One picture I saw online this week of the flooding in Texas showed floodwaters reaching a traffic signal. The caption said those signals were seventeen feet above the roadway. That’s a lot of extra water! The other amazing thing; The signal was still lit! Not that there was any traffic, not even boat traffic, but the thing was still working! 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 does go 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. Besides that with today’s ethanol percentages rising, the shelf-life for gasoline keeps shrinking. Ethanol is another type of alcohol and alcohol has a tendency to attract water molecules, thus rendering the gasoline not usable. 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 or open a garage door. Most modern garage door openers now have a battery back-up,but some of the older ones are totally dependent on the flow of electricity.
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? (voltage x amperes = watts) If you buy a 4000 watt unit, what can you expect that it will power up?
Check the online charts to see how much electricity your appliances use. Then decide what size (wattage) you need to do what you want. You’ll find you probably can’t expect to power up your entire home on a 4000 watt generator. Or almost any portable generator for that matter.
Now for the NO-NOs. Please don’t leave your generator 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 really bad idea for several reasons. You could overload your generator and possibly burn it out. Or 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.
Dave Robinson is a retired Postmaster and the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us”, available on amazon.com, barnes and noble and other online booksellers.