TRR photo by Fritz Mayer

Portable generator or whole house?

REGION — Most people living in the region have lost power in their homes a time or two, and because of the March 2 blizzard, many homes were without power for days. Not surprisingly, lots of residents are considering preparing against the next bout of nature-imposed darkness by shopping for a generator.

There are a couple of different kinds of generators with different costs and different abilities. The cost of a generator that can power an entire home can range anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 with another $5,000 to $1,000 for installation. If a person decides to go that route, the installer will help you decide how many watts or kilowatts your house will need.

If you don’t want the whole house powered, but maybe the refrigerator, oil furnace and a few lights, a portable generator is a possibility. It is not as convenient, but is a lot less expensive than a whole-house generator. A portable generator can cost from $500 to $1,500.

A portable generator does not switch on automatically when the power goes out, is typically powered by gasoline and usually must be started by hand. It must be operated outside the home to avoid poisoning people inside with carbon monoxide.

To find out what size portable generator you need, make a list of the watts of the appliances, lights, etc. that you want to operate during a power outage, and add them together. The wattage can usually be found somewhere on the appliance.

Some typical watts are: a microwave: 600 to 1,200 watts; refrigerator: 700 to 1,200 watts; incandescent light bulb, 60 to 100. Once you have the total, one manufacturer recommends multiplying that number by 1.5 because some appliances need additional power when they start up. Once you’ve got that number, you’ll know how many watts you’ll need. Portable generators range from approximately $400 for a 3600 watt generator to $1,100 for a 9000 watt generator.

The simplest way to use the generator is to start it up well away from the home. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that it be located at least 20 feet from the home and not in a garage or under an awning. It’s an important factor to remember, because carbon monoxide poisoning from generators is estimated to impact 4,000 people a year in the United States.

With the generator operating safely away from the house, the appliance can be hooked up to the generator with extension cords, but the cords must be thick enough (like 14 gauge) to handle the amount of electricity that is going through them.

The alternative to dealing with long extension cords is to have a manual transfer switch subpanel installed near and tied into your main electrical panel. Some do-it-yourself sources say this is complicated and it’s not a DIY project. If, however, you’re comfortable with installing a new breaker in your electrical panel, you would probably be able to manage installing a subpanel with a switch.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at whole-house or standby generators.


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