The Ins and Outs of Generators

After (or during) a power outage, people often say, “I wish I had a generator!”

People think of purchasing a generator when their power is out, which is, of course, too late. If you live in the Northeast, you should be proactive when it comes to purchasing a generator – even if it means starting to save now for next year or the year after that! The increased frequency of major storms makes it a wise choice to plan for the purchase of a generator before you actually need to use one.

A generator not only keeps your house warm in the winter and cool in the summer; it also prevents food from spoiling and allows you to prepare meals, plug in your electronics so they won’t run out of battery life, and listen to the weather forecasts.

Here are some things to consider when deciding on a generator.

How Much Power Will You Need?

Generators are measured in watts. It normally requires around 10,000 watts to partially power an average 1,800-square-foot home with gas appliances. Make a list of what you can’t go without when the power is down, and then add up the watts that will be consumed. For example, on average a refrigerator requires 600 watts, a sump pump can take up to 1,500, and computers can range from 60 to 800, depending on how many devices you have.

The amount of power a generator delivers will determine how many lights and appliances you can run at once.

Whole House, Partial House, or Portable Generator?

It’s a choice between the convenience of a permanently installed whole house generator and the flexibility of a portable generator. There are also cost factors to consider.

cape cod home generator
A whole-house generator from Kohler; photo via website.

Let’s take a look:

Partial and whole house backup generators should be installed by a professional, and unit costs run between $4,000 and $6,000 (based on 8kW-14kW) for partial home and start at around $7,000 to run the whole house (based on a 20kW unit). You will need the services of an electrician to help with town or municipal permits, noise restrictions and the proper location and installation. Therefore, you’ll be paying for labor, general connection materials, permit fees, excavation, landscaping and plumbing over and above the cost of the equipment.

The advantages of a whole house, permanently installed generator include:

  • They start automatically when the power goes out;
  • They typically supply more power than portable generators;
  • They can run off propane, which is less risky to store than gasoline, or natural gas, which provides an unlimited supply of power;
  • They generate up to 20,000 watts (for air-cooled units; higher kW ratings are available in water-cooled units for substantially larger homes)
  • There is less danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Portable generators are less expensive and don’t require installation. You can take it right out of the box, install a UL listed Interlock Kit (if available for your panel) in conjunction with proper wiring, add gas and oil, and fire it up. However, portable generators typically max out at about 12,000, meaning you can power a gas furnace, but not an electric range and dryer at the same time. You’ll also need to store large quantities of gasoline, because some burn close to a gallon an hour at peak capacity. And you’ll need a model-specific canopy in order to run the generator during inclement weather, which is normally the case during a power outage. Finally, there is some effort involved in pulling the generator out and refueling it when the power goes down.

A portable generator from Kohler; photo via website.

But the unit cost, ranging from $400 to $2,500 is attractive, and most portable generators are sufficient for the average home.

It’s important to remember that portable generators can quickly produce deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Some models feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if CO builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space. But even with such safety measures, the generator should always be placed at least 20 feet from your home, with the exhaust directed away from windows, doors and air conditioners.

Finally, whether you select a whole house, partial house or a portable generator, you should have a licensed electrician install a transfer switch, which allows you to connect your generator to your home’s circuit breaker panel. You can then power entire circuits rather than using extension cords to plug in equipment and devices one at a time.

cape cod home remodeling
Transfer Switch Installation; Photo via Aflak Home Improvement

The transfer switch isolates selected circuits to your home from the power lines, preventing back-feed, which can not only damage the generator, but has the potential to cause a fire and could electrocute technicians who are working on the lines.

If the disruption to your daily routine caused by power outages sends chills through your spine – both literally and figuratively – now may be the time to start implementing a plan to equip your home with a generator.