By Mark Brooks
Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor


Frankenstorm Hurricane Sandy ripped into the U.S. East Coast on Monday night leaving 5 million people without power. My family is out of harm’s way but sadly millions are now affected by flooding and long term power outages. Is this what global warming has in store for us this winter? More to the point, if my home lost power, how am I going to keep the beer cold and my wife warm?

Surviving any kind of apocalypse or natural disaster is about being prepared so I drive over to the local hardware store to do some shopping. I am not alone, a small crowd has gathered around the remaining pricy portable electrical generators. But as the owner of a 2012 Chevy Volt, I am blessed with having another, better option. I pick up a 750 Watt Motor Master DC to AC power inverter, on sale for $59. My Chevy Volt is now ready to do double duty as an emergency generator.

At its core the Volt is a phenomenal gas-powered generator with a huge battery buffer. It is far more advanced, higher quality, quieter, cleaner and far more fuel efficient than any store bought generator. All you need is a DC-to-AC Power inverter.

The use of a 12-volt DC-to-AC inverter is not unique to the Volt, and can be used with other conventional cars.

Power inverters take the 12 volts supplied by a vehicle's DC electrical system and convert them to the 120 volts AC power that you need in your house.

There are two ways of installing an inverter in your car. The easy way is to plug a small inverter into a cigarette lighter. If all you need to do is power no more than two 100 watt or less items then purchase two cheap travel inverters and plug one into the Volts IP console cigarette lighter and the other into one of the two plugs in the floor console.

But in my case I need more juice so decided to spend $59 for a 750 Watt Motor Master unit that is purpose built to be directly wired to a cars 12v battery. That’s right, the Volt has a 12V car battery just like every other car on the road. Hard wiring to this battery will allow the maximum amperage in a larger inverter to be safely used without stressing the cars electrical system and potentially blowing a fuse. But don’t go looking under the hood for this car battery, in fact there is no need to pop the hood at all. The 12 volt battery is conveniently located in the truck.

Before we continue with the details of my specific solution, I need to review some warnings, just in case someone reading this wants to try for a Darwin award (see for details).

First I am not a GM engineer. I am relating a setup that seems to work for my 2012 Chevy Volt. I take no responsibility for anything and could be totally wrong about everything (that should keep the lawyers happy).

Next, to work as a backup power source the Volt needs to be on and left running, potentially for days.

WARNING: when the Volt is on it should be in a well ventilated area and in park. The Volt’s charge-sustaining gas engine can start at any time (regardless of its battery charge level), especially if it is cold. The engine produces carbon monoxide which you cannot smell or see and can KILL YOU very quickly. Every year dozens of people die this way, often by the exhaust from a portable generator. Remember, natural selection deems that some individuals serve as a warning to others, don’t be that person.

Once the Volt is on, it is best to lock the car to make sure your kids, large dogs or nosey neighbors don’t either turn off the car accidentally or move it from park to drive. If the Volt is turned off, juice from the large battery/charge sustaining engine is shut off and you can quickly drain your car’s 12-volt accessory battery, and then be unable to start the volt again.

Next warning: I understand that using a 12-volt DC to 120-volt AC inverter is not the most efficient way to get energy out of a Volt but it is the easiest and I don’t think it violates any warranties (that I know of). No doubt some want-to-be engineer reading this might ask, why limit yourself to just hooking up to the 12-volt car battery in the trunk when you have all that high voltage under the hood? Remember, you are busy trying to SURVIVE a hurricane. Don’t over think this, work with the Volt’s systems, not against them.

Hooking up and running the Motor Master Inverter is explained in its instruction manual, does not require any tools and takes only five minutes. I spent four minutes of that time finding the 12-volt battery which is located in the trunk where you would normally expect to see a spare tire. Just hook positive(red) to positive and negative (black) to negative. If you get this wrong you can fry your inverter. Be care, 12 volts can still kill under the right conditions.

I now keep my inverter in the storage bin in the trunk, right next to the battery. I am ready at a moment’s notice for tailgate parties or camping, as well as surviving household power outages.

WATTAGE CAPACITY PLANNING: With any emergency generator, the amount of power available is limited and should be used carefully. In my case I tested running an extension cord from the inverter in the car trunk into our kitchen. It appeared to be enough to power a reading lamp, our coffee maker and the fridge. My Inverted has a digital display of power in use. I would recommend this. Used carefully, my small 750 Watt inverter seemed surprisingly capable with a 1500 Watt surge capacity and a 600 Watt continuous load capacity.


I also have a smaller 100 Watt inverter plugged into a cigarette lighter inside the Volt to act as a charging station for my laptop.

Here is an idea of some of the power used by common devices you might want to run (actual figures may vary, check appliance labels/manuals for exact figures):

• Shaver: 15 Watts
• CFL Bulb: (75-watt equivalent) 20 Watts
• Laptop computer: 50 Watts
• Normal 60-watt light bulb: 60 Watts
• Can Opener: 100 Watts
• (Ed. note: Manual can opener: zero watts; two reasonably dexterous hands)
• Portable fan: 100 Watts
• Video game player: 200 Watts
• Electric blanket: 200 Watts
• Curling Iron: 100-200 Watts
• 42-inch LCD TV: 100-300 Watts
• Small coffee maker: 400-700 Watts
• 16 cu. ft. refrigerator (AC): 600+ Watts **
• Microwave: 500-1500 Watts
• Kettle: 1,200 Watts
• Hair dryer (on high): 1500 Watts

** Note: Refrigerators, although turned "on" all the time, actually cycle on and off as needed to maintain interior temperatures. You might want to consider unplugging it while making coffee so you don’t accidentally trip the fuse in the inverter.
Now that your Volt is working as an emergency generator, how does it compare to the other emergency generators? A lot depends on how much money you want to spend on the inverter. There are a lot of DC to AC Car inverts on the market ranging in price from $20 to $300. For basic lights almost any of them will provide some sort of power, but you need to be aware of the variations in quality and amount of power provided (wattage). Also make sure you are purchasing an inverter compatible with a 12-volt CAR battery, not a truck or RV battery.

Most inverters below $200 are not true sine wave inverters but rather produce choppy stepped AC power. This is ok for basic needs but bad if you plan on running medical equipment or even an ink jet printer. True sine wave inverters are guaranteed for optimum compatibility with sensitive medical equipment, computers, motors or televisions, but are more expensive. Make sure to read the instructions that comes with the inverter and remember to plan what you are plugging in carefully to stay under both the continuous and a max surge rating produced by the inverter.

The Volt’s large battery can provide 10-plus kwh which can last hours, even days on its own (depending on your power requirements). Once this runs down you can rely on the Volt’s start-stop charge-sustaining (CS) gas engine. The CS engine is purpose built to run as an electrical generator and automatically starts/stops when the battery charge gets too low and needs a boost. That's good for big savings on fuel and longer intervals between short engine runs.

Another advantage of using the Volt is the reduced noise and exhaust. Normal emergency Generators are loud and always running and can keep you and your neighbors awake at night. But when your Volt runs, you can barely hear it, or smell it. And of course, sometimes it's not running at all! There's just no comparison.

In a post-apocalypse world, the Chevy Volt rules!