Houston Heating, Cooling, and Electrical

Generator 101

Generator 101 and Why it’s Needed

No matter where you live, power outages are going to happen eventually. There are more than 3,000 power outages in the U.S. every year, and they affect tens of millions of people, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Texas ranked second in the nation in number of incidents. The EIA also tracks outage durations, and in 2016, the typical outage lasted for four hours.

That’s a long time to go without electricity, but with a generator on backup, it’s something you and your family won’t have to experience. Many modern generators switch on automatically, come with critical safety features and can power an entire home. The only question is – which generator is right for your property?

Choosing the Right Generator

Generators come in an array of models, ranging from compact inverters that can power a fridge and a few devices, to home standby generators that can run everything under a single roof. Here’s a closer look at each:

1. Recreational inverter – Recreational inverters are the smallest generators available, and they can usually be found at hardware stores and larger department stores. They’re only small compared to other generators, as the average model still weighs more than 50 pounds. They are the most mobile generators available and the easiest to use. They aren’t complicated to install and are mostly plug and play.

The problem with recreational inverters is that they are limited in what they can power. Most models provide less than 2,000 watts, which is barely enough to run a refrigerator and a few lights. That’s not enough for property owners that want a true backup plan.

2. Large inverters, or portables – There is a large range of mid and large-size inverter generators that can provide anywhere from 3,000 to 7,500 watts. Unsurprisingly, these models are more expensive than recreational inverters, but many of them make for an effective fallback option should the home lose power.

At around 3,500 watts, it’s possible to run a 10,000 Btu air conditioner, a refrigerator and a few more devices, so people in hotter climates should consider this the minimum if comfort is a priority during an outage.

On the higher end, at 7,500 watts, homeowners can run just about everything they would need for an extended outage. That includes the fridge and air conditioner, as well as a gas or propane furnace, a well pump, a dishwasher, at least one burner on an electric stove, and a variety of devices. For homeowners that are only concerned about the occasional outage, a large inverter or portable is typically enough. They can be wired to the breaker panel to operate with ease.

3. Home standby systems – Home standby systems are the primary alternative to portable generators, and they are the ultimate in generator technology. Once a home standby system is installed, it doesn’t move. However, it’s a tradeoff. What you lose in mobility you gain in power, automation and reliability.

Home standby systems can output up to 20,000 watts, which is enough to power everything inside at once. They also output reliable, steady power, which is important for computers. What really sets a home standby system apart, though, is convenience. These systems start up automatically, as soon as any interruption in power is detected. Within seconds, the generator takes over and has everything running again. There’s no need to go outside, flip a switch and potentially expose yourself to danger. Most home standby systems can also run on propane or natural gas, and they can do so indefinitely.

For homeowners that want a system that can run with minimal effort and with minimal difficulty, a home standby system is the best option. The only concern with a generator that can’t be moved is that it cannot be installed on a property that’s prone to flooding, and if a flood does occur, there’s no way to move the generator.

Which generator is the best choice for your power needs? In general, it’s best to choose a generator that covers your minimal power needs and no more. This will optimize fuel efficiency and ensure that fuel lasts as long as possible.

To figure out what your minimal power needs are, you only have to add up the wattages for every device or appliance that the generator will supply power to. This should be listed somewhere on the item in question, but leave a little extra room in this regard, as air conditioners and some appliances use more power during startup, and this number may not be listed.

Generators and Safety

There are a few important safety considerations to keep in mind while operating a generator. For example:

1. Generators should only operate outside – Generators emit carbon monoxide during operation, and this tasteless and odorless gas is dangerous if inhaled. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, never run a generator inside or in a tight space, and aim the exhaust away from any doors or windows.

It’s a good idea to place a carbon monoxide detector close to the generator to verify that it is running safely.

2. Install a transfer switch as soon as possible – A transfer switch links the property’s circuit panel to the generator, which allows the generator to run anything that is hardwired to the home. Without this switch, extension cords are essential, and extension cords can pose safety risks. Also, a transfer switch will provide information on wattage usage, which can help homeowners avoid overloading the system.

3. Avoid back-feeding the home – Back-feeding means connecting the generator to one of the home’s outlets, using a heavier cord. This dangerous practice feeds power back into the main panel and breaker, which eventually makes it to the transformer, where it is converted into high voltages. This essentially energizes any utility lines connected to the transformer, to the point where workers restoring power may experience a fatal shock. Unsurprisingly, back-feeding is illegal in many areas.

Power outages affect millions of people every year, but with a generator, you don’t have to be affected. With a range of generators available for properties of all sizes, there’s no reason to stay in the dark.

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