Choosing a Backup Generator

Learn how backup generators can help you to survive lasting power outages in relative comfort. Whether natural gas or propane powered.

| February/March 2004

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    If you have a natural gas or propane-powered generator, you need to have a licensed plumber or pipe-fitter install the gas connections. "That way, you know it's been done correctly and that it will meet all the codes," Flowers says.
    Illustration courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
  • Installing a Backup Generator
    Used with or without renewable energy, a backup generator can eliminate the headaches of long-term power outages.
    Illustration courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
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    A permanent standby generator can be an inconspicuous addition to your house.
    Photo courtesy Generac Power Systems
  • Portable generators, such as this Honda EG 5000, are a cheaper option than permanent standby models. This generator’s engine runs on gasoline and is designed with overhead valves, a feature that helps reduce emissions and noise.
    Photo courtesy American Honda

  • 202-038-01
  • Installing a Backup Generator
  • 202-042-02

Backup Generators: Preparing for Power Blackouts

Don't get left in the dark. Here's what you need to know for emergency power.

Power failures can be a real pain — and downright dangerous — if you're not prepared. At the very least, blackouts disable heating and air-conditioning systems, freezers, refrigerators, water pumps and lighting. If the power outage lasts for any length of time, your home can become uncomfortable and possibly uninhabitable: Your water pipes may freeze and burst, the food in your freezer may thaw and spoil, or your sump pump may fail, flooding your basement. Any of these events can quickly become expensive. If a blizzard blocks roads and you're snowed-in during subzero temperatures, grid failure can even be life-threatening.

But you can make your home blackout-proof. Installing a solar PV system or a wind generator is the greenest option, letting you cut your ties to the fossil fuels and nuclear power that produce nearly all grid-based electricity. (For more on these options, see "Install a Solar Photovoltaic Roof to Generate Free Electricity".)

Another possibility is buying a backup generator, usually powered by a conventional internal combustion engine. Used with or without renewable energy, a backup generator can eliminate the headaches of long-term power outages.

In 1985, I lived at the tail end of along electric distribution line in rural Vermont. One January night, a severe ice storm hit and the electricity went off, as usual. But this time it did not return hours later, or even the next day. The morning after, I surveyed the damage outside — our electric lines were lying on the ground across the driveway and the power line right-of-way had disappeared in a tangle of bent, ice-coated trees. The utility company's crews were overwhelmed by the damage. We went without electric service for a week.

Fortunately, we had a wood stove and a backup generator. The generator powered a few lights, the refrigerator and a television. Most importantly, it kept the heated, automatic waterers for the 75 sheep in the barn from freezing.

Greg Smith
11/17/2011 11:07:46 PM

This is a very informative article but there are a few points that might confuse people. On page 1 the author states, "But you can make your home blackout-proof. Installing a solar PV system or a wind generator is the greenest option" and on the last page, "combine your backup generator with a renewable energy system, and declare your total independence from the grid". These are both incorrect statements as a solar or wind system will not work without the grid or another voltage source when the grid is out. For PV or wind to continue to operate when the grid is out, you MUST use a battery backup inverter to provide the voltage source to the PV or wind inverters. You absolutely CANNOT use a generator as the voltage source because the PV could backfeed into it and destroy the regulator board. This is not covered by the generator manufacturer warranty.

Robert Bullard_2
1/30/2009 7:11:43 PM

I live in remote WV and have power troubles. I have had 5 different generators from 1 to 10 KW. When power is off their usually isn't access to town for gas, and the 10 KW unit will take 5 gal in a day, I use it for short outages one or two days. I installed compact florescence and LED bulbs in the house and barn. One 15 amp breaker feed this circuit by way of a double pole transfer switch which switches from the power company to an Inverter the double pole switch is required to isolated ground because the inverter output cannot be connected to Gnd. (I used Black & Decker 700 watt unite $26.00) this unit only draws 120 MA. with no load the cooling fan doesn't run with no load, one small float charged will keep the battery charged when power is on. I used two 220v double pole wall switches with a blocker so only can be on at a time but changed to a double pole double position relay which was cheaper and will switch automatic the the winding is 120v ac (from Radio Shack). with a 400amp car battery the lights will last 6 hrs. It is nice to have light to start the generator. When the battery is low I charge it with a 60 amp alternator powered by a 6 hp lawnmower engine (1/2 gal. for 12 hrs not 5 gal.) or jumper it to the Kobota. The delco si alternator has a 14.64 V regulator (used in fire and police cars). I only start the 10 kw unit when I need to run the water or the freezer is not cool enough (the $10 Walmart) wireless thermostat work to check the freezer with out opening the door. For backup heat I use a wall mount gas heater. A government large enough to provide everything you want is strong enough to take everything you own!

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