A Primer on Choosing a Generator

Whole house GeneratorLosing power is an inconvenience. Losing it for multiple days can become a real problem. My neighborhood recently recovered from another two-day power outage. As I shared in a prior post, I finally got fed up and got myself a generator. With COVID-19 limiting our options of what we can do outside of our homes, I figured it might be a good idea to revisit the subject. So in this post, I’ll share the research I did on the different options for generators, including pros, cons, and costs. I’ll also share what I went with and how it’s worked out.

The Options:

The below table shows a high-level overview of the different options that you can choose from. I’ll get into more detail about each one further down.

Generator Comparison

You may not need a generator:

Not everyone needs a generator. I’ve lived most of my life without one. In fact, I was in my current home for 11 years before having any outages that lasted over 90 minutes. This option is ideal for the following scenarios:

  • You rarely lose power, so it’s not worth the additional costs.
  • You have family and friends that you can stay with when there’s an outage.
  • Living without power for a day or so doesn’t disrupt your life.

The only drawback is that if your situation changes (you suddenly start losing power, the relatives you stay with move away, etc…), you have nothing in place. But if you live near a school, hospital, or are on a circuit along with other critical services, you probably don’t need to waste your time and money on a generator.

 

Gasoline Powered Generators:

Gasoline is the most flexible option. It’s the one I ended up going with, and I’ll explain why later. A gas-powered system typically consists of a generator, transfer switch/panel, and a cord. You could always get a small generator and run an extension cord to your refrigerator, well, and other critical appliances. But that won’t be able to power your heating system in the winter.

There are many tools to help estimate the size generator you need. I recommend that you get something slightly larger than your current needs in case it changes. Be sure that the one you use has solid reviews and is easy to use.

A transfer switch goes between the power company and your electric panel.  It’s what you use to switch your house over to the generator. Some people go with a single switch so they don’t need to figure out which circuits in their house are most important. It’s like flipping a light switch where one position powers your house from the electric company while the other gets it from the generator. I ended up using a 10 circuit switch as my system was old and couldn’t support a single transfer switch.  This was more expensive and required me to choose which circuits to connect and which to leave off. So my oven, microwave, garbage disposal, and a few others didn’t make the cut. When deciding which option to take, it’s best to consult an electrician that you trust.

The transfer switch will also come with an outlet for outside, which means you’ll need a hole in your house to run the wires from outside to inside. You’ll plug the generator into this outlet with the provided cord to power your home so it should be relatively close to your electric panel.  You should never keep a gas-powered generator inside. In fact, it should be 10 feet away from your house and far away from any windows when you’re running it. This is to prevent fires and prevent you from inhaling any fumes.

When you lose power, you’ll have to move the generator to the desired spot, plug it into the outlet, start it, and then move the transfer switch to the generator position. Keep in mind that depending on usage and tank size, you may need to add gas every 5-12 hours. So that means you need to switch off the generator, let it cool down for a few minutes, refill the tank, and then restart it. During the 42 hours I was out, I refilled my generator four times (about 15 gallons). I timed my refuels around my work and sleep schedule. I would fill it up before going to bed (some people just leave it off at night) and then before starting my day (I’d lose internet for 10 minutes while the router powers back up).

One of the pluses of using a gas generator is that you can replace it easily if there’s a problem. So if your generator isn’t working, you can buy (or borrow) another one to get you through the outage.

 

Whole House Generators:

The best thing about whole house generators is that they switchover automatically and power your entire house. These generators are ideal for people that lose power frequently. It’s also ideal for people who travel during the winter and don’t want to worry about pipes freezing.

The downside is the cost as you’ll need an electrician, plumber (for natural gas), and someone to build a concrete slab for the generator to sit on. The generator itself is slightly larger than the central air compressors and a little noisier than a vacuum cleaner (around the same as a gasoline-powered generator).

If you have natural gas, it’s ideal to just hook into that so you don’t need to worry about refueling. Otherwise, you can get one that runs on liquid propane (LP).

Most whole house generators will power on regularly and run diagnostics. This is critical to ensure that it will work when you need it to. Unlike gas generators, you can’t just run down to your local home improvement store or superstore to buy a new one. They have to be ordered or you need a professional to repair it.  As someone who has broken his snowblower during a blizzard, this to me is the biggest potential downside of this option. So again, ensure that you’re keeping up with whatever maintenance your manufacture recommends.

 

Solar:

Solar is a great option for many reasons. You’re reducing your carbon footprint and, with the right system, you’ll never lose power (unless it’s unusually cloudy). You can get batteries that will store enough electricity to power your home for one or two days. And these batteries get charged every day the sun shines.

While the cost seems high, it’s often offset by credits and rebates, so make sure you do your research. In my case, I would have done the seven-year financing in which the payments that would have been offset by the energy credits I would have earned. In my case, they estimated that the power company would pay me $20 each month as I would generate more power than I use so I could sell it back to them.  I also would have received a 30% tax credit on the roof I replaced earlier that year. So you’re probably wondering why I didn’t go with this.

That brings me to the biggest downside, which is not every house is ideal for solar. Mine fell into this category because trees on my neighbor’s lot would block the panels during the winter months. Personally, I challenge this because those trees are bare in the winter and I remember nearly being blinded by the reflection of that part of my roof when I was clearing ice dams a few years ago.

It’s worth checking out solar if you’ll be in your house for the seven years that you would have the loan. But ensure that you have a battery backup and that you’ll still have power when your area has an outage.

 

What I did:

My neighborhood has had at least five extended power outages (2-4 days) during the last nine years. I spent about $3000 for my system versus over $12,000 for a whole house system. We average an extended power outage every two years in my neighborhood. In the two years that I’ve had the system, we’ve only had one extended power outage. I figured a system is good for about 10 years, so even assuming that I had nine outages during that time, the additional per outage cost of the whole house system would be $1000.

So far, it’s worked out nicely. While it’s a pain to have to refuel two or three times per day, it’s better than the last outage when I had no power at all and had to stay with relatives. I learned that a single five-gallon gas container isn’t enough for extended outages. I took three trips to the gas station to refill the container during the outage.

So that’s my overview. Do you have other advice or your own experience that you’d like to share? Then feel free to share in the comment section below. In any case, I hope this post has helped you and I wish you the best with your search and selection of a generator.

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