How to Buy a Generator: Why You Need One and What to Look For

Home Generator

With winter firmly upon us, visions of snow, ice, and power outages may be dancing through your worried head.

How do you make sure you can weather any wallop the season dishes out? One option you’re likely considering is a generator. You may have seen commercials promising to keep you warm and cozy while your neighbors shiver away until the power company waves their magic wand.

Why Buy a Home Generator?

If you’ve lived through ice storms, thunderstorms, or the occasional animal chewing through a power line – you know that power failures can be painful, inconvenient, and even dangerous.

A prolonged outage can make your home uninhabitable, especially during the winter months when your ability to stay warm diminishes the longer your heater is off. The food in your freezer will spoil if power is not restored soon enough. Your security system will be disabled, and you may experience plumbing failures.

A generator can literally save lives by powering medical equipment, keeping the house warm, and reducing food spoilage. Residential generators may also permit cooking, reading, watching TV, and using your computer until regular power is restored.

Different Types of Generators

So what do you look for when choosing a generator for sale? The two most common types of electric generators for home use are portable generators and standby generators.

Portable Generators

Portable generators are the biggest-selling type of generator, usually the cheapest option available and tend to be fairly easy to move and store. A portable generator is suitable for short power outages, as well as campsites and job sites without easy access to another power source.

Portables typically range from 3,000 to 8,500 watts and cost between $400 and $1,000. They are adequate for common household uses, including plug-in appliances and lights, but smaller models are typically not enough for long-term use of HVAC systems and power-hungry appliances. Most are powered by gasoline, but some use natural gas, diesel, or liquid propane.

Standby Generators

A standby generator, also called a stationary generator, is typically easier to use because it automatically turns on when the power goes out and shuts off when power is restored.

Standbys are permanently mounted outside the home, connected directly to the circuits in your home, and must be professionally installed by a licensed electrician. They can keep most appliances working in the event of an outage, and have a capacity of 10,000 to 20,000 watts, and sometimes more.

Although more expensive than portables, standbys are growing in popularity because they boast an extended and sometimes unlimited run time. Standbys can usually accommodate HVAC systems, making it easier to keep warm during longer outages. They can support more power-hungry items like TV sets and computers and need fewer extension cords.

Most standbys run on propane or natural gas, eliminating the need for storing gasoline. They typically cost between $5,000 to $10,000 and up, and professional installation can add thousands of dollars on top of the purchase price.

Choosing a Generator: What to Look For

You’ll want a generator that’s easy to use and, if you choose a portable, easy to move. Three of your biggest considerations will be the amount of wattage you need, the type and amount of fuel you’ll be using, and safety concerns.

#1: Wattage: What Are You Power Needs?

Generators are sold by wattage – or the amount of electricity they can support. You’ll want to prioritize which appliances need to keep running and which items you can live without until normal power is restored.

Many portable generators are enough for basic needs, such as lights, most home electronics, and small appliances, or if you anticipate only brief power outages. A standby or large portable generator is likely required for prolonged power failures and for large kitchen appliances, washers and dryers, and running your furnace. You should also leave extra wattage available for the initial power surge that runs through your system when electricity is first restored.

The table below should give you a general idea of how you can use different types of generators. Keep in mind that you’ll find some variation among specific brands and sizes.

Type of Generator Approx. Wattage Can Generally Be Used For:
Small portable 3,000-4,000 watts Refrigerator

Microwave

Sump pump

Lights

TV

Large portable 10,000 watts All of the above plus:

Small water heater

Central air conditioner

Electric range

Large standby 10,000-15,000+ watts All of the above plus:

Clothes washer

Electric dryer

#2: Fuel: What Type and How Much Run Time Do You Need?

Different generators use a variety of fuels including gasoline, natural gas, diesel, and propane, with most cheaper models using gasoline or diesel. Many higher quality models are more likely to use greener fuel sources including solar panels which store power in a battery that can provide electricity for hours.

When shopping for a generator, consider which sources of fuel are available and affordable for you, and which fuel sources are least likely to be cut during a disaster.

  • Gasoline – Most portable generators use between 8 and 22 gallons a day. Although cheaper than other fuels, gasoline can be challenging to store safely, degrades over time, and must be replaced more frequently. Consider running your engine dry to keep gas from fouling the generator during storage.
  • Propane – Propane tends to be more expensive than gasoline, but burns cleaner and is generally available at hardware stores and fuel stations.
  • Diesel – Diesel generators burn cleaner than gasoline and tend to be easier to maintain, but are more expensive and can be harder to obtain.

To boost efficiency, look for a generator that automatically shuts off when the engine is low on fuel. Consider whether you prefer a rip cord or push-button start function and the number of outlets needed for plugging in appliances. Look for a model with a fuel gauge so you’ll always know when it’s time to refuel.

#3: Have You Thought About Safety Concerns?

As with any electrical appliance, always make safety a top priority. With generators, carbon monoxide and electrocution are two major concerns to keep in mind.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that kills an average of 86 Americans each year and sends thousands more to the emergency room. It is released when you run an electric generator, which is why you must always operate your generator outdoors. Never run your generator in a basement or garage, and keep it away from doors and windows, where it could allow carbon monoxide to enter your home.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea, and irregular breathing. If you suspect that you or a family member may be affected, turn off your generator immediately, get some fresh air, and seek medical attention as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of long-term damage to your health.

Electrocution

When the electricity goes out because of bad weather, power company crews will be working round the clock to restore normal service as quickly as possible. By cutting off your house from the electrical grid while operating your generator, you can reduce their risk of electrocution.

By following these helpful guidelines for selecting a generator, and paying attention to some important safety measures, your family can stay nice and warm this winter, even when Mother Nature tries to mess with your electric service.

7 thoughts on “How to Buy a Generator: Why You Need One and What to Look For

  1. I appreciate your tip on looking at wattage when picking out what generator to buy. It would seem that knowing how many watts are needed to power common household items would be important when choosing what generator to buy. My wife and I love in an area that commonly suffers from power outages and we want to buy a generator. We’ll have to figure out our home’s wattage needs before we buy one, though.

  2. I think it would be really nice to have a home generator in case of emergencies. Our power went out for a couple of hours last week, and it would have been nice to have when the sun went down. We had a little one for our house boat, and it did pretty good, and it wasn’t too loud. That’s probably the first thing I would look at, is how loud it is.

  3. I like that we have different generators of all different sizes. I would think with a home, you would most likely get a standby generator. Not many people have this but it would probably be worth it to get if you had a blackout in the area.

  4. I think it is actually helpful to have your own generator for your house. There are a lot of people that don’t have one and have to wait until the power gets put back on. Having a generator would really help in case of an emergency.

  5. I kind of wish that I could get a standby generator. Power outages normally come at the most inopportune times and it would be nice to have some AC or Heat when it happens. However, the portable generators are all I would need in the normal power outage. Most times the power is only out for a couple of hours anyway. Still, thanks for talking about them both.

  6. I think after calculation your power requirement, if you need an emergency backup generator then go for gasoline one but if you need a prime generator for regular usage then with my experience i would suggest to go for diesel one.

  7. Thanks for the post. I agree that being without power can cause some serious problems. I think it is so important to have some kind of back up system to keep necessities operating. I like the idea of a standby generator that can kick on when the power goes out. That can really help to decrease the interruption of power.

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