Tips on Selecting and Operating a Generator, by Gary D.

Those of us who plan on “bugging in” during  upcoming times of uncertainty realize the need to plan for possible extended power shortages or blackouts. These preparations can range from a total separation from anything electrical or electronic to a series of sophisticated alternate power sources designed to completely power a survival location up to pre-blackout levels.  Based on the questions frequently asked by members of the survivalist community in numerous forums, the most common item of interest for the temporary generation of power for daily living seems to be the portable generator. Some of the most frequently asked questions are in the area of the selection and use of these generators for SHTF situations. Hopefully, the following may be usable for some of you as a guide in the selection of a generator best suited for your needs.

First of all, we need to realistically evaluate what it is you need a generator for. Yes, you can buy a generator large enough to run an entire household and a small farm and power everything all at the same time. This involves, however, a larger, noisier and less fuel efficient generator which, incidentally, costs more money. If none of these factors are a problem for you, buy the largest most expensive generator you can find and have it permanently installed. If, however, there are considerations as to noise, cost, and fuel storage, we might take a second look at our actual needs. Some things can be more cost effectively handled by other then electrical means such as cooking (propane stoves, wood stoves), heating (wood stove again, propane and kerosene heaters), lighting (candles, propane and kerosene lanterns, LED flashlights), etc.  What we actually need to look at is not only our electrical needs but all of our needs with regard to anything that requires energy in general whether that energy is gasoline, propane, firewood, kerosene, solar panels, battery power, etc.

Start by doing a complete inventory of everything in your bug in location that requires electricity. Make a list of the items followed by the item’s electrical requirement. This is usually listed somewhere on the item on a plate or label attached generally in the area of the electrical cord or connecter. The power consumption is listed in watts. Write it down and we will deal with what the figures mean a little later. A better choice is to buy a “Kill-A-Watt”current measuring device which measures the actual amount of power used by a device. These sell for about $20. They provide a much more realistic picture of the device’s actual power consumption. The meter comes complete with simple, easy to understand, instructions which give you consumption figures in either amps or watts. As is often the case in life, you might  find a difference in actual power consumption vs nameplate consumption. In my experience, the charts sometimes supplied by generator manufacturers listing power consumption for common household items often list wattage figures much higher than the actual value.

Next, sit down and review the list of electrical items that you have and realistically evaluate what it is you will need in a severe blackout. If you are fortunate to have your own well and electrical pump, water, of course, is a priority. You might consider scratching off the three big screen televisions, the video games, the stereo set, blenders and cappuccino machines , all but a couple of lights and items on your list such as coffee pots and microwaves that draw large amounts of power but that there are substitutes for as mentioned above. Heaters consume large amounts of electricity and are generally not cost effective items for use with a generator. Realize that you do not have to supply power to all of the remaining items on your list at the same time and for the same periods of time. Realize also that items with motors such as freezers and refrigerators require large amounts of power to start up but only for a few seconds until they reach a normal speed. A 2000 watt generator  can supply power to a number of devices totaling several times it’s rated power if care is used to cycle the items at different times and for only as long as the device is needed.  With planning, for example, there is no reason to have the well pump come on at the same time as a freezer and a refrigerator are running. Yes, you may be able to watch a little TV or use the microwave after the water is pumped and after the freezer and frig have shut off. Remember, the longer you run the generator, the more precious fuel you use and the longer you generate noise which may create OPSEC issues for you.

My first generator, bought in the 1970s, was a large, contractor type generator mounted on a tubular steel cradle and rated at 5,500 watts. With care, it would run all of the necessary items in my 1,500 square foot house occupied by my wife and I and our five boys.  I replaced the old, worn out 220 volt water pump with a newer, high efficiency 120 volt unit so as to use all of the circuits in a transfer switch as will be explained below. The generator was large and  noisy and could be heard in the quiet mountains for a mile and gulped gasoline at the rate of five gallons a day. Generators of that type continue to be popular and represent the best value for the dollar in terms of the  power that they will produce compared to their initial cost. Quality varies considerably among generators of this type and, if you have to buy a modestly priced generator of this kind, be sure to check it for proper functioning regularly and maintain it frequently. Get a service manual for it and stock spare oil and spark plugs. Off brand cradle type generators can often be bought  new in the area of 10 cents per watt while inverter generators can sell for as much as 50 cents per watt.

My second generator is a smaller, much quieter, Honda inverter generator which, after careful planning,  accomplishes the same thing that the older generator did with the exception of the well pump. My third generator is a small Yamaha inverter generator bought so inexpensively at a yard sale that I could not pass it up and, besides, “Two is one and one is none.”  My fourth generator is installed in a motor home and is rated at 4000 watts and is somewhat quiet but not as quiet as the Honda and consumes more fuel.

The next step, after putting a very sharp pencil to the list of items that we really do not need to run from a generator, is to decide how to power the remaining  items. The easy way, particularly if you are not electrically inclined, is to simply buy several extension cords long enough and heavy enough to reach from the generator that you will place outside, to the individual appliances. This allows you to plug and unplug various items as needed but is not very convenient at a time when your attention might be needed elsewhere. This may be the only option if you are a renter as it involves no modifications to the property. The second way is to simply turn off the main circuit breakers going into the house and wire the generator into the main panel so that you can use the branch circuit breakers to shut individual items on and off. There are so many things wrong with doing this that I will not describe the process further and you do this at your own risk including the risks that you may back feed the lines and electrocute a repairman trying to restore power and that your insurance company may refuse to honor any claims generated as the result of any fires caused by this. DO NOT consider hooking up your generator in this manner!

Another way to hook up a portable generator that is often mentioned is to make up an extension cord with plugs on both ends and simply plug the cord from the generator into a convenient outlet in the house after disconnecting the main power source. Again, this is a great example of what NOT TO DO and is mentioned here only to point out that the idea is dangerous and will not provide the desired results.

The best and only safe way to connect a portable generator to your house wiring is through a device called a transfer switch. One type transfers your entire electrical panel from your main power source to your generator. You then use the branch circuit breakers in your panel to turn individual items in your house off and on. The disadvantage of this type of switch is that you have no indication when regular power has been restored since your house is completely disconnected from the main service. Transfer switches of this type can be found for as little as $150.

The second type of transfer switch allows you to selectively transfer a limited number of  branch circuits in your house from the main source to the generator. This type of switch often comes with meters that allow you to balance the load on the generator and circuit breakers that protect each circuit that you have transferred. In my opinion, this is the preferred set up. At the time of this writing, at least one quality switch of this type is available on the Internet for about $240. The cost of either switch would be partially offset by the cost of quality, heavy duty, extension cords as needed in the first option noted above. Installation is relatively simple and can be done by anyone familiar with electrical circuitry. The instructions that come with the switch are easy to follow. Be sure to follow any applicable electrical codes and local ordinances. This type of transfer switch has the further advantage that the circuits that are not transferred through it will become active when power is restored, thus notifying you that regular power is available.

Transfer switches of the second type noted above are typically available to handle six or ten of your house’s branch circuits if they are used for 120 volts only. Adding a 240 volt device to the switch requires using two 120 volt circuits. 240 volt appliances are usually clothes dryers, HVAC units and possibly water heaters and stoves. Smaller, more fuel efficient generators are often not available with 240 volt outputs. In the case of Honda or Yamaha inverter generators for example, it is necessary to purchase the 6500 watt models in order to get a 240 volt output. For this reason, it may be best to consider alternatives to the 240 volt appliances and to wire transfer switches for 120 volts only. If you have to have 240 volts for, for example, a well pump, your choices may be to A) change the pump to a 120 volt model B) Buy a relatively inexpensive  contractor type generator with a 240 volt output  or C) Buy an expensive 6500 watt inverter generator.

Before we go any further, realize that you will have to place the generator outdoors while it is in use. No, an attached garage [with the main door open] is not good enough. OUTSIDE! Any generator will produce carbon monoxide gas when running and that gas is odorless and deadly. In addition, air should be allowed to circulate freely around the generator, particularly the more powerful ones. Consider the need to secure the generator against theft, particularly when your neighbors learn that you have power while they are losing valuable food as their refrigerators sit idle. When in use, I fasten my generator to the frame of my SUV with a piece of logging chain and a large padlock.                         

Before selecting a generator, now may be the time to consider replacing any older appliances that are nearly worn out or ready for replacement with newer, energy efficient units. Within the last few years, I have bought two different  20 cubic foot upright freezers that, after starting up, draw only 140 watts each! This is an astonishingly small amount of power considering the volume of food that can be stored in an appliance of  this size and, after start up, represents less than 10% of the power available from, for example, the Honda EU2000 generator.   

As we mentioned, it is not necessary to run everything at once or for the full time that you have your generator running. Establish a schedule for when you will activate each of your appliances and find gaps in that schedule when you can operate luxury or optional items. If, for example, your family customarily eats dinner at 6:00 pm, you might schedule 2 hours in the morning for powering a freezer, two hours in the afternoon for your refrigerator, two hours after dinner for pumping the next day’s water and for the evening bath and use the two hours around dinner time for the microwave. Small items like lights  can be used concurrently with those items and you might be able to have several hours of “unscheduled” electricity generation for television and security cameras as well as power to charge laptop and cell phone batteries. With a smaller inverter type generator, you might be able to do all of this on just over one gallon of gasoline. Use the list you have made of each device’s power usage  and do the math. Remember to account for the surge current necessary to start any appliance with a motor and double the running wattage of the device to account for this.

Regardless of which type of transfer switch you choose, you will want to identify
which of the circuit breakers on your electrical panel controls each device in your home. Number each of the circuit breakers. My house has, for example, 20 of them. Go through your house and turn everything on. Every lamp, radio, fan, appliance, etc. Then go out to the circuit breaker box and flip all of the breakers off. Turn them back on one at a time and list all of the devices which are energized by that breaker, possibly with the help of someone inside the house. A small handheld two way radio makes this job much easier and should be on your prep list anyway. Create a list of each item for each breaker so that you later know which breaker to use to turn something on or off. Return everything to normal, of course, after you have been able to match everything to a particular breaker. 

After all of the above, sit down and pencil out a schedule for the items that you need to actually run from a generator and the times of the day that you need to run them. Most refrigerators and freezers will need power for only about two hours a day to maintain their normal temperatures if their doors are opened as little as possible. Schedule about one hour in the early part of the day and one in the evening. Your mileage may vary depending on the age and condition of your appliances. Inexpensive thermometers are available for refrigerators and freezers which allow you to monitor their temperature and adjust their power scheduling requirements accordingly. List the items starting with the item using the most power down to the smallest items, generally things like table lamps or ceiling fans. Establish a schedule that allows you to run the largest items at different times and the smaller items concurrently with them. In my home, I am able to run a refrigerator, two freezers, a microwave, a security system, a coffee pot, and countless lamps and battery chargers on a 2000 watt generator with power to spare. I have installed a six circuit transfer switch in such a way that the following items can be connected in sequence as necessary:
                  Circuit #1……..Freezer #1, ceiling fan in front room
                  Circuit #2……..Front room outlets for security cameras, TV monitors
                  Circuit #3……..Freezer #2, garage florescent lights, work bench
                  Circuit #4……..Kitchen outlets including refrigerator, microwave, light
                  Circuit #5……..Kitchen and dining room lights and ceiling fan, outlets, coffee pot.                                        
                  Circuit #6……..Bathroom outlets and lights

In order to keep the power consumption down and avoid running everything at once, I have only to use the individual switches on the transfer switch panel to turn their respective circuits on and off per schedule or as needed.

The only items that I cannot run using this setup is the clothes washer and dryer, the HVAC unit and the electric stove. I might actually be able to power the clothes washer if something else was turned off but, since this is not a priority, I have not pursued this further. Unplugging the generator from the transfer switch and running a heavy duty extension cord to an item requiring only occasional use would allow something such as a clothes washer to be used as long as the rated power of the generator is not exceeded.

As far as the best generator for home use is concerned, the new breed of inverter generators beat the older “contractor” type generators by a mile. The inverter generators are quieter and much more fuel efficient, both of which are critical factors in a SHTF situation. If storing gasoline in any quantity is prohibitive, the internet lists several businesses that can provide conversion kits for most popular generators that allow running off of natural gas or propane. Inverter generators are available in sizes ranging from 1,000 watts to 6,500 watts. The smaller the generator for the job, the quieter and more fuel efficient it becomes and the less expensive it is. Honda and Yamaha make quality generators of this type and other manufacturers are on the market with similar items. Some manufacturers also make coupling devices which allow you to interconnect two inverter generators at once to provide double the power when needed.

In summary, consider budgeting for a transfer switch if you want a convenient, more flexible home system or some good, heavy duty extension cords if you rent or are prohibited from making modifications to your house’ electrical system. Extension cords with at least 14 gauge wire are preferred with 12 gauge being even better for large items. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the wire. Although more expensive, consider an inverter type generator knowing you will use considerably less fuel and attract less attention. If you do have to buy a “contractor type” generator, buy a quality, brand name product with the best guarantee possible and test and maintain it regularly. Consider a good generator to be a long term investment the cost of which will be amortized over a period of time. This is not an area in which it is wise to try to save a few dollars only to watch the last of your food spoil in a freezer that you cannot power when a generator won’t start or run.

Those of you that have already installed generators and have done their homework on this subject might find the above somewhat basic but, judging from the inquiries I see on various forums, this information may be helpful to several of us out there who have not yet prepared for the inevitable blackout or brownout following a disaster.

Prepare as if your life depended on it and be safe.                      

JWR Adds: See the many warnings that have been posted in SurvivalBlog about power grid backfeeds. The only safe way to set up a generator at a house that is tied to grid power is with a proper isolating transfer switch. The lives of power company linemen depend on it!