If there’s one lesson the weather has taught us over the last ten years, it’s to have an emergency power supply at home. Solar power packs are designed by the builder for specific small appliances for short- term use. Larger appliances, such as the refrigerator and/or freezer will drain the power pack in less than an hour.
There’s another reason for an emergency power supply. In the aftermath of Hermine, one of my neighbors was having trouble. With no power to the neighborhood, his portable oxygen machine was going dead. He had to be driven by a friend across town to recharge his unit so he could breathe. If there were no one to drive him, he would have needed an ambulance. And, most people’s cell phone batteries were going dead with nothing to charge them.
This calls for a generator. Many different types are available from various manufacturers, both in big box stores and online. To choose, figure how much power is needed (just for appliances or whole house), and the type of fuel that will be used.
Where the generator is set up is another concern. I spoke to Mr. Ken Steiner, The Ordinance and Building Inspector in Live Oak, Texas. He advised that if a generator were used inside a garage, a dedicated exhaust port would have to be installed through the wall to the outside. Simply trying to use the dryer vent to the outside would not work- the generator exhaust would melt the aluminum, and the heat could start a fire. The vent pipe has to have a permit and a building inspector must approve the construction according to local codes. Of course, check with your local municipality for codes.
A licensed electrician can also set up your generator with an automatic switch to start when no electricity is detected to the house. It would turn off when at least thirty minutes of electricity is detected. This, according to Mr. Steiner, can be done with almost any sized generator. Dedicated outlets, such as the refrigerator and freezer, and perhaps the television/computer, can also be wired as the only ones receiving power when the generator is operating.
Whole house generators can be hooked up to the existing house natural gas line or large propane tank. This eliminates the need to fill a fuel tank in the rain or during a storm. If the natural gas lines go down, perhaps a spare portable generator for backup is wise.
With my local codes, I figure I would spend around $120.00 to build a generator exhaust vent with rain cap (stops the rain from coming in, closes when not in use and opens when the generator is running- like the caps on top of the big diesel trucks). Of course, that includes the building permit.
If operated outside, protect it from the elements. A small enclosure can be built on a small deck to keep it off the ground, or a “break-down” enclosure can be erected when needed.
Extension cords should be sized according to the appliance being powered. If the generator is outside, an outside extension cord is the only safe way to deliver electricity.
Today’s generators are far quieter and more fuel efficient than 30 years ago. Some carry “eco-friendly” labels. Shopping will help find the best bargains.
The different types of generators
Gas generators by far cost the least. However, storing gasoline isn’t easy, and in some municipalities, is illegal. The fumes tend to accumulate, travel to the nearest source of outside air, and are ignited by gas water heater pilot lights. Special stabilizers must be added or the gas will turn stale and be useless.
Diesel generators are wonderful. Diesel stores better than gasoline, however, there are still fumes to deal with, the containers aren’t cheap and the stuff is heavy to lift and pour. They are still a bargain for their use. In RV’s, the generator lines are attached to the vehicles fuel tanks- cool.
Natural gas generators are the best for whole-house standby power. These cost the most to install and only a licensed professional is acceptable to insurance companies. Power is provided to the whole house or designated outlets, and the fuel line is attached to the natural gas lines of the house. While this has been mentioned before in this article, these generators are worth repeating. The costs for generators and installation have dropped dramatically over the years. Most small homes can purchase one with installation for around $1,500.00, depending on the local market.
Propane generators are among the easiest to fuel. Hook up the hose from the generator to the portable fuel tank and turn it on. I can exchange empty five-gallon propane tanks for full ones at my local Home Depot for around $15 each. A local RV dealership also sells propane, so if Home Depot, Lowes and everyone else is out, I still have somewhere to go. Propane generators can be attached to a whole house propane tank, as well. The tanks store in the garage with no trouble at all. Propane doesn’t go stale, and the tanks are sealed so there are no fumes to deal with. Besides, during a severe power outage, gas stations might not be able to pump gas or diesel fuel. Propane tanks are stocked full. Just pick it up and use it.
What size do I need?
For a whole-house model, check with a professional. Each house may have different energy requirements. The house with two stories will need far more power than a one-story house. A 1,000 square foot house will need less than a 2,000 square foot house.
For portable generators, the sizes are sold in watts. In-store and online representatives are eager to help you determine the size of generator you need. First, go to the appliances you’ll need power for in an emergency. If power is given in amps, that’s ok. Write them down. Add all the figures given in amps together, hold the watts aside for a moment. That statement will become clear in a minute.
My refrigerator label says it uses 1.2 amps (although I think that’s a bit low for a frig), the freezer label lists 3 amps, and the window a/c unit I want to power uses 11 amps. Not counting the television, digital converter box (which uses next to nothing), or the DVD player.
So, I have 15.2 amps listed so far. I truly think I’ll need 25 amps. I’d rather have more than I need than to have too little in an emergency.
To convert amps to watts, use the following formula: Watts = Amps X Volts.
So, for a 110 volt electrical system, 25 amps x 110 volts = 2,750 watts.
My house is 120 volts. 25 amps x 120 volts = 3,000 watts.
Once you have the figure in watts, add any other devices you need to power that are listed in watts, and you have your figure. In the winter, I wouldn’t need the a/c, but my 1500 watt heater, refrigerator, and freezer would be powered without any trouble.
I could also cook with various small appliances, my electric skillet, crock- pot or use my patio burners. Since I live in Texas, barbeques are pretty much standard household items.
Shopping around on the internet, I found a Sportsman 4000 Watt Sportsman Propane Generator for only $399.00 and free shipping. That’s far less expensive than other models I looked at that provided less power. In addition, this has a battery-charging port, so if a storm were still raging, I could recharge a portable power pack with no trouble. It runs for 10 hours on 20# (or 5 gallons) of propane at 50 percent power. This is the size of tank used by barbeque grills and mounted on the front of small travel trailers. Ten- gallon or 40# tanks are also usable, but much heavier. Still, at $15 per tank, $30-$45 for propane will be far cheaper than the food I had to throw out because Hermine took my power down for 20 hours. It won’t disturb the neighbors either. At only 68db, about the same as laughter and quieter than a vacuum cleaner (70db), anyone driving by won’t hear it from the back yard.
It comes with hoses and its own regulator, and a wheel kit for portability. I didn’t really see the others providing this. I can easily roll it into place and get it running.
But what If I rent?
That’s a good question. If you’re renting a house, the generator and LP bottles or fuel can stay in the garage. Unless the landlord or management company gives written permission, and local codes permit, don’t attempt to build a permanent port. It would be mistaken for damage to the property. Have a designated spot outside where it can be placed and operated in an emergency.
How about an apartment building?
The same applies. Only talk to the manager and get permission in writing to have a small generator for the outside patio (only if you have one). If the building complex doesn’t have a stand-by generator and you’ve been told you can’t have one, build a solar power pack.
Power the computer, perhaps a 12-volt television for emergency information. Add an inverter for AC powered small appliances, or consider purchasing one or two 12-volt cooking appliances.
Purchase a 12-volt small refrigerator, or be prepared to find ice for an ice chest.
That’s about all you can do in an apartment building.
Planning ahead is the only way to get through a power outage, no matter what the cause is. Storms will come and go, trees being cut the wrong way will fall through power lines, cars drive into power poles, and transformers explode occasionally. I plan on having a cold refrigerator, a cold freezer, at least one comfortable room, and news I can watch.
Perhaps one day, they’ll be included with new housing. Central air conditioners were considered a gimmick, now they’re standard. The same thing happened with dishwashers.