Emergency Generators Great Source for Backup Power

Generators are a great source of backup power during an outage and this guide will help you find an emergency generator to suit your needs.

| February/March 2008

power outage

A good generator can help keep your home well-lit and cozy when the power supply from the grid is disrupted. 

Photo courtesy of Generac Power Systems

A good emergency generator makes your home blackout proof. It’s relatively inexpensive insurance against complete loss of household power. Plus, portable units are convenient when you need electricity beyond the reach of an extension cord.

All generators combine an internal combustion engine with electrical components to create electricity for powering appliances and tools. Choosing an emergency generator involves several key decisions. How much power do you really need? How often do you expect to use it? Will it be for emergency backup power? For tools? Both? What level of quality makes sense? What kind of fuel? How will you get the power from the generator to items in your home?

More Power to You

The first thing to consider is generator output. What size is right for your situation? This sounds simpler than it really is because not all items on your wish list are going to be used all the time or at the same time. Also, some appliances (such as furnace fans, sump pumps, washing machines and refrigerators) require more start-up power than their specified ratings.

Generator output is measured in watts, a unit of power derived by multiplying electrical flow rate (amps) by electrical pressure (volts). One typical household outlet, for example, delivers a maximum of 1,800 watts (15 amps x 120 volts), or the equivalent of a small portable generator. Many people buy a small generator but regret it later because they didn’t understand the basic issues. I’m one of those people.

The backup generator I’ve used for the last 20 years has a maximum rated output of 3,500 watts. That seemed like enough when I bought it, but it’s proven barely adequate for emergency power. By the time the submersible well pump kicks in (1,500 watts at start-up), the basement freezer is running (800 watts) and a few lights are on (100 watts for several compact fluorescents), there’s not much power left for other things. If we want to use the microwave or toaster oven, we have to make sure that most other items are switched off. For sample wattage data for common appliances, see How Much is Enough?. (Guardian has an online calculator to estimate the size of generator that’s best for you. Visit Guardian and click “Which One Do I Need?”)

There’s also the issue of sustained output. When a manufacturer rates generator output, it usually refers to a maximum, short-term level only. In practice, most generators can sustain only 80 percent of their maximum rating for the long haul. If you continuously demand more than this, you’ll shorten the life of your investment. Unless stated otherwise, always consider advertised generator output as overly optimistic and apply the 80 percent rule.

1/7/2016 6:43:08 PM

Automatic standby systems are becoming more and more essential. Backup home generators are great because they manage power for the whole house with a switch, or you can select critical loads and just focus on those needs with a pre-wired auto-transfer panel. The fact that they work with both propane or gas makes it appropriate for any home too. in Eugene, Oregon, we have a wealth of professionals like Balanced Electric, Inc (http://www.balanced-electric.com) which is comprised of a handful of electricians with over 20 years in the electrical industry. They offer free quotes, inspection, design, construction, installation, maintenance, etc. I like small businesses like that since they build a relationship with you and make sure you understand the mechanics of your generator(s).

12/17/2014 3:12:05 PM

The Guardian hyperlink goes to a login page. This address gets you to the calculator is: http://www.generac.com/for-homeowners/home-backup-power/build-your-generator

1/9/2009 9:13:41 AM

Teddi makes a good point, there are folks out there that have situations in which being without electricity for long periods of time could be dangerous or some of the older fashioned solutions might not be a good idea. I did not see where the author was stating that a generator is going to be used to keep every light in the house on while running 3 computers, 4 TV sets, a stove, washing machine and dryer, refrigerator and freezer all at the same time. The piece is about EMERGENCY *BACKUP* power. Relegating everyone with health problems to the center of large cities living next door to hospitals is irresponsible, ignorant and just plain silly. If someone needs something like CPAP (a treatment for obstructive sleep apnea) they are not to be sent off to live in a nursing home! It must be nice to live in such a black and white world of the healthy and capable versus the infirm. What a small minded world view. I thought Mother Earth News is about the principle that we ALL can do things to impact our world less. Some of us are able to live like Daniel Boone, and I applaud them, but some of us can only do the best we can by making the best choices we can, and being aware of the things that we do. It does not have to be one or the other: everyone can do SOMETHING, but not everyone can do EVERYTHING and there is nothing wrong with that. Mother helps us to learn about the "somethings" that we can do. Thank you.

1/7/2009 4:23:01 PM

I agree with Aaron. The idea behind living simply is using far less, if any, fossil fuels, and generators require petroleum fuels. How can Steve Maxwell be a "hard-core do-it-yourselfer" when he is depending on his generators to keep his lifestyle going? Does he have his own oil well and refining facility, to feed those generators? And Teddi, people with those kinds of severe medical needs, whose very lives depend on constant electricty powering their life support systems, should not be living anywhere off of the power grid but by a large city hospital who can take care of them.

2/4/2008 1:02:27 PM

I have a 7000watt generator. Can I disconnect my main circuit at the service panel and wire into my furnace and frig circuits safely. Thanks in advance for any replies.

chris thomason_1
2/4/2008 11:21:06 AM

I recently obtained one of the "Lister" type single cylinder slow speed diesel engines, and am going to try to find an appropriate generator head to build my own genset. These engines are one huge chunk of cast iron with a large flywheel, and are known to run constantly for decades with simple maintenance. There's a bunch of great info at www.utterpower.com Chris

1/3/2008 8:18:31 PM

I agree with Teddi. Our house uses baseboard hot water heat and last winter, a 2-day power outage brought our house down to below 50F. We were quite concerned about our pipes bursting and so will be installing a transfer switch to run the circulator off our generator if the power fails. We tried using our masonary fireplace, but those are actually negatively efficient in temperatures under 20F. Like it or not, modern households cannot survive without fossil fuel power (although we are on 100% green power from our electric company).

12/25/2007 1:23:10 PM

For Frank and some of the others... I try to be as green as possible. But in times of no power (which happens more in my area than I would like) We have started buying and using many of the new "crank power" flash lights and I even have a weather am/fm radio that uses the Crank power. We received a new "crank" lantern for our camper for Christmas today. There are many things you can get that help with out having to be dependent on electric to keep them going. We have been thinking of getting a generator to keep the fridge and freezer working and maybe the well. The other fun things, like the computer and tv can be put aside, and reading a good book never hurts. I do think that back up generators for the people who have medical needs should be researched and maybe be made more practical and economical.

12/23/2007 10:23:49 PM

I found this peice very informative. I do have a querry though. The article mentioned "dirty ac would destroy electronics", would that include a radio such as a boom box/CD player? And I think everyone should think about thier own situation and prepare for that.

12/23/2007 10:09:34 PM

Aaron makes a valid point and when an outage occurs, I'm OK with not using the electric range or refrigerator but I won't give up my Central Air! I can't do without it in the summer. Good article. Jim

12/23/2007 8:52:02 PM

In response to the above comment... I am glad Mother Earth news posted this article. It is very timely, and discusses what is already available in an emergency. Who has time to research what the best generator is when they're already literally freezing in the dark? For many people living frugally with oil lamps, hard labor, and firewood just isn't possible. Small children and oil lamps... hmmmm. Not everyone has a chimney or a woodstove and can breath smoke. Think of those with medical needs like oxygen (which is flammable), nebulizer and sleep apnea machines, or those who are electric wheelchair dependent and need power to get around. Electricity means survival for many, and what if they can't get to a shelter because the phone is out and they have no vehicle? Disaster preparedness means having a backup source of power and could mean life or death for some to go without. By the way, in many of the winter storm areas, I don't know that solar back up power would be adequate with all the snow, freezing rain and ice and cloud cover. PROVE THAT IT WOULD BE!!! Would you have to shovel snow off, or scrape your solar panels with an ice scraper to get it clear, and risk breaking a hip? My point is, using fossil fuels for an EMERGENCY is sometimes necessary. Also, whoever said 'Mother Earth News' was only for those who live in rural areas? I plan on getting some laying hens for my garden for fresh eggs and bug control, even though I live 5 minutes from the mall outside city limits. Not every one who wants to improve and care for the environment can afford to live in the country. Those who want to live frugally probably already are.

12/23/2007 11:37:32 AM

I thought that this article would make a lot of sense in a rural living publication. However coming from Mother Earth news I was amazed. Wouldn't an ecologically focused article mention CONSERVING? USING LESS? ALTERNATIVE FUEL? Whenever I've had an electrical problem we use antique oil lamps (which are easy to find) and use a solar battery unit for limited power. We don't use microwaves or washing machines. We do most tasks by hand. Imagine, just like people did before electricity was common. When a disaster strikes, this is an opportunity. An opportunity to connect with natural living and to practice consuming less. I invite you to research intelligent systems which don't depend on fossil fuels (which are actually causing most of these disasters).

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