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When the power goes out, a generator can keep your house warm or cool, your kitchen cooking, and your computers and phones charging. People tend to buy generators around major storms, when they’re prone to making a desperate decision—without a plan for what to do when they get it home. Working by flashlight, in a rush to get the power up and running, they might skip over critical safety steps during setup. And people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning related to generators.
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We don’t want you to be one of those people. Know Your Power Priorities Generators are sold by power output, as measured in watts. Start by making a list of what you don’t want to go without while the power’s down, then add up their watts to get you in the right ballpark. For a more complete list, check out our report on how to pick the right size generator for your house. One tip that will make prioritizing easier is to determine which outlets and appliances are controlled by each circuit breaker in your panel, and label them accordingly. Pick a Type You can go one of three ways.
Home standby generators are installed permanently, can run on natural gas or propane, and kick on automatically during an outage. An experienced electrician can help with town or municipal permits, noise restrictions, and proper location. These start automatically when the power goes out, and often supply more power. They run a self-diagnosis and let you know when maintenance is needed. Some even do this via email or text, to you or your dealer.
You have your choice of fuel— propane, which is less risky to store than gasoline, or natural gas, which provides an unlimited supply of power. They range from roughly 5,000 to 20,000 watts. These units tend to cost less than home standy generators. They typically run on gasoline that you may need to store in large quantities. Stabilizer must be added to your fuel for prolonged storage.
You can use portable generators anywhere on or off your property, but they must be at least 15 feet away from any structure, including your house, doors, or windows—and not in an enclosed space. Make sure the exhaust is facing away from your house. These models produce potentially deadly levels of carbon monoxide, a gas that kills approximaely 149 people each year in the United States. If it’s raining, you must use a tent or cover. Several of these models offer electric starting. The battery required, however, may not be included.
They provide from 3,000 to 8,500 watts. Because their engines are more complex, these models generally cost more than portable generators of a comparable output. Inverter generators are much quieter than their conventional counterparts because they throttle up and down to match demand rather than run at full power all the time. They also have more sophisticated exhaust systems which also help tamp down noise. They run more efficiently and produce fewer emissions, but you should still follow all the same safety precautions you would with a portable generator.