It’s that very absence of sound that should cause you concerned. No rush of air through your home’s air ducts means there isn’t any heat for your family. No hum from the refrigerator means all that food inside will remain edible for only a few more hours. It’s at those moments that you kick yourself for not buying the emergency generator you saw on sale just last week.
In the short-term, a power failure is an inconvenience. In the longer term, food begins to spoil, the cold from outside makes its way indoors and doing anything after the sun goes down is next to impossible without light. This a problem that needs fixing and to do so means thinking ahead. Time your home gets its very own backup generator.
Basic Emergency Generators – Types
The two main types of generators are portable and permanent, standby styles. If you want to produce electricity for a few lights, and perhaps a furnace and a refrigerator, you can manage with a portable, less expensive model. However, if your needs are greater — for instance a well pump, a freezer or air conditioning — you will need a standby generator, which automatically turns on when the power goes off.
Whichever type you decide to use, you will need to match its size to your home’s power requirements. If the generator is too small for your usage, not only will it break down sooner, but it can ruin appliances that use more current than a smaller model can deliver. Sizes are measured in kilowatts (1kW = 1,000 watts). A 5-kilowatt portable generator should provide electricity for a refrigerator , furnace fan, a few lights and a laptop. To calculate the size you need, refer to your appliances’ specifications label.
To find its wattage, add the amounts together, and double the total to allow for the surge some appliances, like refrigerators or air conditioners, caused when they cycle on. Also, be sure the generator you choose will deliver the 120 volts a typical home’s circuitry requires. A too high of voltage, or output variation during heavy load times can cause some appliances and electronics to run hot. That will determine your minimum wattage during an emergency.
Permanent, standby generators tend to run on existing fuel lines, either propane or natural gas while portables predominantly run on gasoline. But portables can run on a wider variety, including natural or propane gas, and diesel or biodiesel. Your choice of fuel will depend on the use you require from the generator, as well as what is most available in your locality.
Less expensive models use gasoline, which itself is cheaper and more readily available than diesel or propane. The disadvantages are that gasoline-powered models operate at a higher RPMs, which shortens their lifespan and makes them extremely noisy. Storage is another issue — you cannot store the fuel in closed areas for safety reasons. Gasoline also has a shelf life of about six months, so you cannot really keep large amounts in case of emergency.
Propane generators have considerable advantages over gasoline by way of their longevity and cleaner operation. The propane comes in filled cylinders, which are easily connected and switched out for full ones. A 45-gallon cylinder tank can, depending on the generator itself, power an 8-kilowatt model, providing electricity for several appliances for 24 hours. The disadvantage is propane is the most costly of the liquid fuel options but it does not have a limited shelf life like gasoline and diesel.
Diesel models tend to be available as permanent, standby types versus them being found as portables. They are more efficient and will last longer than their gasoline-powered counterparts, if they are properly maintained. Diesel models also operate much quieter and they run at a lower RPM speed, prolonging the life of the generator. However, diesel generators are significantly more expensive than other types, and can be harder to find. Storing diesel, as with gasoline, is problematic as it is prone to degradation due to algae growth.
Solar and Wind-powered
Photovoltaic portables can run and portables can run, while not the traditional type of generator considered when thinking of emergency power, are viable alternatives to fuel-based models. Both systems are designed to produce electricity (solar during daylight hours and if there is wind, the wind turbine will produce) which is stored in batteries and converted to AC power for your home use. Detailed information about these alternative power sources is available in our Solar and Wind Power Guides.
Fuel-powered generators consist of an engine, an alternator that converts energy from the engine into electricity, plus an output/control panel housing circuit breakers, outlets and switches, all held together by a frame. Diesel and gasoline-powered generators also have a fuel tank. Engines can be air cooled or liquid cooled, the air-cooled ones are cheaper, and better quality generators have overhead valves (OHV) — these run smoother and quieter, and produce less emission.
Smaller portable generators that produce enough power for a few appliances can be connected with extension cords. Make sure you use a heavy-duty cord that will not cause excessive drop in voltage, especially if they are connected to larger appliances like refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners. A poor-quality cord is dangerous as it can overheat becoming a fire hazard.
A potentially safer alternative is a transfer switch. A transfer switch is a special electrical panel that is installed as a subpanel off the main circuit-breaker panel. This way, even with a portable generator, you can provide electricity for entire circuits in the house, not just individual appliances. This option does require an electrician to install.
Planning for power failures makes a lot of sense, especially as experts predict increasing problems with electrical grid reliability in future, especially with the threat of natural disasters and potential terror attack. Once you determine which type will work for your home, you can get your backup generator ready now without waiting until after the next emergency. Not only will you Wind Power, but a backup generator will ensure your self-sufficiency when the worst happens.