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I live in the SF Bay Area. My house is blocks from the Hayward Fault, where a large earthquake is likely during my lifetime. Along with the usual disaster-prep things (water, food, etc.) I'm considering buying a portable generator to power critical equipment (fridge, microwave, phone/laptop/iPad chargers, etc.) to make it easier on the family in case we have to be "off the grid" for an extended period (e.g. 1-2 weeks), either in the house if minimal structural damage, or in the back yard if not so lucky.

I've read the excellent answer on choosing an emergency generator from @Jay Bazuzi, but that answer led me to think about all the things that could go wrong with a generator: mechanical failure, out of gas, leaving it in a part of the house that collapsed in an earthquake, not having long-enough extension cords, etc. I'm sure there are others.

What are typical portable generator problems in a post-disaster emergency situation, and what should I do ahead of time to try to prevent those problems? Questions include (but not limited to):

  • assuming I don't want to store my generator in the basement of a 3-story house that might fall over, what is a good storage strategy to prevent corrosion but still allow easy access for testing/maintenance?
  • what kind(s) of generators are more reliable and require less maintenance than others?
  • what is a typical maintenance/testing regimen for a generator?
  • what tools and supplies should I have on hand in case a generator won't start?
  • how much fuel should I stockpile, and what is a reliable and safe way to store it? Obviously this depends on usage, but assume a refrigerator 24x7 for 1 weeks plus occasional use of other low-wattage devices.
  • what other questions should I be asking? any good web resources for temporarily living off the grid in an urban/suburban area?
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1) burn in period for the new generator to weed out early failures, to get use to operating it, to figure our fuel requirement 2) do a full-on scenario. 3) practice replacing parts 4) keep dedicated tools and spare parts stored with the unit 5) theft during crisis 6) participate on survivalist forums –  mike Jul 17 '13 at 2:46
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I wouldn't count on staying in your back yard -- if your house or your neighbors is red tagged due to structural instability, you won't be allowed to camp out in your yard where there's a possibility it can collapse on top of you. I wouldn't invest too much into a disaster recovery plan that you may not be able to use. That's not to say that a generator is a bad idea, but don't spend thousands of dollars and hours of labor maintaining something you may not be able to use. Especially when a running generator makes you a target for theft or even commandeering of the generator by the authorities –  Johnny Jan 9 at 22:10
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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I live in southern New England, where we can usually see our natural disasters coming a few days in advance (snowstorms, hurricanes, etc.), so your considerations will be different, but I'll share what I do and what I've learned in three 5+ day outages over the past two years; it may give you some reference points.

Fuel reserves

I have a gasoline-powered generator, rated for 7000 watts, enough to run our well pump, two furnaces, refrigeration and some convenience items (not all at once, we have to manage around the well load if the furnaces are being run). I test-run the generator about once a month, running it for about ten minutes. I keep the tank nearly empty so that when I add fresh gas there won't be a lot of old gas mixed with it. I add preservative to all my gas when I buy it.

I adjust my fuel reserves by season -- more in the winter when an outage could turn from an inconvenience and spoiled food to property damage from frozen pipes. When an event is predicted, I max out my portable containers (about 12 gallons) and top off my truck (23 gallon tank). I have a siphon hose that can reach the bottom of the truck's tank, and have tested using it. Depending on the season, we can burn 3-6 gallons a day, so this sets us up for 4-5 days (assuming that I can get half the fuel from the truck tank). If the event doesn't materialize, I burn the gas off in the truck before it sits too long.

I built a rain cover for our generator so that it can be run in rain or snow. It takes a few minutes to install, I sometimes do this pre-event so we can roll it out and fire it up on short notice. I also test run right before a possible event.

Spare parts

I keep oil, a spark plug, and some fuel line handy, the plug is clearly marked "Generator". I had a leaky fuel line once when I needed the generator, thus the spare fuel line on hand.

Other

Make sure you know how to start the generator manually; electric start systems may or may not be there when you need them. I use a battery maintainer (a trickle charger with intelligence to prevent overcharging) and I make sure the battery is fully charged after each test run.

Use

Plan for what you will want to use, and make sure you have a way to get power from the generator to the loads you want to power. We have a transfer panel that supplies the well, furnaces, fridge, freezer, convenience outlets in the kitchen, and lights in the powder room and central stairway (this turned out to be genius, as the stairway lights cover a large part of our open floor plan house). I relocated the power supply for our alarm system to the same circuit as the freezer after killing off the system's battery during our first extended outage. I also put put a table lamp on the freezer circuit so there's light in the garage (no windows) when the generator is running.

We've run extension cords for the TV & Satellite dish from the nearby kitchen, to the basement for the DSL modem and router (amazingly, we had internet through most of our outages). We charge phones, laptops, etc., in the kitchen when the generator is running.

We have a pond with fish in it; I put a 15-watt aerator in with an extension cord in warm weather instead of running the 600 watt pump that normally power its waterfall.

We have a rechargeable lantern that we use for bedtime, trips outside, etc. and recharge it during the day; a gas grill and coleman stove cover our cooking (we can relocate our microwave near a generator outlet if needed, but haven't done that yet). The coleman stove is great for heating water (we have electric hot water and range) as well as general cooking.

We do not run the generator full time; typically run it about 1/3 time (typically running it until the refrigerator compressor cycles off), but it varies based on our expectation for length of outage/fuel reserves, desire to have the TV, etc.

Our generator doesn't automatically charge its own battery; rather than using the unregulated (I think) battery charging cable provided with it, I use the battery maintainer plugged into one of the outlets on the generator.

After the last long outage, I bought a 150 watt inverter with the idea that it could be used to power some LED lights and a radio when we have the generator off, using a battery borrowed from a golf bag cart; this hasn't been tried yet, though.

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A note on the fuel leaky lines. The ethanol that is added to gas has been known to damage fuel lines, especially in engines that are not used often. Adding a fuel stabilizer that is specifically designed for this problem, can reduce the chances of a fuel line problem. –  Tester101 Jul 17 '13 at 11:54
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+Eleventy for fuel management. Old fuel is the source of many problems. –  Chris Cudmore Jul 17 '13 at 12:55
    
Good answer. I would add to have all your extension cords and adapters in a box with the generator so you don't have to go searching. It also helps to have some cord savers made. I use a 2x4 cut to my window length with cut outs for the cords going into the house. –  Web Jul 23 '13 at 20:29
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I’m a proponent of portable generators. I have a gasoline unit though I’ll consider a propane unit when this one finally croaks. Permanent generators are great – if your structure is still standing when the disaster is over. The primary disadvantage of portable generators is they are subject to theft when you need them the most. A couple of fellows tried stealing mine, with it running! They knew what they were doing, they brought a bolt cutter and cut the chain. (I ran faster carrying a shotgun than they could dragging the generator, they didn’t get far!) Another advantage of portable is they can “hit the road” getting away from the disaster or for camping.

Like others, I cycle the loads. I run two cords from the outside, chained generator. A 220V 10-3 w/gnd and a 120V 10-2 w/gnd. The 120V cord is for general (and critical)loads such as the TV & satellite, internet, computer, etc. (keep up with the news) and the most critical load of all, entertainment electronics for the kids/grandkids. (grin) (I have three 750VA battery back-ups (UPS’s) and they are absolutely invaluable, keeping electronic loads happy when the generator hiccups due to appliances kicking in, load shifting, etc.) The 220V cord also has two 120V receptacles for a 12ga cord shared between the ‘fridge and freezer and another cord for, believe it or not, the clothes washer and one of the most essential loads of all, my g/f’s hair dryer, of course, running only one major load at a time. My generator isn’t powerful enough to run the electric clothes dryer. (grin) I have a propane central heating system that is 120V (central air is 220V) so I installed a transfer switch to shift the furnace between grid or generator.

Regarding gasoline, I have two six gallon cans which easily slid us through six days without utility power after the last tornado. Every month or two, I’ll fill my truck with the emergency gas then immediately refill the emergency cans. It’s only a slight inconvenience, really. During the summer mowing season I’ll fuel the mower from the emergency cans too. It’s important to keep the emergency gas cans filled, and fresh. Power outages affect gasoline stations too!! A mechanic friend of mine cobbled together a 12V fuel pump with hoses to electrically fetch fuel from the vehicles to refill the emergency gas cans. Propane generators eliminate the gasoline storage/freshness issue, of course.

Our biggest threat in this part of the country (SW Missouri) is the winter weather, ice and heavy snow. Seems like every other or every third season we’ll have a crippling weather event. Having backup heat from portable propane heaters can be a real life saver! For summer emergencies, I have a low power 120V window air conditioner I can pop in a window, also a life saver with our heat and humidity. (grin)

One more thing, as handy as the 60 watt incandescent light bulb is for performing tasks, a 7-watt C7 type bulb is more than adequate for hallway lighting, night lights, etc. I have ten with long cords that are hung throughout the place during emergencies, excellent for general lighting. When I’m rich and famous, I’ll replace those with 120V low intensity LED lighting but in the meantime, the C7’s reduce the chance of a darkness accident and remind occupants to conserve utilities, especially electricity and saves flashlight batteries.

I test run the generator for 15 minutes once a month. I use an old tackle box to store replacement parts - spark plug, filters, fuel line, clamps, spare gas cap, pull-cord goodies PLUS ALL THE TOOLS to perform the emergency repairs.

Once a year, I’ll simulate a day (or two) of emergency. I’ll cut the water, the main electrical breaker, fire up the generator and make sure everything is in order. It’s a fun exercise and invaluable for pinpointing weaknesses in the emergency preparedness plan. (That’s how I learned, the first time, I needed 10 five gallon ol’ drywall pails with lids for keeping the toilet happy and occupants happier!!)

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Well if it is a long natural disaster then I would suggest coming up with an alternative that does not rely on fuel or the sun. If something that big happens I doubt you will have much access to either one. I would check into something that would crank.

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How would an earthquake block out the sun? Are you suggesting the best solution is to connect a generator to a stationary bike? –  Tester101 Jul 17 '13 at 13:37
    
OK so you would go through all of this trouble setting up for "light" natural disaster? Yes if I were planning on something long-term (more than a week) I would think about a bike or any other sort of human power - this can be in addition to regular fuel reserves. If you are just planning on a couple of days then you are planning on not being inconvenienced, not survival. There is no way in hell you are refueling during a long disaster - at least you can't plan for that. –  DMoore Jul 18 '13 at 15:47
    
People can't output much power -- a reasonably fit person can sustain around 100W output on a bike when they pedal hard, or around 1 KWh in 10 hours -- not much of a substitute for a 5KW generator. I'd rather rely on solar than count on being able to pedal a generator -- or just store more fuel. A gasoline generator will provide around 5KWh of power from one gallon of gas, so each gallon of gasoline is the equivalent of 50 hours of pedaling the bike generator. –  Johnny Dec 9 '13 at 18:50
    
@Tester101 - Subduction zone rupture earthquake between Humbolt County, CA and Vancouver Island, BC during the rainy season. The earthquake doesn't block out the sun ;^), there is such a cloud layer that solar is quite ineffectual. Our solar attic vents can remain motionless for weeks on end when the Pineapple Express turns its firehose on. And with a couple bridges down on I-5, there will be sections between Eugene, OR and Dunsmiur, CA that will see no tanker trucks for quite some time. –  Fiasco Labs Jan 10 at 2:46
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