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What to Know Before Purchasing a Generator for Your Homestead

Bobbi PetersonIf you’re reading this, you’ve already seriously considered generator purchase. Good. Because as a homesteader, you know better than anyone else that a) there’s no accounting for Mother Nature, b) sometimes survival depends on Plan B, and c) it never hurts to also have a Plan C.

Don’t worry, buying a generator can be just as straightforward. Here’s what you need to know.

Wattage

Determine which vital electric appliances your homestead may need in an emergency. Does your well pump need backup so you can feed the animals? Do you anticipate possible use of power tools for storm repair? How much wattage does your refrigerator use daily? What if you turned it on and off intermittently?

Estimate the approximate wattage of each item. Your total will determine what size generator best suits your needs. On average, a 5,500-watt generator can adequately run a refrigerator and well pump, plus a few lights or tools.

Features

Based on the degree of your homesteading commitment over time, you may choose a permanently installed generator, as opposed to a portable one. Depending on the fuel type, installation may be costly and require a qualified specialist. Of course, this expenditure is a one-time, up-front investment, and may end up saving you money in the long run.

An additional factor to consider is noise. Presumably, your homestead is not flanked by close-quarters neighbors. But if you or your animals find persistently loud, continuous sound stressful, consider a generator that runs quietly.

Climate Restrictions

Factor in your homestead’s physical location, and identify significant climate restrictions. Will it be important for your generator to run smoothly in cold temperatures? How will it function in a chronically wet environment?

Do you live and operate in extreme heat? Should your generator have enough wattage to run fans as a matter of status quo?

Fuel Source

Gas-powered generators are most common, and are available in a variety of portable sizes. However, they produce high emissions and require careful fuel maintenance. Keep a backup supply of 5-gallon tanks at the ready in a safe location. You cannot store the gas for more than 12 months without needing to replace it, and gas-powered generators are notorious for being difficult to start in cold weather.

Generators that run on diesel work much better in extreme cold and boast a significantly less flammable fuel source. Though stored diesel also requires routine replacement, it can last in storage up to 24 months. Known for sketchy performance in wet environments, diesel generators offer few portable options.

Propane generators burn clean and efficiently. They come in many portable types and start well in the cold. Because of propane’s high flammability and the inherent complexity of its generation system, installation requires a licensed professional.

Natural gas is another option. Gas generators hook directly up to existing fuel lines, so there’s no need for fuel storage. Natural gas burns with little waste, and units tend to be quiet and fully functional in the cold. Installation is expensive, and dangerous leaks are a possibility.

Perhaps most symbiotic with homesteading is biogas generation. Biogas is mainly made up of methane, produced when organic materials such as food scraps, livestock manure and field clippings decompose. You can construct a biogas generator as a DIY project. However, due to methane’s highly flammable content, you must take extreme care when establishing a safe location and maintaining fireproof storage.

Poison Prevention

Running any generator, no matter what type, goes hand-in-hand with a significant potential risk of carbon monoxide — CO — poisoning. A natural off-gas from burning fuel, CO builds up without telltale odor or visible fumes in poorly ventilated, enclosed spaces. Merely breathing CO can elicit marked health symptoms, including vomiting, chest pain and weakness. CO poisoning is responsible for more than 400 accidental U.S. deaths per year.

The good news is, dangerous CO exposure is preventable. Simply follow these guidelines:

• Make sure to inspect fuel-burning appliances every year.
• Strictly adhere to all maintenance instructions.
• Don’t run any gasoline engines, including a car, in enclosed spaces.
• Keep an eye on vents that may carry CO throughout the home.
• Install a battery-powered CO detector. Maintain a backup battery system.
• Change detector batteries every fall before heating season begins.
• Don’t ignore problematic health symptoms, especially if other household members exhibit the same problems. Consult a health professional immediately.

Homestead generators offer peace of mind and keep your place running smoothly, despite Mother Nature’s whims. Adherence to a few safety precautions and maintenance requirements is all it takes to assure your well-considered purchase remains cost- and health-efficient.

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Photo by Getty Images/JodiJacobson