If PG&E were to shut off power to your home this summer, would you be ready?

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Power outages could easily affect many Western homes this fire season, and decoding the best preparation options for your property and family can be confusing.

A backup generator seems like a logical place to start. But unfortunately, experts say, backup generators may not be a practical option for many homeowners in residential areas, especially neighborhoods where homes are relatively close together.

“Installing a generator in a residential application is expensive and difficult,” explains Lisa Carter, general manager for Martinez-based generator company CD & Power. “Here’s why.

“Number one, buying a generator usually entails electrical, putting in a natural gas line, usually entails putting in a concrete pad, and then there are the permits that go along with installation in the various cities and what their individual environments might be.”

Then there are quality-of-life issues such a unit might create for neighbors: At their worst, standby generators can be loud, smelly eyesores.

“What we’ve found in properties that are located in residential areas fairly close together is, it’s hard to put in a generator because of the noise challenges, environmental challenges, exhaust challenges,” Carter said.

What does work? A portable generator might not be able to supply as much power, but it’s likely to be less cost-restrictive and less of an installation headache. A 2,000-watt model is light enough to be portable, but still offers enough power to run an appliance like a refrigerator in an emergency. Prices range from $500 to $2,000.

The Honda EU2000i, named the best portable generator of 2019 and 2020 by Wirecutter, runs about $1,000 at Home Depot. In testing, it supplied more power than its competitors, it was relatively quiet, and it started easily. The Honda also has a “reputation for reliability,” Wirecutter wrote, a point echoed by Carter, who has one for her own home and plans to use it to power the refrigerator and freezer during a power outage.

There are drawbacks to portable generators, too. One must have fuel on hand to start it and the fumes pose a hazard. Users of such generators must take care to ensure they’re not venting into the house or garage.

With the prospect of a power down on the horizon, combination solar power battery systems are growing in popularity among consumers, but the prices are steep: The cost of such a system averages $16,400 once sustainability incentives are factored in, according to Bloomberg.

If customers do see power turned off, they’re on their own, somewhat; they shouldn’t expect to see any compensation for the inconvenience on their bill, according to PG&E. Energy companies advise people who depend on medical devices like breathing machines to make sure they have a backup power option in place.

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“In regards to the impact on customer bills, PG&E does not reimburse customers for losses, as power will be shut off for safety due to extreme fire danger conditions,” PG&E spokeswoman Andrea Menniti said by email. “Because a Public Safety Power Shutoff could last for several days, we encourage customers to plan accordingly.”

“Also, it’s important to note, fully stocked freezers usually keep food frozen for two days after losing power (if not repeatedly opened),” Menniti continued. “And half-full freezers usually keep food frozen for about one day (if not repeatedly opened). Also, refrigerators usually keep food cold for up to four hours if the door remains unopened.”

In some communities, PG&E will, however, be opening “resiliency centers” with backup generators available to power key services.

As concern about how vulnerable populations like the elderly and those who use electricity-powered medical devices would be affected by an extended power shutoff, some politicians are taking action at the local level to prepare their communities. Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning is exploring microgrids of solar panels and batteries, for instance.

Regardless of where you live and how your area is preparing for fire season, it’s a good idea to make a safety plan, build an emergency kit with food, water, flashlights, a radio, batteries, first aid kit, cash, and medications, figure out how to manually open your garage door and charge your cell phone if you lose power, and make sure your contact information on file with your local energy company is up-to-date so you can be reached in an emergency. 

More preparedness tips from California energy companies are available online here.