Monthly Archives: February 2015

Volcanic Eruptions

What? I can hear … I thought this blog was about UK preparedness? Well, it is: this is a Cabinet Office report on what civil emergencies we could face here in the UK, and some items on the list might make you do a double-take. The highest priority is a pandemic, followed by coastal flooding and catastrophic terrorist attacks. And the fourth on the list is “Severe effusive (gas-rich) volcanic eruptions abroad”, which might be a bit of a surprise. It certainly was to me. Its on page 12 of the pdf that’s linked to above.

We had the ash eruption from Iceland way in 2010, and that was inconvenient for fliers. But scientific experts are saying that gas eruptions are somewhat more likely now, and more dangerous in themselves as well, from the sound of it. And possible preparations for the two types of explosions don’t entirely overlap.

Because of where we sit on the globe geographically, Iceland contains most of the volcanoes which are the main issue for us in relation to ash – but a big enough one even in the Far East still may have the ability to affect us later in the year, and in the year after, because of gases. The report quotes mortality in England during 1783-84, when Grimsvotn Volcano exploded in Iceland: mortality that summer was up 10-20% in England, as well as the rest of Western Europe. Thats really high, and worth a few precautions.

Preparations

No one in the UK lives within a blast or lava flow area, so at least we’ve got that on our side! So prepping is mostly about ash, with awareness of gas. I won’t cover the standard prepper-type things, like food, water, emergency radio, though there are a few specific reasons related to vulcanism to stock them.

To state it plainly: these aren’t needed except in extreme eruptions, when I should think there will be broadcasts by the mainstream media. But I like to have as much advance knowledge about this sort of thing as possible: thats why I’m a prepper, after all. The only thing I’ve bought in extra, however, is four packs of clingfilm: clingfilm is the item of choice to keep our electrics and electronics safe from ash. Its a simple prep, easy to store, doesn’t decay, doesn’t cost much, why not get it in just for peace of mind? Then, if something does happen, the stuff in the shops will be available to people who don’t already know about prepping …

So, ash might fall on the UK from volcanoes which are comparatively nearby – Iceland, Italy – and it will probably do little more than interrupt aviation once again, as in 2010. That can’t be absolutely guaranteed, of course – maybe several volcanoes might go off at once, for instance? Just in case, therefore, the last half of this blog post is a summary of the precautions advised by the IVHHN, the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network. And I’m making sure my clingfilm is available to me!

But what about gas, which is what the Civil Emergencies Register refers to? There are two effects of the gas in volcanic eruptions: one is strictly localised, and has happened several times in Iceland recently, when villages downwind of an erupting volcano are evacuated, because of the toxic gases present in sufficient quantities to be dangerous to survival. That’s important for the Icelanders, but not going to affect us here in the UK.

The other effect of gas is continent-wide, and sometimes global: this is when toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide, chlorine and fluorine are released in such quantities that crop yields are very badly affected – not a nuclear winter caused by dust in the atmosphere, but a volcanic winter/volcanic acid rain caused by toxic gases (and maybe by dust as well, who knows?).

This is explored by the US Geological Survey.  The pithy little summary I’m quoting in this article is about one-third of the way down the page:

“The volcanic gases that pose the greatest potential hazard to people, animals, agriculture, and property are sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen fluride. Locally, sulfur dioxide gas can lead to acid rain and air pollution downwind from a volcano. Globally, large explosive eruptions that inject a tremendous volume of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere can lead to lower surface temperatures and promote depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.”

I don’t see what we as individuals – or even our governments – can do about this global risk, apart from stocking up food, and the means to purify water and so on. It’s the scale of the potential event that makes me think that. The 1783-84 event described above probably wouldn’t cause the same level of deaths today, but it would cause some deaths. Bigger events still wouldn’t be planet-killers, and they wouldn’t kill off every human, but they would cause disruption and fatalities on a planetary scale. It’s much safer for you and your loved ones if you have some stocks in to see you through the first months of the troubles that would follow this sort of disaster.

Below, in any case, is the list of precautions for the much less serious issue of ash fall.

Stocking Up

Dust masks and eye protection.

Cling film, to keep ash out of electronics.

Chlorine tablets for use with tap water.

Classic preps: light, fuel, warmth, medication, first aid, cleaning supplies, money, a week’s drinking water and non-perishable food.

Communications: if you cover your equipment with clingfilm, of course, you won’t be able to use it … so you need at least one backup to get information. That might be a cheap radio that you regard as disposable, and you might experiment with sealing it inside a bag made of heavy plastic, see if that safeguards it. You still need two, though: one to store away long term, one for use during the emergency.

Preparing for ashfall

Close all doors and windows. Place damp towels at drafty places, tape drafty windows.

If you collect rainwater, disconnect the collection devices, cover any tanks.

Wrap all electronics in clingfilm, don’t uncover till totally ash free. Televisions, computers, cameras – volcanic ash is crystalline in structure, will scratch and abrade when removed by wiping or brushing.

Ensure livestock have clean food and water, and are protected.

Some bodies advise disconnecting drainpipes from gutters, so that the drains aren’t clogged … thats a big undertaking. I don’t think I’d do it if it wasn’t advised at the time, quite frankly, messing with the integrity of your guttering un-necessarily sounds like asking for trouble.

When ashfall starts

Don’t panic – get indoors as soon as you can, and stay indoors.

If you get warning, and you’re away from home, go home.

If outdoors, cover nose and mouth with fabric, get inside.

If you’re away from home but indoors when it starts, stay where you are till it stops.

Don’t make non-emergency calls, the phones will be overrun.

Don’t wear contact lenses.

Keep all windows and doors closed whenever possible. Keep everyone, and all animals, inside. Be safe.

Afterwards

General

If you’ve protected your electrics and electronics with clingfilm, make sure you can access a radio or other device enough to hear broadcast safety news.

Ash will have to be cleared from patios, paths, etc, but it seems that the main advice for a minimal ash fall will be to let it compost itself into the soil: volcanoes create very fertile soil after a while. But the mineral composition of each ash fall is distinctive, so follow the advice given out at the time.

Try to keep the ash out of your house: take off outside shoes at the door, and put them in plastic bags.

Water Supplies

If there’s ash in your water, let it settle and then filter the water that seems clear, through anything you have to hand – a pair of tights, anything.

Water contaminated by ash will usually become unpalatable before it becomes a health risk – the risk of toxicity is low, but chlorination is apparently inhibited in surface-collected water. And that means that microbes that usually get killed off by the water treatment in this country aren’t killed off. If in doubt, use chlorine tablets after filtering.

If there’s a lot of ash in the water supply, don’t use your dishwasher or washing machine, they’ll be damaged.

There may be water shortages, because of water demand for cleanup.

Animals

Animals can be endangered by eating grass and plants covered in ash containing hydrofluoric acid. Make sure your animals don’t have access to plants they normally eat until its safe.

If you have pets that you let go outside, brush them thoroughly before you allow them back in the house.

References

And here are some of the websites I’ve used in compiling this.

The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network

This is a prime source. It has several pamphlets and posters about preparation and hazards available.

The International Airways Volcano Watch

The London branch is run by the Met Office. Its a United Nations organisation, under the umbrella of the International Civil Aviation Authority, from what I can tell, and as far as I’m concerned, any organisation with that pedigree is drowning in red tape; even though the information is accurate, it may be slow to be updated.

The British Geological Survey, earth hazards section.

The Global Volcanism Program at the Smithsonian

The Icelandic Met Office

In English! And its an amazing site. Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some active webcams from the Meteorological Service.

Money and Preparedness, Part Two

Already convinced? Go to the bottom of this post for the recommendations, in blue. They’re also at the end of Part One of this article. If you’re not already convinced, please read Part One first, then come back here.  Then tell me what you think, please!

Money Prepping Stage Four: The Rest

There are all sorts of little tricks and wrinkles, all perfectly legal and above board, that will help you on your way financially. Here are some that I’ve learned over the last ten years.

Credit Cards

As long as you won’t be tempted to spend on them, have two credit cards: this is about those software collapses that banks seem prone to these days. Use different banks for each one, and also both Mastercard and Visa. If one’s out of action, the other might work.

Current Accounts

Just as with my credit cards, I have a secondary current account, with a debit card, so if my main current account goes out, I can manage with the other one, if I need to, at least for a little while.

Online Access

I know there’s a huge debate about this, but I’m a believer in being able to control my money online. Every account I have has at least two levels of access, and I consider that good enough as security, in addition to my own safeguards. The advantages to me are that it saves me time, a large amount of time. It also helps safeguard me against flu season, and as my immune system is a bit crap, that’s really helpful to me. If there were a pandemic, it would help safeguard me against that too, while enabling me to keep my finances on more or less an even keel. Computer/mobile security, however, is critical, and will have its own blogpost(s) on here in the fullness of time.

Loyalty Cards

There’s also a longstanding debate about whether or not to use loyalty cards – Nectar, Tesco Clubcard and the like. The issue that’s at stake is privacy, that companies, or even the government, will know what you’re buying. It sometimes goes further, into fears that there will be a societal collapse, and the government (police, military, local councils, I don’t know) will break into your house and take the majority of what you have.

I think this fear was inherited from American preppers, quite frankly. The “home of liberty” has had some very draconian laws in the past – Prohibition against alcohol from 1920 to 1933, and gold confiscation in 1933-34, to name but two, and those sorts of laws didn’t happen in the UK, as far as I know. While bail-ins (discussed in Part One) are also draconian, they’re different in that they’re not people-intensive. Can you imagine the number of personnel needed to knock at people’s doors and search their houses to take their food and supplies? I simply don’t believe it.

Plus, guess what – unless you use cash, anyone who really wants to know what you buy already knows! The shop, the website, your bank, your credit/debit card company, they all know. Take the money, and use the loyalty card. Without actually being loyal, of course. If you don’t use it, you’re giving the shop even more of your money than you need to.

Purchases

One completely basic use for the money that you’ve freed up by taking the steps recommended above, is to buy preps. There’s not many of us can feed ourselves from food we’ve grown ourselves, so long term foodstocks are a great area to start. If you can take your food stores from one month, for example, to three months, how much more confident would you be if you were to lose your job, or another winter like 1962-63 came along?

Other purchases to make are small, portable things that will make you safer and warmer in your house: hot water bottles, a water filter, a stove, hand tools, insulation, protective gear like rainwear and thermal clothing. Good boots, wellies too.

Investing in your garden is a good use of funds: topsoil, mulch, a greenhouse or even a polytunnel, perennials like fruit bushes or ginger roots.

Investing in yourself is a great idea too: learning skills! First aid, preserving food, keeping animals, mapreading. This might be courses or books or both.

Sometimes bigger one-off investments are right as well. repointing, double glazing, rewiring and replumbing, a woodstove.

Money Prepping Stage Five: Precious Metals

This is just the promise of a future blogpost. Precious metals have only just come into view for me, and I don’t really know much about them. I can see that they’re important to some people, and my sense is that since I think we’re likely to have another round of the financial crisis coming back to bite us in a few years time, precious metals might be relevant. I’ll research much more before I write anything more than that.

Money Prepping Stage Six: The Websites

www.moneysavingexpert.com

www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk

http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/england.htm

Recommendations

Pay off your consumer debt as soon as you can. Pay off more expensive debt first. Not paying some bills can endanger your home, so make sure those are paid most of all.

Consider your outgoings, and cut them down if at all possible.

Minimise your outgoings by looking for cheaper deals on things you need: fuel, insurance, utilities, phones, broadband, anything and everything.

Have a little stash of cash at home, somewhere very safely hidden, in notes and coins. Remember to take this into account in your insurance. Take some of your stash with you if you’re further away from home than walking distance.

Start saving – easy access, then locked away. Consider tax free savings.

Don’t use one financial institution for all your dealings: spread the risk of bail ins and collapses.

Have two credit cards available, unless you don’t trust yourself with that amount of credit.

Have two current accounts available.

Make sure you have online access to your money, if at all possible. Remember computer security.

Make sensible purchases with the money you’ve freed up: food, small portable things like tools, thermal wear and water filters; gardening equipment; skills tuition; or bigger investments like double glazing or a multi-fuel stove.

Use loyalty cards, to lower the cost of your goods.

I’m always up for learning more about handling my finances, if you have anything to add, or any queries, let me know in the Comments below.

Money and Preparedness, Part One

Its not often a topic thats considered on most preparedness blogs, though there are a fair number of honourable exceptions. But on forums, you’ll often see comments about saving up for something, or how to get something cheaper at a website rather than a shop (just like any other form of shopping these days!) and it’s something I’ve had to consider myself, so I thought a blog post would be a good idea.

Already convinced? Go to the bottom of this post for the recommendations, in blue. They’re also at the end of Part Two of this article.

Paying Off Debt

For anyone who wants to look after their finances, the first advice is nearly always to pay off your consumer debt, if you have any. At the time of writing, the very cheapest loan available, according to www.moneysavingexpert.com, is 3.6% a year, from M&S Bank, for loans between £7.5k and £15k. But rates can be much, much higher, for general loans, car loans, improvement loans, credit card debt, anything. And payday loans, if you feel driven to use them (which I heartily advise you not to do), are likely to be literally a thousand times that: 3,600% as an annualised rate is not unknown.

There are many reasons to pay debt off: lower outgoings give you more flexibility and more safety, for instance, if a personal SHTF situation occurs (job loss, severe illness, that sort of thing). You’re not wasting money on interest payments, money which could be accumulating in your savings account or in buying food stocks, or tools, or firewood. And those sorts of purchases will also give you more flexibility and more safety. If you’re debt free, financial institutions have less power over you, and less knowledge of you. I feel the power issue is particularly important.

Some debts are called “priorities”: mortgage or rent, tax and utilities. Failure to pay these puts your home at risk, in all seriousness. It’s not a common thing, but it really does happen, so take extra care about these.

The very best advice, freely available to all, is on the page that I’m linking to here.  Every link on that page is a goldmine, especially for people who are in debt, but for anyone, really. Cutting existing debt costs, cheap new borrowing to replace higher rate borrowing or fund an emergency purchase like replacing a broken down boiler, cashback, debt help, calculator apps for all sorts of things (even including cheaper phone calls, which have their own page anyway), plus lots of links to the forum in the right hand column. The forum is astonishing, in a wonderful sort of way: it would take you weeks to look over the whole of it, but there are two boards in particular to visit first. Debt Free Wannabe, exactly what its name implies, and Old Style Moneysaving are worth their weight in gold to almost anyone. Old Style is about stretching money as far as it will go, and the posters on there can make it stretch a very long way indeed. Cutting discretionary spending, finding cheaper ways of doing things, reusing and recycling, are all in there.

The sky’s the limit for learning how to save money and even make money, whether you’re on the main site or the forum: your tax bill, your holiday, utilities, your mortgage, your pension, motoring, everything. It can save you thousands of pounds over the years.

What Then? Savings

To be prepared, you need to work on getting yourself some savings. What if every bank had their software go crazy, as has happened to individual banks recently? You can’t use your debit card or credit card in those situations, not even at an ATM. Having enough cash to pay for your groceries, or your petrol to keep you mobile for emergencies, is really important.

Having savings in the bank, earning as much interest as you can, is also part of the way forward. Look for the highest possible interest rate, of course, taking into account whether its taxed or tax free (again, moneysavingexpert can help you with all of that). Some of your savings should be in easy access accounts, and some can be locked away, which usually gets a better rate of return. So far, so normal.

Money Prepping Stage One: A Stash

Having a bit of a cash leeway, well hidden safely at home, is a good thing. This should mostly be in notes (what if there was an emergency and you had to spend the night in a B&B, or your car was off the road and you had to pay a taxi fare to see a dying relative?). Some of the cash leeway should also be in coins: either for vending machines, or for small payments you need to make when you don’t want to flash notes around, if you don’t know or don’t trust the area you’re in. Although I’m saying it should be well hidden at home, some of your stash should also be well hidden on your body, if you’re not in walking distance of your home.

Money Prepping Stage Two: Protection from Bail-Ins

Basically, if you’re able to grow your savings and investments, don’t keep them all in one place. Governments are now refusing bail outs (when taxpayer money saved the banks, in the financial crisis of 2008) and the concept of bail-ins has developed: when the money painstakingly accumulated by savers is used to save the bank. This is what happened in Cyprus in 2013: savings were hit. If you had a deposit of more than E100,000, 37.5% was taken by your bank to shore itself up, and another 22.5% was frozen as a possible buffer. The figures I’ve quoted are in The Telegraph.

Any other, future bank crashes will almost certainly be dealt with by bail-ins, and this article from The Huffington Post goes through it well.

It sounds a lot of money, doesn’t it, E100,000. But that can apply to pensions too, nowadays. And if you’ve just sold your house, or a parent has died and you’ve sold their house, well, that counts too.

The only way to protect yourself, if you’re keeping your money as money, seems to be to keep it in separate accounts – as small as possible, I’d say. So if you’re one of the careful people who’ve managed to open an ISA every year for ten years, don’t transfer them all to the same institution, keep them in at least two separate institutions.

And of course, this also protects against a straightforward bank collapse! If there’s no bail in or bail out, a bank thats in deep, deep trouble will collapse. Deposits are supposed to be safe, and until the financial crisis that was definitely true. Now, who knows? The rules and the institutions they govern are changing. I don’t believe any bank to be safe enough to put all my financial wealth with it. Just my opinion.

Money Prepping Stage Three: Keeping Your Savings Safe

This is the last of the big stuff, and it won’t really matter until you’ve got a fair amount of savings, but as you save for your house deposit or any big purchase, or your retirement, it becomes crucial. It’s basically an amplication of the previous point, Money Prepping Stage Two.

There are five points I’m going to list here, shamelessly lifted from Moneysavingexpert.  The reason they’re so important is because of all the mergers and takeovers that have happened since you opened whatever account it is that you have. Sometimes the accounts are all safe, sometimes a bundle of accounts is only as safe as one account.

1. Every UK-REGULATED account gets £85,000 protection

All UK-regulated current or savings accounts and cash ISAs in banks, building societies and credit unions are covered by the Government-backed Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). So if the bank fails, you’d get back up to £85,000 per person, per financial institution. The majority should get it within seven days.

2 Not all UK savings are UK-regulated

Most banks, including foreign-owned ones such as Spain’s Santander, are UK-regulated. Yet a few EU-owned banks opt for a ‘passport scheme’ where you rely on protection primarily from their HOME government.

This includes Triodos etc. Moneysavingexpert has a full list of the relevant banks.

3. The amount’s double in joint accounts

Cash in joint accounts counts as half each, so together you’ve £170,000 protection.

If you’ve an individual account with the same bank, half the joint savings count for your total exposure, and any amount over £85,000 isn’t protected.

4. An institution is not the same as a bank

The protection’s per institution, not account. So four accounts with one bank still only get £85,000. The definition of ‘institution’ depends on a bank’s licence and giant banking conglomerates make it complex. For example, sister banks Halifax and Bank of Scotland’s 5. Spread savings to keep ’em safe.

5. Spread savings to keep ’em safe

For perfect safety, save no more than £83,000 per institution (the extra £2,000 gives room for interest). Spreading can be worth it even if you’ve under £85,000; if your bank went bust, the money could be inaccessible for a spell. Using two accounts mitigates the risk.

I strongly advise you to read the full page I’ve linked to: there’s a lot of really good information there.

Recommendations

Pay off your consumer debt as soon as you can. Pay off more expensive debt first. Not paying some bills can endanger your home, so make sure those are paid most of all.

Consider your outgoings, and cut them down if at all possible.

Minimise your outgoings by looking for cheaper deals on things you need: fuel, insurance, utilities, phones, broadband, anything and everything.

Have a little stash of cash at home, somewhere very safely hidden, in notes and coins. Remember to take this into account in your insurance. Take some of your stash with you if you’re further away from home than walking distance.

Start saving – easy access, then locked away. Consider tax free savings.

Don’t use one financial institution for all your dealings: spread the risk of bail ins and collapses.

Have two credit cards available, unless you don’t trust yourself with that amount of credit.

Have two current accounts available.

Make sure you have online access to your money, if at all possible. Remember computer security.

Make sensible purchases with the money you’ve freed up: food, small portable things like tools, thermal wear and water filters; gardening equipment; skills tuition; or bigger investments like double glazing or a multi-fuel stove.

Use loyalty cards, to lower the cost of your goods.

I’m always up for learning more about handling my finances, if you have anything to add, or any queries, let me know in the Comments below.