Hurricanes leave a path of destruction that can keep utilities down for days or weeks. If you want to use your appliances during the rebuilding process, you need a generator. How do you choose the right generator, and how do you make sure it’s ready to use? Here’s everything you need to know, from estimating your power needs to choosing the right fuel.
The exhaust from the generator contains carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that binds to red blood cells. This prevents blood from delivering oxygen to your body, leading to suffocation and death. Every year, about 50,000 people need medical treatment and 400 people die from CO poisoning. The vast majority of these cases are caused by people running a generator indoors or next to a window.
While some new generators have CO sensors that automatically shut off the engine if levels get too high, this isn’t a permanent solution. When you buy a backup generator, you also need to buy extension cords, so you can get power into your home while keeping the generator at a safe distance.
These cords should be rated for outdoor use, and be thick enough to handle the maximum power from the outlet. Resistance increases with length, so you’ll need a heavier gauge wire for longer cables. Most generator manuals include a table to help you find the right cable gauge for your application.
Pairs of 120 volt household outlets are normally wired in duplex, so you can get the full 15 or 20 amps of power from a single connection. You can also access power directly from RV shore power and home backup outlets using a breakout cable. These have a compatible high amperage plug at one end and a series of household outlets at the other. This is the easiest way to get the full power of your generator into your home.
How Much Power Do I Need?
How many appliances do you really need to power? Central air conditioning needs more power than a portable generator can provide, and you probably won’t need a heater during hurricane season. These are the two largest consumers of electricity in your home. You also don’t need to use a dishwasher or a hair dryer to make it through a few days without power. Instead, focus on what will make life easier and safer while you wait for power to be restored.
Electric motors are reactive loads. They need 2-3 times as much power to start as they need to run. In most cases, you can cover your power needs by buying a generator that has a peak output equal to your maximum average current draw, plus the starting load for your highest draw appliance.
Most devices have their power requirements written on the manufacturer’s tag, or in the owner’s manual. If you want to know exactly how much power an appliance draws, get a usage monitor. This device plugs in between the appliance and the outlet. Its display shows you exactly how much power is passing through the outlet. If you don’t want to measure every appliances, there are some general guidelines you can use to estimate the power you’ll need.
A window air conditioner uses about one watt for every 10 BTUs of cooling power to run, and 1.5-2 watts for every BTU to start. That means you need 900-1,200 starting watts and 600 running watts to run a small 6,000 BTU A/C unit. A box fan typically needs 400-600 starting watts and 200 running watts of power.
Home refrigerators need anywhere from 800-2,000 starting watts and 500 running watts. A sump pump needs 1,000-2,000 starting watts and 800 running watts. A garage door opener needs 1,600 starting watts and 550 running watts.
Light bulbs use exactly as many watts as they’re rated for. Microwaves need double their rated wattage to start. Most LCD TVs use around 200 watts of power.
The power needed to recharge small electronic devices, like smartphones and laptops, is almost negligible. However, you should check the amperage of USB ports when you buy a generator. Most phones support USB Type A fast charging up to 2.1 amps, but generator outlets are often limited to 1 or 1.5 amps.
Do I Need an Inverter Generator?
Alternating current used for home power gradually switches from positive to negative polarity 60 times per second. A regular generator can’t match this smooth polarity switch, resulting in fluctuations that burn out electronics. An inverter converter smooths out these fluctuations, so they can safely power any device.
You can get away with a standard generator, if you’re going to use it for appliances, and have battery banks on hand to charge small electronics. However, if you want to power TVs, computers and other electronics, you should spend a little extra to get an inverter generator.
Should I Get a Dual Fuel or a Gasoline Generator?
You have two fuel choices when buying a portable generator: gasoline or dual fuel. Dual fuel generators can run on either gasoline or propane, which is great for backup power.
Propane’s biggest advantage is storage. Gasoline goes stale after a month, or about three months if it’s treated with a stabilizer. LPG never goes stale. That means you can keep a bottle on hand that will be ready to use when needed. If you run out of fuel while the power is down, you can buy either gasoline or propane, depending on which fuel is available.
Keep in mind that propane releases less energy than gasoline when burned. Expect your generator’s output to fall by 10% when you run it on LPG.
How Do I Hook Up a Generator to My House?
If you want to run power to your household outlets, you must have a transfer switch installed by a licensed electrician. This switch separates your home’s wiring from the grid when the generator is on. Without this switch, your generator can send power through the wires outside your home, potentially electrocuting a line worker. You’ll also need an extension cord to connect the generator to the switch, and an external grounding rod.
How Do I Store My Generator?
Storage is hard on any small engine, and it poses a major problem for backup generators. Since there’s no way of predicting when the next storm will hit, you may not use your generator for months or years.
Stale fuel clogs carburetor jets and fuel lines. Always drain the fuel tank before storage, and run the engine to burn off any remaining fuel in the fuel line and carburetor.
Oil degrades over time, especially if it’s used. Most manufacturers recommend changing the oil every few months, even if you never run the engine. You may want to drain the oil from your generator before storage, and add fresh oil before starting it.
Can I Run My Generator When It’s Raining?
You can run your generator in light rain, as long as it’s under a shelter. You can either buy a generator tent or plastic shelter, or you can build your own. These shelters have a roof and two or three sides, shielding the generator while letting exhaust gases vent out and fresh air come in. Some shelters have a locking door, so you can store your generator inside when it’s not in use.