Emergency Power Options for Your Home

Emergency Power Options for Your Home - Keep your critical systems running when the power goes out. Generators, batteries and spot chargers.

Emergency power is critical for almost any home or homestead if you are stuck with a prolonged power outage.  When hit with a natural or man made disaster (small or large) that takes out the grid, it’s not long before lack of electricity affects us.  How do I keep the food cold and the house warm?  When will the power come back on?  How do I keep the phone charged so I can maintain contact with the outside world?

After storm Sandy hit the east coast, it took over a week to get parts of Long Island back in operation.  The bigger the outage, the longer repairs are likely to take.

There are many ways from to keep the power flowing when the rest of the neighborhood is dark.

Emergency electric power generator

Emergency Power Option #1 – Gasoline Generator

The simplest emergency electrical option is to get a small generator and a large can of gasoline. Long extension cords can be run to vital items like refrigerator, freezer and microwave. Appliances are easy to power from a generator; they have cords attached.   Powering something like your furnace is more difficult.  You would have to open the wiring junction box and splice in a cord end. This is easy for an electrician to “jerry-rig” it but not for the average homeowner.

If you plan ahead, you can have a transfer switch installed next to your existing electrical panel. With this transfer switch installed, you can run a larger cord from the generator to a dedicated receptacle that feeds a small “critical loads” sub-panel. For the most part, a generator doesn’t need to back-up your entire house, just vital items. The transfer switch prevents you from back-feeding the utility grid (see “Solar Electric Basics” for more information on this danger) by isolating your generator from the main panel.  (Editor’s note:  Top photo in the post is our generator “dog house”, which is hard wired into our home power system.  Photos below show primary and secondary breaker boxes in our home.)

breaker box

Primary breaker box-  note transfer switch at top of panel to disconnect from grid

Emergency Breaker Box

Secondary Breaker Box “critical loads sub-panel” provides power to critical systems such as well and septic pumps

Gasoline Generator Pros:

  • power when you need it
  • portability
  • relatively inexpensive

Gasoline Generator Cons:

  • noisy
  • need refueling
  • smelly exhaust
  • fixed power capacity

A generator has a rated power output listen in watts or kilowatts. They can also produce small bursts of power needed for motors starting, but then go back to their rated amount. If you aren’t using much power, the generator still is running, wasting energy. A small generator can cost a few hundred dollars to upwards of two thousand.

Emergency Power Option #2 – Battery Backed-Up Systems

Next rung up on the emergency electrical power food chain are Battery Backed-Up Systems. These are not car batteries, but deep cell ones. They are heavier, more expensive, and designed differently. (Deep cell battery article is coming soon.)

This type of system has a battery bank that is connected to an inverter. The inverter changes the 12v or 24v DC voltage to a usable 120/240v AC voltage used in your house. Then the inverter is connected to the critical load panel through the transfer switch. Some hybrid inverters already incorporate the transfer switch internally, connecting automatically; fast enough that your electronic items won’t know that there is an outage.

Battery Backed-Up System Pros:

  • quiet operation
  • no gas exhaust
  • no cords
  • no refilling a gas tank.

Battery Backed-Up System Cons:

  • limited amount of power available before they need to be recharged
  • may require a small generator to recharge them during prolonged outages

However, one hour of generator run time can keep the batteries charged for hours.  For short interruptions lasting only a couple hours, the batteries can keep things going and then recharge when the power returns.

Moving up on the list is to have solar panels recharging the batteries, but that is the most expensive system and is an article all to itself.

Emergency electric power battery

Emergency Power Option #3 – Spot Chargers

Section added by Laurie, because we’ve ended up with more short term than long term outages – thankfully!

To provide lighting and power for small electric devices, consider solar or crank powered lamps and chargers.  We’ve added a several solar and crank products to our emergency preparedness supplies, including:
A lantern with a solar panel and hand crank for charging that also has a USB charger built in for charging cell phones and other small electronics, LED Crank flashlights and Emergency radio with solar panel, crank power, flashlight and cellphone charger.

For short outages, having a little light and contact with the outside world can make the time fly much faster. The new LED products provide a lot more light at a fraction of the power requirements of older flashlights (see our favorite basic emergency flashlight).  Lamps often come with different lighting levels (like the one above), so you can set it bright enough for reading or turn it down to night light level to conserve power.  These three options are all light and portable, and would also be handy for camping.

View other Solar Electric posts by Jerry Noel.

Other posts you may find useful:

This is a guest post by Jerry Noel.  Jerry is a Wisconsin Master Electrician and a NABCEP Certified solar installer. NABCEP is a voluntary credential, considered to be the cream of the crop for renewable energy professionals. NABCEP stands for North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.

Over the course of upcoming posts, Jerry will do case studies using his old house (they just moved) to give you a more in depth feel for what is required, how it is put together, and possibly the costs involved. Currently, he is a foreman for Krantz Electric  in Verona, WI. They are located a few miles to the south-west of Madison. Krantz Electric does residential, commercial and solar electric projects. In the past, I have taught solar electric theory and installation for the IBEW, Midwest Renewable Energy Association, and Solar Energy International.  Please visit the Krantz Electric website for more information.

Featured at Simple Lives Thursday #131.


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  1. says

    Nice, no non-sense article. Plus, give me a big “duh!” (slaps forehead) on using a generator to replenish a battery bank! Although solar is our goal, as your article states, cost is a factor. We have a smaller 6,000 watt generator we ran through a bypass/transfer panel that runs our necessary items but lacks being able to run our main home heater and we resort to smaller room heaters, but that keeps things warm enough!

  2. CJ Harrington says

    I have a 6500 Watt Generator and a 5000 Watt unit…both converted to LP/Gas. When in LP mode, I can run my fuel line from a custom manifold off of my 500 gallon house tank. Although I am limited on what I can run, NOT having to re-fuel or store large amounts of gas is worth it…

      • CJ Harrington says

        My LP provider installed it for me! On the plus side, I run the house off of one tank. IF (and it did) run out of fuel, I just close the valve on the empty tank and open the one on the full tank…and re-light my furnace.

        Also, during a power outage, I JUST run what is NEEDED to!!! I have a woodstove for heat… No need to light up your house like nothings wrong…you will become a beacon for crime!

          • CJ Harrington says

            I cannot stress this enough…you will NOT be able to run everything you WANT off of ANY small generator. You CAN run just what you NEED though you will have to allocate power to certain circuits at different times. I also run the generator in a 1 hour on/2 hour off rotation (during warmer months) to keep the freezers cold. In the winter months, my power needs change….frozen stuff can just be put outside!

            Also, keep in mind that the noise from a running generator WILL travel!….especially at night! Your neighbors WILL show up!….or worse! IF noise is an issue, I would suggest either a built in stand alone/automatic back up system….or, if you want to stay portable….look at spending the extra on a Honda unit….VERY QUIET!

            Adding a muffler to a portable unit does NOT make it quiet….it will tone it down a bit but….

            Also, have a spot for your unit that has proper airflow. Portable units are aircooled so placing them in a shed (and operating it there!) could cause problems with cooling….

            Just some random thoughts….

          • says

            Exhaust building up in closed shed could easily be dangerous, too. Emergency power is generally just that – critical systems only. If you reduce your electrical needs, you’ll be able to meet a greater percentage of them with a smaller system. As you mentioned, take advantage of natural conditions, and switch to non-electric options when possible.

  3. says

    my question is this if anyone has suggestions…can I run my coal furnace using a deep cell battery and inverter? My biggest fear is losing power in the winter and not having enough fuel to power a generator long enough to maintain heat. If I had multiple batteries/inverters I could just run generator to recharge them. Thoughts??

    • says

      First you need to determine the load that the furnace would draw, then you should be able to size the backup power system accordingly. I’m not familiar with coal furnaces, so I don’t have a feel for what your load may be, but you should be able to determine that information from the manufacturer.

  4. Warner Exelby says

    We have been looking for a way to be free of the grid in winter. There are numerous power outages from wind storms lasting from 4 hr. to 6 days. Our water is dependent on a submersible well pump, also the gas furnace and our freezers require power. All the rest like TV and lights we can get by without. Option #2 ,battery backup , looks to be the best system for us. We have a 4500 portable generator but will need to invest in switching and some batteries. I have been told to check on the batteries used for golf carts.
    I have purchased a couple of these generators blueprints from the web selling for $49 and worth about .49 cents. We even had a solar contractor bid on setting the house up on solar panels. His bid was over $100 K. For that price we could move to Florida each winter. Any suggestions??? We are located in rural W Washington.

    • Jerry Noel says

      Warner, send me the information (with address so I can look it up on Google Earth) for that $100K quote so I can see what is going on (jerry-noel@hotmail.com). There is no reason I can think of for it to be that high other than gouging. Maybe I can design a better and cheaper one for you to shop around out there with. For $100K I can drive out from Wisconsin and install one!

    • Gail N says

      You can do it for $10,000 or less now that panels are less expensive. It is based on what you want to be able to use in the outage. In my area, NE WA, 1 kw of solar panels gives me 2+kw in Dec and Jan. This is enough to run the refigerator. In a cool area of the house you can turn it off for half the day and let it run during the sun times. I have a 4000 w inverter that runs my well, 120 v well pump.
      What you can do without will help the price immensely. Keep in mind that only the first 2 strings of batteries charge. If you want many batteries you will have to have more charge controllers.

  5. Bob says

    If you want to save 90+% in fuel cost install a natural gas line and convert your generator to natural gas. If your handy you can do the conversion for about 5 bucks or you can get a kit for about 120.00. The different in cost is dollars to penny’s a day.

    • Bob says

      Oh and hook your propane grill to your new natural gas line also, never have to deal with the tanks again. And again its the differences to dollars to penny’s.

      • law-abiding-citizen says

        That actually does not work so well. Propane needs a smaller orifice than natural gas, which is why gas stoves & dryers need a conversion kit to run on propane. I ran my water heater & furnace on propane in a self-induced emergency severeal years back. Lots of large, yellow flames, that left lots of soot tracks, instead of the clean, efficient, blue flames normally produced.

  6. Dana Hebdon says

    For everybody that does live in an area where natural gas is available as your primary source of fuel for heating. Please, do not forget that in the event of a major catastrophe (i.e. an earthquake, or a major mudslide, or flood.). Your gas supply may be cut off due to breaks in the lines, so converting your generators to natural gas might be something that you might want to think twice about. But, if you do convert, think about having an alternate power backup…..just saying..

  7. law-abiding-citizen says

    Actually, you missed part of the generator option. A dedicated, automatic, back-up system. They can be run off of natural gas or propane, are hardwired into your house, with all the switching to isolate you from the grid included in the install, and they are large enough to run you’re entire house – anywhere from 7kW to 15kW. The downside is that at around $4000-$5000, plus installation, they are fairly expensive, they definitely require planning ahead, and they’re definitely not portable – pretty much a permanent installation.

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