It’s 2am. Lightning strikes and the LED for your alarm clock flickers. It’s the first sign that your electricity is about to fail. Your little one comes scampering into the room screaming “Mommy, Daddy, I’m scared!” Of course, you take a minute to calm her down and remind her that the boogeyman doesn’t exist, but you have a real monster to worry about.
You just spent $300 on groceries and all the food in your refrigerator and freezer will go bad if your electricity fails. Come to think of it, your phone only has 20% charge, your laptop is dead, and your internet depends on your electricity. How will you call work? How will you find information about the current weather situation with no television and no internet?
Worse, what if it was a serious problem that caused the electrical outage, such as a tornado that came through your neighborhood? Even if it completely missed your house and you are otherwise safe, you could still be displaced for lack of basic services.
You could be without electricity for days. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you could wait out the clean up in the comfort of your own home because you were well supplied and prepared?
Winter storms present a danger as well. Even though most have gas heat, their heat won’t switch on without electricity. I remember a winter when my parents were trapped at home for a week with no electricity and no heat but what came from turning on their stove and lighting the gas with matches. They had a 3,000 square foot two-and-a-half story ranch house with a basement…but no electricity.
All they could do was wall off the kitchen with blankets and sleep on the hard tile floor. They literally lived in that one small room for a week with the exception of trips to the bathroom or trips outside to Nature’s “great outdoor refrigerator,” which thankfully preserved their food. No hot water. No showers. No TV. No light for books because the flashlight batteries wore out.
A week–cooped up in the same room–with a hard tile floor for a bed and no entertainment. They now have very reliable backup electricity.
A lot of people wonder whether a generator is a worthy investment until they find themselves replacing hundreds of dollars worth of groceries after sweltering in the heat or stumbling around in the cold and dark for days. After that, the question is no longer, “is this worth the cost?” but “which one should I buy?”
How did I become so sage about this particular decision-making process? I went through it last week. Live and learn. And now I’d love to share what I have learned with you so that you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll never be left in the dark.
How Do I Choose the Right Backup Power for My Needs?
When deciding on a major purchase with several different factors to consider, I like to think of each decision as I would a game of table tennis. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages, so I just keep track of what wins for the most important factors (for my needs) and look for the best product in my price range with all of these characteristics. Here are some points to consider:
Convenience: Stationary vs. Portable
Stationary generators are large, produce a lot of electricity, and are already connected to your house’s electrical supply. If the electricity goes out, the motor switches on and supplies enough electricity (if we have chosen well) to keep your basic essentials on. You won’t need to trudge outside in the rain and mess with a pull starter or search for extension cords. You won’t be without electricity for more than a few short moments as long as your equipment is well-maintained. And best of all, you won’t lose your hard-earned groceries.
Lightweight machines offer the convenience of transport so they can be used for camping and traveling as well as house electricity. But they are not as easy to use for the house since they must be stored at least 20 feet away. They should also be kept in a covered area to protect them from rain. When the electricity goes out you will have to start it up, check cords for any worn areas and then plug them into the house’s transfer switch.
Fuel Supply: Propane or Natural Gas vs. Gasoline
Most small machines require large quantities of gas to provide enough electricity for your basic household appliances unless you can find one with alternative fuel capabilities. Large standby models use natural gas or propane. Natural gas and propane tend to be safer to store than gas, and gas will require stabilizers for storage.
But, sometimes all you have left is the gas in your car. That’s why having an alternative options is a bonus. Some transportable machines, even very inexpensive ones, can use both gas and propane. Some can even run on natural gas too. These are called tri-fuel options, and you can expect to pay a couple thousand dollars for one that produces around 10,000 watts. It’s worth it though if you consider the security that comes with having several different options.
Cost: Large vs. Small
Lightweight machines can cost 1/5th to 1/10th as much as a large stationary unit, yet the more expensive transportable machines (around $1,000) will produce as much energy as a small stationary one (between 5,000 and 8,000 watts). So when it comes to bang for the buck, transportable provides more watts per dollar. (Consider the fluctuating cost of gas, however.)
Starting: Manual vs. Electric
This won’t be a concern for the larger, whole-house equipment, but it applies to the smaller machines. Most small units use a manual starter instead of a switch. If you have trouble pull-starting a lawnmower, you will want a machine that will operate with an electric start.
Don’t Forget the Transfer Switch
When considering cost, don’t forget that you’re going to need to install a transfer switch for any equipment that produces over 5,000 watts of electricity to safely share it with your household appliances. While some people try to make use of only an extension cord when the electricity goes out, this is unsafe for both your electronics and for you. Your only use for an extension cord should be to plug it into the transfer switch.
Now for the last of our tips. Whichever type of machine you get, make sure it produces enough electricity to meet your appliances electrical needs. You can take a look at your energy bill to see what your daily usage is. Most electric providers will even tell you how much electricity you use on average during peak hours.
Even if you were assured by the salesperson that this is all the machine you need for your household, double check the instructions to be sure that you completely understand the capacity of your unit. You don’t want to find out that you can overtax it in the middle of a storm.
Now that you know a little more about your backup electricity choices, feel free to share this information with your friends in hopes that you can all become better prepared with your backup and safety equipment together. Meanwhile, we’ll keep the light on for you.