Q: 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 one myself?
A: When Hurricane Ike hit, my house lost power, and it wasn't restored for five agonizing days. 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 that storm, I was bound and determined to get a standby generator.
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 job sites when regular electricity is not yet connected. (Another big difference is cost: Portables run a few hundred dollars; standby generators are a few thousand.)
Small portable generators run a limited amount of power through an extension cord, or several, to one or more appliances. You may connect it to a refrigerator for a few hours, then to a window air conditioner, and maybe to 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. These units are capable of generating enough power to keep many essential electrical devices operating at once. 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 service to your home is knocked out. This is accomplished by the transfer switch, and it can have your lights back on as quickly as 10 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 size generator.
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 alert you if it senses something is wrong that might cause the generator to fail so you can have it repaired before 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. When the power fails, 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. 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, to fatal effect.
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.
Tim Carter is a licensed contractor. To view previous columns or tap into his archive of information and sources of building materials, go to www.askthebuilder.com. You can write to Tim Carter at P.O. Box 36352, Cincinnati, OH 45236-0352.