Home backup power options can save you money, energy, and even your health when the electricity goes out. And like it or not, the power probably will go out at some point in the time you own your home.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Americans experience an average of 1.3 power outages a year, lasting about four hours. Of course, that’s just the average. Homeowners in areas prone to storms—be they hurricanes, tornadoes, or snow and ice storms—tend to log even more hours lighting candles and grabbing flashlights when they lose power.
Why we need home backup power
Home backup power is a great thing to have, to make sure your refrigerator keeps running and your heat stays on when the temperature is below zero outside. Backup power can even save you money (think of replacing that defrosted and spoiled food, or frozen pipes that burst).
Maybe you’ve experienced an outage without a home backup power option, and you’re not a fan of the paleo experience. Or, maybe you have a fallback system but think it could stand for improvement. In either scenario, it pays to carefully consider the various options out there.
Do you need a generator? Will a battery do the job? What about solar-powered home backups? Here’s what the experts say you need to be prepared for the next time the lights suddenly go dark.
If you hear the whir of a motor in your neighborhood after the lights go out, you’re probably hearing a neighbor’s generator. These devices typically run on gasoline, propane, or diesel fuel, generating power much in the way that a car does, by converting mechanical power into electrical energy that can be used to power your lights, run your freezer, and even hook up to a home heating system to keep out the chill on a cold winter’s night.
So, should you run to the supply store and grab a generator right now? Not so fast: It’s important to talk to an expert to ensure you’re getting the right generator to do the job, cautions Ryan Williams, general manager of 128 Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electric, in Boston. Generators come in different sizes, with the smaller ones designed to generate enough power to back up only a few appliances.
“It’s important to get the right size to suit your home’s needs,” Williams notes. “If you wish to only keep key appliances like your refrigerator and HVAC system running, you can get away with a smaller size. However, if you wish to keep electronics active and more, a whole-home generator may be the best option for you.”
Pros: Generators are versatile, says Jennifer Przewoznik, director of marketing, commercial, and industrial at electrical wiring manufacturer Leviton. They can power everything from your TV to your air conditioner if you get the right size. They’re also designed to last, so this purchase will pay off again and again if your neighborhood is prone to power outages.
“In most cases, a standby generator will not only perform the job at hand, but last the homeowner for thousands of hours of usage, if maintained properly,” Przewoznik says.
Cons: Generators are not inexpensive, especially those with enough horsepower to power an entire household. The cost also increases if your standby generator requires expert installation by an electrician, Przewoznik says, something that’s almost always necessary with larger generators. You’ll also need to stock up on fuel before a big storm. Without it, your generator won’t be able to make power!
Finally, generators can present a hazard to homeowners if they’re not properly installed or vented. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, portable generators account for 81% of motor-related carbon monoxide deaths in America. All generators should be placed outdoors to minimize this risk, and homes should have working carbon monoxide detectors.
Cost: Depending on the size, generators range from several hundred dollars to several thousand. If you’re looking to power just your refrigerator to keep your food from going bad and run a few lights, Donald Klinger of John H. Eschenberg, a small engine shop in Callicoon, NY, recommends a Briggs and Stratton PowerBoss 5000. Portable, with four outlets to plug into, the generator runs around $700 and can run on gasoline for up to seven hours before you’ll have to refill the tank.
Sure, you’ve got a closet shelf full of AAA, AA, C, and D batteries. But when it comes to powering your entire house, you’ll need batteries that are quite a bit bigger.
These days, batteries can do much the same job as a generator, and many of them use the power of the sun to make your appliances work, says Jim Brady, owner of New Dominion Solar, in Lynchburg, VA.
Lead-acid batteries are one option, which last about three to five years, but a more popular option today are lithium-ion batteries. These last a minimum of 10 years and are better, Brady says, “because they handle temperature fluctuation better, can be discharged more completely without damaging the batteries, and they don’t off-gas toxic fumes the way lead-acid can.”
These batteries can be connected to the electric grid, which means your battery will have to be wired directly into your home’s electric subpanel to bulk up on power before the storm hits.
Or you can install a solar panel system—also called a solar array—to power the battery with the sun’s energy. Solar panels will not only power your battery backup during power outages, but also help offset your energy usage during the rest of the year, saving an average of $35 a month, Brady notes.
Pros: Because they’re not fueled by gas or the like, batteries don’t present a carbon monoxide risk, nor do they create an off-putting noise or odor. And while they are expensive, batteries connected to a solar array may qualify for a 30% tax credit.
Cons: Despite their long life, batteries do eventually have to be discarded, and that can be tough, Brady says. They’re manufactured with toxic chemicals, which means they’ll be treated as hazardous waste by your local landfill. If you’re opting for solar array, you’ll need to add that cost onto that of the battery.
Cost: The battery alone is about $7,000, but if you’re adding a solar array, you’ll need to figure in $10,500 to $19,000 for a residential solar system.
Expert recommended: The LG RESU 10H battery provides 9.8 kilowatts of power, which is almost as much as the average whole-house, daily electricity consumption (around 12 kWs per day), Brady says. That’s why it’s one he often installs.
“The 10H should provide about two to three days of power, since it’s only used for the critical loads,” he notes. “In fact, because the batteries recharge a bit each day from the sun, the RESU could provide power indefinitely.”