Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!
Daniel asks: ’m looking to get rid of our stimulus dollars with something worthwhile and would like to get a back-up power source for our home. I read your 2012 article “Prep for the Power Outage” and learned about multi-fuel generators and conversion kits. Is there any reason to want a gasoline option in a generator? Should I just purchase a LP & NG standby-generator? I’m looking at this Bi-fuel Cummins 18-20 kW standby generator.
My reply: The big detraction with gas is it does not store well for long periods; CNG/propane does (also diesel, if properly treated).
Most standby generators (i.e., the ones that automatically start when the power goes off and power the whole house) are propane/natural gas or diesel-powered; the multi-fuel option can be handy in the case of smaller units (e.,g. the portable ones that you plug into your panel when the main power goes out) but in the case of a big units, it’d probably entail major work and you’d need to have a big tank because of the power usage/consumption of the thing.
If you have a large CNG/propane tank on your property, you should be fine.
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In my job I deal with standby power systems and generators all the time. I would say that they aren’t worth the hassle for home backup. You need to exercise them, usually for 30 minutes or so weekly, need to do normal engine maintenance like oil changes every 3-6 months or manufacturer recommendations. If you live in a cold climate you should have a coolant heater/circulator pump installed. If you want automatic operation you’ll need to get your electricity utility to sign off on your project, need permits and likely an inspection. Even a manual transfer switch will probably need some sort of engineer’s signature for the design if you’re looking at whole home backup. Installing a sub-panel with manual bypass switch for critical loads is much simpler and is very much a DIY project if you’re handy though. And remember if you blow off the exercise and maintenance it might not be there when you need it, then what’s the point of having it?
I’m installing 6kW of solar with a 20kWh backup battery this year. Once in it’s basically maintenance-free although the battery bank will degrade with time (8-10 years, depending on how low it discharges and cycle count) and should be considered a consumable. The cost, after utility incentives and tax rebates is very much in line with the cost of a generator, will give me basically unlimited backup in the summer months (less in winter but not sure how much less yet), and net metering means no electric bills after it’s paid for. Yes, I am aware that solar panels are bullshit for reducing “carbon” and all the downsides of the permitting and inspections are also true for the solar installation, but again, the net metering makes all the difference and is worth the tradeoff. Note that I have a swamp cooler and hot water baseboard heat so the HVAC load is pretty small.
It’s also possible to just install a battery system that will work every bit as well as a generator although it won’t be an “indefinite” backup as it wouldn’t be refuel-able like a generator (assuming you can find fuel). 90% of power failures are under 2 hours. If you just backup critical loads you could get 8 hours or more out of a small installation. There are good quality inverter/charger systems on the market now, many of them are pretty cheap and will run larger loads like a well pump, but probably not a whole home HVAC system (but for sure if you have forced air gas heat that will work). A bank of several 150 Watt solar panels could provide “fuel” too. Look to RV solar systems for inspiration. But you’ll be paying full price for the equipment. In my case I don’t have any tax deductions beyond the standard deduction and want to reduce my monthly expenses down the road, so I took the “carrot” of the incentives.
Check with your electric utility and see what incentives they have. Depending on what they offer you might find a good deal, even if all you do is change to time of day metering and charge up a battery at night and discharge during peak time.