As we approach the end of the fall season and begin to prepare for winter weather, homeowners commonly consider purchasing a generator for emergency power during a storm. One can be tempted to purchase a generator because of a low price or a sale. I advise anyone considering such a purchase to do your research and hold off purchasing your generator until you can be sure you are not only getting a good deal, but the generator you buy will serve your needs effectively. This will ensure you not only buy a quality product, but also will have plenty of power to operate the essentials to help you survive a storm comfortably providing sufficient power for lighting, heat, and whatever you deem necessary during a power outage.
Purchasing a generator for backup power is not a decision to be made quickly and easily as there are several factors one must consider to be sure the generator purchased will serve you well and be a reliable source of power in case of an emergency. I have assembled a comprehensive list of information for you, the consumer to aid in your search for the perfect generator for your needs.
Avoid Generator Overloading: Buy Enough Power
One of the most common mistakes consumers make when purchasing a generator is buying a generator that does not provide enough output power. A generator’s power rating consists of the TOTAL wattage a generator is capable of providing. For example, most 2000 watt generators will produce a maximum 2000 watts or power. However, it is never advisable to operate your generator for long periods of time at full power output as this can and will overwork the generator and the internal components will wear faster than normal as well as shortening run times due to the amount of fuel the generator will consume to continually produce maximum wattage. Operating a generator at maximum wattage can also cause sudden overload resulting in potential damage to your generator and sudden generator shut down.
Nearly all generator manufacturers suggest right in the owner’s manual to make sure your operate the generator at no more than 75% of the total available wattage to avoid excessive wear and tear on the generator and maintain maximum fuel efficiency for longest possible run times and just as important will leave a ‘buffer’ to help avoid an overload in the case of a sudden spike in power consumption. A generator rated at 2000 watts is designed to provide approx 1500-1600 continuous watts with a maximum 2000 watts available. If you were to run this generator at the maximum 2000 watts continuously, even a slight increase of 20-30 watts from turning on a table lamp will cause the generator to overload, possibly resulting in damage to the generator’s components.
Will You Have Enough Power?
In order to make sure you will have plenty of power for your needs, It is VERY important that you take inventory and make a definitive list of what appliances, electronics and other equipment you will need to operate during a power outage. This list should include each item you want to operate during an outage along with the item’s running wattage, and in the case of some appliances or equipment, the starting wattage as well. Everything that requires electrical power to operate possesses a ‘running’ wattage, meaning the amount of power measured in watts a device or appliance will consume in order to operate as intended and provide the item with sufficient power to run. Some appliances and equipment require additional wattage during start up. To aid in your research our friends at Honda have provided a website that explains starting vs running wattage in detail. You can also find a handy wattage calculator to help you determine your total power needs. You can find this information here: http://powerequipment.honda.com/generators/generator-how-much-power.
Buy More Than You Need
Once you have determined the running and starting wattage requirements for the appliances, devices and equipment you want to run during an outage, the next step is to look for generators that provide 25-50% more power than the maximum wattage you will need. This will ensure you have sufficient power, but you also have enough power to handle additional wattage should the need arise while you avoid overloading your generator.
How Will You Use It?
After you’ve narrowed your potential selection down to the generators that provide enough power for your needs, you will want to consider the applications in which you will use the generator. Will this be a semi-permanent/permanent installation, or do you plan to use your generator at home as well as a tailgate party at the game? Do you plan to power sensitive electronics such as a television, satellite receiver box or laptop computer? Will you use the generator to power your travel trailer or RV? All of these are good questions and play an important role in your decision. Portability, noise level, type of available connections and stable power for sensitive electronics are all options offered. However, not every generator offers all of the available options so keep this in mind during your search for the perfect generator for your needs and application(s).
Never Operate your generator in an enclosed space nor in close proximity to your home. Like all fuel powered engines, generator engines produce carbon monoxide. Also known as CO2, Carbon Monoxide is a gas that is toxic to the human body. Improper ventilation can lead to CO2 poisoning resulting in severe illness and in some cases death. NEVER operate a fuel powered engine indoors or in your garage. Likewise, ensure that your generator is a minimum of 25 feet from your home. Keep in mind that even at a 25 foot distance, wind shifts and air flow may still push exhaust and CO2 into your home through windows, vents, even the attic. It is advised to maintain working Carbon Monoxide detectors in your home especially while operating your generator. Most importantly, while operating your generator; if you begin to feel dizzy, weak and/or sick get fresh air IMMEDIATELY and seek medical attention.
Don’t be shocked!
Avoid risk of electrical shock/electrocution by keeping the generator dry. DO NOT use your generator in open rain or wet conditions. Be sure you operate your generator on a dry surface, preferably under an open canopy designed to keep the generator from getting wet while allowing plenty of ventilation. Never allow water or moisture to come in contact with the power outlets and electrical controls of your generator. If this should happen, DO NOT USE the generator until the generator is dry.
Avoid the potential for fire especially during refueling. Generator engines, just like any other engine will get hot during use, more so during extended/continuous use. Shut down your generator and let it cool BEFORE attempting to refuel. Fuel spilled on a hot engine component can ignite resulting in a fire and possibly an explosion. Store your fuel in a proper, approved container and store the container in an appropriate, safe location outside your home such as a secured shed. Your local laws may dictate how fuel is stored. It is always a good idea to check with your local fire dept for accurate information regarding your local laws and the safe storage of fuel in your area.
Be sure you properly clean up any spilled fuel and make sure the storage container is properly sealed. Fuel vapors can travel and ignition sources such as a water heater pilot light or electrical arcs could ignite causing potential fire and explosion hazards. ALWAYS use the type of fuel your generator manufacturer recommends. This information can be found in your owner’s manual. Do Not attempt to disable, remove or otherwise modify your generator’s fuel system. The generator could be damaged and the risk of fire or explosion increases greatly if you do.
Plug your appliances, lamps, etc directly into the generator outlets, or utilize a heavy duty extension cord designed for outdoor use. Ensure the extension cord is rated for the number of watts/amps that is ATLEAST equal to the sum of the connected appliances and devices. Failure to do so can result in a fire, electrical shock or worse, damage to your generator. Additionally, choose an extension cord length that is sufficient for the distance required. Using a longer length of extension cord than you need could cause extra resistance and in turn, force your generator work harder potentially resulting in damage to the generator.
Back Feeding – Don’t Do It!
Back Feeding’ is a technique that involves connecting a generator outlet directly to your home through a wall or dryer outlet. This technique, is not only very dangerous and unpredictable, but also illegal in all 50 states. Back Feeding’ power to your home is very dangerous, easily causing injury or even death to you, those in your home and any power company technicians who could be working on nearby lines trying to restore power to your neighborhood. Back-Feeding can also potentially cause a serious fire.
In short, the ONLY safe method of connecting a generator to your home is to purchase and then have a qualified licensed electrician install a power transfer switch. The power transfer switch is an electrical switch that allows you to switch between generator power and your normal grid power. The switch is installed next to your home’s current fuse box. In the event of a power outage, the transfer switch allows you to safely power your home with your generator, eliminating the need for multiple extension cords and keeping not only those in your home safe, but also helping to keep those previously mentioned utility workers safe as well. Here is an excellent article on the dangers of Back Feeding, and why using a properly installed transfer switch is important.
Improper use of your generator can result in Carbon Monoxide (CO2) poisoning as well as the potential electrocution and/or fire. MAKE SURE YOU READ AND FULLY UNDERSTAND THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN YOUR OWNER’S MANUAL, Especially the safety information. A complete understanding of how your generator works and how to use the generator safely is paramount and should always be priority.
It’s All About The Connection
In order to supply power to your home, you have two choices: 1) Connecting your appliances and devices directly to the generator using extensions cords; or 2) connecting the generator to your home. Depending on the power output of your generator and the features it has to offer, Direct connection maybe your only option. Generators designed to supply backup power to your home will generally be rated at a minimum of 5000 watts. A Generator rated for less than 5000 watts is usually designed to supply power through direct connection, either through 110v and/or 30A RV receptacle style outlets. Whether you plan to connect direct or supply power to your home, make sure you follow all instructions in your owner’s manual and adhere to all safety recommendations. At the very least, seek out a specialist such as a licensed electrician to help ensure you are providing your home with back up power safely.
Finally, when you shop for a generator make sure you have brought along your list of wattage needs, any notes you may have taken regarding your situation, and how you plan to use your generator as well as any concerns or other various questions you may have. Be sure to have all of your questions answered fully. No question is silly when it comes to your money and your safety. I recommend you visit your local specialized generator and power equipment dealer. The sales people you will encounter are generally very knowledgeable and have been certified and authorized by the manufacturers to sell and service their equipment for their customers and they almost always possess the extensive specialized knowledge to serve you and your needs best. The big box stores may have slightly lower prices, but lack the specialized brand and equipment knowledge necessary in order to provide you with the most accurate information possible when helping you select the right generator for YOU. The big box stores usually will not be able to offer you solid after sales service and support, leaving you to fend for yourself should a problem with your generator arise.