When the electrical power goes out during a major storm or utility company outage, many of us realize just how reliant we are on electricity. Electricity, after all, provides light and powers just about every appliance and technology device in our homes. As a result, without electrical power, our homes become little more than shelter. We sit in the dark, imagining our frozen foods thawing and praying for longer cell phone and laptop battery life .
This is why emergency generators make sense. Generators can supply enough power to keep our households operating until the electricity returns. Having a portable electrical generator on hand in the event of a major power outage can help your family weather the storm. Having a some electrical power may allow you to have a couple of lights, refrigeration, hot water from a gas water heater, and a working gas furnace.
In this article, you’ll find information that will help you make smart choices about emergency electrical generators and other devices that can keep the electric power operating. In addition, you’ll get help with basic set-up, care, and maintenance.
For information about standby generators, which are a permanent, high-capacity version of the more common emergency generator, please see Alternatives to Emergency Generators.
If you live in an area where power outages are rare but sometimes do occur, a portable emergency generator may be all the investment you need. It can keep the freezer and refrigerator running or enable you to turn on some lights and run a microwave and a computer so you can survive for days without any serious losses.
Choose a generator made specifically for household use rather than a worksite or camping generator. Consider how much power and what sorts of plugs you will need. Also consider the quality of the machine and how easy it will be to start and maintain.
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Here are the features you should consider when making a choice:
Amount of Power a Generator Will Deliver
Generators are sized according to the number of watts of electrical power they deliver. In addition to the power a generator supplies while in constant running mode, a generator also should supply short bursts of “surge” power, which is needed for a few seconds to start up a large appliance such as a refrigerator or a clothes dryer.
A small generator delivers 3,000 to 4,000 watts—enough to supply a medium-sized refrigerator, a few appliances, a TV, and some lights. If you want a more civilized life, up the wattage to 5,000 to 6,000 watts and you’ll be able to add a window air conditioner or two, a freezer, and more appliances. Large generators that deliver 7,000 to 10,000 watts enable you to run just about everything in a medium-sized house, minus a central air conditioning system.
Type & Number of Electrical Plugs a Generator Has
A small portable generator may have only 12-volt plugs, suitable for standard extension cords and able to run lights and small to mid-sized appliances. If you need to power a 240-volt appliance, be sure the generator has a suitable plug. If you will plug the generator into the home via a transfer switch (see Standby Generators & UPS Backup Batteries), there must be a special four-slotted plug that supplies both 120 and 240 volts.
Type of Fuel that Will Power the Generator
Most inexpensive generators run only on gasoline or diesel fuel and may have a fuel tank that holds only enough to last a couple of hours. Choose a model that has a tank large enough so it can run through most of the night. Also consider generators that can convert to connect to a propane tank or to the house’s natural gas lines.
Generator’s Motor & Starting Method
Some low-end generators start using a pull rope that you yank as you would an old-fashioned lawn mower. Higher-end models have battery-powered electrical starters. Obviously, pushing a starter button is much easier than yanking a rope. Also consider what is needed to keep them operational. Some motors must be started and run for a few minutes every month or two, while others can go for a year or two without running.
Generator’s Grounding Method
Nearly all modern generators do not need to be grounded (connected to a grounding rod driven into the earth or to a metal water pipe). For safety, check the owner’s manual to ensure the model you choose does not need to be grounded.
Following is a Consumer Reports video that is very helpful in gaining an overview when shopping for a generator.
Most portable emergency generators require a modest amount of assembly, including installing wheels. You will also need to add oil of the type recommended by the manufacturer. In general, if you expect to use the generator in cold weather, add 5W-30 oil; for running in moderate to hot weather, use 10W-30. Also be sure to use the recommended type of fuel—for instance, many models call for unleaded gasoline with an octane rating of 85 or higher and no more than 10% ethanol.
Remember that It will be much easier to do all the gathering of equipment and set-up when you have power—especially if an outage should occur after dark. Before you need to run the generator, plan where you will place it in the event of an outage, and determine where you will run the extension cords. Make a list of the appliances and lights you want to power in case of a power outage, and add up their wattages to make sure you will not overload the generator.
Never run a gas motor inside the home—it produces noxious carbon monoxide fumes that can be deadly. It can be run outside on a patio or driveway, in a shed or other outbuilding, or in a well-ventilated garage (with windows or the garage door open).
Also be aware that the generator’s noise can be irritating so, if possible, place the appliance out of earshot. Don’t plan to put the generator where it might be vulnerable to rain. Though generators can run for a short while in light mist, a downpour may render them inoperable.
Test Your Gear
Test the lengths of extension cords to be sure they will reach where you need them to and store them near the generator. Store plenty of gasoline or other fuels in safe containers that are easy to access.
Be sure to use heavy-duty extension cords, not lightweight household cords. Cords should, at a minimum, have 12-gauge wire; 10 gauge or thicker is preferable. Check the cords for condition, with no nicks in the insulation or exposed bare wire.
The Electrical Service Panel
Do not attempt to hook up a portable generator to your home’s electrical service panel. This type of generator is designed to supply a limited amount of power via extension cords. If you want a system that automatically supplies power during an outage, hire a professional to install a standby generator (see Alternatives to a Portable Emergency Generator).
If you want your generator to supply power to certain receptacles and appliances in your home without the need for multiple extension cords, have an electrician install a transfer switch in the home’s main service panel. After installing this transfer switch, you just plug the generator into it to supply power to designated electrical circuits. Only plug-in the appliances and lights that you want to use.
Before running an emergency generator, read the article Setting Up a Portable Generator (above). If you take the steps suggested in that article, you’ll be much better prepared to get the generator up and running quickly and easily.
When setting up the generator, check the oil and fuel levels and top them off as needed. Roll the generator to the dry, well-ventilated place that you’ve chosen, and gather together the various extension cords you’ll need.
Start the generator before you attach the extension cords. Plug in the cords and then run them into the house. Though the cords can get wet, keep any connections—for example, where you plug together two cords—dry. Adjust the motor’s speed as needed to sustain the appliances or lighting you want to power.
Consult your owner’s manual to determine how long the motor will run before you need to refuel so you can anticipate the need to refuel. When you do refuel, first turn off the motor and unplug the cords. Wait a few minutes for the motor to cool down before adding the fuel.
If the power outage might last days rather than hours, plan your energy usage so you can give the motor a rest. Run the refrigerator or freezer only sporadically, and keep its door closed as much as possible.
If possible, run a generator only one- quarter to one-half of the time. You might, for example, turn it off when everyone has gone to bed. Exceptions include a sump pump that needs to run continuously to clear out water in the basement or a furnace or gas boiler needed to heat the house on very cold nights.
Nothing is more frustrating during a power outage than wheeling out your portable emergency generator only to discover that it won’t run.
Keeping a generator operable through the weeks or months when you don’t need it is critical. If you typically use your generator only once in a blue moon, strongly consider buying a cover for it to protect it from weather and debris.
First, consult the owner’s manual for proper maintenance directions so you can be confident the motor will start up when you need it. Manuals typically advise:
• Periodically cleaning and/or changing the spark plugs
• Cleaning the screen on the spark arrestor
• Maintaining a sufficient amount of oil
• Changing the oil after a specified number of running hours
• Periodically cleaning and/or changing the air filter
If you will not be starting a portable generator for more than a month, add fuel stabilizer to the tank to keep the carburetor from getting gummed up. Many manufacturers recommend that you run the motor for about 10 minutes every two to three months.
If your generator has an electric starter, be sure to keep the battery charged so the generator will start when you need it. (If the battery does run down, most models allow you to start the generator with a hand pull.)
Keep the generator clean. Cover it to keep it dry. If it needs cleaning, avoid using a hose; use a soft brush, or wipe it with a barely damp cloth.