In the last few years, the power grid in the United States has been facing extraordinary challenges from severe weather. Heat waves, cold snaps, tornadoes, and hurricanes have been getting more severe and/or more frequent.
One result has been more grid power outages, which have left people incredibly vulnerable and looking for solutions to mitigate the risk. Let’s look at four viable options to keep your home powered up when the electric grid goes down.
A generator is just a machine that uses a fuel to make electricity. These devices are used all over the place, from construction sites where they power many tools to recreational vehicles to businesses and homes where they provide emergency backup power.
Generators can be powered by gasoline, diesel fuel, propane, or natural gas. For use at your home, the typical application would be either propane or natural gas for a whole-house generator. Propane is usually supplied from a large tank that you have installed at your property, and natural gas is usually supplied via underground pipes. Off-grid homes would most likely use propane or diesel from a tank.
Obviously, if your generator is connected to a fuel tank, you’ll need to make sure that tank has plenty of fuel when a disaster hits so the generator can power your home. But having your generator connected to natural gas infrastructure is no guarantee either. The infrastructure for delivering natural gas has been sketchy in some recent disasters, such as when millions in Texas lost power in the winter of 2021.
Generators are proven but it’s important that you know the weak points. You’ll need to run your unit periodically just to make sure it is operating as you need it to. Periodic inspections are a smart idea. Plus, they are going to be a higher-maintenance option over time compared to a battery-based system. A combustion engine has many more parts than a battery system and those parts have to be maintained and replaced periodically. Plus, the fuel cost when you have the unit running could be substantial, depending on how long the outage lasts.
You’ll find generators in a range of sizes, but for running everything in an average home you’ll want a 20 kW unit or higher, which you can expect to cost from $5000 plus installation, which can run another $5000 and more with the transfer switch. This device automatically switches power delivery from the grid to your generator so you don’t have to fuss with that task.
Another option is a small portable generator. This type of generator will not power your entire home, but it can provide you with some essential functionality such as running your lights, refrigerator, and air conditioner. You’ll see these units in 1–10 kW models ranging from about $1000–4000. You may not have to pay anything for installation if you can just plug them into a socket on your panel, but they do need to be outside your home when running.
Though more expensive than a generator, a battery backup system will be easier to use and have less maintenance over time. After installation, you shouldn’t need to do much of anything. This device is basically a bunch of batteries connected together and managed by some electronic components. You’ll have an app available to monitor everything, such as the power level, your usage, and other system status data.
Ongoing maintenance will be nothing under normal circumstances, and your electrician will connect the system so electric power automatically transfers from the grid to the battery backup in the event of an outage. That’s the transfer switch mentioned earlier. You’ll find the cost to be higher up front, in the range of $10,000–20,000, plus installation (though there are some incentives available from the Inflation Reduction Act, even if you aren’t installing solar panels).
When the power goes out, a battery system may not perform as well over several days as a generator, however. Because a generator uses a fuel, you can just keep pumping that fuel into it while the power is out. Not so with a battery system that depends on grid electricity—unless you have a solar system too. In that case, you might be just fine relying on your solar panels and your battery backup system while the grid power is down.
You might also be able to use your battery backup system to save money on a daily basis if your electric provider offers a time–of-use plan. This type of plan charges more for energy during certain times of the day. With a battery system, you can switch your electric usage to your battery backup during costly peak rates, which typically come at the late afternoon and early evening hours, over to your own battery power. Then overnight, when rates fall, your system automatically charges your batteries at the cheaper rate. And then you continue doing that and saving a little day by day, and easing some strain on the grid. Even when you’re not facing a grid emergency, your battery backup system is proving to be a valuable asset!
You can think of these small devices as a hybrid of a generator and a battery backup system. In fact, they’re totally a battery system, but in practice they work just like a small generator, and they’re often referred to as a “solar generator.”
In the last couple of years lithium-ion-phosphate battery technology has greatly improved this market niche and now you can get lighter-weight devices with more than 3000 battery-charge cycles. That means they are extremely portable and will last much longer than previous versions, and the price has come down too.
Outdoorsy folks, RVers, contractors, and anyone who needs portable power are loving these devices. You can connect a portable solar panel to the unit, or charge it using AC power, or charge it in your car with 12V power, and then use it as you need it. They are extremely versatile and while they won’t fully power your home during a long outage in the way that a fossil-fuel generator will, you will find some manufacturers targeting the emergency power niche.
Here’s an example of a large solar generator that is small enough to haul around on camping trips, for example, and also includes a transfer switch for your electrician to install for home use.
Electric vehicles contain massive battery banks that can provide a capable backup for your home when you need it. “Bi-directional” charging is the term we use here, and that just means your vehicle can both receive and supply electricity through the charging connection at your home. You can look at this wizardry as another key component of your smart home, where all your systems are optimized to work together to keep your home safe and comfortable, keep you using the best electric rate, and have a safety net in place for when things go awry.
Depending on where you live, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events may simply compel you to add some backup power to your home. It’s much like your homeowner’s insurance in that way. And with the incentives from utilities and the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s time to start thinking about adding some backup power to your emergency plan. Better safe than sorry!