Throughout the last few centuries, mankind has been building and building up, combining raw materials and energy to create… stuff. This stuff is scattered all over urban population centers, and many of it can be used for basic life-sustaining purposes. I thought I’d write in and share some information I’ve gathered over the years in my work and in my hobbies, as it relates to sustaining life if you’re trapped in an urban area. I’m enumerating the primitive uses of some very basic components for those interested, this wasn’t meant as a guide for building any of this stuff, further research is definitely necessary and DO NOT try any lab chemistry without becoming an expert first and observing all the appropriate safety precautions. [JWR Adds: Handling strong acids and bases also necessitates wearing goggles, extra long gloves, long sleeves, a safety apron, having proper ventilation, and having an eye flushing bottle (or fixture) and neutralizers close at hand!] I hope this inspires others to share similar uses for modern waste.
Many urbanites will not have enough room to grow self-sustaining gardens in the soil in your backyard, with the limited growing season, and even if you did it would become a target for looters. Construction of a greenhouse in your backyard with adequate security may be a worthwhile compromise. Using hydroponics in your greenhouse will maximize your yield. Hydroponics requires that you’re moving fluids around in a growing medium, and this movement requires electricity in the simplest setup. It also allows you to maximize your space by eliminating huge buckets of soil. One downside to hydroponics is that it requires more advanced technology, and most often an energy supply. Another downside is a requirement for more specific fertilizers.
Car batteries can be used to power your food supply and your home, a typical setup is a very sturdy shelf to hold rows of the deep cycle variant. You can calculate how much energy you’d need to power your appliances but a better setup for survival would be to only power a single DC circuit, with some very energy efficient appliances; LED lights, laptop computers, radios, flashlight battery chargers. I have a circuit wired in my basement which can be switched to backup power, so for me it would just be a matter of wiring an extension cable out to my greenhouse.
The equipment to build a battery backup system is widely available, it’s very mature technology and has been very easy to afford with the increased usage of solar energy. Solar panel prices have also dropped almost 40% in the last couple of years. I recommend that someone with the cash to spend, who has already bought a long-term supply of food and other essentials, build themselves a photovoltaic backup system to keep your electronics running for years, using deep-cycle marine batteries for storage. It happens to be the cheapest form of storage, the deep cycle batteries are available from Wal-Mart and Costco at the best prices.
I recommend some form of sustainable electricity. Most fuels will go bad with time, the easiest fuel to reliably store is propane and many homes are equipped with propane and natural gas powered backup generators. Propane is extraordinarily cheap right now as well. A 300-to-500 gallon propane tank can be bought used for around $500 in most places, and propane is selling in my area for $1.79/gallon. Propane is produced from natural gas and, along with coal, are the two fossil fuels we’re least likely to see a shortage of. Regarding solar, you don’t need a 5,000 watt solar panel farm to power your essentials. Just one large solar panel on a pole will be enough [to provide charging] for your odds and ends DC-powered electronics.
If you intend to use scavenged car batteries for home power, you will need to come up with a scheme to charge them. If you charge a random collection of batteries off of one charger some of them may overheat and explode. You need to have an individual charging circuit for each of them, a temperature probe is good but not necessary. The best way to do this with a generator setup is with a multiple-bank charger or charging station, or with multiple charge controllers in a solar setup. It would be a good idea to have backups, so you might as well have one charge controller for every battery. If you’re running a generator, it is especially important that you use a battery backup system, as it allows you to use the energy more efficiently to charge up a battery bank which you can use for days to power efficient appliances.
Another interesting thing about car batteries is what you can do with them if you’re not using them for power. Car batteries contain two main ingredients, sulfuric acid and lead. Sulfuric acid is used in many industrial processes. It’s a source of elemental sulfur, and these strong acids are used to convert many other substances to something usable.
Hundreds of years ago people made saltpeter for formulating black powder by urinating in a jar and adding straw to it (almost too easy, huh?). A more industrious method would be to mix straw and manure into a pile and urinate on it regularly to keep it moist. This was called a “niter-bed”. After a year, run water through it and then run the resulting mixture through a wood ash filter, and then air dry the resulting mixture in the sun. Any failed batches could always be used as [the basis for a larger quantity of] fertilizer. Your urine contains nitrogen in the form of a chemical called urea, which means it also makes a good fertilizer (1 part urine and 10 parts water immediately applied makes a decent fertilizer). The urine/straw mixture would change over the course of a few months to contain nitrates, mostly a chemical called potassium nitrate, or saltpeter. Wood ash contains mostly potassium compounds and can be used to convert remaining nitrates to potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate is a powerful oxidizer. Mixed with a fuel it forms the ingredients of many fireworks such as bottle rockets. Black powder is made with a mixture of 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. Sulfur can be found on the electrodes of the car batteries, or it can be produced through electrolysis of the sulfuric acid. A good rocket fuel is 60% potassium nitrate and 40% powdered sugar, should you have a need for rockets, perhaps as a signal flare.
You can buy potassium nitrate over the counter from the hardware store (Lowe’s and Home Depot). It’s known as stump remover and is available in 1lb bottles. If you’re doing that last minute shopping, it might be a good idea to swing by the pesticides shelf and buy all the stump remover while you’re getting your fertilizers and everything. Potassium nitrate has an NPK rating of 13-0-38.
In the 1890s, widespread use of “smokeless powder” was adopted, which is about three times as powerful as simple black powder. This was a result of a substance called nitro-cellulose or guncotton, which is which can be made from cellulose and nitric acid and some other chemicals by means of nitration. Nitric acid is a very useful substance. Nitro-groups or nitronium ions can be added to certain chemicals to create explosives. Compounded with hexamine fuel tablets (Esbit fuel), it forms [the equivalent of ] RDX explosive. Compounded with glycerine, it forms nitroglycerine, that with added stabilizers forms dynamite or blasting gelatin. (Not to be confused with trinitrotoluene (TNT), which is generated by the nitration of toluene.) The most useful application of nitric acid though is in making smokeless powder, commonly just called “gunpowder” today, which is a compound of nitrocellulose and a number of other proprietary ingredients. It can be made from cellulose and nitric acid and some other chemicals by means of nitration. [Reader M.H. Adds: Doing any of this will take considerable study and storing some other chemicals, since nitric acid just by itself will not (to any significant degree) nitrate organic compound such as glycerine, hexamine or toluene. For details, see the book titled “Chemistry and Technology of Explosives” by Urbanski (available online).]
The government has made it difficult to purchase nitric acid without a valid reason. You can make it out of sulfuric acid, from the car batteries, and potassium nitrate, from the niter beds. You will need some basic lab equipment to do this, a glass distillery connected to a vacuum pump (a vacuum distillery), and a hot plate. With the leftover parts of the car battery, mainly lead [and wheel weights as a source of antimony for hardening], you can mold lead bullets. The lab equipment required to perform some of these reactions is useful in many other processes, such as an ethanol distillery, so it may be something you’d want, regardless. Take care that you don’t cross into illegal territory with your experimenting. Potassium nitrate and black powder aren’t controlled substances, but at some point gunpowder becomes classified as an explosive and requires a permit to manufacture. [JWR Adds a Strong Proviso: This summary information is provided for educational purposes only. EXTREME safety measures must be taken, and all the legalities and zoning issues must be researched, permits obtained, et cetera. Also, be advised that the instructions presented in many of the published references on do-it-yourself explosives making have insufficient safety margins. For example, the set of directions on making nitroglycerin in the book The Anarchist Cookbook, could best be described as a “recipe for disaster.” It will get you killed or at least maimed, in short order!]
Another interesting thing I’ll mention is that handgun calibers and muzzleloaders are better suited for lead bullets with no copper jacket, since they travel through the barrel slower they can be made softer. Forming a copper jacket around a bullet is difficult and expensive. [JWR Adds: One notable exception to this is making jackets for .22 caliber bullets, which can be made with discarded .22 LR brass and lead wire, using commercially available forming dies.] I think it’s also worthwhile to own at least one muzzle-loading black-powder rifle, and bullet forming equipment. Manufacturing guncotton is not nearly as easy as black powder. You can no longer readily buy black powder [in gun shops] today, it is less stable and more expensive to ship. Even the modern muzzle-loader propellants (like Pyrodex) are smokeless powders. So, you may find black powder is all people are using one of these days, as they can make it in their backyard. Either stockpile thousands of primers or use a flintlock style rifle.
I mentioned that urine can be used as a fertilizer, nowhere is this more true than in a hydroponic system. Plants need three main chemicals to grow, all three of which must be in a soluble form. urine is easily the best source of nitrogen in soluble form. Potassium can be gathered from wood ash easily by running fluids through it. Phosphorous is the hard part, and many fruiting plants need phosphorus, so it is the area where you focus the most energy. Bone has phosphorus in it, and a commonly used fertilizer for plants is bone meal in the form of calcium phosphate. Bone meal has an NPK rating of 4-12-0. Bat guano is one of the best sources of phosphorous, and bird droppings (“Bird Schumer”) can similarly provide a good supply. Be careful with bird droppings though, many contain diseases especially pigeons. You may want to boil it first. Match heads can also be used for their phosphorus content, if for some reason you have thousands of matches with no barter value.
Back to urine fertilizers: When you urinate into the water your urine and many other nitrate fertilizers begin to break down into ammonia, which needs to be filtered out. If you’ve ever maintained a koi pond you know this can be accomplished with the use of a bio-filter. Another way to do it is with an aquaculture setup, which means connecting a fish hatchery to a hydroponics setup. The fish and the plants thrive off of each other. This has evolved into it’s own industry called aquaponics, and has proven to be a commercial success, mainly to serve as leafy plant production on top of a primarily fish producing setup. If you get sick of eating that dried corn, try feeding it to a 55-gallon barrels full of Tilapia. Tilapia has been the preferred fish stock as it will eat a wider range of things, but the temperature must be kept warm. It’s possible that even in colder climates a greenhouse would provide sufficient trapped heat to keep the fish alive.
Many of these techniques can form the foundations of exciting hobbies such as model rocketry, aquaculture, hydroponics and gunsmithing. I strongly encourage you to absorb some of these hobbies in your life, if they appeal to you. [Do plenty of research, and get lots of practice,] especially when it comes to something sensitive like fish or hydroponics. Beginner’s mistakes could spell the end of you if you’re depending on this for your urban survival. I’ve opted to fortify my suburban home on a quarter acre and optimize it for survival, with over two years of food storage for me and my family to get started and enough energy to cook it. If this is all you can afford then make the most of it!
Letter Re: Making Do at a Rural Vermont Retreat
While I could wish to be west of the Mississippi, my wife and I will have to retreat where we are. My elderly parents are nearby, and my wife has made it very clear she has moved for the last time. Vermont is where we will be for the foreseeable future.
We live within a rural town of approximately 2,000 residents. We are about seven miles outside of a twin-city with a population of 28,000. We lack like-minded neighbors both in faith and preparedness. We hope our far-flung family will be able to rally here, but are realistic about their chances. Not an ideal location, but we work with what God have given us.
We own 60 acres, mostly wooded with some pasture, up and three miles out of town on a dirt road. Our home is close to the middle of the land, at the end of an 1,100 foot driveway and it is not visible from the road. The driveway could be easily blocked if necessary. We have cleared good areas around the house without giving up our privacy. We heat with any of three sources, wood, pellets, or oil. Our neighbors include a medical doctor and a nurse/midwife and two miles down the hill is a dairy farm with 400 head.
We have three spring-fed ponds, (one is stocked with trout), a deep artesian well and a developed spring with a concrete cistern. We use a small greenhouse to extend our short growing season and have apple trees and blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes. We can and dry fruits and veggies, I hunt and we both cook. We have about 18 months of food in storage (dehydrated, canned, frozen and grains) and expand our larder as we are able. We used to be cold weather tent- campers and have all of the equipment that goes along with that sport in both propane and white gas.
Our arsenal is varied, deep and redundant. It includes four muzzleloaders and supplies; they are hunting and hobby rifles, but they will still put food on the table or provide defense in a pinch.
We have much on our “things to do” list. Fuel storage is a problem in quantity due to permitting issues. We do have the fuel oil tank in the cellar for the tractor, but gasoline will be limited to our cans. Our only generator is small, only able to power the pellet stove, a couple of lights and a radio. We do hope to add solar in the future. Our home is not as defensible as I would like due to glass windows and doors and we lack man-power for long term survival.
We will never be as ready as want to be, but we will be as ready as we are able. Our greatest assets are Jesus and each other. – B.C.