Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Backup Generators

If you're a member of our Facebook group, you probably already know that Erin is the guest on a radio show this week. If not, hey, Erin is the guest on a radio show this Wednesday. [Oh, jeez. No pressure, eh? -- Erin]

One of the topics that came up as she has been preparing for this show was backup electrical generators. As this lands pretty much smack-dab in my professional wheelhouse, I got the call to break down the mystery that surrounds backup generators and how to select one that meets your needs.

While they aren't cheap, generators are a nearly critical hardware investment, allowing far better and more productive living when the lights go out. They also have the side benefit of portable power for camping, hunting, or remote work projects.

How much generator do you need?
Generators, like most electrical appliances, are sized in watts. All of your appliances should have a tag or plate on them stating how many watts they use. Determine which items in your home are critical to run in the event of power failure, and note their rated wattages. Select these things based on honest need and rank them by importance. Be aware that the majority of backup generators are 120 volt only, so large appliances such as electric furnaces, clothes dryers, and ovens will likely not operate on generator power.

Adding up all of the wattages you noted will give you the maximum power that you would need to supply in order to run all those items at the same time. Honda has a neat little calculator that will help run all the math on this part.

The wattage listed on a generator is its hard maximum, which can only be maintained for short periods of time. They typically supply only 80% of their maximum rating during sustained operation. Make sure to pay attention to this when you're looking to buy a generator.

What other considerations should you be aware of?
As you research your generator options, there are a couple other things to take into consideration.

Physical size and weight:  Where do you plan to store your generator?  Will you need to retrieve it and move it when it is needed?  If you have to move your generator into an operating position, make sure you get one that you can move handily.  Make sure that you have a storage space to protect your investment when it's not in use.  Generator exhaust can be deadly, so only run the unit outside, or in a well-ventilated and unoccupied area. They're usually fairly weather resistant, but if you can site them under some kind of overhang or shelter, it will extend the life of the unit and may provide protection from folks who would make off with it. Chains and locks are also commonly used to prevent generator theft.

Two-stroke vs Four-stroke:  Two stroke generators are frequently less expensive, however, they require that their fuel be pre-mixed with oil.  Four-stroke engines do not require pre-mix fuel, and can feed off the same fuel cans as your car.

Noise:  Generators can be quite loud when they're running.  This is annoying, at the very best.  Finding the quietest generator that meets your other performance needs will go a long way towards increasing your comfort in an already stressful situation. 

Fuel: Gasoline is the most common fuel used for generators. It's cheap and readily available. There are also some diesel generators kicking around, but they're usually much larger and more expensive. Store fuel only in containers designed for that fuel, and don't store them inside your home in living areas. For fuel that will be stored more than a month or two, fuel stabilizers are available at local auto parts stores.

Hooking it all up
While there are MacGyver ways to jerry-rig your generator to power your home, these are illegal and dangerous and should never be done. The only safe, legal way to attach a generator to your home is through a transfer switch installed at your breaker box. Unless you are very confident in your electrical abilities, this is best done by a licensed, qualified electrician. It will cost a couple hundred dollars, but protects your generator and home from possible fire or electronic damage, as well as protecting the lives of the linemen working to restore grid power.

Once you're set up with a transfer switch, using generator power is as simple as firing up your generator, plugging it in to the inlet box, then flipping the switch.

You don't have to be in the dark!


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