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Energy Solutions

Building Resilience for a ‘Close Encounter’ with Disaster

Can you make your life more resilient in case of disaster? Yes, and it may be greener, too.

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Some people (like the guy in this movie) want to see aliens... I just want a glass of water!
Some people (like the guy in this movie) want to see aliens... I just want a glass of water! Installing PV near my house so that, among other things, my neighbor can charge her iPhone when the grid goes down.
Image Credit: Tristan Roberts

Sometimes being a practical person isn’t that fun. Last night my wife and I were watching the classic 1977 movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Leading up to the climactic scene, the protagonists are racing to the location where they expect aliens to appear, while outrunning the U.S. Army and the United Nations. To do this, they must escape the authorities and their cattle cars, drive a station wagon off-road through Wyoming, and spend several hours scrambling up the dry, rocky landscape around Devil’s Tower.

Setting aside whether they or their station wagon are capable of these feats, I kept thinking, why the heck didn’t they bring some water along? Forget the aliens—I’d be trying to slake my thirst after a couple hours of this! Instead of the closing credits, I’d like to see the scene after our hero boards the flying saucer, as he figures out how to intone to the alien, “Do you have some H2O?” Hopefully that’s on the in-flight service menu.

Making life safer and easier if Fukushima happens nearby

I don’t do well without food, water, and other basic stuff like that. Sometimes it makes me complain about movie plots. Sometimes it leads to interesting conversations.

I just got off the phone with a reporter from Florida who saw my column from a couple weeks ago about how to measure nuclear radiation and contamination. He asked me, “How can homeowners shield themselves from the types of plant accidents that are occurring in Japan? Are there green solutions that may make life easier should such a disaster happen nearby?”

He immediately assumed that there is not much you can do, relative to nuclear safety. Not so—there is a lot you can do depending on the situation. I’m a journalist, not an expert on nuclear issues, there is a lot you can to do to protect yourself from the worst fallout by staying sheltered. Regional and federal authorities, as well as other groups, have a lot more information on those issues.

Would you be prepared?

Let’s say there has been an incident where your most practical and safe option is to stay at home, but external power, water, and services are not functioning. Would you be prepared, or would you be like the guy trying to figure out how to ask aliens for water?

A lot of us have learned the hard way that we’re not very well prepared. A couple major ice storms in the last decade in New England, the August 2003 blackout, Hurricane Katrina, flooding in the Midwest—you may not have to look far back in your memory banks for a situation that challenged your home’s livability, or at least someone you know or saw on TV.

There is a lot you can do — it’s called passive survivability

The good news is that if you’ve thought about things in advance, there is a lot you can do to make your home or community more livable in extreme conditions. There is a concept for this, pioneered by my colleague Alex Wilson: passive survivability. Passive survivability is, in short, a building’s ability to maintain critical life-support conditions if services such as power, heating fuel, or water are lost. Resilient design is another term for this, and both concepts can be extended from the building to the community scale.

The neat thing about passive survivability is that it’s not just for emergencies. Using these practices can reduce your environmental impact, and your energy bill, year-round. 

Using, not wasting, solar heating

Losing power or heating fuel in the winter can not only render buildings quickly uninhabitable, but exposing water piping and hydronic heating pipes to freezing temperatures can cause catastrophic damage both to those systems and to the home itself, due to water damage.

To counter this, maximize your use of passive solar heating. If building new, orient on an east-west axis, with the long side facing south. Use windows on the south face with a high solar-heat-gain coefficient. (With good insulation, passive solar doesn’t take as many windows as you may be picturing, by the way.)

If you don’t have the luxury of spinning your home around on its lot to get better solar orientation, stop and observe. How is solar heating as a resource is being used—or blocked? Blinds that are always closed, or landscaping that started out small but that is now blocking the sun through the winter, may be hindering your access to free heat. Doing an energy audit may reveal easy ways to make your home tighter, and keep inside the solar heat you do get.

Avoid deadly heat during summertime blackouts

Be careful to balance heating and cooling. Summertime blackouts can be deadly, with high indoor temperatures causing heat stroke. Before air-conditioning was common, we reduced our need for cooling through simple design measures. For example, small roofs or overhangs over different designs over windows are a nifty design feature, common on older homes, that make your window’s paint job last longer. They can also be designed to allow in low-angle winter sun, when you need it for heating, but block summer sun that is high in the sky. Using awnings and blinds, as well as opening windows at night to flush the heat out are other great ways to naturally stay cool.

Use onsite renewables. When a tree hits the power line, or worse, it’s great to have a renewable power source onsite. We live off the grid, and at one point last fall, our neighbor stopped by to charge her iPhone at our house after a tree knocked out power on our road. I was happy to share the electrons, which were plentiful that day.

Intermediate steps to going off the grid

Going off the grid is a big move, but there are intermediate steps. For a few hundred bucks you can buy out-of-the-box systems that use a couple of small solar panels and basic electronics. These can help with smaller essentials like charging a phone in the event of an outage.

For a more sophisticated system, get help from a local professional. It’s common these days to use grid-tied solar power, and that’s a great way to get started, but you won’t have access to that power if the grid goes down unless you design it with that in mind. That may require an inverter, a battery bank, and other switches and controls. Look at key appliances that you would like to keep on during an outage—like your furnace, for example—and try to keep a system affordable by addressing just these loads. It will cost you a bit, but there are very attractive tax incentives in place right now to lighten the load.

Don’t forget the root cellar

One great resource you don’t hear discussed a lot these days is a root cellar. Having canned goods and root vegetables put away for the winter (or as part of your year-round pantry) used to be common practice, but the 24-hour supermarket seems to have blotted this kind of space from our memories. Besides having access to tasty, nutritious food from your own garden year-round, a root cellar provides a great buffer in case services get interrupted following an earthquake or oil embargo. The empty shelves in Tokyo last month demonstrate the value of that. Your house may have had a root cellar in the past, or you may find a space like the bulkhead that’s perfectly suited to it.

Consider storing extra water. You can get kits at any hardware store to set up a gutter and a rain barrel to collect a few extra gallons, or you can get fancy and set up a rainwater harvesting system tied into your home water supply. Either way, such a system will provide a buffer for washing your hands, flushing the toilet, or even cooking and drinking with (provided the system is designed with proper sanitation), in case you lose power to your well pump, or the city loses power to its treatment systems.

And you’ll always have a glass of water on hand in case you want to chase down some extra-terrestrials. Just make sure to offer them some, too. Mars is pretty dry these days.

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. What are your thoughts on resiliency in your home and community? Leave your comments and questions below.



    Hurricanes and tornadoes
    We got a real taste of what a close encounter with disaster feels like here in North Carolina on Saturday afternoon. Arriving home with my 13 year old in heavy rains I pulled in close to the door and then backed out to the side yard so my wife wouldn't have to run through the wet to get in when she returned. Right about then all craziness broke loose and I ended up sitting in my car listening to the radio while the wind whipped sheets of water around me. Glad that my daughter knows what a tornado / micro-burst sounds like and has already sat one out with us in our storm-hardened powder room. (microbursts are vertical wind events with extremely strong winds blowing straight down in a very small area)

    I like to say "it's not the wind but the flying trees that you need to worry about" Unbelievable devastation all around us here.

    I think this video sums up the local reaction pretty succintly,

  2. 6q237hNep7 | | #2

    Dependance of external systems
    We too lived off grid for 7 years in a superinsulated home in NH- lots of times with no grid power and our heat, water, etc went happily on. Once we lost the circulating pump from the outside wood fired waterstove, and the house by itself never went below 50 degrees in one of those NH weeks where the high temperature for the day never got to zero- pretty good house. IT went through several microbursts without loosing a window ( fiberglass- built in 1985) and would have survived a fire for 6-7hours structurally if one could have burned for that long in a foam panel home.
    Now 20 years in Ky- we have learned more- have an earth tempered home that only requires about 20 degrees of heat in a KY cold winter and 10 degrees of cooling during about three weeks of the summer. Cisterns for water, the same outside wood stove for heat and hotwater and PV's for the limited amount of power needed - all in a modular home bought right off the shelf. Food storage in an old cistern "root cellar". total cost around $100,000 for about 3800 sf of conditioned space. Point being- you can economically build or refit a ordinary home to preform well under "no service" conditions- it's not hard, just not common. The knowledge and technology has been around for a long time- maybe it will take a bunch of wild weather to get folks to pay attention.

  3. Tristan Roberts | | #3

    tornados and such
    Michael, glad to hear that you and yours are safe and sound! That video is something. I love how calm the guy sounds while all hell is breaking loose. How safe is sheltering in a car considered? If a basement isn't available, of course....

    Kricket, it sounds like you have a great set-up. How did you manage to get an off-the-shelf modular home to perform that well? What kind of earth-tempering do you have?


    Shelter from a storm
    Taking shelter in a car leaves you very vulnerable to flying trees.

    We build hardened master closets and powder rooms in a lot our homes. We also have a bunch of framing tricks to stop the trees at the ceiling plane. My house took seven trees and missed a micro-burst by about 75 feet during hurricane Fran. No serious damage except to the wooden gutters.

    Hurricane-spawned micro-bursts seem to be a lot more common than tornadoes around here. Mainly because a single hurricane can spawn hundreds or possibly thousands of powerful micro-bursts with amazingly strong winds blowing straight down.

  5. Perry525 | | #5

    Orientation and other things
    May I mention that you can fill your boiler
    and heating pipes with antifreeze, this will
    avoid any damage.
    Pipes can also be insulated, that will delay
    the moment when freezing will occur.
    A system can also have ribbon heating
    attached to the pipes, for those times
    when there is a loss of natural gas or
    heating oil.
    Once again we have the suggestion that a
    home with its long axis facing south will
    maximise heat gain from the sun. With the
    sun rising more or less in the east, there is
    a lot of the year when east facing windows
    pick up the morning sun, a home often
    reaches 40C and above in the morning sun
    and of course the sun shines through east
    facing windows to almost lunch time,
    something that should not be ignored.
    As mentioned in the text you do not have
    to spin your home round to take advantage
    of the morning and evening sun, a simple
    enclosed verandah will capture a lot of heat
    that will entered the home though your
    windows and doors.
    The provision of outside shade is all
    important, shutters will block the heat
    from the sun as and when required.
    A typical low pressure central heating
    system will have a fifty gallon cold water
    tank in the roof, to supply the bath, shower
    and hand basins.

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