In October 2019, Californians experienced a series of rolling blackouts aimed at preventing wildfires. Afterward, Aaron Jagdfeld, the CEO of home generator company Generac, told CNBC its sales there had more than tripled. He also said generators were going quickly in the Northeast as homeowners sought emergency power in the wake of repeated hurricanes and ice storms.
Demand for generators tends to surge after major storms as people realize how easily they could be stuck without power for a week or more. In 2014, I learned firsthand what it was like. Over 14 days, we had eight power outages varying from a few hours to a full day. After 10 days of bitter cold and limited connection to the outside world, I found myself wondering whether we should buy a backup power generator.
But I didn’t take the plunge right away. Instead, I took the time to do some research on generators first — their downsides as well as their benefits.
If you’re thinking about buying a generator, it makes sense to do the same thing. Before you shell out the money, consider the purchase from every angle — the costs, downsides, hassle, and what you really want the generator to do. That way, if you decide to take the plunge, you’ll know how to pick the best type of generator for you and your family.
Should You Buy a Backup Power Generator?
Only certain people need a generator to make it through a disaster. How well you can manage without one depends on where you live and how much you rely on electricity at home.
For instance, Sandra Bockhorst of American Preppers Network writes that she managed just fine during a week without power in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hortense by using stored water, kerosene lamps, and a propane grill. However, after moving to Pennsylvania, she decided to buy a generator after a series of storms took out the power to her farm and nearly cost her a freezer full of food.
To figure out whether a generator is a worthwhile investment for you, you must be able to answer several questions:
- How Common Are Power Outages? Only buy a generator if you’re really going to need it. If the power grid in your area goes down every time there’s a big storm, a generator could make a significant difference in your comfort — but if you’ve had one blackout in the last five years, you can probably get by without one.
- How Long Do They Last? Even frequent power outages are no big deal if they only last a couple of hours. A generator is much more useful for handling prolonged outages that last for days. And if blackouts in your area can last for weeks, it could be worth investing in a more expensive generator that lasts longer.
- How Extreme Is the Weather in Your Area? Think about the weather conditions in your area. In a mild climate, going a week without heating or cooling could be no big deal. But if you live in the Deep South, where summertime temperatures can reach over 100 degrees F with punishing humidity, a whole week with no air conditioning could be incredibly unpleasant or even unsafe. And if you live in a very cold area, you have to worry about both protecting yourself from frostbite — which you can probably manage with enough layers of clothing — and keeping the pipes in your home from freezing and bursting in the cold.
- Do You Have the Space? A running generator needs a spot in your yard that’s a safe distance from your home. Stationary generators have to stay in this space all the time, and portable ones also need a separate space for storage. Both types require a supply of fuel, which you must also store.
- Do You Have the Time? It takes a bit of work to keep a generator in good running order. And if it’s a portable generator, it takes effort to set it up and get it started during a storm. That’s a hassle that could outweigh the benefits of getting the power back on a little sooner.
- What’s Your Budget? Generators cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars — and that’s not even counting fuel costs. Not everyone has that much money to spare, and everyone has other things they could do with it. Consider what else you might use the money for, then think about whether a generator is really what you want most.
- What Are the Alternatives? The more dependent you are on electricity, the more a generator is likely to help you. Make a list of all the things you use power for at home — for example, heating, cooling, and refrigeration. For each one, ask yourself whether there’s some alternative you could rely on if the power were down for a week. If you have no other way of keeping your home warm or cool or rely on your well-stocked freezer for your food supply, then keeping the power on at your home is crucial. But if your only real concern is keeping your cellphone working, there are other options, such as solar and hand-crank chargers.
You can answer some of these questions based on previous experience. But others require a bit more information. Before you can make an informed decision, you need to know more about how generators work, their costs, the amount of space and maintenance they require, and the possible alternatives.
How Backup Generators Work
A generator works on the principle of electromagnetic induction. That means that when you move a wire through a magnetic field, it creates a current in that wire. A generator simply spins a magnet repeatedly around a wire, forcing electrons through the wire like a pump forcing water through a pipe.
To make the magnet turn, a home power generator contains a small engine, which can be powered by gasoline, liquid propane, or natural gas. The engine pushes a piston back and forth, causing the generator to turn and produce a steady electric current.
There are two main types of home power generators: portable and stationary.
These smaller generators are mounted on wheels. When a power outage hits, you have to wheel the generator outside, start it, and hook it up to your home’s power system. You can plug your devices directly into the generator or hire an electrician to install a special cable called a manual transfer switch, which feeds the current into your home’s electrical system. From there, you can flip the circuit breakers to route power to the devices you need, such as the fridge and lights.
Portable generators can typically provide enough backup power to keep a few critical systems running, such as your refrigerator and a few lights.
Also known as a standby generator, a stationary generator sits in a permanent location outside your house. A stationary generator has an automatic transfer switch built in. If the power goes out, it automatically starts and feeds power into your home’s systems.
Standby generators are bigger than portable ones and can produce enough wattage to run an entire house. However, these whole-house generators are a lot more expensive than portable generators, and you have to hire a professional to install one.
Downsides of Owning a Generator
The benefits of owning a generator are easy to see.
When a storm knocks out power to your area, and all your neighbors are shivering in the dark, you’ll still have heat and lights. If the power outage continues for several days, your generator can also save hundreds of dollars’ worth of food in your fridge and freezer. And if you choose a portable generator, you can take it with you to power a few essential gadgets on a camping trip or at a tailgate party.
However, that doesn’t mean everybody should rush out to buy one. Owning a generator has its share of downsides, including cost, space, maintenance, noise, and safety considerations.
Home generators aren’t cheap. According to Consumer Reports, the smallest portable models are good for powering your fridge, a sump pump, a few lights, and maybe a TV, and they cost at least $400. Larger portable models can run bigger appliances, such as an air conditioner, and can cost up to $1,500.
Standby generators are more convenient to use but usually run at least $2,000. On top of that, you have to pay a professional installer to hook them up. According to Consumer Reports, generator installation can cost anywhere from a few thousand to over $10,000.
It can be hard to find a place to use a portable generator. It has to be on level ground and at least 20 feet from your house — but close enough to connect to it with an extension cord.
You also have to protect it from the weather because it could electrocute you if it gets wet. But you can’t put it inside a shed. It’s unsafe to run in an enclosed space. And between uses, you have to find a place to store it to protect it from harsh weather and theft.
Stationary units live in the same spot in your yard year-round, so you don’t need to worry about storing them. However, they take up a fair bit of space and can be unattractive.
You also need to store fuel for your generator. That’s easy if you have a home standby generator that runs on natural gas, but you must store gasoline and propane outside your home for safety reasons. That said, you must keep the fuel locked up to protect it from thieves and vandals, which means adding a shed or detached garage unless you already have one.
Like any appliance, a generator needs regular maintenance to keep it running well. You have to keep it fueled and check the oil, filters, and spark plugs regularly. You also need to start it monthly and run it for about 20 minutes to keep the battery charged and the fuel lines free of moisture.
You also have to maintain your fuel supplies. Gasoline can go bad over time, so you must add a fuel stabilizer and refill your cans every year or so. Regular maintenance is necessary if you want to be able to count on your generator to work when an emergency strikes.
Generators are loud. The best ones are quiet enough to avoid bothering you while you’re indoors, but you could still get complaints from the neighbors. Some towns even have anti-noise ordinances that restrict how loud your generator can be or at what times you can use it.
You have to be careful when using a portable generator. It must be properly ventilated to avoid causing a fire or producing deadly carbon monoxide. HuffPost reports that during Hurricane Sandy, generators were responsible for at least nine deaths, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Even a properly vented generator gives off some fumes. So ensure it is at least 20 feet from all doors and windows to avoid letting any harmful fumes into the house. Burning gas or propane produces carbon dioxide, which is toxic to humans. It’s also the main gas responsible for climate change. That means the more you run your generator, the more you increase your carbon footprint.
Alternatives to Owning a Generator
Despite the many drawbacks of owning an emergency generator, some people think they have no choice because it’s the only way to keep the power on. But there are other ways to provide power for a few of your devices — or to get by with no backup power source at all.
In many cases, it’s possible to stay safe and comfortable for at least a few days without electricity.
Portable Power Stations
If your power needs are modest, you can meet them with a device called a portable power station. These backup power mini-systems are basically large batteries inside protective cases with built-in AC outlets and other ports for plugging in your various devices.
According to Wirecutter, they weigh around 50 pounds and can store anywhere from 100 to 1,800 watts of energy. That’s enough to keep key electronics, such as a phone or laptop, running for hours or even days at a time.
Unlike generators, portable power stations run silently and don’t require a backup supply of fuel. You can charge them with ordinary household current or, in some cases, with a solar panel.
However, they typically cost more than portable generators, and their power output is insufficient to run your central air conditioning or any large appliance. And even if you’re using them only for electronic devices, fans, or medical equipment, such as a CPAP machine (breathing mask), they can’t store enough juice to get you through a weeklong blackout.
There are many ways to stay cool without air conditioning. You can block out the sun’s hot rays with curtains and reflective window film and keep your home well insulated to prevent it from heating up as quickly. At night, when it’s cooler, you can open windows to let in the breeze.
You can also cool yourself, rather than the space around you. Taking a cold shower or applying cold compresses lowers your body temperature directly. Or if your home has a basement, you can retreat down there during the day to take advantage of the cooler temperature.
Most heating systems depend on electricity to either create heat or distribute it throughout the house. So if a winter storm takes out the power to your home, you need some way to stay warm until the power comes back on.
You can heat an indoor space with a wood-burning or gas-burning fireplace, wood stove, pellet stove, or kerosene heater. Like a generator, all these fuel-burning appliances need proper ventilation for safety.
And if the winters in your area aren’t all that cold, you might be able to get away with bundling up in your warmest clothing and piling on the blankets at night.
If your home is hooked up to the municipal water and sewer lines, a power outage shouldn’t disrupt your water supply. But if you have a well that works with an electric pump, you need another source of water for bathing, drinking, and flushing your toilets.
One solution is to store water in jugs to get you through an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping at least 1 gallon of water per day for each person and each pet in the house in your family emergency kit. Ideally, you should have a total of 14 gallons per person — enough to get you through two weeks without water.
You can also use rainwater collected in buckets or a water barrel for washing or flushing toilets.
Backup Power for Sump Pumps
Many homes rely on a sump pump to keep the basement from flooding. But if a storm knocks out the power, it can disable the pump when you need it the most.
To avoid this problem, you can choose a pump with a battery backup, which uses a car or boat battery to keep it going while the power is out. If you’re on the municipal water system, another option is to install a backup pump that relies on water pressure rather than electricity.
During a prolonged power outage, keeping your refrigerator door closed as much as possible helps the food stay fresh. Food stored in a full freezer should stay safe for up to 48 hours without power, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, food in the refrigerator will go bad much faster.
Packing the fridge with blocks of ice or dry ice can keep food safe to eat for a couple of days. Alternatively, you can transfer perishable food to a cooler, which requires less ice to pack. A good rule of thumb is to eat all your perishable food first, before it goes bad. After that, you can rely on shelf-stable foods, such as canned goods, cereal, pasta, dry beans, crackers, peanut butter, and powdered or ultra-pasteurized milk.
If you have a gas stove, you can continue to use it during a power outage. Most modern stoves use electric igniters, but you can always light them the old-fashioned way — with a match.
You can also cook outdoors on a grill, portable camp stove, or solar cooker. If you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, you can do some cooking on that.
Power for Phones
If you have an old-fashioned landline phone — the kind that runs on actual copper cable — it will probably still work during a power outage. If not, there are several ways to recharge your cellphone when the electricity is out.
For $25 to $80, you can buy a solar phone charger that can top up your phone battery after about half an hour in direct sunlight. There are also inexpensive hand-crank chargers, which often double as emergency flashlights or portable radios. And finally, you can conserve your phone’s battery power by keeping it switched off in between calls.
At night, you can keep your home lit with candles, flashlights, or battery-powered lanterns. Modern LED technology makes it possible for a lantern or flashlight to last a lot longer on one set of batteries. However, it’s worth keeping extra batteries on hand in case the power outage goes on for weeks.
In the modern world, we tend to rely a lot on electronic gadgets — TVs, smartphones, computer games — to keep us amused. During a power outage, you have to fall back on more old-fashioned diversions, such as books. Besides reading to yourself, you can take turns reading aloud with your family members to entertain each other.
You can also work on jigsaw puzzles or play tabletop games, such as board games, card games, and party games like charades.
In the end, my husband and I decided not to invest in a generator.
Instead, we opted to find other ways to prepare for winter storms. We installed a gas fireplace for heat, bought a hand-cranked radio that could also charge our cellphones, and got an LED lantern for lighting. These supplies — plus a gas stove and plenty of water, nonperishable food, and books — give us the confidence we can make it through another long stretch without power if we have to.
And in the end, that’s the most critical consideration: peace of mind. If you can’t sleep easy without a generator or some other backup power source to get you through a lengthy power outage, then a generator is a worthwhile investment, regardless of what the numbers say.
But if you decide the expense and effort of owning a generator outweigh the benefits, there are plenty of other ways to weather a natural disaster.