Portable Power: Generator or Inverter


Power for when the power goes out

Before you run out and invest in a portable generator (or two) “just in case,” it’s a good idea to figure out what you think you will need in the way of electric power. The operative word here is “need.”

This is NOT a casual purchase decision. The size and nature of your home, any special medical needs, your finances — all have to be taken into consideration when shopping for portable power. Your personal experience and level of knowledge about electrical circuits is also a factor.

Some portable power rules of thumb 

Because of the wide range of applications, variations in needs and technical considerations, we cover this subject in greater detail in our Personal Plan section. Basically, however, here are a few sample estimates as simple guidelines to a complex equation:

Refrigerator

When there’s no power . . .?

  • The average refrigerator will require up to 2kW (2,000 watts) to run by itself . . . but, you don’t need to run it consistently to preserve the contents.
    That depends on the age, size, contents, frequency of door opening and time door is kept open, etc.
  • Any heating device — microwave oven, coffee pot, hot plate —  will require higher wattage than lighting or computer needs.  Blow dryers, toasters and toaster ovens require at least 1 kW to operate.  Mechanical items like clocks or breathing devices that connect to oxygen tanks require far less power to operate.
  • Any generator over 2kW is not likely to be truly portable. An 8-9 kW generator had better have wheels and sturdy handles and will be about the size of a dishwasher, requiring real muscle power to move. And, if you live in California, a gasoline-powered generator must meet the California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards for emission in order to be legally sold or operated.

Inverters are a different technology.  They typically change the direct current from your automobile (or other 12 volt) battery into alternating current (115 volt AC) like the output of the portable generator. While they don’t require gasoline (or propane) to operate, the size and life of the battery sources will determine their usefulness.

How large a unit do you need?

Obviously, if you live in an apartment or condominium complex, emergency power is more problematic than if you live in a single-family home. Where will you store it?  How will you move it?

Businesses have widely varying degrees of emergency power needs — and the widespread inventory of laptop computers and handheld devices have to be factored into the business equation.

The bottom line is really dependent upon your personal, neighborhood and/or business needs balanced against your physical situation and financial resources. You should analyze all of the contributing factors – including the technical and practicality of operating instructions – before purchasing any alternative power device/s.

Joe Krueger
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

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