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Some options for backup power to your home

Dear Jim: Our electric power goes off several times a year during storms. It is inconvenient and the furnace stops. I cannot afford a big backup generator. What are some reasonably priced options for backup power? – Bob J.

Dear Bob: If you need to keep most of your appliances and heating system running, a large automatic backup generator, powered by gas or propane, is probably your only choice. If you just need to have some lights on, a television, or a backup woodburning heater, you have quite a few options.

Obviously, during winter, a long power outage can result in frozen pipes and other problems in your house. To protect yourself, installing a small freestanding pellet stove or blower unit for a fireplace works well. These can operate on 12-volt battery power long enough to protect your house.

Small portable gasoline-powered generators are not extremely expensive and can produce enough electricity to keep your furnace, refrigerator and lights running. Total up the wattage requirements for each item you need to keep operating and this will tell you how large (in kilowatts) a generator is needed.

The generator should have several built-in 120-volt a.c. outlets for the items you need to operate. Don’t try to wire this type of generator into your house electrical system. It cannot produce enough power for your entire house and it presents a hazard for the utility’s repairman working to repair the lines.

For less than $100, battery packs are available with 120-volt a.c. outlets built into them. They usually have two a.c. outlets which are powered by an inverter inside the unit. The 120-volt outlet wattage power is limited, but it is enough to power a pellet stove, fireplace blower and lights. A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for a computer can also be used.

Some battery packs also have 12-volt cables to help start your car if its battery goes out. Many also have a built-in LED light and air pump for tires and sports balls. Keep in mind, even though it is just powered by a battery, the electricity from its 120-volt outlet is as dangerous as from your standard house power.

The amount of electric power a battery pack can provide is a function of the battery pack size in ampere-hours and the capacity in watts of its inverter. Typical battery packs are in the 18 ampere-hour range, but some go as high as 51. These are lead-acid batteries, so they are fairly heavy.

For short-term 120-volt electricity, a separate inverter can be attached to your car battery with battery cables. Some have a 750-watt maximum output with several outlets. It will run down the car battery, but running the car engine keeps it charged up for the temporary electric power needed.

The following companies offer portable battery packs: Clore Automotive, (800) 328-2921, www.jumpstarter.com; Duracell, (800) 300-1857, www.duracellpower.com; Schumacher Electric, (800) 621-5485, www.batterychargers.com; Wagan Tech, (800) 231-5806, www.wagan.com; and Xantrex, (800) 670-0707, www.xantrex.com.

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Dear Jim: My house has gable attic vents in the corners. Even though they are covered with screens, some snow blows in on to the insulation. Should I just staple some foil or film over the vents during winter? – Sandi H.

Dear Sandi: You should not cover the vents. Attic ventilation is important during winter so moisture coming up from the house does not condense in the cold attic. Damp insulation loses much of its insulating effectiveness.

Place plastic film over the insulation by the vents to catch the snow. It will melt and evaporate over time. Next spring, consider blocking off the gable vents and installing more effective soffit vents and a ridge vent.