Modern utilities in America, outside of California at least, provide mostly reliable electricity to consumers. However, things can happen. And when they do, you need a backup plan.
Cables fail, trees fall and transformers do go bad. Ice storms and tornadoes also happen, along with politicians. Yes, politicians.
On peak usage days, with the phase-out of coal-fired power plants in “green” states, utilities can run out of generating capacity. Believe it or not, Illinois came very close to California-style blackouts in the summer of 2021 because peak demand nearly exceeded generating capacity.
Nevertheless, Illinois legislators ignored that shot across the bow and passed a California-style energy bill anyway. The bill captured a few downstate Republican votes because it also contained provisions to help keep the Clinton nuclear power plant open for a few more years. But more worrisome is that it mandates coal plant shutdowns. Each one of those brings us that much closer to blackouts.
For you and me, repercussions of an outage can become very expensive in short order.
Without sump pumps you have water in the basement and ruined furnishings, and dead appliances.
Oh, the joys of pulling up soggy carpet and padding, ripping out drywall to prevent mold and all the rest of flooded basement cleanup.
Then there’s the increasingly pricey food in refrigerators and freezers that will begin to go bad in less than a day. Got well pump? You’ll need water whether you have electricity or not.
In terms of personal health and well-being, no electricity equals no CPAP, which means poor quality sleep with sharply increased risk of heart attacks and plenty of other ill effects.
People also seem to prefer creature comforts like heating, cooling and light, too. Giving kids or grandkids something to watch on TV or their computer may keep you sane and keep them alive.
Storms can sometimes cause power outages and nothing will help you make emergency repairs more than electricity. A genset will allow you to set up emergency lighting, run power tools and charge batteries for tools.
And then there are solar flares and other EMP attacks. Check out this Ted Talk video.
Your dad’s noisy genset won’t play well with modern electronics.
Forty years ago, those noisy consumer-grade generators would power the essentials. That was before computer chips made their way into everything we use.
Today, sensitive electronics in everything from furnaces to refrigerators (and everything else with a little computer inside) require clean, “pure sine wave” electricity or you may fry those chips.
Newer gas-powered inverter generators provide this clean electricity, as do newer pure sine wave inverters that change the DC power from batteries into 110v AC your home’s devices require.
Yes, these newfangled gas inverter generators are more expensive, but they are dramatically lighter. Relatively speaking they sip gas, which may come in handy when fuel is scarce. And they are very quiet, which at night will keep them from broadcasting the “come steal me” beacon to ethically-challenged scumbags blocks away.
Yes, you can still use those noisy, gas-guzzling cheapie generators (with “modified” sine-wave electricity) to light your incandescent lights. However your motors and transformers will run much hotter and less-efficiently and you risk burning out expensive control boards. And if you haven’t noticed lately, spare parts for appliances are very hard to come by.
For about the cost of a nice AR-15, one can have peace of mind in case the power fails.
The gas-powered generator remains the easiest, most effective source of portable/backup power. Honda makes some of the best inverter units, but Harbor Freight’s have earned a loyal following with their affordability and reliability.
For most folks, a 2000W inverter generator will power most common 110V loads in a home or an apartment. They’ll keep your refrigerator and freezer cold, along with providing some creature comforts.
Yes, you may have to rotate devices as it won’t power everything at once, but it’s an affordable backup solution for short-term outages. Expect to pay about $400-1200 depending on the manufacturer.
Now 2000 watts won’t run your central air or electric hot water heater. You’ll need to spend serious coin and a whole-house backup genset to make that happen.
For regular folks who want to up their game a bit, get a 3500-4000W inverter generator. Those will run more devices with less rotation. Have a well pump, a window air conditioner, a microwave or maybe a teenage daughter or two who “needs” to blow dry and curl hair for hours? This might be your speed. The downside: you’ll pay between $800-2000 for these. Of course, more loads mean more fuel consumption. Plan accordingly.
And for the hard-core, Honda has a 7000 watt inverter generator that will set you back the price of a used car – about $5000 – and it weighs about 270 pounds. Certainly not for the faint of heart. But with a home transfer switch, it will run your central air conditioning and the largest of deep well pumps without breaking a sweat, so long as you keep it in fuel.
Harbor Freight has a 9000 watt peak load inverter unit for about half the price. It weighs 257 pounds, which is what kept it out of the back of my SUV. Well, they volunteered to put it in the back of my SUV but I was on my own at home.
What should you buy in addition to a generator? Spare oil of the proper weight (you should change the oil every 50-100 hours) and a couple of spare spark plugs. Also, buy twice as many 12-gauge extension cords as you’ll think you’ll need, along with some splitters (taps).
Add in a minimum of 10 or maybe even 20-30 gallons of gasoline with PRI-G or Star Tron stabilizer added. Expect each gallon of gasoline to provide about 5,000 watt-hours of juice, give or take. Ideally, buy your gas from October to March to get the “winter blend” which has more of the good stuff in it to ease starting in cold weather. Stabilize it and then keep the tightly sealed containers. Rotate them out once a year through your car. PRO TIP: Use nothing but stabilized fuel in your generator.
And while modern gas cans have all sorts of contraptions to keep you from pouring out the gas once it’s filled, they make excellent, air-tight containers for long-term (including two-plus years when stabilized) storage. To solve the “getting gas out of those newfangled cans” problem, visit Harbor Freight and buy this device for $11.99.
It’s AWESOME. You an also buy aftermarket spouts from Amazon or Walmart.com.
The silent option.
If, because of your location, you need silent power (like overnight) you’ll need to look into batteries and inverters.
Your dad’s deep-cycle marine battery will work to power CPAP machine(s). Buy a 12V RV/car power supply for your CPAP so you don’t need the inverter. A second deep-cycle on your 12V DC backup sump pump will keep your basement dry overnight in a power outage too. Those will save you running a generator overnight.
If you need low-draw AC power overnight, you can use those sine-wave inverters with deep cycle batteries. But there’s a MUCH better option… and safer too.
Technology keeps advancing, and that applies to batteries as well. One increasingly common battery (thanks to solar systems) is the Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4). It lasts about 10+ years (about 4000 charging cycles), weighs half as much as a lead acid battery, has no acid sloshing around inside and it will happily run high-current loads of up to 100 amps to an inverter.
These also can be discharged 90% or more without damage and will accept a charge rate of up to 100 amps. Furthermore they have a low self-discharge rate. The downside: It’s about three times the price of a lead-acid deep cycle battery – or about $400 for the 100Ah-sized battery.
Given the LiFePO4 battery life and durability, it seems like a good choice for those who can swing the price tag. (I have some and LOVE them.)
How do you go about charging those discharged batteries? Well, you’ll need a genset to power a (beefy) battery charger in addition to other household items during the day.
Solar panels can provide an alternative source of electricity that will run inverters or charge those batteries directly. They are silent (but not invisible), but they only work when in the sun.
Illinois enjoys an average of only about 3.5 hours of peak sunlight each day, so don’t expect miracles with the panels. However, a system with a couple of hundred-watt panels (about $240) will theoretically give you up to about 9 amps of charge current for several hours on a sunny day (more in the summer, fewer in winter) which is a good rate for deep cycle marine batteries and it’ll work for higher-performance LiFePO4 cells as well.
If you have a lot of batteries, you’ll need a lot more solar panels if you use solar as your primary way to charge.
Beware that lead-acid batteries give off explosive hydrogen gas when charged quickly, so keep them well ventilated and make darn sure your connections never spark. An exploding battery will ruin your day.
Buy now, before trade disruptions with China
Want another reason to buy now? These batteries all come from China. While China may have postponed their move on Taiwan thanks to what happened (economically) to Russia after they invaded Ukraine, it seems like a safe bet China will still try to take their neighbor.
When (not if) this happens, all these things like generators, LiFePO4 batteries, inverters, solar panels and everything at Harbor Freight (and a whole lot of stuff at Walmart, Amazon and other retailers), will quickly disappear from store shelves, perhaps never to return.
We can discuss the pros and cons of that over a cigar and bourbon sometime, but replacement items will be slow to trickle back onto the market. Alternative manufacturing will spool up to take up the slack, but it will take time and you’ll pay a lot higher prices in the end. Buy now, before next Spring and before power shortages begin to result in rolling blackouts.
Prudent people will have a backup source for electricity when lights go dark. For the price of your homeowner’s insurance deductible (or a nice AR-15), you can set yourself up with peace of mind and avoid the pain of cleaning up a flooded basement and rotting food in a warm freezer.
Not only that, but you’ll be able to help others because you won’t be tied down at your own residence cleaning up a big, nasty mess.
There are a couple of YouTube channels where you can learn more about generators, solar and more:
I like Gavin’s Garage for generator reviews on YouTube…
Also for more on solar systems, visit DIY Solar with Will Prowse also on YouTube.