Disaster Prep: Choosing and Using a Generator

home power generator

Zombies in the streets, virulent pathogens, asteroid impacts and huge monsters—although popular culture typically depicts the human race prepping for disasters of unimaginable proportions, most of the troubles you'll likely face are either naturally-occurring or civil disturbances that suddenly escalate.

The first urge of a human faced with either of these situations is to head for home and make sure that loved ones are safe and secure. As such, you have to prepare for the natural or man-made siege by planning ahead on just where in your home you'll ride it out.

This is Part IV of an occasional series on DIY Prepping for Disaster. This time, we examine your need for a generator in the event of the loss of electricity.

Power Outage

Losing power is the one disaster most of us will experience in a lifetime. Given the somewhat ancient electricity grid—it’s actually something Thomas Edison would not find unfamiliar—and the increasing demands for power, it doesn’t take a lot to knock out the lights and transfer you back to simpler, gentler times that most modern citizens are totally unprepared to cope with for even a few hours.

The U.S. government understands what’s at stake. That’s why they’re planning a massive emergency drill in November that will simulate the response when large sections of the power grid are taken down.

Power Generation

If such a disaster strikes, that’s when you’ll be grateful to have a small portable generator or its big brother, the standby generator, which is good for your entire house. The bad news is that both are somewhat temporary solutions, most relying on gasoline and propane. Some work on natural gas, but that may not be available in a disaster.

The good news is most situations won’t require weeks of power, and you’ll be able to ride out whatever problems you’re experiencing and still be able to watch TV or salvage your refrigerated food.

Portable Generators: Power Where You Need It

Portable generators are best used to power specific items in a house. They cost anywhere from $500-$2,000. The larger standby generators can run on gas, natural gas or propane, and temporarily light up your entire home, but you get what you pay for – they start at $5000 and ramp up in price from there.

To determine what you need, it’s imperative to know what you’re going to power. Fortunately, the appliance manufacturers are mandated to have labels on the machines that let you know how much wattage they need.

Total up the wattage and multiply by 1.5 (because appliances need a slight juice boost to power up) and you’ll have the total wattage you need for your generator.

Portable Generator

Of course, some hard choices need to be made. Refrigerator or TV? Lights or sump pump? The best choices are things that don’t take a lot of power and can last a few days. A microwave that takes 600 watts is a better choice to use for your portable generator than a 1500-watt air conditioner.

Keep in mind that portable gas-powered generators are throwing out carbon monoxide, so make sure they’re far enough away from your house and keep your windows cracked so that you don’t inhale fumes.

Standby Generators: Bigger Is Better

For those with a big backyard, a standby generator may be the ticket. You can run extension cords (at least 14 gauge cords are recommended) to whichever appliances you wish to power up. Many generators allow up to four plug-ins at a time

You can also have an experienced electrician install a sub-panel in your home (it’s definitely not a DIY project). This will allow you to run entire circuits with a standby generator rather than linking to individual appliances. You’re still limited in what you can run, but it’s easier to flip a switch than arduously cable everything together.

Standby Generator

The standby generator also can have a transfer switch that monitors your home’s power and kicks on automatically when the power goes out, which means you don’t miss a beat. By the way, don’t think you can just run a cable from a generator and plug it into your wall to make your own circuit. That will cause a dangerous power feedback to utility workers trying to repair your lines.

The best advice: make a realistic assessment of how much power you need for short-term problems, and then add in a few hundred watts on top of that. The last thing you want to do is play electrical bingo, deciding whether you need to unplug the washing machine in order to use the microwave.

Remember that all generators can sustain their maximum output for only so long. Count on only 80% of capacity as a rule of thumb. This is a temporary solution, folks. And zombies are attracted to light, anyway.