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Don't get caught in the dark

While it may be tempting to power the whole house while your neighbours are bumbling around in the dark, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., or CMHC, suggests you think again.

"Pare your backup power requirements down to the minimum. Figure out what you can't live without, then figure out how to supply power to it," says senior policy researcher Don Fugler. "The smaller the generator, the lower the cost, maintenance expense and requirement for storage. It makes sense to optimize what you really need, especially if you never use it," says Fugler.

Sizing your system
Start by calculating the critical loads for the equipment you really need such as your fridge, well pump or furnace. You may decide that this is a good time install to alternatives such as a wood stove that won't require electricity during a blackout and can do a bang-up job of heating a few rooms, cooking a meal and roasting a marshmallow or two during a dark spell.

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Then, total up the wattage of the lights and appliances you want to power (check the identification plate or the owner's manual), and double that number to account for the start-up or surge requirements.

For example, if you're looking to power a relatively efficient fridge (500 watts), a furnace (800 watts), plus some compact fluorescent light bulbs (18 watts each), you could get away with a 3.5 kW (1 kW equals 1,000 watts) backup power system.

Batteries versus generators
Put simply, a battery/inverter system uses energy stored in batteries to provide electrical energy to your home during a blackout. Batteries can be charged by the grid, a renewable energy source such as the sun or wind, a generator or your vehicle. A battery backup system can be located anywhere and doesn't require fuel or much maintenance. It's good for smaller essential power requirements, such as appliances and lights, but is generally not capable of handling heating loads.

A generator is essentially a combustion engine that uses a fuel, such as gasoline, natural gas, propane, diesel or biodiesel to produce electricity. (That's why a generator must be run outdoors -- to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.)

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-- Posted: August 13, 2008
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