Monday, 28 January 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 6: finding a small town, continued

The end of January and finally it is looking like winter on Lake Huron

In this series we've been talking about how to adapt to collapse and I've put forward the idea that small, remote towns may be much better places to do that adapting that the cities where most people currently live. In my last post I said, "pick a town where you can live while BAU (business as usual) is still working and that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us."

In that post I proceeded to talk about how you might do the first part of that. But that is the simple part, since you can see how a town is doing currently, especially if you live there for a year or two. It's harder to predict how it will get along as BAU continues to break down. But there are a few important things that we can check on fairly easily, and I'll talk about that today.

First though, there is a detail that I should have covered last time—I did mention "Deliberate Descent", living more frugally as if the economy had already collapsed, as an important strategy for getting by if your move from the city leaves you with less income. But I didn't direct you to a series of posts about Deliberate Descent that I wrote a few years ago. I hope the information there will be of assistance.

And now on to picking a town that will be a good place to live as collapse progresses.

There is a strong tendency, even for me, to think about before and after collapse in very black and white terms. No doubt this comes from years of extensive reading in the "collapse sphere", which is saturated with the idea of apocalypse—a hard, fast collapse. But of course that's not what I'm expecting. I don't even think it is useful to identify stages or steps along the way from full BAU to full collapse. Rather, I like to think in terms of movement along a spectrum, admittedly sometimes in fits and starts, and at different rates in different areas.

Over the years to come, even towns that are now economically strong and have recently updated infrastructure, will suffer from economic contraction and the gradual wearing out of that infrastructure. Infrastructure that won't get repaired or replaced due to lack of money. Because small remote towns are more expensive to service and have fewer voters, governments will be forced to abandon them first. In some cases this is already happening, with the cost of various programs being downloaded onto municipalities to make provincial/state budgets look healthier.

You might wonder why you'd want to move to a small town if that is the case. Or if you're already in a small town under such conditions, you might be tempted to give up and move to a city. But the cities are on the same curve, just some years behind. And as I've been saying, they won't be able to do as good job of coping with the situation. Cities rely on essentially everything they need being brought in from outside. Many small towns could, with a little adaptation, get by on locally available resources.

Once you are firmly set up in a remote small town, reduced outside support may not be such a bad thing. It will allow you to work on the beginnings of a post BAU economy without having to compete so much with BAU. Currently, where BAU is doing well, it is very difficult to even discuss, much less establish, any sort of alternative.

When you move to this hypothetical town we're talking about, you'll likely start out relying almost entirely on BAU for the necessities of life and experience infrastructure breakdowns so rarely and briefly that you can largely ignore them. But as time passes, breakdowns of infrastructure and supply chains will become more frequent and more lengthy, necessitating that you be prepared for outages of the power grid, the municipal water supply, or shipments by truck from out of town. Traditionally, government recommendations were to keep enough emergency supplies to get by for 3 days without outside help. Many areas are increasing this to two weeks. As time passes the interval will no doubt get longer.

Eventually, the outage situation will become normal and availability of services and supplies the exception. At that point communities that have become largely self sufficient will be the successful ones, and many others will already have been abandoned.

A few years ago I read Short Circuit, a book by Richard Douthwaite, which is about "Strengthening Local Economics for Security in an Unstable World". The title comes from his idea of short circuiting BAU economics and setting up to provide the most urgent necessities locally. This is in a European Union setting (Ireland) and very much against globalism, which suits me just fine. Douthwaite says the first things to worry about are money, energy and food. (I have to comment at this point that most of Europe is too densely populated to have much hope of becoming locally self sufficient, but nonetheless the book is full of good ideas.)

Money in this case refers to the financial services needed to facilitate a functioning community, and I'll be discussing that at length in a future post. To energy and food I would add water.

In a future post I'll talk about the actually concrete steps you'll need to take to make you, your family and your community more self-sufficient, but certain local resources are needed to make that possible and that's what you'll be looking for initially.


When I started thinking seriously about water, I soon realized there are more aspects to the subject than initially meets the eye.

Ideally you'll want to move to a town with modern, recently updated, water supply and waste treatment systems. But such systems rely on the power grid, and consumable supplies and repair parts that are not sourced locally. Fortunately, there are low tech alternatives that can be set up using local resources, providing the actual supplies of water are safe and secure. So that is the main thing you'll be looking for—a water supply that can be relied on in the long term.

Existing waste (sewage) disposal systems are also something to look at in the short run, but in the long run you'll be switching to a composting toilet to cut down on water usage and supply fertilizer and organic matter for your garden. The degree of resource waste in our current "waste" treatment/disposal systems is appalling.

On farms and in very small villages, you'll usually find each house has its own well, and a septic tank and weeping bed for waste disposal. In the short run this means you'll be responsible for more in the way of maintenance, but in the long run having your own well already set up will prove handy. Most likely the pump won't be collapse proof, but that can be remedied, providing the well is less than about 300 feet deep.

It would also be a good idea to check into the health of the local ground water—does it get depleted during long dry summers, for instance. Especially since you would need more water for your garden under such circumstances. And of course, if things are so dry that local agriculture has to rely on irrigation for field crops, you won't even be interested in the area in the first place.

Contamination of your well is a major concern, especially in an area where a lot of livestock are being raised. Make sure that well isn't downhill from nearby barnyards and feedlots, and check into what's being done in the way of "nutrient management", i.e. where the manure from livestock ends up. This is a serious concern for confined animal feeding operations which generate large amounts of manure and don't have sufficient land associated with them to absorb the waste. Small farms don't have as much of a problem this way, although in our area farmers are being encouraged to fence off river bottoms to reduce contamination of streams and the lakes they flow into. There is also a volunteer group working at planting trees in those river bottoms, which I think is a brilliant idea.

In larger villages there may be one or more wells maintained by the municipality. Convenient in the short run and provided you are within easy walking distance, maybe workable in the long run.

The town where I live draws its water from Lake Huron and has a new water treatment plant. This is nice, but I also live within easy walking distance of the lake and I have a home built water filter ready for when it becomes necessary to use lake water directly.

The municipality here has run pipelines to some of the outlying villages to supply potable water, rather than try to ensure the safety of previously existing, and occasionally contaminated, wells. The next town to the east of us is Walkerton , which had major problems with its water supply a few year ago. This has left people in this part of Ontario pretty concerned about water quality. Fortunately, government money has been made available for upgrading municipal water systems. In many areas (think Flint, Michigan) this hasn't been the case and water infrastructure has not been brought up to modern standards, or properly maintained if it was.

As well as water from wells, surface water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that don't run dry in the dry season, and are not seriously contaminated, is used by many towns and cities. Often long pipelines are needed to get that water from the source to where it will be used. It's not hard to see that as collapse progresses these systems will be faced with many serious difficulties.

In addition to biological contamination from livestock operations, you'll want to look into lead contamination from outdated water systems, heavy metal contamination (lead, arsenic, etc.) which is a natural characteristic of the ground water in some areas, and industrial contamination. This sort of information may be available on the internet or from the local municipality, but I wouldn't actually buy a property without taking a water sample and having it tested for both bacterial and heavy metal contamination.

Looking back on what I've just written, I can see that there are some things I don't really know about our local water supply and I'm going to be looking deeper into that. I'll fill you in on what I find out in a post at some point down the road.

Another use for water is transportation. A town located on a canal, navigable river or lake has some major advantages, especially when shipping by truck and rail becomes unfeasible.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as too little, especially if you are situated on a flood plain. Keep in mind that locations that seem bone dry in the summer may be flooded with snow melt in the spring. There are several small towns in this area whose main street occasionally floods in the spring. I grew up in a house that needed two sump pumps to keep the basement dry for a week or two almost every spring. I wouldn't buy real estate that I hadn't seen during flood season.


The next thing to look at is food and the prospects for producing it locally. For this you'll need arable land and adequate rainfall. You'll want to drive through the area surrounding the town you are looking at and see what sort of farming is being done.

In the area where I live, quite a variety of crops are grown: corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sorghum, flax, canola and, most recently, marijuana. There are also a few orchards (mainly apples, but also cherry, peach and pear) and berry farms (mainly raspberries and strawberries). And many livestock operations: dairy, beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey. There are only a very few market gardens, but there could be more if there was a greater local demand. Currently it is hard to compete with the supermarkets.

Some areas will specialize more, but I think a wide range of agricultural products is a sign of a healthy farm economy. That variety will also be a big plus when the day comes that you have to rely primarily on local foodstuffs.

But it occurs to me that most of you, who did not grow up on a farm like I did, would have a tough time identifying most of these plants and animals standing in a field as you are driving by. So, talking to farmers in the area is going to be a necessity. Definitely stop by the local farmers market, and get to know the farmers selling there. Some of them will be able to point you to the local community garden if there is one. If you are renting for the first while, a plot at the community garden will allow you to get started on learning how to garden.

The odds are that most of the agriculture in any area will be conventional***, as opposed to organic. I am not as negative about conventional agriculture as many kollapsniks, especially when it comes to the safety of the food it produces. Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that I'm paid by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its pricey products instead of their less expensive conventional competitors. Millions of dollars are being spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly, neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable, mainly due to their reliance on fossil fuels, and a once through approach to many of their inputs.

But there are a few questions you should be asking:

One, can the GMO corn and soybeans being grown on local farms be eaten safely in the event of a supply chain breakdown? The scientific consensus is yes, and I agree.

Two, can those conventional farms be converted to a more sustainable form of agriculture when the time comes to do so? Again, the answer is yes. In particular, modern herbicides are much less persistent than the older ones they have replaced and do not "poison" the soil for long periods of time after application. At worst, crops that aren't "Round Up Ready" can usually be grown with no trouble in soil that was treated with Round Up (glyphosate) the previous year. Of greater concern is soil health—conventional farming methods do often lead to both organic matter depletion and erosion. But sustainable farming methods can address those issues.

And from a more reality based viewpoint:

Three, is the land being farmed at the moment, regardless of the method? You certainly don't want to have to turn currently forested land into farmland.

And, four, is it being farmed without irrigation for field crops such as grains and hay? This will indicate the local rainfall is sufficient to support agriculture.

You'll want to look at a map and see if the area of farmland surrounding the town you're looking at is large enough to support the local population. In the short run, just to provide food, think an acre per person. In the long run more like 5 acres per person would be required to allow room for crop rotation and provide fiber, lumber and firewood. Sure, this will vary somewhat from one area to another, but those are good rules of thumb to start with.

Of course, you should be thinking about the long run. For a town of 10 thousand people that would mean 50 thousand acres or 78.125 sq. mi. of farmland, a circle approximately 5 miles in radius with the town at the center. For the same town situated on a lake, it would require a semicircle approximately 7.07 miles radius. And don't forget to take into account the area taken up by lakes, river bottoms, swamps, forests, roads and settlements.

One last item to look for in the area is a butcher shop. In a lot of areas they have almost been regulated out of existence. A thriving butcher shop, or shops, is an indicator of a strong local food industry.

Thinking about all this, I see that I have some work to do myself—some further questions to ask of the farmers I do know and maybe even getting to know a few more farmers.


Climate change considerations will mean that most of the areas worth looking at have a season when heating is necessary. Eventually supplies of fuel oil, natural gas, propane and electric power used for heating will become over priced, unreliable or non-existent. Provided there is sufficient standing timber in the area, a wood stove is a viable alternative. Possibly a cost saving measure right now and later, a life saving one.

You'll be looking for the presence of wood lots on most farms and some larger forested areas as well. Also look for local businesses which sell firewood and others that sell and install woodstoves. All this would indicate that the area already has a thriving wood heat industry.

Wind, water and solar are other forms of renewable energy that I think will eventually have a role to play in a sustainable society. But all the big wind turbines and solar panels that have sprung up in this area over the last few years won't work unless they are connected to the grid, and don't, as far as I can see, have much of a future.

One thing to keep an eye out for, if the town you're looking at is on a river, is the remains of a water powered mill. The dam may still be more or less intact and perhaps even the mill itself, though it is very unlikely to still be in use. The day will come when such installations can be refurbished and put back into use, very much to the benefit of the local community.

Muscle power is also going to become a more important form of energy as BAU declines, not just human muscles, but also those of draft animals. Look for people keeping horses, especially work horses. Even if this a only a hobby now, the existence of breeding stock will be a big help in the future.

Beyond looking for these basics (water, food, energy) you'll want to select a community that is well endowed with other useful resources, is resilient enough to withstand the shocks that lie ahead and has already made a start on local self sufficiency. Exactly how to tell if that is the case is beyond me, but it's something to think about.

Well, that pretty much wraps things up for this post. Next time I'll start looking at what you'll need to work on once you're actually living in a small town.

***I don't think that 7 billion people can be fed sustainable on this planet, regardless of the agricultural techniques used. But a lot of the criticisms leveled at conventional agriculture simply aren't based in fact, and are pretty insulting to the farmers. Only 18% of the food produced in the U.S. comes from corporate farms. The rest comes from family owned farms, some of them admittedly quite large. But those folks take pride in the food they produce. For a look at the subject from their viewpoint, check out Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe. Like me, she isn't being paid by Monsanto, or any of the other big agritech companies.

Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:


Joe Clarkson said...

I do want to remind everyone that fresh water almost always comes from rain. In some areas (think Ogallala Aquifer), the rain fell as snow thousands of years ago on ice caps, but in most places even ground water is recharged by recent rainfall.

Rainwater can easily be collected off of any hard surface. I collect mine off my roof. The folks in Majuro in the Marshall Islands collect theirs off the airport runway. I wouldn't worry about water too much if the place you live has plenty of rain. It is easy to collect.

Water storage tanks can be as simple as barrels or even a hole in the ground lined with plastic. I used the latter method for over twenty years until I "upgraded" to a steel water tank lined with plastic. Rats and other vermin need to be kept out of your rainwater collection, but if that is done properly it is generally safe to drink. My family has been drinking unfiltered rainwater for the last 43 years (the first 11 years was out of a mountain stream, after that rainwater off a roof).

Water is life. Don't live anywhere that has to import its water from any distance. That distance-spanning infrastructure will be hard to maintain unless it was built by the Romans and there is not much of that kind of aquaduct left.

Joe Clarkson said...

Climate change considerations will mean that most of the areas worth looking at have a season when heating is necessary.

I think this assertion is generally true for continental land masses, but not for those areas where the climate is dominated by proximity to an ocean. Marine climates will heat up no faster than the oceans themselves, which will heat up far slower than the average atmospheric temperature (the basis for all climate temperature change projections). Island and coastal locations (excepting at high latitudes) will be far less likely to see dramatic temperature changes than the interiors of continents, at least for the next several generations.

I live on a tropical island, so heating is not normally a major issue (though I have the wood heater going now). But even in the tropics, fuel is needed for cooking, so your comments about the importance of a reliable wood supply should definitely be heeded.

I am one of the kollapsniks that prefer organic agriculture, but not because I don't think conventionally grown food is unsafe; I just think organic agriculture is somewhat more sustainable and certainly more appropriate to a time when fuel, fertilizer and other industrial ag chemicals will be hard to come by.

Muscle powered organic agriculture is going to become the only agriculture sooner or later. Even if organic farmers now use tractors and other modern equipment, their reliance on cover crops and low till techniques mean they are already halfway there. Also, organic techniques leave the soil in far better condition than most conventional practices. This will become more and more important as industrial ag winds down and outside inputs become harder to obtain.

Irv Mills said...

@Joe Clarkson
You make some good points, Joe. I've been restricting myself to talking about things I actual know something about, which I guess you can understand, since the alternative wold be to talk about things I don't know something about... Anyway, you clearly have some knowledge that nicely complements mine.

Take tropical islands, for instance. I sitting here looking out my window at a blizzard that has been raging for the last week off and on, so Hawai'i sounds pretty good. But all the roads in and out of own are closed, so I couldn't hop on a plane headed your way if I wanted to. What little I do know about Hawai'i comes from watching Hawai'i Five-0 on TV (not terribly accurate I expect) and the Wikipedia article I just read. I would have guessed that sea level rise over the next few decades may be a problem, and that there isn't enough land to support your population.

Looking in Wikipedia, I was surprised by how few people there are on most of your islands, except O'ahu and to a lesser extent Maui. Event he big island isn't that densely populated. So maybe there is enough land to feed most of the people, especially supplemented with food from the ocean.

Perhaps you'd like to comment on those to things and any other collapse related problems unique to Hawai'i that I haven't thought of.

I'll be addressing some of the practical, physical aspects of adapting to collapse in a post soon, and collecting and storing rain water will be part of that. Here in Ontario we get what might seem like enough rain, but most of it doesn't come in the growing season. So catching and storing some of it might well be a good idea.

My beef with organic agriculture is more about ideology than methodology. I know many people like you are using it's methods as a starting place to develop a sustainable form of agriculture and I certainly support that.

Joe Clarkson said...

@ Irv

My family moved to Hawaii from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state in 1986. The reason for the move was to avoid the risk of a nuclear attack on the nearby Trident submarine facility, which was then rated as the highest priority military target in the world. I considered the risk of being vaporized to be small, but real, and wanted to avoid imposing it on my young children, who had no say in where they wanted to live. Our first choice was actually New Zealand, but their immigration policies at the time made the move impossible.

We moved to Hawaii Island (the Big Island), mostly because we could afford land here and because it was well removed from the main military bases on Oahu. To this day, it still provides opportunities to purchase land or homes that are within the reach of ordinary folk. The least expensive land, like the land we purchased, has no access to public utilities for power and water. To get phone service we had to install 2500 ft of our own phone line to the nearest phone pole. We have always lived off-grid with solar electricity (backed up by a generator) and a water catchment system.

We ended up on 16 acres of Hamakua pasture, well watered by trade showers and relatively cool at 2300 ft elevation. My wife and I had spent two years on an atoll in the deep tropics in the Peace Corps and we knew that an intensely tropical climate was just too hot for us.

In 1986, global warming was not as well known as other dangers, such as nuclear war, resource depletion or pandemic. As climate change became an issue, we were delighted to discover that we had moved to a place that would be well suited to avoid the worst effects of climate change and the other dangers facing us.

The Big Island has all of the climate zones in the world except high arctic permafrost. Within just a few miles of our sub-tropical location is a truly temperate climate where there is enough cold weather to grow apples and other temperate crops. Climate depends on elevation and prevailing winds. To get to a cooler climate, just go up a mountain. We have two that have snow-capped peaks in the winter.

Hawaii is one of the most remote places on earth. Since most modern amenities have to be shipped here, there is a good level of awareness of how vulnerable it is to any kind of disruption. There have been labor disputes in the past that have disrupted shipping and put the entire state into the kinds of supply constraints that would come with any kind of economic collapse. Old-timers are therefore very sympathetic to calls for maximizing self sufficiency and food security.

Joe Clarkson said...

@Irv (continued)

During the run up to Y2K, local elected officials took the possibility of shipping disruptions very seriously and inventoried the amount of food available on the island. As then, we always have plenty of meat, nuts, vegetables and greens for our population, but we are lacking in basic starches in the quantities needed for long term caloric requirements. We could easily grow them here, but it would take some time to get production up to speed, so it is recommended that everyone have a deep pantry and plenty of rice on hand at all times. We have a year's supply of calories for four people on site and always keep plenty of taro and sweet potato starts available in case we have to ramp up production quickly.

The biggest problem that our island would face in a collapse situation would be an influx of refugees from Oahu, which has a population far too large to be sustained without thousands of containers of imports every month. Most inter-island transport is by air, so I don't know how fast they would arrive, but I am sure they would come, especially since many people from Oahu would have close relatives here. I think that in very hard economic times, most of Oahu's population would relocate to all the other islands where there was more room to grow food. I doubt that there would be a lot of resistance to the process. Everyone would do the best they could to resettle them as well as possible. This is the Aloha State after all.

Since I have a "lifeboat" mentality, one of my worries is how my adult children's families would get here in a rapid collapse. They are aware of this issue, but I must leave it up to them to make the decision of when to move, if ever. Of course, my preference would be for them to move here permanently as soon as possible. I could use their help around the farm.

Unknown said...

Mr. Mills,
Since I have found your blog rather recently; I am now about in the middle of reading past posts (just in 2015). I am in agreement with the majority of what you say. I wanted to ask a question, and if you have previously covered it, then you can just tell me to continue reading. It's taking me a while, as I find your posts are thought-provoking and should not be rushed through. I live in Eastern Ontario. I keep tract of the weather, and have found that we really don't get many full sunny days, especially from November to March; so I'm thinking that forms of energy from solar panels would not really make sense in this area. I know that energy is still produced on overcast days, but certainly not to the extent that would be needed to run a house (even one that is in a "collapse now and avoid the rush" mode. This area does have some huge wind turbines (The South Branch wind farm) and there has been local concern over them. One local person also has a much smaller wind mill on their property and I see it mostly still and not moving. Now my prediction would be, as we suffer more storms and more severe weather, perhaps a wind mill may be the more obvious green resource to acquire. Then there is part of me that thinks that learning to live without any of the devices is probably best: then I would be thinking like Wendell Berry. In the past they had cisterns, and the majority who lived in the rural area did not have finished basements. Nowadays, we have finished basements and rely on sump pumps, and thereby have a need for some energy source to maintain this (along with fridges, freezers, etc.). In your collapsing world, what is the average rural person to use to meet their much reduced needs? By the way, I have already switched to heating with wood, and run through more than 20 face cords of wood a winter season (especially this year).

Joe Clarkson said...

@ Gail,

Forgive me for jumping in here, but I do have a lot of background in small scale renewables. In eastern Ontario the December-January insolation is about 2 kWh per day for each kWp of solar modules (at latitude +15 degree array tilt).

This means that, on average, a modest solar array of say 4 kWp could provide about 8 kwh per day of electricity, even in the winter, which is more than enough for an energy conscious household. This average combines sunny and clear days with days with virtually no sun, so there will be an optimum relationship between solar array size and battery size to carry you over the periods with dark and gloomy weather. Your local solar vendors or a solar design expert can tell you what that relationship should be for your area.

I have not had direct experience with household size wind turbines for about 15 years, but unless someone has invented a small turbine that is mechanically perfect, I would never use them unless there was no other choice (as in high latitudes with no sun at all for months).

It is perfectly possible to live without electricity and I have done it myself, but it is a lot more work, especially if you have no access to gravity pressurized water. Shallow wells can be operated with a hand pump and the water carried into the house in buckets, but it sure is nice to be able to turn on a faucet and get some water. Although I have had hundreds of showers out of buckets, hot spray showers are habit forming.

My first priorities for electric use are water pumping and lighting. Next comes refrigeration and a washing machine. One also needs electricity for any form of communication or computing except for a land-line telephone. Those are definitely luxuries, but are nice to have for sure.

You may be able to avoid having a refrigerator in operation during winter by having a root cellar or an outdoor cool locker that stays just above freezing. Water use can be greatly reduced by not having an indoor toilet. An indoor bucket system (like the Lovable Loo) can keep one from having to go to an outhouse in the cold and also has the benefit of recycling a lot of valuable nutrients.

All in all, I would say that solar is perfectly doable for your location. Solar prices are so low that the PV array can be quite large and still be affordable. Inverters are reliable and last for many years. My latest set have been in continuous operation since 2006 with no problem.

The biggest question mark for a solar home is the battery. I have lead-acid, which are cheap and reliable if well charged and maintained, but they don't last forever. A friend in the solar installation business is using a lot of lithium-ion batteries for his customers. The longest lived battery is still the nickel-iron or nickel-cadmium, but they are very expensive. I would go with what the vendors in your area are using and recommend.

In a collapse situation, a solar powered home can expect a decade or so of reliable power before something breaks. Plenty of spares can turn that into at least two or three decades, but only with a long-lived battery such as a nickel-iron type. Eventually everyone will be living without electricity, so if I were young and fit, I might go that way from the start. My wife and I are 70 years old and the only members of our household, so the labor saving benefits of electricity make the difference between living in country with some comfort and barely getting by. We can afford to hire help, but it would be hard to find people who were willing to live without electricity.

I suggest reducing your dependence on electricity and all outside sources of energy as much as possible and then getting the biggest PV system you can afford. Wood for cooking and heating (and hot water), composting for human waste management, together with LED lighting and very high efficiency appliances will make it easy to conserve electricity to the point that you may never have to run a generator except during times of a system malfunction, even in eastern Ontario.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Mr. Clarkson, I am glad for your input. I retired a year ago and in a way this has allowed me to concentrate more fully on what I can do to lower my carbon footprint. I own a car, but really only use it once a month to "stock up supplies". I have planted gardens and fruit trees, and have dropped my dependence on many appliances. I've put in a new fireplace, and have already a cookstove. Wood is available on my property, and I do use a chain saw. My children are young adults, and I believe it will take them a while to realize that "Mom has it good", or else that there is "potential" with owning land. I am trying to make enlightened decisions wrt where to invest money with regard to solar or other green energy. I have seen a few YouTube videos from Nicole Foss of The Automatic Earth who has been speaking about Peak Oil for a long time. She used to live near Ottawa, and had a combination of things that ran her farm. One thing she did say was that to never "tie into" Hydro. She stated that the whole point of having solar was that you were able to run a house when there was no electricity, and that the way it is set up now, if you re-sell energy to Hydro, when the electricity is down, so are you. She also stated that solar during the winter months was not enough to run her house. With regards to your comments about inverters, I actually was looking at inverters online yesterday. I was thinking that I should have one downstairs next to the sump pump, along with a battery that has a trickle charger. Do you have a recommendation as to size? (3000W?). Because of the severity of the storms we've been having, the potential for another ice storm is likely. With the first one, this area was out of power for one week. Possibly a generator that converts propane to electricity would also be good to consider. And I have been thinking about more basic things like window inserts that help in retention of heat, and insulation for pipes to prevent pipes from bursting from the freezing and thawing that we now are experiencing more often?

Joe Clarkson said...


One thing about solar that I have no experience with is grid-tied systems with battery backup. A home solar system can never produce electricity as cheaply as the grid, not even here on Hawaii island where the grid cost is US$0.40 per kWh. You can remain tied into Hydro, have a backup battery and switch to off-grid during times of outages (even a permanent one) but I don't know which inverter setup would allow you to do it easiest. The only good thing about remaining connected is that it lets one use lots of electricity if you really really need it.

The bad thing about remaining connected to the grid is that it is easy to develop bad electrical energy habits when unlimited cheap power is available. It would take real discipline to live with the grid in the same way that you would with an off-grid system. And if you had that discipline, you would likely never have an electrical bill (assuming Hydro has net metering) so there would be no reason to stay connected anyway.

One thing you could do is remain connected and start out with a really small system that only ran a few dedicated loads, like your sump pump and lighting circuits. You would need to move those circuits to a new load center that would be powered by your PV/battery/inverter system (a 3000W inverter is enough for a whole house, with reasonable peak loads, and too big for the system I am talking about). That way, even during a power outage your basement won't get wet and you will have lights. Since you have wood heat and cooking, the only things you will miss would be a water pump (assuming you are on a well) and refrigeration. Those could be run off of a backup generator that only is fired up for a short while every few hours. Having the solar would give you experience with it and have a real benefit during outages.

On the other hand, I sympathize with Nicole Foss' attitude. Once you cut the cord with Hydro and use a suitable PV system, you will be set for a long time. You will learn discipline or find yourself paying for a lot of fuel for your backup generator. The feedback will be immediate.

While you are pondering your options, your idea of a battery backup and small inverter for your sump pump is a good one. Find out much energy the pump uses and also its peak demand. Get a cheap inverter that would comfortably handle the pump's peak demand and put in a battery with a trickle charger that would give you several days of pumping. Another option: I once owned a leaky wooden sailboat that had a manual bilge pump and I got used to pumping it out. Assuming the sump only needs pumping a few times a day, you may want to consider just getting a manual pump for your sump as backup until you decide to go solar.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
Your setup in Hawai'i sound very impressive--a pretty good lifeboat. But just how remote are you? Are you and your wife the only people for miles around, or is there a community nearby?

Irv Mills said...

@ Gail M. and Joe Clarkson
The thing about solar panels in Ontario in the winter is snow. I'm looking out the window at the panels on my neighbour's roof and they have 4 to 6 inches of snow on top of them. They are situated so it would be quite an undertaking to sweep them off, but it hasn't been worth doing it for several weeks since the sun has rarely peeked out from behind thick clouds. This is very typical for Kincardine in the winter--no sun from November to April and really heavy couds. My daughter lives in Ottawa and it seems to me they get more winter sun, so the numbers Joe is quoting may well be reasonable.

The thing about going off grid with your own solar generation is that it is quite doable as long as "business as usual" (BAU) is still purring along next to you to provide spare parts, batteries and so forth. And it does give you a chance to wean yourself gradually away from our "normal" high energy, high tech lifestyle.

I am an electrician who worked for Ontario Hydro and then Hydro One for over 30 years. Part of our job was the care and feeding of banks of lead acid batteries, the kind you would be using with your solar panels. This has left me with a low opinion of the longevity of batteries. Our batteries were kept in ideal conditions and rarely if ever discharged, and still usually didn't last longer than about 15 years. A regular charge and discharge cycle, such as you have in an off grid system powered by solar panels would wear the batteries out much quicker, probably in just a few years. This is one aspect of going off grid that you usually don't hear discussed. You'll likely need to replace your batteries at least once, if not more times, during the lifetime of the panels. But not too big a problem as long as you can get replacement batteries, and you can afford them. I'm told the panel's themselves probably need to be replaced after 25 to 30 years.

What this all means is that you can arrange to have electricity from you solar setup for some years after the grid has quit working, but not forever. Still, electricity is just so darn useful that it's really tempting to find some way of having it available, no matter what. And I suspect that the more prosperous communities will do so, even long after BAU has given up the ghost. In eastern Ontario there are a lot of opportunities for small scale hydro power that such a community might take advantage of.

Whether you end up getting power from solar, wind, water or by burning biomass, I think the trick is to find ways t use it without having to store it. Using wind to pump water into a cistern is a fine example. And of course it is possible to use the power you have at hand without turning it into electricity first.

I'd like to change the subject, Gail, and ask you how far you are from any of the cities in eastern Ontario. In an earlier post in this series, ( I talked about how big a town can be in order to be viable without fossil fuels--20,000 at the outside, with 10000 a more reasonable figure. And how far you should be from places bigger than that--50 to 100 miles being the closest you'd want to be. The idea is that as BAU winds down the cities will become less and less viable and people will be forced to leave them, in search of better circumstances in the countryside. Places close to cities will be swamped with these refugees, but if you are far enough away the hardships of the journey will weed them down to numbers you can hope to cope with. Something to think about.

Irv Mills said...

@ Gail M., continued
On the subject of electricity, and infrastructure in general, I should have said that I am expecting a long a gradual failure of the various systems. So getting set up to weather more frequent and lengthier outages is a great idea. Heat is a necessity in Ontario winters and I think you'll find your woodstove a real asset.
A backup source of electricity is also going to become more important. Especially if, like me, you have a freezer full of food. I have a generator and keep a couple of jerry cans of gasoline which I rotate so that it's never more than 2 months old. But solar panels, batteries and an inverter/changer would also be good. And if your water sources is your own well, you'll want to make sure your backup source of power will run your pump.
In the near future I'm going to do a post which addresses many of these issues in more detail.
I think you mentioned wanting to reduce your carbon footprint. Here in Ontario we've shut down all our coal fired generating stations. There is a little bit of natural gas fired generation, but the great majority is water power or nuclear.

Unknown said...

In answer as to your distance questions:
53 km to Cornwall Population of 46,876
62 km to Brockville, Population of 21,854 and
75 km to Ottawa Population of 934,240

And here I'd like to add that I keep track of the weather, and it is changing. The number of sunny days that I have experienced this winter has been precious few. Government statistics are very good to make generalities about, but they also are behind by at least a year of two before they are released to the public.

Joe Clarkson said...


I live in a rural area with numerous small "gentleman farms" mixed in with large and small cattle ranches, plantation forestry and medium sized macadamia nut orchards. My location is at 20.026005, -155.43173 so you can check out the neighborhood on Google Maps. The images are several years old and things have changed on my property, but the neighborhood remains generally the same. The nearest town is Honokaa, which is about five miles away and has a population of about 2,500. Hilo is an hour away by car and has a population of 43,000. It is the biggest town on the island.

I think you are right that solar requires a functioning industrial civilization for continuous service, but a well designed PV system would be very slow to break down, especially if essential services are DC (my water pump, refrigerator and freezer are DC). You are also right that the weak link for multi-decade system life is the battery. I have thought about trying to see if it is possible to craft produce a lead acid battery with pure lead plates. The capacity would be very low compared with modern deep-cycle cells, but they would last a long time and spare lead plates could be held in reserve for many years. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, the only really long life batteries are nickle iron or nickel cadmium. My neighbor just replaced his nickel cadmium system after over 30 years of service. He replaced them with more Saft nicads.

One thing to keep in mind is that the electrical grid is just as dependent on continuous spares as a home PV system, if not more so. I think this topic has been brought up before, but as long as electical grids are functioning, modern civilization can function at some level. Without them, it would collapse immediately.

Small towns may be a great place to get away from collapse, but they can't replace the functionality of an electrical grid by themselves. So one problem that remains to be solved is how to keep the economy of even a very small town in farming country functional without grid powered electricity. Most people that live in a small town won't have any solar electricity, wood heat, or easily accessible water. They need a functional furnace fan to stay warm (unless they huddle around a gas oven) and they will get water only if the water company pumps remain energized. Off grid powered homes will seem luxurious in comparison to a grid dependent home after the grid goes down.

I know you think the grid will be the last thing to go in a collapse situation, but what if it is among the very first?

Perran said...

We're currently going through having our town surrounded by a bushfire (Geeveston, Tasmania). It's comforting to know that people have been helping each other out.

I think this is a far more likely outcome in a small town were everybody knows each other than in a city. We know all our neighbours and depend on them regularly,as do they with us.

Perran said...


Geeveston has a good butcher shop😉

As always I have enjoyed reading your work.

Irv Mills said...

@ everyone who has been waiting for a reply to their comment--I've been sidetracked working on some projects away from my computer and the internet. Hope to catch up this evening.

Irv Mills said...

@ Gail M
My daughter lives in Vernon. Looking at those distances, I am guessing you're not far from there. In the years since she moved there, we've watched Ottawa continuously expand southwards. How long, I wonder before that whole area is one big suburb?
My suggested distances from larger towns and cities were in miles (forgive an old guy), 50 miles=80.5 km, 100 miles=161 km. That's 160 km to be safe, 80 km if you need to be closer for work or whatever. Of course those are just wild guesses.
The idea being that eventually things will get so bad in the cities, mainly due to supply chain breakdown, that many people will try to leave. Most of them will be traveling on foot or by bicycle at best, and will have little in the way of supplies with them, so the majority of them won't make it very far. You don't want to be so close that a lot of people show up at your door asking for help. On the other hand, you could likely use a few extra hands. So be far enough away that the distance will weed out all but the hardiest of the refugees, who you can welcome into your community when they arrive.
Survivalists will tell you that you need to have guns and be ready to shoot strangers essentially on sight, but to me this is morally repugnant. If the leaders of your community care so little about the lives of refugees, how long before you get out of line and meet a similar fate.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
I had a look on Google Earth and I think I found your place. Again, it seems to me you have a pretty good setup there.
There is a whole lot of technology (including lead acid batteries) that dates from the late 1800s or early 1900s that should be doable in an isolated small town. Basically anything pre solid state. Provided you can get the food supply working smoothly enough so there is time to work on anything else. Here the winters are a slow time for farmers, providing the opportunity to tinker.
A local supply of electricity would also be a big help and small-scale water powered generation is likely the easiest to set up, but wind or maybe firewood powered steam are feasible as well. It certainly doesn't need a large scale grid to make this feasible.
Much of rural Ontario wasn't connected to the grid until the 1940s, and while electricity was (and is) a huge convenience, people got by just fine without it.
Speaking of which, I wonder what I said to give you the impression that I think the grid will be the last thing to go. Far from it. Here in northeastern North America the gird has already collapsed twice, once in 1965 and again in 2003. I was involved in recovery efforts in 2003. Around here power was restored in about 4 hours. Some areas were without power for several days. The cause was an overload somewhere in Ohio that tripped off a line and then more lines tripped to prevent generation from being overloaded and in a matter of milliseconds a whole lot of people were in the dark.
As the economy gets worse, I expect to see less and less money being spent on maintenance of the grid. Outages, both large and small scale will become more frequent and last longer. In self defense, the grid will be taken apart into smaller, local areas and more and more of it abandoned, especially in rural areas. Every effort will be made to keep the larger centres lit up until finally those effort fail too. Many third world countries are part way through this process already, although people will tell you things are improving rather than getting worse.
That's a big part of the problem everywhere--people don't want to admit that we are in the middle of a gradual collapse. As things get worse, though, it will be harder to ignore and I think more people will come around to the idea that preparing is a good idea.
In my next couple of posts I'll be talking about what you can do in a small town once you move there, on both the individual/family level, and on the community level. Small groups of people who have thought ahead will have an advantage when things go wrong and once it becomes obvious that you are onto something, more and more people will get interested. I admit, we have a lot of bad habits to break and new good ones to learn.

Irv Mills said...

@ Perran
Nice to hear from you and thanks for the kind words.
I've been following the fire situation in Tasmania will considerable dismay. It seems that climate change can sneak up and bite us where it is least expected.
Do you know Mike Stasse, of the Damn The Matrix blog? I think he lives somewhere in your area...

Perran said...

According to Facebook he lives in Geeveston..... I never knew. I have read damn the matrix from time to time. Thanks

James Howland said...

Alarming as this all is (Especially given that I'm young enough that I'll probably be living through the majority of the collapse over the coming century, not to mention the economic decline already happening in my area), at least I can be glad to live in a pretty rural area. I try to get as much of my food as I can from local sources, and have lived here and am familiar enough with the people in the nearest village (Population 1000 roughly) that relations should be alright. There's a town about 4 miles away with a population of 20,000 though, so that could be a problem (Although judging by the 1 acre per person rule, there ought to be enough land to support everyone in the county with an extra 200,000 to spare)

I've got enough land in my property that I could consider starting up a plot of potatoes, not enough to live off of entirely of course, but enough to act as a supplement, plus something that could potentially be sold/traded locally. There's also a well that I might be able to get a stable supply of water from, although of course I'll have to check first to see if it's properly sanitary.

Truth be told, I was considering going into politics in the future in the hopes of being able to create some amount of change, and it's for that reason that I've got plans to study Law at uni once I finish college. Honestly though, I'm starting to wonder if it might be best to change my goals to something else instead if collapse is as inevitable as it seems.

Irv Mills said...

@James Howland
Nice to hear from you James. About living near to that town of 20,000... never follow any rule off a cliff, even (or maybe especially) the ones I make. I do think 20,000 is pretty much the upper limit for via towns in the long run, and if the people running a town that size are absolutely determined to remain steadfast to BAU (Business as Usual), then they are going to have problems and be a problem for those nearby.
But I don't think collapse is going to happen all at once. I expect it will continue on slowly as it has for the last half century or so, with the odd downward bump to shake people up a bit. And therein lies my hope--that events over the coming years will shake people's faith in BAU and start them looking for alternatives before it is too late to do something.
One acre per person is fine for a start,if all you want to do is grow food. As time passes we'll also need to provide pasture, hay and grain for draught animals, wood for heating and building, fiber for clothing and cordage, and so on. My WAG (wild ass guess) is this may add up to 5 acres per person, moe or less depending on local circumstances.
But to get started, even a fraction of an acres is lots to take care of if you are still working to support yourself via BAU. Carol Deppe wrote a good book entitled "The Resilient Gardener" ( in which she suggests that a garden with potatoes, corn, beans, squash and a laying flock (chickens or ducks) can go a long way to reduce your reliance on BAU.
It's probably a good idea to be involved in a group of gardeners, and to be aware some basic principle like not growing the same thing year after year in the same place. My experience with potatoes is that as soon as the second year in one place the Colorado beetles will find you and make life difficult.
If you have the stomach for it, local politics could be a good thing to get into and be ready to suggest some collapse aware changes when the time is right (but not before then).
Best of luck with your efforts and I'll hope to hear from you again.