So you read Part One and decided that a generator should be part of your preparedness plans. Now you need to ask: Which generator should I buy?
Basically there are three types of generators:
1. A camp generator. These are the smallest and the cheapest, and they run on gasoline. They will not provide enough power to run your whole house but they will provide enough power to run one or two basic appliances, like your fridge or a few lights and the radio. They cost between $150-300 and can provide 1000-2000 watts of power. Combine this with a couple solar generators for cell phone and flashlights and you may have enough to get you through the worst.
2. A portable stand-by generator. These are the kind you see at the hardware stores. Like the camp generators, they are on wheels, and they use gasoline. With a medium-sized portable generator, you can choose to run 2-3 of your essential appliances (e.g, refrigerator, water heater and furnace.) They cost between $350-800 and will provide 3000-8000 watts. Or you can go larger. Get a 10,000 watt generator for $1000-2000 and have enough power for the most important things in your house.
3. A whole house generator. These are are installed and hardwired into your house. They are quite large and cost $4000-15,000 plus the cost of installation. They typically run on natural gas, which
you can easily hook up to your natural gas service. That means you don’t have to worry about storing extra gasoline in your garage. Or you can fuel it with a large tank buried somewhere near the house. With a whole house generator, you can run pretty much everything you need–essential AND non-essential electric items, including central air systems. The nice thing about the in-house generator is you don’t have the surges of power that you get with the smaller, gas-powered generators, making it safer to use with electronics such as computer and TV.
Price is not the only consideration
While the camp and stand-by generators are more affordable, they DO have their downsides. First of all: noise. They sound like a loud lawnmower. Not only can the noise be tiring, it makes it obvious to all your neighbors that you have power. Hopefully, you are on good terms with the neighbors and this won’t be a problem. But be ready to share your TV and maybe some popcorn or a hot meal or shower.
Also, you can’t bring these inside. Besides the racket they make, they also produce toxic carbon monoxide fumes. So you’ll need to run these outside or in a detached garage. Then you’ll have to run a heavy-duty extension cord into the house to connect
appliances. This can create quite a tangle of cords. You will have to make frequent treks outside to refill the gas tank and make sure everything is running smoothly. If you are having miserable, cold or stormy weather, you’ll be glad if you can do that inside a detached garage.
To wire or not to wire
One solution is to have an electrician install a double-throw junction box where the power comes into your house. The generator can only produce one voltage–either 110v or 220v. But if you wire it into the junction box, the power from the generator is split at the junction box. Then you can run both 110v and 220v appliances at the same time.
Another nice reason to wire your generator to the house: no fussing with extension cords. You just plug the generator directly into your power grid. And if you have a detached garage, you can run the generator indoors without worrying about toxic fumes or nasty weather. When we had our house wired for the generator in 1997, it cost about $600. Best $600 we ever spent.
Lastly, a gas-powered generator produces a very unsteady source of power. It slows down and surges a lot. That’s not a big deal for large appliances, but it is death to electronics like computers and TVs. Plan to power your electronics with a solar-powered battery charger.
What else do you need to know?
- Before you go shopping for a generator, decide what appliances you will want to run–refrigerators, freezers, water heaters and furnaces. This will determine what you wind up buying.
- You don’t need to run all the appliances all the time. Water heaters and freezers can be unplugged and just plugged in from time to time as needed. This handy calculator will help you decide how much emergency power you need.
- Most portable generators under 5,000 watts use a pull cord to start the engine. If you are physically incapable of starting an engine with a pull cord, consider buying a model with an electrical start.
4. Whole house generators use either natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas. If you have natural gas service to your house, it is a simple thing to have a professional connect your permanent generator to your gas service. If you do not have natural gas service, you will want a large store of propane tanks on hand.