If you rely on electrical medical devices for your health, any power outage that lasts for more than a few hours can become a life-threatening emergency.
These devices can range from electrical oxygen concentrators to ventilators to home dialysis machines, all of which are necessary for a lot of people – particularly the elderly and chronically ill – to survive.
In addition, even non-electrical medical items may rely on having other electrical appliances around. For example, insulin needs to remain refrigerated, but that can be a major issue in the event of a power outage caused by a summer storm.
Thankfully, generators can provide a source of emergency electricity that people with medical devices can rely on to survive through a power outage. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that generators can be used for powering medical devices and the factors that you need to consider when preparing for an emergency.
Choosing the Right Generator
If you or a loved one will be relying on a generator to provide power through an emergency, it’s incredibly important to choose the right generator. That goes beyond just quality – in a life-threatening emergency, power availability, runtime, and ease of use can all be critically important.
The absolute minimum wattage that your generator needs to have should be calculated based on the cumulative wattages all of the electrical devices you need to run.
If you have an oxygen concentrator, the wattage may vary from 300 to more than 600 watts depending on the flow rate of oxygen that you use. In this case, it’s a good idea to check with your medical provider ahead of time to determine whether you can safely turn down your flow rate during an emergency to conserve fuel.
A 2,000-watt generator is generally sufficient for powering most home ventilator units, but it’s important to consider whether the ventilator is accompanied by a heating unit, suction unit, and other accessory devices that could drive up the power demand.
If you need a refrigerator to keep medicines cold, plan on an additional 500 or more watts. While it’s possible to conserve fuel by running the refrigerator only 15 minutes every hour, if you need continuous oxygen or ventilation your generator will need to be able to handle the wattage requirements of all of these devices simultaneously.
Finally, keep in mind that your wattage calculations should account for non-necessities, like lights, that can be important to safely operating medical devices. Having enough generator power to keep an air conditioning unit or heater on can also make the difference between a controlled situation and a medical emergency.
How long your generator can run continuously for is another important consideration for anyone who is dependent on their medical devices around the clock.
Most gasoline-powered portable generators need to be turned off and cooled down for at least 20 minutes every six to 12 hours in order to refuel them. For anyone on a ventilator or who needs an oxygen concentrator working constantly, that refueling time can present a major challenge. Anyone using a home dialysis machine or a nighttime medical device also needs to ensure that their generator has a long enough runtime to complete the medical device’s run cycle.
Propane or natural gas generator can provide longer runtimes, although achieving this with propane takes some preparation. For propane generators to run continuously, it is necessary to either have an enormous propane tank – infeasible for most people – or two have two propane tanks connected via a stop-valve.
Even in these cases, though, portable generators can succumb to overheating – especially if they are running close to their rated wattages. A standby generator connected to a natural gas line is the safest bet for anyone who needs continuous electricity, such as for a ventilator. The benefit to these generators is that they can easily run for days on end during power outages from major natural disasters.
In situations where someone in your family needs a medical device around the clock, you need to consider a scenario in which the power goes out unexpectedly and no one is home to start a generator. In that case, a standby generator may be the best option.
The reason is that standby generators can be connected to your home’s electrical grid and programmed to automatically turn on when the power goes out. That way, you can have peace of mind that there will always be an emergency power source ready to turn on when the power fails.
Preparing Your Generator for an Emergency
Ensuring that your generator is prepared for an emergency is just as important as having a generator on hand. Once an emergency hits, it will be much harder to find the components you need to run your generator and to get help in case something isn’t working properly.
The most important thing you need to be prepared for an outage is fuel for your generator. You should have more than enough fuel on hand to last for several days at least, and potentially longer if running out of fuel can be life-threatening. In the event of a major disaster, it can be nearly impossible to find gasoline after the power goes out.
It’s important to remember that gasoline does go stale over time. That unfortunately means that you can’t simply keep gasoline around the house forever – it needs to be replaced every two months to remain prepared for unexpected outages. While propane also goes bad, it lasts for several years before this becomes an issue.
Beyond fuel, it’s a good idea to have everything you could need to run your generator available around the house. This includes engine oil and filters, as well as spare parts like a spark plug. If your generator has a battery-powered electric starter and no auxiliary recoil starter, it’s also essential that the battery remain charged. Consider keeping a siphon kit around in case you need to siphon gasoline from your car in the event of a prolonged outage.
Other things that are good to keep with your generator include extension cords and power strips. Make sure ahead of time that your extension cords can reach from your generator outside to the medical devices you need to power.
Run Your Generator
Your generator is only a reliable backup power source in an emergency if you can be sure it will start. And the best way to do that is to simply run it – at least once a month.
Running your generator monthly ensures that you have fresh gasoline on hand, that all of the components are working properly, and that fuel in your engine isn’t sitting around building up clogs.
Keeping life-saving medical devices powered during an extended outage can be a harrowing challenge. Generators can play an important role in providing emergency power, although it requires vigilance and preparation on your part to ensure that your generator will be ready to run when you need it. Keep in mind that while generators are typically reliable if well-maintained, it is important to have additional backup plans in case a power outage lasts longer than expected or in case something happens to your generator.