As winter set in and some parts of the country getting slammed by freezing rain and snow I went ahead and made the plunge bought a smallish generator. I spent a good two weeks reading and researching on what would be a good fit for our house and the wallet. Surprisingly I didn’t see any deals out there in genset world, even after or during Black Friday.
There is such a wide range of gensets out there it can be overwhelming. There are, well I wont even try to categorize the kind, types and numbers or brands out there.
Disclaimer. I am not a generator expert or an electrician. I only know generators and sizing from my Navy days when I worked in a mobile unit that did communications, both analog and digital. We hauled everything we needed to wherever we went. No matter the weight, just put a handle on it and now it’s portable! We hauled a 12 kw diesel genset all over the Pacific. Weighed over a 1000 lbs and just fit into the bomb bay of a P-3 C Orion aircraft.
The biggest question you have to ask yourself is what do I want to power? a couple of lights? a few outlets in the house? a few outlets and a furnace, a window A/C unit, or a whole house A/C? Or just a the whole damn house and everything in it?
Fuel- Do you get a gas, propane, diesel, natural gas, or a multi-fuel unit. A multi-fuel being a unit that can burn one or two different kinds of fuel. An example would be gasoline and propane or natural gas and propane. I guess diesels could be considered multi-fuel also, they can burn motor oil, kerosene, cooking oil etc..
Outlets – How many outlets are available on the genset? is there just two? four? how about a NEMA L5-30 twist lock connector? can you use the standard outlets and the NEMA L5-30 twist lock connector at the same time. Do you need outlets and are you hard wiring into the house?
Transfer switch – automatic or manual? Do you need one?
Watts- again a large variety, from a few hundred watts to many thousands. But determining the wattage you want to use is going to determine the size of genset you purchase and in some respects the type of fuel it will burn.
Something to keep in mind is peak wattage. Gensets will be listed as 6500/7000 or something similar. So 6500 watts max and 7000 peak or surge watts. The pictured genset above is a 5500/6875. When a electrical device is first turned on, it will draw more wattage during its start-up then settle down to what it will need to operate normally. Here is a for instance. A TV is rated at 300 watts during normal operation. All day long, it will suck 300 watts of power until it is shut off. Now when you hit that button to first turn that TV on, it may draw 500 watts until all the electrical components are powered up and a picture displays on the screen. This is your peak power or peak wattage. Simple huh?
So here we are, what do I want to power? Lets say I want a one outlet in the front room to run the TV and cable box and internet modem. One outlet in the kitchen, the furnace and lets say a outlet/light in the bathroom.
I am going to use made up numbers just for ease of demonstration.
Front room – TV, 300 watts normal, 500 watts max or peak.
Cable box, 100 watts normal, 250 watts max.
Cable modem 100 watts normal, 200 watts max.
Kitchen, coffee pot – 400 watts normal, 800 max.
Bathroom – light, 25 watts normal, 50 max.
Furnace blower – 300 watts normal, 600 max.
Total with everything running = 1225 watts with a peak of max of 2400 watts. The 2400 watts would be if I turned everything on all at once. Still with me? make sense? If I were to size a genset I could get away with a 3000 watt generator and a peak of 4000. This would give you plenty of room to add other electric devices and not lug or cause the genset motor to slowdown. Kind of like when you drive your car up a hill in the wrong gear it causes the motor to work harder and actually produce less power.
Now above I just used made up numbers and you will have to look at all your electronic devices before you actually purchase a genset, then size to your electrical load.
Here is a link that describes Watts, Amps, and Voltage. Always think of water in hose when it comes to electricity, pressure, flow, and resistance.
Confused? Ok, so we know a genset (using the picture as an example above) has a sustained run of 5500 watts at 30 amps and 110 volts. We know from the made up numbers above we are using 1225 watts at 110 volts and using this link to do all the math for us we know we are only using 11 amps. Plenty of room to add more “stuff” or help power a few of the neighbors lights. Be aware that as you add more “stuff” to your mini power grid the harder the engine will run and the more fuel you will burn. The pictured genset will burn 7 gallons of gas a 50% load in about 10 hrs.
Transfer switches. You do not have to have a transfer switch, either a manual or an automatic one to run the electrical items in your house during a power outage. But they are nice. Like this one. If you don’t have a transfer switch? just run heavy duty extension cords, outlets on the generator permitting.
I hope I didn’t confuse anyone reading this. Just add your up your watts, make sure you have enough amps and choose the size of the genset that fits.
Manufacturers, to many to list. I can tell you the best, hands down are the Honda’s. Then there are Generac’s, with some manufacturers putting Yamaha’s and Subaru engines in their products. I know I haven’t listed them all but there are a ton of cheapo’s out there. Do your home work.
Honda has the market on small and very quiet gasoline motors. With everyone falling in line after that. Most run in the 80 db level. I was at a pro golf tournament years ago that was being broadcast live on TV. There was a Honda genset running, in a box on wheels about 3×4′ I didn’t even know it was running until I leaned against it and felt the vibration. Amazing! Most of the diesels I have been exposed to were military grade and you needed hearing protection 20′ away.
Years ago, while stationed in Hawaii we had a major power outage on base and our backup genset fried its main electrical board and failed to start. The contractor told us it would be two weeks before they could get a replacement on site. Outside sitting in the corner of the compound was a old, I mean old, Fairbanks Morse 8 cylinder diesel generator probably a 50 kw unit. Had not been serviced in 6 years according to the maintenance record. We dropped a battery in the box, and that thing fired right up on the first few cranks. I lived in base housing 5 blocks away and you could feel the pounding in the ground from the house. That thing ran straight for a month without an issue. A testament to diesel gensets. Where I was at, the air station received its power from Pearl Harbor, the line ran under the entrance to the harbor and Public Works was replacing the main line, hence the major outage and the time length we were on backup power. If I had the space and money I would get a diesel in a heart beat.
I purchased the PowerMate that is shown in the pictures at the beginning of the article. I paid just over $500, and bought another 5 gallon gas can and a bottle of fuel stabilizer. With the 5 gal can I already have on hand I estimate a full day of operation before I need to refill both cans. Until I can get a transfer switch installed, we are prepared to use 12/3 extension cords.
I’m not an expert, feel I found the best deal for me and after a few more paychecks I can store more gas and purchase a transfer switch. Just do your homework before whipping out your wallet because of a good price. A person might also check pawnshops, Craigs list, or the local newspaper. Depending on your area of the country, after a major storm or hurricane you might pick up a genset on the cheap after the average joe determines the crisis is past and he doesn’t need the generator anymore.