A power generator can be a lifesaver when the electricity goes out.
They’re available in a wide range of types and sizes, from portable models that require manual starting and hook up to whole house standby generators which turn on automatically when the power goes out.
Read on to learn more about each type and see which option is best for your home.
In This Article:
- Inverter and Conventional Portable Generators
- How to Set Up a Portable Generator
- Portable Generator Safety
- Portable Generator Maintenance Tips
Portable Power Generators
A portable generator can power a few lights and an appliance, like a fridge, as long as it doesn’t use a lot of electricity.
Portable generators also offer many advantages in remote outdoor situations. They can power everything from tools to lights to music.
With a portable generator, you have to move it outside, find the gas can and extension cords, fill the gas tank, run the cords through the house, manually start the generator, and refuel it every few hours.
There are some important differences between portable generators designed for residential and commercial use. Residential generators usually provide emergency backup power for select appliances within a home and provide from 1,000 to 8,000 watts of power
Portable generators for commercial use are often used on a jobsite to run power tools when electricity isn’t available. These units tend to receive more use and generate between 3,000 and 17,500 watts of power.
Inverter and Conventional Portable Generators
Portable generators are either conventional or inverter. Conventional generators use a mechanical alternator to produce AC power while inverter generators produce DC power and convert it to AC power using digital electronics. Inverter generators are smaller and lighter but more expensive.
Conventional generators run at a constant 3600 RPMs while inverter generators can run at variable speeds depending on the electrical demand. This allows inverter generators to run at slower speeds much of the time, which saves fuel and reduces noise.
Inverter generators usually produce cleaner power with a total harmonic distortion of less than 5 percent while conventional are capable of greater output and extended run times.
How to Set Up a Portable Generator
To set up a portable generator, first, attach the wheels and handles. Then, fill the crankcase with the correct grade of oil and the fuel tank with the proper fuel.
If you plan to use a portable generator to back up your home or business, use it in conjunction with a manual transfer system, which consists of a manual transfer switch, power inlet box and power cord.
The manual transfer switch is connected to the main electrical panel, so only the circuits to be powered by the generator are active during an outage.
The power inlet box is mounted outside the home or business. It is hardwired to the manual transfer switch and connected to the generator by a power cord.
When the lights go out, first shut off the power from the utility at the manual transfer switch, then start the generator to energize the selected circuits wired to it. This will prevent your generator from backfeeding power into utility lines and possibly injuring repair crews.
Portable Generator Safety
Take stock of your generator. Make sure the equipment is in good working order before you start using it.
Follow all instructions. Review the owner’s manuals for your equipment if possible (you can look manuals up online if you cannot find them) so you can operate your equipment safely.
Ensure proper ventilation. Carbon monoxide, an invisible, odorless gas from gasoline-powered generators, is deadly, so never run a generator indoors or even in a partially enclosed space like a garage. Only operate them outdoors away from windows, doors, crawl spaces, and vents. Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home or business to alert you to any carbon monoxide that comes into the building.
Have the right fuel on hand. Use the type of fuel recommended by the manufacturer. It is illegal to use any fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol in outdoor power equipment (for more information on proper fueling for outdoor power equipment visit www.LookBeforeYouPump.com). If you are using fuel that has been sitting in a gas can for more than 30 days and you cannot get fresh fuel, add a fuel stabilizer to it. Store gas only in an approved container and away from heat sources.
Only add fuel to a cool generator. Never refuel a generator when it’s running or still hot, since spilled fuel could cause a fire or explosion. When you do fill the tank, leave room for the fuel to expand.
Watch: Safety Tips For Operating a Generator
Keep the generator dry. You can buy model-specific tents online or generator covers at home centers and hardware stores. Choose a flat, level spot with several feet of clearance on all sides and properly ground the unit to avoid the risk of electrocution.
Install a transfer switch. A transfer switch connects the generator to your circuit panel and lets you power hardwired appliances. Most transfer switches also help you avoid overload by displaying wattage usage levels.
Watch: Tips to Keep a Portable Generator Working Its Best
Plug in safely. If you don’t yet have a transfer switch, you can use the outlets on the generator. It’s best to plug in appliances directly to the generator. If you must use an extension cord, it should be designed for outdoor use. It should be rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Make sure the cord is free of cuts and all plugs should have all three prongs.
Don’t overload. The combined wattage of all the devices plugged into the generator should never exceed the rated capacity of either the generator or extension cord. Prioritize your needs to make sure the equipment you operate doesn’t exceed the generator’s output rating.
Do not use the generator to “backfeed” power into your home electrical system. Trying to power your home’s electrical wiring by “backfeeding” – where you plug the generator into a wall outlet – is reckless and dangerous. You could hurt utility workers and neighbors served by the same transformer. Backfeeding bypasses built-in circuit protection devices, so you could damage your electronics or start an electrical fire.
Portable Generator Maintenance Tips
- Store it in a location where the equipment won’t be exposed to excessive dust, dirt, moisture, or corrosive vapors.
- Clean it occasionally with a damp cloth or soft bristle brush.
- Don’t hose the it down with water.
- When storing the unit for more than 30 days, you should empty the fuel or add a fuel stabilizer to the tank and run it through the system.
- If the generator has an electric start, keep the battery charged during long storage.
- Run the it for 10 minutes or so every 2 to 3 months.
Automatic Standby Generators
To power heavy loads and the circuits in your home, you will need a standby generator, also called a whole house generator.
When the power to your home fails, a standby generator goes to work automatically. It then shuts itself off when the utility power resumes.
Watch: Why You Should Choose a Generac Standby Generator
How an Automatic Standby Generator Works
An automatic standby generator system monitors incoming voltage from the utility line. When the utility power is interrupted, it automatically goes to work.
The automatic transfer switch safely disconnects the utility line and simultaneously connects a new power line, providing emergency power within seconds. When the utility power is restored, the generator automatically returns to standby mode.
Because these systems are fueled by your home’s natural gas or propane supply, you don’t even have to worry about pouring gasoline.
So unlike a portable generator, you don’t have to refuel it. Once a week, it automatically runs a brief self-test to ensure that everything is working properly when you need it.
Depending on which model you choose, whole house generators can provide different levels of power, including:
- Essential Circuit Coverage: Provides power only to important basic circuits such as heat, lights, and refrigerators.
- Managed Whole House System: Automatically switches to manage the load to power other circuits and appliances as available.
How to Choose The Size
The size of your home doesn’t determine the size of a standby generator.
You need one sized appropriately for the appliances you want to backup. There are a few things you can do to determine how much backup power you really need, regardless of how big or small your home is.
One approach is to identify the power consumption of all of the lights and appliances you want to backup. These could be only critical items, like your furnace and sump pump; a few rooms, such as your living room and kitchen; or your whole house.
In any case, write down how many watts each appliance uses as you conduct your survey. You usually can find this information affixed to the appliance in a discreet location. If you cannot find this data on the appliance itself, consult the owner’s manual.
Appliances with motors — like your furnace, AC and fridge — require a small boost of power to start those motors. This boost is called “surge watts.” To account for it, multiply the appliance’s rated running watts by 1.5, and write that number down instead.
When finished, add it all up. That total is how much power you will require (at most) in an emergency, and will guide you in selecting the size you need.
For a more detailed, high-tech course of action, consider buying a home energy monitor. There are several to choose from depending upon your budget. They’re easily installed, and will give you a real-time view into your power consumption. Use one for at least 30 days to see how much power you consume every day on average.
Many energy monitors allow you to examine individual loads. This can give you insight into how your high-demand appliances affect your overall energy consumption. By analyzing your common loads and your high-demand loads separately, you will be able to size your generator to effectively manage both of them.
Be sure to account for loads that you only use seasonally. For example, if you use the energy monitor in the winter, make sure to account separately for the power consumption of your air conditioner, or other appliances you only use during the summer.
With continued use, a power monitor will also help you find ways to adjust your energy consumption so you can save money on your utility bills.
Standby Generator Maintenance Tips
- A standby generator should run a brief self-test once a week to ensure that everything is working properly. Verify that the unit ran and has no alarms or warnings.
- Ensure the it is in “auto” mode, so it will automatically start up.
- Make sure the unit is clean and free of debris, inside and outside the enclosure.
- Keep the battery terminals clean and tight.
- Have your unit serviced every six months by an authorized service dealer.
I am buying land out of power range,iI would like a generator that can run my house full time
Kenneth l presgraves
Generac now has available a generator designed for being the primary source of electrical power. Go to generac.com, and you can contact me from their website if you type in zip 60477.
I am trying to sell a “whole house” Quite Sourece Generac generator. Only 75 hours on it, 3.5 years old. Like new. Used as automatic back up power. I put it on Crags list, but do you have other suggestions?
Please let me know.
Thanks in advance for any advice yo can give me.
Hi my email is Wikandaduffley@gmail.com I am very interested. Thank you
What is the noise level
How long will the fuel last with whole house running for a week
What is the size of the unit
Will it run the air condition the water heater, water pump
I am considering installing a ~22 kw whole house generator. I have 100 amp service to my house which is marginally OK. I also want to install a 200 amp panel (requires new utility meter/ mods, but underground wire is OK). I want to put a new 200 amp panel, plus the AC circuits a sub panel circuit and hot tub circuit in the new panel, and then feed a 100 amp circuit to my original panel. This would all be in the basement on the other side of the wall from the electric feed. The natural gas feed is about 6 feet away.
Is there any advantage to installing the panel first…. or is it better to do the generator and panel at the same time. That is, do I save something?
Danny says, “I would certainly recommend that you do all of the electrical panel work, transfer switch for the generator and generator all at the same time.”
interested in the cost of a in home generator.
First, we recommend reading this article: https://todayshomeowner.com/video/choosing-the-right-generator-for-your-home/
Home generators’ costs vary; the key is to balance your electricity needs with your budget.
That can require a deep assessment that includes your home’s size and electrical demands. A visit to The Home Depot would be beneficial to determine the best options for your individual situation.
Thanks for writing!
How far from a mobile home should a gas generator be placed for safety sake?
It’s important to keep enough distance between your home and a gas generator. The National Institute of Standards and Technology suggests 25 feet, at minimum, of distance to help prevent exposure to carbon monoxide. Here’s more information: https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2009/10/safer-emergencies-give-your-power-generator-some-space
I can’t not get anyone to service it
how far to I have to keep a 12 w all house generator from m y propane regulator going into my house
I would like to know how much it would cost for me to get my whole house cover with a generator . Please contact me by phone I am not to good with the computer.
Nicoline D. Lyone
TodaysHomeowner.com features home improvement advice from the nationally syndicated TV show “Today’s Homeowner” and its experts.
We don’t sell construction products on this website, but we encourage checking your local home center for these materials.
Can a whole house generator be installed right after the meter, or does it have to be at the house?
Great question! We recommend submitting it to the Today’s Homeowner Radio Show for an in-depth answer.
Please use this form to contact Danny Lipford, America’s Home Expert, directly: https://www.todayshomeowner.com/radio/ask-questions/
I’m thinking about installing the 22,000 W propane generator on the side of my house with no windows around it at all what is the distance from the house to the generator do you recommend
A good rule of thumb is to keep whole-house generators 5 feet from windows and doors, 1 1/2 feet from the house and have at least 3 feet in front of the generator for maintenance.
However, every situation is different. We recommend getting a home consultation for the best recommendation.
At times we lose power for days, driveway is 1/2 mile long & trees get blown down, can;t get in or out. Trees still down at times when power comes back on. Have one person living here on SSD, on oxegen 24 hrs a day, has to use others eqpt. to run other breathing machines. Been without power so long food in freeze melts & rots, no power to cook anyway. Should not SSD pay for this need expense or part of it? I am a 100% disabled Vet but am not on anything needing power, so I do not rate to have this. Have called SSI & received no help or answers. Am I just supposed to pay this out of my own money? WHY!!!