Welcome to the Take Charge of Your Home series from Direct Energy! Hiring a professional to perform household maintenance may offer convenience and peace of mind, but you can do many of these jobs yourself with no experience or special tools. And in the process, you’ll save money, learn about how your home works and gain a sense of accomplishment from a DIY task done well!
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never experienced a prolonged power outage at home, especially during extreme weather. Harsh temperatures make every minute uncomfortable and can endanger children, the elderly and pets. Factor in the lost productivity, spoiled groceries and hours of boredom, and you have a situation you’d probably do anything to avoid.
Enter the backup generator: your personal solution for short-term energy independence, making home life livable until your electrical service can be restored. But generators come in a range of types, sizes and costs, so you’ll want to put a fair amount of thought into this high-involvement purchase.
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
If you go into your local hardware store when your area is already in the grips of a major power outage, you might find that the generator aisle is a little picked-over. When homeowners get desperate for relief, some will be ready to drop hundreds of dollars on the first generator they can get their hands on.
This is the worst way to pick out a generator. Not only is it a high-pressure purchase from a limited selection, it leaves you with no time to even identify your own generator needs, let alone find a model that meets them all.
The time to plan for this purchase is now.
Defining Your Needs
Electrical loads are measured in watts. Each appliance uses a certain wattage, and each generator has a maximum sustained wattage level. So your first challenge is to calculate how many watts it takes to power what you’ll really need during a power outage.
Which appliances and devices you’ll want to use is entirely up to you. Most homeowners will prioritize their refrigerator, usually 800 watts or lower, to avoid food spoilage. If you feel like roughing it, you might only need a few hundred more watts to power a few lights, fans and chargers for electronics. But if you have a large generator budget, feel free to think big — some generators can keep your whole home running without skipping a beat.
As you compile your list of essential appliances, you’ll need to note the wattage of each. Owner’s manuals are great sources for this information. If you’re willing to take an estimate, you can use the Department of Energy’s appliance energy calculator. And if you want the most accurate count possible, you can hire an electrician to conduct load measurements of every appliance on your list.
When you start comparing appliance wattages to generators, you may find that some generators have different counts for “rated watts” and “surge watts”. This is because many appliances consume a “surge” of wattage in the moments after they’re first turned on, before settling at a lower level. Similarly, generators can handle higher electrical loads for short amounts of time, and the “surge watts” measurement defines the limit of this ability. You can avoid overloading your generator with surges by turning on connected appliances one at a time.
The Big Decision
You’ll eventually need to make several decisions about price, features, electrical capacity and other features, but the biggest overall choice is whether to buy a standby generator, a portable generator or an inverter generator.
Standby generators are what you choose when you don’t even want to know that a power outage is occurring. Stationary and hardwired into your electrical panel, these generators activate automatically when power is interrupted and are designed to keep an entire home running, including the HVAC system. They require professional installation and either a natural gas or liquid propane fuel source. Total costs vary by generator size and ease of installation, but you should expect to spend at least $3,000 and potentially up to $10,000.
Portable generators, on the other hand, range from about $100 to a few thousand, depending on size and features. These can be wheeled around your property, where they’ll need to be set up at least 20 feet away from your home for safety. Smaller portable generators may be enough for a fridge and a few electronics, but larger ones can compete for capacity with mid-range standby generators. These run on liquid propane or gasoline, which can be in short supply during long power outages.
Inverter generators are generally lighter and quieter than portable generators, but they use the same fuel sources. This makes them popular for uses other than power emergencies, such as camping or RVing. The most powerful inverter generators produce around 6,000 watts, much less than the largest portable generators, and they tend to be more expensive than portable generators per watt. If you want a quieter and more versatile unit, inverters may be worth the added cost.
But Wait, There’s More
The generator isn’t the only significant expense, because you still need to connect it to your home or appliances. That means you’ll need heavy duty extension cords, or better yet, a transfer switch.
A transfer switch is a unit that attaches to your home’s electrical panel and allows you to connect a generator to your home with a single cable. It’s safer and more reliable than using individual extension cords, but it can add as much as $1000 to the total cost with professional installation. Transfer switches are commonly included with standby generators, but rarely included with portable or inverter generators. Be sure to carefully read the list of all components included with any generator you’re thinking about buying, and price a transfer switch separately if it’s not part of the package.
If you opt to use multiple extension cords, read the generator manual carefully to determine the exact length, gauge and plug type you’ll need for each cord. Because your generator must be at least 20 feet from your home, these cords will be very long. Major appliances like refrigerators will require special cables. It’s a good idea to figure out your extension cord needs and price your options before making a final purchase decision, because it can affect your bottom line by a few hundred dollars.
Bells and Whistles
The big decisions should narrow down your selection, but you’ll still find that there are dozens of features that separate the remaining options. Here are just a few of the factors you can expect to vary among generator models:
- Fuel capacity
- Fuel level gauges
- Electric starter vs. pull cord starter
- Surge protection
- Number and type of outlets
- Circuit breakers for individual outlets
- Fuel conversion systems to allow for both gasoline and propane
- Wheels and pull handles (these are not always included)
Once you have the generator of your dreams, you should make a detailed plan of action so you know exactly what to do when you’re ready for backup energy. Following the advice in your owner’s manual is key.
Some of the major considerations include where you’ll set up a portable generator, how and where to ground the generator, how you’ll protect the generator from the elements and where you can safely store your fuel reserves.
And like all appliances, generators will require periodic maintenance. The most sophisticated standby generators make this easy by conducting automatic diagnostic processes that will send you text messages when service is required. Portable generators will leave it up to you to stick to the maintenance schedule.
From routine maintenance to professional installation of transfer switches and standby systems, your backup generator will be most reliable under the care of a licensed, knowledgeable electrician. If you have any doubt in your abilities to set up this system safely, call in the pros.