Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Generator

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How to Buy a Generator Aleksandr Potashev - Getty Images

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In the event of a power surge or minor outage that lasts only for a few minutes, the biggest hassle is resetting the clocks on all of your appliances. However, prolonged power outages that last hours or even days can cause major disruptions and safety risks. Whether they're caused by a hurricane, wildfire, or electrical grid failure, these power outages pose risks to your health and your home. No matter how well-prepared you may be for these scary scenarios, it's nice to know that someone, or something, has your back. Like a whole-home generator. Generators can help heat or cool your house, keep food from spoiling, and power your electronics so you can stay in touch with loved ones.

A generator is certainly an investment, not a piece of equipment you buy on a whim. And with all the different wattages and options out there, it can be difficult for a first-time buyer to know exactly what kind of generator they need. There are a lot of considerations that go into buying a generator, which is why we're here to help. In this step-by-step guide, home experts share what you should consider as you shop for a generator.

First, Do You Need a Generator?

We'll give it to you straight: Forking over hundreds or thousands of dollars for a generator isn't as hot a home improvement as, say, choosing new floors or picking new paint colors. But it's an important one: An aging power grid and extreme weather events are leading to a rise of large-scale power outages in the United States.

"Generators are nice to have as a backup plan for your family's comfort and safety," says Joel Worthington, president of Mr. Electric, a Neighborly company. Not only can they help you weather the storm and keep your home powered, but they can also save you money in the long run by helping protect your pipes from bursting or your sump pumps from failing, he explains.

Where you call home can play a major role in how much you invest in a generator. For instance, California and Texas were the states with the most outages in 2022, according to this power outage graphic from Power Outage.us, a power outage tracking website. If power outages are a frequent occurrence for you, or you live in a storm belt or on the coastline, a generator may be a worthwhile purchase.

Next, Determine Whether You Need a Portable or Standby Generator

When you're shopping for a generator, the first thing you need to determine is whether you need a portable generator (which can power you in the short term) or a standby generator (one that's professionally installed and automatically kicks in when the power goes out).

Portable Generators

Portable generators are smaller, less expensive, and can keep the essentials in your home running until the power comes back on, says Worthington. Due to their limited capacity, they are a great option for temporary outages that last a few hours.

You'll need to manually power on these portable generators (usually by pulling a cord or pushing a button).

Portable generators are typically fueled by gasoline or propane and require you to set them up when you need them by either plugging them into your electrical panel or directly into the electronics you wish to power, explains Grace Tsao Mase, a Yale-trained architect who founded BEYREP, an online home improvement and reconstruction management tool.

These types of generators don't require professional installation. When you need it, you'll set it up at least 20 feet away from your home to avoid fumes (more on that in a minute). If it's raining, you'll need to cover it with a canopy. When it's not in use, you should"store it well-ventilated covered space like a garage or shed.

As you're shopping for portable generators, look for models that have carbon monoxide sensors to shut off automatically if dangerous levels of the fatal gas build up. Consumer Reports recommends looking for one of these references on the packaging: ANSI/UL2201 Certified for Carbon Monoxide Safety or ANSI/PGMA G300 Certified Safety & Performance.

The takeaway: "If your goal is to have temporary relief for a short time to support a portion of the household appliances, then a portable generator is a great option," Mase says.

Standby Generators

Standby generators, also known as whole-home generators, are more expensive than portable generators. They are permanently installed and can better handle long-term outages, experts say.

"Anytime there's a slight drop in power or a complete loss of it, this generator turns on automatically to get things running again," Worthington says.

These generators can run on natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel, he says. It can tie into your home's gas line or run off a tank.

You'll also want to consider the climate you live in because portable generators require weatherproofing and are noisier, Worthington says, while a standby generator is weatherproofed and quieter.

Much like an outdoor unit of an HVAC system, standby generators are normally professionally installed directly outside of your home.

The takeaway: "If your goal is to have a full backup generator for the entire house, then the standby generator will be an optimal option," Mase says.

Figure Out How Many Watts You Need

Generators have varying power outputs, which are measured in watts, so you want to find a generator that can support your typical daily power consumption, says Cristina Miguelez, a remodeling specialist at Fixr.com. You may not care about blow-drying your hair during an outage, but you definitely want to make sure you have enough power to keep your fridge running.

In a typical home, essential appliances use an average of 5,000 to 7,500 watts of power to run. You could also make a list of the items that you'd want to keep powered on in a storm—things like the refrigerator and freezer, lights, space heater, and air-conditioning—to determine how many watts you'll need. This worksheet helps break down the typical wattage of household appliances and items. Your devices also will be labeled with power ratings.

Often whole-house generators will be capable of powering things like the furnace, lights, refrigerator, and microwave, but you may need to upgrade if you want to be able to use your washer and dryer or stove during an outage, Miguelez says.

In general, standby generators have more wattage than portable ones.

Understand Generator Safety Basics

Every generator owner should be well versed in safety protocols.

Portable generators can produce carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas that can be deadly. For this reason, it's important that you never use a generator inside your home or garage, even if your windows or doors are open, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use generators outside only, and keep them more than 20 feet away from your home, doors, and windows. Make sure they are also 20 feet away from your neighbors' homes, doors, and windows as well.

If you have a whole-house generator, it's a good idea to have your local fire inspector come out to look at it once the setup is complete, says Miguelez, because they can tell you if there's any work that wasn't done to code or if there are any additional safety upgrades you may need.

Generators are certainly an investment, but you'll be happy you have one to keep you powered the next time there's an outage.

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