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Backup generator basics

When severe weather hits, I want to be prepared, and I’m considering purchasing a backup generator for my home. What types would you recommend to take care of the entire house?—Jon H.

Backup generators won’t reduce your utility bills. But if you are concerned about the possible effects of an extended power outage, there are options. Portable gasoline or diesel powered backup generators, available at most home improvement stores, can provide enough electricity to operate essential items such as refrigerators, freezers, and computers. You’ll need outdoor-rated, heavy-duty extension cords to plug them into the generator’s outlets. And you’ll need to go outside to shut the generator off and let it cool down each time you need to add fresh fuel, then restart it.

If you want a simpler (but more expensive) way to keep almost everything in your house powered up, then a permanently installed backup generator is a better choice. Typically fueled by natural gas or LP gas, this kind of backup power supply feeds electricity directly into your home’s wiring system. You’ll have power not just for plug-in appliances but also for your furnace, central air-conditioning, water heater, sump pump, and more. Installing a whole-house backup generator is not a do-it-yourself project–you’ll need to hire a properly trained and licensed contractor.

Safety and testing
Your contractor will recommend the right size generator for your home and include an automatic transfer switch. When it senses that grid electricity is off or voltage has dropped too low, it automatically disconnects your home’s wiring from the utility grid, then starts the generator. To protect the lives of utility line crews working to restore normal power, the automatic transfer switch isolates your home from the power grid to prevent the accidental flow of electricity from your generator into the grid.

The automatic transfer switch also runs the generator briefly (called exercising) on a preset schedule to test that everything is working properly, and will alert you if there are problems.

For more information on choosing the right backup generator for your home, contact your local electric co-op.

Carbon monoxide kills. This deadly, odorless, invisible gas is released as fuel and burned in a portable generator. Never, ever operate a portable generator indoors. Do not attempt to operate a generator inside a garage with the door open. Instead, place the portable generator in an outdoor location at least 25 feet away from doors and windows so that no deadly gases can accidentally seep into the building.

James Dulley for the May 2015 issue

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