Emergency items for Older Americans

I was teaching an OLLI class at the University and we went over the standard 7 day supply emergency kit.  The new addition to the presentation is items that could be included by caregivers or seniors themselves in case of evacuation.  Some items have to do with mobility.  Folding up light wheelchairs are available often on eBay or Craigslist for periodic use. Often they will collapse in half for storage or to fit in a trunk by simply pulling up on the vinyl seat.  Walkers can be purchased at medical supply stores which allow for very tight compaction and provide stable rolling or walking along (especially if you cut two tennis balls and impale them half way on the legs that have no wheels.  Other walkers also have a seat on them for periodic seating when needing.  Finally, having walking canes with arm clips are not bad to have on hand in case of twisted ankles or sudden leg injuries to the legs during the  emergency event.


The other area where it is good to have compact, light items ready to go have to do with using bathrooms.  One is a plastic form board that can straddle a bathtub by overlapping onto each edge so someone can comfortably sit “on” a tub and wash themselves sitting down by shower head.  A hand bar with suction cups can comfortably allow a person to stick the hand bar to the shower surround wall and position themselves on or in the tub.  Another item that can make things easier in a new place of relocation is a toilet “riser”.  The plastic donut allows for a person to comfortably sit higher on tan unfamiliar toilet and have a easier way to stand up when needed.

And of course, a portable hotwater heater can be easily stored with compact 1 pounder propane bottles. Versions are made by Zodi and Coleman which allow for showers, bathing and sanitizing under what may be less than optimum conditions after a disaster hits.  One of propane these containers will hold about 4,500 BTUs.  And an adapter can be bought to hook up a five gallon propane bottle (from the barbecue grill).  Think of these things when putting together your kit!

Scottish “island” energy


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As it is with several  communities in rural Alaska, Scotland has some “Islanded” (in terms of energy) communities of its own  Eigg is a community which has major storms isolating it for days at times (though it is only a little more than a dozen miles from the UK mainland. About a decade ago they are noted as the first community to run fully off wind, water and solar power for electricity (currently Kodiak is roughly 90% independent from wind and water).   Diesel generators ran partial days which meant residents did not have around the clock electrical potential.

Similar to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power’s Global Applications Program, other countries are learning from the remote microgrid which Scotland has put up.  Four wind turbines make up  24 kW with solar providing 4.75kW of electricity (and double 70 kW diesel generators for back up with a battery bank).  Three hydro generators help throughout the year and the largest of them can at times generate up to 100kW with a 330 foot head. The other turbines create about a dozen kW combined. The cloudy weather causes the output to be seasonally variable, and  being at 57 degrees latitude (Anchorage is ~62 degrees) summer has a lot of solar gain.

Much the same as some of the Western Coastal Alaskan communities which utilize Steffans thermal stoves to deal with excess wind power, Eigg has turbines plow excess power into  the town hall, dock lobby and a couple of churches which allows them to avoid central heating.  It will be interesting to see if the ‘solved energy problem’ promotes migration and increases the island’s population in the near future!

Exploding permafrost??


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By The Siberian Times has  reported that  7,000 underground methane gas bubbles are ready to blow!  An article a week ago documented for the first time 2017 mounds located on the  Yamal and Gydan peninsulas that are thought to have been caused by thawing permafrost – that then is releasing methane. Both on foot field expeditions as well as satellite imagery have been used.  These land forms are noted by Russian scientist as ‘funnels’ that at one time were pingos (permafrost caused depressions).  

No one has yet been reported as harmed by these exploding ice thaws, yet they could potentially be an energy source for the area if correctly captured with the gas adequately distributed.  (More importantly, they are being studied to try and avoid damage to infrastructure and transportation of energy resources that are being extracted in the region).  A nickname (in Russian) for the terrestrial explosions has been “Trembling Tundra” (though no seismic activity has been connected with them).

The ice, dirt, and soil can be mixed with the gases with a core of methane hydrates.  This fluid mixture of cooled gases into crystal forms is stable as long as it is kept cooled yet if not properly extracted the immense pressure and flammability can be explosive. University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Vladimir  Romanovsky suspects that the bubbles may have appeared before but not been reported. It is also possible they were much less frequent and have accelerated in numbers the last few years that the permafrost has been warming up. We will have to wait and see how stable these items are to study in the future.

Using the other biomass


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Most of the time when we speak of biomass in Alaska we are talking about wood- and usually for purposes of space heat.  Grasses, brush and even peat may be included yet we mostly are talking about trees as cord wood or chip/pellets as the feed stock for ‘biomass’ projects.  In Ireland however, they are talking of a whole different feedstock. Waste in the form of a slurry are being considered.

In the next couple months Ireland looks to begin its ‘REFIT’ program (renewable energy feed-in tariff scheme).  With a large agricultural sector,  slurry reserves may be answer to their goals.  Come 2020, if the country isn’t producing about a sixth of its energy from renewables, they are looking at massive fines.  They have already invested in wind and solar and are near they’re renewable benchmarks for electricity….yet heat goals still need to be met- and other EU nations have probably met their goals through biogas plants that digest waste from farm fields and barns.  The gasses can be collected and used for heat combustion. Britain, Sweden, and Germany have been taking advantage of this type of ‘waste energy’ (methane) as a part of their renewable cluster.

As an example, in Ireland a farm with 75,000 pigs additional revenues can be made  from the gate fees charged for taking in food wastes (which may be from discarded good stuffs from restaurants, grocery stores and other farms) as well as waste from animal processing plants. The food is then digested in an oxygen absent environment and it can be captured on the farm while being run through combined heat and power combustion unit.  Other produced methane can be passed along if network piping is in place- similar to the electric grid.  Possibly not possible to build out to the scale required on homestead sites in Alaska, it has been an option looked at for those communities that have seasonal stock of wastes from fish processing plants- (especially now that the EPA has put regulations on dumping such wastes in the ocean).

Agricultural Energy


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Since petrol became available in mass, affordable quantities farms have obviously benefited from more efficient planting and harvesting equipment as well as farm house and milking parlor electrification,  In the Midwest you can drive down township roads and in some places see vestiges of early innovations such as dormant steam powered threshers or windmills that charged 36 volt electrical systems.   Yet aside from being considerable users of energy farms also have increasingly been generators of energy (or feedstock for heat/electrical production).

Some of the production comes from farm based  biodiesel (which has been created and used at the UAF experimental farm in Palmer) as well as biomass fuel crops- when you consider that wood is considered by federal agencies an ag crop. One of the more popular type of agricultural produced feedstocks in the past couple decades (which helped to generate the onging ‘food for fuel’ debate) was corn grown toward producing ethanol.  In Interior Alaska it has been the primary grain crop barley that has been utilized- but not as a liquid fuel but rather solid substitute sold for pellet stoves creating space heat.

There are several grants out that encourage looking at farm-based energy generation.  Encouragement of research coupled with outreach education are needed.  Some efforts, such as the Western States Agricultural Research Education  E3A program look at how simple non-petrol energy production could help a farm to operate better, no matter what the crop output is or may be used for.  The ground source heat pump section of this program was written by a collaboration of UAF Extension with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Farm use of solar to power irrigation pumps and create domestic hot water, wind generation, and efficiency measures for farm buildings are some of the topics covered.

It is important for universities to not only do the research, but also to reduce the  gaps of knowledge  in the science and how to create the energy production with an understanding of  farm type operations.  One of the areas that the School of Natural Resources and Engineering school at UAF have taken up in pursuance of grants is agricultural land management toward producing (possibly) usable heat and and a soil amendment or filter product from biochar.  There will be more on this in the next couple months that I’ll explain!

Below $50 a barrel…



The last couple days oil commodities have rapidly dropped the last couple days and for the first time in quite a while oil is now under $50 a barrel.  Southwestern Energy and Mobil have lost quite a bit in the bull market and oil is certainly not the driver it was a decade ago.  OPEC disfunction and Russian flooding of the market- along with thick inventories- are plummeting prices.

Such trends downwards will tend to raise eyebrows by those who have invested strongly the last year or so in renewable energy capital; oil is all the more appealing in the short run for working projects.  What is interesting is that development of long term batteries continues.

Locally, have you filled your fuel tank lately for your furnace, boiler or direct vent heater (Toyo, Monitor, etc..)?  With -35 weather this week in the mornings as we start to pick up a good amount of solar exposure we yet have a healthy amount of solar gain going.  If you do order fuel, try to put just enough to get you into June (depending what you have hooked up to use oil).  That way, when the dry June comes through and we end up with a good amount of lightening strikes, you can reduce problems for any wildfires that come through your area in the summer.

Melting soils and foundations


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Whether from cow methane, oil burning factories or some of both, there is no doubt that our annual mean temperatures over the last century have been on an upward trend in the Interior. While effects of warmer seasonal weather are hitting the higher latitudes with more fervor, there is the advantage of discontinuous permafrost moving out of arable and accessible building sites.  The upshot is that in the Interior of the state building sites may well open up for full foundations (cement slab or footers in crawlspaces) where in the past pad and post was the only sure way to go.

Given the scattered Uranium throughout the state, it will be all the more important for contractors to utilize radon resistant construction so that from the git-go there is not only protective vapor barrier secured on the ground but also semi permeable membrane material such as Bituthene adhered to any pony walls before back filling soils.   This is because radon is a pervasive  gas (although wimpy) and with frozen soils melting and ice lenses migrating there will be new open paths for gasses to reach the foundation of many homes. Take a look at this  YouTube channel and watch the 4 minute film (while sharing the more detailed 12 minute piece for your contractor who’ll build for you): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwz4yPgv3XA&t=7s & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EOt-iyk5MA.

We don’t know currently how the sink holes and melting permafrost will effect radon distribution by and large in areas as there has not been an operating home built yet in this marginal land which allows for the variations of concentrations from home ventilation systems.  (The other thing we do not know is how garden  or crop plants will react to the non-decayed organic method which will release methane as lands are ‘opened up’).  Remember, no matter where you are currently living, the only way  you’ll know if you have a radioactive radon problem, is to test- which for $25 or so is not such an weighty matter when considering the cost of detection, treatment and care of lung cancer!



Roof safety with heavy snow


We have gotten an exceptionally wet and large amount of snow the last couple days and there has been talk of what a roof will take. Here are some precautions on those who have mobile homes:

  • keep in mind that there is more stress on the flat roof than a peaked roof (and the timbers are not as stout as on a peaked roof)
  • on  any other flat roof building you want to find out what the covering is made of before applying a metal edged snow scoop, chipper, or shovel
  • .you may need a tie on belt if you need to get on top and shovel a time or two this year to relieve the pressure in the middle of the roof (where a snow rake won’t reach)

Snow load is measured in pounds per square inch). Inspectors in Fairbanks and Anchorage have a code for new builds and you will want to see what the code is for where you live.  In the city of Fairbanks, code calls for roofs to be built that can withstand 50 pounds per square foot of weight.   To measure this, you can make a plywood box that is 12″ x12″ and 3 foot or so high.  You can then “cookie cut” a section down to the roof and then slide a flat plate underneath.  Transfer the box to a bathroom scale, record the weight (and then subtract the weight of the box).  You can also go to weather.gov, put your zip code in and then click on special hazard report and it should give you the pounds per foot out at the Fairbanks Airport.  Keep an eye on your snow and roof!

Radon’s reach


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Earlier this week there was a presentation at UAF on Radon.  It was about testing your home to some degree, yet had a new emphasis that has not been highlighted so strongly before- the lung health and geology side of things.  The director of the local Alaska chapter of the American Lung Association (AALA) was there and had detailed slides on lungs; Maegan went in depth of how a healthy lung should look, what parts are compromised by the decaying radioactive gas of radon, and made mention on how to keep the lung tissues healthy throughout life (and yes, exercise was listed as one of those maintenance activities).  The images on the Powerpoint slides were dynamic and colorful. We will look forward to the community event which AALA is hosting April 17.

In addition, Jen Athley shared on the ‘lay of the land’, so to speak concerning naturally occurring radioactive substances.  She also had a very vibrant overhead color map of Alaska which differentiated various deposits of landform/rock.  She went into detail to describe how radon interacts with various minerals as well as the distribution of those minerals.  And of course she spoke to- in detail- what the potential dangers are with hard rock schist in disseminating radon.

Cooperative Extension will hope to continue sharing about radon as we try to renew our rounds of healthy homes classes year round- which have a strong indoor air quality component.  Keep an eye out for healthy homes or straight radon classes this spring and summer.

The cost of warming up


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This week there were various sessions at Anchorage’s  Alaska Forum on the Environment on climate change effects.  One advantage mentioned during a food security session is that there very well be more arable land available to grow food on as permafrost melts.  Albeit there will need to be examinations as to how the organic matter once frozen effects new plants.

An article in the Alaska Dispatch mentioned that there will be a downside to Alaskans though.  It will cost more as the landscape changes to keep up with engineering concerns.  It notes that a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has aggregated what it thinks the costs will be to the public sector for repaired and new infrastructure from:

  • flooding  and precipitation
  • permafrost changes
  • freeze-thaw cycles and coastal erosion

They estimate the total cost of repairing public roads, pipelines, buildings, airports and rail lines at $5.5 billion by the end of the century. UAA has a report estimating the costs at $5.6-$7.6 billion.  (This might be the time to become an engineer!)

There will benefits and costs to Alaska as patterns change.  The studies didn’t look at the Pipeline, harbors and other private infrastructure.  The question is always who will pony up for the bill?