I am always impressed at how well our electricity stays on, especially during some of our big wind storms. But we all know that every so often, our power goes out for one reason or another. A transformer blows, a tree comes down across a line somewhere, or a drunk driver takes out a power pole. Whatever the reason, we are sometimes left in the dark. That’s when we grab a flashlight, start looking for those candles and drag out the Coleman lantern.
That’s also when we walk into a darkened room and out of habit flip the light switch. Then we feel just a wee bit silly and hope nobody else noticed. Admit it, we’ve all done it. I thought so.
So let’s talk about emergency generators. Should you buy one, which one do you need? Can you justify the expense? How much gasoline should you store? Here’s my take on the subject. I own a generator, but I don’t consider it a long term solution. Three or four days maybe a week at the most. The reason? They require fuel. Most are gasoline powered; some are propane, some diesel and some even use natural gas. But few of us can, or are willing, to store up that much gasoline. For short-term use, a generator can mean the difference between keeping your fridge running or throwing out a bunch of spoiled food. It can also supply electricity to pump water out of your well.
If you make the decision to buy a generator, here are some things to keep in mind. Consider the wattage output. How many watts do you need? If you buy a 4000 watt unit, what can you expect that it will power up? Here’s a little table to help:
Starting wattage Running wattage
Refrigerator 1600 200
TV (tube) 300 300
TV (flat screen) 190 190
Coffee maker 600 600
Dishwasher (cool dry) 540 216
Clothes washer 1200 1200
Dryer 6750 5400 (requires 240 volt)
Water Heater 4500 4500 (requires 240 volt)
Much more information is available online, but you get the idea. You can’t expect to power up your entire home on a 4000 watt generator.
Now a couple of things not to do with a generator. Don’t leave it running in an enclosed area, like your attached garage or back porch or basement. The reason? Carbon monoxide will kill you. Secondly, some ingenious types have figured out that if you wire a male plug to both ends of an extension cord, you can plug into any outlet and power up your house. This is a bad idea for several reasons. You could overload your generator and possibly burn it out, you could heat up your electrical circuits causing a fire hazard and most importantly it is a danger to utility workers. When a worker is repairing a line he thinks is dead and Harry Homeowner has plugged a generator into the system it will energize the line he is working on. I’m no electrician but I’m told when 240 volts passes backwards through the transformer into the power grid, it becomes 24,000 volts. My numbers may not be accurate, but the principle is correct. Understandably utility companies really frown on this practice. Don’t do it!
Do your research, shop around and use some common sense. As always if you have any questions or comments you may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns can be found on my blog at www.disasterprepdave.blogspot.com.
Dave Robinson is the Postmaster in Bandon, Oregon and the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us”.