At minimum, everyone needs air, water, food, rest, and shelter to survive (per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). What about juice? And by juice I mean that stuff we take for granted that makes lightbulbs glow and keeps food cold.
Do you have electricity? That’s a real need if you depend on it. (And who doesn’t?) What about when, for any number of reasons, the commercial power supply goes down? What will you do if after several days (possibly weeks) without power you can’t call 911 in an emergency because your phone’s battery is dead and you have no way to recharge it? (Don’t depend solely on solar panels!)
Tornado season is upon us, and will quickly be followed by hurricane season. There’s also the ever present possibility of hackers or terrorists taking down parts of the power grid at any time of the year. If you don’t already have a backup generator, now is the time to get one. If you already have one, consider purchasing a just-in-case spare.
Portable versus Home Standby
There are hundreds of generators on the market to choose from. You can take a portable generator with you when you leave home, if you like. They come in many sizes and weights, from under 25lbs to over 1,000lbs. (You want a trailer to go with that?) They may be manual start (a.k.a. recoil start / pull the rope, dope) or electric start. The smallest (and least expensive) generators only come with recoil start. If you expect a family member without the strength or physical ability required by a recoil start engine to use it, then look for the electric start option (which will cost more).
A home standby generator is installed by a licensed electrician and is permanently wired into your home’s main circuit breaker box through a transfer switch. The system will automatically start the generator and replace commercial power when the lights go out. These typically cost several thousand dollars and can run your entire household (big bucks!) or just your critical circuits (less expensive). Critical circuits would include refrigerators, freezers, heat or air conditioning (depending on your locale, needs, and wants), maybe a sump pump, etc.
Inverter Generators versus Regular Generator
Inverter generators are more expensive up front, but are more fuel efficient (and thetefore economical), quieter, less polluting, and are advertised to be safer for sensitive electronics (which I have not verified).
Gasoline, Diesel, or Propane?
You’ll need fuel. Most portable generators available today run on gasoline. I expect this is because most consumers are familiar with gasoline, and may not be as comfortable with diesel or propane.
Their are several drawbacks to gasoline. First, it has a relatively short shelf life. It will not last indefinitely. It will go bad. Need I say more? Second, thanks to King Corn and the ethanol lobby, gasoline will foul carburetors which will then need a rebuild before your engine will run again. You can use a product like Sta-bil, or similar, to help prevent this but be aware that Sta-bil also has a shelf life (read the label, and don’t ask me how I know). Third, gasoline fumes smell nasty and are nasty. The carbon monoxide percentage is high, as well.
Diesel engines are popular because they have a reputation of running “forever”. But diesel engines and diesel fuel is more expensive than the other options, and most people don’t need their generators to run forever. Also, most people don’t care for diesel fumes.
Propane is becoming more popular as a generator fuel, but choices are still limited compared to gasoline generators. The beauty of propane is it burns cleaner, is less odorous, and emits less carbon monoxide (but still dangerous levels – observe safety instructions below). Propane-fueled engines can last as long as diesel engines if you change the oil regularly and do the other required maintensnce. Furthermore, it’s relatively cheap, doesn’t foul the carburetor, and has an indefinite shelf life. You can keep tanks of propane for years without concern and it will be good as new when you need it. (NEVER store propane tanks on their sides, only upright!)
Generators that run on propane-only are available, or there are dual fuel models that will run on both gasoline or propane. However, dual fuel models are more expensive than a single fuel generator and you may still have carburetor fouling issues if you ever have to run it on gasoline.
I purchased a *Baja (brand) 900-Watt (700 starting watts) Propane Powered Inverter Generator (on sale!) from *Home Depot a couple of months ago. It runs on propane only, either from a one pound cylinder or a 20lb tank (the kind you would use on a BBQ grill). I’ve logged over 80 hours on it so far, from a single 20lb tank, so it’s extraordinarily economical to run. I use it primarily to charge USB battery banks (bricks) which I then recharge my phone from. It will also run an electric drill, but not a circular saw. The generator weighs under 25lbs, is smaller than a suitcase, with a comfortable carrying handle, and is perfect for camping (which is kinda my thing). I’m sold on propane, having had lots of bad experiences with small gasoline engines from chainsaws to lawnmowers.
One Propane Drawback
One important caveat regarding propane: many if not most of the hoses that are meant to connect 20lb propane tanks to BBQ grills are not formulated to stand up to propane gas. A chemical reaction occurs which, over time, turns the inside of the hose to a gooey mess which can sometimes be seen inside the connection on the grill. This is not a big deal on a grill (though the chemical compound may or may not end up contaminating the food, I don’t honestly know).
It is a big deal if the gooey chemical compound gets into your generator or an appliance such as a space heater. The goo will eventually clog up the works. Fortunately, some manufacturers do make hoses formulated for goo-less propane uses. I’ve puchased such a hose. *Mr. Heater (brand) makes the following:
*BUDDY SERIES PROPANE HOSE ASMBLY
ITEM #: F273701…. 5ft
ITEM #: F273702…. 12ft
ITEM #: F273704…. 10FT
ITEM #: F273706…. 6ft
Sizing Before You Buy
Buying a generator that’s too small will frustrate you when you find out it won’t power everything you need simultaneously. Conversely, buying a generator that’s too big means more money out of pocket – not only up front but in the long run you’ll wind up paying more for fuel wasted generating excess power you don’t need.
For example, I have a diesel generator that’s far too big for my current needs. (That may change). I never use it because of the expense of diesel fuel and the inefficiency of wasting excess power. In my case, it made a lot of sense buying a small propane-powered inverter generator to keep my electronic devices charged.
Generator specifications nearly always state starting watts and running watts. Running watts is the peak amount of power the generator can deliver continuously, and starting watts is the max amount of power it can deliver for brief bursts. Electric motors (such as found in freezers, fridges, drills, circular saws, fans, forced-air heating and air conditioning) draw more current (which translates to power) when starting than they do once they’re running.
It’s up to you to decide what you must have backup electricity for during a power outage. Most people want their refrigerated and frozen foods saved first and foremost. (With the high cost of food these days, a generator could pay for itself if you only needed it once). You also might want hot water, and a way to cook food. Once you decide if you want whole house backup, or just certain critical appliances, use a worksheet to figure out your power requirements. You can find worksheets online. There are myriad websites out there that can help you. Search for “sizing generator load” or something similar. Here are two examples:
Home Generator Sizing Calculator – Interactive Generator Sizing Calculations
Understanding Loads & Sizing
Whether you invest in an expensive genset or an inexpensive little portable, you’re going to want to keep it in good working order for when you really need it. Hour meters come standard on more expensive machines, making it easy to know when to change the oil and perform other regular routine maintenance. However, an hour meter is not necessary if you’re on the market for an inexpensive genny. Just keep track of the time you start and stop the engine, and record the time in a log. (I keep the log on my cellphone so it’s always handy).
If you already have a generator, get it out, change the oil if needed, test it to make sure it’s ready for when you need it. There’s also a saying, “two is one, and one is none”, meaning if your one and only backup generator quits on you, you may wish you had a second backup.
No matter what kind of generator you have, make sure you know how to use it. Don’t wait for a power outage to try it out for the first time.
Be sure to read the owners manual and observe all safety precautions. For goodness sake, don’t ever operate a generator indoors, in a garage or other enclosed area, or near house windows, doors, dryer vent, or any other ventilation opening.
Electricity makes life so much easier, yet is taken for granted. It’s much more difficult to live without electricity than most people realize. You may even find yourself in a situation where your life or the lives of loved ones depends on having electricity. Do yourself a favor and make sure you can meet that need for electricity when the power goes out.
You need backup juice: Get you some!
Post Script; If you have experience with generators and have tips to share, or think of some things that I’ve left out that would be helpful to others, please mention them in the comments.
Question of the night: What are you doing this weekend?
*Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with or any connection whatsoever to any of the products, companies, or websites mentioned above, other than as a consumer who is pleased with the performance of said products. I do not intend my comments to be construed as a product endorsement or promotion. There are competing products which may be as good or better.