What You Need to Know to Buy the Right Generator
The romantic picture of being caught in a storm — soft candlelight instead of harsh lamps, a picnic meal on the floor in front of a fire, a chance to catch up on conversation or family games — sounds fine, but the truth is that losing power can result in days without a heating or cooling system, frozen and broken pipes, a flooded basement and rotting food. While it’s not a cure-all for all possible storm-related problems, a backup generator can help you prevent further damage and make your home more comfortable while you wait for services to return to normal.
Caution: Generators can produce odorless and deadly carbon monoxide. The rules for generators are not negotiable: Never use them in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding placement and have working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors throughout your home.
Types of Generators
Generators fall into three categories: stand-by generators, portable generators and inverter generators.
1. Standby or permanent generators are wired into your home’s utility system. They usually have a larger power output and are a good choice if you have numerous essential items that you need to keep operating during a storm, especially if you have family members who require additional resources such as oxygen or refrigerated medications, have outbuildings housing animals or have large pumps for your furnace, water or other essentials.They’re also a good choice if you’re in an area where storm outages are frequent or problems tend to take a while to be fixed. Standby generators come with a higher price tag and require professional installation and usually permits.
2. Portable generators are smaller and can be moved, as the name implies; they are often less powerful. A basic portable generator can be set up without professional help and will keep the absolute essentials running, especially during a short outage. You can set them up outside and run heavy-duty exterior extension cords from the generator to the appliances you want to power. You can also connect them to your utility system via a transfer switch (see below).
3. Inverter generators are quieter and lighter; they are good choices for specialized uses, such as to take camping or to power electronics, but they’re not as effective as a single power source in an emergency situation. They also can’t be sold in some states.
What Size Generator Is Best for You?
Generators are rated by their power output in kilowatts per hour. A generator capable of producing 5,000 kilowatts per hour is a good size for a small to medium home for a short time period. If you want to plan for outages that may last for a while, as has happened with recent storms such as Sandy, look at your overall power use and consider going larger.
Start by adding up all your power requirements. Power usage is listed on all appliances (you may need to pull larger appliances away from the wall to find the information). Look at everything in your house and yard to get a true picture of your power use. You may need power to keep your furnace or boiler going and keep a pump for a well or other water source operational, and you may want the ability to use at least some kitchen appliances (a microwave for morning coffee may be a personal necessity), a way to keep cell phones and your computer powered, or even easy access to a garage or other building. During a period of high heat or humidity, air conditioning or at least numerous fans can be a true lifesaver.
Account for startup surges. After you’ve figured your total power needs, factor in the fact that many appliances, such as refrigerators, have a surge at startup. Multiply your total number by 1.5 to account for these surges.
Don’t test its limits. Finally, don’t run your generator at full power, as that will burn it out. A running load of anywhere from 50 to 75 percent is recommended, so take that into account and buy a generator with enough power to allow you to run what you want without hitting the generator’s maximum capacity. You may need to make a choice between size and price versus the ability to operate everything you want at once.
Fuel choices and run time. Standby generators usually are fueled by liquid propane or natural gas and can be connected to your utility provider. Portable generators are more typically fueled by gasoline.
You can also find generators powered by diesel or biodiesel. Look at all the options, especially for portable generators, and decide what makes the most sense for you. Remember, you will need to have additional fuel available.
In addition to determining the type of fuel you need to use, take a look at how efficient your unit is when it comes to energy consumption. Some may use only half a gallon of gas for five hours of run time; others may require much higher amounts of fuel.
Wiring into your home. Standby permanent generators are always wired into your home’s utility system. Portable generators can be wired in as well (although this, by necessity, limits their portability).
Wiring into the utility system is a good option if you want to power more appliances than the generator has outlets for, want to power something that can’t be put on an extension cord (such as the blower in your furnace) or just want to minimize the number of extension cords running from the house to the yard.
This is something an electrician can do for you; in many places, an electrician as well as permits are required by code to do this work.
Transfer switches. If your backup generator is wired into your home, you’ll need to install a transfer switch. This is just what it sounds like: a switch that shuts down the power system from your utility company and lets the backup take over. It is wired into your utility panel.
You can get a manual system, which you turn on and off yourself, or an automatic one that senses when the power goes down and when it comes back and does the switch for you. Go for the automatic; if you’re in a storm or natural disaster and have lost power, you'll have one fewer thing to worry about.
Other Shopping Considerations
A basic portable generator can be relatively inexpensive. But before you buy, take the time to check out the independent ratings of the generators in your price range, as the quality may vary.
Noise. Generators are noisy, and you have to consider not only your family but also your neighbors.
Starting. They can take some effort to start manually, so an electric starter can save you some physical exertion.
Gauges. Options such as oil and temperature gauges and a high-end rectifier will alert you to possible problems before they destroy your machine.
Weight. If you plan to move a portable generator into place only when needed, take overall weight into consideration and consider a wheeled frame.
Where to locate your backup generator. Put in the wrong place, backup generators can quickly become a disaster themselves. First rule: They need to be placed outdoors, not in an enclosed space.
Generators need to be on a stable, clean, dry surface with plenty of space around them (5 feet is the recommended minimum). They must be set away from any homes and especially any doors, windows or other openings. Exhaust should blow away from any buildings. Fans are not sufficient to remove exhaust.
Noise can also be an issue; what is tolerable for a short period can overwhelm after several hours. Place the generator as far as is reasonable from where you and your neighbors will be spending your time. Check your local building codes for any other placement requirements.
Operating issues. Safety, again, is the primary concern. Be sure the generator is grounded and stable. Next, check the fuel. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for recommended fuel use, including draining the fuel when the generator is not in use, not overfilling the tank and adding fuel only when the machine is not running and has cooled down.
Check the operation of your system periodically, particularly before a big storm is forecast. Keep an eye on oil gauges and other running parts, and make sure general maintenance has been kept up.
Never plug your generator directly into your wiring system or outlets, as this can cause a dangerous “backfeed,” resulting in serious injuries as well as fires. If you have already set up your system to include a transfer switch wired into your home utility panel, you can connect your portable generator to that switch.
Always use heavy-duty exterior extension cords. Smaller cords are not sufficient.
Respect the limits of your generator. Keep your usage as low as is reasonable, especially if it seems that you may be relying on backup power for some time.
Storage. Standby generators are permanently installed, but most people will want to store their portable generators out of sight when they’re not in use. Many options are available, including enclosures, but always operate a generator in an open space,following the manufacturer’s directions.
Many portable generators require that you drain the fuel once the system has cooled down, and this is a good safety precaution in any case. Store the generator where fumes or vapors can’t reach an open flame, including a pilot light. Store the fuel in an equally secure space. You may need to replace the fuel, such as gasoline, every few months to be sure it is fresh.
* Please consult with your attorney, financial consultant/planner, accountant, and/or tax advisor for advice concerning your particular circumstances. The information contained herein is for general informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as professional, tax, financial or legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts or circumstances. The information or opinions contained herein should not be construed by any consumer and/or prospective client as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to buy any particular product or service.