Preparing your house (and life) for disaster situations can seem like a daunting task, especially considering that it is a lot of work to prepare for an event that may never happen. Here on the Gulf Coast, we are a little more cognizant of the need to be prepared because of the perpetual, annual threat of hurricane season. Even still, the mad rush on local grocery stores and gas stations in the days prior to an impending storm is enough to demonstrate that most people do not think of the things they will need - until they need them.
Although the start of hurricane season is still two months away, the unexpected and disastrous “snowpocalypse” that occurred this past February has significantly amplified local awareness of the importance of prepping for the worst. It also proved that emergency situations can arise even more suddenly and severely than a hurricane, demonstrating that preparation should be a year-round goal.
The financial investment can sometimes be a deterrent, but even the smallest budgets can find creative ways to take care of their basic needs if electricity or other creature comforts go offline. Not to mention, a minor investment now can prevent costly repairs and damages in the future.
In reality, the hardest part of disaster planning is the forethought required to make sure your household, whether it is a studio apartment or a multi-room house, is fully prepared. And no matter how much you prepare, chances are something will still go wrong. However, whatever hiccups are encountered will be much less inconvenient than they would have been with no plan at all.
Please remember that any recommendations or suggestions for disaster preparation should only be implemented if and when you are in no immediate danger, and they should never supersede a mandatory evacuation. In the case of an approaching hurricane, heed all warnings and orders from local and state authorities.
Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Galveston Island and February’s winter storm are great examples of the type of circumstance in which these recommendations would be most beneficial - during events when it is safe to stay in your house and dangerous to travel, but utilities and local services are impaired or otherwise non-functioning.
Of all the elements of preparation, generators have by far the highest cost-to-benefit ratio. They require a higher financial investment, but the payoff is massive in the event of an extended power outage especially during extreme heat or cold.
However, do not assume that all the options for alternate power generation will automatically cost thousands of dollars. The less you need to get by during or after a storm, and the more you are prepared overall with alternative sources for cooking, heating/cooling, and food storage, the less money you will need to spend on a generator.
Local resident Kerry Lilly offers a great example of simplifying a household’s needs during emergency situations. A whole house generator would have been required for him to power even half of his main house, but several years ago while remodeling his Denver Court property, Kerry decided that the guest house at the rear would be perfect for an emergency shelter.
The small house provides a perfect temporary living space since it has all the basic amenities yet only a portable generator is required to fully power it. Less square footage also requires less power for heating or cooling.
Furthermore, the portable varieties use gasoline, his preferred fuel source. This is undoubtedly a large-scale solution, but it illustrates how a person’s everyday lifestyle can be proportionately pared down while still providing a comfortable, temporary existence.
With all of the different makes, models, fuel sources, and other factors, choosing which generator is right for you can be overwhelming at first. But a quick assessment of your needs and preferences, as well as a simple breakdown of the types of generators and what maintenance is required for each, will significantly reduce confusion and make the decision much easier.
CALCULATE ENERGY REQUIREMENTS
The first step in choosing a generator is to calculate how much wattage you will need to run the essential functions of your household during a power outage. This should be done prior to purchasing a generator so that you have a specific idea of what you are looking for among the hundreds of choices.
A list of appliances and their necessary wattage will not only eliminate some options but also provide a guide for you during the actual event. For instance, if budget restrictions require you to purchase a generator that is not quite large enough to provide all the electricity for the things on your list, the breakdown will help you rotate certain appliances while the generator is in use. For example, if you desperately need to run the washer and dryer, you can temporarily turn off the air conditioning unit and unplug the refrigerator (just be sure to keep it closed!)
Here is a breakdown of the most basic household electronics, but more detailed lists can be found with a simple online search. Always double check the necessary wattage listed on your actual appliance, if available.
Once emergency energy demand has been calculated, the next step in selecting a generator is to assess how much space is available to operate it. If you live in an apartment, your choices will obviously be limited in this regard since only one type of generator is designed to operate indoors.
If you are leaning towards a portable generator that is gasoline-powered for a house or other freestanding structure, keep in mind that for safety reasons it must be placed outdoors at least 20 feet from the building. There must also be ample space to direct the exhaust away from any inhabited dwellings. Whole house generators are much larger than the portable variety and will require approximately 10 square feet directly adjacent to the house.
CHOOSE FUEL SOURCE
Finally, consider the fuel source options available for different generators and determine which would be most advantageous for your situation. Generators can be propelled by natural gas, propane, gasoline, battery, or solar panels.
“No matter what fuel source you choose, understand that it can be compromised,” explains Kerry Lilly. “Natural gas is usually considered very reliable, and it is used for whole-house systems. But after Hurricane Ike, natural gas service was suspended because there was sand in the gas lines.” Likewise, solar power depends on ample sunshine, and propane and gasoline are also subject to availability.
“Ultimately, I chose a gas-powered generator because fuel is essential for transport trucks and emergency vehicles, so it is usually accessible.” Lilly says. Although determining precisely what impacts a storm may have on which fuel source is nearly impossible, consider the infallibilities of whatever source you choose and if possible, establish a backup plan.
SELECT A GENERATOR
A whole house generator or home standby system is the powerhouse of generators. They are permanently installed usually right next to the house. In addition to providing the largest available wattage ranging from 5,000 -20,000 watts, standby systems are also the most convenient and easiest to operate since they are wired to turn on automatically if the main power supply to the house is lost.
They can be set up to run indefinitely on natural gas or be fueled by propane. These features eliminate the need to start a motor, connect cables, flip a switch, or mess with gasoline.
These machines are equipped with self-diagnosing mechanisms which will alert users via email or text when maintenance is needed.
If you are located in an area of the island with lower elevation i.e., one that is prone to flooding, a home standby system is not a good choice. Rising water will permanently damage the system, and it cannot be moved once it is installed.
Whole house generators are the most expensive option. They can range from $2,000-$6,000, and that is only the cost of the unit. They must be installed by a licensed electrician, and labor costs will easily double the price.
Portable Generators are widely considered the best value among generators, because they are much less expensive than a standby system but can still provide between 3,000 and 8,500 watts - not enough to power an entire house but plenty for the essentials.
Although some solar-powered versions exist, the most prevalent portables are those with gasoline-powered motors. This requires storage of large amounts of fuel or access to an operational gas station. On average, a portable generator will need 12-20 gallons of fuel per day.
The motor of a portable generator is loud, so consider proximity to neighbors when choosing this option. They are also heavy, averaging about 300 pounds, but wheels are affixed to most models for easier transport.
These generators will produce a deadly amount of carbon monoxide through exhaust and must never be operated in an enclosed space. Also, they are not water resistant at all - during periods of rain or snow, the generator must be shielded with a canopy or an open-sided tent.
Prices of portable generators fall between $400-$2000. Like whole-home systems, a portable generator will also require the installation of a transfer switch, but it must be flipped manually. Cost of installation ranges between $700-$1000.
Inverter Generators are about the same size as portable generators, and they are also movable. However, because they utilize a more complex engine, they are typically more expensive. Rather than constantly running at full power like a portable generator, inverters throttle up and down to match the demand, resulting in much quieter operation.
Inverters are also more efficient and produce fewer emissions, but they still require the same 20-foot clearance and adherence to safety protocol. A wide range of models can produce from 1,500-6,500 watts and cost between $300-$4,000. A transfer switch will also be required.
Portable Power Stations are perfect for apartment dwellers or those with limited outdoor space, because they do not use gas or propane and can be operated indoors. They are propelled by a battery that can be charged either by plugging into an electrical outlet or by way of an included solar panel (certain models only). They are also great for small spaces, because they are incredibly quiet since they have no motor.
They produce the least amount of power, with the output of larger models ranging between 1,200-1,500 watts. These range between $750-$3,000, but do not require a transfer switch since they are basically just big battery packs with outlets.
Smaller versions are also available that are much less expensive, such as the Ryobi Power Inverter that hosts one 120V outlet and two USB ports. These only produce between 150-300 watts and will not power any major appliances, but they are budget-friendly. Ranging from $60-$80, they will at least charge electronic devices or power a fan during the warmer months.
As an added advantage, extra batteries can be purchased separately for longer operating time. Also consider purchasing a charger that can be connected to your car’s power outlet, and make sure to fully charge all batteries upon first knowledge of an impending storm, before the power goes out.
INSTALL PROPER EQUIPMENT
For all generators except the battery-driven power stations, both a transfer switch and a generator supply socket must be installed by a professional electrician. The supply socket is where the generator will be plugged in.
Opposite of a typical indoor socket that serves to deliver electricity to devices, a generator socket receives power created by the generator and directs it to the electrical panel. The transfer switch, whether automatic or manual, will sever the breaker box from the main power supply and connect it instead to the generator supply socket.
Do not ever attempt to “backfeed” a generator, which is done by connecting a generator to an appliance or convenience outlet. This is incredibly dangerous for many reasons, and it is often illegal.
Not only does it pose an extreme risk of fire for the structure, but also it creates a potentially hazardous and even deadly situation for linemen. If a power company is in your area attempting to restore power to the neighborhood, a back-fed generator can send high voltage back through the utility lines and fatally electrocute an unknowing worker.
Speaking of electricians, Kerry Lilly recommends utilizing your installation technician for in-depth knowledge on how to operate your generator. “When you get the transfer switch installed, ask the electrician a lot of questions, and make sure he explains several times how to operate the switch,” Lilly says.
“When it comes to an emergency situation, we can often get into ‘panic mode’ and not be able to think straight. Make sure you are entirely comfortable operating your system so that you will know exactly what to do even in a high-pressure situation.”
CONDUCT REGULAR MAINTENANCE
Do not let all the time, money, and effort spent to select the right generator and install the proper hardware, go to waste by failing to maintain your system. Neglecting regular, proper maintenance of could result in malfunction and negate all of your preparations.
Generator engines, like car engines, must be worked to remain operable. The standard recommendation is to turn on your generator once a month for twenty minutes, but this is only half of the process. You also want to test-run your generator.
“Some people will crank up a generator, and the motor runs, so they think it’s fine,” explains Lilly. But the motor only provides the power, the electricity is generated by an entirely separate component. “Every time I turn it on, I also plug things in to make sure that the generator component is working as well as the motor,” Lilly continues.
Additionally, always check the oil before operating a generator, and change it consistently. The oil should be changed five hours after its first use and then after every 100 hours of operation. Also check the filters. Change paper filters or clean foam filters and re-oil with foam filter oil. For models with fuel filters, consult the owner’s manual.
Always store your generator in a covered space, away from the elements. Especially with the harsh, salty island climate, this will significantly extend the life of a generator.
Lastly, if gasoline is used as a fuel source, remember that gasoline can only has a shelf-life of about one year. Ideally, always use fresh fuel. However, if you prefer to keep a stock on hand, be sure and use a fuel stabilizer to prevent it from turning volatile.