Backup Power for the Individual and Volunteer, Part I: Generators

Backup Power for the Individual and Volunteer, Part I:  Generators

As a loss of power from the grid is a regular occurrence during a disaster, being ready for this eventuality is a necessity. Also, being equipped with backup generators is a standard practice with Emergency Operation Centers (EOC).  Power from the grid may be lost due to an equipment failure, severe weather, natural disaster, deliberate act of disruption (e.g., arson, terrorist attack, hacking, etc.) or from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  Such an outage may last a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the size and scope of the disaster.

The decision on how to access power when the grid is not an option will vary greatly upon the individual or organization’s location, budget, ability to provide service and maintenance, and other considerations.  However, electrical generators are widely available, cost effective, and may be utilized with limited training.  The following guide is an introduction to electrical generators that are powered via fossil fuels.

Portable Generators

Portable, gasoline-powered generators

A portable, gasoline-powered generator.

A portable generator is normally a small, wheeled generator that may be moved from one location to another fairly easily.  Most portable generators are powered by gasoline, but other fuel options are available, such as diesel, propane and kerosene.  Diesel generators tend to be more expensive, but more durable than gasoline models.  Most portable generators produce between 3,000 to 8,500 watts. They can be purchased at most home supply stores and establishments that sell power equipment.  Some also have a Tri-Fuel kit that will allow the generator to run on multiple fuel types with little difficulty.


  • For powering a limited amount of items (such as lighting, space heating, communication equipment, etc.) a portable generator is adequate.
  • By design, the units are are portable and relatively easy to move or store.
  • They are widely available in most communities and are, generally, end-user serviceable as consumables can be obtained from most automotive and hardware stores.
  • The cost, when compared to other generator types and renewable sources of energy is low.
  • The fuel for most units may be obtained from gasoline stations.
  • Diesel-powered units can be resupplied via on-site fuel deliveries.


  • They have a limited load capacity, so you can only run so much at a time.
  • You must store fuel and, in some cases such as gasoline, the stock must be rotated.  Gasoline, if stored for any length of time must be treated with a stabilizing agent.
  • Most, though not all, are noisy in operation.
  • Due to their portability, they are often stolen in some areas.
  • Setting up the generator can be unpleasant or sometimes dangerous in certain weather conditions.
  • Portable generators, fully fueled up, may weigh as much as 200-pounds, so they may be difficult to move for some citizens.
  • Most portable generators should not be operated uncovered in inclement weather such as rain and snow.

Cost Considerations:  Portable generators generally range in price from $400 to $1,200. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a grant program in place for those with a medical need for a generator.

Safety Considerations:  Generators should never be operated indoors as death by carbon monoxide poising can occur. There is the risk of shocks or electrocution if the generator is improperly used.  There is also the potential for fires if fuels are improperly stored and/or the unit is not properly refilled. The generator must have the exhaust port facing away from the home or building during operation.

Consumables:  Beyond fuel, other supplies such as lubricating oil (normally motor oil), air filter, and a spark plug(s) should be kept on hand.

Standby Generators

Standby Generators

A standby generator.

Standby, or stationary generators, are permanently attached to a home, business, or relief organization. Most run on propane or natural gas, though there are diesel units available too. Many modern standby generators have an automatic on/off operation for when the power fails or is degraded. Generally, stationary generators produce between 5,000 to 15,000 watts.  With the correctly sized system, such a generator can power an entire home or small business.


  • These units provide significantly more coverage than portables.
  • One can have it set up for whole house or just key circuits.
  • There is no setup procedure during an emergency.
  • They run on fuel that is easy to store (e.g., a propane tank) or they can run on an existing natural gas line.
  • They are, generally, much quieter than a portable, as most units are enclosed and include sound-dampening materials.


  • These generators are significantly more expensive than portable generators.
  • By design they are not portable.
  • The cost to have an electrician install the unit can run into the thousands of dollars.
  • They do require service from a trained technician from time to time.

Cost Considerations:  Standby generators normally cost in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.  The installation must be completed by a licensed electrician and can run into the thousands of dollars.  If an existing natural gas line is not available, a propane tank will have to be purchased or leased.

Safety Considerations:  In most areas, the generator must be installed at least five (5) feet away from a structure.  A fuel tank, if used, will have to be installed even further away.

Consumables:  Lubricating oil, air filter, spark plug(s), and oil filters should be stored.  Some units utilize “off the shelf” oil filters, while others require proprietary designs.


If you’re interested in buying a generator, please consider using this affiliate link for A small portion of your purchase will be given to to support our site. No obligation though – we’re not writing these articles to make money, but to help.


  1. Penuel, K. Bradley, ed. Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief. N.p.: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2010. 100, 754-55. Print.
  2. Vergano, Dan. “Electromagnetic Pulse Impact Far and Wide.” USA Today 27 Oct. 2010 [Tysons Corner, Virginia].
  3. Harrison, Kathy. Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens. N.p.: Storey Publishing, 2008. 56-57. Print.
  4. O’Neill, Will. Home Generator Guide 2013. 2013th ed. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. 66-68, 94. Print.
  5. “Using Portable Generators Safely.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). N.p., Sept. 2005. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  6. Berendsohn, Roy. “Home Generator 101: How to Power On When the Power Goes Out.” Popular Mechanics 9 June . Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  7. Warner, Emory. “For Safety Sake, Homestead Fuel Storage Must be Handled Properly.” Backwoods Home Magazine Jan. 1997. Print.
  8. Generator buying guide.” Consumer Report . Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  9. Generator Reimbursement – Individuals and Households Program Fact Sheet.” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  10. Agrell, David. “Should You Buy a Standby Generator?Popular Mechanics 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  11. Bradley, Arthur T. The Disaster Preparedness Handbook: A Guide For Families. N.p.: Castle Books, 2013. Print.
  12. Bradley, Arthur T. Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family. N.p.: Castle Books, 2010. 196. Print.
  13. Edwards, Aton. Preparedness Now!: An Emergency Survival Guide. 2nd ed. N.p.: Process, 2009. 170. Print.
  14. Rawles, James W. How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times. N.p.: Plume, 2009. Print.

Zachariah Amela

Zachariah is a writer with and is an Information Technology professional. He has worked with and contributed to disaster relief organizations and has a strong interest in emergency management, wireless communications, Civil Defense, and family preparedness. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and is married with children. When not working or writing, he enjoys time with the family, hiking, trap/skeet shooting, and reading.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+  


  1. Informative read, thanks for the link on the pros and cons for various generators. One of my husbands military MOS's dealt with generators, so when I think about this technology, I envision a big contractions and portable, but did not understand the differences.

    What I found extremely benefical is the possibility and availability of a grant from FEMA to help those with a medical need. I am going to pass this link along to some loved ones. Sometimes in situations without power, it truly is a life and death situation. Being prepared really does save lives.
    My parents own a chicken farm and they always use the portable generator to keep the incubators running during blackouts caused by storms. A simple bad wind can take of the electricity here. They run it with kerosene and car batteries. Those generators saved their business from bankruptcy because those incubators will keep the chicks alive. They will die out of cold temperature without it. Whether you are a home owner or business owner, It is important to have a generator.
    In 1994 when the power outages was getting to be rampant, I had planned on buying a generator - 1 kva or power can afford us the use of several electric fans. It was summer and the heat was unbearable at night, literally causing us to lose sleep. From what I remember, that one small diesel-powered generator costs $300. Wow, big money during that time. This year, while I was in a big hardware store looking for a camping tent, I noticed a small generator - the same as what I had planned to buy years back - that is on sale at $100. Get it?
    Are you sure that it was a diesel-powered generator, and not just a gasoline powered one ? Usually, the diesel ones are much better quality and cost more. They are made to run for longer periods, where the little $100 gas ones are more for short spurts of use.

    One good thing about a diesel generator is that you can buy the off-road diesel to use as fuel, and the off-road diesel is much cheaper than regular diesel usually.

    It is also safer to store than gasoline; but if you are using it in the winter, you need to use a diesel additive to keep so that it will start.

    If you just need a cheap generator for short outages, then you would probably be just fine with the $100 one, whether it is diesel or gasoline -powered.
    That's really interesting but would it really work? I mean is it going to be actually beneficial in the end? Because I've heard that they're not as good and there are other sources to stay on that are better, while it may be good in some ways, it could be really really bad in some other ways I've heard. Am I correct?
    the good ones work quite well, they are efficient and reasonably quiet. If left in the backyard for months on end, and not started regularly - they will likely NOT start when needed. They are expensive, the good ones, even more so. Fuel is a problem - storing enough to get through the event, keeping the fuel viable. They are only useful for small loads.

    I can't think of them as bad? - as they are designed for a specific use and location and time frame. If your needs fall within the design you are golden. If you need something cheaper, more cost effective to use, more reliable, more long term....maybe not.

    They, and the fuel are ALWAYS cheaper pre or post event....not during the event.
    Are you sure that it was a diesel-powered generator, and not just a gasoline powered one ? Usually, the diesel ones are much better quality and cost more. They are made to run for longer periods, where the little $100 gas ones are more for short spurts of use.

    One good thing about a diesel generator is that you can buy the off-road diesel to use as fuel, and the off-road diesel is much cheaper than regular diesel usually.

    It is also safer to store than gasoline; but if you are using it in the winter, you need to use a diesel additive to keep so that it will start.

    If you just need a cheap generator for short outages, then you would probably be just fine with the $100 one, whether it is diesel or gasoline -powered.

    If it's me you are asking, that was a diesel-powered generator because I still have to see a gasoline generator in the market. By the way, there was a threat of power outages this summer that was declared early this year. It was due to the shortage of electricity from the suppliers - repairs and breakdown issues. I guess the sales of power generators were up. Unfortunately for the buyers, the declared blackout did not materialize.
    I recognize that generators are great to have, and I would personally love to have one. What I didn't appreciate was just prior to hitting the road for the Hurricane Rita evacuation, when I had to drive around, wasting my precious gas and time, trying to find a gas station that didn't have 10-20 huge trucks full of empty barrels to be filled with gas or diesel, tying up every pump.

    I don't appreciate people putting their future comfort ahead of others' ability to evacuate to safety. It would be nice if there was some way to separate that traffic out from the vehicles trying to escape ahead of a potentially catastrophic event.
    , that is a really good point, and I am sure that it made it bad for everyone who was either tring to get prepared to weather out the storm, or to evacuate before it came ashore, like you were.

    At least with a hurricaine, everyone knows that it is coming, usually days ahead of the time that it actually gets there, so people should have started preparing for it as soon as theyknew one was coming.

    Even though you can't store gasoline a long time, you can certaiinly put some away when there is any indicaion of a possible storm, and not wait until the last minute.

    I tink that the same thing happened in New Orleans, when hurricane Katrina came ashore. People didn't think they would have to leave until it was almost too late, and then all of the roads going out of town were jammed, traffic was a near standstill, and people were running out of fuel all along the way, and nothing they could do to help it at that point.
    Yes, I think they (in New Orleans) felt reassured because the dikes had held before, and also weren't counting on such a severe storm surge. I agree regarding planning ahead. I definitely would have gassed up ahead of time (I know that's not what you were saying), except I was turning in the rental car that day & picking my vehicle up from the shop after accident repairs. In retrospect, I should have gassed up the rental and kept driving that, things may have turned out much better, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Thankfully, emergency officials have changed policies here because of that situation and enacted contraflow lanes, so hopefully next time no one will have to die or suffer needlessly.

    It would be great if fuel could be stored, so that wouldn't happen again, where evacuees are unable to obtain needed fuel to escape, and still provide enough for those wishing to ride out the storm. I don't know how much fuel a generator uses, but you'd think they were preparing for the apocalypse, with as many barrels as they had to fill.
Click here to add your comments


  1. The Essentials of Hurricane Preparedness - […] Power outages are very common during a hurricane, so one might consider the purchase of a generator for backup…
  2. An Introduction to the Family Radio Service (FRS) for Preparedness - […]  The phone lines are dead.  The cellular service is jammed.  The power is out and even with a generator…
  3. Tornado Preparedness: The Essentials - […] obtaining or installing a backup generator in the event of extended power […]

Submit a Comment

Write Articles
Suggest A Category