Hurricane Tech – Keeping the Lights On with a Portable Generator

“You never really appreciate something until it is gone” has never been truer then when the Power goes out and you are sitting in the dark.   Fully charged notebook computers, cell phones, iPads, tablet computers, battery backed up telephone service, uninterruptable power supplies, and flashlights will only get you so far.  When the batteries run down, your technology and communications go dark and without electricity, it might as well be the Stone Age.

Without Power, the food in your Refrigerator and Freezer is at risk to spoil.  Even if you have a heating system that uses a pilot light, without electricity, there is nothing to power the circulator pumps (hydrostatic baseboard or radiator) or fan (forced hot air.)  Many modern day gas ovens and gas stoves have shifted to electronic ignition start which also requires electricity.  At least with a gas stove burner, you can light it with a match but usually not the gas oven.

One saving grace of Natural Gas is that if you have a gas fired hot water heater with a pilot light, you will usually have Hot Water assuming your water is gravity fed and does not rely on a pump as it does in many apartment buildings.

Solution – A portable generator which runs on either gasoline or liquid propane.  Gasoline powered portable generators are the most common and are the focus of this article.

With a reasonably sized portable generator rated at 5,500 watts or more (preferably with an approximate 50% surge starting watts rating of about 8,500 watts), you can easily power a Refrigerator, Freezer, Heating System, a Flat Panel 46” TV Set, (up to 3,000 watts for these four items), Cable/FiOS Set-top Box/Internet Modem/Router, a Computer, charge your portable electronic devices, and a few lights (which add another 1,500 to 2,000 watts for these remaining items.)  This is an estimate based on a combined average continuous wattage load (the amount of electricity required to keep the devices on and running) and surge starting watts which is the additional energy required for the compressors in the Refrigerator and Freezer or fan motor in the Heating System to start.

I know this from my personal experience as during the aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy, I had a Generac Wheelhouse 5,500 watt Generator with 8,500 surge watts and had all of the above running for eight days.

IMPORTANT:  A portable generator is an emergency, temporary installation and you should only connect the minimum number of devices necessary for “life safety” and bare bones comfort.  A 5,500 watt portable generator provides only about 10% to 15% of the amount of electricity normally provided to your home by the Utility Company.

NOTE:  The average amount of watts required to run various appliances and devices can usually be found on a chart in the user’s manual of the generator or on the Internet.

My generator had a five gallon fuel tank.  With all of the above running mostly 24/7, the burn rate of fuel was approximately one gallon every 1.5 to 2 hours.  More specifically, with the tank topped off so its’ actual capacity was slightly more than five gallons, I had to add fuel about every ten hours.  That is a burn rate of about 96 gallons per seven days. (7 days x 24 hours x 1.75 hours/gallon.)

Most quality portable generators are rated to run “24 hours straight, 7 days a week” without issue – provided that proper maintenance is performed.  It is usually recommended that the Oil level be checked at least daily and be changed every 24 to a maximum of 48 hours especially when running the generator continuously – as I did during the power outage.  Selecting the proper grade and viscosity of Oil for winter (in my case a 5W30) or summer (an SAE 30) can make all the difference between the generator starting on the “first pull” (if pull start) or “the press of the starter button” (if electric start) or not starting at all.  (Tip:  If your generator fuel tank has a vent cap, it should be open when operating.)

NOTE: Each engine manufacture has specific recommendations for Oil and Fluids.  Make sure to READ THE MAINTENANCE MANUAL for the proper fluid specifications!

Observation and math become very important in “keeping the lights on” and maintaining peak performance of the generator.  You need to track the run-time which is the number of hours the generator is on for proper maintenance, the fuel consumption which is the amount of gas the generator is burning per hour based on the load, (the amount of electricity your home is using), and the amount of gas you have remaining to determine how long you actually can “keep the lights on.”   Load will not be constant and the amount of fuel the generator is burning can vary throughout the day depending on what devices are in use and being powered by the generator.

To put this in perspective, for my house, each day required approximately 13 to 15 gallons of gasoline which is three, five gallon containers per day.  Given that a Storm can last a full day or two, and that you may not be able to get out the day after the Storm, as was the case with Sandy, you would need to have about 36 gallons of gas on-hand to last the three days.

Yes, that means that I had seven, five gallon containers filled with gasoline on the day before Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy arrived. The Long Island Power Authority made it clear that not only were they virtually guaranteeing the loss of power but that “power could be out for up to five or ten days.”  Keep in mind, as the Northeast experienced; when you don’t have power, it is highly probably that the gas station does not have power either.  And, to make matters worse, the Refineries, Storage Depots, and Delivery System Infrastructure were all affected by the Storm compounding the crisis.

Again as seen in the Northeast after both Hurricane Irene and Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy, many people did not heed the warning that Power would be disrupted and waited until AFTER they lost power to go looking for a generator.  Obviously, there were shortages of generators, gas cans, and the most important commodity, the gas itself.

If you cannot evacuate to a Shelter and you cannot afford have all of your food spoil, the time to purchase a portable generator is BEFORE the Storm.  Make sure you have enough fuel for two to three days along with Oil and Fluids to maintain the generator properly.

Having a portable generator can make a widespread power outage an inconvenience instead of a potentially serious life threatening situation.

CRITICAL SAFETY NOTE:  Connecting devices to the generator that have standard electrical plugs, the type that fit in to the outlets in your home, can be done safely with properly rated 12 gauge grounded (three prong) extension cords.  Just unplug the device from the wall outlet and plug in to the extension cord. Follow all manufacturer instructions and load ratings!

CONNECTING YOUR HEATING SYSTEM MAY REQUIRE THE ASSISTANCE OF A LICENSED, PROFESSIONAL ELECTRICIAN TO INSTALL A SPECIAL TRANSFER SWITCH.  FAILURE TO MAKE PROPER AND SAFE CONNECTIONS TO THE GENERATOR MAY RESULT IN RISK OF FIRE, SERIOUS INJURY, OR DEATH.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this information. I really believe that special precautions should also be taken into consideration when you are operating generators.

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