Ready For The Next Power Outage? A Guide To Portable Generators

Candlelit dinners aren't just for romantics. They're for people without without power, and a portable generator, too.

Vast sections of Connecticut lived by candlelight last year after remnants of Hurricane Irene swept through Connecticut in August and the freak nor'easter hit in late October. The October outages affected 800,000 Connecticut Light & Power customers, two-thirds of the utility's customer base, for up to 10 days.

Here's a wish for a snow-free, artificially lit Halloween season and another mild winter. But just in case, The Bottom Line has this contingency for the next crippling storm and power loss: What To Look For In A Portable Generator.

Why A Portable?

It's the least expensive way to power a home's essentials during an outage.

"If you're going with a portable, keep it simple" says master plumber and contractor Ed Del Grande, host of "Ed the Plumber" on the DIY Network. "You just want to get backup power to keep the refrigerator going, maybe a well pump, things like that. You're better off keeping the price low, keeping the system simple by just running the electrical cords."

What Does It Cost?

A basic entry-level generator costs $600 to $1,000 depending on the power (in watts) and runs on gasoline, nosily and inefficiently. These portables are often cheaply made and do not last, particularly without the proper maintenance.

"When you buy a generator at Home Depot, you're probably getting something that's made in a country where quality control isn't the utmost importance," says Brian Langille, president and owner of Reliable Electric Motor in Hartford, which works on generators as big as a trailer-size, 65,000-kilowatt mobile diesel model recently under repair. "The way things are made now, they're built almost with planned obsolescence."

How Much Power?

Figure about 4,000 watts to run essentials like a refrigerator, stove and some lights in smaller home and closer to 8,000 to power everything except a central air conditioning system in a a house up to 3,000 square feet.

An electric stove might require at least 2,000 watts, a microwave 1,000. To get a more accurate idea, multiply volts times amps. This information is availabe on most appliances. (On a refrigerator, look for a sticker on an interior side wall.) Remember, though, that a refrigerator that runs on 1,000 watts might draw an extra 2,000 watts when the compressor kicks in. That's the difference between a generator's running watts and starting watts.

Beware of generators advertised as 9,500 watts that actually produce only 7,500 watts. The 9,500 figure represents the starting power — the maximum, short-term output — and not the steady, continuous power.

Power produced by portable generators frequently varies from the household-standard 120 volts, which could endanger sensitive electronic equipment like computers and HDTVs.

"These generators are just to keep the essentials going," says Del Grande. "I would be careful."

To power the sensitive electronics, consider a power conditioner for the equipment or invest in a generator known as a power inverter. It'll cost more for less power, though. Two examples: the 2,000-watt Honda EU2000i ($1,150) and Yamaha EF2000iS ($1,000).


In the $600-to-$1,000-and-up range, Langille says to look for Generac and Winco, among others. (Winco also makes a lower-price brand, Dyna, that starts at about $1,000 for the 5,500-watt, pull-start-only DL6000i.)

He also likes generators with Briggs & Stratton and Honda engines.

"When we have a Generac in here," he says, "it's usually 10 to 15 years old. Unless it's been mistreated, these are the ones that come back and we don't see again for five or 10 years. They're built to last."

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