There are several different types of generators that can be used during a loss of power event. Solar, Natural/propane gas and Fuel based (Gasoline and or diesel). In this article I want to go over only the fuel based generators.
Fuel based generators come in a large variety of physical sizes, have extremely large variances in wattage / power output and range in portability from units you pick up and carry by a handle to those with 2 wheels that you move around like a heavy wheelbarrow up to those on trailers that you must move around by attaching to a vehicle.
For our purposes in this article I want to stick with the “home” use that only power some of your home and one person can easily move by hand. If you can get a trailer based military generator that runs on multiple fuel types and have the storage area for it, more power to you.
Considerations: Noise level, Watts (power output), Fuel and fuel storage, maintaining.
Noise Level: If you are using your generator it is probably during a crisis event. There has been a hurricane, ice storm, heat induced blackout, tornado, EMP or any of many other “issues” that has arisen. If your generator is a loud one, you will be letting all your neighbors and probably criminals know you have a power source. In the Ozarks during the 2007 and 2008 ice storms, criminals (desperate people) stole generators from everywhere. The quick way they did it from individuals was to steal or use the victims’ lawnmower, start it and then turn off the generator. They did this at night. As a result sleep was not interrupted and when the homeowner woke up cold they would check and find the mower running and the generator gone.
The more power you pull the louder the generator is, because the motor / engine must run faster to create the needed power. So there is a minimum load and maximum load and minimum sound / noise and maximum. The technical term for how much noise something makes is measured in decibels. Honda generators has created an YouTube video on decibels http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uae4l1lNuYc
So a quiet generator is better. Out of the fuel based generators I have used and worked around, Honda generators were the quietest. With that said, I have been told “someone” out there could make a “better” / quieter muffler for a noisy generator. Like Bigfoot and the Lockness monster, I have not found that someone or business yet.
To keep your generator safer, It would be wise to only run when needed, not constantly and not at night when you are asleep. Running it from your backyard, especially if you have a wood fence with a lockable gate would help keep it secure. For the sake of love, don’t run the generator in your house or in your garage, you and others will die. If you have a detached garage, maybe, but I don’t recommend it. If you have an attached garage the fumes will make it in the house, trust me I tried.
So a quieter generator in an outdoor fenced off and lockable area would be the best of the fuel type for security.
Where you locate the generator depends on a few factors. If you just run the extension cords from the needed items (refrigeration, fans et al) you will need to run the cords out windows along the floors and through areas. This creates multiple tripping hazards and will allow weather to get into the house through the cracked window or door. In my humble but amazingly accurate opinion, you should wire (or have an electrician) wire up a direct plug into your breaker box.
Before any of you freak out and think you are going to lecture me on the hazards of this, read on. I have done this for the travel trailer, mobile homes and house I lived and live in currently. With the trailers and mobile home, you simply go out to your power pole that comes into them, the one with a single 100, 125, 200 am breaker and throw it in the “off” position. In your home you throw your “main” breaker off. Now the generator can run and will not harm anyone or anything via surges, reverse power et al.
If the power to your home (your breaker box) is located furthest away from your backyard or a safe area from thieves, you will need to make some decisions. One choice is to have it in the back and run individual cables, the other is to have someone “stand guard” while the generator is running. If you have reasonable other options, feel free to share the knowledge.
Power Output or watt you need to know: Even though the electrical items in your home run on either 110 or 220 volts, the real driving force of your electric bill and usage is the watts that the electric device uses. For example your microwave probably uses 110 volts and 1,100 watts while your refrigerator uses the same 110 volts but uses roughly 1,300 to 1,700 to startup but only about 150 to 200 once it is going.
Generators have “maximum” and “operational” wattage outputs. All I have ever seen put the highest number right on the side of the generator. You must know what the operating wattage output is, not the peak wattage. Many put out the peak wattage for just a few seconds, if that wattage pull is constant the generators shut off.
You need to consider what you plan on or expect to run on the generator to be sure you get the proper wattage. Here is a great calculating tool from Honda – http://powerequipment.honda.com/generators/generator-wattage-estimation-guide
In my personal experience, you should add 50% to what you think you will need.
Having grown up south of Houston Texas and spending about 18 years within a thousand yards of the gulf coast, I have used and needed my generator many times in emergencies. I used to keep a small 800 watt one for when I was doing a building project on my acreage, I could charge drills, run a compressor et al. That 800 watt one however could not run my chest freezer. In the late 90’s I purchased a 5,500 peak wattage unit with a running wattage of 4,500 watts. It would run my ceiling fans, refrigerator, freezer and 7,500 BTU window A/C (which had nowhere near enough cooling capacity for any room during the summer). If I shut everything off, it would run my 220 volt 12,500 window A/C, barely.
Earlier I spoke of wiring the generator or at least a connection for the generator into your current home breaker box. I also mentioned that you must turn off your main break before connecting your generator, there are two primary reasons for this, the first is if power is restored and voltage runs into instead of out from your generator, it will burn up and could burn your home down. The second is just as important. If a utility lineman is out trying to restore power to you and your neighbors and your home main breaker is not thrown, power is leaving your house and going over those lines. This could easily kill the lineman and put you up for manslaughter, both of which are terrible choices.
Once the main breaker is off, you should also turn off all the breakers in your home that will not be needed. I suggest those to the central A/C and Heat, to your hot tub, any and all 220 volt items such as your water heater and electric stove. I even turn off all the wall power outlet breakers.
You can turn on the needed breakers one at a time, as needed after you have the generator running and connected to your box. However, don’t forget to turn unneeded breakers back off. In 2008 I left the microwave breaker on and when the central heater was running, a guest started a load in the washer (which used the hot water) and another guest started heating their coffee in the microwave. The generator stopped running and actually did not restart for about an hour. The guest has not been “trained” and in all honesty I don’t think they cared, it was not their stuff (generator and money and time and sweat and forethought) they just wanted what they wanted.
Fuel and fuel storage: Though I will cover this topic over and over when dealing with different rainy day preparations, I figure it needs to be repeated. Fuel does go bad, whether it is diesel or gas. It also evaporates, shellacs / gums up both the containers it is in and also the fuel tanks and lines of your generator (and mowers).
When I lived on the Gulf coast, I kept two 55 gallon drums of gasoline and a third one with diesel. This provided rainy day fuel for generators, vehicles and a multi-fuel camp / cooking stovetop as well as the tractor. We use fuel preservatives (sta-bil) to help the fuel last. We rotated the fuel by consuming it a little at a time by using it in our generators (even just to run and test the generator) vehicles, tractor.
By the way we filled the drums by adding 5 gallons at a time. Every time I filled up my pickup, I would get an additional 5 gallons and then pour it in the drum. I did the same with diesel, no not both at the same time. By doing this way it did not kill my budget with one large purchase. Also, when I needed fuel for the mower or tractor, that fuel was bought separately. A little here, a little there and before you know it the drums are full. These day’s I just keep several 5 gallon fuel cans as well as a couple of 2 ½ gallon ones that I rotate through the mower to keep fresh.
While on the topic, I do not keep fuel in my attached garage, too many chances of fire. Also don’t keep it near dryers and water heaters, the heat and possibly flame from gas appliances with the fumes from the fuel create a hazardous and deadly situation.
Maintaining your generator: Being a mechanical device, generators need to be run, used, repaired et al. At a minimum you should pull your generator out (don’t run it in the shed / garage, move it outside) twice a year and just run it for an hour each time. Not only does this keep the fuel and oil moving but it also reminds you how to actually start the unit. Yes, I leave fuel in mine; again, the fuel has Sta-bil in it.
Your manual will tell you when to replace the air filter and spark plug and fuel filter. Normally they tell you in the number of hours the generator was run. For me, I just do it every 5 years.
Final Thoughts: Fuel based generators come in a wide variety of pricing within the same wattage output. Part of that is the “quality” of the power. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper the generator the bigger the variance in voltage and wattage output and quality. They can send 102 volts then jump to say 129 volts then drop somewhere in between all in the matter of a second. The same with the wattage, they are not necessarily putting out the exact needed wattage.
This power fluctuation can burn up and destroy electronics like computers and cell phones, even your appliances are not immune. I simply make sure the breakers are off (as mentioned above), and move the battery backup devices (UPS) from my electronics to my freezer, and refrigerator. I have not installed or tried running a battery backup on a window A/C or central A/C or heater. I have used them with space heaters. Since 110volts is coming to the UPS the only thing it is doing is filtering the fluxuation in power. I use and prefer APC brand units.
How to pay for one – budget! (no it is really not a dirty word) $500 vs. $2,000 vs. $5,000
You can spend a lot of money for a high quality, quiet generator. In my research, Honda makes the best overall. You will pay, a minimum of $2,200 for a 5000 watt system. http://powerequipment.honda.com/generators/selecting-a-generator
If you are on a majorly tight budget, don’t worry about the noise level or the quality of the power coming out of the unit, very inexpensive ones that produce around 5,000 watts, can be bought for around $500. https://www.harborfreight.com/generators-engines/generators.html
Well, until we meet again, keep your booger hooker off the bang switch!