Hey, preppers. Maybe a generator isn’t the best investment…


Are you prepping for an electricity-dependent lifestyle? Or will you “go native”, following in the footsteps of our pre-electrical ancestry?

The tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest last weekend were a real eye-opener for beginner and intermediate preppers. I consider myself a little above intermediate in my preparations for emergencies. And even though the tornadoes were well south of us, I still found myself unecessarily scrambling when the power went out.

We had enough flashlights, but our youngest daughter had “borrowed” our brightest one and had not put back where it belonged. It took some searching in the dark with a smaller flashlight to find it.

The battery-less, wind-up flashlight my oldest daughter intended to use in emergencies was buried under piles of clothes in the basement bathroom and I just happened to find it when checking the sump pump.

And, while we did have enough candles for a few consecutive evenings of power outage, they were all of different sizes and types. We needed more, and we needed several with glass enclosures to reduce fire risk. What would have really been nice was if I had remembered to replace the batteries in the electric “camp lantern”, and maybe bought one for each room in the house.

Photo of a gas-powered portable generator

A portable generator in an emergency can ease the situation. It can also cause problems.

The biggest thing we were wishing for was a generator. It’s been on my list for a while, but because it’s easily one of the most expensive preparation items one can buy, obtaining one has been a financial challenge.

Most people buy a small, 3500 watt generator to switch between a freezer and refrigerator. For my family’s unique needs, I had to include enough wattage/amperage to run a freezer AND refrigerator, a sump and ejector pump in the basement, a well pump to pressurize our drinking water, and (for cold Chicago months especially) our furnace. And, the system had to be automatically self-starting and self-testing. At the present going rate of about $1/Watt for most generators, that puts me in the $10,000+ range. Especially if I want to be able to turn on any lights.

Several years ago, we did an appreciable amount of research on the cost and setup of a range of systems: from whole-home generators to generators that would run only the items noted above. Our goal was to have a setup that would automatically kick in for a short-term power outage (my wife and I not being mechanically gifted), but also have enough reserve fuel and capacity to take care of our power needs for a month or more (anticipating a man-made or natural EMP event or power grid hacking attack).

We were about to buy a system from a local installer when it occurred to us that, in the increasingly likely event there is an EMP triggered by the Sun or by a rogue country, a generator would be somewhat useless.

Why? With fuel from a municipal natural gas line, there is no guarantee that gas will continue to be delivered. Line pressure could be difficult if not impossible to maintain when the demand for gas soars in a power outage. What if the central pressurization plant has no power? That means no gas for your generator.

There are huge impracticalities and dangers in storing hundreds of gallons of gasoline, kerosene, or diesel fuel for liquid fuel generators. Also, think about this: in an emergency, do you you want to use your gasoline for electricity, or for spare fuel in case you have to Get Out Of Dodge or drive somewhere to get supplies?

Small propane bottles, while safer to store, are troublesome depending on how much space you have. Constantly swapping out smaller bottles that quickly empty could be a real non-starter in a situation where exposing yourself to mobs, nuclear fallout or chemical attacks is an issue.

Storing fuel in the form of a large, fixed-base propane tank is impossible in some communities with zoning ordinances that prohibit it. Sure, you could probably afford to ignore city ordinances after a disaster, but by then it’s too late.

And, by the time you get into the range of features and wattage that puts you in an optimal position of preparedness, you’re looking at systems that are largely digitally controlled, and which would be set up to supply power to digitally-controlled home systems. If there’s an EMP, your $10,000+, digitally-controlled generator would become a useless, and expensive, lawn decoration. Even the smaller generators have digital components that would render the setup useless if the circuit board got fried.

Sure, you could store spare digital controllers inside Faraday cages and hope they’ll still be okay after an EMP event (and that you’d know how to replace the fried one). But that still doesn’t address the fuel storage issues noted above.

So, even though we still wished we’d had a generator this past weekend, when we thought about it, spending $10,000 on a system that might never work as intended was a huge loss of survival value when compared to what that money could buy today in food, medical supplies, gas masks, guns, ammo, clothing, other preparation-focused home improvements, and other gear. We seemed to be better served by learning how to live a pre-electrical lifestyle in a long-term catastrophe than by trying to maintain a short term, 2013 existence.

There are others who have come to this conclusion as well. I’m not saying nobody should ever get a generator. But, you should carefully consider whether it’s the best idea for your situation, or if old-school living is a better option.

What’s your plan? Will you be investing in keeping up an electricity-dependent lifestyle, or will you “go native”, following in the footsteps of our pre-electricity ancestry?

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2 thoughts on “Hey, preppers. Maybe a generator isn’t the best investment…

  1. I’m investigating hand-crank generators, which won’t take care of your fridge but will provide minimum heat / water pump if needed. I’m up for better / more powerful strategies.

  2. If you do find yourself needing more short-term electricity generation but don’t want to go buy a generator, you can just use your car as a temporary generator. Idling engines produce power through the alternator to recharge the battery. You can use that power by connecting an inverter like the one linked below to your freezer, fridge, well, or sump pump as each are needed. http://www.amazon.com/outlets-inverter-adapter-notebook-MRI3011BU/dp/B004MDXS0U/ref=sr_1_1/183-5214774-8123117?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1389649884&sr=1-1&keywords=power+inverters+for+cars

    For a longer-term solution, connect the inverter to one or more deep cycle marine batteries, and then connect that setup to some cheap RV solar panels to charge it during the day. That way you can switch over from your car being the generator and save the fuel for transportation needs. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Delectronics&field-keywords=rv%20solar%20panels&sprefix=rv+solar+panels%2Celectronics&rh=i%3Aelectronics%2Ck%3Arv%20solar%20panels

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