Backup generator - do I need one?

ltlredwagonSeptember 13, 2011

City boy got a second home 2 years ago in the mountains nearby - about 2 hours away from Los Angeles area.

The first winter had most snow in 50 years - the power lines (which come down a dirt road into the valley were I am) were knocked out and we had no power for 3 weeks. Power is needed to pump water from a spring container, so we just stayed away. Pipes were wrapped and we had no breaks. It's a SoCal winter, and we're at 4700 ft., so we might get some nights in the teens, but most days moves back above freezing.

This past winter had some snow also (usually not more than 2 feet), but no power outages.

Power outages in summer are possible (gets windy at times, and some thunder storms) but nothing so far. And I think repairs would be faster in the summer as access to the power lines would be much easier.

So, are standby backup generators for people who have REAL winters? I suppose I could get a portable generator and use it if I really needed it, but otherwise I would just wimp-out, grab what's in the fridge and head back to the city. Costco has a Honeywell 15kw backup generator for about $3800 including the automatic transfer switch (a bit less for a 10kw version). Is that overkill for someone in my situation? City boy seeking advice.

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Most country people that have real winter don't have generators because they can't afford them. You have a second home so you have a lot of money. Do what you want with it.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 2:04PM
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Just because someone has a second home, it doesn't mean that they have an unlimited amount of money to throw around at stuff that they may not need. Maybe the reason he is able to afford a 2nd home is because he doesn't spend his money frivolously.

So back to his question. I probably wouldn't bother getting one (unless the expense didn't mean much to me). If you decide not to get one, make sure you turn off the pump when you leave for an extended period of time. If the power fails and a pipe freezes and cracks and then the power comes back on, water could be spewing into your house for a long time until you come back and discover it.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 3:00PM
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You "need" a standby generator if you are on a life support machine that requires AC power. You "need" a standby generator if your spouse goes berserk when the power goes off, and the choices are either provide standby power or live elsewhere. You "need" a standby generator if your basement sump will overflow 10 minutes after the power fails.

Otherwise, you merely want a standby generator.

Either way you usually get what you pay for. If you shop for the cheapest generator, that is what you will get; in more ways than one.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 3:32PM
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From the perspective of some that have built-in generators in their homes, anyone that has a second home that they are thinking of equipping with a generator to back up utility electricity has a lot of money. Unfortunately, sometimes these people that have built in generators in their homes have their home breaks down, or they cannot afford to fill its gas tank, so it can be moved to a different parking spot every few hours. They then have to move on to the next alternative, under a bridge or to a shelter or an abandoned building.

We live in a very economically polarized society. It used to be that most vacation homes in the mountains or at the beach were little better than shacks, sometimes with outdoor showers and a wood stove to heat, and propane to cook with. If the power went out, you lit the lantern. If a hurricane blew it down, you rebuilt it with a few more sticks. Now, everyone must have a McMansion in two or three locations.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 7:51PM
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Very obviously, the answer is ''no'', you do not need one.

Doesn't mean you can't get one, if you think it will be convenient.

Consider though, a 15 kw diesel generator can use nearly 1 gallon per hour at partial load. Every 24 hours, you burn say 20 gallons. A 3 day power outage? 60 gallons. A 1 week outage? 140 gallons. The cheaper ones don't usually come with a 60 gallon tank, so where will you store 30 to 100 gallons of diesel fuel?

Personally, I'd get a little emergency generator, just big enough to run the water pump and the fridge until morning when I could pack up and leave in daylight. Or, store 10 gal of water and figure the fridge will stay cold enough until morning.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 9:00PM
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Wow, sensitive subject! Before I upset any more people about how rich I am, I'm a teacher and I got a 550 sq. foot home (700 with the loft) in the mountains, a kit home which arrived on a truck and was built by the family of the former owners. I may retire there myself, it's a beautiful spot. I'm getting old, I've studied, spent wisely and saved and can afford a backup generator, just had no experience with generators or winter living. Thanks all for the data. I got the picture.

Yes, we do live in an economically polarized society, increasingly so. The economic crisis is, in my view, not by accident, but by design, aided by an ignorant populace. So study and decide what you think are the root causes and do whatever you think you can to change things. The only thing you shouldn't do is nothing. (P.S.: If you think the cause of your problems is "the rich" or the "Welfare State", or the Democrats, or Republicans or liberals or conservatives, boy are you a sucker being played.)

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 9:52PM
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Since you mentioned it- I happen to have a 15kw diesel set, with a 160 gallon base tank. I need not be concerned about fuel until at least day 3, and have sources of and transport for same prearranged. I keep oil/filters and a few key spare parts on hand. If it quits, I have a smaller set to back it up.

Obviously, I cannot afford to generate my own power on a 24/7 basis for months at a time. But $75 a day for a comfortable, safe environment over the course of a week long power outage is reasonable. It is comparable to the cost of a cheap hotel room and my house isn't left dark, abandoned and inviting to thieves.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 10:14PM
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ltlredwagon- Do tell re the real cause of this economic mess.

Over the past 20+ years I have had the "opportunity" to experience many power outages and during same have had generators from 500w to 350kw at my disposal. From this I have learned that (1) any operable generator beats having none by a considerable margin. (2) few things are more irritating than a broken down generator.

Be careful when you shop for a set, read reviews, ask questions and keep (2) in mind.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 10:27PM
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"So study and decide what you think are the root causes and do whatever you think you can to change things. The only thing you shouldn't do is nothing."

No thanks, I will stick with your, listed, simple answers to the complicated questions. It gives me more time to lie on the couch drinking beer while watching football. Thinking is hard; being a sucker is easy.

Generator, seriously, most people who live where there is snow on the ground for weeks or months at a time do not have generators. I don't know if more people get them after incidents like the great Adirondack ice storm of '98, or not, but probably they do. A little further South, IIRC, my power was off and on for a week. No heat and no well pump. I spent a lot of time in town at work, collected rain water to flush and heated water with an outdoor propane burner.

johnliu probably summed it up pretty well because a generator, if you don't need one, is a pretty big hassle to maintain and supply with fuel. Most people would not mess with them if they have somewhere reasonably close by to run away to. OTOH, if you like to "camp" and you run the gen for a half hour to pump water a couple of times a day, go for a small one. If the weather is cool enough, you don't need a fridge!

Retirement will become a different story with no where to run to, but you can re-evaluate with additional experience then. It sounds like you have a nice mountain "cabin". Small, simple with little maintenance means it is easy to relax.

Others: Does anyone know of good sites to read up on generator characteristice? Is this a good synopsis if you filter the brand-specific jargon?

    Bookmark   September 14, 2011 at 4:42PM
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There is a considerable amount of "buy our brand" propaganda in that page. Note particularly the statements regarding brushless generators. There are many makers of brushless sets that will justifiably take issue with those statements.

The primary disadvantage of a brushless generator is that it costs slightly more money to produce than its counter part with brushes; IF both are made to similar standards for motor starting capability, power quality and service life.

The disadvantage of a brushed unit is (as you might guess) the brushes. Brushes wear out, stick, get dirty and can generally be a pain in the rear end.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2011 at 7:27PM
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I don't think that they are indicating that brushless are bad compared to brushed. I think that the are indicating that brushed generators are at a lower level than brushless and do not even merit mentioning and they don't mention them.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 2:54PM
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Geez! The poor guy only wanted input on getting a generator and the post went class warfare on him.

I say... get the generator. Pay more up front and get a quiet one.

Better to have it and not need it than...

I just got one, a Honda EU6500i... more than I wanted to pay, but I have heard plenty of cheaper LOUD ones, and I think I'd rather have everything in the fridge go bad and the basement flood than listen to that racket all night.

Ok, not the basement flooding.

I got it and where I live the power is pretty reliable, but in recent years, it has been going out more frequently and for longer durations, so instead of worrying and wondering how long we will be in the dark, I bought one. Last ice storm that knocked the power out,I had one of the utility workers tell me, going forward, not to be comfortable thinking they will have the power back up as quick as they have in the past. Could be lengthy outtages. Something to do with the power grid and the way the utilities divide up the distribution and all, not the way it was just a few years ago.

I look at it like paying an insurance policy. Over the years you pay plenty and hopefully never have to use it, so same thing with the generator. Plus it's a portable one, so it has expanded uses.

Take care.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 3:40PM
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Leaving a generator at your McMansion in the mountains is asking for it to be liberated by roving gangs of the dispossessed. Better for emergencies to bring a portable one with you and some backup gas supplies. And lots of ammo for your .30-06. There's a storm coming.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 1:17AM
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Ron Natalie

Actually it's no big thing to keep a portable one locked up in the garage. The issue comes when it is tried to run it. Couple of years ago, my cousin had some donkey try to steel his generator while it was running in his driveway during an outage. And this was in suburban florida. Of course these days, it's open season on trespassers in Florida so maybe it's not so much of a problem.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 8:56AM
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I wouldn't call a 550 sqft cabin a "McMansion" but maybe your definition is a little looser than mine. :)

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 9:06AM
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"The issue comes when it is tried to run it."

Note to self: Get a quiet generator and set rat traps around it when it is running.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 2:31PM
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I wouldn't call a 550 sqft cabin a "McMansion"

A matter of perspective.

Tent City, Sacramento, Cal. Photo:Rich Pedroncelli/AP

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 6:06PM
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I like the red one because it has a porch.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 2:46PM
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Most are actually alternators to avoid carrying the output power over the slip rings and brushes.

The output is taken form the fixed stator windings, but slip rings and brushes are still required to get current into the rotor to set up the rotating magnetic field that create the output in the fixed windings.

No one has used an actual generator for much of anything in a long time.
Instead of passing ALL the output power through slip rings, a small fraction is needed to create the rotating DC magnetic field, and the output power is taken from the fixed windings.

There are some coupling tricks that can be used at lower power levels to get power into the rotor, but they reduce efficiency.

All power companies use alternators, no matter what the prime mover is.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 5:51PM
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Is the site suitable for a small solar setup? 12 volts will pump water and run a couple of lights just fine.

> ionized:

> seriously, most people who live where there is
> snow on the ground for weeks or months at a
> time do not have generators.

True, but you should see our wood stoves.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2011 at 10:40PM
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I have seen plenty of wood stoves. Are you trying to say that wood heating puts a serious dent in the "need" for generators in these areas? Seriously, what is the penetration rate for wood stoves in primarily heating areas?

Let's look at some recent Census figures. (
Out of 112e06 households, 1.8e06 use wood as a heating fuel. That is 1.6%. Assuming that 1/4 of the population lives in significant snow on the ground areas, that would be 6.4% if ALL of those wood stoves are in those areas. Let's go with that. I don't think that anywhere approaching 93% of the people have generators.

As far as solar for back-up. It is an expensive way to do it compared to a generator. I am considering it, but it is still not such a great deal even though my state will pay for 50% and the feds will pay for 30%.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2011 at 8:45PM
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The price of a 4K portable gas generator is less than $300 - priceless when you need one. Of course it is Chinese made, but if it works I won't complain. Ironic, as I type this I have a family member in WV who is without power due to this East Coast Snow Event. I recently had a Champion 4K delivered to her thru Tractor Supply.....she is using it as we speak - great insurance. You could purchase one, and never need it, but we buy huge life insurance policies....payable upon my generator. Enjoy the solitude of your second place. Ron

    Bookmark   October 29, 2011 at 4:08PM
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Do let us know how long that set runs before it fails. My experience has been that the price of a durable 4kw set is significantly more than $300. Few things are as irritating as a "back up" generator that won't work.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2011 at 9:07PM
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I'm not bothering with political blather. I live in Western Mass and we were without power for six days plus in the recent freak storm. It wasn't fun as I have forced hot air and a tankless HW system. Our town has a combination of above/below ground wiring and we average 5-10 half-day outages a year. At the town shelter several people were talking about getting natural gas powered standby generators and frankly its not a bad idea as we tossed a lot of the food from our two refrigerators. I don't know if a portable generator can be set up to work with a transfer box or not. Its worth researching.

For the OP, you could build a lean to mini-shed with lockable doors on 3 sides so it vents OK in your yard but pour a slab so you have a stable platform for whatever you choose. I used to have a portable gen (a Coleman IIRC) and it lasted just over 8 years then wasn't worth fixing. Propane or Nat Gas is probably more quiet than diesel or gas. If you like going to your little cabin, and don't want the hassle, I would look into a generator. The standby's are more expensive might last longer, and the portables are more convenient with regard to storage and portability... and they are disposeable. Everything in life has pros and cons LOL.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2011 at 3:02PM
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I work on a lot of jobsites that have the Costco Champion generators, which seem ok but recently I've been seeing a lot going back to Costco, so maybe they are too cheaply made.

Having said that, jobsites are hard on portable power, nasty big loads. If you have a 1000w generator and only ever draw 500w it will probably last a long time and be happy.

OP it doesn't sound like it'd be life-threatening to not have one, but say in a forest fire it might be good to have backup power as well. If you can afford one, then go for it. The only qualm I have is the idea of another fossil fuel guzzler, but if you will retire there, then it probably is a good idea. If you are ok with the little maintenance on them - oil change, gas stabiliser and running it occasionally to keep it all happy then go for it. The shed is a good idea, and will keep it quieter, if you build it right, but keep any exhaust away from windows you open or any air intakes.

The propane/ng ones are very nice and you can get smaller ones for under $3000 - they often come with their own transfer switch and can be semi-automated.

I don't know why all the bolshie sniping (and you call Canadians 'socialists') but you, OP do your own thing. Buying that gennie actually creates economic activity that creates jobs...

    Bookmark   November 7, 2011 at 3:25PM
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Follow-up on the Chinese 4K genny from TSC. It was used for 4 days continuous, oil changed and secured. Late fall of '11, they lost power again, but two days - Champion ran steady and provided for their needs. Just about 10 days ago, between Sandy and the snow storm, they lost it for two days....that Chinese handled it without a problem. They all are great when they work....for I have seen friends with Generac and another with B&S (all in the 7-8K range) fail, and of course - they are not USA made. I'm still wonder what approach, for the days is coming when I will definitely need one.

    Bookmark   November 8, 2012 at 5:29PM
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Generally, that imported stuff works or it doesn't. If it's going to crap out, it usually does early on.

My neighbour's Costco Champion genny is still working fine for him, and he uses it for work.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 1:38AM
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If your house has a natural gas line, then get a gas-powered generator: it is unlikely that both electricity wire and natural gas pipe will be disrupted at the same time, and you will not have to bring in fuel by hands.

For those worried about natural gas disruptions too, all (almost) such natural gas generators can run on propane as well so you can have a tank of that as a back-up.

As for maintenance, some of these can be really fancy - automatic periodic start-up (something you are supposed to do with all generators, BTW). Kohler units, for example, go even further. They have an Ethernet port: if hooked up to the Internet, they'll report any detected problems to your vendor and/or manufacturer. This may be especially convenient, if you aren't there in person all the time - in theory, at least, your installer will learn about the issue and fix it without you.

Finally, for all those whining about "economically polarized society":

  • You don't know, how good you have it: the poor Americans are still better off, than middle-class Cubans and everyone, even the poorest, still belong to the "golden billion".
  • Any attempts to make everyone equally rich (and we are set to keep doing that for four more years now) result only in everyone becoming equally poor - take that from a USSR escapee...


    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 9:16AM
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