(Administrative note: We started our travel-triggered isolation on March 13th and it ended on the 27th. However, on March 25th Indiana went on stay-at-home via Executive Order 20-08, so we are still effectively locked in until April 6th – now updated to at least April 20th. The tl;dr is that this is actually more like SAH Day 23 for us, but I’m only counting the time since we ended isolation).
By this time, panic buying has mostly subsided, and supermarkets are close to fully stocked. There are some exceptions to this (paper goods, sanitizers, bleach, denatured alcohol, PPE and the like), probably reflecting what is at least a temporary new normal of genuine supply chain shifts. In general, however, people seem to have realized their storage space isn’t infinite and they are buying a relatively normal time-averaged quantity of household consumables.
Unfortunately, since we are all in lockdown, the number of store visits per month is greatly reduced – which means that at any given time, most families probably have more groceries on hand than they normally would have pre-crisis. Certainly in our case, both the refrigerator and freezer are fully stocked, and (as one does in time of crisis) we felt a bit safer knowing that we had at least a week or two of food on hand.
And then, around 2010 on Saturday March 28th, an EF2 tornado popped up and frolicked across my little corner of Indiana. Having lived in Florida for so many years, I had become accustomed to days or weeks of notice for hurricanes; I’d forgotten how tornadoes can just appear and suddenly the sirens outside are howling and the TV is telling you “it’s headed for your street, and you have about 10 minutes”. We didn’t suffer any damage, luckily – it was pretty exciting not too far away, though – but besides needing to huddle on the floor in the hall for an hour or so, we lost power from 2030 to about 0350. I stayed up all night waiting for it to come back on, so I could measure the temperature in the fridge and freezer. It was nail biting knowing the food was all slowly warming up and there was nothing to be done. When power returned, the top shelf in the fridge reached ~50°, lower shelves were ~40°, and much of the food was salvageable. (The freezer compartment of the fridge was in the high 20s, and the outdoor freezer was in the low 20s).
We lucked out there, but I decided I’m never going to be caught out in the silly obvious ways again. On the other hand, I don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on prepper gear (nor the room to store it).
For the electric situation, I initially decided to buy an inverter, so I can use one of the cars as an extremely inefficient generator in a pinch. This inverter was ~$20 shipped (from eBay) and while it’s really designed to power things like laptops, it will nominally handle a moderate fridge or freezer. However after I purchased it, I thought a little more and realized that I have no idea what kind of sinewave emulation it has, nor its ability to cope with hard-starting inductive loads. Not to mention that this approach will burn probably 12 gallons of gasoline a night, besides being less than ideal for the car. So I’m keeping this inverter as what you might call a tier 2 emergency solution, but I needed to shop for a cheap generator also.
I would normally have shopped Craigslist for a used model and perhaps done some light refurb work (these small engines are pretty easy to work on – check out Mustie1 on YouTube for some great videos), but due to the pandemic situation shopping around like this wasn’t really feasible. So I wound up buying a super inexpensive ~$120 shipped 900W (ish) 2-stroke generator online. The screenshot above is clickable through to the site where I bought it, but the page may of course go stale at some point.
The reason I describe it as 900W ish is because the exact same unit is sold, under various brands, as anything from 800 to 950W. The specs I believe the most are 800 running watts/900 starting watts, <68dB noise level, 1.2gal tank, 8.5 hour runtime at 50% load, 1x 120V outlet and 1x 12V outlet (cable included for battery charging). With a 5gal can of gas and 13oz of 2-stroke oil, I can keep the fridge running for around 36 hours. I ordered two bottles of 2-stroke oil (stabilizer is included) and a 5gal gas can from Amazon, and now I have everything I need except fuel. This is the best tradeoff for me; it might not be the best tradeoff for you. I want this generator ONLY to keep my food cold for a short period of time, and I don’t want to spend $500+ on an over-capacity generator that I will use infrequently.
A brief sidebar is necessary in case you’re not cognizant of the nuances here. Small 2-stroke engines (used on things like lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and very small generators) have what’s called a total loss oiling system. Instead of having a separate oil system for cooling and lubrication, you simply mix oil into the fuel tank and it all burns up. The mix ratio is stated on the motor’s data plate; for this engine it’s 50:1 gasoline to oil (though the first 30 hours of run-in require more oil, 30:1). But this is only part of the picture. Gasoline does not last forever, especially in a non-airtight system; the lighter fractions evaporate, and modern E10/E15 gasoline contains ethyl alcohol which absorbs water out of the air. Bad news bears for your engine. Best case, if you leave it fully gassed up, you’ll have a clogged carburetor full of shellac when you need to run the generator a year from now. Worst case, the water in the ethanol will have corroded the fuel system. So it’s best not to leave the carburetor full (ideally, not the fuel tank either) for long periods of storage. But even the gasoline you put in a sealed can will go bad after a while – the oil companies recommend using it within a month after pumping. So there are additives – Sta-Bil is probably the most popular – that you can add to gasoline to extend its shelf life to “a year ish”. Most 2-stroke oils now contain these additives, but if you don’t have any other use for the gasoline, and you’ve added the oil to it already, you have a disposal problem – you don’t want to burn oil-mixed gasoline in your car. So you either have to buy your gas just when you need it, or establish a cycle for burning or disposing of old gas periodically. If you have a lawnmower, snowblower or similar appliance that lets you continue burning and replenishing your garage gas supply through the year, you’ll be fine of course. But since I don’t, I can confidently say: readiness is a pain in the butt.
This takes care of the fridge situation, but I also didn’t have ready access to emergency supplies in this outage – nor did I have a bag’o’stuff packed in case a tree fell on the house and we needed to evacuate. So I’m making two backpacks and a catpack of emergency supplies, sourced on a variety of sites but mostly eBay and Amazon. Note that I don’t particularly have a paramilitary fetish, but there’s a distinct advantage in buying equipment that has an NSN – that advantage being, there’s probably a billion of them on the surplus market, and you can buy exact replacements easily. Similarly, rather than rolling a one-of-a-kind storage solution, using MOLLE II compatible equipment means a plethora of standardized, reproducible options. Also, I do like olive drab, sand, and ACU colors :D.
The list below is inclusive, but not exhaustive – it is cut and pasted from my first-draft notes, and has had additions.
- Backpacks. I bought “military looking” ACU pattern 30 liter packs of generic manufacture. USGI packs are very nice quality, but honestly too expensive for a one-time-use activity like this. Each pack contains identical contents. Note that battery-powered equipment was selected to use a single battery type/size where possible.
- Set of MOLLE system pouches to attach water bottles and other small items to the pack (flashlights, etc) so they are readily accessible and don’t need to be rummaged for.
- 3-band AM/FM/WB (weather band) battery-powered (2xAAA) radio.
- FRS/GMRS (walkie-talkie) radio using 3xAAA. (If you have a ham license, a cheap ham transceiver like the ubiquitous Baofengs would be better, but if you have a ham license, you probably don’t need me telling you that).
- 2x 2-AAA LED penlight flashlights, clippable and zoomable.
- 2x adult disposable rain poncho.
- 2x mylar thermal blanket.
- L sand T-shirt NSN 8415-01-519-8788.
- 2x men’s 36″ brown briefs NSN 8420-01-112-1961.
- [Substitute 2x women’s USGI briefs and PT bra for women’s kit].
- 2pr L tall OD green boot sock NSN 8440-00-543-7779.
- Folding pocket knife.
- Knife sharpener.
- USB-A to USB-C, USB-A to Lightning and USB-A to micro-USB cables.
- Dual-outlet USB-A wall charger (to charge one cellphone and one battery).
- Dual-outlet USB-A car charger.
- 4x trash bags.
- 10x 1gal Ziploc bags.
- 1 roll toilet paper.
- Travel size Tide laundry detergent.
- Small bottle dish detergent.
- Dish sponge (the type with a scourer on one side and a sponge on the other).
- Hand towel.
- 2x toothbrush.
- Folding mirror.
- Glasses cleaning cloth.
- 2x disposable razor.
- 2x box matches.
- 2x package cigarettes. (We don’t smoke, but these are useful camaraderie-building implements).
- Lightweight camping set: knife, fork, spoon, mug, plate, bowl. Ideally plastic, microwaveable since you’re by far most likely to be in a hotel, not cooking over an open fire!
- BPA-free water bottle.
- Pack playing cards.
The following items (again, duplicated in each pack) have a shelf life and need to be checked or replaced annually:
- 18x alkaline AAA cells (1/2 AmazonBasics 36pk). This is enough for two sets of batteries for every electronic item in the pack.
- USB power bank at least 3×18650 sized with decent capacity – I strongly recommend a name brand like Anker (the PowerCore 10000mAh device is what I purchased). This item should be charged fully, discharged fully, charged fully then discharged to 60% for storage, ideally.
- First aid kit (Band-Aids, neosporin, tweezers, scissors, nail clippers, acetaminophen, Claritin, Benadryl, Dramamine, Tums, insect sting spray, insect repellent, and a few other items. Alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer and hydrogen peroxide in travel sizes would be nice, but are currently basically unobtainable).
- [Add feminine hygiene products for women’s kit].
- Bottle liquid hand soap in double ziploc bag.
- 2 bars bath soap in double ziploc bag.
- Shampoo and conditioner.
- Fullsize tube toothpaste.
- Travel size shaving cream.
- 4x bottled water (NOTE- “Survival” water in multilayer retort packaging lasts much better than regular bottled water but is far more expensive).
- 8x powdered sports drink base.
- 8x instant coffee powder.
- 8x non-dairy creamer powder.
- 16x single serve sugar packet.
- (A better substitute for the above three items is a tube of Nestle coffee/condensed milk mix, but this is hard to obtain).
- Snacks: M&Ms, peanuts, beef jerky, Slim Jims, hard candy, dried fruit.
- Canned lunch meat.
- “Survival biscuit” type shelf-stable bread.
- 50x water purification tablets (not because many are needed, but because they come in a 100pk that I split two ways).
The catpack is ideally packed inside the cat carrier box, and contains:
- 2x disposable litter trays.
- 3lb bag dry cat food.
- 4x bottled water.
- 5x single meal cans of wet cat food.
- Food and water bowls.
- Blanket or old sweater.
- Catnip toy(s).
- 4x trash bags.
Note that these are not some kind of prepper kit designed to let you live off the land for weeks. They’re intended to be a bag full of the stuff you don’t want to have to run around looking for, if you need to evacuate the house in a hurry and stay away in a hotel for a week or two. The idea is you grab medications, cellphones, wallets and the backpack (and the cat!) and get in the car. The kit contains:
- snacks and drinks so you don’t have to stop at gas stations unnecessarily.
- a radio so you can get news, particularly weather related, even if there’s no TV or cell service. This is mostly intended for getting all-clear news, or “avoid this road” news, in the actual middle of a storm situation.
- toiletries and first aid items so if you’re in a hotel room or similar you don’t need to run out for them and will be comfy for a few days.
- enough cat supplies to see you through a few days and locate sources nearby.
- items in case you need to sleep in the car while on the road to your shelter destination.
- basic change of undergarments/socks so you can change into clean ones after a road trip.