Backup electrical protection options for use in power outages
Q: We often have electric power outages. My budget is too limited for a whole-house generator. What is a good option to at least keep the gas furnace blower running during winter?
A: Typically, your gas furnace and refrigerator are the two most important appliances to keep running, even if it is just intermittently. The controls and blower for a gas furnace do not draw a huge amount of current. If you have a heat pump or an electric furnace, you will need a large, expensive backup generator powered by gas or propane.
Obviously, during winter, a long power outage can result in frozen pipes and other problems in your house. To protect yourself, installing a small free-standing pellet stove or blower unit for a wood-burning fireplace works well. These can operate on 12-volt battery power long enough to protect your house.
A small portable gasoline-powered generator is not extremely expensive and one can produce enough electricity to keep your furnace, refrigerator and some lights running. Most have several 120-volt outlets. It will require some long extension cords. Make sure to get cords of the proper gauge wire for its length and the current that each item uses.
Add up the continuous running wattage requirements for each appliance you need to keep operating and this will tell you how large (in kilowatts) a generator is needed. The specifications on the generator will include a peak output and a lower continuous output. The continuous wattage is the correct number to use.
Don't try to wire this type of generator into your house electrical system to make it more convenient to use. It cannot produce enough power for your entire house anyway, and it presents a hazard for the utility's repairman. The 120 volts can backfeed into the outdoor electric lines and shock someone working on the wiring.
For less than $100, battery packs are available with built-in 120-volt a.c. outlets. They usually have two a.c. outlets that are powered by an inverter inside the unit. The 120-volt outlet wattage power is limited, but it is enough to power a pellet stove, fireplace blower and lights. A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for a computer can also be used.
Some battery packs also have 12-volt cables to help start your car if its battery goes out. Many also have a built-in LED light and air pump for tires and sports balls. Keep in mind; even though it is just powered by a battery, the electricity from its 120-volt outlet is as dangerous as from your standard house power.
The amount of electric power a battery pack can provide is a function of the battery pack size in ampere-hours and the capacity in watts of its inverter. Typical battery packs are in the 18 ampere-hour range, but some go as high as 51. These are lead-acid batteries, so they are fairly heavy. Lighter, but much more expensive lithium-ion battery models are also available.
For short-term 120-volt electricity, a separate inverter can be attached to your car battery with battery cables. Some have a 750-watt maximum output with several outlets. It will run down the car battery, but running the car engine keeps it charged up for the temporary electric power needed.
The following companies offer portable battery packs: APC, www.apc.com, (800) 800-4272; Black & Decker, (800) 544-6986, www.blackanddecker.com; Clore Automotive, (800) 328-2921, www.jumpstarter.com; Duracell, (800) 300-1857, www.duracellpower.com; and Xantrex, (800) 670-0707, www.xantrex.com.
Q: My house has gable attic vents in the corners. Even though they are covered with screens, snow blows in on the insulation. Should I just staple some film over the vents during winter?
A: You should not cover the vents. Attic ventilation is important during winter so moisture coming up from the house does not condense in the cold attic. Damp insulation loses much of its insulating effectiveness.
Place plastic film over the insulation by the vents to catch the snow. It will melt and evaporate over time. Next spring, consider blocking off the gable vents and installing more effective soffit vents and a ridge vent.
• Write to James Dulley at 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit dulley.com.