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ILLINOIS PASSED THE ‘ENERGY BILL’ THIS SUMMER: You need a backup source of electricity

November 8, 2021


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 this past summer because peak demand nearly exceeded generating capacity.

Nevertheless, Illinois legislators ignored that shot across the bow and passed a California-style energy bill anyway. Mandated coal plant shutdowns are coming to IL.  Each one brings us that much closer to blackouts.

 

No Power?  An expensive mess and health risks

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 power if you like water.

But even without a well pump, in terms of personal health and well-being, no electricity equals no CPAP for tens of millions of Americans, which means poor quality sleep with sharply increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and other ill effects including, among others, erectile dysfunction.   Have I got your attention yet?

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.  It might also keep them alive.

 

Your dad’s noisy genset won’t play well with modern electronics.
Forty years ago, those noisy consumer-grade generators would power the essentials and burn incandescent light bulbs all day long.  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 12V 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. 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 can roll the dice and use that crappy, “square wave” electricity to operate your computerized devices.  But you risk burning out expensive control boards.  And if you haven’t noticed lately, spare parts for appliances are very hard to come by.

 

Options.
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 unit 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 $350-900 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, consider a 3500-4000W inverter generator. Those will run more devices with less rotation. Have a well pump, a window air conditioner, a microwave and a teen girl who “needs” to blow dry her hair for hours? This might be your speed. The downside: you’ll pay between $700-1900 for these. Of course, more loads mean more fuel consumption.  Plan accordingly.

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 lots of gasoline.

Accessories
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) or outlet strips.  If you buy a generator with a 110v 30-amp output, make sure you get a cord that will split that into conventional plugs.

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.  Store anything over five gallons of gasoline in an unattached structure.  Be aware that while there are usually no laws against improper flammables storage, you may be on the hook for liability (including insurance declining to pay a claim) if things go terribly wrong.  Never store gasoline or propane canisters in your basement or crawlspace!

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, label it with the date dispensed, and then keep it in tightly sealed containers.  Yes, newer gas cans suck when pouring out gas, but they generally seal pretty tightly for long-term storage.   You can always use a funnel while dispensing instead of the Biden-approved pouring spouts that gas cans come with today).   Hint: you can buy replacement pouring spouts on Amazon or at Walmart.com)  Rotate out your stored gas once every year or two through your car or truck. 

PRO TIP: Use nothing but stabilized fuel in your generator.

Sta-bil-treated fuel will last two years, easy.  PRI-G-treated fuel will last up to three- to four-years from personal, although I don’t recommend it.  Star Tron will supposedly last even longer, but I’ve not tried it.  On the other hand, untreated summer-blend gas may not even start your engine three months down the road, particularly in cold weather.  

How bad can it get?  I once loaned/gifted a generator out to a relative and the recipient’s son didn’t use treated fuel during a winter storm.  Three years later, the generator wouldn’t even start.  Go figure.  And a replacement carb (and installation) costs more than I originally spent on the gennie.   

Use stabilized gas in your generator.

 

The silent option.
If, because of your location, you need silent power (like overnight in the cities or suburbs) you’ll need to look into batteries, DC powered products and/or inverters.

Your dad’s deep-cycle marine battery will work to power CPAP machine(s).  The most efficient way to sleep well:  Take a few minutes now to buy a 12V RV/car power supply for your CPAP so you don’t need an inverter or a generator to provide power.  A second deep-cycle battery on your 12V DC backup sump pump will keep your basement dry overnight or so until you can get home to deal with things if the utilities fail.  These two forward-thinking purchases will save you running a generator overnight.

If you need other low-draw AC power devices overnight, you can use those sine-wave inverters with deep cycle batteries.  These might include video surveillance, some LED lighting, computers/monitors, charging personal devices like smart phones or tablets, or operating smaller fans for cooling.


Batteries.
Technology keeps advancing, and that applies to batteries as well. One common newer battery (well, newer to the consumer market at least) is the Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4). It lasts about 10+ years (about 4000 charging cycles), weighs half as much as a lead acid battery but has no acid sloshing around inside.  Better yet, 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 (although 50 amp or less charging is recommended). 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.  And it prefers a charger specifically designed for the Lithium batteries (about $50-100).

Given the LiFePO4 battery life and durability, it seems like a good choice for those who can swing the price tag.


Solar.
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.  Or you can go “green” with solar.

Solar panels can provide an alternative source of electricity that will run inverters or charge those batteries directly without burning fuel.  Solar panel setups 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 now $260+) will 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.

As an aside, yes, you can buy wind-turbines.  They’re pricey as is effective installation.  If installed up high, they work day and night.  But if you think solar panels are obvious to the casual observer, a wind turbine – even the smaller 300-watt units – are like beacons for bad guys.

 

Buy now, before China attacks.
Want another reason to buy now? China may take Taiwan next year. The best two weather windows for a Chinese move are October and May through July.

When (not if) this happens, all these things like generators, cheaper 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 (I like Padron Churchills or Oliva Serie V Melanio and Angel’s Envy if you’re buying), 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 definitely before California-style power shortages begin to result in rolling blackouts.

 

Prudent people…
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.

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