A few years ago, Washington State had a severe ice storm. It had been raining, and suddenly the rain turned to snow. After about 3-10″ of snow accumulation (depending on where you lived) the temperatures rose and it started to rain again. As night began to settle, the temperatures once again dropped and ice started to form on top of the snow loads. Trees, which could barely handle the snow, started to collapse under the additional ice weight. Over 200,000 people experienced power outages all over the Puget Sound area. My family went without power for seven days.

Not knowing how long the power was going to be out, we were treating it as a day-to-day event. Up until this point we hadn’t experienced a power outage that lasted longer than a single day; we had no idea how unprepared we were. Being an Army veteran, I knew I could suck it up, but it wasn’t just me—it was also my wife and two small kids. We had all the standard things: flashlights, sleeping bags, candles, etc. It turned out these items just weren’t good enough.

On the second day, I heard my neighbor fire up his generator. Generously, he offered me half of his wattage if I would share refueling duty with him. I quickly agreed. Running extension cords from the generator into the house, I was able to power a few small heaters and lights. After calling my dad, I decided to unwire the furnace from its power source (line that feeds from the power company) and rig it to its own extension cord (only do this if you know how). A furnace actually uses an extremely small amount of power; just enough to run the blower fan. At this point, we had heat, and we only needed to worry about the small things.

When an event takes place that makes you realize you need something, it’s already too late to purchase it. Generators flew off the shelves. Some people even bought them just to sell them at a scalper’s rate. I decided once things settled down, I was going to purchase a generator of my own. After shopping around, I decided to purchase a generator from Costco—a Champion Power Dual Fuel generator (shown above).

Specifications:

  • Electric or pull start 
  • Runs on LP or gasoline
  • Low noise output (74dBA)
  • Low oil shut-off sensor
  • Integrated control panel
    • 120v twist-lock outlet with cover
    • 120/240v twist-lock with outlet cover
    • (4) 120v outlet with cover (GFCI 5-20R)
  • Push-to-reset circuit breakers

One of the coolest features on the generator is its ability to run on propane or gasoline. Using a fuel selector switch, you simply slide it to the type of fuel you wish to use and then push the electronic start to get it going. Propane is extremely clean (in the context of messiness), stores for a long time, and may be easier to acquire in a state of emergency. Also, most of us already have a tank attached to our barbecues that we could use in a pinch.

Emergency Preparedness: Generator
The fuel selector switch is set to LP here. You need to open the LP line before running.
Emergency Preparedness: Generator
The fuel selector switch is set to gas here. Before running you need to open the gas line.

While using gasoline, the generator’s peak output is 9300 watts, 7000 watts while running. While using propane, the generator’s peak output is 8100 watts, 6300 while running. These numbers are important as you prepare your house for use with a generator. One option is to have a bunch of extension cords ready, and when a power outage occurs, you simply connect the appliances that you feel you need. Another option is to install a sub panel to your existing breaker box. If you go this route, you can have an electrician install a sub panel with its own breakers to all the appliance that you want powered. Option two is what I recommend. It will cost you a little extra upfront, but you will get far more practical use out of your generator this way.

Emergency Preparedness: Generator
Hook-ups and breaker resets available.

With a sub panel, all you do is turn off the main power in your breaker box and flip on the main power on your sub panel. Next, hook up your generator (there is a special outlet that needs to be installed). Once running, you can simply shut off the breakers of the appliances that you don’t need at that time. If money is no object, you can actually have a generator installed that hooks directly to your natural gas, and can be rigged to automatically start if it senses a power outage. In this case, you would experience a short power outage, followed by your house reactivating. If you go this route, expect some neighbors to knock on your door, as you may be the only one in the neighborhood with their lights on.

No matter what you decide, it is always better to prepare before the emergency. Sometimes it takes an emergency for you to realize how unprepared you actually are. If you are caught unprepared, try to document how and what you failed at so you can address it and be ready next time. If you have no idea where to start looking for generators, check out the products at Champion, and Goal Zero (solar panel-based products). Both companies offer a great selection, and the prices are reasonable.