When purchasing or building a home, there are no shortages of choices that must be made. From type of home and features needed to financial matters, literally hundreds of choices must be made. Though some decisions may not have a direct impact on your prepping (the color of the countertop will not matter in a SHTF scenario) many will have a direct impact on the sustainability of your home, your financial well being and thus, your ability to prep. This article’s purpose to introduce the new homeowner-to-be some of these choices and to give you some background on each so that you may further investigate those that interest you. It is not intended to be a how to build a house guide!
As the host of The Homeowner’s Friend Podcast, I have explained many of the items I will cover in this article in greater detail. Like with any choice having to do with finances or big-ticket items, you need to research these items yourself carefully. Though I believe my information to be true, it is ultimately up to you to make the best decision depending on your particular circumstances. I make no warranties, expressed or implied.
I have worked on and have toured many homes under construction and found most to be of the generic cookie-cutter variety – perfectly suitable to the “grasshopper” lifestyle. Long on features like Jacuzzis, fancy kitchens and large spaces but short on practicality, strength and sustainability. Any home built or purchased by a prepper must be, above anything else IMO, sustainable to the greatest extent possible.
By sustainable, I am not trying to save the planet (though that is a definite by-product), I am trying to make your home require the least amount of external inputs necessary to keep it functioning. This has everyday advantages and is even more valuable in a SHTF scenario. In normal times, it saves you money and/or effort. An efficient home simply costs less to operate, leaving more money for “bullets and Band-Aids”. In a SHTF crisis, it is easier to maintain comfort in the home and will save precious resources, hopefully allowing the few you have or can obtain to get you through till things get put back together.
In this article, we will look at the major systems of your home, which consist of the water system, both fresh and waste, Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), electrical, construction, and security issues. Most have at least some effect on the others and must all be properly integrated to obtain the most sustainable design. For example, HVAC and insulation are related as is the water system and your gutters. Both can be designed to compliment or help each other.
I will not look at home styles in this article as that could be one of its own. However, I will mention that as Americans, most of us desire to live in a larger home than we currently occupy, but actually need less home than we have now! We need a home that is comfortable and safe. We all desire a nice home, but a definite balance needs to be struck as the larger and fancier the home, the more resources (including money) it will require to operate, maintain and defend if necessary. When the gas is flowing, its easy to heat 5,000 square feet – but nearly impossible when the gas stops flowing! Remember most families (with 4-5 kids no less) survived in 800 square foot ranch houses in the 1970s just fine! Today, most home are two to three times that size – and are occupied by smaller families.
I am also going to focus on the most common type of home, the above ground standard framed home. Certainly, many interesting types of homes exist, such as subterranean, Earthship, straw bale, dome, yurt, etc., but again, I am not intending to write a book! Many of the systems, however, are common amongst all types so much of the discussion will be valid, whatever your choice.
Also, I will not cover locations. I have several podcasts on this topic, as it is an in depth topic in itself. From choosing a community to a specific lot, many considerations have to be made. Please though, investigate the area and lot carefully. Are there water problems, bad soil conditions, bad neighbors, high taxes, bad schools, a declining tax base or increased foreclosures? Is it a twenty mile commute to get to a job or store? As I mentioned in the podcasts, sometimes the cheapest land may prove to be the most expensive after you take into account all the variables!
Water basically comes from two sources, wells and city mains. City water is supplied from wells or reservoirs, is filtered and treated, and pumped into the system. Extra water flows into the high water tanks to provide static pressure for the Town ([roughly]1 PSI for each feet of height (or “head”) when the pumps are not needed or in time of high demand. Typically the tanks hold a day or so worth of water, so even in a power outage with no generator backup at the water plant, water will continue to flow for a day or so unless people hoard it. A very reliable system in normal times, but vulnerable in a SHTF scenario. I prefer my own water system, as I can control it – but currently we are on city water, with some backup stored and more unfiltered available locally.
Wells are perhaps the best for the prepper as this option allows you to basically operate your own water company. Two main types exist, dug and drilled. Dug wells are often 3 or so feet wide and several feet deep, often made of stone or a large pipe. These are installed over an active spring and can provide ample quantities of great water (or not). They are vulnerable to surface water contamination and as they rely on surface water bubbling out of the ground, as the surface water levels drop in dry times of the year, yields can suffer. In some areas, these can not be used as a water supply for a new home because of the risks involved.
Drilled wells are drilled into the earth using (usually) heavy well drilling equipment. These go down hundreds of feet (300-to-500 feet is common) into deep ground water sources typically found in cracks between the layers of rock. The top section, which goes from the surface through the soil and loose rock down to the solid bed-rock is lined with a steel pipe, called a well casing, that is cemented into the bedrock. This isolates the vulnerable surface water from the cleaner deep ground water. Ground water levels are also more stable, providing a more reliable water source for the homeowner.
In most cases, except in springs that are above the level of the house, a pump system is required to push or pull the water out of the well and into the home. Jet pumps are the most simple and pull the water from the well. These work well, but are best for more shallow wells. Submersible pumps located in the well under the water level, are clearly superior as it is easier to push than to pull water and are self priming (something you will appreciate if you sometimes run out of water). They are also more expensive and difficult to install, however. Storage (pressure) tanks are used to allow the pump to cycle at reasonable intervals. Rapidly cycling wells (more than once per minute with a moderate flow or so) indicate either a bad or undersized storage tank. Both types of pump have foot valves at the input to keep the home water (which is under pressure) from running back into the well. Occasionally, you are lucky enough to find an artesian well, which is basically a drilled well that is naturally under pressure. In this case, just pipe it to the home and you may not need a pump!
Using a simple generator or solar-powered pump, one can have water without the use of a grid. Be advised, many standard pumps are 220 Volt AC (VAC), so small inverters and generators will not work. A water storage tank can also be installed at the highest part of the home or land and used to supply water pressure between generator or sun fueled pumping sessions. Since well water is generally safe to drink without filtration or treatment, even during most SHTF scenarios, it makes the most important life sustaining item easy to provide.
Inside [city limits on metered] city water supplies, however, it may not be practical (or legal) to install a well just for emergency use. As an alternative, one can store potable water in an installed tank (approved for storage of drinking water) in the basement or yard and use a pump to supply it to the home. 12 Volt RV pumps (preferably the kind with the attached storage tank) are ideal for this coupled with a generator or solar recharged battery. Simply pump from the tank into the drain at your city water hookup or other cold water hose fitting, with the city water turned off to keep from also supplying your neighbors! Using just a few 55 gallon tanks and a pump like this, you can go a few days if you conserve – utilizing your normal household faucets. You could even take a quick shower, if needed. If you have a gas water heater with a pilot lamp, you can even have hot water.
Refill the water tanks with portable tanks hauled in a vehicle or behind a bike in a trailer. Fill the storage tanks by hand or with another pump and battery at local streams or other water bodies. Filter the water as you pump it with a simple RV filter and add some bleach to eliminate most water born bacteria or other contaminants. The EPA recommends to add 1/8 teaspoon (or 8 drops) of regular, unscented, liquid household bleach for each gallon of water, stir it well and let it stand for 30 minutes before you use it. Many books and Internet sources cover the finer points of water filtration, so I will not dwell on it here. You can also take advantage of roof water using a cistern buried in the yard or a pool to provide non-potable water for watering plants or flushing toilets. Be creative!
Waste Water Systems
If you are on city water, you are likely also on a city sewage system as well. If your on a hill, this may work even in a SHTF scenario (but understand it will exit somewhere downhill from your house – perhaps in another house..) but if you are not that high, it may back up as the pumps that keep the stuff flowing to the treatment plants shut down. Worst yet, it may back up into your home if you are lower in the system. Remember what flows down hill. This is why I never recommend having a gravity drained basement toilet or shower below grade (in a basement), as this is a prime release point in a backup – even a clog in your own drain pipe to the street can cause extensive damage. If you want to install a fixture below grade, use a sewage basin and ejector pump to raise the waste water to a higher pipe, a pipe that will only overflow from fixtures on the first floor – something that is much less likely to happen as they are higher than the ground level. It is also a good idea to install some sort of valve on your sewer hookup in the basement where it enters the house to stop any backups from entering your home. Some of these are even automatic.
If the city system is backed up, you will not be able to get rid of waste water without installing a basic septic system yourself. This may be something you do so quietly if you know what I mean. Just a “T” on the outlet from the house with some valves where you can temporarily pipe the waste into a couple of buried 55 gallon drums buried outside to settle out the solids and into some stone to drain the water will be better than nothing. And remember, gray water from sinks and showers can be used to water your garden or other plants, if you use biodegradable soaps. If you are building your home, installing this “T” will be easy as will separating your drains to take advantage of the gray water availability. Again, to meet codes you may want to plan for, but not execute, this till needed.
Of course, those homes with septic systems will not have these problems, unless you have a pump chamber as part of your system. Because of elevation issues, sometimes a pump is required to push the water that flows out of the house into the septic tank or even from the septic tank to the leach field. These tanks (especially those after the septic tank) are usually large and can accommodate some usage without power, but will eventually fill. As you run your generator, make sure these can run as well to keep things flowing.
Heating and Cooling
As for heating and cooling, choose the most efficient system that is practical for your area. There is a limit to this, though it may be hard to understand. In Florida, it makes sense to spend more on a super-efficient air conditioner because you will use it all year and the electricity saved, at today’s rates, will offset the initial added expense before the system is obsolete. In northern climates though, where air conditioning is only used for 2-3 months in a year, you may never save enough to make it worth the added expense. In a heating system, the reverse will be true. However, I recommend pushing the limits of the practical savings limits a step or two as fuel will only get more expensive (and it may skyrocket soon..) and in a SHTF scenario, fuel will be nearly impossible to get. Our installer indicated most folks go with a 12-14 SEER air conditioning in our area. For a couple hundred bucks more, I went with the [moore efficient] 16 SEER – 2 stage unit to account for future fuel price increases – putting me just above the norm.
Air conditioning systems are quite straight forward, and are powered overwhelmingly by electricity, save the few by natural gas, so I will not talk to much here about them, except to push the efficiency ratings as mentioned above. Remember that central air conditioning is a big load for a generator to handle (more on that later) but a portable window unit, strategically placed, will provide relief while on generator power if needed. Buy one (they are cheap these days) for this purpose ahead of time and store it, even if you have central, if extreme heat is a life/death situation in your area.
Heating is much more complicated. With having to choose both a fuel source and system type, the options are many. Let’s first briefly cover fuel choices. This is a choice dominated by both personal opinions and local availability. Natural Gas, for example, may be the best option – except if it is not in front of you house! Also, regional differences in costs may also effect your decision. You must also understand the cost of the fuel and its relationship to BTU output (or heating power) per unit of fuel and the common efficiency ratings of appliances. For example, oil has about 140,000 btus per gallon, whereas propane only has 91,600 and natural gas, about half of that. Gas and propane burners can easily hit 95% efficiency while oil units generally peak out in the 86% range. Also take into consideration costs of maintenance. Oil units need regular cleaning (which can cost $100 or more, depending on the dealer, location, equipment, etc.) whereas gas and propane ones really need minimal maintenance (but should be inspected for safety regularly).
A comparison chart is generally useful to try to compare each effectively by comparing an expected BTU use per year, the quantity of fuel needed for each category and its costs, including installation and maintenance costs over the life expectancy of the equipment. Some web based resources are available to help with this, try this calculator.
Propane is my favorite, from a prepper’s standpoint. Propane can be stored essentially forever, as it does not go bad. Large underground tanks can be installed to supply your needs for a full year, or more. This also allows the home owner to take advantage of off-season purchases, which may save quite a bit of money each year. One warning: leased, rented, or company owned tanks are often a rip-off. With them, you are typically required to buy the gas from only the tank owner and they know it! Buy your tank if at all financially possible, then you can shop for the best deal on propane.
Propane is the most versatile fuel, from heating, hot water, cooking, grills, drying clothes, fireplace logs and gas stoves, it can be used in many areas of the home in normal times. Some of these appliances, such as stoves, water heaters, and some space heaters even operate without any electricity – check for availability. When the power goes out, you will be glad you can still use these appliances as usual.
Oil would be my second choice, but it is hard to store in large quantities. Buried tanks are basically too expensive due to regulatory requirements and insurance companies hate them. Having more than two tanks of fuel (500 gallons) in your basement takes up significant space and again invites insurance headaches. You cannot cook with it, so you still need an electric range or a separate gas system and stove. I am also not aware of an oil burner that can operate without power. One nice feature, is you can burn diesel or kerosene in a pinch, which can be bought or bartered for locally and hauled in 5 gallon buckets and dumped in your tank – try that with propane! Learn how to prime your equipment though, as this is necessary when you run dry. Oil is also pretty safe, compared to propane – leaks are less of a problem.
Natural gas is my favorite, except that you cannot store it and availability is limited geographically – it is mainly in the cities and suburbs where lots of customers live. Also, if the gas mains are shut down for some reason – you are out of business. Being underground, disruption is infrequent – but definitely possible, especially if we have transportation or grid failures or terrorist attacks. It has all the other advantages of propane, however, so it is still a good fuel. It is also mainly domestically sourced, which is also an advantage.
Wood is ideal if you have access it and if everyone in your home who will have to use it is healthy enough to cut, split, and move it – remember the strongest person may not be able to do these things in a SHTF scenario if they are hurt or worst. [JWR Adds: As I’ve mentioned in my writings before, cutting firewood with a chainsaw in the midst of societal collapse presents a security dilemma. A gas chainsaw can be heard for miles, and it leaves the ear muff-wearing operator vulnerable to attack. To be safe, any wood-cutting party will need an accompanying security detail.] You can easily heat with wood and some (including me) argue it is the best heat. You are also able to cook with it on most standard stoves and certainly on wood fired kitchen stoves. If you have trees on site – it can be next to free, save for some and gas for the saw and splitter. Expect to get around 1 sustainable cord per acre per year in a good forest lot. You can stack an ample quantity in the back yard and can always get more. It is not always as easy to regulate as some other fuels, but if the cost is low, who cares?
A simple wood stove will likely heat your home quite well. If you are in a northern climate and are looking at wood to provide your main source of heat and hot water, I recommend using an indoor boiler, such as those made by HS Tarm which I have no relationship with. They are real efficient, can be used with storage tanks to allow a clean hot burn – while saving that excess heat you are not using for times when the stove is out. They can easily provide enough heat to keep the house warm (in a controlled, efficient manner), heat hot water, and even heat outbuildings. They have marginal power requirements though, so plan for that. Outdoor furnaces and boilers are great too, but they are less efficient typically and if not run hot, can really smoke up the yard. Many places have outlawed them. However, please make sure your wood burning appliance is installed correctly. Many homes burn each year, sometimes killing family members, because of improperly installed wood stoves. Follow the manufacturers instructions, use quality materials, and get a permit for the stove and inspection after it is installed, if applicable in your area. Some fire departments will also do a courtesy inspection as well, call to inquire. Should a fire start, these inspections / permits will protect you from the wrath of the insurance company!
I will not even mention electric heating, though it would work in some warmer climates, I guess. It is just too expensive and vulnerable to power failures to make my list, sorry! Heating plants themselves come in two flavors powered by your choice of fuel, hot water (hydronic) and hot air (furnaces). Hydronic systems utilize boilers to make the hot water used to heat the building. Boilers are more expensive to install, especially counting the plumbing required to distribute the heat, but can be better regulated with the ease of having multiple zones powering various types of heaters. For example, you can use baseboard heaters, antique steam radiators, forced air heaters (such as Modine units which are popular in basements and garages), and even the newer popular in-floor radiant heating systems or any of these in any combination. The boiler can also make your hot water either by using a coil within the boiler itself, or in a separate tank heated by a separate zone of the boiler (most efficient).
Furnaces heat air, which is blown though the home. These systems are typically more simple and less expensive to install than boilers and are easily adapted to also provide air flow for air conditioning as well. Installing the air ducts is relatively simple, once designed, especially with today’s flex-duct. Using electrically operated valves, the units can be zoned as well or in larger installations, multiple units can be installed.
Becoming more popular, are hybrid systems, as I like to call them. These utilize a boiler to make the heat and air handlers with heat-exchangers (radiators) in them and often air conditioning coils as well, installed in the home to provide warm-air heat and air conditioning. In a two floor home, one might be installed in the attic for the second floor and one in the basement for the first. These systems can also use in-floor radiant or baseboard heat as well, as a boiler is utilized. These can be expensive to install, but do provide a nice option for the homeowner with a larger home, especially those with a wood boiler!
Again for the prepper, the choice of how to heat and cool the home must be made with a lot of thought to the future. Higher efficiency means higher complication and more expensive and specialized parts than their simple lower efficiency counterparts. However, I feel it is worth it as the money saved can be significant. Most of today’s equipment by reputable manufacturers will work fine for years. I have personally owned Burnham and Buderus boilers and Trane / American Standard (same company) for hot air and air conditioning systems. Others are fine as well, I have just used these and think they are top notch. Again, I have no relationship with these companies.
Hot Water Heaters
Water can be heated with electricity, gas or oil. Stand-alone tank heaters come in all three flavors, and work well. Any boiler can be adapted to heat water with either an internal coil or external tank as previously mentioned. The best option, in my opinion, is the tankless heater powered by propane or natural gas. I have a Rinnai and love it. These units provide hot water when you need it and shut down when you do not. They save gas by not cycling to maintain water temperatures as do normal tank heaters. Since most people sleep 8 hours and are at work for at least another 10 with commute times, hot water is only used a maximum of 6 hours per day – why heat the water the other 18? From a cold start, my Rinnai puts out hot water in about 3-4 seconds and will do so until either the water runs dry or the gas tank empties! It puts out enough hot water to run the dishwasher, and two showers (I have tried this). The flame level varies according to the flow rate and selected temperature – its quite high-tech actually! The slight lag in hot water generation is noticeable, but just barely and sometimes a brief shot of cool water comes out as the hot water in the pipes flushes out, then revealing the 2-3 second warm up period, but again, it is not a big deal at all. The other downside, is that they require electricity. Just a little bit, but when it disappears, the water goes cold instantly. I was told a small computer UPS will both protect the electronics and keep a tankless hot water heating going for quite some time after the power drops – a good idea. The savings are more than worth these minor inconveniences.
Nearly every home has commercial electric service and we have become reliant on it in nearly every aspect of our lives. From our alarm clock, lights, razor and coffee pot to our heat and air conditioning, entertainment, security and communications, we use it in ways that we do not even realize! Electricity is not only a convenience though, it is also a life saving necessity in many cases. Having some sort of back up power is vital for the prepper – especially where young and old persons are present.
A generator is the ideal solution for short to medium term use. I will categorize them into two groups for our discussion, portable and permanent. Portables are just that, portable. They can be moved from place to place on wheels or via back-grunts and can usually produce 1,000-10,000 watts or so. Trailer mounted ones are available and can certainly run much more, but their costs are beyond what most of us can afford and they are larger than necessary. Permanent generators are installed outside or in a specific room and are powered by a fixed fuel source. These are generally larger, from around 10,000 watts and up. Though these are nice, I feel they are more than most people need and the portability of the smaller units is nice, quite frankly. However, both certainly will do the job. Remember that generators are a mechanical device and can break. If you have the funds, it would be best to have two – perhaps a larger primary unit and a smaller backup.
Without fuel, generators are useless. So many people I speak with have a great generator ready to go, but I find they have no fuel stored, save for a few gallons for the lawn mower. I tell them that without fuel, they have no generator. When the SHTF, the gas stations will either be closed or will have lines of cars from one to the next. Having an ample amount of fuel on hand is crucial.
Most units run on gasoline, with some running on diesel or propane / natural gas (or some combination of the above). Gasoline ones are cheapest, and are fine for emergency use. Heavy use units are generally diesel, as they are generally more long lasting and are also typically better on fuel. Propane / Natural Gas ones are great because of the low maintenance and, if you have propane or natural gas anyway, the availability of large quantities of fuel may already be available.
My generator is a 4,000 watt unit and it burns .5 to 1 gallon each hour or so, depending on load. Running it 3-4 hours per day, you would need perhaps 2-4 gallons. To make it a week, I should have at least 20 gallons, or 4 – 5 gallon cans full. This should be a minimum to shoot for – a week’s supply to keep your unit running for 1-2 hours 2-3 times per day. This allows you to pump water, charge batteries, cool the refrigerator and keep the freezer frozen, and do some other chores. If for medical or other needs it needs to run more, then plan for it.
With any fuel (except propane), rotate, rotate, rotate! I buy fresh gasoline in the spring and fall after dumping the old fuel in my car. Today’s gas, with ethanol, can cause problems if you let it sit around too long, from the many reports I have read. With equipment too expensive to ruin, I rotate it every 6 months regularly. To help negate this risk, I add Sta-Bil to keep it fresh. The maker indicates a one year storage time is possible with its use, so being conservative, six months should be no problem at all.
This brings me to my power system sizing discussion. Most feel larger is better, and in some ways they are true. However, larger also is heavier, more expensive, and more demanding on fuel. My home can run on 2,000 watts fine all day (except for the air conditioner). I intend to buy a Honda inverter generator in the 2,000 watt size range. These run at variable speeds, depending on load, and supply clean, computer grade electricity. Because of this, they can run as long as 9.6 hours on 1 gallon of of fuel – something that I feel is so valuable in a SHTF scenario. My 20 gallons will go weeks instead of a days, that is a definite advantage. These are only 110 VAC, though, making them impractical for those on a 220 VAC well pump.
Look at the loads you must power, and understand they don’t all have to run at the same time. Some lights, a refrigerator, a fan, a furnace, and even some non-heating small appliances all added together do not add up to 2,000 watts in most cases. Your big loads include your well pump (220 Volts) and anything with a heating element. Even these can be used, if some of the others are shut down. With careful planning, a huge unit is not always necessary.
One can use extension cords to tie the generator to the loads, but this is both a pain and somewhat dangerous as well. As such, I recommend that any new home be wired for a back up generator at the very least. If you must wait to buy the generator, fine, but at least install the transfer switch while the electrician is installing the service. The best way is to switch the main with a large knife switch made for the purpose. These will have three positions, up (typically) will power the house from the commercial mains, the middle will turn off all power and the bottom will feed the house from the generator. Interlock kits are also available to be able to safely back-feed power into your panel via a regular circuit breaker while preventing you from turning on the back-feed breaker without first shutting of the main breaker. See Interlockkit.com for details. In either case, the mains are disconnected while the generator is feeding the breaker box. This is an absolute necessity for safety’s sake.
A heavy cable will then be run from the panel to a convenient location outside the structure where a jack will be installed. A jumper cable will then be used to connect this jack to the generator itself, completing the path to your panel. Electricity travels easily, so place the plug where it will make your life easy for hook up. Remember also that you will have to protect your generator from theft, so take that into consideration in determining its location. You may even wish to bury the cable out to a “dog house” where the generator can live and operate, if well ventilated with a lift-up roof and opening side panels for example.
Another option to consider, is a battery backup system charged with either the generator or, better yet, a renewable source such as solar, wind, or water. With a modest bank of batteries, an inverter, and a DC power source to charge these batteries (with the necessary charge controller, etc.), this system can provide an amount of electricity basically forever. This power can be piped into the breaker box, just like a generator would. 12 Volt appliances are also available, eliminating the need for the inverter while being more efficient. Many people live off-grid with these kinds of systems and they are truly sustainable, as they will operate for years with no external inputs. Certainly, having some level of non-petroleum based electricity makes tremendous sense in a long-term SHTF scenario. Again, entire books have been written on this subject, so I will leave it at that.
Lastly, for a prepper, it would be good to install emergency lighting in your home. This can be accomplished by either buying commercially available battery back-up emergency lights like you see in every commercial building, or installing a battery bank, several 12 volt lights, and a switch or relay to turn it on when the power fails. In either case, it will provide better lighting for short term emergencies in an automatic way. Definitely an advantage and not very expensive.
My first recommendation, if you build a home (and I strongly recommend this as the option for your permanent home as you can control the variables better), is to consult a competent architect or engineer (or at least a real knowledgeable carpenter) and ask them for the details on how to build a home that will survive the calamities that are common in your area. In the Southeast, that may be hurricanes – in California, earthquakes and fires. No home can hold up to everything, but, for example, you will be surprised how much stronger a roof system can be made with some simple wooden braces or metal strapping! The building codes often require these things, but many times you can improve upon the codes yourself – going above and beyond the required elements. These kinds of improvements may mean you still have a home after a storm instead of a pile of rubble.
Secondly, insulation is your friend. This amount needed varies by location (more insulation is needed in Northern climates than the in South, for example) but is necessary everywhere. The “R” value is the measurement of insulation that is used in the industry. A higher “R” value resists the transfer of heat more than a lower one does. This is not the only factor to consider, however. Air transfer is also very important.
The most popular insulation, fiberglass batting, has great “R” values but allows air to flow through it basically unimpeded. With a house wrap (like Tyvek) this is minimized, but hard to stop completely. It is also hard to install perfectly. Look in an un-sheet-rocked attached garage at the back side of a typical house wall insulation job in any subdivision and you will see gaps in the bats around the wires, pipes and even along the sides of some of the studs. These areas are not insulated at all. Though it is easy to install and cheap, it is not always the best choice.
My favorite is sprayed-in foam. This goes on like a spray paint and then almost immediately expands to fill all voids in the wall. It comes in different densities which have different “R” values, but all forms are at least as good as fiberglass. What they excel in is stopping air infiltration and assuring uniform insulation values. By filling all voids and gaps, it stops all air infiltration ensures an evenly insulated wall system.
The effective insulation value of foam can be double that of common fiberglass – and as a bonus, the foam adds greater rigidity to the home (especially the higher density versions) – adding to its strength. It is, however, messy and needs to be applied by an expert and costs 2-3 times as much as fiberglass insulation.
Is it worth it? In my opinion it is. My current home uses 500 gallons of propane to heat it annually whereas my last home (smaller) used 700-to-800 gallons of oil to heat it. Being that oil has more BTUs per gallon than propane, our new home with its foam insulation is performing twice as well from my calculations. This saves us substantial money each year and allows us to eliminate debt, save for the future and live a better life, as Jack Spirko would say. If things go bad, I know my home will be the easiest to heat in my entire neighborhood! A small wood stove, run intermittently, will keep us comfortable with little effort.
The most popular framing material is wood. It is inexpensive and easy to work with and is quite versatile, especially with today’s engineered options. With common carpentry know-how, anyone can build with wood. Metal framing including I-beam structural members and lightweight metal wall framing options exist and are great where wood eating bugs are plentiful or high-winds are likely. They also allow for longer open spans as well, but often require the help of an engineer to build. Some homes are built using stone or block and insulated concrete forms (ICFs) are a great option as well. I don’ have the room to investigate each, but they each have their advantages depending on your skill set and location. I cover these to some extent in my podcast.
Choose siding and roofing materials for your area and home design. Concrete board siding (Hardy Plank for example) is gaining popularity but is expensive. Vinyl is final, cheap and easy to install. In a fire prone area though, you may kiss the concrete siding after a wildfire! Roofing choices include metal or tin, fiberglass, wood and other more exotic materials such as concrete, plastic or slate. Each have their advantages, but it is hard to beat fiberglass shingles for ease of installation and lasting value. However, metal is the ideal choice in areas with high snow loads or fire danger. On flat roofs, a membrane is hard to beat as they will not leak if properly installed. Again, simplicity will save money and allow for easier maintenance for the homeowner so choose wisely depending on your location and needs.
Lastly, design your home smartly with ample room for your needs, but not in excess. Allow room to store your supplies – a basement is a great option if feasible. Don’t skimp on the structure of the home – these things are very hard to change out. Skimp, if you must, on interior treatments such as flooring, cabinetry, and lighting. These things can be upgraded as your budget does the same.
Lastly, build to defend if this is a priority of you. A home that is smaller and perhaps two floors is easier to defend than a rambling ranch. Fewer points of entry and a second floor definitely are advantages. Storm rated windows are harder to break and heavy metal or wood doors are harder to penetrate – look at the options. Storm shutters are also a great option as are metal grates, if you think they are necessary. Sometimes, a row of thorny briars, a fence / gate and a big dog will make a criminal think twice. Remember though, if they want to get in, they will. And if they are mad enough, they can just burn you out – this is hard to prevent. Remember that your best offense is to just look like every other house, or one that has nothing to offer. Don’t pick a style that will make your house stand out on the street.
Alarm systems and or video monitoring / recording systems are also a big plus. A security system can alert you to danger from either a bad two-legged creature or fire, smoke, high water, low temp or any number of other perils. This information can be reported to a central station by the alarm or even to cell phones on some systems. This can, and has, saved many properties from fire. Personally, I installed a system that saved a home from a kitchen fire. Minor smoke damage and some charred wood was the result, whereas the whole house would have gone up without the early call by the system to the fire department. Also, early warning to occupants is very important. If your sleeping, a warning of a break in can buy you the time to prepare to handle the threat, rather than having the threat wake you up by opening your bedroom door.
In conclusion, read books, listen to podcasts like the Homeowner’s Friend Podcast (HofPodcast), and talk to friends who have build. Get their recommendations and by all means, try to do the project (or at least parts of it) yourself. I never went to carpenter’s school – I hung around with my father and brothers and did things myself – there is no better institute of higher learning than the school of hard nocks! Build a chicken coop, dog house or storage shed first, to get the basics down. Once you have these skills, they can not be taken away and will make your life better till the day you leave this earth. Good luck! – S.S. of the HofPodcast.