Rural Living Survival Basics: Purchase a Generator

A standby generator can be expensive, but it will make sure your homestead can continue running in an emergency.
By Ragnar Benson
January 2013

Even a small generator can give independence to a rural home, or at least self-sufficiency in an emergency situation.
Photo Coutesy Fotolia/Evgeny Korshenkov
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Before you pull up stakes and start a rural homestead, there are several things to learn about the realities of rural living that you might never have faced in your city or suburban home. Ragnar Benson grew up on a farm and has lived in the sticks for decades, and he has helped dozens of transplants settle into their new homes in the country. Starting a New Life in Rural America (Paladin Press, 2006) is a collection of personal advice into a manual of introduction to some of the issues you need to know about life in rural communities. One challenge you may face is spotty power. In this excerpt, read about how you should purchase a generator and how to determine what kind would be the best for you.  

You can purchase this book in the GRIT store: Starting a New Life in Rural America.

That Erik Grupp of Kodiak, Alaska, wanted to purchase a portable standby generator might seem strange at first. Grupp lived well within the confines of the city of Kodiak itself, not out in a wild, remote area.

Still, Kodiak is notorious for its sudden, intense storms, so Grupp figured life there was inordinately risky without his own generator. “It’s a miracle,” Grupp reports, “that power interruptions occur as infrequently as they do.” Perhaps because the power company expected such and were appropriately staffed and equipped, outages tended to be brief—from four hours to a day in length, max. The problem was the frequency with which residents had to endure them.

Without reliable power, Grupp’s extensive frozen food supplies were jeopardized in summer. During the bitter cold winter months, he felt he risked the comfort and safety of his family in a power outage of any duration. Homes in his area, subjected to howling winds straight out of the North Pole, have frozen up in 90 minutes without the relatively small amounts of electricity necessary to power the oil furnace and blower. Acquiring a standby generator seemed the prudent thing to do.

Generators are one of those appliances that require a reason, or perhaps even an excuse, for ownership. They are sufficiently expensive that most folks, including rural ones, don’t just go out and buy one. The common reasoning for having one is recognition that rural power is fairly reliable in most areas, but when it does go down, consequences can be severe. There is also the matter of using a generator to run labor-saving power tools in the travel camper or shop, or out on the grounds away from an electrical outlet.

Peter Williams lives in a very rural, almost primitive place called Harvard, Idaho. Williams also purchased a standby generator recently. Fire danger in the deep, dry forests within which Williams lives is his most immediate concern. “I really need a generator to operate my well and pond pump in case we have a forest fire and all power is cut off,” he says. It is not an uncommon concern in his neck of the woods.

Waiting to purchase a generator till the hour of desperate need is not a smart plan. Doing so usually leads to an ill-considered, inappropriate unit not well suited for your specific needs. There is also no question that the generator will cost materially more money in times of emergency, when intense demand drives prices up.

When purchasing a standby generator, realize that one size definitely does not—and never will—fit all. If nothing else, we know this from the many makes, models, and sizes of generators available. The Northern Tool and Equipment catalog, for instance, has eight pages listing more than 50 different generators. Given the fact that research and analysis are necessary parts of a generator purchase and that rural safety and convenience should be priorities in your new life, starting the process early is wise.

My first generator back on the farm was a tractor power takeoff model rated at 4,000 watts. Figure about 2 horsepower will generate 1,000 watts of reliable, continuous output on this or any other type of generator. My tractor was rated at 45 horsepower, suggesting I could have driven a much larger generator had I wished. But our power needs were relatively modest at that time, almost as modest as our financial ability to purchase a generator.

Without freezers and deep well pumps, our electrical needs were few; all we really did with the rig was run the welder. At one point before the generator, we lived, without complaint, for four days without any electrical power.

Rural neophytes who plan to purchase a standby generator have several decisions to make. The first is to determine how large a generator is required to keep your urgently required appliances in operation. Keep in mind the fact that, for most of us, life will not go on as usual when the standby generator is supplying the power. The reality is that, other than a few essential appliances, every other plug will be pulled.

Commonly, rural residents will need to pump water, preserve food (as in freezers and refrigerators, which can and normally do run intermittently), power the furnace and blowers in winter, and run a few lights. (Minimal lighting, we have found, is more necessary than most people suppose. The many hours of work needed to hold the ranch together make it a necessity, particularly in northern winters when days are short and conditions severe.)

Using generators to power up an electric oven (about 5,000 watts), washing machine (500 watts), space heater (1,500 watts), toaster (1,000 watts), or even hot water heater (4,000 watts) is an extravagance few will likely consider. Forget luxuries like the electric can opener, yard lights, and ice machine.

Deep well pumps require about 1,200 watts, gas or oil furnaces and blowers about 1,000 watts, chest freezers 1,000 watts when running, and lights marginally more than what is written on the bulb. That not all these appliances need to run at once suggests that many homeowners could get by with 6,000 watts of generating capacity in emergency circumstances! In the case of freezers, for instance, running time need be only six to eight hours per day. Run other stuff when the freezers are silent. If the ambient temperature outside is, well, freezing, and the freezer is located in an unheated garage, you might not have to hook it up to the generator at all.

In actual practice, it always takes a bit more power than first supposed, and it is unnecessarily tough on a generator to run it at full capacity for extended periods. In that regard, purchase only a continuous duty model, preferably one of the industrial units.

Most manufacturers recommend 8 to 9 kilowatts to run an average household in an emergency, a figure I have found from experience to be just right. Purchasing additional capacity in a generator does no harm, but 8 to 9 kilowatts is a good figure.

Next, determine if the generator will be deployed as a central unit to power the entire household from one location, or is it best in your circumstances to move it around, essentially powering one appliance at a time. In many situations it makes sense to use two or three smaller, portable generators on what amounts to an individual basis to power the well pump, freezer, lights, or whatever.

This plan avoids the high cost of a larger generator, allowing purchase of one smaller generator now and others in the future as need suggests and finances allow. (Smaller generators are also convenient to have around for use in the travel camper, on construction sites, in the shop, or when just out tent camping.) On the downside, moving all these generators around and servicing them can be time consuming and tedious. At the hour of need, time is always at a premium.

Large central generators can have the advantage of being less obvious, both audibly and visibly, if set up in a location dedicated to their housing and operation. Once installed, they are convenient to start, run, and service. In most cases wheel kits can be installed, adding a bit of mobility, but is a 460-pound, 15-kilowatt, 25-horsepower, central generator ever really portable?

There is also an important safety issue when using large generators as a standby source of power. If you connect your generator to your home’s power grid, you must isolate it from the grid before going live. If not, when you heat up your home wiring you will also be heating up the electrical grid on your side of the breach—and risk blowing some poor lineman off the pole, who is unaware that your side of the break is hot. If there’s any possibility your generator will feed power back into the grid, shut off the main circuit breaker to your house or pull your main box fuses and hide them away so they cannot be reinstalled intentionally or by accident. As with any large electrical appliance, make sure you understand your generator’s safe and proper operation before you need it in an emergency.

At one time China Diesel offered small, 8-horsepower, 4-kilowatt generators. Nice units these, but only I could turn the starting crank with enough enthusiasm to fire the engine. Which leads to the next decision: does one purchase an electric start unit or rely on muscle power? It depends entirely on who might be called on to put the generator in service in an emergency. My rule of thumb is that any engine over 10 horse should be electric start.

Generators sit around most of the time. Starting a cold engine after it had just spent 14 months in a storage shed is always difficult. Because my wife and daughter might be called upon to fire up our generator, ours are all electric-start generators. We just need to remember to replace the batteries every four years—an added maintenance expense, but worth it.

Picking the correct fuel for the generator is another consideration. I store 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel with which to heat our home and fuel my tractors and truck. Diesel-powered generators are significantly more expensive, but they are longer lived in continuous service. Gallon for gallon, more power is generated on less fuel. In my case, choosing diesel fuel for my generator was a no-brainer.

A medical doctor living in the valley on the other side of our mountain elected to purchase a liquid propane (LP) gas-powered generator. He also purchased and installed a 1,000-gallon LP tank. (Leased LP gas tanks are risky in an emergency situation, he says, because it puts you at the mercy of the supplier.) In a truly tough situation, his unit can also operate on plain gasoline. There is charm in such diversity!

Knowing when to deploy the standby generator is more art than science. No one likes to go through all the work getting everything set up, only to have the power come back on. Talk to your new neighbors to determine how widespread an outage really is. Local radio may have some information, and it may be possible to call the power company for their estimate of when power will be restored (but be prepared for vague or evasive answers—and sometimes they just don’t know). Unless there is a fire danger or some other mitigating circumstance, our rule of thumb is to wait four hours before deploying the generator.

Not too many years ago, our power went down after an accident on the highway took out a substation. Apparently there were other problems with power lines out in the county that exacerbated the situation. After three days on the generator, our power company informed us it would be at least three more days before we were restored.

The continued noise and smell of the generator finally got to my daughter, so she devised a plan. She called the power company, and in her sweetest, most polite tone, said, “My dad thinks he knows what the problem is. Is it okay if he climbs up the pole and fixes our power himself?”

A power company truck and crew pulled up our drive within 20 minutes of the call.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Starting a New Life in Rural America by Ragnar Benson and published by Paladin Press, 2006. Buy this book from our store: Starting a New Life in Rural America. 


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