Eight Emergency Power Options

Blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes—if you live in a place where severe weather could leave you without power for days, you need a plan to provide yourself with emergency power. Here are some alternatives.

| February/March 2009

Power line ice

Winter storms can wreak havoc with the electric grid, particularly with aging infrastructure.


If it’s frigid outside and the electrical grid goes down, you need backup heating right away. Central heating systems fueled with oil or gas need electricity to function, and when they quit, houses can become unlivable in a matter of hours.

All over the country, the transmission lines, transformers and switches that make up the electrical grid are old and overloaded, according to Daniel Scotto, a Wall Street financial analyst specializing in electric utilities. Experts say we can expect more frequent power failures because the aging infrastructure isn’t being upgraded, especially now that the worldwide meltdown of the banking system is making investment financing scarce.

The best way to protect your family is to do some planning and set up an emergency power source now. If you live in a cold climate, the first priority is either a backup electrical generator and/or a heating system that can run without electricity. The generator option is usually sufficient for short emergencies of a day or two, but in extended and widespread outages, gasoline and diesel fuel become precious and rare commodities. In warmer climates, a generator is a necessity because refrigeration is the most pressing need.

A woodstove is a good non-electric heating and cooking option, provided you keep enough firewood on hand to fuel it during an emergency. Most natural gas or propane stoves and fireplaces can operate without electricity because they have either a continuous pilot flame or electronic ignition with battery backup. Before buying a gas appliance, make sure it has one of these features. A propane heater will go through a lot of fuel when running continuously, so if propane is your backup fuel, consider keeping an emergency supply on hand — during extended ice storms or blizzards, delivery trucks often can’t get through blocked roads.

Pellet stoves need electricity to run the fuel feed auger and fans, and outdoor boilers depend on it to operate  pumps that move the water to the house and back. As with conventional heating systems, a backup generator is needed to make either option functional.

Whatever your choice, make safety your highest priority. Fatalities during winter power failures are mostly due to breathing carbon monoxide gas released by temporary electrical, cooking, and heating equipment. Natural gas and propane cooking ranges shouldn’t be used as space heaters because of this. Kerosene heaters can be dangerous in confined spaces, so they are not a good emergency option. Charcoal grills or gas generators should never be used in an enclosed space such as a garage, or even a breezeway — and especially not in the house.

mark sneegas
12/15/2011 3:57:31 PM

True, but if you already own the tractor, you can buy the pto driven generator power-head much cheaper than the entire propane/nat-gas fueled stand-by generator.

krb jmpr
12/12/2011 8:12:44 PM

for running an entire house, a standby generator fueled with propane/natural gas is even a better idea.

krb jmpr
12/12/2011 8:11:43 PM

PTO driven generators can be great, but they are only going to be as good as the governor on your tractor's engine. If it wearing out, your power frequency is going to be all over the place as it hunts around when a large load is turned on/off. Also keep in mind just how much power do you need, vs. how much fuel / wear and tear the tractor will experience running at just above idle (for some generator heads). If you only need a few kilowatts (incl. appliance demand such as refrigerator or furnace starting), then a small propane or gasoline fueled generator likely will work better. But, if you are planning on running your entire house (10kw +), then the PTO genset will likely be better in long run.

1/5/2011 12:11:42 PM

Since it happens frequently here, I installed a woodstove in my remodeled home. 8 days is a long time! My son has a portable generator and will come over and charge up the freezer - but that's all I worry about. Oh - and in the winter I keep the car and truck full of gas as the pumps won't work in town. The woodstove gives me heat, light, and a flat cooking service with my cast iron dutch oven and fry pans. I also put on a big stainless steel pot with water for washing - luckily our water is gravity feed here, but I also store water jugs just in case. The family comes over cuz they know Grammi will be cooking a big stew on the woodstove and have hot water for cocoa or coffee :) Snuggle up and enjoy the simple life!

1/5/2011 11:03:43 AM

Are there actual recorded incidents of fatalities due to using propane or natural gas stoves as back-up heating? How is that different from e.g. cooking a huge feast, which might take 8 to 12 hours of cooking? I see this warning "don't use your gas stove for backup heating" a lot, but I also see a lot of low income people that I work with thru a charitable organization doing just that, all winter long, because they don't have other heating options. I've done that myself in days past when my job and income situation were different. I'd also like to point some other emergency options, not mentioned in the article: dress for the season indoors, in layered clothing, including a hat. Gather everyone into 1 room, each human being is about the equivalent of a 100 watt space heater, 10 people in a room equals 1000 watts of heating. Mattresses, blankets, quilts, comforters can be placed against walls, windows, and doors. Pitch a tent in the middle of a room, and sleep/sit in it. Newspapers are great insulation, they can be wrapped around legs, arms, body torso etc underneath clothing (homeless people, who often live outdoors in the most frigid weather, do this all the time.)

12/26/2010 11:18:03 PM

Does anyone have experience with using a wood stove to burn corn instead, by having a welder create a box for the corn to burn in? I have been researching all of this. Is it feasible to manually load the corn as needed -- and to install a heat-activated fan -- these both seem similar to using a wood stove. A corn stove costs about 3 times as much as a wood stove, and a corn stove requires electricity -- none of this is desirable! Corn would be easier than wood for me to use. Also -- what are some ways to have water during a power outage when you have city water? Is there something to treat water for storage in sterile jugs? I hope to have this stove installed in a few weeks, to benefit now, intensely dislike the whole on grid heat. Thanks for responding!

susan mill
2/9/2009 11:04:13 AM

i am lucky to have a good well and have T junctioned a line in to the well line before the electric pump. when the power goes off i open the valve under the sink and use the hand pump for all the water i want. i do not have to go outside in a storm and jigg for water down my well head!!! at 66 years old with arthritis and asthma this sure helps!!

david sharrow
2/5/2009 12:50:44 AM

It needs to be remembered, since we are talking safety, that emergency generators need to be connected only when the main service is disconnected. This insures that power from the generator will not feed back along the utility line and electrocute an electrical worker simply trying to restore service in your area. Most current building codes mandate the installation of carbon monoxide (not carbon dioxide) detectors as this is the gas responsible for most combustion related deaths. However, if they are newer installations direct wired into your house wiring they may not function during a power outage. It would be a good idea to have a battery operated model as well as a battery operated smoke alarm for emergencies.

alan jones_1
2/4/2009 10:17:54 AM

I use a deep charge Marine battery, a power inverter, and keep it charged with solar panels. Also, for those of us with water pumps; in the event of a power outage don't forget you have 40-50 gallons of drinking water or water to flush your toilet with that you can drain out of your water heater.

rebecca mccomas
2/4/2009 9:27:45 AM

We heat our 1000 sq ft house with a ventless propane heater that hangs on the wall. Every Fall we have the tank filled and it gets us thru the whole winter. It usually costs between $400-$800 to fill the 600 gallon tank. We just went thru the ice storm last week with 5 days without power. We used oil lamps, a windup radio, and flashlights. We were worried about losing the food in the freezer, but we rolled up newspapers and put them around the seal and then duct taped it into place. It worked. We put water in plastic containers and put it outside to freeze and put it in the refrigerator. And we had a campstove to cook on.

adirondack al
2/1/2009 5:24:18 AM

Shortly after we bought our home there was a huge storm that knocked out our power for three days. Because it was in September, the worst that happened to us was the loss of food stuffs in our refrigerator. Because we have a gas range and hot water heater (and no well) we still had abundant resources for the time but it caused us to consider making some changes. We added a free standing gas fireplace with outside air exchange and some carbon dioxide detectors. We have chosen to forego the generator since we have flash lights, lanterns and candles and can live media free for a few days.

raymond james
1/23/2009 9:52:54 PM

One type of generator that someone with a mid-size (20 to 40 horse power)tractor should consider is a PTO generator. It attaches to the PTO shaft of the tractor. They cost thousands less then a generator with an engine (gasoline, diesel or propane).

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