Offgrid Preparation Preparing Your Home for a Backup Generator
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This article was originally published in Issue 2 of our magazine.
With our cities weathering everything from natural disasters to an aging infrastructure, power outages are becoming an all too common occurrence. Aside from needing power to run everything from lights to microwaves, many people depend on electricity to run critical medical equipment and refrigerators for medicines. If the power does go offline for a few days or more in your area like it did during the large-scale blackout of the Northeast in 2003, do you have a plan to get your home up and running?
Having a power generator handy is definitely a great idea and should be on the top of every prepper’s must-have list. We’re going to take it one step further than to simply have a generator at your beck and call. We will prepare our house so that it can accept power from a backup generator much like how a hospital or supermarket has theirs. Do you know if your home is prepared to run off a generator safely and efficiently?
Above: This EF6300iSDE generator by Yamaha cranks out enough power to get equipment like well pumps going as well smaller items such as TVs and computers.
Before we begin, let’s get the legal stuff out of the way first. There is a federal code that regulates electrical construction in the United States. In this article, we will cover the ways to legally get your home back onto the grid in case of an emergency. A dangerous practice called “back feeding,” which is where you simply make a male-to-male extension cord and plug it into your house, is often illegal and can be very dangerous. Don’t do it that way. Before SHTF, take the opportunity to set your home up properly to accept generator power before you really need to.
The first obstacle to tackle is making a priority list of appliances that your family will need to run in case of a power outage. I recommend involving as few people as possible in this process. Trying to convince your better half that the wine fridge and flat iron are not necessities can be a battle that is better avoided. My house is small, so the big ones for my family are the refrigerator, Internet, and TV, and I picked one room that I wanted lighting in. In my case, I chose the living room because it is on the same circuit as Internet and TV. Your essentials may vary. If you have a deep freezer, live in an environment that the air conditioning is a must, or get your water from an electric well pump, you should definitely take all these necessities into consideration.
Above: Transfer switches allow you to safely switch between your primary sources of power like the city’s grid to a backup source like a portable generator without danger of energizing unwanted circuits.
Getting the house itself ready takes a little effort, time, and money, but is well worth the trouble. Being entirely self-sufficient during dark days is priceless. Federal code requires that you install a transfer switch before connecting any generator to your house. In some areas, your local code may require you to use a licensed electrician. If you are one, then kudos to you. If you aren’t one, get a pro to install it for you. A transfer switch allows you to safely switch between your primary sources of power to a backup source without danger of energizing unwanted circuits. There are two different kinds of switches available. Manual switches, which require you to manually turn the switch to the generator position and start your generator, and automatic transfer switches which can be coupled with an electric start generator that detects a drop in current and automatically switches to and turns on your generator. The transfer switch can be set up to power the whole electrical panel or only specific circuits.
Let’s talk generators. This is a subject that could make up a whole article by itself. For the scope of this article, I am going to cover just the basics. After analyzing your electrical needs list, you will have to figure out if you are only going to run 120-volt appliances, such as lights, TVs, or small appliances, or if you are going to need to run larger 240-volt appliances like washing machines and some water heaters and air conditioners. You will then need to add up the voltage required for all your appliances measured in watts to get the approximate size of generator you will need.
Generators will usually have two ratings:
Above: Generators should be used in a well-ventilated area and never inside your garage or house. Even when installed outside, be mindful to avoid placing it near air intakes and windows.
Once you have all this information, you can start searching for a generator that fits your needs. In some cases, it might be better to purchase two generators. Many manufacturers offer kits that allow you to connect the generators together so they can run in parallel. This will allow you to run more appliances and put less of a load on each generator. The added bonus of this is you have a built-in backup in case one generator goes down, as well as a source for spare parts.
If you have done everything to prepare your home in advance, all you will have to do when the power goes out is turn your transfer switch to the generator position, plug in your generator, and start it up. If you opt for an automatic setup, it’ll start up all by itself when it detects a power drop. Once you have a proper power generator setup in your home, you can rest easy and continue life as usual the next time the power shuts off.
Carbon Monoxide — Always run your generator in a well-ventilated area and never inside your garage or house. Try to avoid placing it near air intakes or windows. According to the U.S. Government, approximately 170 people die each year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and about half of these deaths occur during power outages.
Power loss — You want to use an extension cord as short as possible to avoid losing power between your generator and transfer box. In this case, the less length, the better.
Security — Generators make noise. Even the quietest models can draw unwanted attention, especially when no one else on your street is running one. If your house is the only one prepped for power, it can make you a target. At the very least, you will probably want to chain your generator to a large object so someone does not just
walk off with it.