A backup generator is a great inclusion to any prepper’s plan for dealing with the aftermath of a disaster or an ongoing SHTF situation. When the power goes out, you won’t have to take it lying down if you have a backup generator standing by to get the electricity flowing again.
Depending on the capabilities of your generator, you might be able to operate essential appliances and tools or even run every light, fixture and air conditioner in your home.
But choosing and setting up a backup generator for emergency use is one of those subjects that can be a little intimidating if you aren’t already read-in on the subject.
Is this something that is truly within the reach of a DIY prepper, or is it something best left to professional installers? Are you going to connect the generator directly to your home power infrastructure or run cords from the generator to the most vital appliances?
These questions and more need answers, and to help you determine which generator and which kind of installation is right for you we have assembled this guide. Keep reading to get the lowdown on keeping the lights burning when the power is out.
Table of Contents
Choosing a Generator with Enough Output
Before going any further, you must determine how much generator you need for your purposes. No generator is created equal, and depending upon your living arrangements and your requirements for sustainment during a power outage you’ll need to choose accordingly.
Generator output is typically rated in kilowatts, and the load that you will place on your generator with a total number of appliances, fixtures, lights, tools and so on cannot exceed that maximum output, and ideally you will have output to spare.
Overloading a generator can mean system failure and create dangerous conditions, aside from the obvious fact that you won’t have enough electricity to go around.
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Small portable or semi portable generators in the two to five kilowatt range can easily power a couple of essential appliances, a few lights and some power tools although power hungry fixtures like air conditioners and electric furnaces must be left out.
Getting up in the 10 to 15 kW range you can expect part-time full or nearly full capability for your household, accepting that you cannot run central air conditioner or furnace full-time along all your other appliances.
Lastly, a generator capable of producing 20 kW or more can easily run the average home, AC, furnace and all, with no problems.
Generally, the trade-off in output is size, weight and expense with larger and more capable generators typically taking the form of a built-in component of the home more than a tool or power source that you can dolly or carry around when required.
Think through your requirements carefully and try to anticipate what problems you’ll be dealing with in the aftermath of a likely power outage to determine which will serve you best.
Fuel Will Influence Site Selection and Home Connections
Any generator will require a fuel source to operate in order to create electricity in the bargain. That is just how they work! However, the choice of fuel could greatly impact how you operate and maintain your generator to ensure it is ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Various fuels have their own advantages and disadvantages, and their own associated costs. Once again, depending on your requirements, the availability of fuels in your local area and other factors some may be a better choice than others.
Below is a short overview of fuel options for typical residential backup power generators:
Diesel has long been seen as the typical and standout petroleum derived liquid fuel for generators. In many places it is still a little more costly than gasoline, but the reduced volatility and far longer shelf life of diesel fuel compared to gasoline makes it an attractive option.
Today, in the United States diesel generators are typically seen as extra large units capable of powering hospitals and other installations that cannot afford even a momentary disruption of crucial equipment. It is also worth noting that diesel generators, especially older makes, are particularly noisy.
Gasoline is the most common petroleum-based fuel that we use every day in North America, and is extremely energetic and volatile.
Gasoline-powered generators are reliable and fairly intuitive to operate for those who are familiar with other gasoline-powered tools, but gasoline has a major shortcoming as a fuel for generators because of its short shelf life.
Gasoline with ethanol added will only last between 3 and 6 months whereas ethanol-free gasoline is only likely to be good for about a year without any added stabilizer. Putting bad gasoline in your generator could destroy it or render it inoperable at a crucial time, so you’ll need to stay on top of rotating your fuel supply!
Natural gas is an increasingly common fuel for generators, particularly those that are installed as a standby source of backup power for residential homes.
Because a natural gas generator must tap into the gas line running onto your property, this is one installation that is better left to the professionals and typically your gas company will be responsible (or hirable) for the job.
Natural gas generators have the advantage of being reliable, inexpensive to operate and generally dependable during nearly any emergency because it is the rare disaster that is so severe it damages or disrupts gas service in an area.
Propane is the third most common liquid, petroleum-based fuel in use in the world for vehicles and it is an increasingly common fuel for generators.
Propane fuel has a major advantage over other fuels because of its extraordinary shelf life, typically in excess of 30 years so long as its pressurized vessel is in good repair.
It is also highly adaptable, with most generators capable of being fed from installed residential tanks that can hold between dozens and hundreds of gallons or even the small barbecue cylinders typically used to operate outdoor grills.
Notably, propane fueled generators come in portable and permanent install varieties.
For your purposes, it is far easier to find smaller, portable generators that rely on diesel or gasoline for fuel, while permanently installed backup generators for residential home use will often rely on propane or natural gas.
Obviously exceptions exist in most categories but you can use that as your guideline for choosing the right “genny” for the job.
Is this a DIY Job, or Should You Call an Expert?
Probably the most common question I run into concerning the acquisition and installation of a backup generator is whether or not a prepper should attempt to DIY it themselves. The answer is, “it depends.”
Certain generator setups lend themselves towards a DIY approach, especially one that will not be directly installed or otherwise tied into the household electrical system.
Other generators, particularly those that draw fuel from a fixed propane tank or are directly fed from the property’s natural gas supply almost invariably require professional installation unless one possesses specialized skill sets.
Generally speaking, if you are relying on any portable diesel, gasoline or propane fueled generator and plan on running extension cords from the generator to the appliances you’ll operate, you can handle all of that yourself.
A diesel or gasoline generator that is going to be tied into your home’s electrical system with a transfer switch are also within the realm of feasibility for a DIY install if you are already a seasoned electrical worker.
As mentioned above, any natural gas generator or a propane generator that relies on anything larger than a barbecue cylinder should be professionally installed since existing tanks or supply lines will need to be tapped and regulators installed, adjusted and tested accordingly for safe and certain operation.
All of the above is beyond the purview of the average prepper, and depending on your local laws could be illegal.
Considerations for Installing Your Generator
Below is a list of considerations you should go through prior to installing your generator, whatever it is. Completing this as a checklist of sorts will ensure that your installation is safe, secure, legal and functional.
Note that depending upon your property, where you live, the type of generator you are installing and other factors some of these might not apply to you.
Is Permitting Required?
Depending on your local city and county requirements, the installation of a permanently or semi-permanently installed generator might require permitting. If that is the case, make sure you look up the requirements, apply for and obtain the permit before installing your generator.
Even if the generator itself is not required to be permitted, the necessary electrical work to connect it to your home’s power grid could be, or any number of other things such as the installation of a shed or pad to place it on.
Let us all take a moment to reflect on how great government, is and how much it improves our lives!
Do You Need HOA Permission?
If you live in a nice residential neighborhood, mountainside village or any other community with an HOA you’ll need to check with them about installing your generator.
Never, ever underestimate the depths of stupidity and nitpicking that an HOA can stoop to when it comes to doing what you want with your own property.
In a pinch, you might check to see if any restrictive covenants instituted by the HOA contraindicate state laws, regulations or other disaster preparation guidelines to back you up.
Don’t be afraid to set one monster against another if it will help you get your generator installed!
Carbon Monoxide Hazard Mitigation
The burning of any combustible fuel, including any fuel that is used to run a modern generator, will generate dangerous carbon monoxide gas.
Carbon monoxide, or CO, gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless but is still a killer, and many people fall prey to it while they are asleep, simply never waking up.
Carbon monoxide poisoning starts to feel like drunkenness or flu-like symptoms at first but things rapidly deteriorate from there eventually culminating in coma and then death.
For this reason, it is imperative that you correctly locate and ventilate any generator you install for backup emergency power. Ideally, the generator will not be located near any window, door, intake or other opening on the home to prevent the intrusion of carbon monoxide gas.
Any home that will be relying on a generator should be abundantly equipped with carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house for safety. Keep your detectors serviced and tested, and locate the generator away from the home if possible.
Plumbing Connections (if Required)
As mentioned above, fixed propane generators along with all natural gas generators will require connections to the fuel supply be made, and this is not something that the majority of DIY-savvy preppers can handle.
Especially for natural gas generators, this might limit where you can effectively place the generator on your property since a trench will need to be dug to the natural gas line and a supply pipe run accordingly.
Similarly, homes that make use of a large, on property tank of propane maybe we’ll advise to situate the generator between the home and the tank, even if it is nearer one than the other. Note that as a rule you generally don’t want your generator located right next to your propane tank due to the risk of explosion.
Siting and Spacing
Aside from the above mentioned considerations, other concerns regarding siting and spacing of your generator near your home.
Once again local or city laws might dictate a certain amount of space be between one and the other, but another concern is the length of the cable running from the generator to the home exterior supply socket if the generator is not permanently connected or you are relying on the usual extension cord setup. More on that below.
Also consider the placement in facing of the generator so you don’t make things too hard on yourself when it comes time to inspect, service and refuel it.
Not for nothing, generators are regular targets for thieves so doing your best to hide it and, if possible, make the mounting bolts difficult to access could mean the difference between keeping your generator and scumbags absconding with it.
There are no two ways about it: Generators are noisy and their prattling, clattering drone is likely to drive you crazy if you have it situated near your bedroom or the rooms in the home that your family typically occupies.
Older generators, and gasoline or diesel fuel generators in particular, are quite noisy and if there’s anything you can do to block line of sight between the generator and your home this will help cut the noise a little bit. If that is not a possibility, consider locating the generator on a side of the home farthest from the living and recreational quarters.
Direct Connection with Transfer Switch
If you are going to permanently or semi-permanently install your generator for home backup power you’ll need to install a transfer switch along with it. The transfer switch can either be in the form of a manual control or automatic low/no-voltage switch.
The manual type is essentially a separate breaker-type box that allows you to switch the power supply from lines to the generator and then control which areas of the home receive that power.
A low-voltage or no-voltage switch automatically detects an interruption or sustained loss of normal power supply and will then automatically activate the generator to provide power accordingly.
Both are viable, and depending upon your generator setup and whether or not it is capable of supplying the typical amount of full-time power required to run your home will likely determine which is best for your installation.
Typical Extension Cord
Commonly used with smaller, portable generators, it is entirely possible to run a normal, heavy-duty extension cord from a vital appliance to the generator in order to power it directly, no fuss, no must although it is aggravating leaving a door or window open to make room for the cord and then having to tiptoe around them without stumbling.
For those who don’t want to get into all the nuts and bolts of installing and wiring a generator to a household power supply, this is just the ticket for short duration power outages or people who only need to keep one or two essential appliances or tools running during an event.
Note that you should invest in a correspondingly high quality extension cord of at least 12 gauge and preferably 10 gauge wire for use with your generator. The flimsy things you use to run Christmas lights or your electric leaf blower will not cut the mustard here.
Sheltering Your Generator
Any generator that you install or hook up for emergency power must be protected from the rain. A very light drizzle, or perhaps some mist, won’t affect it but continual exposure to a proper downpour will, leading to malfunction or even damage.
For this purpose, most users install some sort of shed or covering to protect the generator from the weather while it is in operation.
There is much temptation to make the shed as small and unobtrusive as possible but you must be cautious to ensure appropriate space around every side of the generator and also adequate ventilation for expelling exhaust. Check the manual for your generator’s relevant measurements.
Notice the two vents in the photo above, allowing sufficient air for the generator to run properly and not overheat.
When in Doubt, Consult the Manufacturer’s Guidelines
There are many unique situations that you could potentially run into when installing a given generator in a given setting, situations that were not covered here and are beyond the confines of most articles.
A quick trip through any online user forms and other associated websites will reveal no shortage of questions, but in my experience this is not necessary as consulting the manufacturer’s guidelines or the manual included with the generator is usually sufficient to furnish an answer.
Most manufacturers’ R&D teams have likely already thought of or encountered the specific issue you are having and are more than capable of advising you if you give them a call.
Remember, improper installation or operation of a generator can reduce its service life, damage or destroy it, or even lead to an accidental fire.
Don’t take that chance by home brewing a solution to an unexpected problem! Always follow the manufacturer’s recommended guidelines.
A backup generator for home use is one of the best and most robust preps that anyone can invest in. a generator can run vital appliances and tools or just allow life to go on more or less as normal during a power outage, whatever has caused it.
But installing a backup generator and keeping it ready for operation takes some specialist knowledge and assessment of both your property and the generator itself.
But with a little bit of homework and proper planning you’ll soon have a generator that is ready to serve no matter what life throws your way.