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portable generator outside

After Superstorm Sandy, many people chose to get a standby generator. Here’s what you need to know about choosing the right generator before the next storm.

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The last several years have brought some wicked weather across North America, and one of the hardest hit areas has been the U.S. Northeast. Since 2012, those of us here in the far eastern area of Pennsylvania have seen more than our share of severe nor’easters, a winter that was one for the record books, Hurricane Irene and of course, her much bigger and nastier sister, Superstorm Sandy.

When flooding, high winds and colossal snows come calling, what else happens? The power goes out.

That’s why suddenly, every home in the area seems to have a backup generator. These handsome little units usually sit just outside the back door, ready to kick on at a moment’s notice. Getting a glimpse of Sandy’s winds was enough for us. We jumped onto the generator bandwagon with enthusiasm!

How to get started with a home generator

Preparing for buying a home generator means understanding your house and your power needs. Begin by figuring out exactly what kind of power you have flowing to your house right now, and how much of it you really use. Most homes have at least a 200-amp service, but some have more, and some (like mine) have less. If you are out in the wilderness and use propane for heating, you can likely get away with a 100-amp service. You usually never use the full amount of electricity that your home is wired to use; your service reflects the maximum amount that you can use if you need to.

So how much do you use? Look at the appliances that pull the most amperage. This is likely your furnace and your central air unit. The label on most models will show how much it uses, broken down into amps, tons, or BTUs. Write down how many amps it draws, then move your way down the list of things in your home that you will want to power during an outage.

Add up the amps

For instance, you can ignore the washer and dryer, as you probably won’t be using those in an emergency. But you will want to run the refrigerator to keep your food cold, and maybe your stove as well. Write down the power draw of every item you think you might want to fire up. Add it all up and them multiply it by 1.5. This adds in the extra “crank power” that appliances need to start up.

Here’s the good news: Most generators today are smart enough to “lock out” any item that pulls too much power when it starts up. For example, if you have a generator that isn’t designed to power your furnace, it will “lock it out” when the furnace tries to kick on, preventing it from drawing power away from the other more necessary appliances. A good generator contractor can tell you exactly how many kilowatts you will need, and what will run on the size generator you choose.

portable generator lawn siding

Permits, placement, and conditions

Generator units typically have clear requirements for installation and must follow local ordinances. For our generator, the unit had to be at least ten feet away from any wall of the home, to avoid the risks of carbon monoxide. No less than a 500-gallon propane tank was recommended, but 1,000 gallons is considered much better. You will likely need a permit, and it might restrict where you can put your generator or how big it can be. Our township required that the generator not be visible from the road, which required us to either put it behind the garage or plant shrubs in front of the most convenient place for it.

It is always a good idea to put the generator as close to your electrical panel as possible, and can actually save you money. For instance, if we had chosen to put our generator next to the garage, we would have had to dig a trench from the garage to the house — and that would have meant several thousand dollars in addition to the generator cost. It was obviously cheaper to spend a few hundred dollars on shrubs to cover up the generator and put it in the most advantageous place!

If you have had any troubles with your electric service in the past, such as flickering lights or outlets that seem to overload for no reason, talk to an electrician before you bring in the generator. You might have an underlying problem that could make it impossible to use the generator when the time comes.

Other points to ponder

Remember that if you do not have natural gas or propane, you will need to get one or the other in order to run the generator when the power goes out. For many homeowners, that can be a large expense, possibly enough to make you abandon the idea of a standby generator altogether. In that case, a small portable generator can be a good way to power a few things in your home during a short power outage.

In addition to the generator, you will want a transfer switch. This switch will power up the generator when the electrical grid goes down, and you don’t have to be home for it to work. It simply switches over seamlessly. Keep in mind, however, that the moment it switches over, it begins to burn your fuel. A big generator running at full capacity can drain a propane tank in a matter of days, so it pays to stick close to home when storms are brewing, just in case.

Seek out the experts

Finally, keep in mind that most standby generators require serious skill to install, so hiring a professional contractor is likely your best bet. Look for someone who can do it all in one complete package, requiring you to simply write a check and watch them work. Get started now, because generators are in high demand, and in some place there is a waiting list of several months to get the backup power ready to go.

 

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.