Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Half-Bake, Low Cost Alternative to an Emergency Generator

We all know the best time to buy a generator. It's not during a Polar Vortex, that's for sure. It's on a random, 70 degree afternoon, when power outages are the last thing on anyone's mind. And so a few months back, that's what I decided I'd do. I wasn't going to over-think this: I'd just buy a generator, stash it in my shed, and wait for the day to come when it paid dividends.

After a bit of research I quickly learned that my plan had a number of drawbacks. First off, assuming the generator runs on gas (which a cheap one would), I'd need to keep it a supply around. And of course, gas doesn't keep, so I'd need to worry about rotating out my supply. And then there's the whole matter of maintenance. It's recommended that you run a generator monthly, which if I was truly honest with myself, is something that I'd never (ever) do. I could already hear the little voice in my head ("they say once a month, but I'm sure once a year is fine...").

My half baked generator plan was looking less and less like a good idea. I needed a new half baked plan.

And then I came across this comment:

The best advice anyone ever gave me was to use your car as a generator in a short-term emergency. It won't run your refrigerator, it wont run your air conditioner, it won't run your electric heater, but it will provide you with light and communication and will long outlast the short-term disaster. You can pick up a little 750 watt inverter capable of running some CF or LED lights, maybe a TV, and a radio for $30 in some cases. With that and a $1 power strip, a $5 extension cord, and the things you already have you will be better off than the guy with a $200 generator that runs out of gas in two hours! You use high powered appliances with your car running at idle and use your car's battery for an adequate amount of light for cooking or reading. It will also run a electric blanket to keep you warm. When the inverter starts screaming, start your car! A useful add-on would be a $100 deep cycle marine battery and a $10 trickle-charger kept in your home for the same purpose. Thank you Steve Harris!

I live in an apartment. When the power goes out, I run my vacuum cleaner! I watch TV! My lights are the only ones on! Why? To start conversations with my neighbors on emergency preparedness and how it relates to them. Be the example! (and have a backup plan)

Never one to resist a clever hack, I did further poking around of this whole 'car as generator' concept. Turns out, it's a real thing. Here's a Consumer Reports test where they ran a car for 14 hours with "no apparent ill effects." The test has pretty solid results:

We found that inverters can keep at least some of your home’s essentials energized. But you’ll need to prioritize: Even the smaller, 900-watt PW900-12 was able to run a freezer, two refrigerators, two sump pumps, lights, and chargers for various electronics for our staffer at home—but not all at once. Fortunately for him, only one of two installed sump pumps needed to come on, and it could do so even when a refrigerator or freezer was also running.

So off I went to Amazon to find out what my power inverter options were. For about $140 I was able to pick up this Energizer 1500 Watt Inverter. Paired with a 100ft extension cable, I figured I was good to go.

Today, for the heck of it, I finally took the unit outside and hooked it up to the car via jumper cables. I was a little surprised when it all came on just fine.

The Energizer unit is a pretty slick, as it shows you both your wattage load as well as the current number of volts. It also shows a battery meter, which is handy if you use the setup without the car running. (Apparently an option, as long as you turn on your car when the "Inverter screams" -- that is, the alarm goes off saying you're almost out of juice.)

Now it's true, I haven't tried the next step of my plan which is to run the extension cord from the unit to some appliance inside, but all indications are that this scheme may just work.

I now have my worst case scenario power backup option. Yes, it's ridiculous to think that I'd want my car idling for hours on end. But, in a big enough emergency, that's probably the least of my woes. I figure if I truly need the power, I'm not going to be bothered that this is some klugy hack. And as a bonus, the Energizer unit is quite portable. Any place that has a car, I now have a set of 1500W outlets ready for use.

By the way, this is all Plan B. Plan A for the next time we lose power during a Polar Vortex is simple: use my car to drive us to a hotel that has power. Still, for $140 and 0 maintenance worries, my Inner Eagle Scout is satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. Funny! My parents both worked in the battery industry for 20+ years, and this is typically what we did during blackouts in the Philippines. And there were lots of blackouts! All you need is a spare battery, which, needless to say, was not an issue for us. :)