going into a detailed explanation of how to maintain either item, since there are too many variables. (Please check each manufacturer's website and YouTube for detailed instructions.) I will say that cleaning your stove before storing will guarantee fewer problems when you go to get ready for the first trip of the season or having to break out your gear in an emergency.

What to Do:
  1. Drain fuel and leave tank caps off to allow all fuel to evaporate. Do this outside away from any open flames! Draining keeps any leftover fuel from gumming up tanks and lines. 
  2. Follow manufacturer's suggested timetable for replacing any normal wear items like valve gaskets, "O" rings and the like. If this is a vital part of your Prepping gear, plan on having a complete spare parts kit on hand like this for the Whisperlite. 
  3. Leave tanks unpressurized, with lids on and all valves closed. This will help keep moisture, dirt and bugs out of places they don't belong. 
Other Items
My ancient Marmot Gore-Tex jacket is being sent back to fix a broken zipper pull. I had to wait until the last chance of rain passed here and before I would normally stash it for summer, since I might forget to have it fixed if I wait too much longer.

None this week, since I'm planning to blow up my budget on a tent soon. Really blow it up.

As always, if you have comments, suggestions or corrections, please post them so we all can learn. And remember, Some Is Always Better Than None!

NOTE: All items tested were purchased by me. No products have been loaned in exchange for a favorable review. Any items sent to me for T&E will be listed as such. Suck it Feds.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rifle Optics 1 - Scopes

We've talked more than once around here about guns and ammunition and how they're essential for any prepper. As an individual I know is wont to say, "If you have 10,000 gallons of potable water, and I have an AK47, then I have 10,000 gallons of potable water and an AK47." Being armed is a great thing, but it is far better if you can see and hit your target, and that's what we'll be discussing this week.

A great many rifles come from the factory with "iron" sights, and learning to use these is a valuable skill. However, for extended ranges, or folks with bad eyes, these basic sights fall short. They're also usually only minimally adjustable, if that. These factors combine to push us to seek out better sighting methods.

There are two basic categories that cover these better methods. The first, and the focus this week, are traditional magnified riflescopes. The second, and next week's focus, are modern electronic sighting systems.

A scope consists of two lenses in a sealed metal tube. On one of the lenses, the various lines and marks used to line up your shot are etched. Depending on tube length and lens characteristics, scopes can provide magnification from 1x to 24x and beyond. Higher magnification makes it easier to see and identify your target, but the higher the magnification, the narrower your field of view.

While some scopes have a single, fixed magnification, the vast majority sold today have an adjustable range of magnification to allow more versatility. For the vast majority of uses and users, 3-9x is plenty of magnification without having too narrow a field of view. 

Speaking of field of view, many scopes with a millimeter measurement, such as "3-9x magnification, 40mm lens." All other things being equal, wider lenses are generally better as they offer you a larger field of view at higher magnifications. There are other mathematical reasons for this "bigger is better" rule, but it is enough simply to know that this is true.

While it is true that quality in scopes goes up with price, most folks derive little to no real benefit from a scope that costs more than some cars I've owned. The real winners in the budget scope department are the Burris Fullfield and things made by Vortex. I've been particularly happy with the Vortex Crossfire.

To mount your optics, you want rings that are solidly made, with multiple tensioning screws. It is usually just fine to go with what your gunsmith or gunshop recommends, and worth it to let them mount it and roughly sight it in for you. You'll still need to make fine adjustments when you actually shoot the gun, but they can get you close and save you substantial time.

Next week, we'll look at the fancy modern electronic optics.


Monday, April 27, 2015

A Thorough Look at Solar Power

Today we have a guest article from someone who has spent 25 years in the solar power industry. This is going to be a fairly technical article, so get ready for some math. The prices involved may be more white collar than blue collar, for which the editor apologizes.

This article is an entrant in the 2nd Annual BCP Writing Contest.

Electric Power: Steps Toward Self Sufficiency
by Craig Wiles,  Renewable Energy Consultant

If you've ever thought "I want to be energy independent, but I don’t have the money to do it all at once," you'll need to answer a few questions.

Question 1: “How much energy do I need?”
The monthly utility bill we get right now has on it somewhere a number of Kilowatt Hours Used. These may well be expressed as KWH’s.

This is the amount of energy we use now, and what we would like to have available. We may be able to get by with less, but we don't, because we would be doing it now if we could Besides, our goal is to be able to live the way we live now.

Question 2: “What are the steps I should take to get to my goal?”
The easiest power backup is a generator, but it burns fossil fuel and you have to run it even if you want to power just one light bulb.

Adding an inverter/charger and a battery bank lets us charge the battery for four hours a day from the generator, and then run off batteries the other 20 hours of the day.

Every time we add a solar panel to the system we reduce generator run time.

Question 3: “How do I do this right the first time?"
The answer to this question will unfold as we detail each of these steps.

Step 1: Generator
This is what I call “The search of Goldilocks”as most people buy a generator that is too big, and then they end up burning more fuel than necessary because they aren't using all the power that generator provides.

Which Fuel? 
  1. Propane is the best fuel for long term storage. A buried propane tank will always be my first choice. 
  2. Diesel fuel is my second choice. With the right additives, diesel will last ten years. 
  3. Gasoline is my last choice, although many people will start here because of the lower cost generator.
What else?
  • Water-cooled engines tend to live longer than air-cooled ones, but the liquid-cooled models tend to be too big for the average homestead. 
  • Electric start is a nice option because we can tie it to the renewable energy system to start automatically if the batteries get low. 
  • The waveform, or how clean the output is, can be important if you are grid inter-tied and want to sell back to the grid.

My first place choice for best generator is the Honda EU7000.

Step 2: Batteries
Batteries are one area where it might be okay to plan on replacing them as we go along. Almost everyone kills a set of batteries as they learn about living with solar power; better to kill a cheap set and get your learning done with them, than to learn the same lessons from a very expensive set.

Battery Options
  • T-105s, also called Golf Cart batteries ,are very good starter batteries with an expected life of 3-5 years. If you need more capacity you can add a second set of batteries, also known as a "string". Try and avoid more than two parallel strings; electricity is lazy and will take the path of least resistance (which is your best string) and the weaker strings will get neglected. If you have to have more than two strings, be sure and have some switches so that you can force charge any single string. T-105’s are six volt batteries. 
  • L-16 is a battery size which is the same footprint as golf cart batteries but over twice as tall. This is the next step up in size and cost. These are also six volt batteries.
  • L-16 - Two volt cells are another good step up. These will let you have a larger bank without having too many parallel strings. Although these are 2 volt batteries, they are really a conventional L-16 that has been paralleled internally. You really have three strings with these (2 volts times 3 parallels = 6 volts), which is the maximum number of strings you should have. Another down side to these is that you must still water each cell cap even though the plates are paralleled internally.
  • Fork lift batteries are another step up in size, capacity and money. Now we are into taller cells which have a different routine of care than the shorter cells. You will need to charge them harder (they really like to boil) and will take more water as a result. Make sure you have enough power to charge your battery or it will sulfate faster, shortening its life.
  • Top of the line are the big industrial cells like Hup Solar Ones, Surette and several others. These are also two volt cells in series, but are designed for off grid life. You can spend $20,000 on a set of these, but they can last 20 years.
  • Sealed batteries are available, but they cost more and don’t live any longer, and so are not detailed in this discussion. If you are not going to be ACTIVELY involved with your system; get sealed batteries.
  • Avoid used batteries!!!!! I can’t stress this enough. They were being gotten rid of for a reason, and it’s probably not the reason you were told. 
Start with a set of golf cart batteries and expect to replace them in three years with the best ones you can afford.

Step 3: Inverters
We have several dozen choices of utility inter-tie inverters, and almost as many choices in off-grid inverters. If we want the ability to sell electricity back to the power company (that's what "utility inter-tie" means) and the battery backup capability of the off-grid inverters -- and we do -- then we have just a few choices. The other thing we need with our inverter is a built in charger, which these have:
We need an inverter that will run our largest loads. These can all be “stacked” if we ever need to add more inverter power.

Step 4: Adding Solar Electric
Now that we have our generator, battery bank and inverters in place, we are freed from having to run the generator just to turn on a single light bulb. Running the generator from three to four hours per day gives us enough power to live off the batteries (through the inverters) for the rest of the day.

At this stage, every time we add another solar panel we will reduce generator run time. When considering solar panels we are looking for several things.

Price: Always price PV (photovoltaic) panels by the watt. Most “building block size” panels will be between 200 and 300 watts. We don’t worry much anymore about what voltage the panel is, because the Charge Controller will take the high voltage of the array and bring it down to battery voltage through a process utilizing MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking). Panels will be wired in series up to 150 volts or even more depending on the charge controller. Watch out for too many small panels, or you could spend more on interconnecting wires than necessary.

I usually try and include shipping in my final cost, i.e. “price per watt delivered on site.”

Reputation/Reliability/Warranty: There are, without exaggerating, hundreds of new solar manufacturing plants that have opened within the last few years. Dozens have gone out of business. Choosing a company that might be around in 25 years will be difficult (I can only name three still in business from 25 years ago.) Because PV panels are so reliable and trouble free, this is not as big a concern as it would be with some products. If it works for the first year, it should work for the rest of your life.

Efficiency: Solar panels are constructed in four different ways.
  1. Mono Crystalline: An ingot of silicone is sliced into thin pieces to make solar cells. (these often appear black) Efficiency: The Best. 
  2. Poly Crystalline: Leftover chips of silicone are compressed into a wafer and made into cells. (these often appear blue) Efficiency: Very good. 
  3. Amorphous silicon or (thin film): Silicone is liquefied and sprayed on in layers. (these often have a reddish tint) Efficiency: Very Low. 
  4. Ribbon string: Molten silicone is “drawn up” on two wires with surface tension forming a ribbon of silicone which can be sliced into cells. Efficiency: Very good.

    Favorite charge controller: Outback FM80,

    A word about system voltage
    The national electric code has some voltage “breaks” that tend to have designers limited in what voltage is available. With a battery based system we have three usual choices: 12 volt, 24 volt, or 48 volt.

    Higher is better. Unless there is a very good reason, always go with the higher voltage. Here is an example of why:
    • An Outback FM 80 charge controller can handle, 12, 24 or 48 volts.
    • Figuring on using 215 watt panels, we could fit 4 of them on one charge controller at 12 volts.
    • At 24 volts we can fit nine 215 watt panels per charge controller;
    • At 48 volts we can fit eighteen 215 watt panels per controller.
    • At $750 per controller, this can make a bug difference in a large system.

    How many panels?
    At the beginning of this article we figured out how many Kilowatt hours per month we use from our electric bill. Take that number and divide it by 30; this will give you an idea of Kilowatt hours per day. That number is how many panels you are working toward to live like you do now.

    We get between 4 and 5 hours of sun per day on an annual average (This will vary by where you live, but this is a general estimate) and your panels will likely be between 200 and 250 watts each so this is a pretty decent estimate:
    250 watt panel times 4 hours of sun = 1 kilowatt hour.
    200 watt panel times 5 hours of sun = 1 kilowatt hour.
    Most likely you will need to add panels in strings of three.
    Three 250 watt panels times $1 per watt = $750
    This is the size “step” as you add more panels. There will also be racking and wire and a few other items as well, so figure $1000 “steps”. I don’t know of a more stable investment you could make at this time.

    I already have grid-powered electricity. Are my steps the same? 
    Because of some very nice legislation promoting “renewable energy” we may be able to take advantage of what is called “Net Metering” -- which means that the electric company will go back and forth with you at retail level till the end of the billing period. Check your state laws to ensure that this is an option for your location.

    So while you're at work all day and the sun is shining, you can (in essence) run your meter backwards, and at night when you flip on all the lights you would run it forward. Every time you add another solar panel you reduce your electric bill until you are down to the monthly meter charge. With net metering we get to use the grid as if it were our battery at 100% efficiency rate (batteries are 80% at best).

    Thanks to micro inverters we can grow a system like this in very incremental steps.
    1. There will be a one-time installation of a breaker and a disconnect switch.
    2. Each PV panel is $250. 
    3. Each inverter costs $200.
    4. Rack and mounts $100, labor $100. 
    Our steps come out to be $650.

     Caveat: If the grid goes down, you go down. There are no batteries in this system.

    However, there is one inverter, the Sunnyboy TL series, that provides one circuit of power when the grid is down and the sun is shining. It is becoming a very popular string inverter. We can add it to a battery-based system later on (AC Coupling) but there would be some redundancy of steps.

    Expect a grid-tie system with no batteries to run about $3 per watt total cost.

    How good an investment is solar electricity?

    • A 250 watt solar panel costs $250.
    • A 250 watt solar panel will average just over 1 Kilowatt hour per day. (4.3hr ave)
    • At $.10 per KWH, this panel will generate $36.50 per year.
    • $36.50 return on $250 equals a 15% return on investment. This does not factor in inverters and other pieces of equipment, just panels.

    Best wishes in your quest for energy independence!

    Gun Blog Variety Podcast #36

    Sean had the show half edited on Friday night, and when he woke up Saturday morning the external USB hard drive had bitten the dust. He and Adam had to re-record the main show, but luckily the contributor segments were saved on Google Drive.
    • So how are you going to make sure you have a good fire starter when you need one? Erin Palette tells us how to make Char Cloth, which is great for getting a fire started.
    • Nicki Kenyon reminds us that you can't deal with a deadbeat country the same way you deal with your deadbeat cousin.
    • Have you noticed that the anti-gun groups are getting less and less truthful? Miguel Gonzalez has, and he thinks this represents a shift in their tactics.
    • It was probably a great way to bring attention to the desperate need to increase electronic security on aircraft, but Barron B. points out that maybe it's not a good idea to tweet to the world you're about to hack the plane you're flying on.
    • And Weer'd gives us another of his patented Audio Fisks, this time of NC's home grown far left think tank, getting it all wrong about guns.
    Thanks for downloading, listening, and subscribing. And make sure to share it with a friend!
    Listen to the podcast here.
    Show notes may be found here.

    Friday, April 24, 2015

    Apocabox Unboxing #5

    & is used with permission.
    My apologies for the lateness of this post.  I've been doing several things at once today (see my other blog for what I've been up to this past week regarding an incident at NRAAM), and a combination of "Not enough hours in the day", "Problems with internet connections" and "It takes a long time to upload a video to YouTube" converged and tried to take me down.

    They lost. I won.

    And now, after much waiting, is my fifth Apocabox video. I am very interested in finding out if anyone has subscribed to this service based upon my reviews. If you have, please let me know!

    Pictures of this month's contents may be found here.

    Thursday, April 23, 2015

    Wood Heating Primer

    A question came up about wood heat and the pros/cons of the different types, so I thought it was time for a refresher. Wood heat is mostly radiant heat rather than convective heat, so it will feel different than what most people are used to feeling from a furnace.

    Wood heat has two components: the wood and the heater.

    The Wood

    As a fuel, wood is probably our oldest source of stored energy. Almost any wood will burn, but some types are better suited to use for heating than others.

    Wood is measured in old, odd terms. A rick of wood is a stack* 16” wide, 4 feet tall and 8 feet long. Three ricks equals one cord, or a stack 4'x4'x8'.
    *Notice I said “stack” and not “pile”. Wood is kept stacked for reasons I'll cover later, but piles are hard to judge for volume. Rectangular stacks are easier to measure to ensure you're getting what you pay for. Unless you have access to a scale and are paying by the ton, avoid buying wood in piles- there won't be as much there as you think.
    A cord of wood is the standard unit of measure, and that's what most references will use. For those of you who have never worked with firewood, a full-sized (8 foot box) pickup will hold 2 ricks (2/3 of a cord) if filled to the top of the box. A common (6 foot box) pickup will hold about ½ of a cord.

    Hard vs. soft
    Hard woods are more dense and contain more “heat” than the softer woods, but they are more difficult to cut and weigh more per cord. For a comparison of some common species, here's a chart of the density and heat content. For more specifics like fragrance and ease of splitting, this chart has more species listed.

    If you look at the charts, you'll see that there is a large difference in the heat content between a hardwood like Oak (~30 million BTU/cord) and softwoods like Pine (~15-20 million BTU/cord). Put simply, it will take you 1.5 to 2 times as much Pine to get the same amount of heat as you will from Oak.

    Cutting and curing
    Cutting wood is a chore, no two ways about it. The standard saying is that wood heat will warm you at least three times; once when you cut it, again when you split and stack it, and finally when you burn it.

    Felling a tree is not something I can teach with words; it has to be shown. There is a bit of an art to being able to read a tree as it stands and putting it on the ground where you want it, so I'll assume that most of us will be dealing with trees or branches that are already down.

    Once a tree is on the ground and has lost its leaves, it becomes a bit harder to determine what kind of tree it was. Looking at the bark, structure (how the branches grew), and the rings inside the wood will give you clues and if you have a good field guide you should be able to narrow it down. For use as firewood, all you really need to worry about is the density since that is a good indicator of the heat content. Dense, tough wood is better but you may need to burn whatever you can find. Avoid wood that is rotted through or spongy, as it will have very little heat content left in it.

    Firewood is normally cut into 16” lengths. That's why a rick is 16” wide: it's one piece stacked on another with none going end-to-end. 16” is a good length for carrying and it will fit into most any wood stove or fireplace. If your stove or fireplace has a larger opening you can cut your wood to size and save a few trip when carrying wood.

    Firewood is split into chunks that are manageable. This will vary from person to person, but most people can't comfortably carry a piece of wood larger than about 8” diameter and 16” long. Thicker pieces will need to be split into wedge-shaped chunks, and the splitting will actually help the wood cure and dry faster. Splitting round logs also makes them easier to stack, since they are less likely to roll if they have at least one flat side. Split wood also increases the surface area available for flame propagation, which is a fancy way of saying it makes it burn faster. Splitting is done with a hydraulic ram if you're lucky, or an axe/maul if your' not so lucky. If you're being punished for something you did in a past life, you'll get stuck with a sledgehammer and some steel wedges. Different types of wood split differently, and variables like how dry the wood is, the temperature of the wood, knots and crotches in the piece of wood can make this either a breeze or a nightmare. I've learned that the best time to split wood is after is has been cut, but before it has dried or cured, and then waiting for a day where the temperature drops well below freezing. The residual moisture in the wood will freeze and when you hit it with an axe or maul, it just “pops” apart.

    All firewood should be cured for at least two years before being burned. If you're cutting your own wood, look for dead trees that have already lost their bark for fuel for the first year or two and cut enough to store greener wood for the third and fourth years. You'll need to plan ahead for your fuel needs and it is always better to have some wood left over in the Spring than to have to go out and cut wood in the snow. The smaller the pieces you split the wood into, the faster it will dry, but it will also burn faster once it's on the fire.

    Wood stores best outside in stacks with space for air to flow through. A tarp or roof over the stack to keep the rain and snow off is important if you're going to store it for more than a few months. Rain will accelerate the decay processes and snow will cement the wood together. Trust me, it's no fun having to break firewood out of a block of ice, just so you can carry it into a nice warm house where the ice melts before you can burn the wood.

    Most people who burn wood will keep a day's worth inside near the stove and restock as the weather allows. Old houses that relied on wood heat often had a wood bin that penetrated the outside wall, with doors on both the inside and outside. You could fill the bin from the outside and empty it from the inside.

    Stacked wood will attract vermin. The air passages make good burrows for mice and rats and I've heard of badgers and woodchucks taking up residence in wood sheds. For this reason you don't want to stack wood directly against your house, leave a good break between the wood and the house to discourage vermin from moving in with you. Cats seem to like wood piles since they provide them with a good place to get above their prey and it also gives them a good place to lie in the sun.

    A lot of trees have insects living in them. Ants, termites, and roaches are the most common and when winter hits they tend to go dormant right up until the time you bring the piece of wood into the house to have on hand to feed the fire. That's when they thaw out and start looking around for a nicer place to live, namely with you. Check your firewood before you bring it in and if it's full of crawly things, chuck into the fire before they wake up.

    Pellets and other types of wood-like fuel
    • Pellet stoves are a fairly new type of wood stove that uses extruded pellets of sawdust (a waste material) held together with a binder (usually starch or some other natural glue) as a fuel source.
    • Compressed sawdust logs are a novelty item, for when you want a pretty fire in the fireplace and aren't worried about the heat output. They burn for a long time, but don't put out much heat.
    • There are machines that can recycle newspaper and other scrap paper into a burnable form, but I have no experience with them. Most newspaper should be safe to burn since the inks are now predominantly made from soybean oil instead of petroleum.

    Emergency Supplies
    • Pallets are generally made of cheap wood, but can be found anywhere. Beware of “fatwood”, a greasy, fatty wood found in the South that is often sold as a fire starter. I have seen pallets made of this stuff and it is messy. Fatwood burns very hot and very fast, and can overheat a stove.
    • Furniture. Real furniture is made of hardwoods like oak, walnut, teak, and hard maple. Even cheaper sofas and chairs will have a real wood frame buried inside them, and while not as good in quality, they're easy to find.
    • Corn. Believe it or not, we grow enough corn in the USA to be able to burn food for heat. Many of the pellet stoves come with an attachment or adapter plate to allow you to switch over to corn (maize) if it is cheaper than pellets. I have also seen corn mixed into the coal being fed to industrial boilers. When the price of corn is low (like it is right now) or if you find yourself with several thousand bushels of corn and nowhere to sell it, this may be an option for those who live in fly-over country.
    • In the Plains, where trees were scarce, early settlers and Native Americans burned well-dried buffalo dung. Other areas of the world with similar lack of firewood have done the same.

    What Not to Burn
    • Pressure treated. Creosote pressure treating isn't very common any more with the EPA stomping on petroleum products that can leach into soil and water, but there's still a lot of black, tarry wood out there. Railroad ties and bridge planks are common in a lot of places and should never be burned where you breathe. One of the newer methods of treating wood (CCA or green-treated) to prevent insects and microbes from destroying it is based on arsenic (not good to breathe). The other method (CQA or brown-treated) is based on copper oxide and a fungicide -- not as bad as arsenic, but still not good to breathe.
    • Adhesives and particle board. The crap furniture that you get from Wally-world is made of sawdust held together with adhesives. The sawdust will burn just fine, but the adhesives can produce toxic fumes when burnt. Watch the flames when you light a piece of suspect wood- any color other than the normal yellow means you're burning something other than the wood.

    The Heater

    Air-tight Wood Stoves
    All new wood stoves are built as “air-tight” stoves and most have an option for drawing outside air in for the firebox. Air-tight is a bit of a misnomer, since they do leak a bit, but they are a lot tighter around the seams and joints than an old cast iron stove. Every airtight stove I've seen is either of welded construction or made of a mass of stone, making the stove a large, heavy piece of gear. The major advantage to having a stove airtight is to allow better control of the air that enters the combustion chamber, allowing you to better control the burn rate and heat output. Airtight stoves are also more efficient at getting the most heat out of a quantity of wood.

    Non-airtight Wood Stoves
    A lot of old stoves were made of cast iron pieces that are bolted together. There is usually an asbestos rope gasket placed at the joints to fill the gaps and slow down the air leaking into the firebox. Advantages include the ability to break the stove down into pieces for transport (important if you're setting up in a remote location) and generally lower prices. Disadvantages include much lower efficiency, they're “dirtier” to run due to the fact that they will leak around any seam and smoke tends to get out,

    External (HAHSU)
    Some wood-burners are actually set up with the fire box placed outside, near the house, with either hot air or heated liquid piped into the house. These Heat and Heat Storage Units (HAHSU) have the advantage of larger fireboxes, capable of taking larger pieces of wood and burning for longer and thus requiring fewer feedings. Since the firebox is outside, it doesn't draw air for combustion from the living area of the house, making them more efficient than most fireplaces and regular wood stoves.

    Pellet Stoves
    Most pellet stoves have a hopper that you'll fill with fuel and an auger that delivers it to the combustion chamber at a steady rate. Depending on the size of the hopper, a pellet stove can run unattended for up to a day. Pellets can be purchased in bags or by the ton and provide a “cleaner” form of heat. Pellets don't attract insects or provide shelter for vermin the way a stack of firewood can, and they're easier to handle. Availability and price of the pellets can vary greatly by the season and vendor, with some vendors only keeping them in stock during the heating season or not carrying them at all if there isn't enough demand.

    Wood Burning Furnaces
    Often sold as multi-fuel furnaces, they will have more than one combustion chamber with each set up for a different fuel. Wood/oil and wood/gas models are available and they install and operate much like a standard oil or gas furnace. Having flexibility in your fuel is nice, but they will require electricity to run the blower and move the air through the normal duct work. One disadvantage of a wood-burning furnace is the fact that most of them are placed in a basement and that can make it hard to get wood to it and remove the ashes from it without making a mess.

    A fireplace is common enough that I shouldn't have to describe it. The main problems with a standard fireplace are:
    • They use the air that they are heating for combustion. 
    • Since heat rises and the fire is at the base of a vertical chimney, fireplaces can actually suck more air out of a room than they can heat. This is known as negative efficiency.
    • Without a proper screen, burning knotty wood (which pops a lot), can put you at risk of setting your floor on fire.

    Campfire/ Open fire
    For cooking, a well-tended open fire is actually more efficient than either gas or electricity. Since wood heat is radiant heat, an open fire heats in all directions. Sitting around a campfire everyone gets warmed (even if the smoke follows you where ever you move). The Native Americans had figured it out with a tipi and a fire in the center: Everybody got a fair share of the heat produced, and since there is a hole at the peak for a chimney, the door controlled the temperature by letting in fresh air.

    Final Thoughts
    Trying to distill over 40 years of experience burning wood as primary and secondary heat hasn't been easy. I've had to delete or leave out a lot of information in the interest of keeping this article to a reasonable length and it still grew to twice my normal. Given the time to develop a lesson plan and a classroom, I could easily turn this into a three-day class and still wouldn't be able to cover everything.

    If you're thinking about installing wood heat or have “inherited” a wood-burner with the purchase of a house, look around for a local contractor to get recommendation. Local types of wood, normal heating seasons, and proper cleaning of chimneys are best dealt with using experience from your 

    Wednesday, April 22, 2015

    Prudent Prepping: Inventory Time

    The dust has settled and the First 72 Hours have passed. Now we concentrate  on what to do in, and how to plan for, the long term via Prudent Prepping.

    Inventory and Rotation

    After checking out the current state of my local emergency/backup water sources last week, it was time to go through the stores and check expiration dates. This is something I do at least every three months, or when I find older items.

    As everyone should know, the 'Best By' date is not necessarily the date your stored items are bad, but rather the point where a certain percentage of freshness and nutrition is lost. The really hard part to figure out is the deterioration rate of your various stored items in comparison to each other. There is no clear-cut definition (that I have found) to what is lost first, fast or most in our stored food supplies, beyond general guidelines like those found here. The most important quote for me is a paragraph from this page on food storage, which links back to the USDA National Agricultural Library page, and the language is almost the same from both sources:
    "In general, high-acid canned food such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned food such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years, if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean and dry place. Discard cans that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted.
    "Be sure to read package labels. Some items must be refrigerated after opening. "
      I follow those guidelines in this manner:
      • My pasta sauce gets moved out of storage and onto my pantry regularly, as it is an easy, flavorful addition to put on many things besides pasta. 
      • I do not have much canned fruit, and those which I do have are not acidic by any measure. 

      I have always had stored staple food items like canned meats (tuna, Spam, chicken), beans, rice and pasta just as most of my friends do, but they do it without making a conscious effort to store an extended amount. I was like that too, but the prepping mindset grew bit by bit over time until I found myself with about two weeks of supplies for my family just by accident!

      Because of recent changes to my life I needed to rebuild my stores from scratch, and have been documenting the process in this blog series. What has changed the most since then is the quantity of items I can purchase at one time, which is a good and bad thing all at once.
      • The Good:  I get to add smaller amounts of of different items so everything is not going out of date at the same time.
      • The Bad:  I am not necessarily able to buy items as economically as I would like, since larger packages and quantities are usually cheaper to buy. 
      One way around the bad is to buy with a friend, as I have started to do this year. We share 25 lb and 50 lb bags of rice and beans and vacuum bag them into smaller, easier to handle sizes. This fits into my "Divide and Survive" style of keeping several complete multi-day supply pails ready to go; if the Big One hits and damages this house, I should be able to salvage some or all of my prepping supplies.

      What I am not going to compromise on is making regular additions to my stores, even if it is as simple or as small as an extra can opener.

      What I am moving out now are some packages of pasta and some of the canned meats in my main prepping supplies. These are not close to the dates coded on the cans or bags, but are getting to the point that I will not be able to use them up before that date. All will be donated to my local food bank by dropping them off at their closest collection center.

      Purchases This Week
      •  6 1lb bags of penne pasta, Sam's Club: $6.48
      • 5 cans of chicken breast, Sam's Club: $10.98

      Some Is Always Better Than None
      I have been asked why I have the tag line of Some Is Always Better Than None. When I started to really look into serious prepping, wanting to see what more experienced people have done, I came across a guy who said "... some is the same as none." meaning (to him) that unless you have big stores of fill-in-the-blank, you have nothing. This is wrong. This is defeatist, and with that thinking no one will do anything! Start. Do something, anything. Make a change. You will feel better!

      As always, if you have comments, suggestions or corrections, please post them so we all can learn. And remember, Some Is Always Better Than None!

      NOTE: All items tested were purchased by me. No products have been loaned in exchange for a favorable review. Any items sent to me for T&E will be listed as such. Suck it Feds.

      Tuesday, April 21, 2015

      Backup Generators

      If you're a member of our Facebook group, you probably already know that Erin is the guest on a radio show this week. If not, hey, Erin is the guest on a radio show this Wednesday. [Oh, jeez. No pressure, eh? -- Erin]

      One of the topics that came up as she has been preparing for this show was backup electrical generators. As this lands pretty much smack-dab in my professional wheelhouse, I got the call to break down the mystery that surrounds backup generators and how to select one that meets your needs.

      While they aren't cheap, generators are a nearly critical hardware investment, allowing far better and more productive living when the lights go out. They also have the side benefit of portable power for camping, hunting, or remote work projects.

      How much generator do you need?
      Generators, like most electrical appliances, are sized in watts. All of your appliances should have a tag or plate on them stating how many watts they use. Determine which items in your home are critical to run in the event of power failure, and note their rated wattages. Select these things based on honest need and rank them by importance. Be aware that the majority of backup generators are 120 volt only, so large appliances such as electric furnaces, clothes dryers, and ovens will likely not operate on generator power.

      Adding up all of the wattages you noted will give you the maximum power that you would need to supply in order to run all those items at the same time. Honda has a neat little calculator that will help run all the math on this part.

      The wattage listed on a generator is its hard maximum, which can only be maintained for short periods of time. They typically supply only 80% of their maximum rating during sustained operation. Make sure to pay attention to this when you're looking to buy a generator.

      What other considerations should you be aware of?
      As you research your generator options, there are a couple other things to take into consideration.

      Physical size and weight:  Where do you plan to store your generator?  Will you need to retrieve it and move it when it is needed?  If you have to move your generator into an operating position, make sure you get one that you can move handily.  Make sure that you have a storage space to protect your investment when it's not in use.  Generator exhaust can be deadly, so only run the unit outside, or in a well-ventilated and unoccupied area. They're usually fairly weather resistant, but if you can site them under some kind of overhang or shelter, it will extend the life of the unit and may provide protection from folks who would make off with it. Chains and locks are also commonly used to prevent generator theft.

      Two-stroke vs Four-stroke:  Two stroke generators are frequently less expensive, however, they require that their fuel be pre-mixed with oil.  Four-stroke engines do not require pre-mix fuel, and can feed off the same fuel cans as your car.

      Noise:  Generators can be quite loud when they're running.  This is annoying, at the very best.  Finding the quietest generator that meets your other performance needs will go a long way towards increasing your comfort in an already stressful situation. 

      Fuel: Gasoline is the most common fuel used for generators. It's cheap and readily available. There are also some diesel generators kicking around, but they're usually much larger and more expensive. Store fuel only in containers designed for that fuel, and don't store them inside your home in living areas. For fuel that will be stored more than a month or two, fuel stabilizers are available at local auto parts stores.

      Hooking it all up
      While there are MacGyver ways to jerry-rig your generator to power your home, these are illegal and dangerous and should never be done. The only safe, legal way to attach a generator to your home is through a transfer switch installed at your breaker box. Unless you are very confident in your electrical abilities, this is best done by a licensed, qualified electrician. It will cost a couple hundred dollars, but protects your generator and home from possible fire or electronic damage, as well as protecting the lives of the linemen working to restore grid power.

      Once you're set up with a transfer switch, using generator power is as simple as firing up your generator, plugging it in to the inlet box, then flipping the switch.

      You don't have to be in the dark!


      Monday, April 20, 2015

      Gun Blog Variety Podcast #35

      The day after the NRA Annual Meeting, Adam and Sean sat down to talk about all the cool things they saw. It was a great event, and they want all of you to come out to next year's NRA Annual Meeting in Louisville, KY.
      • Erin Palette is on assignment* and will return next week.
      • Nicki Kenyon talks about economists and foreign policy.
      • Miguel Gonzalez reviews Nashville's crime rate during and before the NRA Annual Meeting.
      • Barron B. once again reminds everyone why you shouldn't EVER use the default password on your nanny cam.
      • And Weer'd sticks a pin in CSGV's lie about why we "need" so called "Universal Background Checks."
      You have to listen to this episode. The dramatic presentations during Barron and Weer'd's segments are totally worth it.

      Thanks for downloading, listening, and subscribing. And don't forget to share with a friend!
      Listen to the podcast here.
      Show notes may be found here.
      *  Actually, my throat was all scratchy from con crud. and since I appeared last week and the others didn't, I figured it would be fair to them and better for my health if I just skipped a week. Which works out, because without my segment they were already at the hour mark anyway. -- Erin

      Con Survival Part 2 - the Outdoor Event

      Erin had a lot of really good pointers in her article about surviving various conventions.  I'm doing a quick follow-up on that to cover... dun duh DUNNN ... Outdoor Events.

      From spring, all the way through late fall, we're all eager to get outside and go Do All The Things. For me and most of my close friends, that means Renaissance Festivals, camping trips with 200+ other people, bike rallies, and outdoor music festivals like Rocklahoma.

      While there are some significant differences in an outdoor event of any size when you compare it to an indoor event like a convention, there are a lot of similarities as well.

      Emergency Survival

      • While you won't be looking for fire exits when you're outdoors, be mindful of where choke points happen to be, and where the crowd exits from the venue.
      • Keep an eye out for emergency personnel such as police, security, EMTs, and fire & rescue. They usually have very distinctive markings to keep them easily identifiable in the crowd.  Move out of their way if you happen to see them coming your way.
      • Like indoor locations, knowing where the bathrooms and water fountains are located is crucial. Large outdoor events are likely to have multiple sets of Port-a-Johns posted near the entrances, exits, and scattered in other locations at the site. It's good to know where more than one set is located, in case lines are really bad.
      • If you are going to an event like a Renaissance Faire where animals are allowed on a leash, find out where the pet comfort station is located. Often these pet stations include communal watering dishes, faucets, and shade so that you can rest and water your furbaby as needed.  Remember, Fido can get over heated and exhausted just like you can!

      These are going to be almost a direct repeat of the things that Erin pointed out.
      • Bring a water bottle with you. Concession prices are always outrageous, and you don't want to be paying upwards of $3.50 a bottle for a bottle of water or a soda every couple of hours. Refill your bottle every chance you get.
      • If the venue allows outside food and drink (some don't), then pack snacks and/or a cooler with your lunch. Once you see the prices at the food vendors, you'll be really happy that you did.
      • If the venue won't allow you to bring in a cooler with your snackage and meals, stick a few granola bars or other easily carried, small space-taking snacks in your backpack or purse that gets carried with you. Even in full Renfair costuming with a belt pouch rather than a full pack, my pouch is large enough to carry a couple of granola bars along with everything else that's "necessary" to have with me.
      • Breath Mints - oh yes, please, bring breath mints. If you don't use them for your own sake, to get rid of that weird funky taste of dust out of your mouth -- please, for the love of all that's holy and the continued good will of your fellow event goers -- use them for OUR benefit!
      • Comfortable Shoes. While this isn't possible for those of us who fall into the "serious Cosplayer/Reenactor/Faire Goer" role that are attempting to exactly duplicate a particular look (trust me, sack boots are not comfortable - not under any circumstances, not ever), it is something that I would strongly recommend for those who are casual attendees, or those going to something like a bike rally or music festival. If you forgo making a fashion statement in order to not feel like cutting your feet off at the ankles at the end of the day,  your feet will thank you.
      • Non-constricting Clothing. Obviously if you're someone like me, who wears period appropriate costuming from the skin out, even when its 110° F in the shade in the middle of July in Texas, including all the tight fiddly bits that give a woman that perfect silhouette in costume, then this isn't an option. If you're a normal person with a functioning brain, who isn't into suffering for their art, then loose, comfortable clothing that is weather appropriate for the venue is definitely your best bet.

      Again, most of this is simply a reiteration on what Erin posted, with a few minor variations.
      • Keeping in touch is going to be a bugbear. Wifi is probably not going to be available at all, although since we're talking about outdoor venues, you should still get a phone signal --provided the event isn't in a location where there's no phone coverage to begin with!
      • Walkie-Talkies can be a workable solution, provided you are ultra careful to check the frequencies you're using. Festival officials at many outdoor events and venues use walkie-talkies for official communications, calling for emergency personnel, and simply coordinating the event. Unless you have no cell service at all, its best to forgo walkie-talkies at outdoor venues.
      • Pre-arranged check-in times and places. Agree before you split up on where you'll go if you can't reach each other via phone. Agree on what time you'll meet up for meals or specific festival highlights, and where you'll expect to wait for the rest of your party -- whether that be at the car, near a specific set of toilets, next to the jousting field, or in front of a particular merchant's stall.

      Health and Hygiene
      Go read what Erin wrote. Then read it again. Then think about how unpleasant you would find it, having to stand or sit next to someone you don't know, for 3 hours at a concert, if you can smell them from 3 feet away. Show the same consideration to everyone else that you expect to have shown to you, and you should be fine.

      Friday, April 17, 2015

      Gun Blog Variety Podcast #34

      It's the NRA Annual Meeting Minicast, featuring Sean, Adam, and Erin in a short roundtable segment inside the NRAAM Press Room.

      Thanks for downloading, listening, and subscribing. And don't forget to share with a friend!

      Listen to the podcast here.
      Show notes may be found here.

      Convention Survival Strategies

      & is used with permission.
      Now that spring has sprung, conventions across the country are starting up and folks are making plans to visit their favorite cons in the summer and fall. Since I am someone who goes to conventions when time and money permit, I thought I'd share some of my tricks for having a safe (and prepared!) time at a convention.

      First Things First: Emergency Survival 
      These ought to go without saying but I will list them here:
      • Always know where the fire exits are in the convention hall, and be mindful of alternate ways out in case you need to evacuate quickly. 
      • Similarly, keep your eyes out for the locations of fire extinguishers and first aid kits. 
      • It's also good to know where the bathrooms and water fountains are... and if you don't think that qualifies as emergency survival, you haven't been to enough cons. 

      • Speaking of water, carry a water bottle with you and drink from it. It gets hot on the con floor and concession prices are usually between "ridiculous" and "highway robbery." Drink cold water to prevent thirst and dehydration, and top off every time you pass a water fountain. 
      • Snack foods that keep well in the heat, like granola bars, are also excellent things to have around. 
      • Breath mints (like Altoids) not only keep your breath pleasant but also remove nasty tastes from your mouth. 
      • In fact, you should have an entire comfort kit with you at cons. A small bag with moleskin, cough drops (both the menthol kind and Ricola), and traveling packs of painkillers (Advil, Tylenol, Aleve) and allergy medication (such as Benadryl). 
      • Unless you're a cosplayer dedicated to suffering for your art, have good walking shoes because you can  end up on your feet for 6-12 hours. 
      • Any outfit you can't easily remove to use the toilet is just an exercise in suffering. 

      • It can be hard to keep in touch with friends at a con; cell reception may be poor inside the hall, and wifi can range from "awesome" to "nonexistent" (usually "spotty") and from "free" to "pay by the hour". A much better alternative is to get a set of rechargeable walkie-talkies tuned to an unused frequency, as they're easier to hear on a busy con floor than a cell phone ringtone or IM chime and usually give faster response time. Even a short-range walkie-talkie ought to be sufficient for covering the entire main hall.
      • Cell phones are better outside the convention (such as when going to eat), so make sure you have everyone's phone number. I didn't when I went to NRAAM in Nashville, and that bit me in the rear end. 
      • Have prearranged rendezvous points ("Okay, we'll all meet by the main entrance at 5 pm for dinner") in case someone loses their walkie or experiences technical problems.

      • Cons cost money; there's just no getting around that. Between travel expenses, hotel rooms, meals and snacks, and tickets to the con itself, you're already looking at a significant outlay of money. Add to that the acres of really cool things you're likely to find there and it's easy to spend far more than you ever intended. Only attend a convention if you know you can afford to go!
      • Many folks, myself included, are fond of bringing along emergency cash in case of unexpected expenses, like needing to fix the car on the way home or finding that once-in-a-lifetime find that you've just gotta have. 
      • However, if you're not paying attention it can be easy for your emergency fund to turn into petty cash and be spent faster than you'd like. I like to put my true emergency funds (usually large bills like 100s or 50s) into a place that is secure yet hard to reach, so that I have to consciously be aware that I'm raiding it. My current favorite place is in my shoes, between the sole and the liner. 

      Health & Hygiene
      • Cram lots of people into an enclosed area and both sweat and odor will happen. It's just a fact of life and there's no getting around it. That said, be considerate: bring deodorant and soap, and use both. Your courtesy will be appreciated. 
      • If the smell gets to be too much, take a cue from EMTs and coroners and put a little dab of something pungent, like Vicks VapoRub, on your upper lip. You'll smell it instead of body funk. 
      • Taking a hot shower after the convention not only washes sweat, odors, allergens and germs off your body, but also relaxes your muscles and helps you sleep. 
      • Resist the urge to stay up late. You need plenty of rest in order to stay healthy and maintain the energy needed to enjoy the rest of the con. 
      • Conventions are like kindergarten for adults:  lots of people walking around, coughing and sneezing in an enclosed space and then touching items and each other. There's an excellent chance that you'll come home with what's known as "Con Crud" if you aren't careful, so use plenty of hand sanitizer and immune boosters like Emergen-C

      The Fine Print

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