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

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



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 Amazon.com, generac.com, and homedepot.com 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.”

If you like the ease of a standby but want more flexibility, a little-known option is a generator with a quick-release natural-gas connection. Tuckahoe-based contractor Zsolt Toth says this type of unit is relatively quiet compared to most other types and less expensive than a standby generator—plus, you can easily disconnect it from your natural-gas line if you move to a new home or want to switch temporarily to gasoline or propane.

Environmentally conscious homeowners also can consider a solar-powered system, which draws energy from the sun to charge a battery-powered unit. The unit, which stays in the house, connects via cables to appliances and lights. Solar systems are quiet and don’t require professional installation, but they tend to provide less power and cost more than many portables. Also, because they need sunshine, you can easily run out of juice with a string of cloudy days.

Fully armed with this information, my husband and I are now ready to choose. Hopefully we’ll be set when the next outage hits—but if not, I can always use the company at the vet’s.

Generating Solutions

Generator options, with the information you need to make the best choice.

 
Power Type Portable Standby Solar
Why It Will ChargeYou Up It’s easy to buy, easy to use, and inexpensive compared with standby models. It automatically powers up as much or as little of your house as you’d like, and may increase the appeal of your home when you sell. It’s easy to buy and install, runs quietly, and is environmentally friendly.
How It Can Drain You Filling up gas cans and refueling in the cold and dark is no picnic; also, you need to make sure no carbon monoxide fumes can seep into your house. Noisy. It can cost between $3,000 and $11,000—and that’s not including installation or any necessary upgrade to your power service; also, it can take months to get an appointment with Con Ed to check your service. Noisy. Solar units are smaller and more expensive than many gasoline-powered portable generators—plus, they can run out of charge without abundant sunshine to power them.
To Keep the Juice Flowing Ensure there’s always enough oil, and change it according to manufacturer’s instructions. If you’re going to store the unit for a month or longer, close off the fuel tank and run the carburetor dry. Test the unit weekly and call for service if you notice any problems. Periodic oil and filter changes are also essential. Make sure the solar panel gets direct sunlight, and use the system periodically to prolong the life of the battery.
The Power Point An inexpensive but labor-intensive choice A premium but high-maintenance choice at a premium price A good idea with significant drawbacks


Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer specializing in home and family topics. She is currently adding up the wattages on all her appliances.
 

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