Single Circuit Transfer Switch: Inexpensive Electricity Backup

In our modern world we are highly reliant on electricity.  We use electricity for our lighting, our work, our entertainment, our cold food storage, our cooking, and our heating.  If the power goes out for any significant length of time not only are we faced with a major inconvenience, the hit to our wallet can be pretty substantial.  By utilizing a small fuel sipping generator and two single circuit transfer switches that were a breeze to install I was able to provide my family with the vast majority of our electrical needs in the event of a power outage.

Small System Vs. Whole House Backup:

When people think about generators they typically think of whole house backup systems.  These systems typically start at around $2,000 and generally require an electrician to hook them up, which can cost as much as the system itself.  They also need a strong foundation like a concrete pad to sit on, and will require a hefty delivery charge as well. It is not uncommon to see the total cost for an installed whole house system at over $10,000.   The whole house systems are really convenient though.  The user doesn’t have to do anything when the power goes out, the generator automatically kicks on, providing power from the homes natural gas supply.   These generators are designed for large loads, which means life goes on as if nothing happened at all.

With a small system you aren’t going to have everything, but you will have a enough to have a bit of normalcy and you won’t risk having to throw out all the food in your fridge, or get a hotel because you have no heat in the middle of winter.  The larger systems use a ton of fuel, while smaller systems sip gas.  A system designed to deliver 10,000 kWh will always run burning enough fuel to produce that amount of energy.  Small inverter generators like the one I have that are rated at 2200 kWhs will idle down and use less fuel when there is a smaller demand.

Single Circuit Transfer Switch:

Single Circuit Transfer Switch 3This is the key to the entire operation.  When we first purchased our generator, a Ryobi 2,200 watt inverter generator, we had to run cords across our house from outside to the generator in order to power our fridge.  We had a lamp plugged in for lighting and a small portable electric heater plugged in.   A single circuit transfer switch greatly increases the utility of a small generator.  I purchased my single circuit transfer switch for around $75 from Heezy Electrical Supply and installed it to connect to our new boiler system.  I had spent $6,000 on getting the new boiler, so spending another $75 to ensure it would work when we really need it was a no brainer.

I was amazed at how easy it was to install.  I have done some small home wiring projects, but even if someone had zero electrical experience the single circuit transfer switch is easy to install, comes with great instructions, and the company will provide support for you if you run into troubles installing it. When the power goes out all I have to do is run an extension cord from my generator to the transfer switch in my utility room and my boiler is up and running.  It uses a very small amount of electricity, so I am able to run other things at the same time as well.

Recently I decided to double down on the utility of the single circuit transfer switch and install a second one.  This will give me power to the outlets that are on my living room wall and my kitchen wall (which includes the fridge).   With this single circuit transfer switch installed I will be able to power the majority of what I need with a tiny generator!

What I don’t have:

The two main things I don’t have with the setup are water and the oven.  We are able to use a low wattage microwave and our stovetop is gas, so we are okay on cooking.  We store a large amount of water to accommodate this, but ideally at some point we will install a simple pump on our well, which will give us pressurized water in a power outage without having to rely on electricity or natural gas. So far our longest power outage was just over a week in length.

Installing A Single Circuit Transfer Switch:

Install Single Circuit Transfer Switch 2As with any project dealing with electricity, ensure that everything is de-energized before starting.  Even when you throw your main breaker there is still energy at the panel where the wires for the main breaker come in.  Always check the wires you are going to work with first with a multi-meter tool before touching them.  Electricity is extremely dangerous and these safety precautions need to be followed.

The single circuit transfer switch has 5 wires coming off of it.  You feed these wires into your breaker box through the supplied conduit.  The transfer switch also comes with the lock nut needed to hold the conduit in place.  The transfer switch has 5 wires: black, white, green with a stripe, white with a stripe, and a red.   The black wire connects to the black wire from the house wiring you are replacing. The white wire connects to the white wire you are replacing.  The green striped wire goes to the ground bar and the white striped wire goes to the neutral bar.  Depending on your box, these may be the same bar.  The red wire then goes to the breaker itself.  The wiring is fairly straight forward.  The transfer switch also comes with mounting screws to secure the box in place next to the breaker box. It sounds pretty simple because it is.  My 7 year old son and I installed one of these switches in a half hour, and that included me teaching him every step of the way about what I was doing and why.

Operating The Singe Circuit Transfer Switch:

The operation is even simpler than the installation.  The switch has 3 settings: main, off, and generator.  In the off position the power is cut off at the box, just like with a normal breaker.  In the main position power is coming from the grid, and in the generator position the power is ready to be routed from your generator.

The first thing I did after installation was test the set up.  I turned off the power to my house, fired up the generator, and connected the extension cord from the generator to the transfer switch.  I also put my Watts Up meter on the generator so I could see how much the power I was using was drawing.  Upon start up the fridge kicked on its compressor and it was taking 950 watts.  Once it kicked off it was down to 50 watts.  I had the kids add on the DVD player, the lights, and the TV to verify we would not be in danger of exceeding the output of the generator.  The last thing you want to do is find out your generator can’t perform for its intended use in the middle of an outage.

Major Advantages:

1. If the natural gas supply is interrupted, we can power our generator with gasoline.

2. These small generators are much quieter than whole house generators or larger gasoline/diesel generators.

3.  5 gallons of gasoline can easily stretch out over a week of use.

4. Cost: I spent a total of only $700 on this setup.  $550 for the generator and around $75 each for the transfer switches.

Major Disadvantages:

1. As mentioned above, no running water.

2. Have to choose between what to power:  This can be alleviated by purchasing a larger generator, but then you have to trade off on fuel economy.  By installing a transfer switch for the water pump I could get a larger generator and only run it for a short period of time and have everyone take showers during that period; ie, run it on every other day for an hour.  The total cost for that setup would be around $500.  This would still put us well below the total cost of a whole house generator.

3. Storing Gasoline:  Storing gasoline can be a pain.  I use Stabil to treat the fuel, which keeps it good for up to a year.  If I haven’t used the fuel in my lawn mower or the generator by the end of the year I use it in my car and get new fuel.  I try to store 15 gallons of fuel at a time, which should last through even a two week power outage given how little fuel the 2200 watt generator consumes.

Overall I am happy with the setup I have built using a small generator and two single circuit transfer switches.  When the power goes out my family will have heat, light, the ability to keep food cold, and the ability to cook food. Overall for the total cost that is a pretty good deal!

Do you have a power back up system? Do you use a whole house backup system or a portable generator?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John is the author of the book For My Children's Children: A Practical Guide For Building Generational Wealth.

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