Standby Generators for Use During Power Outages

I often wonder, as a matter of comparison, how much use other people's standby generators get, and what circumstances and conditions exist when their generators are most often called into service. We live in the West at about 5000' elevation, and we lose power most often in the warmer months due to lightning strikes on transformers during thunderstorms, and with the high winds in the colder months; and on a couple of occasions over the last 16 years, powerful blizzards with heavy snows have taken down power transmission lines, darkening the whole region for a while.

Last Updated on November 2, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from Sideliner 1950.


 

Winter’s coming, and the nights are getting colder and longer…

Today’s post on another excellent prepper blog (Backdoor Survival) linked back to one of its recent posts on the subject of prepping for a power outage, a concern for us where we live, due to the extremes of our weather. Back before Y2K we embraced the idea of installing a standby generator at our home.

There are numerous approaches to living with the loss of normally sourced electricity, from sucking it up and lighting candles, to enlisting the use of portable generators, to investing in your own whole-house power generation capability, with which you could re-power literally everything in your house.

The several comments following the Backdoor Survival article began with one from a fellow who has also chosen to invest in a “whole-house” generator, one fueled by the utility-company provided natural gas; his goal being that when the rest of the world goes dark, he and his family should be able to carry on normally with life in their home, as long as the fuel keeps flowing. Excellent decision.

Regarding his choice of a natural gas-powered generator vs. generators using other fuels: IMHO, he has chosen well…having an uninterrupted supply of fuel for your generator via your utility company’s natural gas hard-line is an excellent, extremely attractive option for a fixed-location (non-portable) generator. And from an “ease of operation” standpoint, under the “normal” circumstances he intimates (virtually anything short of a protracted SHTF event) it’s probably the best fuel choice for a generator in terms of simplicity and ease of use…because as long as that natural gas element of “The Grid” doesn’t go down, he shouldn’t ever need to worry about or deal with periodic manual refueling of his generator, or concern himself about safe fuel storage and rotation, fuel preservative additives, etc.

I often wonder, as a matter of comparison, how much use other people’s standby generators get, and what circumstances and conditions exist when their generators are most often called into service. We live in the West at about 5000′ elevation, and we lose power most often in the warmer months due to lightning strikes on transformers during thunderstorms, and with the high winds in the colder months; and on a couple of occasions over the last 16 years, powerful blizzards with heavy snows have taken down power transmission lines, darkening the whole region for a while.

When choosing a whole-house generator, size definitely matters. For our home, we chose a 15KW diesel-powered, trailer-mounted “whole-house” generator unit. (Frankly, I am certain that we could overload it and induce an auto-shutdown if we turned on every light and ran every appliance at the same time; but since we don’t live like that, it has never happened in the 16+ years we’ve had the generator, so we’re comfortable with its size and performance, and its fuel economy.

Our generator/ trailer rig sits parked (and securely locked down) on its pad next to the house. It connects to our Main Breaker Panel through an Automatic Transfer Switch, which eliminates the steps of going outside in the weather to the Main Breaker Panel, disconnecting the “street power” Main Breaker, then manually starting up the generator, closing the generator breaker that connects generator power to the Main Breaker Panel; and undoing those steps in reverse order once “street power” becomes available again. And that is a beautiful thing.

The added utility of this setup is that the generator/ trailer rig can easily be disconnected from the transfer switch, allowing us to tow it to other locations/ venues to provide a temporary power source for emergency use, construction work, or events. Moreover, in a “Bug-Out” situation, we could conceivably hook it up to the truck and take it with us to…wherever.

I often wonder, as a matter of comparison, how much use other people's standby generators get, and what circumstances and conditions exist when their generators are most often called into service. We live in the West at about 5000' elevation, and we lose power most often in the warmer months due to lightning strikes on transformers during thunderstorms, and with the high winds in the colder months; and on a couple of occasions over the last 16 years, powerful blizzards with heavy snows have taken down power transmission lines, darkening the whole region for a while.
ATS will handle the transfer of power to your home and safely disconnect you from the grid automatically.

With OPSEC high on the hierarchy of concerns for many preppers, operating a generator can be a double-edged sword — while providing much-needed electricity, generators can make a lot of noise and can be a dead giveaway to their own presence during a dark and otherwise silent night. Depending on circumstances, that might not be a big deal. Still, if anyone reading this is considering buying a standby generator, be aware that many — if not most — generators turn at 3600 RPM and can indeed be noisy, while some generators operate at half that, a much quieter 1800 RPM…it’s no problem to carry on a conversation in close proximity to our generator while it’s operating, without having to shout over the din. Might be worth looking into.
I often wonder, as a matter of comparison, how much use other people's standby generators get, and what circumstances and conditions exist when their generators are most often called into service. We live in the West at about 5000' elevation, and we lose power most often in the warmer months due to lightning strikes on transformers during thunderstorms, and with the high winds in the colder months; and on a couple of occasions over the last 16 years, powerful blizzards with heavy snows have taken down power transmission lines, darkening the whole region for a while.

Also, if anyone reading this is considering getting a “whole-house” generator setup, I’d like to strongly recommend investing in an Automatic Transfer Switch (ATS, or maybe better to call it an AT$)…after all these years, we absolutely love having it for both the safety and convenience it provides; and we’re content having coughed up the considerable extra cost. If you don’t want to spend the money right away, acquire the generator first, so you have standby power when needed; later on you can acquire an Automatic Transfer Switch for the safety and convenience it provides. If you’re not familiar with the operation of an ATS, here’s how one (ours) works:

The utility company’s “Street Power” is the “normal” source of electricity to our house. When the Automatic Transfer Switch (ATS) “brain” senses a fluctuation or interruption of “street power”, the ATS first automatically isolates the Main Breaker Panel from “street power” (to prevent “back-feeding” of power from the operating generator to the street — a very dangerous, possibly deadly condition); and simultaneously the ATS “brain” sends a signal to start the generator. Once the ATS “brain” senses that the generator is “up to speed” (about 5 seconds) and supplying usable, safe power, the ATS “brain” selects “generator power” to re-power the Main Beaker Panel, and Voila!…we’re back up and running. Later, when the ATS “brain” senses that “street power” is once again available and stable, the ATS simultaneously de-selects “generator power” and re-selects “street power” as the source of power to the main panel, restoring availability to the house. The ATS “brain” then provides the generator with a “cool down” period of a few minutes before sending the signal to the generator to shut itself down. The ATS automatically “re-arms” for the next interruption of “street power”. And I didn’t have to get out of my chair to make any of that happen…sweet!

(A note about that ATS “brain”…as I write this, I find myself wondering for the first time how that computer circuitry might fare during an EMP…no clue. Does anyone know?…Anyone?…Bueller?)

Regarding fuel economy, under load, our generator consumes under 1 GPH (one gallon per hour) of diesel fuel, in fact more like 0.6 GPH max. With its 16-gallon fuel tank, that translates into a good 24 hours of continuous generator operation before refueling becomes necessary. Luckily we’ve never gone that long without normal “street power”, but then we don’t live in Seattle, which, according to the Backdoor Survival article, was without power for “almost a week”. If a power failure here should persist longer than 24 hours, then we would be required to take steps to “safely” refuel the generator (meaning shutting it down during the refueling process and going without power until the refueled generator is back up and providing power again)…and THERE you have the major advantage of choosing a standby generator powered by natural gas. Of course, under complete “Grid-Down” conditions, natural gas could become unavailable, as could all types of generator fuels.

The presence of our standby generator has long provided us with a deep sense of security; and we sheepishly admit to experiencing a perhaps perverse “warm, fuzzy feeling” when the neighborhood goes dark, and after only a few seconds in that darkness our house automatically returns to normal ops, while we will remain warm and snug and contentedly watching TV or whatever, rather than bringing in more wood for the fire and getting out the blankets, and looking for the matches to light those lanterns and candles.

Bottom line: “Getcha one if you can…you’ll be glad you did!”

15 comments
  1. Was looking for information on this very subject! Convinced me that this is a great backup to street power. Now to determine HOW to decide on what the best one is for the load we use….followup article perhaps?
    Some of us are neophytes when it comes to electrical grid “stuff”.

    1. ET1, I’m glad the timing’s good and that you found this information useful and encouraging.

      First, please know that the links and graphics in the article were generously added by Pat Henry; you can find much valuable and useful information available down each of those roads.

      There are several brands of generators, each
      offering a variety of models to suit most consumer’s needs…one size
      does NOT fit all. Regardless of the brand and size, anyone considering
      buying a generator should be prepared for sticker
      shock. Regarding used generators…even if you find a “good quality” used generator, it
      won’t be inexpensive. (A word of caution: if you are considering buying
      a used generator, realize that it’s an internal combustion engine connected to a very
      complex electrical component; and as with any machinery, the longer it operates, the closer it
      gets to the end of its “useful life”. Generators do require periodic
      maintenance (oil, spark plugs, glow plugs, air filter, fuel filter, etc.) but in time even a
      well-maintained generator can break down and require repair, and at some
      point it can and will completely give up the ghost, or simply cost more
      to fix than to replace.

      Most of us are familiar
      with the old saying, “You get what you pay for”; but in my experience
      that has not always been the case…I learned the
      hard way that you DON’T always get what you pay for. What IS
      true, however, is that you WON’T get what you DON’T pay for — or in other words,
      there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you buy a cheap product, it’s not reasonable to expect it to last.

      So…what does this all mean? It means that the comfort and security
      provided by generators comes at a cost, whether up front or down the
      line (“pay me now or pay me later”). So if you’re willing to spend some
      money on junk that could let you down when you most need it, it makes
      better sense to spend a more for a product backed by a reputable manufacturer whose products are well-respected and reliable. To my wife and me, reliability was paramount in choosing a brand, and that reliability came at considerable cost. But 16 years downstream, our generator has NEVER let us down.

      Re: how to determine the best one for your needs…try googling “determining backup generator size”. As an example, though I
      am not necessarily recommending Generac, I just went on to the Generac
      website http://www.generac.com and I see they have a “Home Backup Generator
      Sizing Calculator” to help consumers like us understand the sizes and types of generator that
      might suit our needs. Another prominent company, Multiquip at
      http://www.multiquip.com does not appear to have a “sizing calculator” on their
      website, but you could be guided by Generac’s sizing calculator, determine your needs, and then view Multiquip’s products and do the same on any of the various manufacturers’ websites. Finally,
      you could just call company reps at these or any generator companies…they’re pros whose job it is to guide you. But ultimately, the choice will be yours. Knowledge is power…take your time researching and arming yourself. Get the very best one you can afford that suits your needs, and good luck.

    2. I installed a 22KW Kohler whole house propane unit a few years ago. Have two 500 gal propane tanks buried in the yard. It consumes about 2.5 gal/hours at full load. In a grid down situation we would run it for 2 hours once a week. During those two hours our well will function and life is normal, we take hot showers, wash clothes, bake food, etc. Last thing before shutting it down is filling our 200 gal water storage that gravity feeds thru out the house until the next week. That way all faucets have running water, toilets flush, etc.

  2. I am paralyzed from the shoulders down. The air mattress that I am on is VERY important! It alternates air with a pump that is constantly going. Then, I pretty much in a hospital bed so need power for that as well. To add, if power goes out… I’m very bored and can’t do anything so would love power for TV/computer. That’s pretty much all I need but want one that’s inside and quiet and not gas powered. I have found quite a few but they are way expensive. I am on disability and have been since my accident 8 years ago, when I was 23. Due to my young age and whatnot, I receive almost a minimal amount. So money is a huge problem. Payments would be great if not too much. I don’t know, ideas?

      1. No, I know nothing about generators! I was thinking about those packs to jumpstart a car and also works as little generator to plug-in something like my bed/air mattress but don’t know how long those last or how well it would work

  3. Good article.
    I bought a Kohler 12 Kw a few years and never regretted the decision. It comes online within 10 seconds of an outage.
    It presently runs on natural gas but I want to switch to propane. I worry (as you mentioned) about the pumps that keep the gas pressure up.
    Live on the northeast coast and was here for Hurricane Bob in 91 when all services were down for a week, and just north of hurricane Sandy’s landfall.
    We also experience winter ice that drop limbs and trees onto power lines regularly.
    I want to be prepared in every way possible to go it alone.
    I never considered if my transfer switch would survive an EMP. If anyone responds, I hope you’ll add to this article.

    1. I read that he pumps for natural gas have natural gas generators as backup pump power so the system is self sustaining. Alternative energy expert Steven Harris has wrote about this, he asked people in the natural gas field and they told him the system will run for months on end if the grid goes down. So it’s not such a problem as by the time you run out of natural gas for your generator the system would likely be well into a bad EMP or Grid-Down situation and you probably would not run the generator much as it would draw unwanted attention.

      As a backup to your natural gas backup a solar system would be good as it works for free, generates no noise and has no moving parts. I would add spare replacement parts to be able to fix it if needed, but you need to do this to anything you have.

      1. I disagree that NG will flow for months even if the grid goes down. The distribution system is very complex and even IF every single backpack generator did start and run flawlessly, the will need to be serviced every 20 days or so, which adds another level of complexity in a grid down scenario.
        To top it all off eventually someone needs to actually produce the gas and stick it in the system, so a decent guess would be NG flowing from not at all to a month.

    2. Update on 11-10-2015:

      In my research about likely EMP effects on an Automatic Transfer Switch, I came across an article on MD Creekmore’s Survivalist Blog http://www.thesurvivalistblog.net which made me think there could be people with answers to my questions. So I posed my questions to MD and his readers, and you can see what has been generated (no pun intended) so far:

      A Question on EMP Protection From Sideliner 1950

      or

      http://www.thesurvivalistblog.net/emp-protection/

      An untold amount of seemingly very well-educated gray matter has been exercised by these contributors to generate all their replies. Some of the replies intimate that ATS technology as well as the generator itself are indeed at risk of failure and permanent, irretrievable damage in the wake of an EMP or other “space weather event”. Have a look and let me know what you think.

  4. Excellent article, one point that affects us in Europe but I don’t know if it applies to the US is DIESEL fuel, in recent years to formula of diesel has been changed to meet emission laws and part of the problem is that even winter diesel now waxes / crystallises/ freezes up at much warmer temperatures than diesel used to do. So now many people if expecting VERY clod weather that add acetone or even petrol to their stored diesel to keep it liquid.

    1. SS –
      Glad you liked the article, and thank you for bringing up this cold-weather concern, which is news to me.

      EPA-mandated changes to the formulation of highway diesel fuel began to take place in the US some ten years ago, with mixed results. Discussions of these results brought on by “Changes in Diesel Fuel” can be found on several websites, including these two, for example.

      http://biodiesel.org/docs/ffs-performace_usage/service-technician's-guide-to-diesel-fuel.pdf?sfvrsn=4

      http://www.bellperformance.com/blog/bid/58267/Diesel-Changes-More-Fuel-Contamination

      A discussion on the effects of cold weather on diesel fuel begins on Page 8 of the first article, under the sub-topic of “Diesel Fuel Additives”.

      Again, these changes were mandated for “highway diesel fuel”, and would not seem to apply to diesel-powered generators here in the US, though I am not 100% sure about that. Regardless, I wouldn’t even know where to go to obtain “non-highway” diesel fuel.

      Since this is my only diesel-powered engine, and since I am rather cautious in my approach to fueling my generator, I would probably not attempt to concoct my own “cold weather additive”, but would instead find an approved, commercially produced additive. I realize they can be expensive and I really should learn more about that to see if there’s a safe “work around solution”. For now, there’s a lot at stake and I wouldn’t want to damage my equipment.

      Thank you for calling my attention to that condition. Again, I did not know about it before.

      Best wishes.

  5. Onan s a good choice for backup generators, I use a 13kw to backup my solar system. I use propane in a buried tank as I disagree that natural gas will continue to flow if things get really bad.
    The 13kw Onan is the quietest one on the market and makes about as much noise as a house air conditioner when running. 3 hours a day will keep my batteries topped off underr the worst conditions when the solar system gets no sun due to cloud cover or snowy weather. Most of the year it sits idle but especially the Nov-Feb months I need it frequently.
    This unit sells at Costco for about $3700

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