The 2019 Halloween storm knocked out power to thousands, particularly in Hamilton County. Those fortunate to have an automatic whole-house generator experienced minimal inconvenience.

A system that automatically starts a generator and switches over the house mains is really handy, but it does have its downsides. For one thing, it’s an expensive system to install. For another, it can lead you into being complacent when the electricity goes off.

Just because you still have electricity, it doesn’t mean you have an endless supply of power, because the generator needs fuel. If it’s connected to a natural gas pipeline you might be OK, but if it uses propane or gasoline (more likely in the north country) you only have what is in the tank.

Perhaps you can get a refill, but maybe not. So it might be a good idea to figure out how to conserve fuel.

Most people can get by for a while without continuous power. Running a generator for a short period every few hours will keep the house warm and the refrigerator cold.

The trick is knowing how to manually control an ‘automatic’ generator. Typically you can put it in manual mode.

You may only need a small amount of electrical power for essential appliances. A small generator can be connected directly to the equipment that needs to be powered, or to the home wiring.

To safely connect any generator to your home wiring, you must disconnect from the power lines first. The safe way to do this is with a transfer switch. This is a double-throw switch that connects the house to either the power line or your generator.

There are basically two types of generators.

A conventional generator must rotate at a certain speed to provide the required voltage (117VAC) and frequency (60Hz.)  While it will use less fuel under no-load conditions than under full load, it can’t actually run slower to conserve fuel.

Inverter generators are a combination of a conventional generator which supplies raw electrical power and electronic circuitry which converts it to the proper voltage and frequency.  The motor only runs fast enough to supply the needed power.

Another advantage of good inverter generators is that the AC power they produce is clean and stable. This makes them ideal for powering sensitive electronic equipment.

“Solar generators” are not really generators. The name is misleading. Generally they are just an inverter powered by a battery, with a small solar panel that charges the battery. They can’t replace an actual generator for long- term or high power use.

Aside from actual outages, momentary power interruptions can occur at any time. They make your computer quit in the middle of whatever you were doing, make clocks flash, and reset various other electronic devices.

The simple solution is an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). This is an inverter powered by a rechargeable battery. If the power drops the inverter automatically switches in and provides power for a few minutes, enough time to save work and shut down your computer. A UPS also provides superior protection from power surges. I have them on all my systems and they are well worth the minimal cost.

Original newspaper column published November 2019