Planning for #Sandy (Or, "What to do when you can't find a generator")
Monday, October 29, 2012 at 6:35PM
jf in Backup Power, Creativity, Gadgets, Generator, Hurricane Sandy, Power, Power Inverter, Power Management, Tech

Almost exactly a year ago, we were without power (And heat. And fresh water.) for almost five days.

My wife and I vowed that we would never go through that again if we could help it, so we planned to buy a generator and transfer switch for this year's storm season so that we could power our home's basic necessities (heat, hot water, sump pump, fridges).

Long story short, we didn't. The money we budgeted for a generator went toward replacing our broken hot water heater, but we vowed to get a generator as soon as it made sense for our budget.

Then we started tracking Hurricane Sandy.

Thursday night, my wife said, "We should get a generator tomorrow." 

Powering our sump pump is critical for us, especially after installing a new hot water and heater and, six months earlier, replacing a broken washing machine - both of which are located in our relatively wet basement.

At 7 AM on Friday I began calling around, looking for generators. Most retailers laughed at my request while others were sympathetic to my search - but they still couldn't help me as there weren't generators in stock, anywhere.

So I started to do some research to find a creative solution. Here's what I came up with.

I learned about modern Power Inverters. These are devices that turn DC power to AC - but only in limited amounts - and can be connected to 12 volt batteries (like marine batteries) and used to power things like sump pumps. If powerful enough, you can even run a refrigerator with it.

More importantly, you can connect it to your car's electrical system and use your vehicle as a generator! (Sort of.)

This is fine for us. We have a wood stove that we can use for heat, so as long as the sump pump works, it'll protect our basement and we'll still be warm.

After a few hours of research on the web, I found a retailer on Dyckman Street in Harlem, NYC that carried the most powerful inverter that we could use - a 2500 wH unit. I paid handsomely for it. Of course, they didn't tell me it was refurbished, nor that it was a model from two years ago, but whatevs. I needed it.

I found an auto electronics installer on the interwebs. He usually "comes to you" but since it was Sunday, he asked me to go to his home. Okaaay.

After a UX and product planning session with one of our advisors, I arrived at "Rich's" house with my costly inverter and my wife's Subaru Tribeca. (I was warned not to try to install this thing in my Mini Cooper as the alternator probably couldn't handle it. Since I don't know any better, I took the advice.)

90 minutes later, the thing was installed in my wife's car and powering my MacBook Air.

This morning (Monday) I put my plan into action:

I parked the Subaru in our backyard and ran a heavy gauge extension cord from the inverter through a ground floor window, connecting it to a power strip in the process.

Next, I connected another heavy gauge extension cord to the sump pump, ran it up into the kitchen and plugged it into an outlet near the above mentioned power strip.


If the power goes out (as it usually does in our neighborhood) I'll go outside and start the Subaru, turn on the inverter, then plug the extension cord for the sump pump into the power strip.

Hopefully, all will work fine.

Long term, I'll probably wire this inverter to a marine battery with a trickle charger and plug the sump pump into it, so that we have automatic power backup for the pump. 

But as soon as I have time to perform the proper research, I'm getting a generator and a transfer switch - budget be damned.

Update on Monday, November 5, 2012 at 6:21PM by Registered Commenterjf

The power has been out since last Monday evening, just before my original post.

I've been powering two refrigerators on the power inverter while charging cell phones, iPads, laptops. If I unplug one of the fridges, I can even use my espresso machine! ;) (Pictures to follow.)

I've only encounterd a few issues where the number of devices started to drain the battery faster than the car could recharge it. This becomes evident as the power fades in and out in its intensity, causing refrigerator motors to become variable and iPhones to connect and reconnect to AC power.

In these instances, I would immediately unplug non-essential devices until the power becomes more consistent, then slowly plug-in devices to ensure that I didn't overload the system again.

We're still without power - I'm writing this on my MacBook Air using battery power over my iPad's LTE connection - and it may not be restored until Friday, October 9th. 

So far, I've only burned through three tanks of gas and luckily, it's become easier to get gas (on "odd" days) on the NJ Turnpike.

I've been working upstairs in my home office, since I can't get a good wireless signal downstairs, but today, I made a HUGE discovery: I can put my iPad upstairs and still get a wifi connection in the living room, where the wood stove is located. (It's freakin' cold upstairs.)

This is a big deal. 

Tomorrow, I'll be able to get some real work done and not freeze my ass off in the process. 

Love that.

Article originally appeared on gadgetboy dot org - The Weblog of John Federico (
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