Essential Equipment

Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it. 

Hunter S. Thompson



There are times when interruptions to the normal course of days and work are palatable, or even welcome: vacations, weekends, and social events.  Because these happen at our discretion, when things go wrong (as they inevitably do) we can blame only ourselves, and try to face the inconvenience with humor.  But when essential  supplies are lost, those services upon which we rely and for which we pay, we demand immediate restoration and recompense.


Many companies are investing in “Business Interruption Insurance” to pay for the losses in sales and profits due to natural (or manmade) disasters.  It may cover temporary premises, or the cost of relocation.  It can absorb the added costs of personnel and equipment working from home.  But the cost of the insurance is not inexpensive.


How much more useful it would be to invest those funds into equipment that would halt the interruptions, and possibly generate more value?  The following are modules that may provide continuous services for a single day, or a week or more.   They can be ready to go at short notice and deployed on demand.


1.  Manufacturers’ biggest complaint is an unreliable power supply.  Ten minutes of interruption can set back production for several hours or more, or cause the loss of an entire batch, depending on the sensitivity of the materials.  Big producers have generators and batteries at hand, but even small offices suffer from power surges and severe storms.   Small solar generation systems, grid-tied with inverters and battery storage capacity, can shift essential loads in one-hundredths of a second, ensuring that work can continue seamlessly.


2.  Small offices, like ours, depend heavily on telecommunications to create and share information.  Whether we are on the phone, online, or coordinating drawings with consultants and clients, we are highly networked, and the loss of so little as an hour can seem insurmountable.  The internet in our area is still spotty, so we have a station that amplifies the signal and helps us get better access.  If the telephone lines were down, we would also need a communications base station with an antenna to find a satellite signal (and a power source, of course.)  A suitcase-sized unit includes a wireless router so that multiple users can make calls or get online at once.


3.  Life doesn’t last long without potable water supplies.  It is the first item on every disaster kit, “Enough water for you and your family for three days.”  How much is that?  The paltry gallons you pick up at the market will not fill the needs for long, and certainly not for hygiene or clean-up.  Your bathtub, filled to the brim, may be contaminated before you get to it.  A potable water cistern, built into the water supply piping of your office, can provide 1,000 or more gallons of municipal water in case of emergency, and only take up space the size of a closet.  These are food-grade, glass-lined steel tanks, indestructible, that need only to flush out the particulates once every three months.


4.  The last essential category is waste and wastewater.  Most offices won’t have the resources to invest in a redundant tertiary treatment plant.  However, if their mission is critical to the community or to the environment, they may design excess storage chambers into the wastewater system, holding the effluent until it is safe to return it to the municipal collection and treatment system.  Communities hit often enough by service overflows could create temporary and portable barges to filter and treat outfalls (see Local Office’s CSO-to-Go, above.)  For solid waste, portable skips that are stored like a tarpaulin and unfolded when needed, can be handy for trash and recycling.


This equipment is available at different scales, but together the elements fill in gaps missed by public services during emergencies: power, communications, water, and waste services.  If we lived in a city where these services were regularly unreliable, we would already have made these investments, to ensure that water was waiting when we need it for cooking or bathing (Mumbai has only two hours a day of municipal supply in many neighborhoods); to know that internet service was available following a storm (New York City shared routers in the trees outside art galleries with power following Hurricane Sandy); to ensure that toilets flushed with rainwater following Hurricane Katrina didn’t end up in the Gulf of Mexico.  These modules will continue to be useful due to increases in severe weather and interruptions to poorly-maintained municipal systems.  Instead of insurance, perhaps we should invest in self-sufficiency?