It is unimaginable to think that today we could live our lives without electricity being a part of it. Just about every part of our lives is dependent on electricity, from our homes, office, recreational facilities, healthcare centers, and travel and communication. For most of us, our reliance on the grid is absolute. However, there are situations when the grid fails. This is where a generator comes in use, provided you have one.

Homeowners, who tend to buy generators during an emergency, generally end up with the wrong one. Setting up a gen-set in darkness, with a flashlight, is not a very good idea. You could end up missing on some crucial safety steps, endangering yourself and your loved ones. A generator is an essential part of your home and needs to be researched and looked into before making a purchase.  

What do you Need to Look for?

Buying a generator is a long-term investment. The first things to consider when deciding on buying a generator are usage, size and where will it be located. You need to make a very careful evaluation of all the factors to ensure that you pick up the right generator for your needs. 

Generators come in different types and sizes. Unless you know about them, it can be confusing to decide on the right one. Electric generators, powered by batteries that are charged conventionally are best when the power requirement does not exceed 4000 watts. Portable and standby generators run on fuel such as diesel, gasoline, LPG, natural gas, biofuel, and propane. More rugged, these generators can be run for long periods. Ranging from 500 watts to 50,000 watts, these generators are extremely popular for residential and commercial use. 

You also need to consider where the generator will be located. Is it going to be inside a room/garage or will it be standing in the open, exposed to the elements? Are grid outages frequent and long in your area? Would you be running the generator for extended periods? Is your requirement for running the generator a regular affair or will you be operating it intermittently? The answers to these questions will help you choose the correct generator for your requirements.

What is your Power Requirement?

Generators need to be purchased based on your total load requirement. While the rating of the generator determines the total power that can be delivered, the consistency and quality of that power will determine how well your appliances will run. Start by making a list of all the appliances that you wish to operate when the grid power is down. Find out their load requirements and add them all to get the total load requirement. A typical home should not be requiring more than 5000 watts to cover the basic appliance requirements. Just to get an idea, window air conditioners would need around 1000 watts, the refrigerator around 600 watts, a portable heater around 1500 watts; sump pump would range from 750 to 1000 watts, lights from 60 to 600 watts and computers from 60 to 600 watts. 

The Cost Factor

Prices will depend on the rating, type, and fuel option. While an electric generator would not be very expensive, a standby generator will cost you much more. However, you need to remember that an electric generator cannot power too many appliances and cannot be run for extended periods. If you are looking at running your home essentials, a portable or standby generator would be a better option. Your dealer will be able to help you choose the right generator based on your requirements. Brett Patterson from Able Sales warns that if you buy a cheap generator, you will often be buying from someone who knows little to nothing about generators. One word of caution, you will get what you pay for. Buying such a critical piece of equipment should not become a bargain-hunting exercise. 

Different Types of Generators

There are four options in generators for residential purposes. Portable power stations store electricity in large batteries and are a good option for people living in apartments. Available in varying sizes, inverter and portable generators can be moved from one place to another. Standby generators need to be permanently installed in one place. Let us take a look at all four types in a little more detail.

Portable Power Stations – Powered by batteries that can be charged through a socket when the grid is up and running, portable power stations nowadays are also available with solar charging panels. Relatively a new entrant to the generator market, these are extremely quiet devices. Another advantage of portable power stations is that unlike other fuel consuming generators, they do not emit any noxious gasses or carbon monoxide, making them safe to use indoors. However, these cannot be used to power too many appliances nor can they run for too long a period, as the batteries need recharging. The maximum power generated by them is 5,000 watts. 

Inverter Generators – Costing more than a portable generator of similar rating, inverter generators produce less noise than portable generators. Featuring a very sophisticated exhaust system, these generators increase or decrease the throttle to match the power demand instead of operating at full power constantly. While the emissions produced are less, safety precautions need to be taken similar to portable generators. Inverter generators are available with power output from 1,000 to 4,000 watts. 

Portable Generators – Costing less than standby generators, portable generators usually run on gasoline. If you are living in a rural area, this may mean storing gasoline in large quantities. Since gasoline is volatile, safety factors have to be taken into consideration along with the addition of stabilizers for prolonged storage. As the name suggests, you can use this generator anywhere, other than in a closed environment. Since portable generators are known to produce very high levels of carbon monoxide, it is advisable to keep them at least twenty feet away from the walls of your home, as also direct the exhaust in the opposite direction from windows and air conditioners. Some of the new portable generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers automatic shut down in case of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide build-up when operated in a closed environment. However, it is still advisable to follow the safety norms as stated above. You will need to protect the unit from rain and snow. Portable generators are available with ratings from 3,000 to 8,500 watts.

Standby Generators for Home – You may require to get municipal permits to install a standby generator in your property. Your dealer should be able to help you with this along with checking on noise restrictions and finding the best location in your property for installation. By far the most expensive of the lot, standby generators supply more power and feature automatic start-up in the event of grid failure. Offered in different fuel choices like propane, gasoline, diesel and natural gas; these generators range from 5,000 to 20,000 watts. Highly advanced, they conduct self-diagnosis to let you know when they require maintenance.  

Other Features

Low-CO Engine – Some portable generators feature engines that produce less carbon monoxide. 

Automatic CO Shut down – NA new feature, some portable generators feature sensors that will shut down the engine when it detects the level of carbon monoxide exceeding certain preset limits. This happens when you run a portable generator within a closed or poorly ventilated environment. Marketed with terms like CO Protect, CO Detect, or CO Sense, you can confirm if the generator meets any of the two standards set for them. 

Automatic Start – A boon, if your generator is located away from the house, this feature allows the generator to start automatically once the grid fails. Trying to find your way in the dark to start the generator is not very exciting or safe. 

Electric Start – available as an extra on some portable generators, the electric start does away with the pull start system. However, they need a battery to function. 

Alternative Fuel – Although the majority of portable generators run on gasoline as a fuel, some models are equipped to run on natural gas or propane. Most can be converted to operate on alternative fuels with the appropriate kit.

Fuel Gauge – This is a better option than having to open the fuel tank lid to check the level of fuel remaining in the generator. 

Low-Oil Shut Off – While common on standby generators, this option is also available on portable generators. In the case of low oil levels, the generator shuts down to prevent damage to the engine.

Do You Need a Transfer Switch?

The answer in one word is –Yes. A transfer switch connects your generator via a single cable to the circuit panel. The absence of this could damage the generator, your appliance and endanger the utility workers. Standby generators generally have a transfer switch that turns on and off automatically. However, for portable models, you will be required to do the change over manually. Since the majority of transfer switches are designed for a 220-volt input, you can use it with generators rated 5,000 watts and above. 

The Last Word

Always remember that safety is the priority when dealing with electrical appliances. Get a qualified technician to help you install the generator and run you through the safety measures.