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Power during outages: generators and device chargers

Image of a back-up generator sitting in snow
Operating a generator safely is important not only to you and your family, but to BC Hydro crews as well.

Most of us just need power for our phones or laptops; some need a generator

The power goes out in the middle of the night and while you're grabbing a flashlight, the family next door doesn't miss a beat. Your gearhead neighbour, the same woman who loaned you her cordless hammer drill a week ago, has switched on her gas-powered generator, and the lights are back on.

Do you need a generator, too? Before you spend hundreds on a portable gas-powered generator or thousands on a wifi-enabled backup generator – one popular model at will set you back more than $6,000 – consider:

  • How often the power goes out in your area
  • How long those outages tend to last
  • What you need to power to keep your home and family safe and secure.

For most British Columbians, a portable battery pack capable of charging mobile devices and laptops is all you might need.

Above all, know how to keep your family safe during a power outage, and always stay 10 metres away from a downed power line and call 911. Buy or update your emergency kit before you even think about adding backup power.

We look at various power outage power options below, but first, a few words about outages and safety.

On average, most of us experience fewer than two power outages a year

For most British Columbians, a power outage is a fairly rare occurrence. But in certain areas of the province, and during massive storms that had BC Hydro crews working up to 16 hour days to get the lights back on in recent years, lengthy outages can been a challenge. The good news is that BC Hydro's response times continue to be the best among utilities across North America.

On average, we restore over 95% of customers within 24 hours following a major storm event.

The year 2018 was the worst for storms in B.C., with customers losing power for over 11 million hours combined. And the December 20, 2018, storm that hit the south coast was the worst in BC Hydro history, with over 750,000 customers losing power. Power outages happen in B.C., so be prepared.

Operate generators safely to keep you, your neighbours, and crews safe

Serious accidents or fire can result when a home generator is improperly connected to an existing house wiring system. Generators not isolated can feed back into the BC Hydro electrical grid and electrocute anyone coming into contact with them, including neighbours and BC Hydro or contractor workers.

See our section on generator operation safety, which provides details around the following:

  • Connecting to your house wiring system: Proper installation of a CSA-approved transfer switch is required, and that requires an electrical permit for installation, and the transfer switch and generator must be inspected and approved by the local electrical inspector.
  • Never plug a portable generator into a regular household electrical outlet: This can also cause back-feeding to the BC Hydro electrical grid, which is a serious electrical danger to your neighbours and utility workers.
  • Never use a portable generator, outdoor or charcoal barbecues indoors: This includes inside a garage or other enclosed or partially enclosed area, as carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas emitted from generators and charcoal barbecues. Run them outdoors, and away from any exhaust can enter the home through windows, doors, or AC units.
  • If you start to feel dizzy, nausea, a headache or tired while using a generator: Get to fresh air immediately and seek medical attention.
  • Plugging appliances directly into the generator: Use a properly sized CSA-approved 3-pronged extension cord in good condition.
  • Powering electrical tools outdoors: Use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) portable extension cord if using the portable for power tools.
  • Don't store fuel in the home: Fuels should be stored in properly labelled and vented fuel storage containers in a well-ventilated building or storage shed away from living areas.
  • Shut down the generator and allow it to cool before refuelling.
  • Use a battery operated CO detector at home. This is also advisable for homes that have a natural gas fired forced air heating system.

Here's a look at options for backup power during a power outage, depending on your specific needs:

Option 1: Portable mobile device chargers

Capable of charging multiple smartphones or a laptop or mobile devices, these are small, portable and helpful while travelling or during a power outage at home. Chargers for smartphones usually cost less than $100, while larger packs capable of powering up laptops and other mobile devices will cost you a bit more.

Option 2: Battery-powered stations

Relatively new and still quite costly, these devices don't use gas or propane but offer a very quiet option with no emissions or carbon monoxide concerns, so they can be used safely indoors. Charged in advance by plugging them into an electrical outlet, they're not designed for running devices for extended periods, but can power a few lower-wattage devices in the home. Popular for camping and other recreational needs.

Option 3: Recreational inverters

Lighter than portable generators, these devices are typically limited to powering items like a fridge, some lights, and a phone charger. They can't be connected to a circuit breaker panel, and can only be plugged into devices that have a standard plug.

Option 4: Large inverter or portable generators

A popular choice for those who feel they need some power supply during extended power outages. These generators come in a wide range of wattages and are generally thousands of dollars less than home standby generators. They can be connected to your breaker panel with a transfer switch to run hardwired equipment (permit, inspection and approval required).

Option 5: Home standby generators for whole-home power

More a rural solution in areas prone to power outages or where snowy roads and other issues can make it difficult for BC Hydro crews to access quickly, standby generators are installed permanently and offer some obvious benefits. Running on natural gas or propane, standby units kick on automatically during an outage, and many can be operated remotely via smartphone and power an entire home.

As is the case with all standby and portable generators, proper installation of a CSA-approved transfer switch (and a permit), along with inspection and approval, is required.

Get more information on standby power options

See Consumer Reports' excellent guide to selecting the right type of generator, including a graphic that shows how many typical home devices can be powered by options ranging from recreational inverters to standby generators. And take a look at FortisBC's guide to standby and portable generators.