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Nov 21

5 reasons why you shouldn’t count on a generator when T-SHTF.

Generators are great for short term power outages.  They are relatively cheap and can be sourced from most home improvement stores.  If the grid goes down for a few days after a major storm generators help to keep the food in the fridge from spoiling, keep the sump pump running and make sure a few lights stay on inside the home.  However for long term grid down (SHTF) outages, generators should not be counted on to provide life sustaining support, and here’s why…

  1. Fuel Availability.  With the exception of solar powered generators, all generators run on some sort of fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane, natural gas).  After Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast fuel shortages were immediate and widespread, how much more if a large scale power outage occurs over a prolonged period of time?  Gasoline and diesel will not be available for purchase from local stations and any that happens to be on hand will most likely go to emergency vehicles first.  Propane will be long gone at the local hardware store (it was all sold out prior to Hurricane Sandy hitting in some areas).  Generators powered by natural gas will initially be immune to this but will soon face their own shortcomings.
  2. Fuel Storage Considerations.  Most portable generators use between 8 to 22 gallons of gasoline per day, compared to 4 to 8 twenty pound propane tanks (propane generators).  That’s quite a bit of fuel just for one day’s usage and it’s simply not realistic to assume that the average person will be able to store enough fuel on site to keep the generator running for weeks on end.  At 15 gallons of gasoline per day,  that equates to keeping  42 five gallon gas containers on hand to power the generator for 2 weeks.  Even a large 250 gallon propane tank only has a 3 to 4 weeks worth of fuel, if that.  Hardly enough to keep the lights on during a long term grid down scenario.
  3. Reliance on the Electric Grid.  Even gasoline and propane powered generators rely on the electric grid.  If the grid goes down and stations/retailers can’t sell fuel/propane generator owners will simply be out of luck.  This is also where folks who own standby generators will run into trouble.  Many standby generators run off of natural gas which is piped into homes from pumping stations, which relies on the electric grid to maintain adequate pressure throughout the system.  Translation: if the grid goes down for an extended period of time many of those expensive and professionally installed standby generators will be good for nothing more than scrap parts.
  4. Operational Security (OPSEC).  Imagine this: you haven’t had power in your area for a month.  You are tired, dirty, hungry and out scavenging for food in neighborhoods that have been abandoned when you hear it.  It sounds like a motorcycle with the throttle opened halfway, a constant wailing noise.  Could that be a generator?  Someone has power!  That must mean that they also have food, water, maybe medicine!  You see where I’m going with this don’t you.  Even if you could magically keep your generator running long after T-SHTF you would only succeed in making yourself a massive target (unless you live out in the country).
  5. Load Capabilities. This is where solar powered generators meet their match.  While having a solar powered generator is better than having nothing at all, most are incapable of providing long term viable power solutions.  Consider the Goal Zero Yeti system.  Based on my beer math you could power a few appliances for a couple hours before discharging the entire battery, at which point it would take (optimal) 20-24 hours to recharge the battery from the solar panels.  Again better than nothing at all during a long term grid down scenario, but definitely a reason to not count on it.  What happens if you completely discharge the battery and heavy clouds and fog roll in (read: degraded charging) for a week or more?

I’m not trying to discourage anyone who is interested in purchasing a portable, standby or solar generator.  I also do not doubt the usefulness of a generator for short term use. They play a huge role in keeping people comfortable when storms like Hurricane Sandy pummel an area.  I simply want people to understand the shortcomings associated with generators, and that if a long term grid down scenario does play out these devices simply should not be part of the overall survival plan.

 

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18 comments

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  1. Jason Arnholt

    I have the Honda EU2000i for the noise reason alone. This thing just hums and you can barely hear it from about 25 ft away when it is dead quiet outside. They are expensive but worth it.

    1. PJ

      Jason,

      I have seen Honda’s in action and you are correct, I’m not sure if it gets much better when it comes to portable generators. As always, you (often) get what you pay for. Thanks for the comment.

      PJ

  2. Lux

    Here is my micro-solar set up for under $100. I tested it running a 10” desk fan 24/7 for weeks

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Uses-For-Dead-Car-Batteries-And-Sealed-Lead-Acid-B/?ALLSTEPS

    How about a 360 hour flashlight:

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Uses-For-Dead-Car-Batteries-And-Sealed-Lead-Acid-B/?ALLSTEPS

    Lux

    1. PJ

      Lux,

      Thanks for the link to your micro-solar set up, very easy to follow (I might have to use it) and it’s a great use for a dead car battery. Good stuff you have there, thanks for sharing and thanks for the comment.

      PJ

      1. Lux

        Thanks PJ,

        Here is the other stuff like sprouting and long run time flashlights:

        http://www.instructables.com/member/luxstar/rss.xml?show=instructable

        Getting ready for this:

        http://www.empcommission.org/docs/empc_exec_rpt.pdf

        Lux

        1. PJ

          Lux,

          Thanks for the the EMP report (I might have to use that). Reminds me of the book One Second After, quite a scary read. Any EMP strike would instantly cause massive amounts of chaos on a scale never even imagined by most. BTW I tried opening that first link and it’s not showing up for me…

          PJ

          1. Lux

            PJ,

            I am not sure what the problem is with the link. It works fine for me. It was a link to more instructables. Here are the more pertinent ones.

            http://www.instructables.com/id/Easy-Flashlight-Mod-Increases-Run-Time-36X/?ALLSTEPS

            http://www.instructables.com/id/Emergency-Led-Lighting-Made-Ridiculously-Simple/?ALLSTEPS

            http://www.instructables.com/id/Cooking-With-FatAs-A-Fuel/?ALLSTEPS

            http://www.instructables.com/id/Make-This-Sprouter-It-Works-Great/?ALLSTEPS

            The sprout one is important because the beans and seed that that can be sprouted are compact like dehydrated food. When you soak beans for 12 hours they re-hydrate like dehydrated food and when you drain and let them sprout they increase in volume far beyond any dehydrated food, Also they are cheap. I made few really simple sprouters out of 2 plastic stackable cups and a lid from a jar of instant coffee. You get more than enough sprouts in one set up in 3 days to double the volume of a can of progresso soup. So with 3 you can have a batch of sprouts every day. I have made sprouts from several beans / seeds such as lentils (10 years+ old) mung beans, black eyed peas, garbanzo beans etc (I don’t like pinto beans and they do not sprout as well as some other beans),
            You get more than enough sprouts in one set up in 3 days to double the volume of a can of progresso soup. So with 3 you can have a batch of sprouts every day.

            This is probably one of the most important things a prepper can do to make sure they have enough food. Buy lots of sproutable beans and seeds and have a way to sprout them. A couple of cubic feet of mung beans and lentils is a massive amount of food.

            Lux

  3. Howard

    I believe that we very well may go through a period in which the power grid shall be up and for days at a time. If you are using refrigerators and freezers a generator will be well worth it during this period. But get your necessary supplies first.

    1. PJ

      Howard,

      I tend to agree, the only exception being a massive cyber-attack on our grid which disables it for a lengthy period of time. Generators will still be useful in the short term, or even in a situation where there are continuous rolling blackouts. They do have their uses but should not be totally relied on (and I truly believe most preppers understand that). Thanks for your comment.

      PJ

  4. Lux

    Can you imagine FEMA springing into action when the grid goes down. FEMA ran out of bottled water a couple of days after hurricane Sandy hit. They had to contact vendors to get bids to place an order. Kind of late for that. So the grid goes down and they need to place an order for diesel generators. Ooops can’t make a phone call. Can’t e-mail or text. Can’t send a fax. We are on our own. This is the reason to prep. Not 2012. Not the bird flu. Not planet x. This is it.

    Not to bad .mouth any government agency. It is just reality. The best lesson to take away from Hurricane Sandy is that the only person you can rely on being there for you in an emergency is you . And the “grid down” emergency is the biggest one there is.

    1. PJ

      You are correct, the entire system would simply be paralyzed. Once all of the normal courses of action were found to be ineffective, people will resort to handling what they can on a much smaller scale. Communities will spring up, neighbors will start to bond…all in the name of survival. There will be no magical assistance coming from “somewhere.” If the grid goes down full time, it will get ugly quick.

  5. tom delaney

    To keep food cold/frozen and heat up a tank of water for bathing only requires using the generator 2-4 hours out of every 24 but the fuel use calculation in the article seem to assume the generator will be in constant operation. The fuel consumption rate given here could be a least doubled if the generator is used only for heating water and refrigeration. Main point, though, that generators are not for any long term grid disruption, is spot on.

    1. PJ

      Tom,

      Great point, if used conservatively a generator can produce power for a much longer period, but like you have stated that only prolongs the inevitable…

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. pdxprepper

    It’s all about batteries and their loads. Loads are how much current drawn and how often between charges. Big battery banks rule, but man are they heavy.

    Batteries can charge quickly to about 85% of rated capacity IF you have a charger capable of delivering the current. For example, if you have a Group27 12v battery that is rated at 100 A/Hrs with 50Amps missing (50A x 12v = 600W) and you charge with a 25A charger (not a cheap charger), you should have put 23A back into the battery. As you would expect, right? It gets worse in the next hour as the battery stops accepting charge at the max rate of your charger. your generator is still putting away, capable of delivering 80% of the rated 6500W, and sucking down fuel to mostly make heat and exhaust. The next hour delivers about 15A (if your battery is in good shape), and the next about 5A. The last 10% of battery capacity takes TIME to push in, not just hours, but maybe DAYS. A typical “portable-emergency” generator is a very wasteful way to charge a battery all the way. A way to make this worse is to use a resonant charger as delivered in a 1960′s through 1990′s RV. They will charge slow, then overcharge your long-suffering battery. Get a 4-stage electronic charger for when you can plug-in to a genset or the grid.

    What makes sense for the last 15% of charging a battery? Solar power! Since you aren’t putting much current into a battery between 85% and 100% charged you don’t need all that many panels or a big controller to charge as fast as the battery will accept. 300-400W of panel, a MPPT controller (like Morningstar 15L), cable, and a couple batteries will deliver enough power for a small rocker-pump refrigerator (DC power) all year, as well as some LED lighting and RX comm.

    A small 24v dc inverter will give temporary ability to run 120v 50/60Hz small appliances (device chargers, etc.). Spend more, if you can, and get a good quality True Sine Wave inverter from a US manufacturer instead of a modified-square-wave unit that will cause bad effects in your devices.

    How about for charging from 20% to 85% of battery capacity? Weeks of solar input and not using the battery? No way! This is a job for a fueled generator for about 2 hours. How about a rotary charger with a field controller, driven by a small gasoline or diesel engine? That would be a 12v or 24v 100A alternator with 3-phase output into a 3-phase rectifier, with a field controller to maintain the right voltage while the battery accepts as much as it can, as fast as it can. A pint of Diesel will run a small 1-cylinder Kubota for at least an hour and install about 2100W into a battery bank. A small Honda gasoline engine (like a GX360) will squeeze a decent amount of battery-charging power from a gallon of gas if geared to turn an alternator at the right speed.

    Running a generator for less time saves time that you need to babysit a system. Less time running makes noise for less time. You can run during windy times, or build a good muffler and hush system/shed to make it quieter. Less machine running time means less spent on wasted fuel/oil filters/oil changes, which can really add up!

    Cheers.

    1. PJ

      PDXPrepper,

      Great information, you are obviously very well versed on this. Thank you for providing all of that info, feel free to shoot me any articles you would like to contribute on the topic! :)

      PJ

  7. Raymac1963

    I wasn’t a cheap venture, but i went all Solar from Goal Zero. Never feeding my system gas and 0 sound was the major factor in the decision….

    1. PJ

      Raymac,

      I took a look at Goal Zero, I just didn’t think that the current system would be able to support even basic power needs long term (appliances, climate control etc). My main concern would be the charge times, in that a Yeti system might be able to power what I need for an hour or two but then require half a day or more to recharge the batteries. Of course I could buy quite a few extra Yeti battery packs but that gets into some serious cash, not to mention I’d be purchasing it on a hunch.

      Any feedback as to your setup would be appreciated, heck if you’d like to do a small write up let me know.

      PJ

  8. jake

    Folks – One thing to think about is, you don’t need to run your generator 24/7. We installed a Generac 8kw last year b/c we live in a valley that gets major wind and frequent power outages. We both work from home, so internet etc was important. We keep three 5 gal gas cans full with Stabil added to them for long gas life. When the power goes out, our devices have batteries, and of course food in the fridge and freezer will be ok for a while. A couple times a day, we fire up the generator, let the hot water heater do it’s thing, take showers, flush toilets, let the fridge/freezer re-cool, let our devises recharge etc. Only need about 1-2 hours each time. We use our wood stove for heat in this instance, and if in summer, our downstairs is always cool. So, with a little attn, I would say you only need your Generator for about 4 hours a day at the max. Unless you don’t have an alternative heat source. I would suggest getting one. Cheers.

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