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posted: 10/2/2011 12:30 AM

The Sensible Home: Backup electric power options

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Q. We had two electric power outages from storms lately. It was very inconvenient, so I must find some type of backup electric power. What are my options that are not extremely expensive to purchase and install?

A. The best and most convenient emergency backup system is a whole-house generator powered by natural gas, propane or diesel. It comes on automatically when the electricity goes off and can power everything in your home. Unfortunately, one costs thousands of dollars and you cannot install it yourself.

A smaller gasoline-powered generator is a more reasonably priced option. You can buy these at any home center store. Various appliances plug directly into the generator outlets. Don't try to connect one to the electrical wiring in your house. It likely cannot produce enough electricity output and it can be a hazard for electric utility repairmen.

Another simple and inexpensive option is in an emergency portable battery pack. These battery packs have 12-volt lead-acid batteries inside of them. These batteries are somewhat similar to the battery in your car, but these are designed to be completely discharged without harming the battery. These are available at most automotive supply retail outlets.

Most battery packs have a 12-volt DC (direct current) outlet similar to a car cigarette lighter and jumper cables to start a car. Many electric appliances that are designed to run on 12-volt DC power are available at camping supply outlets.

Battery packs also have a 120-volt outlet into which you can plug standard household appliances. They use an inverter which converts the 12-volt DC battery to 120-volt a.c. (alternating current). The amp-hour rating of a battery pack determines how much electric power it can store.

Although the batteries can usually produce a large electric current flow, the 120-volt power is limited by the maximum output of the a.c. inverter. Most have a maximum output of only 400 watts so check the wattage of the appliance before plugging it in to the battery pack. If the appliance electricity usage is too great, it will trip a circuit breaker in the pack, but not damage it.

To keep food fresh in a refrigerator, which usually needs more than 400 watts, purchase a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for your computer. Select one with a maximum output greater than the wattage requirement of your refrigerator. This will probably be much greater than your entire computer system requirement, but this is not a problem.

When my power goes off, I carry the UPS to the kitchen and plug the refrigerator into it. When the UPS battery power runs down, I unplug the refrigerator and plug the UPS in a battery pack to slowly recharge it. The battery packs can be recharged from your car or you can take them and the UPS to a friend's house who still have electric power for recharging.

The following companies offer portable battery packs: Black & Decker, (800) 544-6986,; Clore Automotive, (800) 328-2921,; Duracell, (800) 300-1857,; National Solar Tech., (800) 310-7413,; and Xantrex, (800) 446-6180,

Q. We have a recirculating system on our hot water tank. We recently had to replace our water heater with a new, more efficient one. Now the recirculating system does not work. What caused the problem?

A. A recirculating system must allow for the free flow of water through your plumbing. Assuming the water heater was installed in the same way as the old one, the water heater itself should not be the problem.

There probably are heat trap fittings on top of the new water to reduce heat loss. They allow water flow in only one direction. Have your plumber remove the heat trap fittings and replace them with standard fittings.

• Write to James Dulley at 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit