Due to hurricanes, snowstorms, and heat waves, combined with the advancing age of the US power grid, blackouts have increased by 124 percent over the past two decades, according to one study. Sometimes the effects of a blackout are merely inconvenient, like a refrigerator full of spoiled food, but without power to keep medical equipment operating or run the furnace in freezing temperatures, the outcome may be worse. To ensure both convenience and safety during an outage, proactive homeowners should consider their options for backup generators.

Portable Generators vs. Standby Generators

The easiest and cheapest way to power your home during a blackout is with a portable, gas-powered generator. A homeowner with modest power needs can be up and running in just a few minutes by plugging appliances and fixtures directly into the generator with extension cords. For even more convenience, portable generators can power entire circuits in the house via a professionally installed manual transfer switch at the main circuit panel. The downsides of portable generators include being noisy—some homeowners’ associations or city ordinances may even restrict their use—and having small gas tanks that may not be able to meet your power needs throughout a lengthy outage.

If you live in an area prone to severe weather and extended blackouts, a permanently installed standby generator may be worth the investment. Standby generators are installed on a concrete pad outside the house and hardwired to the main electrical panel via an automatic transfer switch that starts the generator when a loss of grid power is detected. A home’s existing natural gas hookup can be used to power the generator, but in areas without natural gas, a propane or diesel tank can also be installed. Like portable generators, standby generators are available in a range of sizes, the largest of which can easily power your entire home.

Sizing a Generator

You can start calculating your electricity needs by identifying which appliances or circuits you’d like to power in the event of a blackout. Remember that the load a generator can handle is proportional to its cost, so select your must-have appliances judiciously to stay within your budget.

Next, add up the watts required by all the appliances or circuits you’ll use during a blackout. Keep in mind that most appliances require an initial surge of electricity to get started. Starting-power demands are two to three times higher than running demands for most electrical equipment, but the difference is particularly dramatic for many air conditioners, which require about 30,000 watts to get started and only about 5,000 watts to keep running. Both appliances and generators are rated and labeled for surge watts and run watts, so making sure your generator can do the job should be straightforward.

Other Considerations

Here are a few other factors to remember when selecting and operating a backup generator:

  • If you’ll need to run sensitive electronics such as computers or some medical equipment, consider a generator with a power inverter that dispenses a stable supply of electricity. Otherwise, the fluctuating power produced by most generators may cause your electronics to malfunction.

  • According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there’s a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. One study even states that 695 of the 881 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in the US from 1999 to 2011 were associated with generators. Make sure that you never operate a portable generator inside a garage or next to a vent that leads indoors. Ideally, portable generators should be operated at least ten feet away from the house.

  • Operating a portable generator by plugging it into a wall outlet could cause a fire or backfeed electricity, sending voltage from your home back into the power grid. During a blackout, backfeeding electricity could be deadly to a utility worker fixing a downed line. When using a portable generator, either plug appliances directly into it using extension cords or hook the generator into your house via a manual transfer switch.

Preparedness is crucial for making it through a blackout in maximum comfort and safety. If your power supply is touch-and-go during extreme weather, take matters into your own hands now by learning all you can about your options for backup generators.

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Sources: CNN; EBSCOhost Home Improvement Reference Center: Complete Guide to Wiring; IEEE Spectrum; Popular Mechanics; The Sun Chronicle.

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