Here's the first thing to know about generators: They can kill you.
Every hurricane season, people die when they plug in a generator for emergency power and are overcome by carbon monoxide. At least 64 people died in 2005 from generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning.
Generators carry a mandatory federal warning label: "Using a generator indoors WILL KILL YOU IN MINUTES."
The message: Don't mess with these things if you don't know what you're doing.
The further message: Know what a portable generator can and cannot do. It cannot, for example, restore your house to full prehurricane power.
What it can do is operate a few lights and essential appliances, maybe a fan or two, enabling you to do some cooking, cool off a little and see in the dark.
And know this: Generators are noisy.
To operate one, you'll need a supply of gas. If the power is out, gas stations have no way to operate the electric pumps. Keeping a supply of gasoline in your home or car is a hazard that safety experts strongly discourage.
Let's take a class in Generator 101.
• Portable or auxiliary generators range in power from 1,000 to 7,500 watts. The 1,000-watt version enables you to run a few lights.
• Most homeowners need a portable generator of 5,000 to 7,000 watts. This size would keep the refrigerator and freezer going, a few lights, a microwave for short periods. This size sells for $500 to $700.
• Choose a model with wheels. Generators weigh 100 to 300 pounds and are typically 3 feet wide, 4 feet long and 3 feet high.
• Permanently installed backup generators, powered by natural gas or propane, are available. These provide 7,000 watts of power and cost $2,500 to $3,000. They provide power through your home's electrical system.
How do you know what size portable generator you need? "Total the wattage of the maximum number of items you will be running simultaneously,'' suggests the Lowe's Home Improvement Web site (www.lowes.com). It offers a chart with both running and startup wattage (which is often higher: Some appliances pull a lot of juice when they start up) for a number of tools and appliances.
Lowe's offers this example: To operate a 100-watt light bulb, a 200-watt slow cooker, a 1,200-watt refrigerator with startup wattage of 2,900 watts and a 750-watt TV would require a capacity of 3,950 watts.
Generators are powered by gasoline. The 4,000- and 6,000-watt generators have tanks that hold 6 to 8 gallons and provide 10 to 14 hours of run time, depending on the load.
Like your car's engine, a generator needs oil, which you'll want to check after every 15 to 20 hours of run time.
Once you have your generator going, you either plug an appliance into the outlets on the generator or run a heavyweight extension cord into the house to the appliance you want to power.
One of the safest ways to get power to the appliances and lights in your home is to run an extension cord from the generator to a power strip inside the house. Then plug the refrigerator, fan, lights, etc., into the power strip.
Generators should never be placed inside your home or garage or in any enclosed space. They should be kept away from windows, doors, ducts, vents and combustible materials. Don't put them on the porch or lanai. They generate heat and carbon monoxide, which can be fatal.
"Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent carbon monoxide buildup in the home,'' the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns. Keep generators away from open flames and water, including rain.
Never try to power the house by plugging the generator directly into a wall outlet or breaker box. This leads to a deadly result called "backfeeding.'' Utility workers repairing the lines may be electrocuted, and downed power lines that were previously inert are suddenly dangerously charged.
Generators will be highly prized items after a hurricane. To counteract theft, countersink a heavy metal ring into concrete and tether the generator with a heavy-duty metal chain.