I recently got a request from a listener named Don. He asked me to discuss home generators. On the heels of so many storms that have affected the United States and the Caribbean, we definitely need to at least consider installing a home generator. They can provide power during the outages that often accompany major storms. Thank you, Don, for a great show idea. Let’s get right to it.
There are 2 general types of generators that can be used during power outages— standby generators and backup generators.
Standby generators are permanently installed on a concrete pad near your house, similar to how an air conditioning unit is installed.
Backup generators are basically small engines that run on gasoline or diesel fuel. Backup generators are on wheels, so they’re portable. These portable generators are really loud and they have to be refueled frequently, so you’ll need to store gasoline nearby.
PORTABLE, BACKUP GENERATORS
Portable, backup generators are designed primarily for job sites, camping, tailgating and other mobile activities, but some homeowners use them for their homes during power outages to power individual appliances, like refrigerators and lamps. They’re actually unable to generate enough electricity for the whole house, so you’ll need to pick and choose what appliances you want to be powered. And you’ll need to use extension cords to get power from the generator to those appliances.
These units tend to cost less than permanent standby generators, usually ranging from $500 to $3000. You can find lots of models for under $1000.
You can use backup generators anywhere, on, or off your property, but they must be located in an open, unenclosed area, about 5 to 15 feet away from your house, doors, and windows. This is to keep the carbon monoxide fumes produced by the generator engine away from the house. The units also need to be under cover when it's raining.
During a power outage, you would need to find your way to the backup generator and start it up. They typically provide from 3,000 to 10,000 watts of power, again, enough for a few appliances, but not an entire average sized house.
Ok, let’s talk about the other option.
PERMANENT, STANDBY GENERATORS
Installing a permanent, standby generator is what you’ll need to power all the essential circuits in your home. These essential circuits might include an air conditioning unit, electric heat or electric water heaters, as well as a few lights and home appliances. These standby generators are particularly helpful for people who work from home, or who use electric home medical equipment.
Standby generators have an automatic transfer switch. When the power goes out, the automatic transfer switch disconnects your house from the city or county power grid and starts up your generator, automatically, in a matter of seconds, whether you’re at home or not. That switch will also detect when the main power comes back on. It will then shut down your generator and reconnect to the county grid, automatically.
The cost of a quality standby generator that can supply electricity for the most essential circuits in the house is around $2000, and that doesn’t include installation. If you want your whole house to run close to normal during a power outage, you’ll pay a lot more for those larger units, with some models costing up to $20,000.
You'll also need to pay for the fuel needed to run the generator. A fully loaded 7000 watt generator uses, on average, about $2.23 worth of natural gas per hour. And you might use more than double that amount of natural gas for a large 20,000 watt generator.
Standby generators range from roughly 5,000 to over 20,000 watts. To figure out what size generator is best for you, there are online calculators that will allow you to input all the systems and appliances that you want your generator to run during a power outage. But to give you some idea of the amount of power you might need, here are a few number to keep in mind.
A Refrigerator uses 150 to 400 watts
A Flat screen TV uses 60 to 115 watts
A Central Air Conditioner uses 1000 to 4000 watts
You’ll want to make sure the standby generator is sized properly. An undersized generator can cause appliances to overheat and stop working.
Standby generators should be installed by professionals, usually an electrician and/or plumber with generator installation experience. Standby units are much easier to maintain than portable generators. Since many models run on natural gas, they do not need to refueled. If natural gas is not available on your property, liquid propane and diesel fuel options are available.
The liquid propane or diesel is stored in a large nearby tank that has enough fuel to run the generator for many days. But since these generators rely on a finite amount of fuel, the propane or diesel could run out if there is a prolonged outage and if the storm damage prevents delivery of more fuel.
Some areas, especially highly populated cities, have noise ordinances restricting the installation of generators. So check with your local building permits office before you make a purchase. Ironically, many larger models are quieter than smaller ones.
Although standby generators are easier to maintain that portable units, they do run non-stop for many hours, so maintenance is still important. Generally, bigger units require more care. Some sources say they need to be checked by a professional after 2 days of continuous use and other sources say they need to be checked after 10 days of use. Do whatever the manufacturer recommends.
Many models will run a self-diagnosis test and let you know when maintenance is needed. Some will even send a maintenance email or text to you or your dealer.
The only real downside of a standby generator is the cost and the sound that it makes when it’s in use (but I'm good with a little noise if it allows me to live comfortably in my home during a power outage).
So, a couple of downsides, but there are so many benefits of installing a standby unit, the biggest of which are comfort and normalcy during a power outage and an increased perceived value of your home.
And you won’t have to feel your way around a dark house looking candles or a flashlight, or looking for gasoline like you would to get a portable generator started.
You also may be able to get a discount on your homeowner’s insurance if you install a standby generator.
So in summary, there are 2 main types of generators: portable backup generators and permanent standby generators. This is how I remember the difference: you can go back and forth with back up generators because they are portable, and a standby generator is stationary; they stand right by your house, waiting to be used.
Either type is a better option than having absolutely no backup power when there is an electrical outage, but for new homes, permanent standby generators are the best choice. Standby generators cost $2000-$20,000, plus labor. You should get a unit fueled by natural gas, if you can. Opt for liquid propane or diesel models only if natural gas is unavailable in your area.
I know that standby generators can be a huge upfront investment, but they can pay for themselves by giving you the comforts of home and peace of mind the first time the lights go out.
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Thank you for stopping by this week. I hope you learned as much as I did and I hope you’ll come back next week for another episode of BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, it’s subject to change and it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.