A quick overview
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American household experiences power outages lasting about 3 hours once or twice a year. Additionally, depending on where you live, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, high winds, and severe electrical storms or other extreme weather events could knock the power out in your home for days or weeks at a time. This is why you might benefit from a backup generator. A generator allows you to maintain comfort levels and safety during these occurrences. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits, the types available, and what to look for when buying a generator.
Even a relatively brief power outage is an inconvenience. You might stumble around in the dark, looking for candles and matches. Food can spoil, and a sweltering summer is no fun without air conditioning for even a short period. In the case of a natural disaster, it’s possible that power could be down for weeks. Whole home generators could keep your lights on, foodsafe, keep pipes from bursting, and critical home medical equipment running during a power failure. Smaller portable generators and inverters are available for recreational purposes, such as to power TVs or small refrigerators while camping. Or to run lighting appliances for outdoor parties. Small units can even go in car trunks to recharge electric vehicles.
The right fit
You’re going to be looking at different equipment if you need to power your house continuously during a weeks-long outage than if you simply want to run television and music while camping out. So consider what needs you’d like to fulfill before purchasing a unit. The fuel source is another consideration. Liquid propane or natural gas fuel sources are relatively safe and can give you uninterrupted power for a long time, some generators are powered by gasoline.
You’ll also want to compare units in terms of wattage. For instance, a portable generator will be able to pump out about 7,500 watts. Compare that with the wattage required to power the following: 1
- Refrigerator (600 watts)
- Lights (60–600 watts)
- Sump pump (750–1,150 watts)
- Portable heater (1,500 watts)
- Window air conditioner (1,000 watts)
- Computer (60–300 watts)
Once you have some idea of your wattage needs, here are your buying options, typical costs, and a Consumer Reports recommendation for each category:
- Recreational inverter – You can easily take this lightweight 2,000-watt unit with you to power your camping trip or outdoor party, but not much else. Prices range from $400– $1,000.
- Midsize inverter – This category of home generator weighs about 70–150 lbs and costs $1,000– $1,700. Offering up to about 3,500 watts of power, this is an ideal choice if you expect the occasional and fairly brief power failure. It will run your refrigerator and lights between 8– 18 hours on 2 or 3 gallons of gasoline.
- Large inverter – In addition to your refrigerator and lights, a large inverter can often power your furnace and central air conditioning system. You’ll get up to 7,500 watts of power at a cost of between about $1,400– $4,000. Unfortunately, these systems are all gasoline-powered rather than fueled by natural gas or liquid propane.
- Portable generator – These units generally have the capacity of large inverters at a lower price point of around $700– $2,800. And the unit can be connected to your breaker panel to run hardwired items such as your sump pump. On the other hand, they’re noisy, sometimes as heavy as 300 lbs and only run on gasoline.
- Home standby – This might be your preferred choice if you regularly experience extreme weather and fear being without power for days or weeks at a time. A home standby is permanently installed by an electrician and comes on automatically as soon as you experience a power loss. It offers as much as 20,000 watts and runs continuously on propane or natural gas. The cost is about $2,000–$6,000, not counting the installation. Depending on where you live, it could be easily worth the price.
Generators can help save lives, such as when it keeps critical home medical equipment running. But your unit can also be dangerous — even lethal — if installed wrong. Always make sure that you have proper ventilation and that your unit isn’t installed in an enclosed space.
Look for a unit with a low-CO engine and one that comes with an automatic shutoff valve if dangerous CO emissions are detected. And only use a licensed electrician to install your home standby generator.