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September is National Emergency Preparedness Month

The Emergency Preparedness
Tip o'da Week

Emergency Power, Lights and Generators - Part 2

The material presented on this page is intended to start you thinking about what you can do today that might someday save your life. If nothing else, our "Tip o' da Week" might just make your life a bit easier when a disaster strikes. We do not present topics that cost a lot of money (like structure reinforcement.) These are "do it yourself" projects and are relatively inexpensive.


FireBox stove in use with fire powered pan charger - Hatsuden Nabe

Introducing the Hatsuden Nabe

The Fire-Powered USB Thermoelectric Generator and the Firebox Folding Stove

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Everything You Ever (or Never) Wanted to Know about-
Emergency Power, Lights and Generators!
(Part 2)

Part One may be viewed from this link.

-- See More Tips --


In the last episode we talked about generators. If you have decided that you need one, we're sure you have a few questions like:


Do I need to take out a second mortgage?

The Data below is far from complete, but will give you an idea of the tradeoffs between power, run time, and volume levels.

Watts:  Watts out:   Run time/gal:  Motor Size:  Volts:    Amps:    $    Brand: Model: Note:
Rating  Continuous

1000     900         3.8  hour/gal   ?           120,12   7,8     $ 700  H     EX1000  X Q
1400    ?            ?               ?           120,12   ? ,8    $ 750  H     EG1400  X Q
1750    1400         5.5  hour/gal   3   Horse   120,12   14,15   $ 550  C     1750    X
1800    1400         ?               5.5 Horse   120,12   12,8    $ 900  H     EM1800  X
2500    2100         3.0             5.5         120,12   17,8    $ 950  H     EG2500  X
2500    2300         3.1             5.5 Horse   120,12   17,8    $1100  H     EM2500  X
3000    2250         1.1             5   Horse   120      19      $ 350  C     2250    L
3500    3000         2.1             8   Horse   120,240  29,14   $1200  H     EG3500  X
4000    3250         3.0             6   Horse   120,240  27,13   $ 700  G     G4000
5000    4000         3.4             7.8 Horse   120,240  33,17   $ 850  G     G4000XL ER X  
5000    4000         ?               8   Horse   120,240  33,16   $ 450  C     4000    L
5000    ?            0.8             11  Horse   120,240  21,8    $2100  H     EM5000  ER X
5750    4600         1.3             9   Horse   120,240  38,19   $ 600  C     4600ER  ER
6250    5000         0.83 Hour/gal   10  Horse   120,240  41,20   $ 650  C     5000    L
6250    5000         0.75 hour/gal   10  Horse   120.240  41,20   $1000  C     5000ER  ER X

C=Coleman Powermate
H=Honda
G=Generac
ER=Extended run, 5 gal tank
X=extras like low oil shutdown, quieter, electric start, etc. Hard to tell the whole story!
Q=quiet
L=loud!

We have not included data for Generators exceeding 10 Horse Power.

From the above data and personal experience:

Notes from previous tip for review:


How to hook one up

First off, if you have ever taken a look at a generator you will find an outlet like shown.  It looks exactly like your wall outlet doesn't it?  In fact, it is!  If the generator is a 240 volt model, it will also have a another outlet for the 240 volt power.  The generator will also have a circuit breaker with a push-button reset.

Notice that the plug on the generator is intended to have devices plugged into it. Also notice that it is a socket, meaning that the connections are protected from accidental contact.  The rule is that if power can be supplied at a connection, the supplying connector is a socket. Notice that on your appliances, the connector is a plug (since it doesn't supply power).

How do you get the power from the generator to items in the house?

There are only two safe ways I know of to get the power into your house.

  1. Use a heavy gage extension cord.
  2. Have a transfer switch and sub panel installed.

The easiest way is to use an extension cord.  But there are two critical notes you need to know about using extension cords.

Extension cord notes:

  1. Wire has resistance.  The resistance per foot depends on the construction of the wire (number and size of strands).  The maximum amount of current that can be provided by an extension cord depends on the type of insulation used in the construction of the cord, and the number of conductors in the cord.
  2. Because current is passed through the resistance in the wire, voltage across the wire drops.  This voltage drop should be kept to under 2%.  If the voltage drop is greater than 2%, efficiency of the appliance is severely decreased (and can also result in damage to some equipment). Larger wire size, or decreased current requirements can reduce the voltage drop.
Let's forget the details for a moment to examine the table below:
Max length of wire in feet for 120 volt, 2% max voltage drop allowed
Current and power for 120 VOLT Max extension cord length for given wire size
Amps Watts #14 #12 #10 #8 #6
1 120 450 700 1100 1800 2800
5 600 90 140 225 360 575
10 1200 45 70 115 180 285
15 1800 30 47 75 120 190
20 2400 NO! 36 57 90 140
Max length of wire in feet for 240 volt, 2% max voltage drop allowed
Current and power for 240 VOLT Max extension cord length for given wire size
Amps Watts #14 #12 #10 #8 #6
1 240 900 1400 2200 3600 5600
5 1200 180 285 455 720 1020
10 2400 90 140 225 360 525
15 3600 60 95 150 240 350
20 4800 NO! 70 110 180 265

From the above tables, a few things should be pointed out:

Voltage drop can be calculated using Ohm's Law which is given by... Voltage drop = Current (amps) x Resistance (Ohms).

Let's take an example where you might want to use a 200 foot, 14 gage extension cord to run a 1000 Watt flood lamp:

A 3.6% voltage drop is above our recommended 2% max voltage drop given in the table above (for 120 volt).  Either the wattage of the lamp must be reduced, or a larger size wire (12 gage) must be used. The larger size wire has less resistance per foot, so the voltage drop will be less.


The House wiring and generator connection

The only safe way to power items in your house without using an extension cord is to have a Double Pole Double Throw (DPDT) transfer switch and sub panel installed.  It's an expensive proposition, but is the only legal way to connect a generator to your house wiring!

The diagram shows the addition of the DPDT transfer switch.  Note that the loads you have determined to be necessary in an emergency must be moved from the main breaker to the sub panel.  When the transfer switch is in the normal position, power is routed through the switch to the circuits attached to the sub panel.

When power is lost and generator power is to be used, notice that the switch must be moved to the "generator as source" position.  Once the switch is moved, the desired loads may get power from the generator connection.  Even if main power is restored, the desired loads are isolated, and will continue to receive power from the generator until the switch is returned to the normal position.

Notice that there is a special connector shown on the diagram. This is the only place that you will find a plug with exposed contacts mounted on a piece of equipment in your house (except your computer). It is a connector that is panel mounted with a recessed set of male contacts (like a plug, not a socket). Remember from the text above that anything that can be the source of power has a socket. Since the opposite ends of the transfer switch are wire to connector and the source in the main breaker panel, the connector can never be delivered power from the main.

We are going to quickly mention a very dangerous method for connecting your generator to items in your house. Our intent is to discourage you from this practice!

Its called "back feeding", and is very dangerous for 3 reasons:

  1. It requires that the home owner remembers to turn off the main breaker.  Little details like that can easily be forgotten when an emergency occurs. More on this later.
  2. It requires use of a very dangerous plug to plug cable!  As mentioned above, a plug has exposed contacts, and the second it is inserted into a powered outlet, the other end of the cable would have exposed "live" contacts.
  3. If the home owner forgets to kill the main breaker, the power will back feed to the pole-mounted transformer and will be stepped up to lethal voltages.  A line man who wouldn't expect the line to be powered if he were working on line is sure to be killed by your generator!  In addition, if power is returned while the main breaker is on and the generator is connected...ZAPPO!

The Webmaster's Baby Generator

A baby generatorThis unit, from my personal emergency supplies, is a 500 Watt Honda.  It's an oldie, but a goodie.  This is a VERY quiet model and it eats like a bird.  The power output is low, but the operating hours per gallon of gas makes it look like a perpetual motion machine!

The cost of a small generator like this one is about $500-$600.  You pay a high price for the low noise levels.  Now, just to make you sick, I wanted to tell you what I paid for this generator.  I bought it from a guy who had it sitting in his scrap pile behind his house.  He told me that a friend gave it to him because it needed a new motor.  He priced a new motor and decided it was going to cost too much.  I bought it from him for $10, and took it home to determine what could be salvaged from it.  I found that it had a large rust hole in the gas tank, the carburetor jets were clogged, and the float bowl was full of rust chunks.  A few hours later, it was up and running!

Now this little generator is nothing fancy, and requires the user to adjust the output frequency when it is first started, but I think the inconvenience is worth the $490-$590 dollar savings!

Another Generator Story (or two)

A bigger generatorSeveral years ago, I was in a store looking at the Coleman 2250 generator, when an old man mentioned that he had a generator he wanted to sell.  He was a Ham radio operator, and had used an old Heath 1000 Watt generator for emergency power for his Ham gear.  He said he wanted $150 for it and I went over to take a look.  I eventually decided that I wanted the 2250 Watt generator for several reasons, but the point is that you CAN find a deal on a used one if you try.

I remember sanding in the gas line in Princeville on the island of Kauai the morning that Hurricane Iniki was about to hit.  A man pulled up in a truck and was trying to sell a generator to the folks in line for gas.  There were no takers!  After Iniki, the island was without power for 3 months.  I wonder if that man sold his generator that morning and if he regretted it?

The Webmaster's Other Generator

This is what I think is a "great buy", from the table above.  It's a Coleman 2250, and runs for about 1 hour per gallon of gas.  For about $350 on sale, it provides big bang for the buck.  However, I use the small generator if at all possible.  Fuel is a major concern, but sometimes you really need the juice.  I sized this generator so I could run a 7 inch circular saw if needed for making emergency repairs to my house.

Notice the modifications that were necessary to keep the neighbors happy.  This generator is VERY loud. You pay a premium price for silence, and although this is a great value ($/Watt), the stock unit will cause you (and your neighbors) to go deaf!  What?

I added some pipes, and a small car muffler to help reduce the noise. Also note the addition of a set of wheels and "move handles."  These additions added up to another $75 or so but were worth it!


Be sure to check out our other tips or Part One of this tip!

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