Get Prepared Before the Next Storm! What You Need to Know About Home Generators

Hurricane Sandy left 8 million people without power. Here's a rundown on power generators if you've sworn to make one part of your preparedness plan

After Hurricane Sandy left 8 million people in the U.S. without power, generators quickly became a hot topic in the affected areas -- and even among those unaffected but determined to be prepared for the next super storm.

If you are among those who have sworn to purchase a generator for your home, here's a guide to help you understand the options.

As an overview, the two basic offerings are portable and stationary. Portable generator units are less expensive and can be stored in a garage when not in use. Stationary models install permanently outside your home and start automatically when needed. They run on propane or natural gas instead of gasoline, and offer longer or even unlimited runtime.

Expect to get about 3,000 to 8,500 watts -- adequate juice for most homes -- from portable units for an investment of about $400 to $1,000 (but be prepared to spring for extras).

Stationery generators offer 5,000 to 15,000 watts, and those at the high end can power even central heat and air conditioning -- at a higher price ranging from about $5,000 to $10,000. These require professional installation.

In its generator-buying guide, Consumer Reports suggests portable generator buyers also spring for a transfer switch, which costs around $500 to $900 installed and connects a portable generator to your home's circuit box as with a stationary version. This eliminates the hazards of extension cords, and also protects the generator and appliances from damage when grid power returns and keeps potential workmen from harm.

Know that portable generators powered by small gas engines are the most common type in this country, but they must be used safely; the engines produce the colorless and odorless gas carbon monoxide that can be lethal and that, sadly, was responsible for more deaths after Sandy. Take the carbon monoxide risk seriously, and be sure to keep a portable generator a minimum of 10 feet from your home.

You'll also want to consider the fuel. Most portables use about eight to 22 gallons of gasoline a day, compared with four to eight 20-pound tanks of propane for portable models. Consider if you are in the position to buy and store lots of fuel. And of course remember that a gas shortage after a major event would affect portable units and not natural-gas-powered ones.

Permanently installed units are safer because they are not fueled by gasoline but rather by natural gas or propane. In all cases, read the heck out of the manufacturer's specifications and follow all guidelines to a tee for safety.

Make sure you size your new generator properly for your home. The machine's wattage must be larger than all simultaneous loads, according to a detailed guide in Popular Mechanics, which also offers tips for calculating that -- or a dealer should be able to help you make the call.

And then look for clever features, like an auto off-switch when engine oil is low.

Once you've bought your generator, make sure you give it a test run by wheeling it to the location where you would use it and giving it a whirl. For a portable generator, run the test with the cords connected so you know exactly what to expect if you should need it for real.

As a point of reference, a Champion Power Equipment 4,000-watt, gas-powered portable unit with high customer reviews was offered at under $450. And a highly reviewed Yamaha 2,000-watt gas-powered unit was going for just under $1,000. 

With these nuances in mind, good luck in your missions to choose the right generator for your household. And always remember to err on the side of safety.

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Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based writer. Follow her on Twitter: @alicedubin.


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