The Department of Redundancy, Redundancy Department

Sharon August 6th, 2009

Today I’m starting another Adapting-In-Place Class, beginning with the basics of evaluating whether you have a future where you are, what your other choices are, and then triaging your situation, but I’ve already written a good bit about those things, so I want to a basic and essential element of triage – establishing redundant systems.

Why redundant systems?  Well, for the simple reason that, as Yeats put, things fall apart.  We all know this – in fact, we all rely regularly on redundant systems.  For example, when your commuter vehicle breaks, you take the bus, carpool with a neighbor, borrow from your spouse or a friend or rent a car.  Implicit in your commitment to your job is the reality that your car will break, and that you will find yourself in need of a redundant system to back you up.  If you have children, you are are intimately familiar with the filling out of forms that list several “emergency contacts” – that is, people who can be trusted to tend your kids if you are not there.  This is a form of redundancy – thus, if your son takes sick at school, you have a neighbor or relative who can respond, and if not them, usually another person still who can be tried.  The assumption is that with parents plus multiple redundant backups, someone will always be there for your kids.

But most of us don’t have good redundant systems for our home and our lives, if the basic assumptions of our existence, which include full access to grid power and other utilities; an immediate government response to a crisis and the availability of replacement parts, utilities and tools, as well as people to install them and the money to pay for it are all available.  That is, the redundancy in our system all presumes a fully functional economy, energy system and a fairly stable society.  In the absence of each of these things, most of us are tremendously vulnerable.

One of the first and most basic presumptions we all need to make is this – failure is normal.  This is not a prediction – I am not claiming that any particular scenario is likely.  But the reality is that nearly everything breaks, falls apart or is vulnerable in some way to not-terrifically-unlikely disasters.  Your plans for the future should work from the assumption that things will unfold messily, and with copious system failures.  I’ve written more about this here:  I wrote about our strange reluctance to seriously consider the possibility of failure on both a personal and world scale,

“…this leads to a painful  reality – despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope.  They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

 But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal.  Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal.  We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected.  Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) - in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal – our society as a whole has very few contingency plans – much less strategies for adapting to failure.  We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative.  We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture – from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects – we have no contingency plans.  Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure.  Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?”  I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure – and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen.  But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked – failure is far more routine and normal than we expect.  Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.”

And if we do have backup systems, often those systems are themselves vulnerable to failure, and we may or may not have further redundancies in the system.  Now some systems don’t need much redundancy – for example, if you mostly keep ice cream in your freezer, even if you are very fond of ice cream, you don’t actually need a backup plan or system to compensate for the failure of your freezer – one doesn’t actually need Ben and Jerry’s to live, even if it is Cherry Garcia ;-) , so no redundant system is required.  But let’s say that your freezer holds most of your stored food, including a lot of high value meats and produce that you rely on, and that would cost you more than 1,000 to replace.  Well, you think, I’ll get a generator.  Maybe you even install it, and store some gas for it.  But the problem is that a generator is a short term solution – it is great for a few days of power outage, and will keep that food cold.  But what if, as happened last year in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Texas and several other states, the power is out for more than a few days?  What happens when the gas for the generator runs out, and the gas stations have no power to pump more?  Your redundancy assumes that things will get back to normal quickly – but what if that’s not the case?

The reality is that if your redundancies depend on fossil fuels, on just in time delivery of parts you don’t keep on hand, on government response being there on the ground quickly, on disasters being so localized that nearby other places can send help, rather than widespread, on somehow, things working out, your redundancies aren’t adequate – period.

Now this could end up an infinite reduction game – you could make the case that the need for redundancy never stops, and on some level, you’d be right. Let’s say my backup plan for that freezer is different – it involves me taking my pressure canner and canning up the meat in the freezer on my wood cookstove.  Now someone could legitimately say “well, but what if your stove breaks, or the canner does.  Doesn’t that mean you need an infinite number of canners, a backup woodstove and an infinite number of monkeys to type while you do the preserving?

There’s some truth in this – all things fail, all good things come to an end.  On the other hand, the wood cookstove I own comes from a brand where 100 year old models are routinely used.  Mine is less than 5 years old.  There are a couple of parts that might break, and that’s why I keep a stove gasketing kit around, and have my own chimney brushes.  And it is possible that some unusual situation might occur.  Which is one of the reasons I’m glad I know how to make a rocket stove – and have a big old can big enough to put a canning kettle on, although I haven’t made it yet.  I also make sure that there’s nothing in my freezer I can’t afford to lose – yes, I like what I have there, but I don’t allow myself to rely on it as my primary source of food.  If worst came to worst, we’d invite all the neighbors for a feast and go forward from there – I don’t really need more than that plan in my head, because I know I can lose the stuff there.

So a set of redundant systems depends on several things.  First, a backup that is well made and simple – or if cheap and complex, a bunch of them.  Given that I don’t like the idea of buying a lot of cheap stuff, I’d prefer the former, but sometimes that may not be viable.  Second, if the system is essential, you need the tools and equipment and ability to take care of it and repair it.  That means looking critically over your backup systems and asking what parts might break, and how to fix them if they do.  I have a box in my closet that contains only repair kits for things – often, when making a major purchase, the item comes with an inexpensive repair kit, that contains replacement pieces of things that are most likely to show wear – rust remover and stove gaskets for a cookstove, bearing oil and replacement bearings for my spinning wheel, a sewing machine belt and replacement needles for a treadle machine, etc…  Now occasionally these are a scam, providing cheap parts rather than useful ones, but with well made equipment, often they aren’t.  Making sure you also know how to use them – that you’ve downloaded instructions, say for, say mending harness or replacing parts on your water pumping wind turbine. Ideally, try it before you have to do it in the rain, at night, by flashlight, since that’s how it always works.

The other thing that’s needed is a mental plan to deal with failure – ok, what if my well pump breaks just when I need it?  Well, I know I can filter water from the creek, and from my rainbarrels.  Let’s just make sure I have enough filters or water purifying tablets.  Also, how much do I mind the idea of my final, mental back up plan?  I think I’d find hauling all our water from our creek really annoying.  If that’s the case, and I can afford it, I should probably make sure that we have a backup well pump system.

If you do want a complex, and fossil fuel based backup – ie, you want solar panels to keep your freezer running or a generator or whatever, make sure you a. know how to fix it and b. keep tools and parts on hand.   And also make sure you have a non-fossilized backup, just in case.

Redundancies can and should include sharing with others, relying on others for help, etc… We don’t always need a tool, so much as we need people.  But if your plans include these, ask yourself – am I lending a helping hand now?  Do I have relationships to rely on for this?  If not, time to make them happen.

How much redundancy do you need?  At a minimum, I think you should be as unreliant on high energy, high complexity systems as possible.  For some people, comfortable living with very little, in a simple way, this will mean almost no complexities.  For those tied by major illness to high energy medical systems, or caught in situations where they cannot live without these, it may still be possible to minimize resource use elsewhere, while building up as much of a safety net as possible elsewhere.  Not every person will be able to do every thing – but the more you can build redundant systems into your plan, the happier and more comfortable your lives will be. 


21 Responses to “The Department of Redundancy, Redundancy Department”

  1. Peter Shieldon 06 Aug 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Being devils advocate a second.

    Don’t we need redundancy, ie Plan B,s Cs and Ds, because the very nature of the consumerist society lacks a local depth of resilience.

    By that I mean that our daily lives are spread quite thin.

    Extreme example: If you have to drive your two kids to school 15 kilometres in one direction, the doctors is 5 kilometres in another direction, your work 10 in another and the shops 4 in the last compass point the day that one kid gets sick, the neighbours are coming round and you don’t have anything in the fridge, you have an important presentation for work, and the well kid has an important exam is, well obviously the day the car blows up. Every backup plan in the world would have to be on amphetamines to sort that one out.

    Whereas what if solution was popping well kid on the back of a kiddies snake, a guided walking group to a local school, collecting the organic box from the delivery box at the end of the street to suppliement the garden produce, putting work poresntation off to tomorrow, and working from home while waiting in with the sick kid until the district nurse can drop by.

    That is about building local resilence without having the complexity of redundant systems.

    Real life example, I have an off grid PV system, from time to time I have problems, but instead of having a generator, I share one with five other local housegolds in the same position. The freezer has a 62 hour latency life, if I or one of my five neighbours can’t find a sloution to fix my system then the contents get redistributed. The same works for our chainsaws and other complex,and expensive stuff.

    That way we are all minimising the amount of stuff we have, while increasing the interconnection and sharing of knowledge on how systems work. I see that as building our resilience and reducing redunancy as much as possible. (It also improves ones language skills as two of my neigbours are French, one Catalan, one German, and one Dutch speaking Belgian.

    Just a thought


  2. Sharonon 06 Aug 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Pete, I don’t think we disagree – but not everyone has the same situations, and the whole reality of AIP is that people can’t always move (or may have good reasons not to) – so they have to either make the resiliency (which is also redundancy) or have redundant systems. The reality is, for example, that I’m the one with a manual pump on my well in the community. If the water goes, my neighbors are coming here to pump, which is fine. But if I don’t have repair parts for the pump under heavy use, we’re all going dry. And let’s be honest, everyone having their own PV is probably not viable either.


  3. DavidMon 06 Aug 2009 at 3:59 pm

    For several years now I’ve been accumulating spare parts for appliances and tools that will last a long time but are worthless without a gasket, belt, cheap but critical plastic part, etc. When I buy something new, I often buy and store the spart parts for it. And when something breaks, I figure that whatever part broke is a weak link and buy several of those to have on hand.

    It’s so nice to know I’m not the only boy scout out here!

    One of my pet peeves is that so many things are made these days that use a tremendous amount of resources to manufacture, but are designed to break fairly quickly with the expectation that people will want to go get a shiny new one. I am constantly looking for things that are built to last.

    And we all have our vices……mine is a really good cup of coffee. I have extra parts for our electric grinder, two backup manual grinders, and two backup stovetop nonelectric pots. So, of course, when TEOTWAWKI arrives I’ll be unable to get beans. But I’ll be sitting on a big supply…..and have lots of other stuff to barter for some ;o)

  4. kateon 06 Aug 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    I followed all your post except for your use of the word redundancy. Doesn’t that mean ‘no longer needed’? As in superfluous. So a redundant system would be one that is no longer needed. Am I missing something?

  5. Apple Jack Creekon 06 Aug 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Kate, redundant can also mean “secondary” … similar to “backup”.

    The usage you are familiar with would be with jobs … the position was made redundant. The position is no longer needed because it’s duplicating work being done by someone else: we only need one person putting widgets in boxes, so if two people are putting widgets in boxes, one is redundant and can be let go. The underlying – and unspoken – assumption is that having more than one person who can do the task is wasteful.

    In this context, duplication (redundancy) is seen as a feature, not a problem. :) If we have two systems that can provide heat to the house, then when one fails, we have a second one ready to step in!

  6. kateon 06 Aug 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks :-) That does make sense. Do you think that is a US usage? (I’m in New Zealand). Or maybe an academic or industry usage?

    I looked up a couple of dictionaries and none gave definitions of secondary. But now I look at a US one it does.

  7. Suzon 06 Aug 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Built-in redundancy is a widespread term here is Australia too. It is well known on older farms where town water and electricity supplies and flushing toilets are a relatively new thing (my 60 year old mum remembers living without electricity and sewerage, for example). Our family farm has several built-in redundancies for water pumping, electricity and septic – these things fail for short a short time with stunning regularity. My uncle commented that everything has a backup for the backup!
    I recommend talking with older people who may remember the way things used to be done without the things we think are now requirements for daily life. So much information sitting around untapped!
    For us, in suburbia, we are in the process of reducing our daily needs of those things which are supplied by outside sources – food, electricity, water, etc. Savings here can help fund items for back-up: a solar oven, water tanks, more and more food gardens and so on.
    The next step is to build some community, to make our whole suburb less reliant by sharing knowledge, by helping each other. It’s a great ideal – even if TEOTWAWKI never comes, we will live in a better place because of the preparations. Thanks again Sharon!

  8. ChrisDon 06 Aug 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    Your points are so well taken. When the ice storm hit us last year, we only lost power for 3 days and were able to visit the next town over to find open restaurants and gasoline. But in a followup town meeting, one person asked what would have happened if all of Massachusetts was out of power, instead of just the 20 or so towns in our area. It led to an interesting discussion.

    We had nothing like Airdale’s weeks without power in Kentucky, but it was fascinating to watch how neighbors on our street dealt with the outage. There are about 35 children on our relatively rural street. Apparently there are only three of us who have working woodstoves and a supply of wood. Several newer houses down the road have fireplaces, but being of newer construction, these are built more like cooking fireplaces and are too deep to cast any heat out into the room. One of my son’s friends described how his parents tried to build a proper fire but couldn’t get the room warmer than about 40F. So they huddled in the cold. Most neighbors stayed with relatives or friends, or went to a local motel. Some ran to HD and bought generators. Our immediate neighbor ran his new 4KW generator day and night to keep his furnace running. It was pretty loud.

    Our local fire department couldn’t reach anyone because all of the home phones (even the ones with copper wiring) went dead a few hours after batteries died in the copper-to-fiber repeaters strewn around town. We had working cell phones, but the town didn’t know the numbers. We didn’t know there was emergency shelter or water until after the power came back. But we were ok. We cooked meals on the woodstove, kept the freezer shut, and camped out next to the woodstove for two nights. It wasn’t exactly a hardship, but more like a bonding experience.

    Resilience is a term our consumer society is discouraged from using. Today I soldered a new battery into my 8-year old electric razor. The original battery is no longer made (It cost $19.95 when it was available), but a $3.50 NiMH cell from a local electronics store (just think, we have one!) plus some solder and a few bits of wire worked just fine, saving me from having to spend $99 or more on a replacement razor. I have another spare for next time. Most people wouldn’t know how to replace it, much less figure out how to disassemble the thing! Basic electronics isn’t taught any more in our high school, and many electrical engineers I know, their jobs outsourced to other countries, have turned to selling antiques or working in fast food. It isn’t a pretty sight. Just 25 years ago I graduated from a top engineering institute near your part of the country; I am still gainfully employed, thankfully, but it isn’t the hot career it used to be.

    Just like relearning how to farm, we need to keep hold of other lore. The town tinker, or blacksmith, had indispensible skills. I guess the same is true for someone who knows machinery or electronics.

    I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your blogs and posts on The Oil Drum and hope you keep it up. Good going and thanks again!


  9. Apple Jack Creekon 06 Aug 2009 at 11:56 pm

    We were grateful for our redundant power system just last weekend – a big storm blew through and lightining blasted out our power pole.

    We have enough solar juice to keep some lights on, the well pump going, and make judicious use of electronic gadgetry .. and boy oh boy was it nice to have, since power was out for a day and a half. It could easily have been much longer.

    As Suz says, things go offline for short periods with stunning regularity. :) Winter storms knock out transformers, summer storms knock down power poles, deep freezes lock up the pipes coming from well to house … it is always good to have backups and backups for the backups! I think those of us who live in the country are more accustomed to having the backups in place – since ’stunningly regular outages’ make it obvious that you’ll need something to get by for a day or two until repairs are made, the weather clears, or whatever.

    The project, of course, is to expand those backup plans to be enough to keep you going for more than a few days when Things Change – or as we say in our house, “When Friday comes” (as in “well, you KNOW the world’s coming to a crashing halt, like, next Friday, eh?”)

  10. Lydiaon 07 Aug 2009 at 8:44 am

    Inherent in the whole concept of redundancy is the fact that during most of our lifetimes, there is no need for it. It something breaks, we throw it away and there is always another one. Planing is unnecessary because everything is cheap and readily available and easy to get another one.

    Even money was redundant-just refi another house and buy another one and flip that one. even people were throw aways. Don’t like your spouse-just divorce and get another one. Today people are not doing that either-because they cannot afford to get a divorce.

    With things changing, maybe fixing what one has and doing without will be the new normal. I know that I can no longer afford to just go to the store and “get another one” like I used to do when I had a good job.

    The redundant is going to be more garden, more friends and more support systems of others. The days of redundant plastic pumpkins are coming to an end very quickly. Maybe I will even keep my current boyfriend!! Ha!! Ha!!:o)

  11. Andrewon 07 Aug 2009 at 9:33 am

    I sometimes think more in terms of resiliency versus redundancy – although the real-world application is nearly the same (i.e. power outage at night with a storm outside).

    What I’ve been doing is a “method of threes”. I first pick my primary solution, then a secondary one that “cobbles” the primary one back to some degree of usefulness, and then a tertiary one which is a complete alternative to the primary. During this design exercise, you can discover the following:

    - why your primary makes sense for you
    - skills and spares along the lines of the primary (i.e. what the secondary solution teaches you)
    - trade-offs that you are willing to make for the tertiary solution
    - overall, you get an expertise built up that you can help others with

    I know it sounds a little academic, but when you apply it to food, shelter, transport, power, safety, healthcare, education, and recreation lifeways you can begin to see how your combination of choices begins to “interlock”. For me, the discovery of the “interlocks” continues to be a big insight, and offers up a secondary benefit. Namely, the psychological readiness to deal with life’s problems.

  12. Stevenon 07 Aug 2009 at 9:51 am

    Hi Sharon,

    Have you thought about making the Adapting-In-Place Class into a book or or does one of your existing books cover the subject and I need to read it? I read Depletion and Abundance and loved it, I haven’t gotten around to reading A Nation of Farmers yet.



  13. ChrisDon 07 Aug 2009 at 9:51 am

    Good point Andrew. I was thinking of physical systems and you bring up skills. Industry does its best to make specialists out of everyone, maybe as a means of control. But it creates all these single points of failure. Generalists are undervalued, except as management, but you only need so much management. In technology it might have to do with complexity being more than one person can handle.

    Same point can be made for just-in-time manufacturing. Inventory makes one more resilient at cost of more working capital. Where CFOs run the company, does resiliency go out the window?

    I keep going back to my friend Pete who repairs original Fender guitar amplifiers, the kind with vacuum tubes. Remember RCA tubes and the tube tester in every electronics store? Well, the best tubes are now made in Russia. They still use them in spacecraft! Why? They are elegantly simple to manufacture – no semiconductors – and hard as nails in use, unaffected by cosmic radiation, all that jazz. I think there’s a lesson there, something we need to think about in the future.

  14. Greenpaon 07 Aug 2009 at 10:24 am

    Good stuff, Sharon. A point rarely covered, and highly important.

    It’s worth noticing that control systems in remote spacecraft, like the Mars missions and Venus probes- are always AT LEAST triply redundant. Purely as insurance for actual survival of the mission.

    Granted; the spacecraft are a tad more isolated than anyone down here. Still.

  15. Greenpaon 07 Aug 2009 at 11:03 am

    Oh, and; from my own actual bailiwick; one of the reasons Genetic Engineering has been mostly a bust-

    It turns out that almost all enzyme systems in any organism have MULTIPLE redundant backups.

    Wipe out one enzyme- and another will kick in to do the same job; in a different way. And another. And often another; and another.

    There’s a reason.

  16. gaiasdaughteron 08 Aug 2009 at 8:01 am

    Okay, so I am woefully, sorrowfully, tragically unprepared! I don’t have the freezer to fail or the canner to resort to or the wood cookstove to mysteriously malfunction compelling me to make a rocket stove I don’t know how to make. Big sigh!!

    Sharon, I would *love* to see a discussion of various and sundry back-ups — by brand name, model number, and buying options. Maybe we could discuss one per month. “What is your favorite freezer and why?” “What wood burning cookstove do you own and are you satisfied?” “Do you have an antique treadle sewing machine or a Janome and what are your experiences?” kind of thing.

  17. What Ails You?on 08 Aug 2009 at 5:31 pm

    [...] p.54 You know, still keep your s*** together. Sharon Astyk puts some flesh on the concept. The Department of Redundancy, Redundancy DepartmentAnd if we do have backup systems, often those systems are themselves vulnerable to failure, and we [...]

  18. tataon 08 Aug 2009 at 9:06 pm

    A commenter recently mentioned for her S.O. “rice = food.” This implies that rice is also something else. Where can I learn what this means?

  19. Shambaon 09 Aug 2009 at 11:12 am

    For Steven: I believe Sharon is working on a book such as the one you describe.
    She could tell you what stage the book is in at the moment.

    for gaiasdaughter: look at the categories list on the right side of the blog, it might help you with some ideas.

    Peace to All, shamba

  20. Sharonon 10 Aug 2009 at 8:11 am

    Steven, indeed, I’m at work on such a book right now – but in the early stages. It should be out next winter (December ‘10). GD, I’ve done some of this, but I admit, it isn’t my favorite project – because best is kind of hard to sort out, and often, I’ve only test-driven the ones I have. Kathy Harrison’s next book is about exactly this subject in terms of cooking and kitchen tools – she test drove everything. She’d be a good person to ask on that subject and her blog is linked to in my sidebar. As for the rest – there are definitely some posts on this subject, and I’ll try and add some more.


  21. NMon 10 Aug 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Speaking of things being planned for throwing away rather than fixed, I have 2 perfectly good thermoses with broken lids, and can’t find replacements. Augh.
    Though losing water, electricity, etc., would admittedly be a much bigger problem, this sort of thing drives me nuts.

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