How to back up your home

It can be helpful to think of your house as a kind of complex machine. It takes in raw materials like power and water, then processes them in various ways for certain benefits, like cooking, lighting, and heating.

A prepared household is one where if the raw materials aren’t available, the machine doesn’t completely break down straight away. It’s one with backups.

When thinking about backup systems for your house there are several areas to consider. Each of these topics deserve full articles, which I’ll endeavour to put together some time, but for now here are some ‘first thoughts’ on each topic.

Power

Without electricity quite a few of your household systems will fail. While it’s tempting to look into generators as a backup I personally don’t think they’re very practical; noisy, smelly, expensive – and you need to store a lot of fuel to keep them going for any length of time.

Instead, my advice is to make sure the systems that depend on mains electricity have off-grid backups.

Lighting

You should buy some tealights and matches for emergency lighting. The reason is that they are cheap and simple. After that, look into headlamps, torches, and battery-powered backup lighting. In general, headlamps are better for closeup work and they don’t use up a hand, and torches are good for distance lighting (e.g. checking perimeter). I’d say get a headlamp before a torch.

Water

It’s vital to have a few bottles of water on hand in your house. Every supermarket sells 5 litre bottles for about a pound, it’s well worth having 2 or 3 stashed away, and more if you have the space. I also advise keeping a stock of 500ml bottles as they’re handy to grab for days out. You can flush your toilet even if the water and power is off if you just fill the cistern from a bucket. Don’t waste drinking water on that though, use non-potable water from your water butts if you have them. They don’t come up often 2nd hand but you might get lucky – we managed to get ours half price via facebook but it took months of looking.

Cooking

We have a dual-fuel cooker, so there’d have to be a fairly major issue for us to lose the ability to cook completely. Even so, I think it’s worth getting a backup. A simple camping stove is a great way to provide a fallback in case of emergency. The portability is a bonus too! Any type will do, but I my budget recommendation is this tiny and cheap one. It only works with screw-on canisters which aren’t too common in the UK, but couple it with a CP250 adapter and you’ve got a setup that burns furiously and takes cheap, readily available gas. I don’t recommend the square ‘suitcase’ type ones you see in millets, they are bulky and take an age to boil water, although they’re probably more fuel-efficient. Carboots, eBay sorted by distance, and facebook marketplace are good places to look for deals. Try to keep in mind what type of cartridge they take; you don’t want to end up with a stove that requires less-common cartridges. CP250 is a really common size at the moment and is often on 8-cans-for-£10 deals at Blacks and Millets.

Food Storage

Your fridge and freezer are no doubt a big part of your household. Without power, the food inside will go bad after a few days. Chest freezers are better for powercuts as opening them doesn’t let as much cold out. Wrap them in blankets to keep them cold for longer. Consider buying an extra freezer for your garage/outbuilding and filling it with ready meals and home-frozen leftovers. They can be had for £30 on facebook marketplace locally.

Heating

Heating is a tricky one. If you’re lucky enough to have an open fireplace that’ll heat a room nicely if you keep the door closed. If an open fire is out of the question then might want to consider portable gas heaters, just remember to keep the room well ventilated, and consider a CO alarm. In the worst case, you can huddle with blankets and quilts around a tealight heater. A hot water bottle makes a huge difference overnight too, and is one of my camping pro tips.

Washing

You can buy a variety of ‘camp showers’ ranging from simple gravity-powered ‘bag-and-hose’ setups to more advanced pressurised ones. For warmth you rely on the sun, although there’s nothing stopping you from pouring in hotter water from the kettle (half-fill with cold first so as not to deform the plastic). A good stock of unscented baby wipes will go a long way too, and I recommend a couple of bottles of dettol for disinfecting surfaces and wounds.

Toilet

As mentioned above, toilets will still flush even if your water is cut off, so the first port of call would be to store water to refill the cistern. In a prolonged regional disaster you might get to the point where the water treatment facility stops working, and at that point you’ll want to be thinking about composting or chemical toilets. But for a reasonable level of preparedness, you just need spare water.

Communications

The most important advice I’d give here is to make rendezvous points a habit. Whenever you’re visiting somewhere just say “If we get separated meet back here”. Try to make it something of a landmark so rather than “meet at the car” it would be “meet at the Boots near Greyfriars car park”. That way strangers can help you get there, and it means you can move the car around and not lose your RV point. In your hometown it’s a good idea to have a permanent RV point in your minds. Ideally walkable from home, work, and the city centre but anywhere that’s easy to get to will be fine. I prefer familiar large public places like supermarkets. You can stay there for hours without attracting any suspicion, they have PA systems and helpful staff if you need them, toilets, etc etc.

Your mobile is probably your best bet for communications, but in large-scale emergencies the cell network will go down. Sending a text is more likely to get through than a voice call or data in that case. I still have a landline phone as they are designed to work even if the power goes out (assuming it’s not one of those awful crackly wireless ones). Beyond that, we also have a set of walkie talkies – not much use in urban settings as the signal gets disrupted by buildings, but great on motorways and open land. I’ve linked to the ones I have, they’re the most powerful you can get without a licence, and have good features. Don’t store them with the batteries in for 2 reasons; firstly you just never should as batteries can leak in long term storage, and secondly I think these radios drain the battery slowly over time.

Backup Transportation

I’m not one who keeps jerry cans of petrol in the garage, though I sympathise with those who do. Honestly, it’s just a bit more hassle than I can be bothered with. An average fuel tank is 40-60 litres, so that’s 2-3 jerry cans just for a single extra refill. And petrol doesn’t keep well so you have to rotate the cans. Plus there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to be seen carrying jerry cans into the house every week.

Instead, I content myself with filling up whenever the gauge gets to half empty. That way I’ve always got about 200 miles of range without stopping for fuel. Other than that, there’s always the pushbike; a seriously great offgrid transport option.

Backup Power Revisited

I know I said not to try to backup your power, but sometimes you just need to backup your power, you know?

Keep a store of AA, AAA, and 9v batteries. When buying gadgets try to take into account battery size, otherwise you might find you need to store 6 different types of battery. Consolidate where possible.

I also recommend some high-capacity USB battery packs. Anker is a good brand. They’ll keep your phone charged in an emergency. I also have an electric screwdriver which charges over USB, so that again multiplies the usefulness.

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