As most of you did, I watched as Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Northeast and it dawned on me in real terms how very important an emergency backup generator is even in our modern day and age. Natural disasters, be they hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy snowfall or brushfires. Any one of which can shut down electricity for days, sometimes even weeks. We are more dependent on electricity than ever before in our history, and the lack of it for an extended period can be financially and personally devastating.
While backup generators are a temporary solution, they can provide a homeowner protection against loss of fresh and frozen foodstuffs; the lack of needed medical equipment such as oxygen and provide ongoing ability to connect to the rest of the world via computers, phones, radio and television. Being “connected” is no longer a luxury in our modern society; it is very much a necessity, especially in times of distress.
Another hazard of loss of electricity during extreme cold weather is not only the lack of heat and warmth for the occupants of the house, but the likelihood of frozen water pipes—the damage resulting from burst pipes in a house can be financially and structurally devastating.
Backup Generators are available in two types. Permanent and Portable.
The Permanent or standby generator is, as the name implies, a permanent outside fixture that becomes part of the real estate. These generators run on an independent energy source, most often natural gas or propane. The standby generator is designed to kick in within seconds of electrical power in the grid failing. Standby generators use a transfer switch which continuously monitors incoming voltage from power lines. When the wattage fails, the switch disconnects from the public utility and connects a line to the generator.
A drawback of this type of generator is its price—such systems are very expensive and feasible for the average homeowner if they live in an area that frequently loses power—geographic locations that are prone to violent storms and very cold weather could see the investment in a permanent generator repaid the first storm season. Prices have become more reasonable in recent years than in times past, but standby generators are still big ticket items.
Permanent generators must also be professionally installed by licensed and qualified electricians; you must also inform your local power utility that you have such a system, expect them to have standards and requirements your system must adhere to.
[niceyoutube video="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaQZAyjq5FY" pic="/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/perminant-emergency-backup-generator.png" caption="See what different size generators will do for you."]
Portable generators are much less expensive and may be moved and removed from the property as needed (sale of a home for example—the permanent generator can’t be taken to a new property, a portable generator can). They are generally small enough to carry or roll out of storage for use.
A huge drawback of portable generators is that they tend to be dependent on gasoline for power. Extreme caution must be exercised to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning in their operation.
Portable models can never be used in enclosed spaces or in the interior of a home/garage. They MUST be placed in a well-ventilated area to operate. Carbon monoxide monitors (battery powered) should be installed in the house to make sure that the generator operating outside isn’t funneling the toxic fumes into the home. Extension cords running from the generator to the appliance or connection inside generally necessitates having a door or window partially open. This can result in accidental exposure to carbon monoxide fumes.
Portable generators do not carry the same voltage generating power of their permanent cousins—their output ranges between 2500 to 4000 watts. A portable generator is most helpful for keeping the most basic necessities powered during an outage: a furnace, food storage (refrigerator/freezer), cooking stoves/microwaves. A portable generator cannot provide electricity to the entire house in the way a permanent one can. It is important to prioritize appliances as part of a disaster preparedness plan, figure out in advance of any crisis which appliances you must keep operating and which you can manage without for a few days.
A portable generator will have a power load rating. To determine which portable generator is the best choice for your home you must determine the voltage requirements of the appliances you cannot do without and add them altogether. The total figure must be less than the maximum voltage output of the generator. You must be aware at all times of the energy usage versus output.
Because they are powered by gasoline care must be taken when refueling portable generators as well. There is a danger of fire or explosion should gasoline splash onto a hot generator surface. The portable should be turned off and allowed to cool before refueling. Before turning off the generator, you must disconnect it from the electrical loads—the same rule applies when turning it back on—no loads can be connected until the generator is running.
Some points to remember when researching which generator to buy:
- Prioritize energy consumption—most vital needs first. Do this before you shop so you can match electrical loads to the correct generator capacity.
- Homes in very cold areas need protection from occupant exposure to cold and the likelihood of frozen pipes. Homes in more “tropical” climates need to maintain air circulation and air conditioning to prevent formation of mold, as well as reducing risk of heatstroke among occupants. In these two extremes, a backup supply of power is not merely about keeping warm or cool—it is protection against property damage as well.
- Refrigerators and standalone freezers should be a top priority to avoid food spoilage. Homes that are on well systems will need to have the well pump connected to the generator in order for water to flow and toilets to be flushed.
- Take into consideration the startup wattage as well as the running wattage of the generator under consideration. Electricians can help with this determination; generator manufacturers are another source of information.
- If opting for a permanent generator, consider whether you want an automatic transfer switch or a manual switch. If you want your home protected when you are away from it, the former is a good investment.
Finding the right emergency generator for your needs can be a challenge but it is one that we all need to spend a little time contemplating. It could mean the difference between survival or not and at the very least how comfortable those disaster days can be.