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The urban prepper: Generators

The state of Pennsylvania has seen more adverse weather during the winter of 2014 than it usually does. As of this date Philadelphia has received over 55 inches of snow when it usually gets a little over 22 inches of snow.

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Where do you think you're going?
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Can you spot the generator?
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The suburbs that surround Philadelphia have also experienced unexpected snowfall. Many towns in these areas have encountered the loss of power as well as downed trees and icy roads. Some people have even reported not being able to leave their homes due to the hazardous road conditions.

During bad weather such as torrential downpours or accumulating snowfalls it’s not unusual for suburban cities to lose electricity. Even neighborhoods in Philadelphia county that are close to the suburban borders have reported losses of power, but fortunately for those who live directly in Philadelphia such as North Philly, South Philly, parts of West and Southwest Philly as well as neighborhoods that are located in the Northeast power outages aren’t as common as they are out in the suburbs or close to their borders. Even with outages the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) manages to get right out to restore power within the inner city when it will take others days to get the power back on in other areas.

So, yes, there are some advantages to living in the hood.

When the people who live in the suburbs lose their power sure they’re upset about no electricity, television or cable, but they’re even more upset over the loss of the inability to use their cell phones.

While this may be upsetting to them the real issue is what will they do if this happens and the electricity or connecting with your cell phone provider doesn’t come on again for maybe several months or even years?

It might be a good idea to acquaint yourself with that thought and figure out what will you do if that happens.
First you won’t be able to leave your home in search of human life and even if you can it’s not a good idea. So what will you do?

The one idea or thought that you will have to resign yourself to is to forget about your cell phone. Sure it’ll hurt and you may even experience symptoms of withdrawal, but what did you do before you had a cell phone? It might be a good idea to invest in a land line and although that’s no guarantee that it’ll work usually in emergency situations (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy) land lines worked when cell phones didn’t.

There is a bigger question at hand that you may need to put a thought or two into. How will you survive without electricity when you weren’t expecting it to be gone perhaps even for good? What will you do if all the food you had was in the freezer or refrigerator and it goes bad?

Maybe you believe that it probably won’t happen this year, but what about next year or what about a natural emergency during the summer? Spring? Fall? Can you say with any amount of certainty that there will never be a time when you won’t have access to any of the conveniences (electric, gas, water, food) you’ve become dependent on?

Don’t feel like all is lost and that you could find yourself back in the dark ages. There are things that you can do that will help you in an emergency.

Now is definitely the time to consider getting a generator because even though it won’t give you cell phone coverage it will give you coverage in areas of your life where you’ll absolutely need it. As hard as it is to admit it even to yourself a cell phone isn’t something that you have to have.

So what is a generator?

To put it simply a generator is a machine that changes mechanical energy into electrical energy; that it moves a magnet near a wire that then creates a steady flow of electrons which it pushes.

The pushing of the electrons is similar to water being thrust with the help of a pump into a pipe. Instead of water a generator pushes a precise number of electrons along while applying a specific amount of pressure to aid the electrons on their journey.

This pressure is known as voltage and it gets measured by volts. In America power outlets (those little thingys in the wall that you plug stuff into) send out 120 volts per outlet.

The generator can be thought of as the heart of any place that provides power. In an emergency the generator will be the heart of your living environment; it will be the source of your electricity.

So that’s what a generator is in the simplest of terms. So what else is there to generators?

A lot actually.

Generators come in different sizes and what size you get depends on the size you need.

The most important part to consider when choosing a generator is to pick the one that will fulfill your needs; a generator that will be equal (or close to it) for what you’ll want to power.

There are basically two different types of generators portable and stationary. There are also three different sizes – small, medium and large. All generators can be purchased in either the portable model or the stationary model.

What is the difference between a portable generator and a stationary generator?

A portable generator is basically a piece of luggage with a plug. A heavy piece of luggage, but luggage all the same. You can put it outside although medium or large portable generators may require some muscle. A stationary generator isn’t going anywhere which is probably why they don’t make them in the small size.

When deciding whether or not to purchase a portable or stationary generator take into consideration what is going to be important once when the power goes out.

When purchasing a generator you must take into account what you’ll need it to do. For example a small sized portable generator will cover items such as the refrigerator, microwave, sump pump, a few lights, and the TV. A mid-size portable or small stationary will cover the same items as the small portable plus: portable heaters, computers, heating system, another pump, and even more lights. The more you need the larger the generator should be.

Regardless as to what size of generator you will need it will cover the same items as a small generator plus more. A large portable generator will cover everything that small, mid-size, large portable and stationary models do plus it will also power a clothes washer as well as an electric dryer. A large standby generator will power the whole house.

In order to find out exactly what size you need make sure you take a list of appliances and/or items that you need to have operational with you when you go to purchase your generator.

To be on the safe side purchase the largest size generator especially if there’s someone in your house who has medical equipment that they’re dependent on and the equipment runs on electricity.

The size will also depend on the amount of the electrical charges you want to power at the same time, which is measured in watts. First, add up all the loads you know you want to be able to run together.

There will also be some items like air conditioners that use up or require a lot of electric charges just to start. In fact the electrical charges an item like this that needs to start is often two or three times more than what they need to run. This will also figure in to what size generator you will need. If you don’t take any of that into account the higher running appliances will cause your system to overload when it starts.

There are two wattage ratings: running wattage and surge wattage that generators have. The surge wattage rating is the most important because the generator will need to have some excess capacity in case what you need is larger than what you've calculated. Always buy a generator based on the running wattage and its surge wattage should automatically fall into line with what you need. If you're unsure if you’ll need more surge wattage, buy a larger generator.

What is the difference between a back-up generator and a stationary generator?

They are both the same thing, but people often refer to it differently because the term stationary is more current while the word back-up has been used for years. It probably depends on who you talk to or buy from.

What is the difference between a standby generator and a back-up/stationary generator?

There are a couple of differences. A standby generator is a permanent piece of equipment that’s installed (similar to a central air unit) and a back-up generator has to be wheeled or pushed outside.

There’s also the issue of cost. Stationary/back-up generators have a bigger range of prices because they come in different sizes. Standby generators do not. Standby generators only run on natural gas or propane. Back-up generators can run on diesel fuel, gas or propane.

Another difference is how it will turn on. A stationary will need you go outside and flip a switch while a standby generator will come on automatically once your power goes out.

When using a standby generator and the power goes out there will be a delay of a couple of seconds before the generator automatically turns on even if you’re not home, which is one of the benefits of owning this kind of generator. The other types of generators that have been discussed here require you to turn them on. This also will reduce the necessity of teaching your children or other family members how to turn on a generator especially if you wouldn’t want them venturing outside in an emergency situation.

The generator will continue to run until the power is restored. If you have essential equipment such as life support equipment you can have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which is a battery in a special box, installed in order not to experience any interruption of power while waiting for the generator to start up.

If you have a newer home that operates on various computerized systems a standby generator is the way to go.
Now that all the fun stuff has been covered there are some very important things that you will need to know. These things are critical to owning and operating a generator.

• Only buy a generator from an authorized dealer who knows exactly what they’re doing; that they’re experts on generators. This means that you don’t buy one that has been rebuilt, you don’t buy one from Uncle Schmo who owes you money, off the back of a truck that is cruising down your block (a Philly tradition), a flea market, a thrift store, Wal-Mart, Kmart or Target.

• Read the manual carefully several times. If it tells you not to do something then don’t do it. They usually have very good reasons for it.

• This is not a DIY (do-it-yourself) project. You must hire an electrician to install the transfer switch that will distribute power from the generator to the home's circuit box. You will also need someone who installs generators for a living because it has to be grounded.

• Do not use every day extension cords on the generator. Do not plug a generator into the wall. If you’re using an extension cord make sure it’s the right one; one that is compatible with your transfer switch. The right kind of cord cannot be purchased at the dollar store.

• Do not go cheap. A generator will turn out to be one of the best investments that you will ever make and will pay for itself in the long run. If there is any piece of equipment that is essential to prepping it would be a generator.

• Do not store or use the generator in your home. The generator must be outside ten feet away from your home. The reason for this is because generators emit fumes that contain carbon monoxide which can kill you.

• If you live in an apartment you can have a small portable generator as long as you have the outdoor space and have your landlord’s permission because an electrician will still be needed. Many of the newer apartments have standby generators so if you’ve been thinking about moving look into apartment buildings that are already have them.

• To protect your generator from theft build a cement foundation that it can sit on and a wrought iron cage around it. There are also generator cages/containers that you can purchase. Building a protective area is a DIY project. To learn how to build your own protective container, please watch the YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s6IcmKv8XI.

• Generators run on natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel. Some systems can even be connected to a home's natural gas line, eliminating the need to fill fuel tanks. However in Philadelphia almost all the homes that are heated this way need the use of electricity for the gas line to work and if you lose electricity or even your gas you’ll have nothing so think carefully before you connect your generator to your gas line. As a prepper you shouldn’t be prepping to depend on big businesses like gas companies anyway.

• When prepping you will need to stock up on enough propane or diesel fuel to last five years. You’ll also need to determine how much you’ll need per day. Do not keep the fuel in your house, but in a secure area like a garage or a locked storage unit out in your back yard.

• A generator is loud and there’s not much you can do about it, but adjust yourself to the noise. If you live in Philly you probably won’t notice it just like you don’t notice the loud hoopties driving down your street blasting music so loud that it rattles your windows, the city’s trash trucks or the UPS truck.

• Run your generator a couple of times per year to make sure everything is okay because the last thing you want is to have an emergency and no power.

• Forget about relying on your power converter which is what can be hooked up to your car’s battery. It may help a little and then where will you be? These types of generators ar great at picnics or family camping trips, but don't depend on it for long periods of time.

• Make sure you have working smoke detectors and working carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Don’t forget to test them regularly.

Never add fuel when your generator is hot and never add fuel while it’s running because the heat could ignite the fuel.

• Don’t run too many appliances at once and overload your emergency power source. Remember that the total rated and starting watts of all the appliances being used at one time should not exceed the power source's wattage.

• Don’t be confused by the word portable thinking you can pick it up and carry it around like a purse or a gym bag. A small portable generator weighs 100 pounds.

• Figure out long before your unit is delivered exactly where in the backyard it should go. Once it’s put in a place you won’t be able to move it around like a couch.

• A generator isn’t something, like a space heater, that you can buy the night before and actually think you’ll be able to work one hours before an emergency hits. Buying one, having it installed, reading the manual and stocking up on its fuel takes a little time.