Prep for the Power Outage

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Having a generator for back-up power is great – unless you don’t have the fuel to run the generator. The irony of the back-up generator – most of them, at least – is that they run on gas. And what’s the item that’s usually hard to get when the power’s down?

Gas.

About two weeks ago, a violent storm line called a derecho passed through our area; thousands of people lost power – not for a few hours, but in some cases, for a week or more. The lines queued up real fast at local gas stations – the ones with still-operable pumps, anyhow. You could not buy a portable five gallon (or 1 gallon) gas jug at any Lowes or Home Depot in the area. Many people had generators. But sometimes, they couldn’t get gas for them. Which meant they might as well not have had the generator, for all the good it did them.

And this was just a relatively minor – and known-to-be-temporary – situation. Imagine a more serious – and longer-term – SHTF-type of scenario. Just when you need gas the most – so will everyone else.

Which means you probably won’t get any gas.

No gas – no power.

Well, you could store up some gas. The problem with that idea is that gas – especially ethanol-adulterated “gas,” which is in fact 10 percent alcohol – does not store well, even with fuel stabilizer added and even if you keep the stuff in a sealed container kept in a dark and fairly cool place. Three months or so at the outside. After that, you risk bad gas – and a gummed-up carburetor in your generator. Which means it won’t run.

Which means you won’t have power.

That’s why I converted our generator to operate on multiple fuels – gasoline, propane and natural gas. This has several advantages, functionally as well as practically speaking.

The obvious one is I am not dependent on gasoline for back-up power. If the juice goes out for a couple of days – or longer – I don’t have to worry about queuing up with everyone else down at the gas station – and hope the gas station’s open. I keep about 100 pounds of propane in storage – enough to operate the essentials (most especially the well pump) for weeks. A month or two, if need be – if I limit the time the generator runs. If your home has a large propane tank – or even better, a natural gas hook-up – you could run the generator almost indefinitely. Or at least, for a long time. Long enough, probably, to make it through all but complete SHTF-type scenarios.

This is peace of mind gasoline cannot provide.

Propane also stores indefinitely – or practically indefinitely. A portable 20 pound tank will be as good a year from now as it is today, provided you keep the valve from rusting up. Assuming you keep the tank in a reasonably well-protected environment such as an enclosed shed or in a garage, the fuel itself will last for years. So, no hassles keeping track of when you bought your fuel – and how old it is – and whether it’s time to run the stuff through your weed-whacker, just to get rid of it. Buy a few 20 pound (grille-size) tanks or one of the large 100 pound cylinders – whatever works best for you – and you’re set. It’s like having long-term storable food.

Propane (and natural gas) also burns more cleanly – which will extend the life of your generator’s engine as well as increase replacement intervals for spark plugs and oil.

There’s also the money issue. Gas – even now – is still pretty expensive. If you find yourself in a situation where it’s necessary to rely on gasoline to run your generator for an extended period, the dollars will add up quickly. The typical portable generator has a five gallon tank, which will typically run the unit for about 10 hours or so. At $3 per gallon – current prices – that’s about $15 a day to run the generator. If you have to run it for two weeks, you’ll be spending more than $200 to keep the lights on – and the food in your ‘fridge from spoiling. At $4 or $5 a gallon, it gets harder to keep the lights on.

At $7 or $8 a gallon, many people won’t be able to afford to run their generators at all.

Propane – and CNG – are not only cheaper on a per-gallon-equivalent basis, they’re not a subject to wild price increases because there are vast reserves of the stuff right here in the USA. Plus, you can stock up now – at current (low) prices – and not sweat future (inflation-driven) price spikes as much. Because there’s no worry about the fuel going bad in three or four months’ time.

Buy now, use later – even if “later” is several years from now.

Bottom line: There are no downsides – and lots of upsides – to multi-fuel operation. So, I went ahead and got the kit – from U.S. Carburetion (see here) for about $180. It included all the components needed to convert my 8,000 watt portable generator to multi-fuel operation. I just finished doing the install and thought I’d share the experience.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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