Whether you’re aiming for off-grid self-sufficiency or prepping for potential disasters, few pieces of equipment are as invaluable as a generator.
In this article, we’ll discuss details that can help you run your home as efficiently as possible on generator-produced power. Knowing these tips in advance can save you a ton of time, money, and, yes—energy—in the long run.
What Utilities and Equipment Can Run on a Generator?
If it runs on electricity, then a generator can run it. This can range from home utilities such as a water pump on an artisanal well. You can have running water, heating/cooling systems, kitchen appliances, home computers, and even security systems.
Similarly, a generator can provide electricity so you can charge everything from phones and laptops to USB-charged flashlights.
How to Choose the Right Generator for Your Needs
The key to determining which generator is right for your household needs is to take stock of what you need to use daily that requires regular power.
For example, you may enjoy cooking on your electric stove but could cook outdoors on a rocket stove or BBQ if need be, but your life would be truly miserable without internet, air conditioning, or a working refrigerator to keep food from spoiling.
Make a list of everything you use daily or seasonally that requires power. Beside each item, write down each system or appliance’s wattage requirements.
For example, water heaters, air conditioners, and electric clothes dryers run at around 6,000 watts (W). Electric kitchen stoves run at about 2,500W, well pumps at 1,000W, and laptop or desktop computers at 50W.
Then add up the wattage needed to keep your absolute basics going, and you’ll have an idea of the kind of generator you’ll need.
Generally, the larger the generator, the more wattage they’ll output. Size also determines cost, both in terms of the machines themselves and the fuel you’ll need to buy to keep them going.
Standby and Home Backup Generators
If you have a lot of appliances and systems to run electrically, you’ll want to choose a “home standby” or “home backup” generator.
As their name implies, a standby generator is literally “standing by” to kick in in case of a power outage. You’ll set things up so they automatically start up if the power fails, so there’s little to no interruption.
These generators are basically like energy banks. They keep power going for several hours and turn on and off on their own to maximize energy efficiency.
Standby generators are the best options for people who have family members who depend on power for survival, such as those who are on respirators or who use chargeable electric wheelchairs.
In contrast, “home backup” generators are gasoline-fueled. Depending on the model, some may tap into a community gas line to keep power going until standard electricity is restored. Most, however, are fueled by gas containers that must be refilled regularly.
Both of these are good options if you have a lot of energy requirements in your house. For example, if your house is heated electrically and you live in a place with -40°F winters, you’ll need a lot of energy to keep you and your family warm and alive.
Similarly, if you’re in a place where sweltering heat has the potential to harm, then being able to power an air conditioner is absolutely vital.
If you’re in a fairly temperate climate that doesn’t get extreme weather, and/or if your energy needs are low, aim for a portable generator instead. These can be carried or wheeled around, depending on their size, and can provide enough wattage to run several appliances or devices for several hours at a time.
For example, ours can run for about 12 hours straight on 8–10 gallons of gas. During a power outage, if we only run it for three hours a day, that’s four days’ worth of electricity.
Those three hours give us enough time to run the water pump to fill up several five-gallon jugs at a time, heat water for bathing and dishwashing, run the stove/oven to cook several meals’ worth of food, and charge our laptops, phones, e-readers, and more.
What are the Pros and Cons of Using a Generator?
There are several pros and cons associated with using a generator:
- Higher energy independence: if you’re in a remote location where power outages are common and repairs don’t happen often, you’ll have a more stable power supply to rely on
- Continuous power supply: the aforementioned outages can cause significant upheaval, especially for self-employed people who work from home—using a generator means that there are no interruptions as far as electricity is concerned
- Less dependency on electronics: you’re less likely to waste time scrolling on your phone or procrastinating with chores if you know you only have a few hours of power to work with at a time
- Noise: generators are very noisy, and the rumble can get quite irritating over time
- Cost: the cost of gas/petrol is rising by the day, so running a generator on this fuel can get incredibly costly unless you’re very diligent about minimal usage
- Emissions: burning gas creates concentrated emissions that pollute their immediate area—if you only have a small property, these could contaminate food plants or put animals at risk
Where to Set Your Generator Up
Take a look at that list we made of the most important appliances or utilities that you need to ensure power for. Are most of them in the same area? Or spread out around your home? Their locations will determine where you’ll set up your generator.
The power hubs for our refrigerator and water pumps are within 10 feet of each other, which is ideal. This means that we don’t need to run huge lengths of power cords through the house: we just need one with multiple sockets, run through the window as needed.
Since these machines need to be outdoors because of their harmful emissions, you’ll need a flat, clean space to set them up—preferably in an area where they’ll be sheltered from rain or snow.
They should be far enough away from the house to avoid being a potential hazard, but close enough to be able to run extension cords into rooms that need the most power, e.g. the kitchen.
When you have a generator going, aim to keep everything that needs electricity within the same vicinity. For example, if you need power to cook on an electric stove for a couple of hours, let someone work on their computer in the same room.
Additionally, keep all small devices together so they can be charged en masse.
Prioritize Your Energy Usage
When using your generator efficiently, it’s important to treat your energy use like triage. Identify which systems and appliances are the most vital and prioritize them so they get the most energy.
Additionally, take advantage of what’s available to you regarding natural weather conditions.
For instance, if we use the previous examples about heat or air conditioning in extreme weather conditions, you’ll have to ensure that those are sorted out before you do anything else.
If you work remotely and need power for your computer, prioritize that. Additionally, charge phones and tablets whenever you have the opportunity to do so.
You can also use certain weather conditions to your advantage. If it’s -40°F outside, you’ll need to get the heat going ASAP so you don’t freeze to death. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, use that in conjunction with your generator for maximum efficiency.
Meanwhile, transfer perishable food items from the fridge/freezer into plastic bins and keep them outside, where the cold will keep them from spoiling.
Similarly, let’s say the power has gone out because of torrential rain. If your water pump runs on electricity, take advantage of the rain coming down to fill up jugs and buckets of water.
Be Smart About Energy
Power down or disconnect the systems and machines that are least essential. Remember that freezers will keep contents frozen for at least 48 hours, while fridges stay cold for 12-24, provided you keep the door(s) shut.
As such, unplug the freezer so it isn’t draining energy from your standby or backup generator. Use that energy to power appliances like the oven, washing machine, etc., instead.
Use alternate methods to electricity use whenever possible. For example, hang laundry to dry outside instead of running your dryer, and wash dishes by hand rather than using a dishwasher.
Read books or play games for entertainment instead of draining your phone or tablet, and cook several meals in large batches so you only have to power up your stove/oven every other day or so.
Only use your generator when you absolutely have to. Keep plenty of candles around for light, and if you have a well pump that runs on electricity, ensure you have plenty of bottled water in storage.
When you do use your generator, charge low-importance devices like electric toothbrushes, razors, etc., with the power that’s left after the more vital systems and appliances have been sorted out.
Dos and Don’ts
There are a couple of dos and don’ts when it comes to generator use and efficiency. Below are some of the top tips for running your home on one.
- Only use the generator when necessary: if it’s cold out, it’ll get colder at night so that’s the ideal time to keep your electric heaters most active.
- Monitor fuel consumption so it doesn’t shut down unexpectedly.
- Follow manufacturer guidelines when stopping and starting, e.g., letting it run for a few minutes before plugging in any appliances to avoid surges.
- Run your generator several times a year for at least 15 minutes at a time—this will ensure that it’s in decent working order when you need it
- Rotate fuel so you use the oldest canisters first, and refill them regularly.
- Look into fuel additives to stabilize it: this will keep it viable far longer than its standard shelf life, especially in hot climates.
- Waste energy: only turn lights on when they’re needed while you’re in that room. There’s no point in illuminating an area that nobody is using.
- Store your generator with fuel inside it—fuel has a shelf life and will either dissipate or “spoil” over time.
- Leave your generator exposed to the elements, nor store it in damp, mildewy conditions.
- Keep your generator in conditions where it’s easily stolen: if you store your generator outside, secure it to either your house or concrete base with a heavy-gauge steel chain and lock. You wouldn’t believe how many generators are stolen annually.
Care and Maintenance
Just like any other machine (including one’s own body), the best way to keep it in good working order is to treat it well and take care of minor issues before they get unmanageable.
Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines regarding ideal fuel, and be sure to clean out nozzles and change filters regularly. Inspect the machine regularly to ensure the spark plug is working properly and to look for rust or damage.
As far as storage goes, either store your generator in a dry indoor area like a basement or shed or outside underneath a weatherproof cover.
Additional Notes About Generator Efficiency
If you’ve been dealing with regular power outages and you feel that a generator would be a good idea, there are also a number of things you can do around your home to reduce your energy load and maximize efficiency:
- Replace standard appliances and lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones.
- Improve the insulation in your home: if your home is well insulated, it’ll take less energy to warm or cool it, depending on the season.
- Have alternative options as backups: for example, if you don’t have a wood-burning stove, have one installed so you can use it for both heating and cooking, and consider additional power supply options like solar panels on your roof, or a water turbine if you’re near a stream, river, or waterfall.
- Keep solar-powered lanterns charged and handy so you have light at hand when the generator isn’t actively being used.
Although they may be noisy, generators can make a world of difference during an outage or if you need creature comforts while living as off-grid as possible. It’s wonderful to “rough it” by cooking on a woodstove and using oil lamps or candles for light, but there’s a lot to be said for small pleasures like a hot shower or the ability to watch a favorite film if you’re having a bad day.
Find the best generator to suit your family’s needs, and follow our tips to run things as efficiently as possible.