Keep the Lights On: Choosing the Right Generator Size to Maintain Power in an Emergency

Keeping the lights on in an emergency can be key for survival and safety. Here's how to choose the right generator size for what you need.

There were 1.3 power interruptions on average for every household in America during 2016. Altogether, there are 145 million households connected to the United States power grid.

During emergencies, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters, residential power outages can last days or weeks. A generator can keep you safe and protect you from costly inconveniences during crises. These could include ruined food, frozen plumbing, basement flooding, and mold.

By understanding which generator will meet your needs during an outage, you can ensure that your household remains safe during an emergency. Several factors go into choosing a generator size to fit your needs.

First, start by thinking about how often your area experiences power outages. Have you frequently experienced outages during severe weather such as storms and blizzards?

If your neighborhood only has occasional interruptions, you don't need the most expensive option available. Even if your area rarely experiences blackouts, a generator will still give you peace of mind.

Planning for Emergencies

The first thing that you should consider during an emergency is food preservation. On average, a refrigerator can hold food for up to four hours during a blackout. The freezer can continue to keep food for as long as two days. During an outage, open the refrigerator and freezer as little as possible.

For preparedness, you can keep a block of ice in the freezer. If a blackout occurs, you can use a block of ice to keep food cold in a cooler. If you do this, only put essential foods in the ice chest, and eat the items before the ice melts.

During a blackout, keep meals as simple as possible. Plan simple emergency meals before a disaster happens, and make sure you have what you need to prepare food without power.

By keeping everyone occupied, you can maintain calm in your household during an emergency. Your family won’t have electronic devices to occupy their minds during a power outage. For emergencies, keep activities that don’t require power on hand. Card games, board games, and other classic entertainment will keep your family occupied. They're also great for creating memories and racking up on family bonding time.

What's in a Watt When It Comes to Generator Size?

Now that you've covered the basics start thinking about which generator wattage will work for your situation. Begin by adding up the wattage you’d need your generator to power home appliances and equipment during a blackout. Figuring this out, however, isn’t as straightforward as it may appear.

Some appliances only draw power momentarily. These appliances include air conditioners, refrigerators, and sump pumps.

These items run in cycles. Power surges occur when they turn on and off. Add the extra wattage for the surges to make sure that your generator can handle the load.

You must also think about hardwired residential devices, which may include equipment such as central air. A qualified electrician can help you figure out the wattage and search load needs for this kind of equipment.

Doing the Math

Now that you’ve added up your wattage needs, you can start narrowing down your generator choices. Emergency generators that produce alternating current are also called inverters.

A small, recreational generator puts out approximately 2,000 watts. It could power, for example, your refrigerator, laptop, security system and up to a dozen lights.

A midsize inverter generates about 3,500 watts. Midsize inverters can power 110-volt equipment. During a blackout, they can power a small to mid-sized refrigerator for 8 to 18 hours, while consuming only a few gallons of gas.

The next category of inverter is the 7,000-watt portable sizes. Some generators in this class empower your entire home. You can also have them wired into your transfer switch – more on that later.

A large 7,500-watt inverter can power essential appliances as well as heavier equipment such as your furnace or central air unit. This class of generator delivers steady power, so it’s good for sensitive electronics such as your computer.

Finally, you can purchase home standby units that deliver up to 20,000 watts. These units typically kick in automatically when the power goes out. They can also run as long as you keep it fueled.

Electricians install home standby units permanently. Because of this, they’re not well suited for areas that flood. You can’t move them out of harm’s way when the water rises.

Homing in on a Solution

Now that you know the capability of different size generators, you can match one to your needs. Choose a class that fits with the occurrence of outages in your area, your needs, and your budget.

The last three inverter classes – portable, large and home standby – can power your entire household. An electrician can connect them to your home circuit breaker. These inverter classes can power your hardwired equipment such as central air and air conditioning.

These more powerful solutions are also essential to keep equipment such as your sump pumps, electric range and water heater running. If your home has any of this hardwired equipment, you must factor it into your calculation.

You’ll only need your generator during an emergency. Accordingly, you should invest in the smallest generator that will meet your desired needs. In addition to saving money, you’ll save on fuel if you need to run the unit. One should also follow this simple rule when it comes to selecting the industrial diesel generator units that could prove helpful in case of managing their industrial blackouts. 

You only need a home standby unit if your area regularly experiences power outages. This kind of unit could cost upwards of $10,000 to have installed.
For most, a midsized unit is enough for operating major home appliances during a blackout. For those who experience outages rarely, a small generator will do. Plus, it’s great for tailgating and cookouts!

Using a Portable Generator Safely

Never run an emergency generator indoors. It’s also important to operate your portable generator a safe distance from your home. A safe operating distance keeps carbon monoxide from filtering back into your household. It also prevents the unit from overheating due to lack of ventilation.

As a rule of thumb, lay out a 25-foot power cord from your power box and away from your home. Use the generator at the end of the power cord away from your home and away from walls and other barriers and a safe distance from your home and your family.

Other Things to Think About

When deciding what generator to buy, choose a home standby unit if you can afford it. Electricians install this kind of device permanently, and it’s on the ready whenever there is an emergency. When the power goes out, it goes on – easy peasy.

You can also run home standby units on propane or natural gas. This way, you don’t have to worry about filling up with fuel during an emergency.

Convenience-wise, home standby units run quieter compared to portable models. You can choose one that runs your entire house or runs merely the essentials.
The most basic home standby units cost around $2,000. Even the most basic units, however, require professional installation.

You’ll benefit greatly by consulting with an electrician on which generator you should choose. The cost difference between a portable generator and a home stand by unit may not differ as much as you’d think.

If you go with a portable unit, you need to keep fuel on hand for emergencies and replenish their fuel after crises. These are expenses that you can avoid with home standby setups.

Technical Stuff

No matter which type of unit you choose, make sure there’s a local technician that can service it. You could go online and find a great deal on a generator, but what good is a great deal if you can’t keep it running?

In this regard, it makes sense to spend a little more to ensure you can make good use of your investment. A local small engine repair shop will have parts on hand to repair your unit fast and keep you ready for any emergency.

If you go with a portable unit, you need a transfer switch to power hardwired equipment, such as furnaces, well pumps, and electric heaters. The electrician installs the transfer switch next to your power panel.

You can use extension cords to power any device. However, equipment that’s connected directly to your home electrical system needs this essential component. It keeps electricity from back feeding when standard power resumes.

Keep Your Safety Net Secure

After you choose the right generator size for your home, make sure that you secure it. The only thing worse than experiencing a blackout is discovering that someone’s stolen your generator when you need it the most.

You can secure portable generators by laying a small cement pier where you’ll use it during an emergency. When you install the pier, secure an eye bolt in the cement. If you’re worried about appearance, you can paint the exposed pier and eye bolt to match your lawn or choose a color that you like.
 
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