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And the freezer frozen and the furnace firing

It would be interesting to track generator sales in relation to major storms and power blackouts. With climatologists predicting more frequent extreme weather events, some people might be tempted to purchase a generator in the wake of a hurricane or a blizzard. But hold on. Before you rush out and get yours, it’s worth taking the time to assess what you really need for back-up power, and to consider how much you’re willing to pay for convenience and peace of mind.

When we talk about generators, most of us picture the portable type. The traditional design has a gas engine and other components protected in a tubular steel frame. These have been around for decades, and though there have been some significant technological improvements, the basic concept remains the same. They’re meant to be multi-purpose, equally useful for providing electricity at a camp site, an off-grid construction project or at home during a blackout. Prices for portable generators range from about $1,000 to $5,000.

Mid-sized models, in the range of 3,500 to 6,500 watts, are most popular. They’re heavy, but can be hoisted into a hatchback or a pick-up. Often they’re equipped with a wheeled dolly assembly, making it possible for one person to cart the unit around, at least on level ground.

If you have a basic portable generator, you can fire it up during a power outage and run a heavy-gauge extension cord into the house, making it possible to turn on a few lights, brew a pot of coffee, and maybe use the toaster oven or an electric frying pan to make some supper. Some of the major generator manufacturers have excellent fact sheets listing typical power requirements for various appliances.

Power know-how

It’s simple to add up the wattage for things like light bulbs and toasters, which operate by electrical resistance, but any appliance with an electric motor creates a reactive load, which means it draws much more power when it starts up. To get by with a mid-sized generator, you may need to hook up some of these heavy power users in sequence, not simultaneously.

A freezer, for example, can be plugged in at intervals. In the event of an extended blackout during the summer, as many Atlantic Canadians experienced this past July, food spoilage may be a primary concern. A portable generator can even be shuttled back and forth between two households, running each freezer for a few hours at a time.

An electric stove, however, cannot simply be plugged in this way, as it requires a 240-volt connection. Many people choose a gas or propane range that will operate without electricity to avoid having to compromise their culinary capabilities during blackouts.

In fact, it’s a good time for a romantic dinner by candlelight, because even if you have a generator, you may not want to operate it continuously. Different generator models vary considerably with respect to noise level, fuel efficiency and the length of time they will run on a single tank of gas, so you should take all these variables into account before making your purchase.

You should also be aware that some models, particularly on the lower end of the price scale, are not recommended for powering electronics. This is where you have to consider not only the quantity, but also the quality of power. Voltage fluctuations can damage electronics, so for something like a computer, you’re safer with an inverter type of generator, which produces cleaner power. You pay a premium for this more sophisticated technology, but it has the added benefit of being quieter and more efficient.

Wired in

If your house is not serviced by a municipal water supply, it will have a hardwired well pump that cannot be connected directly to a portable generator. The same goes for your water heater as well as your furnace. Keeping the house warm during an extended winter blackout is pretty important, not just for your comfort, but to prevent damage caused by the bursting of frozen pipes. For these reasons, it’s advantageous to wire a generator through your home’s electrical system.

Don’t try wiring the generator into a regular outlet or into your electrical panel. The only safe way is to have an electrician install a special outlet for connecting the generator, along with a transfer switch, which stops electricity from back-feeding on to the grid (potentially electrocuting a linesman working to restore your power). The transfer switch is usually set up to direct power to a sub-panel, sometimes called a pony panel, which carries only the circuits for certain high-priority electrical amenities whose combined power demand matches your generator’s capacity.

This kind of system takes the guesswork out of backup power, but the homeowner still has to get the generator in place. Many portable models are available with electric start, but in terms of physical exertion, manual starting is nothing compared to moving the thing around in the dark or in inclement weather. Remember, running that gas engine in an attached garage is a no-no, because the toxic emissions may find their way into your living space. A generator should be operated away from the house, but sheltered from the elements.

Standby systems

If you think all of this sounds like a huge hassle, you might consider investing in a standby system with a stationary generator installed on a concrete stab in the yard, protected by a noise-buffering, weather-proof case. The transfer switch trips and the generator starts automatically when grid power goes dead, so it’s ideal if you’re away from home for extended periods. (Insurance companies like to see this kind of protection in place for empty dwellings, to ensure that sump pumps and furnaces will operate during blackouts.)

Residential standby systems range from about 8,000 up to 20,000 watts. A basic set-up, designed to power only critical circuits, could be installed for as little as $4,500, while a whole-house system would likely cost closer to $10,000. Some run on propane or natural gas, which burn cleaner and quieter than gasoline. Moreover, gasoline has a relatively short storage life, even when you use fuel stabilizer additives, and refilling the tank can be a sloppy affair.

Natural gas is a no-brainer if you already have a line to the house. Installing a dedicated propane tank will entail extra costs, but some homeowners are willing to pay for the worry-free convenience.

Diesel engines cost more, and are usually used only for larger commercial or institutional installations, where their efficiency and longevity will more likely pay off.

Whatever type you choose, regular maintenance is required to ensure the generator will work when it’s needed. Some standby systems are programmed to start up periodically for self-checking, with remote monitoring for mechanical problems. Some installers also offer service packages, so you can rest easy knowing scheduled maintenance is always up to date. Whether you take care of it yourself or hire the professionals, what you’re after is a feeling of empowerment.

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