Utilize Awnings and Canopies to Beat the Summer Heat, Now And Post-SHTF

awningThis summer I’ve become obsessed with awnings and canopies. Specifically, I’ve become obsessed with anything I can find and use to shade myself from the relentless summer heat. I do so not only because I can but also because I realize that the simple act of shading is going to be about the easiest action that I’m able to take when it comes to keeping comfortable post-SHTF.

Regrettably, we have become far too reliant on power-hungry HVAC systems to keep us happy and it will be a rude awakening when the time comes that we can no longer rely on them to keep us cool. In fact, I once looked into the cost of a solar or wind-powered system that would be big enough to power a typical HVAC unit and furnace and, believe it or not, I would have been better off moving and building an underground house!

It wasn’t that long ago when window shades, awnings, and covered porches were the norm because they understood that keeping the sun out of the house and off the person was the most efficient way to keep cool… and likely because they didn’t have power-hungry HVAC systems.

While you could certainly purchase pre-made window awnings, patio awnings, and stand-alone canopies, they can get very expensive very fast! I prefer the makeshift approach…

Thus far this summer I’ve experimented with using all sorts of supplies to shade myself, our windows, a part of the deck, and even parts of the garden, including tarps and even bed linens. I’ve tried other things that didn’t work so well, such as plastic sheeting that was too difficult to secure because it simply tore apart.

You really need something larger to work with and preferably something that is meant to be secured such as a tarp with eyelets; I’m a huge fan of tarps and suggest you have several or more on-hand in a variety of sizes. As I mentioned, I did used some old bed sheets but had a similar problem to using plastic sheeting in that once you put a hole in it they have a tendency to rip or tear. I wound up solving this problem by using two small pieces of PVC fittings that essentially created a makeshift eyelet while trapping the frayed edges of the bedsheets I used. I would assume you could do the same with plastic sheeting but I’ve yet to try it again. Regardless, tarps are the way to go here, if you ask me.

You could get elaborate and erect a structure to attach such makeshift shading to such as recreating a stand-alone canopy if you like. In addition, you could create your own window shades relatively easily by attaching a tarp with few screws to the side of your house, then use two supports (such as 2×4’s) to extend the tarp out beyond the window a few feet, and finally tie it all down like you would a tent to the ground. I’ve also considered multiple layers of shading over windows though haven’t tried it. I’m not entirely sure why I think multiple layers would work better but it may be worth further investigation.

I would assume most anything can be used as an awning if you like, from sewn-together clothing (not sure why you would want to do this) to an pool cover or even old carpeting or linoleum, for that matter. The point is to experiment whenever and wherever you can. You could wind up with a giant mess or an actual success. In fact, the knowledge you gain could prove invaluable in the future and mean the difference between relative comfort or not.

3 Tarp Shelter Designs to Know and Trust

Seeing as though we’re still knee-deep in summer, I figured it would be fun to show you what I consider three essential tarp shelters to know (or at least have an idea of) how to make. Now, I’m no boy scout and I certainly don’t spend weeks in the woods like some people I know but I do occasionally find need to make such shelters and considering that I’m choosing to rely on the idea as our primary bug out bag shelter (as opposed to an actual tent) then it behooves me to know what I’m doing. 🙂

Start with a good quality heavy-duty tarp (or a rain fly tarp); I like the 10×12 size but your needs may vary. Of course, a tarp isn’t the only supply you’ll need to make these shelters. About the only other supply you WILL need is plenty of cordage, usually 550 mil spec paracord–I would say about a hundred feet–and depending on you situation you might want either a color such as forest green to stay more hidden or bright yellow so you don’t trip over it.

You could also include some good tent stakes (not the flimsy stuff you can buy at Wally world) but usually there are plenty of things around that you can tie to or tie down with so they’re not an absolute necessity… but they do make things easier. And, of course, it’s wise to know how to tie a few basic knots so maybe a good knot book is in order too.

In no particular order of importance, here’s my three to know:

1. The A-Frame Shelter

This shelter is typically meant for one person or for snuggling if you’re so inclined. 🙂 Obviously, this shelter can keep the rain off but is also meant to shelter you from winds on one side while allowing heat from a fire on the other. This particular design provides a bit of protection from the ground as well:


And here’s a variation of the a-frame… for those times where you just cannot stand the wind (never tried it but it looks cool!). Note that it relies on a inner pole (you could use a sturdy branch, I guess) to keep the shelter up rather than a central line:


2. The Lean-To

Normally, this is done with branches and “leans” up against a tree or something solid but can also be done relatively easily and fast with a tarp as well. Obviously this is more about just keeping the rain off your head and allowing a healthy campfire rather than dealing with wind, but here’s how to do it with a tarp and some cordage:


And here’s a slight variation of the lean-to if you want a bit more room to stand up underneath:


3. The Canopy

If you need to maximize the space underneath and only need cover from the rain then consider a makeshift canopy such as this. Of all the designs this one is going to take the most cordage to support the shelter. I have seen designs, however, that utilize a strong tree branch as the middle support:


A Few Final Thoughts

First, these photos make it look easy–don’t they always?–but these shelters are never really THAT easy to make. 😉 This is particularly true with a simple tarp because they don’t tend to stretch nearly as easily as the rain fly tarps (here’s an example) that are shown in most of the photos above. Personally, I’m thinking about switching over to a rain fly tarp setup rather than a simple heavy-duty tarp but have yet to do so mostly because of cost.

Second, water collection should be on your mind here as well. Both the lean-to and canopy designs lend themselves to being modified for rainwater collection quite easily… just tie down a section to make a very defined crease and water will quickly funnel that direction.

While I know there are plenty of other makeshift shelters you can make from tarps, these are the most useful and memorable to me. Just remember to pack plenty of cordage and know a few simple knots and you’ll be set.

My Failed Passive Solar Heater Experiment (And What I Learned From It)

passive-solar-0Like most bloggers, I want to be able to show you cool things, tell you everything is wonderful, and especially share my successes. I was optimistically expected to be able to do just that today but it’s not the case. You see, it all went wrong when I decided to do my own thing and not follow what someone had proven already worked. Some people have the knack of improvisation, I do not.

The problem was that I neither wanted to spend the money nor the time to make something as permanent as these videos showed; in fact, while I’ve seen some very cool YouTube videos about passive solar heaters, some of these guys really put serious effort into their designs! I just wanted to prove it worked… now I’ve got myself wondering.

Anyway, here’s the build I came up with (I’ll explain some lessons learned later and even link to one of the videos I liked at the very end):

Steps (follows the pictures in order):

  1. Find a nice large box that was heading for the recycle bin. In the future, find a much smaller box because this needed entirely too many cans (it’s about 3′ x 3′).
  2. Fill the box full of soda cans (96 total) which doesn’t sound like much but, trust me, it was a lot of work getting that many cans together!
  3. Mark the top and bottom of the box before removing the cans and the guess (better yet, measure) where to cut holes for air to enter and exit.
  4. This is what one side (I think it’s the top) looks like when the holes are cut out. Be sure to cut them a little less than the diameter of the can lips (maybe an inch wide).
  5. Put holes in the bottom of all cans. I started off using a large screwdriver but I wanted to the hole a bit larger so I opted for a dandelion digger instead. A few taps with a hammer and then round it out a bit. BE CAREFUL: you’ll now have exposed metal which can cut you VERY easily.
  6. This is what a typical hole looks like. Not pretty but I figured it would be functional.
  7. The holes in the soda cans didn’t exactly line up with the holes in the cardboard box but I figured I wasn’t sending an astronaut into space so no big deal.
  8. Paint the cans black. What you don’t see is my *brilliant* idea to simply caulk the tops and bottoms of the cans together while they were laying in the box. It’s works but wasn’t the best use of caulking.
  9. I decided that it needed to be held together a bit better, especially where the holes in the cans met the box so I used strategic placement of packaging tape to close the gaps (which sort of worked).
  10. Cover with clear plastic and tape down. Sadly, the 3.5 mil thick plastic I used was not nearly as clear as I had remembered so it wasn’t letting much sunlight through. (Note: this step was not shown in the gallery but can be seen completed in the thumbnail picture at the start of the post.)

I was going to take some temperature readings but could neither find an appropriate thermometer for the task nor the desire because the amount of heat was minimal at best and, even worse, the amount of airflow was lackluster at best. So, I didn’t even bother.

Lessons Learned (generally follows above):

  1. I should have started like everyone else with a wood frame for sturdiness. Cardboard can get wet, is flimsy, and didn’t allow for precise alignment.
  2. Since I just wanted to prove the concept, I could have used half the number of cans and still got a good idea of what to do.
  3. I should have taken my time to properly mark and cut the holes so that I could later seal the cans directly to the frame for less airflow lost.
  4. I really need a few good metal working tools. The video below shows how the guy put three nice holes in the bottom of each can which is a lot cleaner and probably allows for quite a bit more airflow. He also cut off the tops of each can, which I did not; I really figured this would be too much removed but I guess not.
  5. I should have also choose to completely seal the tops and bottoms of cans together (as well as the cans to the frame) so that no air would be lost during heating. This was a big mistake.
  6. Cover the heater with something more durable and definitely 100% clear! Another huge mistake here. I really don’t think the “clear” plastic I used helped my cause whatsoever.


If you’re going to bother to take the time, put forth the effort, and spend the money (yes I did spend a few dollars)… then DO IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT! Or, better yet, build it like I intended to keep and use it. 🙂

Don’t make my mistakes. Follow what somebody has already proven works…

YouTube Video that was useful (there are plenty of others):

[youtube QLNViUsRCVU]

Using IBC Totes as Thermal Heat Storage

I recently wondered about how to store heat, yes, heat. Granted, typical wall insulation is fairly good at slowing down the transfer of heat (usually from your home to the outside air) but I wanted something more “passively active” if that makes any sense. Apparently, it’s a well-known concpet among interested folks that you can store heat gain in water with the express purpose of allowing that retained heat to be released when the surrounding air is colder than the water in the tank. This idea is often utilized in greenhouses to help regulate temperature when the air temperature drops drastically at night. As I had no clue how to do this, I did some research.

Though I have no plans to try it–in large part because it would be really weird to put a huge IBC tote or two in the basement and I would probably end up divorced–I wondered how effective one or two of the 275 gallon IBC totes would be at regulating the temperature of our basement. Of course, I actually have to BUY a tote to even attempt it! Anyway, I’m not about to do the math either but let’s say the basement is roughly 700 square feet or so of living space. A typical IBC tote is about a four foot cube and would fit quite nice in the middle of the basement, if you ask me.

Now, a large part of how this would work is because of relative temperatures, that is, how cold is the outside-the-house air, how warm is the basement air, how warm can the tote water get when being actively heated (by a fireplace, for example), how fast does heat transfer from the house to the outside air, and probably a few other factors I didn’t even consider. The point is that there are a whole bunch of factors at work and if I had paid more attention in Engineering school I could probably do the math but, these days, that sounds like entirely too much effort and planning. 😉

Is Water The Best Storage Medium?

The first thing I had wondered about was whether water is the best medium to use, maybe rocks or bricks would be better? Turns out water is the best option for DIY home use. Someone else posed a similar question here and following are a few excerpts of answers:

“…If you look up the “specific heat” value for those materials (a quick Internet search will find it), you will see that water has a remarkably high specific heat, much higher than nearly anything. This means it can store more heat for a given volume and would be your best choice. Another factor to consider is that convection currents in water allow heat to move around more quickly than in a solid, which is another vote for water…”

“…To compare rock and water for heat storage, you need to know the heat capacity and the density of the two materials. Comparing water to stone, it takes a little over 4kJ of energy to raise 1kg of water by 1deg C. In contrast, granite takes a little less than 1 kJ to raise 1 kg by 1 deg c. Granite is about 3 times more dense than water, so for a given volume, it still stores less than 75% of the energy of water…”

“…But there is something else to consider…. gravel weighs more than the same volume of water. A container when filled with gravel will weigh about 2.5 times more than if the same container were filled with water. So when a container that holds 1 kg of water were allowed to cool 1°C, it will release about 4000 Joules of heat (as explained above). But if you fill the same container with gravel it will weigh about 2.5 kg, so it will store (800J/kg x 2.5kg =) 2000 Joules of heat energy. This is still only about half the heat energy that the same volume of water will store…”

And if you want more numbers to verify that water is the best medium for most of us, here’s the specific heat capacity of water (and other substances) as well as the specific heat capacity of common building materials. So, the short answer is it’s water or bust for me!

How to Heat the Water?

Originally, my thought was to just set the totes in the middle of the basement and let the heat from the fireplace radiate into the water and gradually heat it that way. Apparently, there are products designed to accept passive heat, but not from the fireplace… from sunlight, such as these Sun-Lite Thermal Storage Tubes:


The problem is that they need access to sunlight to make them useful so that constraint makes their placement a concern (that is, south-facing windows only). But, seeing as though most homes are more window glass than not, you could probably make it work if you really wanted to.

Is There a Better Way?

I wanted a more active solution and happened upon two sites that explained the concept of using solar gain for heat, including to heat water. As it turns out, I would have been better off using 10 or more 55-gallon drums as heat collectors rather than one or two large IBC totes. This article on Multi Tank Heat Storage provides quite a bit of information regarding what I wanted to do and even considers how to use the system for hot, pressurized water too. It’s a long read so plan ahead.

I also found this article on DIY Solar Heat Storage Systems t0 be an interesting read. While less about thermal heat storage (the end of the article does discuss it some) there are some interesting ideas on building design and even utilizing an attached greenhouse for passive heat.

Sadly, this wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Then I remembered this video by Engineer775:

[youtube 5IRLVCJ1olA]

Yeah, that’s more like it! Granted, the purpose was to make hot water for bathing and the like, but why not utilize the idea for heating water that can be used as a thermal heat storage? I’d bet that over the course of the day you could get the temperature of the water inside a typical IBC tote quite hot with constant heating from a fireplace, but I’m really just speculating here.

And just to show this concept isn’t new, here’s an article from 1978 Mother Earth News titled Make Your Fireplace Work For You that’s more along the lines of what I was thinking about.

Is Water the ONLY Thermal Mass to Rely On?

The short answer is that to be most effective your entire home should utilize the thermal mass concept (in the form of other substances like concrete, brick, tile, earth, etc) to store, release, and regulate temperature changes not only at night but throughout the day. In fact, large thermal masses can be quite effective at helping to cool the surrounding area by allowing heat transfer from the air to the thermal mass (and thus cool) as well as for heat, which is what I wanted in the first place.

What Did I Learn?

I learned that I could do what I wanted–to use IBC totes to store heat–but there are far more efficient options such as using many smaller barrels (e.g., 55 gallon drums) instead and that I can either passively heat the water using sunlight if necessary as well as to actively heat the water using a heat source such as a fireplace with a little creativity mixed in.

What do you think? Useful, plausible, cost-effective? Am I missing something completely and, more importantly, has anyone tried it? I would love to hear about success stores.