COVID-19: Personal observations over the past couple of days

I continue to believe that the current “panic stations” response by many to the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic is overblown.  Nevertheless, practical preparations are in order for most of us:  and the evidence that they’re needed is growing.  Here are just a few things I’ve personally observed over the past couple of days.

  1. Stocks of some China-sourced products are getting low, and stores are unable to tell me when they’ll receive new stocks.  Example:  I was in Sams Club yesterday morning, and heard a couple complain that the automotive department couldn’t supply a battery to fit their car.  Intrigued, I wandered over there and asked about a battery to fit my six-year-old vehicle.  They had one, and only one, in stock:  and when I asked, they told me they had no idea when they’d get more, because the central supply system was “overloaded”.  Guess where almost all automotive batteries, and/or the materials used in their manufacture, are made?  Yep – China.  Guess what?  I bought that battery.  My vehicle’s old enough that I don’t know how much longer its battery will last.  This one can sit on my shelves until then, along with spare air and oil filters.  Even if there are others available when the time comes, I’ve lost nothing by buying it early – and I know it’ll be there when I need it.
  2. Among the things I shopped for yesterday were feminine hygiene products.  The specific brand and type I wanted were not easy to locate.  I eventually found just three packets of them, wedged in the bottom shelf of the display stand behind other products.  When I asked one of the shop assistants, she said that whilst many of them are made in the USA, others (and many of the materials used in US-manufactured products) come from – guess where? – China.  She told me they’ve been warned to expect disruptions in supply as a result.  I bought all three packages that they had, and I’ll be checking other supermarkets in town to see if I can get a few more.  Man with happy wife is happy.  Man with unhappy wife is unhappy.
  3. Yesterday evening I saw the fifth mile-long train this week of empty double-stack container cars passing through town, this one heading east.  That’s at least four more than I usually see in any given week.  My comments last Wednesday apply.
  4. Amazon is asking its selling partners whether their products may be affected by the shutdown in China.  It looks as if the company is worried about having enough goods for sale to keep up its volume of business.  If it can’t, expect thousands of warehouse staff to be furloughed or laid off until more goods are available.  I’m in touch with someone who used to work for that company, and who knows their staffing situation.  It’ll bear watching.
  5. A number of vehicle models are imported from China (for example, Buick’s Envision SUV).  Right now, none are being built there.  It’s too soon for that to have led to a shortage in the USA, but if China’s shutdown continues, that’ll happen sooner or later.  Other vehicles may be made elsewhere, but depend on Chinese parts.  If you’re likely to be in the market for a new car, you might do well to check on whether or not your preferred make and model is likely to be available – and whether it’ll cost more, thanks to delays and shortages.  The same applies to spare parts, if you’re planning to do maintenance that will require them.
  6. I continue to be surprised by the number of products made in China and almost nowhere else.  For example, did you know that most consumer-grade electricity generators come from that country, irrespective of brand or model?  Miss D. and I have been planning to buy one for some time, to have in reserve in case of extended power failure (if we buy a freezer-full of meat, we don’t want to lose it!).  I suspect we may bring our purchase forward, to get one while it’s available.  (We want a name-brand product, which according to owner and user reviews is far more reliable and trustworthy than cheaper competitors.  However, thanks to their well-earned good reputation, and the extra time, trouble and care put into their manufacture, such products are more likely to be in short supply than el cheapo knockoffs.)

Miss D. and I have stocked up on basic over-the-counter medications, hygiene and sanitation products, and other basic necessities, enough to get us through six months or more without worrying.  That gives us greater peace of mind in this developing situation.  We already have sufficient food and essential supplies for a good three months.  It’s comforting to have them available, in case local quarantines become necessary.  My next step is to fill our empty jerrycans with gasoline, to have extra available for our vehicles and generator if required.  Our goal is to keep two gas-tanks-full for each vehicle in reserve, but we’ve used up a fair amount of that over the past year and not replaced it.  That was short-sighted, and I’ll rectify it now.  (What’s more, I’ll buy non-ethanol gasoline.  It works better in smaller engines like our generator or lawnmower, and it stores better over the long term, too.  Those are factors worth thinking about.)

What additional measures are you taking, readers?



  1. I'd already undertaken getting up to a year's worth of the fam's meds. In process. I have a year of most, six months of one which is new.

    I already have rice and beans for, well, quite some time. Starting to roll over other things.

    Ordered some fish antibiotics and pinging a doctor friend for which of their selections I should have on hand. The younger child, alas, is prone to pneumonia if they get a cold and we don't jump on their asthma hard. Fortunately we have a nearly full box of his albuterol.

    Propane for the generator? Ordered but need to follow up. Need to fill the gas cans. More water storage bladders being ordered today.

    My main concern is not the virus itself – though worrisome, my main concern is the panic that will ensue if (WHEN!) it seriously spreads in the US.

  2. @tweell: That's a good point, and not just cats – all pets. We have three months' supply of food and kitty litter. That's what I'd regard as a minimum.

  3. As mentioned above, I'm not worried about the virus itself; I'm worried about other people's reactions to it, and the shortages, limitations, and even legal measures stemming from it.
    We are planning to have what we need to do minimal or no shopping for up to 2 months. We are good on most food items since we normally stock well – but we are looking at stocking replacements for products that don't last long, like milk and fruit, plus things we normally buy regularly.
    Some specifics: A large jug of laundry detergent normally lasts 3 weeks – we'll buy 3 extra this week. It is time to buy more dog food; a 40 lb bag lasts us about 3 months; this week we'll buy a second bag just in case.
    My wife likes milk, but I don't know of any good tasting milk that lasts more than 2 weeks, often less, so I'm researching instant/ powdered options. Note that due to the higher cost of powdered milk options, online options designed for long term storage are fairly cost competitive with local options not designed for long term storage (i.e. canned powder vs, boxes or bags).
    If you're interested, here is an article on a taste test of various milk options:

  4. Oh, another thing I forgot to mention – check your stocks of one time use items such as toilet paper, paper towels, wipes, plates and forks, etc. Particularly the toilet paper!

  5. Passed one guy in walmart last night who was prepping. He had a 5 gallon bucket, at least 6 bottles of hydrogen peroxide, plastic drop clothes. Asked him if he was prepping for the pandemic. No answer. Pointed him to the camping aisle where they have the toilet seats that fit on buckets.

    I'm having a hard time finding s.o.s ration bars. I got several things last night to round out my get home bag. The ration bars are one big thing missing.

  6. Peter, that new battery is better in your car than on the shelf.

    Either keep the old one for emergency power for things or just turn it in for the recycling payment if you have that in Texas. Especially if it's the OEM battery and also six years old.

    Starting batteries don't store well. A smart charger attached to the battery all the time keeps them alive better than charging manually every six months or so. Boat or RV stores cater to a market that has those batteries sitting around.

  7. +1 to SiGraybeard's comments. You can fairly safely assume modern automotive grade batteries are good for 5 years from *date of manufacture*…a little more if well cared for and in cooler climates, less if allowed to run down. Note I did *not* say anything about on the shelf or in use, as the lifespan is affected more by climate and proper charging than *anything* else. May as well use it and reduce the chances of getting stranded when your current one finally gives up the ghost. There is frequently very little warning with modern quick starting cars. In the good old days where engines cranked for a few seconds before catching you could hear the starter slow from a weak battery. Now with engines catching on the first crank (mostly) you don't have that data point any longer.

  8. Costco has a battery tender that should do the job.
    Don't store a car battery on a concrete floor. No idea why, but that seemed to cause them to drain power faster/die sooner. Part of the availability problem is that the ecology idiots have chased lead work and production/mining out of various first world areas. Lead wheel weights have gone away, for instance.

    For longer than typical milk storage, try Lactaid type milks. Unopened, they keep for several months. Potential drawback is that some people don't like the sweeter taste. I don't recall if the reduced fat versions have the same shelf life as the whole milk.

  9. Cars with electronic systems require a fully charged battery. Lead acid batts are fully charged at 12.6 volts. It's been my experience that when they get below 12.0, many will not start even if the starter spins the engine. The ignition system isn't working. The old points ignition systems would run as low as 6-8 volts, if you could get the motor spinning (bump start).

  10. Added another month-plus from Costco last night.
    And I'll be doing trips to the regular grocery and 99¢ Store today and this weekend. Year old can goods still last 3-5 years or more, stored well.
    WallyWorld has Chef Boyardee beef ravioli selling at 88¢/can, so I'll probably grab a full flat of that, just because. That's a lot of calories for about $20.

    Otherwise, not much to do.
    Meds already stocked up.
    I'd like to add some solar panels hereabouts for indoor through-the-window use at the rental, so we'll see if that can happen this weekend too. I can run a long time that way on just a part-time fridge, momentary microwave, and LED lights, with just a small battery reserve. Don't have to dip into propane. The power I use for heating/cooling can be adequately replaced by sweaters or shorts, alternately.

    Today was payday, so the cash float is healthy.

    The bigger issue is third-order effects, on people, when the second-order effects kick in, and things get…interesting. 00Buck can be educational, if it gets that bad.

  11. As to standby generators: consider getting one that is fueled by natural gas, allowing you to use the piped-in natgas which you also use for home heating, stove, etc.

    Of course, if you use propane you can buy a standby which runs on that, too–but your heating and stove supplies will diminish.

    Kohler, made largely in the USA, is probably the very best name, although Generac (also made here) is a very close second.

  12. I currently own two generators, both of which are Hondas. Honda makes some of the very best portable generators, and their inverter style generators are very quiet. One of the big advantages of Honda over the cheaper brands (including those who buy a Honda engine to put in their cheap generator) is that there are plenty of Honda dealers who will service the generators in most parts of the country. Good luck trying to get that generator from Harbor Freight serviced!

    The key to getting long life out of a portable generator is to never put it away with fuel in the carburetor. Instead of just shutting down the generator, disconnect the load and then shut the fuel valve. Then let the generator run until it dies from lack of fuel. I have had 20 year old generators that still work perfectly and never needed a carb rebuild using this technique.

    Run synthetic oil in the generator (I like Amsoil). It will last longer and protect the engine far better than conventional oil.

    Stock replacement air filters, fuel filters, and oil filters (if your generator uses one – most don't). Stock a replacement spark plug, and the tool to replace it.

    Add fuel stabilizer such as Stabil to the fuel you store.

  13. The above comments are great and beat me to points I would add. For long term storage of lead-acid batteries, the best way is a virgin battery with the electrolyte stored separately. The only way I've seen that though is my aircraft batteries. For off the shelf car batteries, a trickle charger is best, although periodic charges with a "smart" (multi-stage) charger will do as well. The best explanation of multi stage charging I've ever read is Bill Moeller: RV Electrical Systems. I learned more about 12v systems from him that my previous half century or more of experience.
    My generator is a Honda. They are quite a bit more expensive than comparable sized brands, but there's a reason for that: they are a superior product. Mine even has a drain tube out the bottom of the float bowl to prep it for storage. While it can be converted to propane and/or natural gas, be careful! Cooling is critical on air cooled engines, and propane burns MUCH hotter that gasoline. As for gas, if you can get ethanol free fuel, do it! All small engines will run much better without that alcohol crap contaminating our gas.

  14. @suburban and Greg: Agreed on all counts. We can't afford a big whole-house generator, so we're looking at a 2,000 to 2,200 watt inverter generator. We'll probably go with Yamaha's EF2200iS, which is available for about $200 less than the Honda equivalent, but is just as highly rated by owners and users:

    It's powerful enough to run a single window A/C unit, but not our whole-house HVAC system. That's OK – we'll cool our bedroom, and endure the heat in the rest of the house when we have to go there. One does what one can afford. The main thing is, it'll let us keep the freezer running, saving a lot of money rather than lose everything when it defrosts. That's the primary reason to buy it.

    I agree on synthetic oil, but I'm not yet sure what type to run in it. I'll probably get it started on conventional oil, run it a few hours to break it in, then drain the oil and refill with synthetic. The Yamaha also has a fuel draining system to empty the carburetor, which is useful. Unlike the Honda, it also has a 30A RV plug so you can run a small travel trailer off it without any fuss. That may be a useful feature.

    Agreed, too, on the non-ethanol fuel. A local gas station sells non-ethanol 91 octane. I'll stock up on that, along with a fuel stabilizer.

  15. Greg –

    "Mine even has a drain tube out the bottom of the float bowl to prep it for storage."

    Sounds like my Honda EU2000i. On the new Honda EU2200i that replaced it, Honda added the ability to shut off the fuel and let the engine run dry so you do not have to drain the carb.

    "For off the shelf car batteries, a trickle charger is best"

    For my big Honda generator with electric start, I have a small solar panel that keeps the battery charged so I always have a charged battery when I need to start the generator.

  16. Peter –

    "I agree on synthetic oil, but I'm not yet sure what type to run in it."

    Amsoil makes synthetic oil specially formulated for small engine applications that is available in 5W-30, 10W-30, and 10W-40.

    "The Yamaha also has a fuel draining system to empty the carburetor, which is useful."

    The Honda EU2200i has a position on the main control knob that shuts off the fuel while letting the engine run. You don't even have to operate a separate fuel valve, they made it part of the main control knob.

  17. Peter –

    "Unlike the Honda, it also has a 30A RV plug so you can run a small travel trailer off it without any fuss. That may be a useful feature."

    If that matters to you, the Honda EU2200i Companion model adds the 30A twist lock connector.

  18. On synthetic oils, I've been running Royal Purple in everything I own except the wood splitter, which requires an oil they don't make. Never had any problems.

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