Power outages can happen without warning, sometimes as a result of natural disasters. If it’s not clear when the power will come on again, you can use the small power station you already own, parked in your garage: your car.
For Emergencies Only
Before we explore how you can use your car to power appliances and electronics, we have to emphasize that this is not a practice meant to replace more permanent or purpose-built backup power solutions.
Drawing power from your car’s battery with the engine off can wear it out, and if you discharge it too deeply, you can damage it in a single session. Typical car batteries can only be discharged to 50% of their capacity before permanent damage can occur.
While using your car as a generator by leaving the engine to idle is safe, it’s inefficient compared to a gasoline generator (which is itself not a cost-effective way to produce power long-term).
Beyond charging up your phone or other low-power devices, we don’t recommend using a car as a frequent power source; the tips given here are to help you access electricity in a pinch.
Use the USB or 12V Electrical Outlet
Newer vehicles have USB power sources built into the vehicle, but even older models will have a 12V power outlet that originally hosted car cigarette lighters. This is why you may occasionally hear them referred to as “cigarette lighter sockets.”
Many great accessories on the market let you use this socket to power things, and the most useful is a USB charger adapter. If you have a vehicle with multiple 12V sockets, you can add multiple USB adapters and charge many devices simultaneously.
If your car isn’t running, you would rightly be concerned about discharging the battery too much using a USB charge, but the average car battery has well over 1000Wh of energy, and you can safely use half of the battery capacity. Compare that to a device like the iPhone 14 Pro Max, which has a battery capacity just short of 17Wh, and you’ll see you don’t have to be too concerned with providing power for these types of devices without the engine running.
Anker Power Drive 2 24W Dual USB Car Charger
This inexpensive, low-profile dual USB car charger can keep your phone and one other device topped off with ease.
Use a Car Inverter
An inverter is a device that converts DC (Direct Current) power to AC (Alternating Current) power. Car inverters allow you to run devices that usually plug into the outlets in your home. Modified sine inverters are suitable for use with devices that don’t have AC motors in them, such as computers, internet routers, or televisions. Pure sine inverters can run all AC devices, including devices with motors such as fridges or fans.
Inverters are designed to work while the car’s engine is running. It’s best to connect them to the car’s battery terminals, as detailed in the manual.
Some inverters can work from a 12V socket, but some cars may not have wiring providing power to those sockets that can handle the high power draw of an inverter. Most inverters that can only run from the 12V socket have low peak wattage limits.
There is a danger of melting wires if you try to draw too much from the 12V socket using an inverter, so refer to the car’s documentation to see the maximum wattage for each socket.
As long as you stay within the total power limit of your car inverter, it should provide a stable source of power as long as your car is running.
BMK 200W Car Power Inverter
The BMK offers up to 200W of AC power from a 12V car power outlet socket. Best of all, if you don't need AC power, you can turn off the inversion, and still use one of several fast-charging USB ports!
Charge Your Portable Power Station With A Car
Portable power stations are generally versatile in the different ways you can charge them. Offering adapters for mains power, solar panels, and charging from a car’s 12V power outlet. Unlike connecting an inverter to the 12V socket, charging a mobile power station should not risk drawing too much power from the 12V socket.
However, if you’re actively using the power station while charging it and the power draw exceeds the charge rate, you’ll still deplete the station’s battery, albeit more slowly.
Anker 535 Portable Power Station
If you want a portable power station that does a little of everything, get the Anker 535
Special Considerations for Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles have massive batteries and, of course, no engine if it’s a pure electric vehicle. USB power outlets and 12V power outlets are common, but some electric pickup trucks have built-in inverters. You’ll find standard outlets in the truck bed ready for use.
The idea behind these outlets is that truck owners don’t have to cart a gas generator around to power their tools on-site, but it’s also a great way to get power during a blackout.
The Ford F-150 Lightning even offers an option to hook it into your home’s electrical grid to power the entire house if the power goes out. At the time of writing in November 2022, it’s the only commercial electric vehicle to offer this feature. It may become more common in the future, and it’s something to look out for when next shopping for an electric vehicle.
If you have a hybrid car rather than a pure electric vehicle, you may have to take special measures to safely use it as a power source. Refer to that vehicle’s manual or contact the manufacturer to ensure using an inverter or using the hybrid battery to charge larger devices is safe. Since different hybrid vehicles vary in the exact details of how they operate, we can’t offer any blanket advice here.
Using a gasoline car for backup power is a great way to get through an unexpected blackout, but if the power is going out regularly or you expect the power situation to worsen over time, it’s essential to find a more permanent solution.
Portable power stations are a great way to keep your personal devices going during short regular blackouts, and you can even buy a solar panel for an emergency so you can share the power station up again if the power doesn’t come on again soon.