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Home generators

Power. When it goes out, everyday necessities like heating, cooling, refrigeration, and lights are affected. In a widespread outage, it may take days for power to be restored. Be prepared for unpredictable weather and unforeseen outages with a standby generator for your home.

Before you invest in a system, here are five key questions that need to be addressed.

1. How much coverage is enough?

“The first step in selecting a generator for the home is to decide what you want to back up in a power outage,” says Jake Thomas, Generac. “Is there a handful of lights and appliances you want to keep running? Or do you want to back up your entire home? Once you answer this question, you will be in a better position to determine what size generator and what kind of solution will best meet your specific needs.”

Basically, there are three types of systems to choose from.

● Essential Circuit Solution. This solution is designed to back up only the most important circuits and the items served by those circuits. “These items could be some lights, a furnace, and a well pump, for example,” says Thomas. “In short, an essential circuit solution is intended to back up those things you cannot live without during a power outage.”

● Managed Whole House Solution. “This is a system that can protect your entire home by managing the way power is distributed to your appliances,” notes Thomas. “A managed whole house solution features technology that monitors the power you are drawing from the generator.”

A popular option in this category is a smart circuit solution. “The smart circuit system allows you to power the whole house while delaying the start of certain large appliances,” says Jim Baugher, “The more you have starting at one time, the bigger the generator you'll need. This type of solution will let you go with a smaller generator that can handle the initial starting loads, which is the majority of the house. After about five minutes, the system goes to the first item in priority sequence and starts it up.”

● True Whole House Solution. These generators are large enough to deliver enough power to back up every circuit all of the time.

2. How much are you willing to invest?

“A common misconception is that home backup power systems are cost prohibitive. It's logical to believe the larger the home, the larger and more expensive the generator required to back it up will be,” says Thomas. “Not only can a small, very cost-effective generator be used to back up essential circuits, but also managed whole house backup power systems can let you back up your entire house with a smaller generator by using more intelligent technology.”

Baugher adds, “Systems can range in price from about $1,800 to more than $20,000, which doesn't include installation cost. This has to be considered, and I recommend three to five quotes, because estimates can be all over the board.”

Both Baugher and Thomas recommend speaking with an electrician or a generator expert who can help you meet your backup power expectations and stay within budget.

3. What's in a number?

According to Thomas, rated power is the number to be aware of. “It represents the full available power the generator can deliver consistently during normal operation,” he says.

“When it comes to generator sizing, a typical rule of thumb is to size it to 80% of the generator's capacity,” adds Baugher. “I recommend adding 20% to that. By doing this, you won't jump into that generator surge rating and lose that voltage. You have that cushion.”

4. What type of fuel is best?

“A lot of people are concerned with fuel consumption,” notes Baugher. “With the technology and the control systems available today, however, home standby generators run much better and are more fuel efficient.”

Many systems under 48,000 watts feature a dual fuel system, which means it can accommodate either natural gas or liquid propane.
Propane does burn more efficiently than natural gas. “You get a wattage loss when you use natural gas,” notes Baugher. “For example, if a 20,000-watt generator is operating on liquid propane, you'll have 20,000 watts available. But if you're operating on natural gas, you get 18,000 watts.”

Thomas says a common issue he encounters is a fuel supply line that is too small for the unit to operate.

“It is important for homeowners to ensure their existing fuel meter can provide adequate volume for both the generator and other gas-fueled appliances,” he says.

5. What about the transfer switch?

“The most important thing to know about the transfer switch is that the generator can't deliver backup power to your home without an automatic transfer switch,” explains Thomas. “Many systems are available with the transfer switch prepackaged with the generator for the most cost-effective solution.”

A key point to remember is that home standby generators are proprietary.

“If you already have a transfer switch and it's a Square D or an ASCO switch, it's not going to work with a Generac, Kohler, or even a Briggs & Stratton generator,” says Baugher. “You will need to invest in a switch that is specific to that brand.”

The bottom line

Do your homework and seek the advice of a professional.

“If you get started in the right direction, it's a lot easier in the long run,” says Baugher.

The chart above provides a sampling of home standby generators.

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