December 21, 2006

Tech > Inexpensive Alternatives to Emergency Generators

Phil at Random Nuclear Strikes offers his lessons learned from two winter days without power. It's a great read all the way through, but I found one part especially interesting:

But the absolute star of the show was this item I call “The Jump Box”.


It is made by Husky and weighs around 15lbs. It has 3ft jumper cables and and an air compressor hose on the back. On the front, it has the air compressor controls, a light and, magically, a three-prong 110v plug with onboard inverter. This thing has, in the past, jump-started both Grimm and my 1998 F150 with nary a gripe. You just need to plug an extension cord into the back of it to charge up its super deep-cell battery. Takes about six to eight hours for a full charge.

I plugged a surge protector into the socket and charged my cell phone, ran two lamps, a portable CD Player, and a small space heater for 20 hours on a 4/5 charge (I had forgotten to fully charge it before the storm) and it still had over half a charge on it when the power came back on.

The user reviews here and here are mostly glowing, except for the person who noted that the air compressor part was wimpy in his experience.

That same user also mentioned that he used the device to power his CPAP. I use a CPAP to treat my sleep apnea and I've been meaning to get an interruptible power supply for it. As long as these sort of things are OK for extended indoor use, I could use something like this for both UPS duty and emergency power use. Guess I'll have to call the company.

Husky isn't the only game in town for this sort of thing. Lots more jump starters here. Xantrex has this backup power source with DC, AC that goes to 600 watts, car battery cables, and radio and alarm clock.

Or you could go with a bigger portable power system, like the 1500 watt Xantrex. At $250 it's still much cheaper than a generator, and with no dangers related to carbon monoxide poisoning or handling gasoline, and unlike a generator it's silent and won't attract attention. They're also handy for apartment and condo dwellers who can't keep gasoline around. Unlike a generator, though, portable power sources are limited to whatever charge it has when the lights go out, rather than to your gasoline supply. (UPDATE: Though come to think of it you can re-charge it off of your car's cigarette lighter.) That's probably OK by me. I don't anticipate more than a couple of days without power where I am even with the worst winter storm, so this is probably a good tradeoff.

All of those systems are basically a car battery and inverter. An inverter by itself is smaller and costs less for the same wattage. Most inverters plug into the car's cigarette lighter and convert the DC to AC. Used that way, they're limited to 300 watts or so, but that may be all you need to charge a cell phone or laptop. I have this 400 watt model, which is only $24. A 700 watt model is $52. To use wattages above 300 you connect the inverter directly to the car battery's terminals. Xantrex includes the necessary cables. The tradeoff is that inverters produce power in your car, rather than in your house, but that may be sufficient. As a bonus, you may find them useful for road trips.

Phil used the 400 watt Husky jumper to power an extremely tiny electric heater. I checked and the little space heater under my desk at work draws 1500 watts. In general, anything that produces heat - space heaters, microwave ovens, coffeemakers - will have a high wattage requirement. When in doubt, check the wattage rating printed on the electrical appliance. Note that many appliances draw more watts when they first start. Buying more inverter than you need never hurts, except in the wallet.

For heat, you'll probably be happier with a wood fireplace or stove, or chemically-powered heater (kerosene, propane, etc.). For heat I've got a Mr. Heater that runs on either the one pound propane cylinders used for camping or 20 pound cylinders like the ones for BBQ grills.

See also
- Previous entry on inverters

Posted by lesjones | TrackBack


I have sold and own a few of the Jump Starts. For the most part, they are great for a year or so, but the battery just is worthless after so long. Will not hold a charge any longer. Sticking with a name brand is advised.

$250 will buy you a generator, and that's a better way to go. You can have it wired into your house and maybe in your basement or somewhere less noticable (beware exhaust). It is not a bad choice. Won't run your blowdryer, but if that's an issue, you are thinking all wrong to begin with.

There are a few websites out there that will tell you how to use your car as a generator. If the tank is full and you can access it, this is likely a very good choice. Or at least, this is likely something good to know if you ever find yourself in need.

My Jump Start also has a cigarette lighter output. (Don't get me started on this! No one uses cigarette lighters anymore, but we still have this big hole in our dashes in that shape for no good reason! Long after the last car is made with a working cigarette lighter, they will still have a big weird hole in the dash. In 2110 people will search the Infranet for the reason this is so.) I found this output much more useful for charging my cellphone in a jam.

Posted by: Swanky at December 21, 2006

I'm getting a Xantrex (no compressor) for Christmas. We get ice storms occasionally here and have propane logs for heat/cooking if necessary.

Posted by: Ben at December 21, 2006

Swanky, you can get a generator for 250 smackers? The cheapest ones I'm seeing are $400, and they go up pretty quickly from there.

Posted by: Les Jones at December 21, 2006

Thanks for the linkage, Meester Jones.

While I have managed to talk my co-worker out of his second one of these, I am also looking at the 1500 Watt model. Once I get the breakerbox set up, I'll start running the 5000W generator I bought over the summer for the house, but until then, no noise, no fumes and they're portable. If nothing else, I can charge them off the genset.

Posted by: Phil at December 21, 2006

Since this thing is just a battery and an inverter, why not a bank of car batteries connected in parallel? A couple of 550 amp/hr Diehards is about $140, a Battery Tender to keep them charged is $30, and the inverter can be used anywhere, even in your car's cigarette lighter.

I can confirm there IS an advantage to a generator, although it's more money than a jump box. My Honda EU2000 puts out 15 amps at 115 volts for as long as its tank has gas, has a 12 volt battery charger port, weighs 47 pounds so it can be carried one-handed, and is pretty darn quiet. I use it as an "infinite length extension cord." True, it was $950, but 5 gallons of gas translates to about 50 hours of operation at a 4-5 amp draw, and it has no problem running power tools, one at a time.

Posted by: Homer at December 22, 2006

Great post Les and very timely considering the number of people who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the North West.

Posted by: Number9 at December 22, 2006

"$250 will buy you a generator... Won't run your blowdryer, but if that's an issue, you are thinking all wrong to begin with." It also won't run my well, and if the power is out long enough that I need a generator, water is going to be an issue. The well runs on 240 volts, and I think it will take at least 3,000 VA to start it. (The current required should go way down after a few seconds.) Nothing cheap is going to handle that requirement.

Posted by: markm at December 22, 2006

I have been looking for something like this for a while. I live in an apartment dwelling. I can not have fuel and run the thing inside my place of living for obviouse reason. This will be a great alternitive to that. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael at December 22, 2006

Honda has a very silent piece of equipment

Posted by: Mark O'Dell at December 23, 2006

I wored at Workshop Tools for a long time in Sevier County and after the huricanes of a couple of years ago, we went all out on generators. They were a hot item. $250 may not have been the cheapest either. The market dried up though and I can't say if they keep them anymore.

Posted by: swanky at December 24, 2006

I have a Husky unit exactly as pictured and the battery is dead as a doornail. Any ideas to getting it repaired?

Posted by: Glenn Hurd at February 26, 2008

Not a clue, but I've wondered if there's a way to replace the battery.

BTW, I don't think I updated the post above, but I bought a Husky for myself.

Posted by: Les Jones at February 26, 2008
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