Severe weather costs the United States between $18 billion and $33 billion a year. And that number just goes up when there’s a major event: In 2008, when Hurricane Ike hit, weather-related outages cost the country between $40 billion and $75 billion per a 2012 White House report. Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for more than 8 million Americans. For those experiencing more regular power outages, generators are no longer just a convenience, but a necessity. Here is our handy guide:
First, Know Your Power.
If you haven’t thought about watts since grade school, know this: They measure power. One kilowatt is 1,000 watts. The higher the wattage of an appliance, the more electricity it consumes. The generator size you buy depends on the wattage of the devices that you want to keep running. So first, add up the wattage requirements of your essential devices. The average lightbulb is 100 watts. A coffeemaker uses about 1,000 watts. A refrigerator runs on about 1,000 as well. If you ration what you use during a storm (say, unplug the refrigerator for extended periods), then you can justify a smaller generator.
Which Generator Is Right for You?
Danny Lipford, host of nationally syndicated TV and radio home-improvement Home Generator shows, says the best brands are Generac, Briggs & Stratton and Kohler. Depending on what you’re powering, you’ll choose one of three sizes (costs are ballpark):
Small Portable: The smallest generators are gasoline-powered, pull-start models that put out between 1,000 and 2,000 watts and are handy for power tools and recreation. Newer “inverter” generators have appeared on the market within the past decade. Quieter, more efficient and lighter than conventional counterparts, they often cost about twice as much.
Large Portable: A 7,500-watt gasoline-powered generator will be enough to keep the lights on and power most home appliances, with the exception of central air-conditioning and heat.
Whole House: Starting at about 12,000 watts, these generators can generally keep a home running without missing a beat. You’ll be able to run lights, fans, TVs, refrigerators, computers, space heaters and pretty much anything else you plug into an outlet. In rural areas where water comes from a well, it can run the well pump, too. These are wired directly to your electrical system, powered by propane or natural gas and will require a professional electrician to install.
Price: $5,000–$10,500 including installation for a 12,000-watt model, and up.
1. It’s really critical to take safety precautions when running a portable generator. First, never run generators inside a home, garage or enclosed space, or near open windows or any place that carbon monoxide could enter.
2. If you’re using an extension cord to bring power from a portable generator to your appliances, it needs to be rated for the amount of power coming through. And it should never be plugged into an outlet in a home. This can cause backfeeding, which means that power travels the opposite way through power lines and can injure or kill utility workers trying to restore power.
3. Wiring a generator directly into your home must be done by a licensed electrician.