When the power goes out in your home, if you don’t have a generator, life can quickly slide south. Your beloved home transforms into a dreary world without hot showers or microwaves, where entertainment options shrink to endless rounds of Monopoly and Candyland. Having a generator can save you a ton of money on spoiled food, medicine, and days of discomfort in the humid aftermath of a storm.
Choosing the Right Generator for Your Home
The main decision is whether you will buy a home standby generator or a portable generator. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
Automatically supplies power in an outage.
Permanently installed, can use existing fuel line where available.
Run at reduced noise levels and perform self-diagnostics.
Powers entire house
Cost of the unit itself
May require a propane tank
Requires enough yard space to safely place the generator away from house
Least expensive option
Can easily be moved to a new house if you move
Cheaper to maintain
Typically requires a sub-panel to power selected circuits
Extension cords must be laid out on the wet ground
Much more difficult to set up during a storm (in the wind and rain)
Does not have an enclosure, so your generator itself is susceptible to damage by water
Requires storing gasoline indoors which is very dangerous
Requires refilling a hot engine with gas cans and funnel
Expensive to fill up the fuel tank, also difficult or impossible to find gasoline during a disaster
CAUTION: Avoid canopies or carports, doors and windows to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning that can result in death. It’s worthwhile to buy a carbon monoxide detector that can warn you if generator exhaust makes air quality in the home dangerous.
The Advantage of Standby Generators
Home standby generators switch on when your power goes out without any action on your part. If you frequently lose power and wish to keep all appliances going, this is the choice for you. Standard standby generators can power central air, your kitchen appliances, and other outlets at the same time. They make a fraction of the noise of portable generators and are cord-free. However, they are much more expensive because they require a permanent installation by an electrician.
In a home standby scenario, a transfer switch monitors power. When the electricity goes outside the normal parameters, the generator automatically turns on, even if no one’s home. When utility power is restored, the transfer switch turns off the generator and switches back to utility power.
Home standby generators connect to a natural gas or propane supply, which are typically buried underground. If you don’t already have a natural gas line to your house, you will have to get a propane tank installed. The propane tank can either be bought or leased from the propane company and they will pipe the propane line over to your generator. They can remotely monitor your propane usage and come out to fill up your tank when the tank is low. Most customers purchase a tank of 250 to 500 gallons of propane. Most houses burn between 1-2 gallons of propane per hour, so the average house can go for 4-5 days on a 250-gallon tank. This is a very rough average and you should have a professional do a site assessment to see what your actual usage will be.
Selecting a Home Generator Size
Here in central Florida, about 90% of our customers purchase a 22kW generator with a 200 amp switch. A 22kw will typically power 1 large (5 ton) or two smaller central air conditioners. Because so much power is required to start an air conditioner compressor, there is plenty of power for the rest of your appliances, lights, outlets, etc. The typical cost of installation ranges from $8500 to $12500, with the cost variance being if the customer has natural gas or requires a propane tank. If you already have natural gas at your house, you will be toward the bottom of the cost range. If you require a propane tank, you will be somewhere toward the higher end of the range, depending on what size fuel tank you decide to get. It is always best to have an electrician that specializes in generators installation do a site assessment for your home and go over your specific requirements. The internet is good for general research, but nothing beats having a professional in your home with first-hand knowledge of your electrical needs (which we do for free).
Selecting a Portable Generator
Prices for portable generators range run from $500 to $2,500, with units that can handle 3,250 to 17,500 watts. Options include:
wheels (get them, generators are heavy)
electric rather than the pull start
Consider how long you want the generator to run between refills. Buy extra gas cans and be sure to have plenty of fuel onsite. Some larger generators can burn 15 gallons of gas in 10 hours, so if you buy a larger portable (over 10kW), you may need at least (6) 5-gallon gas cans per day!
Never go with borderline generator size. For example, if your refrigerator says it takes 800 watts to run. Do not try to operate it on a 1000 watt generator. It might work for a little while, but you will do damage to the refrigerator compressor and also the generator. Buy something with “surge watts” well in excess of any equipment you hope to operate. It is always good to leave at least 20-30% extra capacity to prevent overloads. In the portable generator market, we are only talking about a couple hundred dollars, much cheaper than a new air refrigerator or appliance.
The type of generator you get depends on what your budget allows and the needs of your family. Preparing for emergencies makes losing power a lot less onerous.