A reader last week asked, “What kind of home can withstand fire, hurricanes, floods, heat domes, and polar vortex?” This is a great question. I love the challenge, so here we go.
Flooding and Landslides
Think ahead and ask yourself, “what if” before or even after buying a property. For example, my first home was built to suit my engineering brain. It is wonderful for heating with a wood stove and is very practical; it is not huge and can be expanded with nice amenities for a family. It is built on the side of a bluff in the great driftless area in which we live. It won’t be flooded 100 feet above the massive valley. But what about a landslide in case of heavy rain? There is enough space between the earthen carve-out and any landslide to stop before wiping out the home. Uphill the soil is also well anchored with large trees. I thought of these things before buying and building.
When I bought my house in La Crosse, I was mindful of flooding and even water in the basement. Basement water is often caused by poor grading. A previous owner had put a “beaver” system in to remove water seepage. That is called fixing the symptom. The problem was poor grading. I spent a couple thousand dollars to grade (slope) the landscape away from the house. Problem solved.
Last summer, in an August flash flood, people down the street a couple blocks, maybe 10 feet below my home’s elevation, were flooded. Don’t let the presence of enormous storm drains fool you. They will reverse flow in a flash flood and work to cause greater damage to these lower-lying areas.
Last week in this blog, I expressed concern about the emerging unreliable grid due to rapidly shutting down thermal power plants. Also, the distribution system around my 1930s neighborhood is surprisingly poor. Therefore, I bought a generator to run the boiler, refrigerator, computer, lights, and cell phone. I have to get a new boiler (a story for another day), and I told the salesman – I want it all powered from an electric receptacle. When I lose grid power, I can simply string an extension cord and run the boiler and pumps with the generator. That led to discussions of people in the area installing whole-home generators. Who’s doing this? The people who work with the utility that is shutting down a power plant, he offered.
Briefly, the problem I see with reliability is a lack of accountability. Consider the labyrinth of overlapping entities “ensuring” reliability. At minimum:
- North American Electric Reliability Corporation
- Load balancing authorities, aka, regional transmission organizations
- State public service commissions
Also, states have boundless, physics-breaking, second-law-reversing goals and policies in place. If all these organizations share the accountability, there is no accountability.
I recommend several things to save yourself from material disaster in a polar vortex. Last year, I learned homes in Houston, TX, are built on stilts with plumbing in the crawl space. What happens if you lose power in a repeat of last February’s fiasco? It will happen again. Pipe insulation is good for saving energy, but it only buys a little time for the vortex. You need heat under there – maybe electric heat tracing powered by a portable generator.
In this area of the country (Wisconsin), I would NEVER ditch combustible heating. When temperatures plummet to minus 20 or minus 30, the heat pump isn’t a heat pump, and I’d never pay a king’s ransom to heat with toaster coils.
I use California as an example because it seems they have the most destruction from wildfires.
Don’t buy or build among the fuel as millions have done in recent decades. Much of this is due to poor policies like disallowing lumber companies to burn tree scrap as biomass for power plants because of emission regulations. Well, gee, Mr. Lawmaker, what about the emissions of unchecked, uncontrolled, and unregulated wildfires?
California uses forests as carbon sinks to store carbon under its cap and trade regime – until the carbon is released in a wildfire. Who makes these rules? This is the problem with ill-qualified legislators making simpleton laws. California also caps homeowner insurance rates; thus, folks who want to build among the tinder and fuel do not pay for their insurance risk, encouraging them to build there. That resulted in insurers denying coverage. That resulted in a law that banned insurance denial.
Cities, including Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, ban the construction of single-family homes, while California sharply curtails their construction in urban areas. The federal infrastructure bill has incentives for municipalities to ban single-family-home construction. What do these laws accomplish? Homebuilding in fire zones. This is a created market failure. Obviously, people want single-family homes, a little bit of grass, a couple of trees, and a garden, and they will have it one way or another.
People are defiant. “In the hills of San Diego County, 150 miles to the south, builders are planning a project featuring more than 1,800 homes, 20,000 square feet of commercial space, and a hotel on land scorched during one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in California’s history, in 2003.”
The pattern is to set policy for other agendas and when things go wrong, blame climate change. It’s always been hot and tinder-dry in California summers. These manmade scenarios and disasters that follow would occur without climate change.
C’mon man! This is insane. There is manmade climate change, and there is manmade fire, destruction, and loss of life due to manmade choices.
Many times, bad things repeatedly happen when people don’t take responsibility. You must first think about the risks and consequences for your decisions and actions and then move on to holding law and policymakers accountable. The easy thing is typically the wrong thing.
Also, understand there are pluses and minuses to everything. People like sunny, dry weather. People like living on the water, on mountains, in forests. The downside is high wildfire, flooding, and landslides risk.
In the end, life is a risk, and risk cannot be fully eliminated.
Coming Up Next
Next week, we examine hurricanes and tornadoes.
 This is not my day job, and I’m not qualified for expert advice.