What’s Your Backup? How to Choose a Backup Power System 1

Don't let storms leave you powerless

Don’t let storms leave you powerless

We had wild storms in Saskatchewan this week.  Many areas were without power for several days.  But our power was not out – our power is solar power and doesn’t depend on the utility.  In fact, we are not connected to the electrical utility at all.

This is a great solution in a power outage – but it’s not for everyone.  So what do you do if the power goes out? 

A backup power system can provide power for some essentials when your utility power goes out.  How big that system is, and what it can do for you, depends on what is important to you and on your budget.

Types of Backup Power Systems

You can keep your power going either by having power stored up in a battery system or by producing your own power with a generator or a solar or wind power system.  You can also do a combination – a battery system that can be recharged with a generator or renewable energy system if the regular power stays out for a longer period of time.

1.  Very short term backup (up to 3 hours)

Small UPS system

Small UPS system

If you just want to backup computers and electronics to protect them during short power outages, there are many sizes and types of  UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) systems.  They are designed primarily to backup and properly shut down computers and communications equipment.  They typically would provide 15 – 120 minutes of backup time so that you can save your files and do a proper shut down for your computer.  Many UPS systems will automatically save files and shut down your computer in the event of a power failure.  They can vary greatly in cost from around $30 for a very basic system to over $500 for office backup that requires a sine wave output and longer backup times.

You can also buy a combination car battery booster unit and backup power system as a single portable unit.  They will generally cost $160 – $500 and will let you plug in some basics such as lights and radio.  Some also include a small compressor.  These are small systems with a small battery and a small inverter that can’t operate anything with a heating element or compressor – so don’t try to run a fridge, a toaster or an electric heater.  It is meant for small loads and will probably run them for a few hours.

2.  Longer backup periods (5 – 10 hours)

Medium sized battery backup that can be used with renewable energy sources

Xantrex Power Hub – a medium sized battery backup that can be used with renewable energy sources

If you want to backup larger loads such as a fridge or be able to use a microwave, you will need something more specialized.

Fridges and microwaves use a lot more power so you will need a medium sized backup system with larger batteries and a bigger inverter (this is what converts the battery power to household power) that can run those appliances.  An example of a system like this is the Xantrex Power Hub which as an 1800 Watt inverter that can run those bigger appliances.  It also has a convenient battery box that houses up to 4 batteries so can run basic appliances for several hours.  You can also connect generating sources, such as solar or a generator, to this system.

3.  Extending Backup periods by Generating Power

If you have frequent power outages that can last many hours, then a larger backup system might be a better answer for you.  Especially in the winter, it would be good to know that you can keep essential services and some basic heating systems running.

This will need a larger battery bank and some kind of generating system – either renewable energy or a generator, or you can choose to use just a standby generator.

Solar panels can recharge your batteries during a power outage

Solar panels can recharge your batteries during a power outage

If you install a large backup system with a battery bank and a 2500 – 4000 Watt inverter, with a small solar power system or a generator, you can provide your own power for many days.  A system like this is also often used for remote cabins where no power is otherwise available.  Their is a definite advantage to using a battery bank with a generator, instead of just the generator.  The generator will charge up the battery bank and then you can shut it off for several hours, using the quiet power from your battery based system and saving fuel.

If you are considering a system like this, it is best to have an essential services panel – do not back up your entire house! – and a way to know when power is out.  Why?  Here’s a true story.  Someone insisted on backing up the entire house – unfortunately, when the power went out they had no way of knowing because the backup promptly cut in.  Blissfully unaware, they had a lot of loads on – lights, entertainment centre, cooking.  One of the homeowners was in a wheelchair and relied on an electric lift to get up the stairs.  With all the things they were running the battery backup did not last very long and, ironically, the owner was halfway up the stairs in the lift when all went dark and the chair lift came to a sudden stop.

Standby Generator

A standby generator starts automatically when the power fails

Another simple way to have backup for most of your house is to use a standby generator that will automatically start when the power goes out.  Standby generators are available in many sizes – usually an 8 or 10 kW system would be enough.  The generator comes in a weather resistant and noise reducing enclosure and usually uses natural gas or propane fuel.  This means you don’t have to refuel with gasoline. Standby generators are convenient but also expensive, typically starting at about $4000.

4.  Choosing a Backup Power System

What’s a good system for you?  It really depends on how often and how long your power goes out and how many things you still want to use during those outages – and on your budget.  For most people a small or medium sized battery backup is an inexpensive and quite adequate solution.

For a variety of backup options, from small UPS to large solar backups and standby generators, visit Suncatcher Solar.

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