This summer I have experienced two extended power outages and have used my generator as an auxiliary home power source. This created the opportunity to learn some good lessons and evaluate my electricity back up plan. Because I am not an electrician I will focus more on the general setup/lessons learned and will not attempt to explain any technical details. I’m sure some readers have invested in this equipment and I hope my experiences will help you maximize your implementation plan.
Many people may have a generator as part of their back up plan, but most generator owners don’t have a good way to utilize it except through a rat’s nest of extension cords. A well made, reasonably powerful generator should be able to power most important things in the average home such as lights, fans, well pump, refrigerator/freezer, sump pump and etc. However, to properly harness this power the extension cords aren’t going to cut it.
It is very important to use a licensed electrician for any modifications to your home’s electrical system and I would highly recommend consulting with one before attempting any of the steps discussed below. I had a licensed electrician install a power bypass system in my home that allows a generator to provide power directly to my circuit breaker box. It is a nifty setup complete with concise breaker box mounted sticker instructions and a sliding cover that ensures power is only entering via the generator or the normal main line. This is extremely important as an error in configuration here could easily cause a house fire or a fatal electric shock.
My electrician friend recommended a Honeywell HW5500E portable gasoline generator that puts out 5500 watts as a good choice for backup home power. I’ve had it for about a year and a half now and so far it’s served me quite well. He made a heavy gauge cord that connects the generator to an outdoor outlet. Once the breaker box is set, the generator is running and properly grounded (to a 6′ ground rod), you’re in business!
I have each individual circuit breaker labeled so that I know what it controls and then have further marked each one that I can use with generator power only. This saves a lot of time and frustration in the dark when switching over to auxiliary power. My generator will run just about everything in the house except the A/C, although if using the electric stove I would probably need to turn everything else off. While running most of what I listed above I was able to get over 12 hours of generator use with the integral five gallon gas tank.
It was hot during the recent power outages, but fortunately it wasn’t the brutal, searing heat that’s been with us for most of the summer. Regardless, our home was pretty uncomfortable inside even with multiple fans going. However, despite the discomfort the main benefits were being able to see, take a shower, flush the toilets, and keep the food in the refrigerator and freezer from spoiling during the power outages. Each homeowner will have to decide if the expense and maintenance of a backup system is a worthwhile investment for a (fortunately) infrequent need.
Thoughts on Generators
First of all, if you want your generator to work when you need it you can’t just leave it sitting around. I run mine monthly for about 10-15 minutes (same time I make the house payment and change the furnace filter so I don’t forget) and change the oil about once a year since it’s not heavily used. Someone I know who doesn’t do that had a very hard time recently starting their (cheap) generator and then it gave up the ghost after only a couple hours of use. Some rules never change.
A pleasant byproduct of the power outage was getting to know some neighbors better. With our temperature controlled cocoons and various electronic pacifiers it’s pretty easy to spend a lot of time indoors. However, when that’s taken away a lot of people found themselves outdoors getting reacquainted.
Conversely, generators are a major security risk and could attract unwanted attention. When it’s suddenly country dark and quiet outside the droning of a generator (and even interior lights) could easily make you a predator magnet. Also, even though I was pleasantly surprised by the run times and power output mine produced, generators are horribly inefficient. Gas for just a few days worth of use without resupply requires some planning ahead.
The above experiences helped cement the reality in my head that a generator would be of pretty limited usefulness in a prolonged, grid down situation. Fuel supplies and security alone are formidable barriers to success. A vastly superior system is an inverter and an array of deep cycle batteries powered off solar/wind with a generator as a backup way to charge the bank. This way running the generator for a short amount of time could provide day(s) of power.
However, the cost of the above would not make any sense in my current suburban location. Maybe someday I’ll be able to better position myself. Despite the cost and maintenance, I found a generator backup system to be quite useful for a short term power outage. Beyond that, don’t kid yourself and plan accordingly!
I have a similar setup, except I converted my 5500W gasoline generator to run on natural gas or propane. With NG I can run my generator for pennies instead of worrying about the price, availability and storage of gasoline. The conversion kit is from USCARB and was under $200. The gas line cost me around $150 to run and the electrician was around $325. After hurrican IKE I swore to never get left in the dark again, plus its waaay hot here in Houston.