The Ultimate Generator Buying Guide: Find Your Safety Solution
The First Question: What is a Generator?
In the chance that the power in your home would go out or not be available for use (as in non-existent), there would need to be some other type of power source. This is where a generator comes in. The generator (depending on which type used) will supply the correct amount of wattage, amperage, and portable electricity to power the necessities of your home – things like major appliances, heaters, or even air conditioners.
There may be different questions about what type of generator a family needs, the amount of power it will provide, and even what size to get. Don't worry, we'll cover all of those questions in this guide.
What Needs Power and What Doesn't?
It's important to know what your power needs are. Will you need a refrigerator? How about your stove? Or, more importantly, heat or air conditioning. These factors must be considered when you're deciding the type of generator you'll need and how many watts to use.
You can use this portable generator wattage calculator for backup, recreational, or job site portable generators. There's also a home backup calculator if you're thinking about getting a standy generator model.
Here are some important items to consider:
- Refrigerator (average 600 watts)
- Window Air Conditioner (1,000 watts)
- Sump Pump (750 - 1000 watts)
- Lights around the house (100-200 watts depending if you're with the LED crowd)
- Computers or Laptops (if you're going to use a charger)
Make your own list and decide what's most important. Each household will be different and it's up to you to prepare. Don't forget to add in additional watts since your needs are different and there's also the possibility of forgetting something.
Main Types of Generators
Although it can seem overwhelming, you might find it easier than you think to pick out the type of generator you're looking to buy. Many generators have a specific purpose and are designed for a certain application such as running an entire home, supplying electricity for appliances, or just using recreationally for an RV or camping.
If you can think about how you will be using your generator at home, this will definitely push you in the right direction for the right equipment. Let's go ahead and cover the different kinds available.
- Start and stop automatically when power is out
- Inform you of any maintenance needed (even with a text!)
- Use natural gas or propane
- Sometimes requires a permit (an electrician can help)
- Can cost between $4,000 - $10,000
- Typically cost more because they're automatic
- The average portable model costs less
- Costs are about $300 - $1,000
- Offer electric starting (less pull starting)
- Require stabilizer periodically for stored gas
- Typically cost more because they're automatic
- Batteries for electric start may not be included
A Breed of Their Own: Inverter Generators
Inverter Generators have a specific job. They are used for recreational events and activities such as camping, tailgating, sports events, or for boats & RVs. They are portable and use less power which usually means you will not be able to run them as hard.
Another advantage to an inverter generator is that they run quietly. They are designed this way to ensure limited noise in an environment such as a campground. You also get the added benefit of not frying your sensitive electronics. It's important to remember these little things because that's what's going to set the inverter generator apart from a typical, cheaper portable alternative.
Other Features / Benefits
Although this may (or may not) seem like a laundry list, there are some options to consider when looking into your next (or first) generator.
Does Automatic Start & Stop Appeal to You?
With standby generators, you'll get the comfort of knowing that in the case of an outage, your power will continue to run and it should be seamless (given the generator is ocassionally tested). Otherwise, you'll be the one to start the generator, hook it up for power and monitor the status.
Will You Need an Electric Start?
Without an electric start, you are required to pull start the engine (similar to a push mower). If this is no problem, then you don't have to worry. But, you may regret it in the future without it! As previously mentioned, you'll need to purchase a battery for the electric start and make sure it's kept up to date.
Are You Rolling With Wheels?
I doubt you'll find a standby/stationary generator with wheels, but they are often found on portable models. And, sometimes, they're not included at all. How about those accessories! You're looking at about 100-200 pounds for some models, so take that into consideration.
Gauge for Checking Fuel Levels
For an extended period of time (like a blackout) it is critical that you keep informed with how much fuel available in your generator. Without knowing, you'll have to worry about restarting and losing power. You can relate it to driving your car without a gas gauge -- it's possible, but not fun.
Having Multiple Outlets Ready
Instead of running 1,000 watts directly from one outlet, it helps to spread the load across more than one outlet. This also prevents possibly using an extension cord in a pinch with a 3-way on it. Definitely not safe.
Interested in a Quick Video? Here's a Less Than One Minute Short from Amazon
The Correct Size: Is There a Right or Wrong?
When speaking in terms of size for a generator, we're not talking about wattage, but physical size. Depending on what you will need running once your power goes out will also determine how you'll move it around.
If you remember, in the features and benefits section, wheels were listed as a feature. This is where size comes into play. Moving a 100-200 pound generator around isn't going to be easy for some, although many of you out there might be up to the challenge 😉
There really isn't a right or wrong size, but more importantly, what is the correct size for your situation?
Remember to think about the following when you need to know what size to use:
- Does the generator come with wheels?
- If I need more wattage, will I be moving it frequently?
- Do I Need a Larger Fuel Tank?
Portable generators are usually underrated for running a whole house, they are for a limited number of items.
Finding The Perfect Wattage
It's hard to think about all of the factors when considering size, weight, features, and everything else that comes with the decision of getting a generator. This section about wattage is the most important because without the right power being distributed, you can end up with electronics that fry or are seriously damaged by too much electricity.
You may come across the terms rated wattage and maximum wattage. These determine whether the generator is running at a continuous (rated) or maximum power. When running something like a desktop computer, this requires a continuous load because the electricity is consistent the entire time the computer is on.
On the other hand, if you're running something like a television, the wattage will only be used while the TV is on. The wattage might peak over the continuous, but not the maximum. Keep in mind: the television example is not typical -- I don't think a newer television would consume upwards of 1,000 watts!
Generator Runtime: A Feature Not To Overlook
There was a brief mention about having a larger fuel tank for a longer runtime. This is just one benefit of having a generator that will last long enough for your needs.
The importance of runtime is that of safety. When a family is in a blackout and trying to make due of everything around them, they shouldn't have to worry about how long the generator is going to last when there's food, light, and possibly weather to worry about.
Having the longest runtime also means being proactive with taking care of your gasoline. Make sure to add stabilizer if necessary and find a generator that is genuinely good (or great) for your needs. Being on the more affordable side of the scale may not get you the additional 1-2 hours of extra runtime.
Be prepared for your next blackout. Go buy a generator. @Lawnaholic
The Transfer Switch (or a budget friendly alternative)
Connecting your generator to the breaker panel in your home is no easy feat. Once you get the generator going, you have to bring all of that nice juicy power into the house for the juicy fruit in the fridge. Especially after a storm when you may consider bypassing the most important steps, you want to be safe.
Consumer Reports in this transfer switch article talks about why a generator needs one and a more in-depth look at what it does. Without regurgitating the great information there, I'll summarize.
Basically, when the power goes out, you need to connect your generator to the power source to provide the correct watts and needs for the electrical items in your home. Residential transfer switches can range from $250 - $300 (plus $200-$400 in labor) according to Popular Mechanics. These costs are typically associated with a six-circuit switch which is a more common circuit.
Using a transfer switch is no joke and should be taken seriously! Installation is critical and no matter the wattage of your generator (typically 5,000 watts plus), the setup will significantly matter. Read about using a professional and where to find one in the next section.
If you're looking to cover your home with a generator and simply cannot work the additional $700+ into your project costs, then you can think about using an interlock kit. This should also be installed by a professional and avoided if possible. Basically this is added protection for your service panel to prevent backfeeding of power and also making sure the generator doesn't get destroyed. Backfeeding is both dangerous and illegal. Take the necessary precautions to prevent this!
Can a portable generator run indoors?
There is never a safe time to use a generator in an enclosed area. When a generator is running with a gas engine, carbon monoxide is emitted and can (and will be) fatal. Carbon monoxide is a very poisonous gas that a human cannot tell they are inhaling. Please don't assume that you might be an exception. The exhaust will cause death in ONLY MINUTES. Not something anyone should play around with.
Should I Leave a Generator Running While Fuel is Added?
The engine on the generator should be completely cooled before adding new fuel. You'll need to coordinate use of your electronics, appliances, and other items being run by the generator. Depending on the model, it can take anywhere from ten minutes or more before the engine is cooled enough.
How Far Should a [Portable] Generator Be Placed From a Home?
A very good distance is at least 15-20 feet. With this as a safe distance, there will be proper ventilation and, as an added benefit, it will be more quiet from inside the house! But, maybe a little louder for your neighbors...
Does Fuel Stay in the Tank When Storing My Generator?
The gas tank should be empty when storing. However, if the gas remains in the tank, make sure to add fuel stabilizer to keep the gas fresh.
Fuel stabilizer prevents things like rust and corrosion from getting into the gas tank.
Find & Hire a Contractor (Here's Why)
In the previous section, we talked about backfeeding. This can be extremely dangerous and even fatal in the worst cases.
Here's the deal: when a generator starts, it is actually generating electricity. If the generator is incorrectly hooked up to your breaker panel, the electricity will go back up the neighborhood electric lines and will try to power your surrounding neighbors homes!
If there is a utility worker or someone working on a line near you, they will have a surge of electricity that they aren't expecting. When something happens to them while working, the person with the generator could face legal consequences for the harm of that utility worker.
In short, take the best practices on this type of project and don't try to do the DIY approach unless you really know what you are doing. It's not worth the risk.
Head over to porch.com for a general contractor to set you up with an installation of your new generator. Specifically, you will need an electrician to do the work. They can help you decided on the best features for a transfer switch and the correct setup.
Wrapping It Up
Deciding to purchase a generator is a big deal. This is your safety net for when the unexpected happens. A situation we don't have any control over and have to deal with. From a personal standpoint, I feel that the extra money and features should be thoughtfully considered.
I know that if everyone had the financial capability, we would all go for the standby generator, right? But, since all of us aren't millionaires, let's think about what we really need. Kind of like insurance -- pay the higher premium monthly or have a higher deductible at the time it's due?
Think about it.