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?
When a major storm hits, it can take weeks to get the power grid back in operation. The bigger the outage, the longer repairs are likely to take. See “When the Power Grid Fails – 10 Things You Need to Prepare” for more info on preps for a grid down situation.
There are many ways to have emergency power when the rest of the neighborhood is dark.
Emergency Power Option #1 – Gas Generator
The simplest emergency power option is to get a small gas 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.)
Gas Generator Pros:
- Power when you need it
- Relatively inexpensive
Gas Generator Cons:
- 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.
Top Reviewed Gas Generators
Editor's note: We're currently housing our generator in a modified Suncast BMS4700 The Stow-Away Horizontal Storage Shed. The guys put louvers in the ends for air flow, and cut a hole through on of the doors for the exhaust pipe. Small holes were punched in back of the unit so the plugs could reach the tie in on the side of the garage.
When our 20+ year old generator died in 2017 we researched. We still like the gasoline generators and wanted the flexibility of using gasoline, but to give us more options we started looking around and found the option of gasoline or LPG (propane) generators. After researching even more we settled on this unit – the Champion Power Equipment 100165 7500 Watt Dual Fuel Portable Generator with Electric Start. The price on Amazon was high, so we searched for a bit. You will probably want to search through Amazon or other sellers, we ended up finding it locally for $879. The main advantage of the Dual Fuel unit, is that we already have propane, and were considering another large tank for backup anyway, so this fits right in – plus it was not overly expensive, given that we do experience periodic power interruptions.
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 cycle ones. They are heavier, more expensive, and designed differently.
Battery Backed-up systems have 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.
Examples of Deep Cycle Batteries
- Mighty Max ML35-12 – 12V 35AH U1 Deep Cycle AGM Solar Battery
- VMAX Solar Vmaxtanks Vmaxslr125 AGM Deep Cycle 12v 125ah SLA rechargeable Battery for Use with Pv Solar Panels,Smart chargers wind Turbine and Inverters
- WindyNation 12V 100 Amp-Hour (240 Minute Reserve Capacity) AGM SLA Deep Cycle VRLA Battery RV, Solar, Wind, Marine, Off – Grid
Battery Backed-Up System Pros:
- Quiet operation
- No gas exhaust
- 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. See “Surviving Without the Grid – Emergency Backup Power” for more information.
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.
Biolite now offers products that provide power directly from a small camp stove, so you can do double (or triple) duty with one piece of equipment – cook or heat water, charge a phone, and provide lighting.
More Information on Emergency Preparedness
- Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps
- Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out
- Top 10 Real Foods to Store Without Electricity
Don't forget to check out our other Preparedness posts.
This is a guest post by Jerry Noel. Jerry is a Wisconsin Master Electrician and a NABCEP Certified solar installer. NABCEP stands for North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. Currently, Jerry is the City of Madison Electrical Inspector. In the past, he has taught solar electric theory and installation for the IBEW, Midwest Renewable Energy Association, and Solar Energy International.
Originally published in 2013, updated in 2017.