Electronics After the SHTF?

There are many ways our consumer electronics could be rendered useless during a SHTF situation. EMP scenarios are popular among preppers, but rain or carelessness will break them just as easily. Let’s assume your equipment survives the disaster and you weren’t careless. How will your tech work properly without reliable electricity or the necessary infrastructure to support them? Let’s review what’s required to operate the devices most of us own and explore a couple dangers from using those devices during a survival situation.

Author’s Note: I considered including electronics with my previous blog titled, Entertainment after SHTF, but decided to dedicate an entire article on the practical application of using our electronics during a survival situation.

Power & Batteries

The most obvious requirement for electronics is… electricity. Depending on the disaster, access to electricity could be cut off and generators may be the go-to plan for a lot of people. However, most generators available on the market require fuel to operate, which might be impossible to find. Even a solar/wind generator with battery bank may not provide enough reliable power.

A lot of electronics are compatible with standard batteries found at most supermarkets. That’s great, but you’ll eventually run out of them and that device will turn into a fancy brick. If you stockpile a “lifetime supply” of batteries and store them in idyllic conditions, those unused batteries can lose their charge or go bad some other way (like leaking).

And if the batteries leak inside a device 😱

Most portable devices have built in rechargeable batteries and a lot of people keep a battery backup for emergencies, but the charge will eventually run out. I probably own one of the best portable solar battery backups you can get on the market, but I won’t rely on it as a regular power source. The battery backup I use while camping, has folding solar panels and stores enough power to charge my phone twice.

I’ve set the battery backup in direct sunlight for an entire day and the charge only increases by 1-2 bars, out of 5[1]. That’s mathematically unsustainable if your phone is on all day, or if your family rations its electronic use and needs to top-off multiple devices.

Rechargeable batteries will eventually die too. Usually, they’ll die a slow and silent death by not holding a charge, but they can go out with a bang if they overheat while charging[2].

Supporting Infrastructure

I think a lot of our devices will power on after a cataclysmic national or global disaster, but probably won’t function properly. I base this prediction on the fact that most modern devices depend on multiple layers of infrastructure to function as expected, all of which is maintained and controlled by greedy corporations. During a SHTF or survival situation, the services we rely on will be cut off if there’s no incentive (money) to keep that infrastructure operational. Here are a few examples.

Mobile Phones

Mobile phones require the following to function:

  1. The device must turn on and be able to send/receive signals.
  2. Cellular towers must be operational and within range[3].
  3. The cellular service provider you subscribe to must be operational to allow access to the network or internet. 
  4. The service or destination website you’re trying to access must be functioning.
  5. You need access to electricity or have some way to recharge the phone’s battery, otherwise you won’t be able to use it in the future.

TV and Radio

The complications related to TV and radio are similar, but not as numerous.

  1. The TV/radio must have access to electricity.
  2. The device must be undamaged and able to receive analog/digital signals via antenna.
  3. Broadcast stations must be operational and in range[4].

Cable/Satellite TV and Home Internet

Cable/Satellite TV and internet services probably won’t work for a couple reasons.

  1. In addition to powering your TV, computer, or other tech, cable/satellite and internet require external devices (cable box/router) to access the service. That’s yet another thing you’ll need to power, which may not be sustainable for small-scale solar and wind generators.
  2. Access to the internet and TV channels requires verifiable service subscriptions. Depending on the company’s service gateway program, you may be forced to stare at an “outage alert” message if the provider’s central office isn’t operating.

Warning about Nationalization

It’s possible the government will nationalize services and allow “free” access to cable/satellite TV and internet[5]. Of course, this depends on the type of disaster and/or the availability of power and related infrastructure. A government could nationalize entertainment services and provide “welfare entertainment” to keep the sheeple happy.

If this were to happen, you should expect extreme censorship related to the type of shows and websites you can view. Obviously, all your viewing and browsing history will be saved and subject to review. The ruling government will probably use that data to determine your loyalty to the state. If a user attempts to access restricted content too often, the government may penalize the household by withholding services… or conduct a gestapo-style nighttime arrest and assign the offender to reeducation camps.

Such oppression happens in China and other totalitarian nations, but thanks to 9/11 and the Patriot Act, even the USA isn’t immune[6].

Warning about Electronic Emissions

Smart devices (especially phones) can be tracked, and probably will be the method of choice to find fugitives or people hiding from internal or external attackers. All modern smartphones and most tablets have GPS built in. The government reports that GPS location services are accurate to within 16 feet[7]. However, a TV documentary I viewed recently claims the accuracy is as good as 3 feet[8]!

If a domestic or foreign entity wants to track and capture a “fugitive” or unregistered (newly-conquered) citizen, all they have to do is ping your phone’s GPS. Even if you turn the GPS off, they can broadcast a manufacturer backdoor code to remotely reactivate it without you knowing.

GPS is the easiest way to track a phone, but the cellular towers can help someone track you too. Our phones constantly ping the nearest tower(s) to ensure the user has the best signal. If someone wanted to get your approximate location, they can do a reverse ping between towers and triangulate your location. It’s not as accurate, but it’s enough to send a search party and find you.

Phones may be the easiest method of tracking someone, but other electronics can broadcast your location too. Smart TVs transmit and receive Wi-Fi signals at all times, even when turned “off”. The Wi-Fi signal can alert anyone within range that someone with power is nearby. This probably won’t be a problem in a city because the signal range will be limited by surrounding structures, and your neighbors will likely be in the same situation as you. However, it’s a dead giveaway in rural areas where a Wi-Fi signal can be detected as far as 300-400 feet.

Specialized equipment exists to locate a broadcasting Wi-Fi signal, but the signal can be tracked down with something as basic as a smartphone[9].

***

No one knows if our tech will work during a survival situation. An EMP can fry our tech, a massive natural disaster (or attack) could destroy the infrastructure needed to use our devices. If a survivalist is fortunate enough to have power and functioning tech, it’s wise to consider the inherent risks before by using those devices…

Is the convenience worth the risk?


[1] Solar Chargers: I bought a simple solar recharger for AA, AAA, C, D -type batteries around 2005 and it still works great, Although, it takes at least 2-3 days to charge AA batteries.

[2] Battery Explosion: I’m not a scientist, so I won’t pretend to completely understand the cause, but the most common reason why rechargeable batteries explode is because of old age. Exploding phones with lithium-ion batteries were all over the news in the early-2010s. According to the expert the news station interviewed, rechargeable battery explosions happen when the internal electrolytes overheat or come into contact with their oppositely charged electrolyte. Charging and depleting the batteries will eventually wear down an internal protective barrier separating the positive and negative electrolytes. Depending on charge, once that barrier is breached, you’ll hear a POP-fizz as the energy is discharged all at once in a jet of flames that can reach temperatures over 1,000°F… in your pocket!

If you like Sci-Fi (like me), that sounds like a matter-antimatter explosion.

[3] Damaged Cellular Towers: There will be low signal if the nearest tower doesn’t have power or is damaged, and your phone has to use a distant tower. There won’t be any signal at all if the entire network is damaged or doesn’t have power. All those damaged or unpowered towers probably won’t be repaired quickly, or at all, during a cataclysmic disaster.

[4] Signal Range: Signal strength and range depends on line-of-sight from the source to the device. The signal can be hindered or degraded by structures or landmarks (mountains, hills, forests). The signal will degrade as it travels through the air itself, so the average maximum range for broadcast signals are:

  • TV & FM radio: 40-60 miles
  • AM radio: 80-100 miles.
  • Satellites may not work, so I’m not counting them in this list.

[5] The Real Owner and Inventor of Services:  It’s well known that our government (DARPA) invented the internet, but it also fronted the bills to create most of the services we enjoy today. The companies you pay to access cable/satellite TV and the internet do not own the technology those services use. The government leases the infrastructure to companies, which in turn charge us for services our taxpayer dollars already paid for.

That’s fucked up 😠

[6] 9/11-Patriot Act Searches: I had a college professor whose home was raided while at work. She came home to a NSA letter posted on her door and all her belongings rifled through. She was flagged for funding terrorism because she gave her children monetary gifts from her retirement or savings accounts yearly. These gifts were the maximum allowed without having to file on income taxes.

Needless to say, she was pissed and our class learned about the dangers of government surveillance.

[7]  GPS.GOV. (2022, March 3). GPS Accuracy. Retrieved from GPS.GOV: https://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/performance/accuracy/#:~:text=GPS%20satellites%20broadcast%20their%20signals,4.9%20m%20(16%20ft.)

[8] 3-16 Feet: GPS has a reliability variance of 3 to 16 feet. To put that in perspective, it’s the difference between someone sitting next to you or standing at the opposite end of the bar. It’d take a blind or nearsighted person to miss you!

[9] Wi-Fi Tracking via Cellphone: To track Wi-Fi using a smartphone, walk toward the estimated signal location and adjust direction based on how the signal gets stronger or weaker.

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