“How do I choose a generator for my home?” This is one of the most common questions I get from readers and, as generator technology improves, my answers are getting more detailed.
All fuel-burning generators have an engine that creates electricity independent of the grid. Besides delivering emergency power during an outage, portable generators also allow you to use power tools and small electric items when you’re away from outlets. Some people also use generators periodically to run equipment and appliances in homes and cottages that aren’t connected to the grid. Regardless of your planned intentions, the first question to ask is: How much power do you need?
Generator output is rated in watts. A 3,500-watt unit, for example, can power household lighting, a fridge, water well pump, microwave, sump pump and a freezer, though not all at the same time. A 9,000-watt portable generator can handle most of these things more or less at once. Something called “standby” generators are different and bigger. They’re not portable, they’re permanently wired to your home, they generate large amounts of power and they start themselves automatically when grid power goes down. A 14,000-watt standby generator will energize most homes completely.
Another issue you’ll face as you’re thinking about portable generators is what type to choose — open frame or inverter? Open frame generators are the simplest and offer the greatest wattage output for the price. If all you want is basic backup power with no need for exceptionally quiet operation and variable engine speed, then an open frame is the way to go.
Inverter generators cost more for a given wattage output than open frame, but they’re more fuel efficient and quieter. A recent addition to the world of generators is something called a digital hybrid. It combines the quiet operation of an inverter with the lower cost of an open frame model. We’ll be seeing more of this kind of innovation in the future.
Here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind: The larger the generator output, the more it costs, the heavier it is and the more fuel it burns per hour.
It’s one thing to have a generator at the ready, but you need to prepare yourself to keep it running. Storing gasoline is one issue that’s easy to get wrong. While you need to keep enough on hand in approved containers in a garage or shed (never inside your home), gasoline doesn’t stay fresh for more than a few months unless you do something about it. Gasoline preservative makes the difference. Add a few tablespoons of this liquid to fresh gas before you store it and it’ll last for at least six months without trouble. Keep your gas fresh by using the older stuff in your car before refilling your cans with fresh. If you have a choice, gasoline purchased during cold months is best. It’s more volatile than gas produced for summer use, so it burns better if you happen to need it during winter.
Motor oil is another issue. Most generator engines are similar to other small motors in that they require an oil change after 25 to 100 hours of operation. That sounds like a long time, but less than a week of generator use will get you there. You need to prepare yourself for maintenance in the middle of an outage. Keep a couple of gallons of the right kind of motor oil on hand.
You never know when an extended power outage will strike, and that’s why it makes sense to prepare. Even before you need your generator for electricity it’s there, ready, providing peace of mind.