Short-term Emergency Power in a Disaster

Localized or even regional disasters have a shelf life. After a while, they aren’t such a big deal any more. But while they are here, the loss of power that sometimes comes with them should be something you include in your planning.

The news reports leading up to expected trouble, such as we see with oncoming hurricanes,  usually include notes on generators flying off the shelves and quickly becoming scarce. No matter how many hurricanes come through an area, there are always those that decide that this one requires a generator. Follow-up reports tell the tales of people who didn’t buy enough fuel to get them through. Somewhere along the line, the news will also share that some generators ended up being stolen while they were unattended.

Of all the means we have to produce power for our homes, the one most likely to survive a natural disaster are generators – portable or anchored. High winds, flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes will take a big toll on wind turbines and solar panels. The small solar matts for charging phones and powering batteries and laptops can not supply near enough energy for A/C, refrigerators or freezers. While flooding might take out a fixed location generator bolted to a concrete pad, it doesn’t have to, if the unit it enclosed in a shelter designed to handle the area’s average flooding. Portable units can be stored in a safe location. Granted, some flood areas are simply too damaging, but not all are.

What can a generator do for you?

It can run many electronics and appliances that would make a dark and powerless house livable. Even damaged homes can be habitable with efforts at sealing out the elements (tarps and plywood). Often times, the difference between staying home and going to a shelter is the simple existence of a good generator.

  • A/C (important for people with breathing issues in hot and humid conditions)
  • de-humidifiers in place of A/C
  • home heating blowers (if natural gas is available, or the propane system survived)
  • portable electric heaters for localized warmth
  • lights
  • refrigerators and freezers
  • computers, laptops, radios and TVs, HAM and CB base stations (communications and information)
  • all manner of battery chargers for various devices
  • block heaters for diesel-powered vehicles (important in very cold climates)
  • oxygen generators for those with supplemental O2 needs
  • medical equipment
  • They also run power tools which might be handy such as electric chain saws for clearing down trees on your property, and drill motors for driving screws to secure a home or building, and light repairs

Some disasters create a situation where you simply have to leave home. The damage is too great, or the presence of polluted waste water and filth in the streets and mud in the home makes the decision for you. Preppers with RVs have the ability to relocate to a temporary camp site. A generator to power the trailer, camper or coach makes that kind of existence much more comfortable.

Things to Remember

Generators have a load rating. For example,  one of our preps is a Champion 4000/3500 gas RV model. I like it because it was inexpensive, portable and powerful enough for the average travel trailer. The two numbers are the wattage ratings for maximum (surge) and constant power. At full tilt, 3500 watts equates to about 29 amps. The average trailer is designed to live life attached to a 30 amp power source. So, with this generator, a trailer can conduct operations just about identical to those done at a campground with hookups.  When a large load initially starts up, such as when an A/C unit is turned on, it pulls a lot more amperage than you might expect. This is why generators have two ratings. That extra 500 watts is about 4 amps. That’s not a lot. So if you are going to be taxing the thing with a lot of work, keep in mind that you might exceed it surge rating and shut it down.

This Champion has another rating. It is designed to run for 12 hours on 4 gallons of gas, at 50% load (15 amps or so). That’s not too bad, actually. But imagine if there was no gas to feed to it? You want to have plenty of fuel. I bank on 8 hours of run time for 5 gallons of gas. I purposely downgrade the machine so that I don’t come up short on my expectations. It is possible that I will need to run it harder than 15 amps, and efficiency drops off quickly after that point. Also, if I do manage to keep the load down, there is the possibility that I might have fuel stolen, or spilled or just plain lost in the disaster. (In line with that thinking, I should also have a backup generator, but I don’t).

Fuel Storage 

Fuel absolutely should be stored in steel Jerry cans. The military cans are portable, can be carried by a woman or strong child, and can be banged around. They don’t swell in the heat, or contract in the cold. With the cap tightly latched, they won’t spill. They are expensive, but then these are not items you buy at the last minute. You can get by with plastic cans, but be prepared to deal with leaking rubber seals beneath the caps and cheaply made plastic nozzles.

At 8 hours per 5 gallons of fuel, I would expect to last 2 days in a situation where I needed electric heat 4 hours per night. At this rate, my fuel storage needs rise quickly. What happens in the dead of winter where power is out for 3 weeks? Do I need 55 gallons of fuel? Maybe. In reality, I don’t think small heaters will pull much more than 15 amps. They might pull less, depending on the model and how your safe area is set up. It depends on your PLAN. If you really think you need to last that long, it may be better to use an alternative means of heat. RV furnaces are pretty good on propane usage, and rely on a 12 volt battery for ignition and for the circulation fan. A generator can charge that battery in just a couple of hours, and the battery will run for days. A propane powered home furnace operates very much the same way, except that the generator will need to power the home fan as long as it is blowing. That blower might run on 8 amps or less though, allowing the generator to operate perhaps a bit better than its 50% load rating. Your survival plan should reflect the particulars of your situation as your war gaming scenarios suggest. (a creative person might even devise a way for a propane furnace to heat a section of a home in an emergency….)

Dangers

Generator exhaust includes carbon monoxide (CO). This is odorless and deadly, and will kill you if you are breathing it in. Don’t ever run a generator indoors where the exhaust can collect. Always run it outside, and use an extension cord to bring power in. Wherever you operate a fueled device, it is standard practice to have a CO detector present.

Don’t refuel it while it is running, or hot. It’s best to do it when the unit is cool. Be careful about fuel spills. When deciding where to locate the generator, consider where a puddle of fuel might flow if spilled, or released from a damaged fuel line on the unit.

Keep a fire extinguisher near by, rated for fuel fires.

Most portable generators are equipped with a ground terminal. Read the units directions on how to ground it. Most will recommend a length of copper rod hammered into the ground, and a length of ground wire clamped to the rod at one end, and the grounding terminal on the generator. This helps prevents shocks and damage from surges. In advance of a disaster, you can have a few of these driven into the ground around your place so that you don’t have to do it in bad conditions.

Other Considerations

Running generators attract attention when the power is out. The bigger gensets are truly noisy. If you want to retain possession of it, come up with a way to lock it down. Bolt it to a concrete pad, or to your house. Chain it with heavy chain, or better yet, nylon coated steel cable. Lock it in a shed. Smaller units made by Honda and Yamaha for RV use are very quiet. They might only power 8 – 10 amps, but in a bad neighborhood, that might be the answer to theft.

Test your unit every quarter, or monthly if you have the discipline. Use a fuel stabilizer such as Sta-bil or Pri-G in the tank to prevent fuel degradation. Change the crankcase oil as the manufacturer recommends in the owner’s manual.

Keep a spare spark plug on hand, and a wrench or socket suited to removing it. Both should be on the unit itself to ensure they are ready when needed.

THIS LINK takes you to an article I wrote regarding silencing a cheap and noisy generator.

2 comments to Short-term Emergency Power in a Disaster

  • Lux

    If you can’t afford a generator or you don’t want one because they are noisy and everyone will know you have “stuff” in an emergency situation, perhaps micro-solar would be a good choice. It’s cheap and reliable:
    Here is my micro-solar set up for under $100. I tested it running a 10” desk fan 24/7 for weeks
    http://www.instructables.com/id/Uses-For-Dead-Car-Batteries-And-Sealed-Lead-Acid-B/?ALLSTEPS

    Luxstar

    • L P

      Hi Lux,

      That’s actually quite a nice article. I hadn’t considered that sue for an old battery, and it gives me something to chew on.

      As for a generator being noisy, well, yes.. they are. In most situations where one is needed, the benefits may outweigh the negatives. Local disasters are temporary. Solar systems may not be able to generate the power needed to run freezers or A/C, and batteries certainly can’t – which rules out high amperage power at night.

      Gensets may be the target of thieves, but even if they are taken, they work while they are present. Defensive setups for home and property need to take into consideration the likelihood of thieves. Apart from a generator, there will be other signs of life where you are, which makes you a potential target anyway.

      One aspect that may be overlooked is that the generator might actually make you a celebrity. If you can share power with locals, you might get that in trade for things you want such as gasoline, food, favors of many types, etc…. It may form the core of a group that already knows you, and wants to protect the benefits you provide for them. The big word here is COMMUNITY – these days, a dying thing. With one standing up willing to jump start relationships, he might discover the dying embers of community smoldering around him – people looking for a decent man they can trust.

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