Ventilator-Assisted Living©

Fall 1999, Vol. 13, No. 3

ISSN 1066-534X

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Read selected articles from this issue ...

From Trach to Iron Lung to Cuirass to Mask Ventilation
Bruni Bung, Germany

Choosing a Generator
Richard Daggett, California

They Just Don't Get It
Ruth Celia Kahn

Bi-level Positive Pressure Ventilation: New NCFA Policy

Managing with Advanced Muscular Dystrophy
Tom Shock, Massachusetts

A New Era for Home Ventilation Technology
Susan L. Millard, MD, and Mike Kazmierski, RRT

Potpourri: Audrey King's video, "From the ICU to Home Care: A Patient's Perspective";
American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Nurses:
Trach Inventions/Adaptations; Reports and Guidelines

Choosing a Generator

Richard Daggett, California

Being prepared for power outages caused by Y2K glitches or for earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, and other natural disasters is always smart, especially when you use a ventilator. Richard Daggett, ventilator user and president of the Polio Survivors Association in Downey, California, prepared these suggestions for selecting a generator for the July 1999 Rancho Los Amigos Post-Polio Support Group Newsletter. With his permission, his article is reprinted below.

Generators produce AC voltage, the same type of voltage available in your home from your electric company. The amount of power that a generator can produce is rated in watts. The higher the wattage output, the more appliances and lights you can operate. The tag on the generator indicates the maximum number of watts the generator can provide and the rated watt output. A generator should never operate at maximum output for more than a few minutes. Rated output is a more reliable measure of a generator's capability and is the power produced for long periods. Typically, the rated power is 90% of the maximum power.

Load is the measurement of work the generator will have to perform. There are two types of load: resistive and reactive. In simple terms, a resistive load is a light bulb, a toaster, etc. A reactive load contains an electric motor, such as an air conditioner, refrigerator, ventilator, etc. Resistive loads are easy to measure. If you want to light four 100W light bulbs, you will need a generator that is rated at 400W. Reactive loads are more difficult, because these require varying degrees of power. When they start, they may require up to three times more power, but when they are running (although doing no work), they require much less power.

You can purchase relatively inexpensive, recoil start generators rated as low as 400W – enough to provide light, but not much else. An 800W generator should be enough to operate most modern ventilators, and if you are looking for an emergency backup generator, this is probably the minimum size you should consider.

One major disadvantage to this size generator is that it is available only with a recoil starter. You must pull on a cord to start it, like a lawn mower, and this requires upper arm strength. Recoil starters are standard on less expensive generators, even if they have a higher-rated output. These smaller generators can be found at many home and garden supply centers for about $500 to $1,000. Common brands are Coleman and Generac.

Higher-rated and more expensive generators can be started with the push of a button. A good choice might be one of the units made by Onan or Honda. These are built better, run more quietly, and will last longer over time than an inexpensive unit.

With larger generators, you can choose gasoline or LPG (liquid petroleum gas) as the fuel to power them. Gasoline-fueled units are more common and have a larger choice of watt ratings. The main drawback to gasoline-fueled units is fuel storage. Gasoline is hazardous to store. It is also dirtier, and the smell can be invasive. LPG-fueled units are cleaner and safer, but their main drawback is the initial cost.

While electric generators are often advertised as "portable," they are not – unless they are very small units. Even small generators weigh quite a bit; they are not something you can throw in the trunk of your car.

Consider your generator to be a permanent fixture. It will be more convenient if the generator is wired to one or more electrical outlets in your home. A transfer switch must be used when connecting it to a building's electrical system. The transfer switch isolates selected circuits in the home from the utility power. It will add to the cost, but it is essential for safety. Connections for backup and stand-by power to a building's electrical system must be made by a qualified electrician and must comply with all applicable laws and building codes.

My advice is to buy the largest unit that is practicable and that you can afford. Remember this will probably be a lifetime investment. If you use any kind of powered life-support equipment, i.e., ventilator, bi-level pressure system, oxygen concentrator, etc., a reliable electrical source is not a luxury. It is a necessity for safety and peace of mind. I also suggest you purchase a unit made by a company with a good reputation and widely available service, such as Onan or Honda.

My generator is an Onan LPG-fueled unit with a rating of 2500W. It is hard-wired into three outlets in my home. I have two 7.5 gallon LPG tanks, with a fuel transfer switch that will automatically switch to the full tank when the other is emptied. I use a ventilator most of the time, and knowing that I have reliable standby electrical power provides a real sense of security.

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