Electrical Power Generators For The Home

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A generator is one of those items that most homeowners never think of until the day comes when the power goes out. A local electrical outage or natural disaster can leave you in the dark; unable to cook, warm your home or keep perishable food chilled. A home generator can provide backup power for an emergency situation, as well as being useful for camping, working in a remote location or recreational activities.

Home Power Generation Options

There are two basic types of home generators:

Standby units are permanent devices installed outside the home, and wired directly into the home’s electrical system. Most run off the home’s natural gas line or propane tank, and provide continuous power until the electricity is restored.

These generators automatically kick in if a power outage occurs, usually bringing power back to the home within 30 seconds. Standby units are quite expensive, usually over $5,000, and must be installed by a qualified contractor. Unless you have someone in your home on critical electronic medical equipment, or have a home business that could be severely impacted by a power outage, a standby unit is probably not necessary.

Portable generators are the most commonly purchased type. These run on gasoline, diesel or propane, and can cost anywhere from $500 to over $2,000, depending on size and features. Once a portable generator is running, you can plug electrical devices into its outlets, providing power to selected appliances or equipment. Depending on size of the engine, and the demands you put on it, you may need to refill the fuel tank as much as every few hours. This makes portable generators best for short-term use, or powering just a few critical appliances in an emergency.

Choosing A Portable Home Power Generator

There are three main questions to ask when choosing a portable generator.

  • What household appliances do you need to run?
  • What kind of fuel does the generator use?
  • Is the generator easy to start and run?

How Many Watts do You Need?

The more watts of power your generator provides, the more appliances it will be able to run. With more watts, however, the device will also be more expensive, larger, heavier and will require more fuel.

A very general breakdown of wattage is:

  • Small generators provide up to 3,500 watts, and can run a few critical appliances, such as a small refrigerator, some lights, radio and portable fans.
  • Medium generators provide between 3,000 and 5,000 watts, and can run a sump pump, furnace fan, more lights and critical appliances such as the fridge.
  • Large generators with 8,000 to 10,000 watts can provide enough power to run survival appliances as well as a few rooms in your home, but not an air conditioning system.

Normally with a small or medium generator, you will run extension cords through windows or doors from appliances to the generator. For a large generator that is going to plug into the home’s circuits, you will need a device with a transfer switch, which closes the utility power line to your home, and opens a direct line to the generator.

What Kind of Fuel does the Generator Use?

Portable generators run on gasoline, propane or diesel.

  • Gasoline-powered generators are the most common, and provide the highest wattage. Many cities have restrictions on how much gasoline can be stored, however, and in a natural emergency, it may not be easy to purchase more gas.
  • Propane-powered generators provide less wattage, but propane is safer to store and has a longer shelf life than gasoline.
  • Diesel may be difficult to come by in an emergency, and your city may restrict the quantity you can safely store at your home.

Is the Generator Easy to Use?

An emergency is stressful enough without struggling to use your generator. Basic features to look for are:

  • A wheeled frame for moving the generator, especially larger units
  • Electric start button, rather than a start cord that you will have to pull
  • Large fuel tank
  • Sufficient outlets for your needs
  • Muffler if noise is a concern
  • Fuel gauge
  • Low oil indicator
  • Transfer switch on a large generator

Safety when Using a Generator

You don’t want to make an emergency worse by improperly using your generator.

  • Never use a portable generator inside the house, or in a partially enclosed space like the garage.
  • Keep the generator away from windows, doors, vents, crawl spaces or ventilation intakes.
  • Never connect your portable generator directly into your home’s electrical system without a transfer switch.
  • Never plug a portable generator into one of your home’s electrical outlets.
  • Turn the generator off, and let the engine cool down before adding more fuel.
  • Use only heavy-duty, outdoor-approved extension cords to plug into the generator.
  • Don’t overload the generator with more appliances than it is designed to handle.
  • Run the generator on level, dry ground.
  • Empty the fuel tank before storing your generator.

Hopefully, you will rarely have a need for a home generator, but when emergency strikes, you will be thankful to have one on hand. Being able to power a few lights, a radio and the refrigerator can make the difference between a panicky situation, and one that is merely inconvenient.

Last Updated: October 21, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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