DEAR TIM: The last major storm knocked out my electric power for days. I'm wondering if I should invest in a portable generator or a standby generator. What's the difference in these home generators? How do you determine what size electric generator to purchase? Do you think I can install a standby generator myself as I'm pretty handy? Bonnie S., Burlington, VT
DEAR BONNIE: Two months ago Hurricane Ike ravaged Cincinnati, OH. It was a cloudless blue-sky day with fierce sustained winds. My house there lost power, and it wasn't restored for five agonizing days. The loss of electricity shredded the social fabric of the family as if it were tissue paper. Electricity is almost as important as oxygen in some respects. When it's there, you don't even think about it, but when it's gone, you get desperate in a hurry.
Home generators are gaining in popularity for many reasons. After this storm event, I was bound and determined to get a standby generator, especially for the winter season when vicious ice storms can create power outages for weeks in some remote areas.
There's a huge difference between portable generators and standby generators. A portable generator is one you can move around. The ones most homeowners recognize are those that are the size of a medium picnic cooler and are powered by a small gasoline engine. Contractors often use these on jobsites when regular electricity is not yet connected.
These small portable generators are not designed to power an entire house. The intention is for you to run one or several extension cords from the generator directly to the appliance you wish to power. You may connect it to a refrigerator for a few hours, then a window air conditioner, and maybe a few table lamps. Forget about connecting all of your appliances at once to a small portable generator. It simply will not work.
A standby generator is a larger fixed device that resembles an outdoor air conditioning compressor. They are capable of generating enough power to keep many essential electrical devices operating at once, or you can invest in a standby generator that can operate every electrical appliance and light in your house all at once.
The standby generators are not meant to be installed by a homeowner. Not only do you have to connect a fuel source to it such as propane or natural gas, but you also have to hard wire the generator into your electrical system. This is fairly complex and best done by professionals. What's more, you need to install a sophisticated transfer switch with a separate electrical panel that contains the electrical circuits that will be powered when the generator turns on.
One primary difference between a standby generator and a portable one is the standby generator will turn itself on when the primary electric to your home is knocked out. This is accomplished by the transfer switch, and can have your lights back on in as little as ten seconds. When the utility company finally restores your power, the transfer switch senses this and shuts off your generator.
Extension cords are not used with a standby generator. All of your appliances remain plugged into their wall outlets. The electrician, with your input, decides which circuits in your home to connect to the generator. This allows you to purchase the correct-sized generator. If you decide to power just a part of your home, the other areas will be dark and off the grid. Think about what appliances and rooms of your house you can survive in until the utility company gets power back to your home.
Some standby generators come with software that allows you to check the status of your generator if you're not at home. This software can also communicate with you or a service company if it senses something is wrong that might cause the generator to fail in the event of a power outage. This allows you to have it repaired so that it will be working when you need it most.
Portable generators can get you by in an emergency, but they are not in the same league as a standby generator. In an emergency, you need to drag out the portable generator, and safely string all the extension cords. You then need to add fuel to the engine on a regular basis day and night. It can be a hassle. You also need to be very careful about placing it near the partially open window or door that the cords pass through. The carbon monoxide fumes from the engine exhaust can drift indoors.
My standby generator produces 17,000 watts of power. This isn't enough to completely power everything in my home, but it will allow me to keep my boiler in operation as well as all the recirculation pumps. My refrigerator, electric oven and many light circuits will also be powered. I'll even have plenty of power to operate my well pump. This means that as long as my buried 1,000-gallon propane tank doesn't run dry, I'll be able to survive for weeks.
Standby generators require periodic maintenance as they contain engines that spin the actual generator. Often you can do this maintenance yourself. If you want a company to do this, they will gladly take care of it.