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How to Choose a Backup Generator

This comprehensive guide will give you all the information you need when buying a backup generator.

Getting Started

A generator is often an overlooked piece of equipment for home and business owners. There are countless situations where having the the right backup generator is absolutely essential. Perhaps you have a medical condition that requires electronic devices or a business that can't afford for their computer systems to go down. Maybe you need to make sure your security system never experiences downtime.
Whatever your reasons, knowing that the health and safety of your family or business does not rely entirely on the power company provides a peace of mind that's hard to overstate.

Wattage and Power Needs

How do you know how much wattage you'll need? It all comes down to the appliances in your home.
Generators have two basic power measurements:
  • Starting Watts - Turning on an appliance requires far more power than simply keeping it running. Starting watts are a measure of this initial, momentary power need. You might also see this referred to as startup power, max watts, or peak power.
  • Running Watts - Running watts (also known as continuous watts) refers to an appliance's wattage needs under a normal power load.
The average home needs 5,000 watts of power. It's best to break down the appliances you need to run during a complete blackout and then add each appliance's wattage to calculate your total.
Home Generator

Types of Generators

Home Standby Generators

A standby generator is permanently installed outside your home or business. It is wired directly into the electrical system to provide power to all of the necessary circuits during any power outages. Many standby generators will automatically click on when your home loses power and shut themselves off again when power returns. Standby generators are fueled by liquid propane or natural gas and require professional installation, often with a permit.

Portable Generators

Portable generators are the most versatile generators on the market. Their uses are practically limitless. They can provide emergency power at home or in remote locations where utility power is not an option. They're also commonly used for recreational purposes, like boating, camping, or even tailgating.
Portable generators are fueled by gasoline and include 120-volt power outlets like those in the walls of your home. When the generator is running, you can plug appliances and tools directly into these outlets. The size you need depends on what you're planning to power. So research and plan accordingly.

Inverter Generators

These generators are the perfect solution for activities like tailgating, camping, boating, or RVing. Inverter generators have sophisticated engines that throttle up and down to meet power demands, instead of constantly running power. As a result, inverter generators are often quieter than other options. In general, these generators run quite efficiently with reduced emissions.

Portable Power Stations

Portable power stations are battery-powered generators. While other generators are powered by gasoline or propane, you simply plug your portable power station into an electrical outlet to charge. These days, you can even find solar generators that pull all of their power from the sun. Like the inverter generators, these run quieter and reduce fuel emissions, allowing you to use them indoors.
Because portable power stations rely on battery power, there's a limit to the number of devices they can power as well as the length of time they can can provide power. While this might not be an issue if you have another reliable power source, you shouldn't rely on portable power stations for electronics that need to run 24/7, especially medical products.
Generac Generator

Features to Consider

Automatic CO Shutoff

This safety feature detects the buildup of carbon monoxide and shuts down the generator if it reaches dangerous levels. Each generator brand refers to this feature by a different name. So look for terms like "CO Guard" or "CO Shield" and ensure it meets one of two standards:
  • ANSI/UL2201 Certified for Carbon Monoxide Safety
  • ANSI/PGMA G300 Certified Safety & Performance

Low CO Engine

This second safety feature specifically guards against carbon monoxide poisoning.

Automatic Start

An automatic start simply means that when you lose power, the generator goes on. This feature is a must-have if you travel and can't get home quickly in emergencies.

Electric Start

Many portable generators offer a push-button option to get up and running right away—no more pull-starting.

Alternative-Fuel Capability

Most portable generators run on gasoline, but some are equipped with the ability to run on natural gas or propane using a conversion kit. Stationary generators typically run on propane or natural gas.

Fuel Gauge

A fuel gauge is one feature that comes in handy during blackouts. It's especially convenient to be able to check your remaining fuel and act accordingly.

Low-Oil Shutoff

When the oil falls below a certain level, the low-oil shutoff will prevent engine damage. This feature comes standard on most stationary generators. But you can also find it on some portables.

Multiple Outlets

It helps to have at least four outlets to spread out the wattage. Although you should only reach this max load during extreme cases such as a blackout.

Removable Console

Connected to the generator, a removable console allows you to connect appliances without running extension cords outdoors.

Inverter Technology

Inverters turn DC power into AC power, the type of current that powers everyday appliances. When you purchase an inverter, you need one that can handle the wattage of the appliances you plan on using.

Noise Reduction

Generators aren't exactly the quietest machines. Some offer extra features to reduce the noise created during operation. Look for large mufflers if noise is a concern in your home and neighborhood.
Generator with Wheels

Wheels

As the name suggests, portable generators can be transported to different locations. The smallest portable generators are realtively lightweight—perhaps 50 pounds—allowing them to be carried. Larger models can weigh several hundred pounds, making a wheeled frame essential to move them.

Transfer Switch

If you want to use a generator to power your home, you'll need the right sized generator and a transfer switch. This switch closes off the utility power line to your home's electrical system and opens a direct line to the generator. It then reverses the process when utility power is restored. Standby models will have either a manual or an automatic transfer switch. As mentioned above, automatic switches are far more convenient, especially if you need your devices to run when you aren't around.
Stay prepared for all your power needs with the right-sized generator from Abt!
Last updated: September 25, 2020

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