Emergency Preparedness: Get A Backup Generator for When Disaster Strikes

While it may not be a pleasant thought, emergency preparedness is undoubtedly important. Having a backup generator for power outages, whether for a long or short period of time, is one of the major must-haves for thorough emergency planning.

| May 18, 2012

When Disaster Strikes Cover

In his disaster-preparedness manual “When Disaster Strikes,” Matthew Stein outlines the materials you'll need — from food and water, to shelter and energy, to first-aid and survival skills — to help you safely live through the worst. This must-have tool for emergency preparedness covers how to find and store food, water and clothing, as well as the basics of selecting and installing backup generators for power outages.


Having a backup generator for both short- and long-term power outages is an important part of emergency preparedness. In this excerpt from When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide to Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival (Chelsea Green, 2011) by Matthew Stein, the basics on how to choose a generator for power outages are covered, along with a guide on whether you need a large, medium or small generator for your purposes. This excerpt is taken from the chapter “About Generators.”  

Everyone should have at least one small, backup generator on hand to provide power for short-term emergencies and power outages. Once the fuel supplies run out in a long-term collapse-type scenario, a generator won’t do much good unless you have the capability of making and using bio fuels, but for relatively short-term blackouts (up to a few weeks in duration), having a generator on hand can make a huge difference to your comfort and safety. Most refrigerators won’t run without electricity, and many home central heating systems require at least modest amounts of electric power to run the fans or pumps necessary to keep a home central heating system functioning. A small generator provides enough power to keep a few lights running, power your refrigerator, your central heating system fans and pumps, and keep a computer or TV running.

Choosing a Backup Generator 

When shopping around for generators, consider the following questions:

  1. Is your generator for occasional backup usage or might it be a primary source of energy for long periods of time? Whole-house generators to provide long-term off-grid power will be considerably larger and more expensive than smaller, more portable generators for occasional backup power and multipurpose use, plus they will consume quite a bit of fuel over a surprisingly short period of time (and can be shockingly expensive to operate).
  2. Will your generator be hard-wired into your home’s electrical system? If so, it should be installed by a qualified electrician to meet electrical codes that require a transfer switch to disconnect your home from the grid whenever the generator is operating (more on this later). Whole-house generators are quite expensive, and may be installed to automatically and seamlessly disconnect your home from the grid, and switch into generator operation, whenever the grid goes down.
  3. What is the size of the power loads that you wish to run with your generator?    

Small, relatively lightweight portable generators, like the Honda EU2000i and the equivalent Generac iX2000 2-kilowatt (kw) generators, commonly found in use on travel trailers and by car-campers across America, are powerful enough to operate a few lights, a refrigerator and a computer, but do not provide enough power and/or voltage to operate electric hot water heaters, electric stoves, or most air-conditioning units.

The plus about having a small portable generator, either instead of, or in addition to, a larger generator is twofold. First, the 2 kw Honda and Honeywell units are very quiet and they can run continuously in the background with little irritation to yourself and your neighbors. Secondly, they are quite economical to operate the low-power appliances that people tend to find most important during a blackout. My 2 kw Honda EU2001 can run at one-quarter of its rated continuous capacity (400 watts) for about nine hours on a single gallon of gas. My 4 kw job site generator is about ten times as loud, and will consume about 4 gallons of gas over the same period when run at 50-percent load (2 kw) and the Honeywell HW7500E generator will consume about 8.5  gallons of gas at 50 percent load (3.75 kw). A quick calculation shows that in order to run this 7.5 kW backup generator for 10 hours a day for a period of two weeks, you would need to store 130 gallons of gasoline, and fill its tank at least 20 times! However, if I ran fewer appliances and circuits, I could provide the same 10 hours a day of backup power to my home using my small quiet 2 kw generator, and it would only consume approximately 16 gallons of gas — a much more affordable and easily stored amount of fuel. 

Larger “job site” generators provide more power, typically on the order of 4-10 kw, and usually include both 110 VAC and 220 VAC output plug sockets, but are bulkier and heavier than the small units. Though still considered “portable”, these generators are heavy (on the order of 100-250 lbs) and usually require at least two persons to lift onto a truck bed or hand carry any kind of distance. Some of the more expensive and larger models in this category come equipped with their own towing trailer for easy towing with a pickup truck or SUV.

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