Reader Question: Gennies?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Brandon asks: I’m interested in getting your thoughts (and everyone else’s) about what kind of generators make the most sense. Not sure what fuel is best (propane, diesel, natural gas, gasoline) or what brands I should avoid. I was thinking about getting a dual fuel gasoline and propane model, so we could share fuel with the lawn mower and grill respectively. And of course gasoline is everywhere. This isn’t something that needs to power our house for a year, just something to provide a small amount of electricity in a non-SHTF situation.

My reply: First, determine your power needs – total watts. As a general rule, a portable unit that can produce around 5,000 (steady) watts will serve. They cost around $500 new. I have one like that and it powers my well pump, refrigerator, most of the house lights and my WiFi. Mine is converted (by me) to run on propane, too. I did an article about this a few years ago. I keep five five gallon jugs of gas on hand at all times plus two full propane cylinders. This is enough to provide intermittent power (I shut down at night) for a week or more.

You may want to consider wiring up a generator panel for your house. This means that rather than run individual power cords from the generator to the appliances, you plug one plug into the generator and to your house, then throw the switch from “utility” (i.e., grid power) to your generator. You select the vital circuits, such as the well pump and so on.

A diesel generator is the ticket, both for power and for the ability to use both store-bought diesel and homebrew. But they cost a great deal more than a gas-powered gennie.

. . .

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  1. A nice addition to a generator is battery storage. When you run the genny to pump water charge up the battery at the same time, then use the stored power for low wattage appliances and lights. Add a few hundred bucks worth of solar panels and a cheap MPPT charge controller and you may easily be able to run small appliances without burning any fuel at all.

    • I view generators like this: Even though they’re relatively cheap these days- it seems like a lot trouble and expense just to run a few lights or small appliances and MAYBE a fridge intermittently during a limited power outage; and as far as a hedge against a long-term SHTF outage….just buying a $500 generator isn’t going to do much. Sure, you can pimp it out with a bunch of accessories to make it more suitable….but the cost adds up quickly, and even if fuel is available, it costs a lot to run these things even intermittently on a regular basis…and for what benefit? Can’t run A/C or heat or keep the power continuously flowing even for the smaller stuff. Seems like a big hassle and expense for very limited benefit, unless you have lots ofr money you’re willing to part with- and that’s not even considering that the price of fuel will drastically rise in a SHTF scenario, even if available.

      My M.O. is to rather choose things when making purchases, which will not be obsolete when the electricity goes off- things that you can use manually- or run on 12V. I’d rather spend my $500 on a wood stove for heat; charcoal grill for cooking, etc.

      Don’t forget, even if you have erl or nat. gas heat….it still needs ‘lectricity to run…especially that big 240V blower!

      Be prepared to do without electricity in a SHTF scenario, rather than making one’s own….because making one’s own on a usable level is expensive..and produces very limited results. The generator could be nice to charge things- even your car or equipment batteries if necessary; tools, electronics (if the infrastructure which supports them- such as the internet and cell towers- is still up)….but having a $500 generator around is not going to let one continue with life-as-usual……

      • I hear ya Nunz. Good advice. We already have a wood stove. I’m just trying to think of more stuff I can get that might be useful later. Not sure if I’m ever really going to be ready. Going to take me decades to get ready. I hate the system, but I’d die without it. If SHTF I’m going to die. That’s all there is to it.

  2. Here are some disjointed considerations:
    On fuels:
    Gasoline – you probably have for running your lawnmower, doesn’t store well

    Propane – stores very well, but you’re likely to freeze the propane tank if you’re running it off of a 20# (BBQ grill) sized tank. Propane gets cold and loses pressure when you’re burning a lot of it at once.

    Diesel – stores for years no problem

    Figure out what you want to run, check the specs for the gennies. My “2000W” generator, if you read the fine print, is actually only good for 1500W. You can run 2000W but only for 20-30 minutes, any more than that and then you risk overheating it.

    There are inverter generators, and non-inverters. The inverter gennies are more expensive for the same wattage output. The difference is that inverter gennies you can run electronics on them. Without the inverter, then the shape of the AC wave is goofy and you can’t charge cell phones, or run electronic circuits off of them.

    Finally, anything with an electric motor pulls way more watts when first starting up, so any sort of pump, compressor, power tools, etc….even if you look at the wattage and think that your genny can handle it, there’s a chance that when it starts up, it will trip the circuit breaker. So either buy a bigger genny, or get one of those capacitor things that attaches to the genny and stores up some electricity to soak up the initial power surge.

    Hope that helps.

    • Good stuff, Damon – thanks for adding those points!

      In re gasoline: My routine – which I should have mentioned – is to constantly rotate the fuel. I fill my five gallon jugs and use that gas in machinery (and vehicles) such that it never sits for more than a month. I also keep the gennie’s tank empty until I need to use it. Always run it dry when you are preparing to store it.

      I also run it once every three or four months, regardless – and change the oil once a year, regardless.

  3. Hi Eric, I appreciate the post and the platform. Thanks for the info.

    Nunz, appreciate your input. I’m sold on diesel. They’re just more expensive. That’s probably not a problem for a guy like you, but I’ll have to do more research.

    • ’bout the closest I’d come to a diesel generator, Brandon (or any generator!) would be one that mounts to the 3-point hitch of my tractor! That’d be sweet, as the tractor uses less than a gallon of diesel per hour! (‘course, ya never see anyone wanting to get rid of something like that…unless it’s worn-out!)

  4. Remember too, that generators are expensive to run- like if you plan on running it to power your house. The diesel ones will make up for their higher cost very quickly if you actually have to use it for extended periods. Also, diesel is MUCH safer to store. I’d have no problem getting an old household erl tank and keeping 2-300 gallons of diesel on hand….but I’m not crazy about keeping even 20 gallons of gas.

    Also, the diesel gen will be more reliable, and likely to start up when ya need it, without regular maintenance/tune-ups- and it will do better running continuously for long periods- whereas constant running for extended periods will kill a gas one (They’re intended for short intermittent use).

    And like Eric mentioned- with diesel, you can run it on homebrew, kerosene, heating erl, etc.- which, if your intent is to have power during a zombie apocalypse, would be just the ticket- as gas may be hard to come by….but chances of scrounging up something that the diesel can run on will be much better.

    • Nunzio,

      You CAN use a smaller generator, but as Honda says on their website, you need to use power management. IOW, you might not be able to run everything at once, but you can run what you need when you need it. For example, you can use a small generator to chill your refrigerator 2-3 times a day, then use the generator for other things. Or you can use the generator at night to help heat the house at night, then use it for the refrigerator during the day. You don’t HAVE to run everything at once.

      Also, if I were to go with a permanently mounted generator, I’d consider natural gas as a fuel. It’s clean, and many homes already HAVE it; there’s no need to worry about lugging cans of fuel to your house, storing them, etc.