Houston Heating, Cooling, and Electrical

A Generator Buying Guide

Generators deliver power when and where it’s needed, whether that’s during a power outage, out on the campsite or on the road with an RV. When choosing and buying a generator, though, there are several things to consider. Power output, portability, fuel usage and efficiency, maintenance, noise, safety and convenience are all relevant factors, but if you know what to look for, there’s a generator for every situation.

Generators make an ideal backup plan, and many homeowners rely on the when the power is out. According to Eaton’s Blackout Tracker, in 2017, 37 million people in the U.S. experienced a power outage, which was more than twice the number of affected people in 2016. Among U.S. states, Texas experienced the second-most outages, with nearly 200 power interruptions in 2016.

Choosing the right kind of generator

There are several generator types, and they differ significantly in form and function. They include:

Portable

Portable generators may be light enough to pick up and carry, but some are so large that they must be wheeled around. In general, portable generators are used for backup purposes, but because they can be moved, they are frequently found at campsites, vacation homes and RV parks. They must be shielded from weather, though, as they are only partially enclosed.

Portable generators typically run on gasoline, though some models also work with propane. It’s recommended that homeowners keep extra fuel on hand, and if that fuel is gasoline, it must be treated with stabilizers to preserve it long-term.

Though home standby generators usually offer more power output than a portable model, some portable models can produce up to 10,000 watts, which is more than most inverter generators. Safety must be a priority when handling a portable generator, however, because they produce carbon monoxide while operating. It’s important to never operate a portable generator in an enclosed space, and experts recommend using them at least 20 feet away from any home, vehicle or enclosure where people are occupying the space.

Inverter 

Inverter generators are also portable and are designed to be lightweight and easy to transport. They are also built with additional engine components that improve efficiency and reduce noise. If noise is a concern, like at a campsite, some inverter models are as quiet as spoken conversation, so anyone inside a vehicle or building won’t be able to hear it.

Inverters achieve this effect with better, sturdier exhaust systems and variable output engines. A variable output engine is one that can throttle up or down as power demands change. They don’t run at full capacity all the time, then, which also improves efficiency.

Inverter generators can be hooked up to a vehicle and they produce “clean” power. In other words, they are designed to deliver surge-free power, so they can be used safely with sensitive electronics.

They are quieter and they produce fewer emissions, but inverter generators still need to be installed outside and away from any home or enclosure.

Home standby systems 

A home standby generator is fully enclosed and professionally installed, so it is not designed for portable use. Instead, home standby systems provide an optimal mix of power output, durability, convenience and automation. They are, in short, the ultimate backup plan when the power goes out.

Standby systems are wired directly to the home’s electrical system and many can be powered with natural gas or propane. If there is a natural gas connection to the property, a standby system can run as long as natural gas is available. They are a bit more expensive than portables and inverters, but standby systems output the most power (in most cases) and they are built with additional features, like remote management and automatic start, so the generator switches on as soon as the power goes out.

Portable power stations are also being introduced to the market, and they function like a giant battery for appliances. They come with an onboard battery that can be used to power appliances, so they don’t produce emissions or significant noise. The battery can be charged by plugging it into an outlet or with the use of a solar panel, but portable power stations can’t quite match the output of fuel-fed generators.

Advice on calculating your home’s power needs

For most generator buyers, the most important consideration is power output. Generators output electricity in the form of watts. This is the number to look for when buying a generator, and it can range from a couple thousand watts to 20,000 or more.

Top home standby systems can generate enough power to run everything in the house at once, but in most cases, homeowners will need to pick what will operate during an outage. To do this, you’ll need to add up the wattage needs for everything the generator will power.

Most appliances come with a label that details their wattage needs. If there isn’t one, the appliance’s manual should list it. If neither are available, here are some wattage estimates that can provide a rough picture of your home’s power needs:

  • Refrigerator – 600 to 800 watts
  • Lighting – 60 to 500 watts
  • Electric range – 5,000 watts
  • Computer – 300 to 800 watts
  • Television – 400 watts
  • Water heater – 4,500 watts
  • Central air conditioners – 11,000 watts
  • Electric furnace – 5,000 to 20,000 watts

Once you have your home’s wattage needs mapped out, you can choose the appropriate generator. It’s best to pick the appliances you know your family will need during an outage and aim for a slightly higher wattage so there’s no risk of overloading the generator.

Other features to look for when buying a generator

Power output is an important consideration, but it’s not the only one. Modern generators are built with advanced features that will improve their function, ease of use and durability. Some features to target when buying a generator include:

Electric and automatic start

With electric start, there’s no need to pull a cord to operate the generator. A single button press is all that’s required, which is useful for people that have physical limitations.

Automatic start takes it a step further, automatically switching the generator on when the system detects a power outage. This is extremely useful for areas that get severe weather often, as there’s no need to brave the elements (or the dark) and manually start the engine.

Low oil or high CO shutoff

If the generator is allowed to run when low on oil, it can cause damage to the engine. A generator with a low oil shutoff installed will automatically power off when a low level of oil is detected.

Some generators are also built with a high CO (carbon monoxide) shutoff too, which will turn the generator off when dangerous levels of CO are detected.

Additional fuel options

Some generators can take multiple fuel sources, including propane and natural gas. Compared to gasoline-fed systems, propane and natural gas tend to be more cost-effective. Propane can be safely stored for much longer than gasoline, as it remains stable over time.

Monitoring software

Some generators come with remote monitoring software, so power output and fuel usage can be monitored in real time. Monitoring software can also alert owners to when generator maintenance is required, and it can be used to remotely start or power off the system.

These features are common among home standby systems, so in addition to their superior power output, standbys are also convenient and flexible in their operation.

Consider a transfer switch with the generator

Transfer switches are a must when wiring a portable or standby generator to the home’s electrical system. They require an electrician’s assistance to install and they must be purchased separately, but without one, the generator cannot operate safely.

A transfer switch is what connects the generator to the home’s circuit panel, and it disconnects the home from the grid when power is interrupted. Without this critical step, the generator may overload the home’s circuits, damage the generator and pose a potentially-fatal electrical risk to utility workers servicing the grid. Include the cost of a transfer switch when buying a portable or standby system as the ultimate safeguard.

Buying a generator is an investment that homeowners will be thankful for when the grid goes down. Modern generators are designed with several features for added convenience and performance, so as long as they are properly maintained, they can provide a long-term backup option.

FAQs

What determines a generator’s price?
The primary factor affecting generator price is power output. The more power the generator provides (measured in wattage), the more it will generally cost. Home standby systems tend to cost more than portable systems as they require professional installation and are built for long-term reliability.
Why should a homeowner consider a standby unit instead of a portable generator?
Standby units are fully enclosed, come with several convenience-related features and are usually packaged with remote operation and monitoring software. This software reminds the owner of current and upcoming maintenance concerns, so it’s easier to upkeep.Home standby systems output much more power than portable generators. If you want to run your home normally, even during an outage, a home standby system will be needed to deliver the necessary power.

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