How to Choose the Best Generator for Your Home, Budget, and Lifestyle

Power on! How to purchase the best generator for your needs

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See also Generating Solutions: Generator options, with the information you need to make the best choice

For my husband, it started the evening we ordered a third pot of tea at the Japanese restaurant so that we didn’t have to leave. For me, it was the day the whole family took the dog for his checkup because the vet’s office had heat. But by Day 10 with no power, we both had reached the same conclusion: We needed a generator. 

The simplest type of generator, we learned, is a portable type, which is fueled by gasoline and easily purchased from a hardware store or home center. It stays in the garage, and, when the power goes out, you bring it outdoors, add fuel, start it up, and attach your lights or appliances via cables. Portables range from $400 to about $3,000, mainly depending on wattage. You can find helpful worksheets on,, and for computing how much wattage you need to power the lights and appliances you plan to run.

Many higher-end portables also have convenience features, such as an extra-large fuel tank, a fuel gauge, and a push-button (versus manual-pull) start. If you don’t want to deal with cables and plugs, you can buy a manual transfer switch (about $200 to $300), which your electrician can install to provide power directly to desired circuits.

On the downside, portables are very noisy and need to be refueled as frequently as every few hours, so you’ll become very friendly with your local gas-station attendant during a blackout. That is, if you can find a station that’s open. Also, because they emit carbon monoxide, portables need to be carefully positioned so that exhaust fumes don’t enter the house.

Homeowners with deeper pockets may prefer a standby model, which is permanently installed outdoors. Standby generators are fueled by propane or natural gas, and they automatically turn on when the lights go out. If you want to power up an entire large-size home, you might need a unit costing $11,000 or more. But if you can make do with fewer appliances and lights, smaller units are about half as much. To reduce the size of the generator you need, look for one with a “smart switch,” which can digitally manage your power load, automatically taking some appliances offline when you turn others on.

Standby generators must comply with town codes, and, depending on your gas pressure, you might need to upgrade your power service. An electrical contractor or generator specialist can help you navigate these steps or even run the whole project for you. Mike Liebler with Yonkers-based specialist Power Performance Industries says that $10,000 to $14,000 is a good ballpark estimate to power up an entire house. Design Lighting by Marks also offers and installs generators. “We do everything: The permits, inspections, propane or gas hook ups; all wiring and trenching; and the concrete pad if necessary,”  says owner Mark Mosello. “And we do it all in just one day.”

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