Cascading blackouts aren't the end of the world, but they're one of the most real and life-threatening catastrophes short of a hurricane, especially if the weather's at its hottest or coldest. As this week's East Coast wipeout proved, we're no nearer to preventing wide-scale blackouts than we were when Toronto, Boston, and New York went dark one after another in November 1965.
Lucky for us, keeping your own lights on has gotten a lot easier in the past five years. The every-man-for-himself mind-set that swept through America in advance of Y2K spawned a new demand for home electrical power systems that hasn't gone away since. After California's rolling summer brownouts three years ago, in Central Valley tract homes, generators are as common as hot tubs.
With the rise of a home market, portable generators are no longer built and sold as construction-site gear. Now they're brightly painted consumer appliances to park next to the lawn mower in the garage. When the lights go out, you find your way to the generator via flashlight, pull its starter handle to bring its gasoline-powered motor to life, then run an extension cord into the house to hook up lamps and appliances.
Home Depot and Kmart sell several gasoline-powered generator models for under $500, as do most hardware or big department stores these days. That can get you up to 6,000 watts of short-term power, although your neighbors may think you've fired up a chain saw to cut up the furniture for firewood. If you've got a house full of computer gear and other sensitive electronics, it's worth springing the price of a good laptop for an upmarket generator that delivers power that won't fry your Dell.
Honda's EU3000 hits the sweet spot for homeowners. Its 2,500 watts of electrical power will run your lights, a refrigerator, and a computer or two. It costs between $1,700 and $2,000 online, and you'll pay another $100 or so for shipping. But it's quieter than entry-level models: It sounds like a pricey riding mower rather than an idling motorbike. More important, it puts out a nearly pure sine wave of electrical power that's cleaner and more reliable than what many East Coasters get out of the wall socket. Power failures destroy computer gear because they create abrupt spikes in voltage that can fry the microscopic components in a silicon chip. A cheap, poorly regulated home genie can do the same. Think of the extra price as an insurance policy for your PowerBook.
Using a home generator is a crash course in power consumption and conservation. Kept at the ready with three and a half gallons of regular gas in its tank, the Honda will run half a day or more without refueling, as long as you don't try to plug the whole house into it. The EU3000 can handle 3,000-watt peaks, hence its model number, but the company suggests a maximum steady load of 2,500 watts. That's enough to power 25 100-watt light bulbs, but one hair dryer and one electric hot plate will max it out. It's worth reading the labels on household devices to see how hungry they are before plugging them in. Computers vary wildly. My laptop draws 45 watts, but a clunkier desktop PC sucks up 100 for its tower case, plus a couple hundred more for its old monitor. Refrigerators can suck anywhere from 1,200 watts to a peak of 2,500 watts, so it's wise not to open the fridge door too often until the power comes back on.
Having a home gennie takes away the scariness of a blackout, but unlike most home appliances, you really do need to read the safety instructions. Going without power isn't as bad as burning your house down or asphyxiating the family on the engine's exhaust fumes. The Honda's instructions clearly say not to try to refill its gas tank while the motor is running or the genie is hot, but the few times I've seen one in operation proved my suspicions correct: Everyone does it anyway. If you're so addicted to modern conveniences that you'll risk lighting yourself on fire rather than turning off the generator for a few minutes, maybe you should splurge and buy two.