Assessing Home Power Protection Options: Generators vs. Uninterruptible Power Supplies

uninterruptible power supplies at home

As we enter the summer season (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), the likelihood of weather events such as thunderstorms or even hurricanes increases significantly, along with the chance of power failures that often accompany such events. It’s a good time, then, to assess options for providing backup power in your home in the event of a failure, including battery backup systems, also known as uninterruptible power supplies, or UPSs.

Homeowners often express confusion over what exactly the various backup options are, and which make the most sense for their situation. In this post, I hope to help clear up that confusion.

First, a bit of background on when you may need power protection. The most obvious instance is in the case of a loss of power to the home, which can happen during those thunderstorms, as a result of utility work, or even as a precautionary measure. California residents, for example, have been warned that power may be cut during times of high winds and dry weather to prevent the recurrence of wildfires that have been blamed on sparks from utility equipment. Outages also seem to be getting more frequent and widespread, as the recent outage affecting multiple South American countries demonstrated.

But even power surges can damage sensitive electronic equipment such as televisions and computers. Surges can result from thunderstorms or even the normal functioning of appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators as they cycle on and off. Using a surge protector will protect your equipment against such risks, as covered in this previous surge protection post.

confident couple with uninterruptible power supplies

Backup power option 1: Generators

In the case of an outage, however, you need some kind of backup power source. The options here come down to a generator or UPS.

Generators can provide a continuous source of power to meet some or all of your power needs, depending on their size. Home generators generally run on either gasoline, natural gas or propane; as long as they have fuel, they’ll do the job.

But there are some downsides to generators. First, they’re quite loud. If you live in a densely populated area, chances are the neighbors won’t be too happy about listening to your generator on top of being without power. You probably won’t like it much, either.

Second, they take time to kick in. How much time again depends on the model. Whole-house generators are tied to the electrical box and will kick in automatically when they sense the power is out. But the process still takes a few seconds, so any computers, TVs or other devices will experience a hard shut-down – which can cause data loss and potential damage to the device. Portable generators have to be started by hand, which obviously takes even longer.

Finally, generators are pricey. Portable models capable of powering even a subset of your home’s needs can easily cost $1,000 or more. Whole house models start around $4,000, not including installation, which can be another $1,000-$2,000 depending on the electrical, gas and construction work involved.

Backup power option 2: Uninterruptible power supplies

UPSs, on the other hand, supply power from an integrated battery that is continuously charged when power is available. Should the power go out, the UPS kicks in instantly – fast enough that computers won’t go down, so you won’t lose any data or damage sensitive equipment. That essentially makes UPSs a must for a home office, even if you also have a generator. What’s more, UPSs generally include surge protection, which you’ll want for office computers and the like.

But you’re likely to find lots of other uses for a UPS around your home. A big one is medical devices that must be “always on,” such as CPAP machines and monitoring devices. These machines generally don’t draw a lot of power, so a UPS could potentially provide hours of runtime during an outage. (The exact amount of runtime you get from a UPS depends on its size and how much power the device draws, in watts.)

The same goes for Internet routers and, to a lesser extent, televisions. A router could likewise run for hours on a UPS, enabling you to stay connected and productive during an outage. A television may get an hour or two – which may be quite valuable if you’ve got young kids.

Sump pumps are another consideration, especially given outages do tend to happen during thunderstorms. If it’s raining hard, you don’t want to be without the pump that keeps your basement from filling up with water.

Homeowners have also been known to protect their pellet stoves with a UPS, which makes total sense during winter months. Aquariums are another application, to protect pets. Many homeowners use a UPS to protect their network-attached storage (NAS) devices. That likewise makes sense, given NASs contain lots of data that could be damaged from a hard shut-down.

Uninterruptible power supplies costs: A fraction of generators

In terms of cost, UPSs are far less expensive than generators. They start as low as $60 or so and run to roughly $400-$600 for business-category models, which some homeowners use.

To determine which UPS is right for you, check out our UPS Buying Guide and UPS Selector tool. But don’t delay – another outage may be just around the corner.

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