When I started making preparations for my house to maintain some semblance of normalcy when the power went out, I progressed through the normal channels as expected. I got my flashlight and battery situation in order, bought a DC/AC power inverter, built my own battery bank, and ultimately purchased a portable generator.
I was a newbie to all of this, and not everything was spelled out and made clear as I checked all of these boxes.
If you are well versed in electricity or even have a moderate amount of prepping experience, most of these things will probably be common sense. For those of you who are just getting your feet wet like I was 4 years ago, allow me to let you in on 12 things that you are never told when you first start prepping for power outages. I’ll break them up by category for ease of reading.
1. Order of operations matter!
Directly above a battery is the most dangerous place to be. Any explosive gases that are venting from the battery are going to be at their strongest concentrations within a few inches of the battery itself.
Because of this, we want to avoid any and all sparks above the battery. Just thinking of hooking up jumper cables conjures images in our minds of flying sparks. Let’s not be that guy!
There’s one way to make sure you won’t have those sparks each and every time that you hook-up and unhook your battery from its charger:
Hook-up before you plug-in, and unplug before you unhook!
Doing this will keep any sparks from flying off of your terminals. Regardless, never work above a battery without wearing proper eye protection!
2. Automatic desulfation modes on chargers are not always clearly advertised!
Finding a charger that I liked was the biggest pain in the rear end when I first started. I spent a lot of time in the return line at the local Walmart with chargers that didn’t meet my expectations due to the inadequate content of their user manuals that I wrongfully assumed would describe the charging process of the charger they came with.
The biggest annoyance with a charger that I found was it having an “automatic desulfation mode”. In this mode, a charger will arbitrarily (usually when first hooked up to the battery, and later during the charge on a preprogrammed schedule unbeknownst to you) issue a “controlled overcharge” to the battery to equalize its charge and clear the crystalized sulfates off of the lead plates in the battery.
The problem is that if you charge your batteries inside the house, an overcharge (controlled or otherwise) will cause the battery to emit not only hydrogen in higher amounts (which is normal during a regular charge), but hydrogen sulfide as well. That is the gas that smells like rotten eggs. It sinks to the lowest point and is harmful to breathe in. In high enough concentrations it is lethal.
The lesson to take away: if you’re planning on charging indoors, don’t get a charger that automatically “desulfates/equalizes” unless you are willing to accept the risks.
3. Bubbling batteries can be normal, but it can be a problem!
Probably the scariest thing that happened to me went hand in hand with getting the wrong type of charger. I hooked everything up and after a minute or two, my batteries started making a “bubbling” noise.
Because the charger that I initially bought conducted a desulfation process when first hooking it up, the battery was given an overcharge and the voltage got well over 16 volts. The bubbling got more and more vigorous the higher the voltage climbed.
Was I destroying my battery? Was it literally cooking itself from within? I had no idea what was normal and what wasn’t and I was in panic mode.
A bubbling sound in FLOODED LEAD ACID BATTERIES is a normal part of the charging process (in a GEL and AGM batteries this is bad and doing irreversible damage). Whether you can hear it or not, batteries will actually start to slightly bubble around 13.6 volts since that is when they actually start to charge. It gets noticeable to the normal ear around 14 volts from my experience.
It may be normal but there is a limit to that. A normal charge for a flooded lead acid battery will be somewhere between 14.5 and 15 volts during the bulk of the charge. Now, 16 volts and above is far too high and is certainly overcharging. If it is a controlled overcharge being conducted by your charger, you’ll have to carefully monitor what it is doing and know the risks involved. I highly recommend that any overcharging processes be done in the garage.
If you’re unsure or worried that your battery might be overcharging or something else concerns you, unplug and then unhook the charger and consult someone with experience. Do not put you or your family in potential danger over this stuff.
4. This battery weighs a lot! How do you plan on carrying it?
It might be self-explanatory, but large batteries for battery bank purposes weight 50-60 lbs on average. You’ll get excited when you first buy yours and if you’re lucky like me, you’ll have a guy from the store volunteer to load them in your vehicle.
You’ll notice that he carries them with some sort of strap or gripping device and that as he walks away from your vehicle he is, unfortunately, taking that device with him. You will now have the unique problem of carrying these very heavy units to their final location by hand and trying not to smash your fingers when setting them down.
Do yourself a favor. See if there is a product at the store that you can purchase that will make carrying batteries easier on your knees, hands, and back. If not, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead by picking one up online. My favorite is the Lisle 57850 battery carrier. Check out what other people are saying about this cool carrying device here on Amazon.
I like the Lisle 57850 because of its solid handle. Unlike a strap, it won’t pinch your hand and fingers together under the weight of the battery.
5. The way you hook your batteries up does affect whether you get more Amp Hours or not.
When I first set up my two GC2 6-volt Golf Cart batteries in series, I knew that I had effectively made a 12-volt battery. I also thought that I had doubled my Amp Hours as well and was pretty excited about that. I laugh now at my complete lack of knowledge, but it was a great way to learn more about the subtleties of batteries.
When you hook up two or more batteries in series, you will only increase the overall voltage of the battery bank. The amp hours will remain the same.
When you hook up two or more batteries in parallel, you will only increase the Amp Hours of the battery bank. The voltage will remain the same.
6. Digital voltmeter readings are not accurate when the battery is in use!
I leave my voltmeter connected to my battery bank at all times. When you draw power from the battery the voltmeter reading will go down a lot farther than you’re comfortable with at first glance.
I had a mini panic attack when I first saw this.
Just know that when this is happening that the voltmeter is no longer giving you an accurate reading regarding the true capacity of your battery. This is normal while the battery is under draw. To get an accurate representation again you would need to measure the batteries when they’ve been at rest for 10-30 minutes.
DC/AC Power Inverters
7. Your power inverter likely has an inefficiency factor so you can’t max it out at its advertised number for long!
This one is pretty short but worth noting. Just because your inverter is called an 800-watt inverter does not mean that it is going to run your devices up to 800 watts for an extended period of time.
DC/AC inverters are going to have a built-in inefficiency rating and it usually ranges from 10-20%. Due to this, your inverter may certainly run something for 800 watts for a few minutes, but it will not be able to sustain that draw for longer than that or it will damage the inverter.
Make sure you consult the manual or specs of the inverter you are interested in before you purchase. It is common for companies to advertise an inverter as 400 watts when it is designed to only run at 320 watts for long-term use.
I’ve seen some companies accurately label them though, so you’ll have to check with each and every model you intend to buy and just know what you’re going to be working with.
8. The power input you supply to your inverter will determine the power output of your inverter!
I learned this one early on in my preps. Just because you have a DC/AC power inverter that has 800 watts does not mean that you have 800 watts to work with if the input to the inverter is less. This is very apparent when we deal with cigarette lighter ports in vehicles.
From that port, you are only going to draw 150-175 watts max (on average) or you will blow a fuse. It doesn’t matter if you have an 800-watt inverter that you plug into it, it is only getting 150 watts supplied to give out — and then you have to factor the 10-20% inefficiency as well!
If you need more than the 150 watts and want to actually reach 800 watts, you’ll need to hook your inverter up directly to the car battery with clamps.
9. Modified vs. Pure Sine Wave Power Inverters — yeah, it’s a thing and it can be costly if you don’t know the difference!
I found out about this long after I had purchased my first inverter. Essentially, if we were to plot what the electrical current looks like as it comes from your inverter to your device on a graph, we would see two very different results with one commonality.
Pure Sine Wave Inverters will plot a line that looks like a fluid wave that gradually rises up above the x-axis, crescendos, and then gracefully slopes back down below the axis to do the same thing at its bottom point. This is the same power wave that comes out of your wall outlet and is what your devices are used to using.
Modified Sine Wave Inverters will plot a line that looks like a set of stairs that gradually step up over the x-axis of the graph, and then step back down below the x-axis.
Their commonality is that they both will supply the correct amounts at their high and low points, but the integrity of how it is delivered varies greatly.
What does this mean for us average power outage preppers? Some devices do not like being run with a modified sine wave and can actually be damaged by long-term use. Motors, like in a fridge, have to work harder to function using a modified sine wave and can burn out prematurely. You’ll want to check your high priced items before you use a modified sine wave inverter.
Why not just buy a pure sine wave inverter? You certainly can, but they become cost prohibitive if you are on a budget. They usually cost 4 or more times what a modified sine wave inverter would cost for the same output.
10. Type of gas doesn’t really matter for operations as much, but it means a heck of a lot if you want your generator to start back up on the first pull the next time you need to use it!
The type of gas that you use can make a world of difference in your generator’s performance and health in the long-run. It’s kind of like us. Refined sugar gives us the energy that we need to work in the present, but if we don’t want to have obesity and diabetic issues in 10 years, we need to really watch what we’re doing.
For a normal gasoline-fed generator, it can certainly run with regular unleaded without a problem.
The problem happens with storage. If you use regular unleaded, the gas will contain ethanol at about 10%. Over time, ethanol will bond with moisture in the air and effectively bring water into your fuel. This causes lots of issues with residue and rust in your carburetor, fuel lines, and gas tank.
It is best to use ethanol free (RV gas) gasoline with a fuel stabilizer such as Stabil or SeaFoam. It will cost a little more per gallon but the long-term benefits are totally worth it.
How do you find ethanol free gasoline? It can be a true hunt to find a gas station that supplies it. Check out this website for a location near you: https://www.pure-gas.org/extensions/map.html
11. How you shut down your generator will likely determine how hard it will be to turn on the next time you need it!
There is a proper shutdown method for your generator if you want to avoid carburetor problems down the road. Instead of simply “killing” the engine and storing the generator, turn off the fuel lever so that gasoline is restricted from entering the carburetor. The gas that is currently in there will mix with the air and burn in the engine until there is nothing left and the engine stalls.
When you need to start it again, turn the valve back on and you’ll be back in business and your carburetor will be clean of any old gas and gunk.
12. Carbon monoxide detectors don’t always come with a battery backup option!
Contrary to popular belief in the carbon monoxide detector manufacturing industry, human beings can still die of carbon monoxide poisoning if the power goes out.
If you haven’t already checked the carbon monoxide detectors in your house to see if they have a battery backup inside of them, I recommend doing so before the next power loss. It seems a lot of companies think this gas loses its lethal properties when your drunk neighbor Fred crashes his car into the power pole down the road.
When I bought some new ones to replace my older ones and found out that the previous owner had different models installed. Only one had a battery backup. Without power, the other ones would have been useless.
Though I don’t recommend it, many people have open-flame in their homes during a power outage for lighting, and to cook you need open flame by necessity (unless you fire up a generator to run your electric stove).
Any open flame in the home has the ability to produce carbon monoxide which is an odorless gas that will lull you into sleep and you won’t wake up.
I recommend picking up at least a couple that you can keep in the areas that you will be using open-flame to ensure the safety of yourself and your family.
A great model available on Amazon is this First Alert CO605. The battery is included as well! Keep in mind that both times I’ve bought these it was cheaper to buy single units rather than getting the 3-pack.
I hope that if you’re new to battery backup systems, generators and inverters that you learned something that you can take away from this. We all start at different levels of knowledge and I’m just trying my best to share what I’ve learned. Stay safe out there and start taking some baby steps to make sure the next thunderstorm that comes your way doesn’t get your anxiety up because you know you’re now prepared.