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It’s Easy to Protect Critical Personal Electronics from an EMP, But What Should You Protect?
An EMP is a massive burst of electromagnetic energy that can occur naturally from space or be generated deliberately using nuclear weapons. It is an instantaneous, intense energy field that can overload or disrupt numerous electrical systems and high technology microcircuits, which are especially sensitive to power surges. Computers are especially vulnerable in addition to any electronics dependent on microchips in any way.
A large scale EMP effect can be produced by a single nuclear explosion detonated high in the atmosphere. This occurrence is referred to as a High-Altitude EMP or “HEMP.”
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Several nations, including reported sponsors of terrorism, may currently have the capability to use an EMP as a weapon for cyber warfare or cyber terrorism to disrupt communications and other parts of critical U.S. infrastructure including the power grid and personal electronic devices.
Just recently, China launched a hypersonic missile that orbited the Earth before gliding to its target. Was it an EMP rehearsal? And it’s not just about manmade EMP’s. An electromagnetic pulse can also emerge from space particularly our sun.
We are currently entering a solar cycle that occurs every 11 years. During these times of increased solar activity there are instances of solar flares or geomagnetic storms that represent naturally occurring EMP’s. The threat is real and even the U.S. Department of Defense has begun to take renewed steps to protect critical equipment from EMP’s regardless of its origin.
What About the Rest of Us?
While governments are doing more and more to protect critical equipment and infrastructure from the threat of an EMP, there’s little they can do to protect personal, everyday equipment owned by the average person. But that doesn’t mean we’re defenseless. There’s a proven way to protect even small, personal electronics. It’s called a Faraday Cage.
A Faraday cage is a simple construction of an insulated box or container surrounded by metal to protect electronics from various forms of electromagnetic transmissions including EMP’s. A Faraday Cage or Faraday Box is surprisingly easy to build and can be assembled in a variety of configurations to protect a range of personal electronic equipment and even appliances.
How much equipment you protect and to what degree depends on your personal level of concern and your assessment of the threats. Given that we are currently at the beginning of another solar cycle, the threat level will only increase, so it may be worth giving this some serious thought.
And here’s something very important to remember. An electronic device can be harmed by an EMP even when the power is off! Don’t assume that all devices have to be “on” to be susceptible to an EMP.
Just as important, any device with a cord plugged into wired outlets could be susceptible if the pulse travels across the grid even when the power to the device or appliance is off.
The specific recommendation from the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Virginia is as follows:
“The easiest and quickest way to reduce equipment vulnerabilities to EMP is to turn off nonessential equipment and then unplug this equipment from all metallic lines, such as power cords, telephone lines, Ethernet cables, and antennas/coaxial cables.“
We do it with vacuum cleaners, and it might be time to start doing it with other appliances even if they don’t have microchips. That would even include old rotary-dialed landline phones.
Then again, an old refrigerator in the basement that’s unplugged could be the best way to store and protect many of the items we’ll list. For that matter, an old and unplugged microwave oven or even a metal cabinet with items in cardboard boxes to act as insulation are effective Faraday Cages.
Building Faraday Cages
There are numerous variations on a Faraday Cage to protect electronics from an EMP. Here’s a link to one article that covers many variations. A search on the Internet can take you to others. They’re easy to build from everyday materials once you understand the concept of surrounding something with metal with an insulating layer inside to keep any electronics from contacting the metal exterior. Some have grounding wires to direct the pulse into the ground although some do not.
What to Protect in a Faraday Cage
There are two categories of items you should protect in a Faraday Cage.
- Items in storage that you don’t use frequently.
- Items you use every day but could easily protect if you feel an immediate need.
Items You Don’t Use Frequently
These are electronic items that are either no longer used like an old laptop or cell phone, items that you don’t use frequently like two-way radios, or items that you choose to duplicate for emergencies like tactical flashlights or portable AM/FM radios.
These are the kinds of things you would typically keep in storage, only they are stored in a Faraday Cage—just in case. Here are possibilities for long-term Faraday storage of infrequently used or emergency backup items:
- A portable, battery powered TV with a functioning aerial. Local newscasts may still be broadcasting after an EMP and can be your best source for news.
- Old cell phones or an inexpensive pay per minute cell phone that you specifically buy for storage. Make sure any chargers you need are wrapped around the phones.
- A solar power bank for recharging cell phones and other portable electronics. If there’s an EMP, the grid may be down and this may be a critical source for solar recharged power to power electronics.
- Old laptops or desktop computer CPU’s. Many of us replace a computer from time to time. Don’t toss them. Store them in a Faraday Cage. Make sure you wrap the power cords around the equipment so they’re easy to find.
- External computer memory storage. Buy an external hard drive and backup up all critical files and store it in a Faraday cage. If your every day laptop or computer gets fried by an unexpected EMP, you’ll at least have some files backed up.
- Solar/handcrank rechargeable radio. These are relatively inexpensive and can receive AM/FM, NOAA and other emergency bands. Radio transmissions may be the only viable transmission sources after a significant EMP. Buy one as a backup.
- Two-way radios, CB’s, portable HAM radios or any other two-way radio communication you use infrequently or have replaced with new models. If cell phones aren’t working after an EMP this may be the most immediate and viable way to communicate one-to-one.
- Tactical flashlights or any other flashlights that use LED light sources. They have varying degrees of electronics that can be affected by an EMP. If the grid is down you will really need these. Rechargeable models are best either with a solar power bank or a USB connection.
- Night vision or any other electronic optics unless you are using them on an everyday basis.
- Various and older versions of electronic devices like the first Kindle Reader, old iPads etc. At a time when most electronics may be short-circuited and beyond repair, those old antiques will have significant value.
- Miscellaneous rechargeable equipment like cordless power tools, solar powered calculators, unused electronic gaming devices, or anything else electronic you might want to use someday that would not survive an EMP.
Items You Use Everyday
This gets a little more complicated. Constantly storing and retrieving things like cell phones and laptops that you use every day from a Faraday Cage can get a bit tedious very quickly. If there are specific warnings of a natural or manmade EMP it’s probably a good idea, but to do that all the time regardless of the threat is as unrealistic as wearing a tinfoil hat.
However, if you feel the need, this may be worth doing before going to bed at night or simply creating an everyday storage spot or place that has the characteristics of a Faraday Cage. Here are some of the everyday items you should protect from the potential threat of an EMP:
- Your cellphone. It’s not hard to line the inside of a wooden box with foil and some insulating properties to create a small Faraday Cage. You can keep it on the nightstand next to your bed or even line a drawer in the nightstand so it has Faraday characteristics.
- Your car keys. Many key fobs have an electronic signal to open and lock doors, the trunk and even to set off a car alarm. Some will even start your car from a distance. All use electronics and integrated circuits subject to an EMP so toss the keys in the box or drawer with the cell phone.
- Laptops are a critical, everyday tool for many. It’s not hard to line a computer case with metallic materials that create Faraday characteristics. Even an insulated metal cabinet or file cabinet can do the same with proper insulation on the interior. Hopefully you have a spare laptop and external hard drive in storage, but if you can find an everyday place to store your everyday laptop, that might be a good idea.
- Critical medical equipment. If someone in your household depends on a dedicated piece of medical equipment, see if you can figure out how to wrap or protect the electronic components so they have permanent EMP protection. This would include instruments for diabetics, sleep Apnea, and other equipment. There has been little research or input from the medical profession on how to protect a pacemaker from an EMP.
- Think of what you can’t live without. If you feel it’s critical to your survival, think about how to store it in a Faraday Cage or improvise some kind of EMP shielding based on the Faraday Cage concept.
Is This for Real?
Unfortunately, yes. EMP’s are a real thing. They’ve struck in the past from solar flares and they will no doubt strike again in the future. It’s the potential for an intentional nuclear detonation in the atmosphere that makes the threat more ominous.
In a world where we seem to be trying to prepare and survive everything from pandemics to economic collapse, it’s hard to add something else to the list. What’s important is to understand the threat of EMP and the concept of a Faraday Cage, and see if you can design one that makes protection of your personal electronics easy to do and at the least, somewhat routine.
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