When It Comes to Generators, Bigger Is NOT Always Better

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by Scott Stevens

Everyone wants a big sexy generator that thunders to life 10 seconds after the lights go out. Suddenly the lights are back on, and life continues as it always has, even if the world is ending around them.

But is that behemoth generator the best option?

Generators are hot, smelly, cantankerous, and expensive, not to mention dangerous.

So what setup is best? According to your needs and circumstances, that will vary. But there are principles I will share with you here that I hope you find valuable.

There are some instances in which a generator is the best option. For example, you’d need one to run refrigerators and other appliances with sizeable electric motors. There are better options for cooking, heating, and lighting. And these options are far cheaper and more efficient than a mammoth generator. (And some people plan on a completely low-tech blackout with no power options at all.)

If you are looking to “go green”, solar generators are good options.

When shopping for generators, only look at full sine wave models.

Anything else is asking for trouble. Start by looking on the internet at the specs for anything you want to buy. You will see the full load capacity and the fuel usage at full load. Multiply that by the number of hours and days you want to run it. Warning: the cost will make your head and visa card explode.

Look at the specs label of all the things you want to run: refrigerators, lights, television, routers, etc. Add the watts all together, divide by 1000, multiply by three. This equation will give you the kVA you need. On average, you’re looking at a liter, per hour, per kVA.

You are better off with three small generators.

One generator for lighting and 2 generators for power is effective and efficient.

By only running the generators when it is necessary, running costs will be reduced. Small generators are sufficient at night for lights and tv. A large generator used 2 hours, three times a day for the refrigerator is adequate. Using this method will reduce your fuel consumption. And with the various generators, if you should have an equipment failure, you will have some redundancy.

Want to save money, reduce fuel expenses, capital outlay, and maintenance?

The recommendation here is to divide your appliances into groups.

  • Equipment or Appliances you can use with propane. Propane Example: If you already have camping gear, you’re halfway there. A camping stove and hot water will reduce the fuel consumed by the generator significantly. *Make sure only to use that method in a well-ventilated area and get a co2 monitor.
  • Equipment or Appliances you can do with low voltage dc. Low Voltage Example: You can have this integrated into your house or have a stand-alone system. A single medium-sized deep cycle battery for lighting is all you need. Charged by a solar panel or even your generator when you run your fridge. Make sure to keep your batteries charged.
  • Equipment or Appliances you can only do with ac mains equivalent. Generators Example: Most of the generator info is covered above but remember, generators are absolute beasts. They are worse than a hormonal teenager. They make a mess, always demand your attention and money rarely living up to expectations.

Reminder: Generators are nothing like the mains power, the “Grandpa of Utilities.” Usually, even-tempered, you have to remember that even Grandpa sometimes needs a nap when he should be working. Don’t be too hard on him. He is old and doesn’t look after himself properly. 

Generators, on the other hand, are flighty teenagers. You can’t rely on them when Grandpa nods off. A variety of energy sources will serve you far better and probably cost you less. 

The colder the better, the sooner the better

I highly advise cranking your fridges and freezers to the max. Fill every spare space in them with bottles of water (flexible plastic). Doing that will increase the thermal mass of these appliances and keep everything cold, longer. It will also serve as a secondary cooling source for an esky cooler.

It’s a good idea to inventory everything in your fridge to note what you will need for the next day. Quickly grab those needed items and transfer them from the refrigerator into an esky containing pre-prepared ice blocks.

Remember, your fridge needs to run for an extra 20 minutes for every minute the door is open!

Moving those items to the esky will lessen the need for trips to the fridge. 

I hope you find this helpful!

What’s your blackout power plan?

Do you use a generator? If so, what do you power with it? How do you cook? Do you use any other power sources? Share your advice and strategies in the comments.

About Scott

Scott Stevens currently resides in Queensland, Australia with his lovely girlfriend who has brought richness and healing into his life that he thought was a myth. Though Scott endured abuse as a child, suffers from a lifelong illness, spent 10 years in a cult, and was forced into a marriage he has managed to find lessons in it all. As for the forced marriage, well, his Grandmother always told him, “If you have nothing nice to say, say something witty and sarcastic.” Throughout his life experiences, he has learned the value of endurance, resilience, and kindness and that everything is valuable to someone. 

Having an intense love of knowledge, Scott lives daily by the mantra “A day where nothing is learned is a day wasted.”

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  • For a fully-down, long-term, grid-down situation, my generator is primarly for refrigerator/freezer. Stand-alone solar w/batteries for lights and to recharge cellphone, tablet, batteries, as well as amateur radio and maybe fans. Propane and kerosene for cooking. Wood fireplace for warmth.

  • For the most part, generators are a joke.
    Great during a natural disaster where things will recover quickly.
    If SHTF, you will very shortly not have the fuel to run them. Even treated fuel has a short life span.
    They tend to be noisy and attract attention, unwanted attention.

    Lights, power, noise are all indication of a Prepper. Some one who has the things stored up that you need.
    You might as well signal all robbers, looters and the unprepared that you are there, ready to supply their needs.
    Solar, wind or water powered generators being the main exceptions.
    Part of being a “grey man”, extends to things like this also.
    Don’t make your home or bug out location stand out.

      • Solar and wind sound great in theory – that’s why the “progressives” push so hard for it. Reality is quite different. Though I have never had any wind power, I have had several variations of solar power. The weak link is always the batteries. They have a very definite life span, after which they must be replaced. The rated amp-hours for a battery is typically the TOTAL capacity – but you can’t deplete them beyond a certain point (varies by type of battery) or the already-limited life span drops like a rock. Also – no, you cannot have a system without batteries. They are not just charging the batteries, they serve to even out the power. Without batteries in the system, the voltage drops every time a cloud passes overhead, and that does nasty things to whatever you’re running.

        The system I am now using uses LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries. They are painfully expensive, but over their lifespan, they are cheaper than any other battery.

        Major point – be realistic about what you NEED to power. Unless you have virtually unlimited money, there are serious decisions that need to be made regarding what you will power. Solar power is expensive power when all things are considered.

    • How does one know when the S has in fact HTF?
      Will we get a text from DHS/FEMA saying,
      “Yes, Americans, The S has HTF! Abandon all hope!”???
      Will people just assume is has if the power has been out for more than 48 or 72 or even 96 hours? And then just go all Mad Max, and start shooting their neighbors?

      Or could it be two weeks, likely what fuel you had on hand might be gone by then (unless you got a really big tank, some farms I know do), and then people start to go feral when their food begins to run out or they go into Facebook withdraw? Why not? People call 911 now when Facebook is down for more than an hour.

      How will you know S has in fact HTF?
      Aside the obvious mushroom cloud in the distance.

      • You are absolutely correct about everything…. Also, you are spot on correct about facebook…. I have personally seen people get angry and depressed when facebook temporarily shut down… it is THEIR life.

      • I think it’s all in perspective.
        If your in Venezuela eating flamingos and happy about it then S has HTF.
        If your in downtown Portland S has HTF but I’m playing with my grandkids. If your in NYC during covid S has HTF whereas I’m taking 9 of us to the local pumpkin patch petting zoo.
        So Election Day and day after well….
        again perspective. You, like me, will recognize hostile gunfire from the norm and see the smoke signals or the lack of.

        I would guess when a complete SHTF will be recognized when the new, not black or white, national anthem is in Chinese.

        • @Matt in OK,
          True statement.
          If you are one of those in the food and bev industry, be it a bar tender, wait staff, back of the house line cook, or chef/owner, COVID19 has given you (or your governor) the S in SHTF.
          In other Comments sections in other TOP articles, some have noted that the S is HTF now as we speak. It is not some flash moment were everyone agrees, “It is HERE!”
          Rather to us, a long drawn out process.
          While the history books may say it was a up, fast and in a hurry, living it for months and maybe even years, it is a long drag.

        • One thing aboutt it…… IF and I do mean..IF .. russia or china was going to nuke us, our govt would NOT tell us… the want to maintain control as much as possible..and IF they told us, it was about to happen… there would be mass chaos and panic everywhere.. Remember the movie, “Armaggadeon,:? Remember when Billy Bob Thornton, showed his cellphone text…” DOTTIE HAS GONE PUBLIC”.

          i spoke to a FEMA executive one time about govt warnings.. his reply was…..” Its easier for the govt to clean up after an event , than to try and control before hand”.

    • Dear Mic,

      If you generate enough biomass to feed a large bio-digestor to generate methane, you could keep your generator running on biogas for decades, theoretically. Just make sure to dehydrate and desulfate the biogas properly, and have enough spare parts.

  • My parents live in hurricane alley.
    They have a small-medium sized generator. Used mainly for keeping the fridge cold, run a few fans, the stove and the AV (window unit) for brief periods of time.

    • I suggest you build your own. Why because you will have to DO the math needed to determine Needs Vs. Wants. You will get what you really need and it will be cheaper than a package unit. And you will get a system YOU understand enough to troubleshoot and repair it.

      Google it, plenty of good people who did it sharing.

  • I’ve gone through enough hurricanes (I’m in Florida) where we were without power for a week or two, that I’ve been forced to do some tweaking of the generator plan. I ended up with two generators (actually, three, but one is pretty much a spare/loaner to family).

    The 5KW generator is needed to run the pump. With two large water tanks, I can run the pump for about 5 to 10 minutes and have all the water we need for the day. That includes showers since we also have solar water heating.

    I also have a 2KW Inverter generator that just barely sips the fuel. I use that for keeping the freezer running, charging batteries, etc. I can fill it at night, and it’s still humming along the next morning. It is also very quiet.

    Both generators are made by Honda, and they never fail me. Even after sitting for a year, they start on either the second or the third pull. Critically Important – make sure that you empty the fuel tank, the carb, and the fuel lines completely when you’re done using it, then run any remaining fuel out and pull the starter cord a couple of times to make sure and to pull air through the system. For fuel, I use only non-ethanol with PRI-G fuel stabilizer added. Since I’ve started doing this years ago, I have NEVER had a problem starting and running any of the generators. I rotate my stored fuel every year.

  • I accidentally have two generators. I had a deep well put in and it has a 240 volt submersible pump and my old generator is 120v. I bought a larger (7500w) duel fuel generator. I could run an extension cord in from the small one to power lights and electronics plus a small AC and fire up the beast several times a day to power the pump and refrigerator.

    I like the idea of a cooler for daily needs to prevent opening the refrigerator as often. I could make one out of plywood and line it with several inches if Styrofoam insulation with racks to separate frozen foods from non frozen and have a top shelf for ice.

  • Glad this topic was created.

    Heres my opinion. ………………. Generators are good. They are a good TEMPORARY fix. They can run your freezer , refrigerator, fan, etc. But Heres the bottom line….. IF THE WHOLE POWER GRID is shut down, how are you going to get fuel for it? The gas stations run on electricity too.

    In all reality, to light your house, all you need is candles. One candle in a bathroom will be sufficient enough at night time, to be able to see your sink and toilet. One candle in the kitchen is all you need . Candles are dirt cheap to use. If you need a small night light in your bedroom while you sleep, I suggest using a small solar light set to the lowest setting so that the power doesnt run out. In my small little apartment, I have very small lights that stay plugged in and constantly charge. When the power goes out, they turn on. But I only use them to get my candles lit and then I turn them off to save the battery. I also have rechargeable batteries to use in my SMALL lanterns when needed. If my rechargeable batteries run out of power, then I will plug the rechargeable battery charger into my inverter in my vehicle.

    My next learning curve is to get Solar panels to charge my vehicle battery. Plus Im researching into using one of the small wind mills that will recharge a battery to run my little freezer. But then I would need to buy another inverter and battery to just charge the freezer. My small refrigerator is another conquest…

    I only have a small 900 peak watt generator , which means i only have 700 watts to use. Plus it runs on two cycle fuel.

    If anyone has any better genuine ideas, I am all ears to listen.

    • One note on candles: When I was a volunteer firefighter, during prolonged power outages, house fires were more common then any other time of the year.
      Please be careful, and “Safety first, Shawn!”

      • you are correct. I never go to sleep with a candle burning. Id say one of those 1.00 solar yard lights from the dollar tree would be perfect.

  • Buy the smaller generator and invest the savings in a transfer switch. You can preselect the circuits to power and easily turn on and off specific circuits when you want. The switch is the best money you will spend on your home generator setup. Easy to install with basic electrical skills.

  • Two gotchas:

    1. The author’s recommendation for a Coleman propane camping stove could stand some improvement. First, it’s dead meat if local propane supplies run out after your stored supplies run out. The GasOne brand of portable camping stoves at least is a duel fuel product line so you can also use butane or propane. In addition there are all kinds of camping stoves that can be powered by dried wood, alcohol, esbit solid fuel chunks, etc, and they are dirt cheap to add to your capabilities. There are other camping stoves that are liquid-only multi-fuel capable. (The German Petromax from the 1920s or any of the successor knockoffs since then are good examples.)

    There’s also a wide variety of solar cookers (both retail and DIY) that you might regard as a way to stretch your stored fuel supplies. Even though solar is only intermittently available, it’s still a first choice to check IF you have sufficient sunlight. With a little knowledge and practice, solar can be very practical for high temperature fast cooking, lower temperature slow cooking (takes longer but does lots better in preserving both nutrition and taste), and even high temp quick heat-up for a thermal cooking event — where you only need it to only quick heat your thermal cookpot (or thermos bottle) and quick heat your food, and then that hot food goes into the thermally insulated device (with the lid on, but with no continuing need of camp stove heat) to slow cook for however many hours it takes. There are plenty of books on the how-to of THERMAL COOKING on Amazon.

    If you’re using solar for that, your cost of energy is ZERO. If you’re using a well-chosen camp stove, you may have a choice between local found wood supplies or stored fuels you already have on hand. In either case with thermal cooking, your cost of energy and conservation of your stored fuels is vastly improved — AND you can even be thermally cooking while on the move. Cooking while on the move (either by vehicle or on foot) is a lot more difficult otherwise with other non-thermal cooking methods.

    2. There is a deadly mistake in the propane camping stove paragraph. It recommends using that stove in a well-ventilated area (outside is best, but high ceiling indoors is possible IF the ventilation is sufficient), but outside you don’t need a gas-sensing meter. In contrast, inside you definitely need a CO (carbon MONoxide meter — NOT a CO2 carbon DIoxide meter. Odorless CO is what kills in sufficient concentrations indoors — and the cost of a CO detection meter is a tiny fraction of that incorrect CO2 meter.

    3. In the US, many home insurance policies mandate in their “fine print” (that hardly anybody reads) that any propane supplies be stored some distance from the house. 30 feet as a minimum is often specified, but you should check to be sure of the exact rule that might apply in your policy or your landlord’s. First, a propane bottle with fuel inside can literally destroy a whole house if that bottle gets hot during a house fire. Secondly, if you have a fire and the insurance inspector discovers that even your outside propane storage was not far enough away to meet that minimum fine print mandated distance, even though that propane supply was not involved in your fire, the insurance company can use that distance violation to deny your otherwise legitimate claim. NOT GOOD.


  • We invested $10K in a whole-house generator this summer. It’s a Kohler, one of the top brands for generators. It’s connected to our gas line. As long as nothing happens to the gas line, we’ll have power. I know it’s not perfect (what is?) but it provides peace of mind and in most scenarios, we’ll have power when the lights go out, and that’s what matters.

  • My next one I’m purchasing fall of next year will be a duel fuel propane/gas.
    Gas stored with PRI-G will go out to 5 years by my own personal testing and propane is I dunno pretty much as long as it stays in the tank.
    Obviously they have drawbacks in true SHTF but the advantages of real life scenarios that occur all the time make it worthwhile.
    This topic is a lot like any other you just do the best you can with what you have. Ideally I’d like an XYZ setup but my redneck and paycheck allow for this.

  • We installed a backup genset four years ago. It runs on propane from a 500 gallon tank out back which also runs our floor furnace (No electric required)
    We settled on 8KW, which runs our well pump, kitchen, and one bedroom for medical supplies.
    We could have gone bigger, but couldn’t see any reason to.

  • Yucky article– You know the attitude of author by picture- Supported by how bad maintaining a generator is to do. Generators are like parachutes, bulky, useless 99% of time– near essential 1% of time.
    Some one should write a coherent article based on fuel which is the determining factor for generators.
    They are now the law for nursing homes in Florida.

  • In some places a generator is an abosolute necessity unless you plan to abandon your home. In South Texas the houses are built with small windows and lots of insulation. That makes them more efficient but when the power goes out and the AC isn’t running it becomes a furnace in few hours. I bought a generator that was big enough to run the fridge, a small window AC unit and a few lights. It kept the house livable for several days when we didn’t have power from the grid. We didn’t run it continously and it only used about five gallons of gasoline.

  • Generators first of all ditch the cheap gas ones if you are looking for shft. They work for emergencies but are useless long term because of fuel.

    Diesel is the way to go. They are 3x the price of gas for same kva, you are burning lubricant not solvent so with proper oil and lube they last near forever. One of ours is a hand crank lister. Spare parts come from India and they make a good clone of it. 3 cylinder 8kw starts in -42c.

    Runs on fryer oIL, old strained engine oIL, diesel, kerosene.
    Super tough and rugged but you need a good inverter because sine wave from the generator part from India sucks and will wreck electronics. Solution run through a solar inverter for pure clean sine and a battery bank ( get surrettell rolls batteries) they cost but last forever. Original set we have has for over 3000 cycles. And going strong.

    Second Gen we have is a 30 kva military surplus diesel irony it uses same amount of diesel as a 10 kVA Kohler over 8 hours. It has 3 phase power output and is muffled and armored, auction price $4579 plus $800 in shipping. 2000 hours on it by me sitting at 5700 hours fires up and clean sine power. This runs all of our big stuff. Cooler, freezers, metal working equipment meat processing and garage. It is connected to 48watt battery system surrette rolls using small inverters with solar and micro hydro. (We are off grid)

    Diesel storage, get a used double wall fuel tanker pup 20’000 liters clean it professionally and put a anti siphon pump set up. It’s mobile so it does not count as fuel.storage. if covered from element we have been testing fuel 5 years old diesel it still runsure fine in older equipment would not put it into a modern Def vehicle. Older heavy equipment, military tri fuel motors eat it up no problem. This also allows you to save $$ buying when cheap fuel prices. We have one 4000 L tank with heavy winter fuel for when it gets crazy cold.

    Third Gen is a smaller Perkins 10kw diesel it’s portable for the times you need power in middle of no where without bringing welding truck.
    The Perkins uses 1 gallon per hour full load 3/4 at 3/4 load and about 1/2 at half…. these are extreme engines that go 30,000hours but not cheap at about $1000 per kw.

  • We stocked AA and AAA rechargeable batteries for light, have hand-held and headband flashlights, and solar chargers for both sizes. Two gasoline generators, but limited fuel storages. Several models of rocket stoves, a Coleman camp stove with limited fuel, campfire tripod with numerous accessories, cast iron cookware, a bicycle modified to wash small batches of clothes, (socks and underwear). A solar water heater that can make 140 degrees with full sun. And a coal fired blacksmith forge, that is also my disaster revenue stream. My shop can function without any power tooling. Food stores, water available 300 yards away, wheeled carts to haul that if needed.

  • We are fortunate to have a stand-by generator (Generac). We invested in it after losing power for a week in March after an ice storm. Our daughter was only seven months old, so we headed to my mom’s while my husband stayed home with the fireplace going. Thankfully, we haven’t lost power for more than a few minutes since the generator was installed. I’ll take it lol I know it’s not a perfect nor a long-term solution during a grid-down situation, but it gives us a lot of peace of mind.

  • generators do have problems but a lot of them can be avoided by first buying quality equipment and second by doing proper maintenance. speaking from experience of many years, i would prefer a used military unit of either fuel over any of the new stuff being sold. first it will be a true sine wave output. and while some smaller units voltage has some variance, most modern equipment will tolerate that more than the dirty power from cheap units. having several units sized for different needs is the best choice as it provides backup in the event of a failure. the first rule of getting a generator should be buy nothing that runs at anything above 1800 rpm. while hard to find there are surplus units that run at 1200 rpm. while being very quiet they are more fuel efficient and longer lasting. one caution on military units, the newer the unit the more chance it might be 3600 rpm. investigate before buying.
    one last suggestion, even if you have a whole house unit get a few plugin emergency lights for the time while the unit is starting. it could save an unexpected injury.

  • Couple of items. First almost all generators are full sine wave. The Honda inverters are the exception and a little too pricey for my taste. Almost any home appliance runs well on any ac current as long as it’s within 10% of rated voltage and frequency. The exception is high fidelity audio amplifiers, not one of my highest priorities. My family is computer wealthy and they work fine anywhere between 110 and 130 volts. Appliances like cooktops, ovens, refrigerators…and anything with an electric motor aren’t super sensitive to fluctuations. Most of the world uses 50 cycle ac, we us 60 cycle in the US. Appliances are designed to work in that range.

    Second I see a lot of comments that portable generators and many whole house generators are finicky and require a lot of maintenance. This is true, as has been said, keep the fuel fresh and clean. Yet I’ve left fuel in some of my equipment over the winter. This isn’t catastrophic. I pulled the carb off, ran a cutting torch tip cleaner up the main jet and filled it up with fresh gas. Honda engine, started on the second pull. However, I prefer diesel. I use it in my truck and tractors so I always have some on hand.

    Where my need varies from most is that I have a solar system that provides me most of my electricity needs. But if we have 2 or more cloudy days the batteries don’t get fully charged. My solution is a 25kw 240 volt 3 point tractor mounted generator. It puts out full power of 240 volts at 1500 rpms and I’ve tested it at 1200rpm where it sips fuel (just over idle on a tractor) and it puts out 210 volts. All my appliances work fine. Still, two is one and one is none so I have a gas powered unit clean and dry, waiting for fresh fuel should plan one fail.

  • The first rule of reliable backup power is: exercise generator(s) monthly under the load they will be required to power. One hour, minimum. That gets the engine to operating temperature and drives the condensation out of the oil. That also keeps you informed and confident about how to do it quickly in an emergency.

  • Good reminders in this article – and good information. Reminds me of when my family liked out in the woods with no power, sewer, or running water. I was a little kid at the time but I still recall how my dad used the generator to charge a battery to run a light and the radio. My folks used wood for heat. Which makes me wonder – I could see a radio being a needed thing both for entertainment and for information – but why a TV? If somebody absolutely HAS to have a TV it should definitely be a small one. I could see using a generator to keep a freezer cold, or run a fan, or maybe a few LED powered light bulbs, or recharging various low powered electronics, but a TV is NOT a necessity. Especially the huge ones most people have these days, even though they aren’t the power pigs of yesteryear.

  • I’m looking to run my well on generator as a back up . Right now it runs on electricity. Does anyone have thoughts on this? Thanks in advance.

  • I think it is wise to have options for multiple different situations when it comes to your utility grid down: 1. temporary (hours/days) utility grid down, 2. grid down for weeks (i.e. Puerto Rico), grid down & no idea when it is coming back.

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