Battery vs. Generator Backup: Pros and Cons

When I first started making serious plans for getting prepared for a 1-7 day power outage, I thought the only option available was to get a generator.  I was so wrong!

My journey started initially by buying an 800-watt inverter and using it to power some essential lights and devices with my car battery.  Soon though, I realized that using your car battery for power is literally “power survival” and not ideal at all.

Constantly having to run out to the car to power it for 15 minutes at a time to keep the battery topped off is a hassle.  Worrying about someone stealing it when it is running is a drain on your mental energy. When the power goes out again, I want to thrive and have fun!

The best options are either a DIY battery backup system or a generator.

What are the pros and cons of a generator vs. a battery bank?

A generator is best for higher wattage appliances, is fuel inefficient with low-draw applications, is noisy, must be used outside, and consumes a fuel source to run. A battery backup system is best for low draw applications, is silent, used indoors, but requires an external source to recharge.

When you’re ready to up your game and invest in a generator or a basic battery backup system, don’t think that you have to only pick one!  Ultimately, I advocate for purchasing both. However, the order that you purchase them in is something we will discuss, along with some advantages and disadvantages of both options. Together though, I believe they make a fantastic all-purpose solution to most household needs in a short to medium term blackout.


Deciding which one to purchase first

Let’s be clear from the beginning – I’m not preparing for the apocalypse or an influx of zombies.  I’m trying to prepare for one to seven days of not having power and I’m also trying to do it in a way that is as inconvenient on my family as possible.  I hope that we can all coast through it and tell stories about it later when the kids get older.

When it comes to deciding which backup power source you want to purchase first, there are so many variables to consider.  Undoubtedly I will leave some out since everyone is different.  These are the factors that lead me through my decision-making process and I hope that they’ll help you as you take your first steps in preparing for your family for a power outage!

Which is more secure, a generator or a battery backup?

My first thought when it came to buying a portable generator for supplying my house with power was the security factor.  Generators must be run outside, and if you’re not monitoring them at all times or if you allow it to run while you’re sleeping, they can be stolen.

I grew up in a very rural area with a 200-yard driveway and where our nearest neighbor was 300 yards away.  We had a portable generator for backup power and we were never worried about theft.  We could see any car coming and the noise wasn’t going to attract unwanted attention because the trees drowned it out.

Now I live in a rural subdivision and my nearest neighbor is 20 yards away.  I’m off one of the main roads in my subdivision so traffic is pretty consistent.  If I were to run a generator, I would run it in my backyard, but the noise will definitely get everyone’s attention within a quarter mile.

While I trust my immediate neighbors, I don’t know everyone who may see my lights on when the power is out and think how great it would be if my generator were giving their house the same love.

Not only do I have to worry about someone hearing the noise of the generator, but now I have to take steps to chain it down or secure it in some other fashion.  Even then, all it takes is someone with a battery powered angle grinder that they can conceal under their shirt and your generator is ripe for the picking!

Attach a metal base plate to the bottom of the generator that sticks out and park your car tire on the plate?  They’ll just put a block under your vehicle and bleed the air out of the tire.

Battery backup systems remain in the home and are not subject to theft unless someone wants to break into your home.  Even then, the batteries can weigh 50-60 lbs a piece.   It would be an awkward thing to break into a house, disconnect everything, steal it, install it and reconnect everything for personal use.

Personally, I’d be more worried about things other than my battery backup system if someone illegally entered my home.

What is the cost of a generator vs. battery backup?

My second thought was the cost of buying either of the two options.  Since I wasn’t planning on going Doomsday Preppers with the size and scale of my battery backup system, I knew that the cost would be affordable but still give a punch to my budget.

I also wasn’t planning on buying a 10-kilowatt portable generator either which would run me at least $1,000.

When it came down to it and I did the math, a battery backup system would likely cost between $350 and $450.  A generator to fit my needs would likely cost me $600-$1,000.   We’ll get to the needs that a generator would take care of for me later in the article.

What do I need to keep my generator or battery bank running?

When the power outage is here, both the battery backup system and the generator are going to need some level of support to keep going.  The battery backup system shouldn’t be drained below 50% depth of discharge to keep the batteries healthy.  It is going to need a means of recharging.  The portable generator is going to need to be refueled.

With the battery backup system, I am going to need a DC/AC power inverter to supply electricity to my household items.   That same power inverter can be used to power my battery backup system by hooking it up to my car battery and plugging my battery charger into the inverter.

A typical gasoline portable generator is going to require fuel.  It is best to get ethanol free gasoline which you will have to search for.  This website and map (https://www.pure-gas.org/extensions/map.html) were a great help! This gasoline is best for the generator since it will not invite moisture into your gas tank and internal components as your generator sits idle in between power outages.

Ethanol free gas treated with SeaFoam.

Is a generator or a battery backup louder?

Let’s face it, the sound of a running generator is loud an annoying.  Inverter generators are easy on the ears at around 50-55dB, but mosy typical small to mid-size conventional generators run 65-80dB!

If it’s powering your home during a power outage, it is more than bearable since the lights are on and appliances are working.  However, your neighbors in the dark who are playing cards by candlelight might not find that noise as tolerable.

You can get quieter generators but they come with a pricier purchase tag and I’m trying to focus everything on the first time buyer.

Battery backup systems (I have two golf cart batteries) are silent.  They sit in the house, quiet as a mouse before and during a power outage.  They are always just waiting to have an inverter hooked up to them and they’ll provide a small amount of needed power for days before needing a recharge!

Tip for soothing your neighbor’s ruffled feathers:

If the power is out and you notice that your neighbor does not have a generator, extending some of your power to them could really help with their annoyance at the noise and to build a stronger relationship with them.   Since refrigerators and freezers should be run every 6 hours or so, it might be frowned upon if you run them from 11 pm until midnight, and then start up again at 6 am.

But if you power their fridge and freezer at the same time for them and let them charge their devices, they are not likely to be mad at you for ruining their sleep.

Which one fits your current lifestyle better, a generator or a battery backup?

Finally, when it comes down to it, you have to honestly assess your current lifestyle to make a final determination.

By nature (and especially since I started a family and experienced my first power outage with a baby), I’ve always had the mindset to try to be prepared for anything and everything.  I don’t take it to the extreme, but I do honestly assess real-world possibilities and make accommodations for them.

I have roughly a 90 day supply of food at my house for all members of my family, including formula for the baby.  I don’t do this because I’m afraid of the grid going down necessarily; I do it in case we have a personal emergency – like losing a job.

In fact, as I write this, that’s exactly what happened to me and having that 90-day buffer allows us to still go grocery shopping but we keep costs at a bare minimum and we have comfort in doing that.

I store 100 gallons of water in the basement.  I have two portable propane heaters and two propane camp stoves.  I bought a single canister of propane every grocery shopping trip for a year and I now have over 30 canisters stored in some bins to take care of my emergency heat and cooking.

I have dozens of rechargeable batteries and a charger to keep our flashlights and other items powered in good time or bad.

Our house (stove, water heater, clothes dryer) was converted to natural gas since it will almost always work despite a power outage.

These preparations have met most of my needs.  I now needed to look at my family’s wants.

We want lighting, a way to heat up a bottle for the baby, and a way to power our phones and devices.  If we have that, we are happy. The only thing we would want and need in the event of a longer power outage would be running water since we have our own well pump and air conditioning (which feels like a need at times).

Knowing that we could heat our stored water with our natural gas stove or propane camp stove, we knew that we could take “sponge baths” if necessary and pretend we’re camping in style.

Acquiring more water and pumping it throughout the home would be the ultimate problem with a longer power outage.

After assessing everything, a DIY battery backup system came first for me as it would get me through 98% of what I needed.  The generator was my second purchase as it allowed for running water, air conditioning, and the recharging of my battery backup system.


So, should I buy a generator or make a battery backup first?

In the end, I went with a battery backup system first.  It allows me to keep quiet, heat a bottle, use sunlight by day, and use the battery powered LED lights throughout the home at night.  It also allows us to power all of our devices without a problem.   That keeps the kids, mom, and dad happy!

Shortly thereafter though, I acquired a generator that can adequately run our water well pump, some air conditioning, and can easily recharge our battery backup system periodically throughout the day.  Generator by day, battery backup by night!

All of these little things and more that I’ve done over years to prepare for any disaster in life (including a power outage), have made it so I’ve given myself a lot of redundancies and freedom from the grid.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the grid power, but if it were to go out for a week or two I wouldn’t be scrambling.  In fact, I think it would be… dare I say, kind of fun!

That feeling of assurance and accomplishment is hard to put into words when you make some serious steps at looking after your family like that.  I highly encourage you to start taking some basic steps today to prepare for the next storm in your life!

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Robert Van Nuck

Robert lives in central Michigan and enjoys running, woodworking, and fixing up small engines.

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