September 12, 2011

A GENERATOR BLEG: Reader Russell Sayre emails: “Have you posted in the past on home generators? I’m in the market, but the selection on Amazon is fairly bewildering. Do you or your readers have tips or suggestions?” A bit, but I’ve never bought one. They can be dangerous, both electrically and from carbon monoxide. (Storing gas is dangerous, too). And my power’s pretty reliable. So even though my house has a transfer box and a generator inlet, I’ve never gotten the generator to go with it.

That said, you can go with a small inverter-based machine like this Yamaha for powering electronics, etc. Or you can get a whole-house standby generator. The key is figuring out what you want it for in advance, and then working backward. As I’ve said before, if I were building a house from scratch I’d put in a big underground propane tank and have a propane-powered backup generator. Then I’d be nearly independent except for getting my tank filled once or twice a year.

UPDATE: Reader Tom Fenton writes: “Please remind folks that they just can’t plug the generator into a convenient plug without an isolation box as power then also flows out into the network. Generators that power the neighborhood slow down restoration as utility crews often go door to door asking to shut off generators before repairing broken power lines.” Yes, that’s why you need a transfer box — or you can just run an extension cord from the generator, of course.

Here’s some generator safety advice. And with any kind of backup power or heat, a battery powered carbon monoxide detector is an excellent idea.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Dave Tulka writes:

We have a 5500 watt Diesel and have yet to install the transfer switch. We have a Coleman dual-fuel camp lantern and two Aladdin kerosene lamps. For winter heat, we have been using our Toyotomi/Kerosun kerosene heaters as an almost primary heat source. Even if the gas stays on, there is no heat without the electric blower fan.

When we updated the kitchen, we converted from an electric stove to gas and have a dual-fuel Coleman camp stove as backup. We purchased the Coleman lantern and stove for family camping when our kids were younger.

The cool thing about Coleman dual-fuel units is they run on Coleman fuel or gasoline. Both fuels are far more energy-dense than propane resulting in less space for each BTU stored.

When we first started using kerosene for winter heat about ten years ago, our friends and families looked at us like we each had a third eye. Now, not so much. We’ve had two friends lose their gas furnaces in the winter that were thrilled to borrow one of our kerosene heaters for a few days until they could get their furnaces repaired or replaced.

Our story is about reducing the absolute need for electricity. The remaining critical-path items are the fridge, washing machine and internet access. Assuming the internet stays up, each machine and the network gear has pretty respectable battery backup in place.

Kerosene heaters are remarkably good if used properly, and kerosene — like diesel fuel — is comparatively safe to store. Gasoline is somewhat more dangerous.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Allen Peirce writes:

One consideration not explicitly mentioned: fuel storage time (and therefore the likelihood that you’ll have usable fuel when you need the generator) favors the propane. Gasoline degrades quickly, e.g. in six months or less unless expensive treatments are added. Diesel degrades more slowly unless water (e.g. from condensation) gets into it, in which case algae can grow in it and the life, and cost of keeping it treated and useful, is more like gasoline. Propane on the other hand will still be good years later…but the engines for the generators are likely to be more expensive. (Note, if possible, get one that takes the propane in the liquid state rather than as vapor – much less likely to freeze up in winter!)

And reader James Loftis emails:

When we moved back to the hurricane belt that is Houston, we decided that a stand-by generator was a must. From my research into the subject, and the experience of getting it up and running:

1. Air-cooled generators are smaller and cheaper to buy and maintain, but you are probably limited to 20kV. If you have 2 air-conditioners, like many of the homes here, you will not be able to run the whole house. Some power-management planning is needed.

2. Not every contractor or electrician has installed (easy) and connected (hard) a generator, and some won’t be able to recognize problem 1.

3. If you go with NG, city authorities are likely to require a new gas meter and connection. And, the transfer switch is not “optional”, no matter what the vendor’s website might say.

4. It will take you much longer than planned to get everything done. Much longer. From talks with others who gone down this path, this seems a common complaint.

5. I noticed while shopping for generators that most every website that monitors activity will offer a substantial day-of-purchase discount to convince you to buy from them. No idea whether that’s still going on, but it happened on 3 different sites.

Plus, from Alex Nunez:

Over at ConsumerSearch.com, we have a full report on portable generators. In addition to making recommendations in a variety of product categories (based on what’s being said in published third-party reviews) on the landing page (http://www.consumersearch.com/portable-generators), we include a more evergreen What To Look For section that breaks down some basic shopping tips on choosing wattage, fuel type, and features: http://www.consumersearch.com/portable-generators/important-features. That page may help some of your readers who are beginning their research. I think the genny manufacturers are going to have a nice bottom line this year.

Yeah, me too.

MORE: Reader Teresa Hummel writes:

We have had a generator for years. It was last used during the winter of 2008 when an ice storm took out our power for 3 days. We were lucky, others were out for weeks. Had we not used the generator we would have had frozen pipes and a far greater disaster. You are correct though, using a generator takes some care. After reading your post and the other comments, I have a tip that may save someone a big headache and money in the long run.

Many people buy a generator when there is a crisis, then sell it once the crisis is past. There is one major thing people overlook, or don’t bother with, when they use a generator in these situations. Like all engines, they need to be maintained. If you read the manual you will often find it calling for an oil change after about 25 hours of use and periodically there after. I’m sure many people have no idea they need to do any kind of maintenance that soon, if at all. Even though it is seldom used, my husband does twice yearly maintenance on our generator to keep it in good running condition. In an emergency, it’s too late to find out it doesn’t work.

In the case of a multi-day power outage, such as the recent hurricane, people hurry out, buy a generator, and run them nearly continuously for days. All of this without doing anything other than adding gas when it runs out. While it doesn’t usually cause the generator to stop at that time, it will shorten the life of the machine considerably. It’s something to keep in mind for those who are thinking of buying a used generator. If the seller can’t give you any specifics on how long it was used and what maintenance was done, walk away. No matter the price, it’s not a bargain at that point.

Also they need to be started regularly — like once a month — even when they’re not used. Seems like that could become a pain.

And reader Christine Lanzon writes:

Just this weekend we installed this smallish (3500 watt max) propane-fueled generator. And this transfer switch.

The generator is being kept on the side of the house (away from vents and windows), hooked up to the same kind of propane tank I use on the gas grill (which makes the gas grill propane tank a handy spare), off the ground on a wooden platform that we built for the purpose. It’s mainly to make sure the sump pump and freezer can run during an outage, but we also hooked up the circuits for a few receptacles on all three levels so I can power my router, my laptop, some lights, and other small loads. With a grill cover over it, it’s hardly noticeable; I don’t have to store gasoline; and it starts easily. It seems like the perfect compromise between a full-blown generator and powerlessness.

You can run a small generator off those little tanks, but I believe you’re much better off with a 75lb tank, especially in low temperatures.

STILL MORE: Reader Walter Boxx writes:

You won’t need nearly as big a generator as you probably think. I have a 5500 watt generator and could get by with half that. The less the better since you may be driving 30 miles and sitting in line for an hour or more for gas. All you really need is a refrigerator, a couple of lights and some fans or a couple of small window unit A/Cs. During the recent tornado-induced multi-day power outage I got by with just the fans for a couple of days since it was cool in the evenings and mornings. When the humidity got too high I hooked up the window units and it made a big difference. My refrigerator only pulls 500 watts, as do the window units (6,000 btu) for a total of just under 2,000 watts with a few lights. You’d probably want 3,500 watts to be sure you can start them, but 5500 was overkill. And bigger means more gas to run. I was using 1/2 gal/hr. A smaller generator would have used 1/3 gal/hr. Even so, I was giving gas away before it was over. And having a spare window unit AC or two around is not a bad idea. Not only is it probably cheaper to use a small generator with window units than to buy a generator big enough to run your house unit, but I’ve used mine for backup when the A/C was on the fritz and even loaned them out several times.

And reader Jeff Pttman writes:

I have a “portable” (weighs a ton but can be rolled about on a level surface by one person) gasoline generator with 7800 watts running power and 13,700 watts starting power. The way I figure it, I can run my refrigerator, my portable air conditioner (which rolls from room to room), a few lights and electric fans, and I can recharge the UPSs that power my cable modem, wireless router and laptops. I can cook on my propane gas grill or on my bottled gas hotplate (originally bought for wok cooking). But as you say, you have to plan ahead to buy and store gasoline and you have to deal with the the risks. My problem is that I can’t find a portable propane-powered generator, or an inverter for my car, that will pump out this amount of power at anywhere near this price point (I paid about $1,600 for the generator; similar ones can be had now for half that). If any of your readers have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

I dunno. Northern used to have a line of “tri-power” generators (gas, propane, natural gas).

MORE STILL: Reader Jon Bryan writes:

I bought a Generac/Guardian 8kw standby generator that runs from our 500-gallon propane tank.

I thought about gas or diesel, but decided that I wanted something my wife wouldn’t have to deal with if she happened to be home alone. That meant wiring it up permanently with a transfer switch (which was part of the package).

I’ve had it for almost two years now. It really feels luxurious when the power goes out. In a few seconds the generator starts up and voila! we have lights again. I wired enough circuits over to the transfer switch to keep the heat, refrigerator and freezer, kitchen, and master bed/bath on. It could easily handle more, given our modest requirements, but it only has eight breakers. A bigger one with a mains switch would have been nice, but I’d have had to hire an electrician.

I’ve been happy with it. It automatically starts up every Saturday afternoon and runs a few minutes to keep things lubed and the battery charged. The only thing extra that I did was add an hour meter from Digi-Key. I like to know how long it’s run.

I’ll be doing the annual oil and filter change in the next couple of weeks.

Maintenance is key.