Everything You Need To Know About Getting Your First Generator

Home generators are not a common conversation topic until there are power outages, and then, people scramble to learn everything they need to know about getting one. But the best time to get a home generator is before an emergency because when that happens, prices go up and inventory dwindles. They can be real lifesavers during blackouts, providing needed electricity to keep things running. Smaller generators can provide electricity where and when you need it.

Generators fall into two main categories: permanent and portable. They come in various sizes, have different power capabilities, and run on certain kinds of fuel. Price is another important consideration, as large ones can be significant investments. It's like buying any other type of home appliance – you'll also want to compare features, ease of operation, and how to use the generator safely. Buying the wrong unit could mean less than optimal power and wasted money. Here is all the information you need to become familiar with before investing in a new one.

Reasons to get a generator

Homes can run without power for a few hours but after that, the situation starts deteriorating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food only stays safe in a refrigerator for four hours or in a full freezer for two days as long as the doors remain closed. And if the HVAC system stops working, the inside temperature can soar or drop, making things very uncomfortable.

Things can get even more problematic when people rely on the power needed for home medical equipment like oxygen concentrators, ventilators, and power wheelchairs. Homes can also flood when electric sump pumps stop working – other hazards include frozen pipes and mold growth.

Generators can protect homes in emergency circumstances, offering invaluable peace of mind. Portable models might not be strong enough to power an entire house but can power individual appliances until the power comes back on. 

Generators have different working parts

Generators work on simple technology, with fuel-powered internal combustion engines. The other working parts include an alternator and a battery-powered starter. Once the generator gets turned on manually or automatically, the fuel mixes with air inside the cylinder and burns. That combustion energy creates the power that kickstarts the alternator. These parts have internal rotors that contain magnets and once those start moving, they generate an electric current.

Generators also have radiators, control panels, and optional features. Their engines aren't all that different from the ones found in cars and other vehicles. Permanent backup generators should be installed by licensed home contractors. Depending on the fuel used, a generator might be connected to a building's gas line or have a tank 4that that needs to be replenished when it runs out. Portable gas generators get connected to circuit panels or are plugged in with extension cords.

They provide different amounts of wattage

Whole-home or standby generators are permanent and require more wattage than portable ones. The most important aspect of choosing the right standby generator is making sure you get one with enough wattage for your needs. Once the electricity goes out, appliances need extra starting wattage to get going, and continuous running wattage to maintain them. Surge wattage can be higher than starting wattage, and is the maximum amount a generator can create.

To see how much wattage you need, go through your home and list all the appliances that should run during an outage. Include your fridge, computer, water heater, and anything else powered by electricity. Check each one to see how many watts they use. Central air conditioning units average 2,000 to 4,000 watts and electric furnaces range from 5,000 to 25,000. Sump pumps require about 1,500 and refrigerators need 600 to 800 watts. A stationary 10,000-watt generator is powerful enough to run most of the appliances in a home at the same time. A smaller, 2,200-watt one is enough for a refrigerator, stove, sump pump, and TV, but can't keep an HVAC system going simultaneously. A permanent generator with wattage that falls somewhere in the middle might be appropriate for a home with electricity needs that fall somewhere in between.

Portable generators start at 500 watts and medium-sized ones can have 3,000 to 6,500. There are even extra-large portable models that can generate up to 18 kW (18,000 watts); those can be more than strong enough for an average-sized home.

Permanent generators require a certain amount of space

Exhaust gases are a by-product of generators that burn fuel, and inhaling that carbon monoxide and nitrogen can be hazardous to one's health. This is why generators should never be used indoors, even in garages. These partially-enclosed areas might not have the airflow needed to disperse the harmful components. It's always wise to keep them away from windows and doors, as the exhaust can flow inside.

Whole-home generators are best installed outdoors, between gas and electric meters. These units can weigh up to 500 pounds, and contractors often place them on top of concrete pads. They can then be connected to the building's gas line but if the home doesn't have one, a permanent tank may need to be installed.

Permanent home generators should be placed 50 feet from the building, and 20 feet away from anywhere that air gets into the house, like doors and windows. The generator should also have adequate clearance on all sides, with at least 3 feet in front. Don't install them beneath overhangs or anywhere else that's blocked by things like trees that could prevent the gas from dispersing.

Generators have different price points

Standby generators are not inexpensive but can be well worth it for people who are more at risk for outages. These units range from about $1,500 to $8,000, and delivery and installation may or may not be included in the purchase price. A small, portable generator for camping and tailgate parties will cost less than $1,000 and can last for several hours without refueling. A medium-sized one ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 and can be used for extended power outages. Larger ones can have similar price points, but the extra-large portable generators cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000. Inverter generators can be more efficient, but these portable units can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars more. 

Solar-powered generators are the most expensive to install, ranging from about $17,000 to $23,170. The money saved on electricity over time can pay for the initial investment, and no additional fuel needs to be bought, either.  Check the manufacturer's warranty before buying any kind of generator, because they're not all the same. Some offer parts and labor coverage for a year or two. Then, they might reimburse you for parts for a few years after that. Don't expect anything from the company after five years unless you purchase an extended warranty.

They're powered by certain kinds of fuel

Whole-home generators can be connected to natural gas main pipelines. This is a cleaner-burning fuel that produces less exhaust, plus you won't have to worry about installing and refilling fuel tanks. These systems have to be serviced more often, mostly because they have spark plugs. And if the natural line is cut off for any reason, the generator won't work. Diesel fuel generators are durable but produce more emissions. This fuel has to be stored in a tank and does not have an infinite shelf life. It can last up to two years so keeping track of its age is important.

The next fuel choice is propane, which can be stored in large tanks. It lasts longer than diesel and produces fewer harmful emissions. Solar-powered generators have been around for a while, and use solar panels installed on rooftops. These capture and convert sunlight into usable energy. That gets converted into DC electricity which is stored in battery banks. But when the sun isn't shining, energy won't be generated.

Generators have transfer switches

A home's electricity comes from power grids and utility lines. And for a generator to work, the source must be changed from those to the fuel. This is where transfer switches come in. They have circuit panels and cables to connect generators when the need arises. Whole-home generators usually have automatic transfer switches installed in them, so you don't have to worry about turning them on. When the power is cut off, such as during a blackout, the generator power switches on. With manual transfer switches, the source gets changed over by hand.

Portable generators have extension cords and those must be rated for the current that needs to be used. They only work on devices powered by electrical outlets, so they aren't used on things like sump pumps. That can be limiting, but there is another option – hire an electrician to install a permanent transfer switch. It will function as a circuit breaker panel that pulls in the generator's power, making it safer to run outdoor-rated extension cords

Generators can run on AC or DC power

It's a good idea to understand the differences between AC and DC power when shopping for a generator. AC models convert mechanical energy into electrical energy using electromagnetic induction to create alternating current. DC generators use energetically induced electromotive force to mechanical energy into direct current. In essence, AC generators periodically reverse the current direction, while DC ones only flow in a single direction.

AC generators are on the smaller side and although DC generators are used for larger motors, they can be less efficient. Some of the working parts can wear out faster and the possibility of short-circuiting is greater. While DC generators can be less expensive, they need to be converted to AC before they can be used, which requires calling an electrician to install an inverter, so in the end, you won't save as much money as it might initially appear. It's best to purchase the correct-sized AC generator for your home from the start.

Features to look for in generators

A basic generator can provide adequate power without any problems but certain features make it easier to use them. These appliances can be quite loud, which can be an issue, particularly when they're being run close to other residences and in public locales like campsites. Look for ones that run at 50 to 60 decibels, as those are the quietest models. A fuel gauge is also useful and can be checked to see when more needs to be added. Some generators also have low-oil shutoff features, which makes having a gauge even more important.

An automatic CO (carbon monoxide) shutoff is a great safety feature that protects users when a generator is producing excess carbon monoxide. This is a fairly common element on these appliances. And with portable generators, look for ones that have electric starts. These buttons and switches are easier to use than manual cords. Other helpful features include removable consoles for directly plugging in appliances, multilingual LCD displays, multiple outlets, and alternative fuel capacity. Some are even equipped to perform self-diagnostic tests.

There are important generator safety considerations

There are other important safety guidelines for generators besides giving them enough distance and space from the home. The exhaust must be directed away from the home. If it runs on stored fuel, there may be local laws governing how that is handled; contact the local fire department for information. Fuel should be stored in an approved container, away from living areas in a protected spot like an outdoor shed. Do not store it near fuel-burning appliances like wood stoves. 

Keep the generator as dry as possible to prevent electrocution, and never touch it with wet hands. It's also a good idea to install carbon monoxide alarms on every floor in the home and in outside sleeping areas. If a cord is used, ensure that it is grounded and undamaged. Do not plug a generator into a regular wall outlet, because that can also increase the risk of an accident. 

Stationary generators can be worth the investment

Standby generators get permanently installed, use existing fuel supplies, and can turn on in mere seconds once an outage is detected. Although they can be more costly, they have the flexibility to supply an entire building's electricity needs during an outage or can be used only for chosen circuits. When properly installed, they turn on automatically if the electricity cuts out and use an existing fuel supply. They can keep running for weeks without incident, making them a good choice for homeowners who travel or have second homes. They are also made with insulated housing that prevents overheating and suppresses noise. And since generators keep sump pumps and other important appliances running during power outages, insurance companies will sometimes reduce premiums on homeowners' policies. Those are a lot of advantages and besides the expense, the only other disadvantage about standby generators is the additional time and effort needed to install them. 

Solar-powered generators change the way buildings look and some might not find this aesthetically pleasing. But they don't produce hazardous emissions and the initial investment can be worth it when people plan to live in a home for a long time.

Portable generators provide reliable temporary power

Portable generators cost less than stationary ones and can be taken where needed. They can operate home appliances and lights, but not entire homes. When not in use, they should be properly stored along with their fuel, in well-ventilated areas shielded from the elements. Some may be insulated but if not, they can rust. All portable generators get turned on manually and some can run for about 12 hours with a full tank of fuel.

A portable generator offers temporary power that works well for RVs and motor homes. Their smaller power output comes from the same kinds of fuels that stationary generators use but they are better suited for when the need for electricity is temporary or relatively low. They tend to be noisier than stationary generators.

Inverter generators are technically portable but operate more efficiently. Rather than running constantly, the power goes up and down as needed. They don't waste fuel and don't need to be refilled as often. Adding to that, inverter generators produce fewer emissions and make a lot less noise than their counterparts. They also come in different sizes and wattages and need to be used in safe locations. And since they are more costly than other portable generators, they can be more expensive to repair, too.