Setting up a Generator

For many people, getting a generator is one of the first steps the take in preparing.  Captain Dave disagrees with this approach and believes the first steps should be laying in a good amount of food and water.  Unless you need electricity to power critical medical equipment or for other life saving purposes, buying a generator should be one of the last steps in your personal preparedness plan, not one of the first.

But once you do decide to get a generator, you need to do a little homework before you purchase one.  Obviously, this is much easier, and prices are much lower, if you buy one before a disaster strikes.

How Much Power is Enough?

The biggest decision is how many watts your generator should generate, and that is determined by how much power you will need.  You must look at both the normal load, and the surge capacity.  Electrical motors draw extra energy when they are starting up, so you need surge capacity so you and start your well pump, refrigerator compressor, AC, etc.

The first step is to determine what each circuit in your home’s circuit breaker box powers and decide how many of these circuits you need during an emergency.  For example, can you live without the electric garaged door opener for the extent of the emergency?  Then look at what is on that circuit and calculate the load and the surge load.

The second step is to determine how many of these appliances are on at one time.   For example, if you do need the garage door opener, what are the chances it will need to be opened at the same time as the microwave oven is on?  On the other hand, if you intend to power the washing machine, you will definitely need to run it at the same time as the well pump.  But if you have an electric dryer, perhaps you can hang your close out to dry, or at the very least not run it at the same time as the washer, even though this may be inconvenient.  This type of trade off will help you lower your expenses, even though it will make it less convenient.

So, ask yourself, do you have an electric well pump or are you on city water?  Do you have an electric range, or a gas stove?  Do you need to power your refrigerator and a few lights, or do you want to run the central air conditioner as well?  The difference from one extreme and another is probably 10,000 watts and almost as much money.

What Fuel Source will you Use?

You also need to determine what fuel source you want your generator to use.  If you have natural gas already in your home, this may be the most convenient.  If you have a propane tank, that is also an easy solution.  If your house has an oil burner with a big storage tank, consider a diesel fueled generator.  If you have none of the above, you may be limited to gasoline, unless you are willing to buy a large propane tank or diesel storage tank just for the generator.  Propane is probably the safest to store and does not degrade over time.  Diesel is safer than gasoline, and both gas and diesel need to be treated with preservatives or consumed fairly quickly.

Most small generators use gasoline, while most large ones are powered by diesel, natural gas or propane.  Conversion kits are often available to convert gasoline generators to run on propane.  Diesel generators will generally run on fuel oil, which is pretty much the same thing.  Remember, if you buy diesel for generators, buy the tax-free kind.  Since you will not be using it for over-the-road use you do not need to pay highway taxes.

Permanent Installation vs. Temporary or Portable Generators

Once you have determined how much power you need and the fuel source, you can answer the question of whether to get a portable generator or invest in a permanent installation.  If your requirements are limited or below 6,000 watts, you can probably get away with a portable unit.  If you need more than 10,000 watts of power, a permanent installation probably makes the most sense.

Let me also add that if you have a tractor with a PTO, you can avoid buying a generator and just go with the PTO-driven alternator.  This will use your tractor engine to generate power for your home and probably save you some money.  This is ideal with a diesel powered tractor – just make sure you install the alternator in a location where you can safely and conveniently back the tractor up to it.

Permanently installed generators are often designed to seamlessly switch on automatically when the power goes out, and are hardwired into your house.  They are hardwired into a transfer switch which powers certain circuits in your home and keep you from sending power out the same lines that normally bring it in.  Most run on natural gas or propane, which means no messy pouring of fuel into the tank is required, and less likelihood of running out.  Another plus of a fixed generator installation is that it can be programmed to run every week for half an hour or more.  This ensures it is working, keeps it lubricated and ensures it will start up in an emergency.  Permanent installations also have sound-dampening enclosures.

The downside of a permanently installed generator is that running continuously is inefficient and a waste of fuel.  They are also much more expensive than portable units.

Portable generators are usually less expensive and almost always run on gasoline.  They spend most of their lives sitting quietly in the garage and are wheeled out only when needed.  Ideally, they should be checked and run every month or so, but this rarely happens.   When the time comes, remember to keep the generator at least 10 feet outside your house and prevent exhaust fumes from entering.  That means keeping nearby doors and windows closed.

The best way to hook up your portable generator is to have a transfer switch installed before you need it.  In fact, if you have a well pump, it is just about a requirement.  Otherwise, you will be forced to jury rig something or have hundreds of feet of extension cord running from the generator into your house.

Whichever generator you select, remember that while it is convenient to run one 24 x 7, it is not really necessary, and in a survival situation with limited resources, it should be avoided.  We recommend running the generator two to four hours in the morning, and another two to four hours in the evening.  This should be enough to cool the contents of your refrigerator, prepare meals, take showers, heat or cool the house, fill water bottles, flush toilets, etc.  Running it more than this is unnecessary and wasteful unless you need it for life saving reasons.

Popular Mechanics prepared this straight-forward video on how to use a portable generator.  It looks at transfer switches and set up.

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