The Best Generator for Emergencies

Emergency generator
What should I be looking for???

More on electricity?

Emphatically, Yes!  Why do we dwell so much on electrical power? It’s simple.  We depend so much on electricity for just about everything we do that it becomes a major concern in an emergency. And the news about power outages is ominous. But is a generator the solution? If so, what’s the best generator for emergencies? Let’s take a closer look.

First question: what’s your neighborhood like?  

If you live in a single family home with a lot of space around it, having a generator may make sense for emergency power. If you live in a multi-family unit (an apartment, for example, or in a mobile home park), it’s unlikely that a generator will work for you.

Why not?  Mostly, it has to do with logistics.

Second question: What different kinds of generators are there to choose from?

A home stand-by generator is about as big as a stove, and weighs twice as much.  It will be permanently installed outside, probably on its own pad. It’s hooked up to a permanent source of fuel (probably natural gas) and switches on automatically when power goes off. Depending on the size of your home, you are looking at at least a 10,000 Watt generator, and more likely 20,000 to run nearly every appliance and system. These are big, heavy (like 600 lbs.), and are relatively noisy. (Like your A/C.) As you can imagine, a whole-house stand-by generator is also a big investment – typically in the thousands of dollars.

Even the more efficient portable emergency generators for sale today — meant to power a few essential appliances — are about as big as a filing cabinet, and weigh close to 100 pounds. You plug your appliances or equipment into the portable generator using extension cords. Most run on gasoline; some are dual-fuel, which adds a propane option. Costs range from around $500 (which would be a real bargain) to as much as $2,500. Portable models are just as loud as the stand-by generators, too — so you’ll be bothering the neighbors if they are at all close to you! Even if you could stand the noise, you can’t run these inside the building due to emissions and perhaps fire danger.  Every year, people die from carbon monoxide poisoning because they run a generator in the garage!

A third type of emergency power supply is the inverter-generator. If your major concern is keeping your computers and telephones running, you’ll want an inverter style in order to be sure the power going into your devices is “clean.” Inverter-generators are generally smaller in size, weigh less, and are a lot quieter. This makes them a favorite for week-end camping and tail-gating! Prices for inverter-generators start at below $400 and go up.

Still interested? Here are a few other issues to consider.

Can you handle the weight?

First off, how much does the generator weigh? As mentioned, even the “small” generators are heavy, often over 100 pounds. (That’s why most portable generators come with wheels.) This is one hefty piece of machinery to move around. Can other family members move it without your help?  Can you move it even with everyone helping?

How much fuel can you store, and where?

The real issue here is how long will you be without power and how much gasoline or propane can you store safely? Even the most efficient portable generators, run at 25 or 50%, will empty their gas tank in a day or two. To refill the tank during an extended outage you’ll need to be able to safely (and, we hope legally) store several gas cans or propane tanks.

What size generator do you really need?

By now, you should have realized that there’s a great variety in generators — in size, weight and price. One thing we haven’t mentioned yet — and maybe should have started off with — is the amount of power you require.

Generators’ capacity is measured in Watts. Look at the appliances you want to run and pull the wattage requirement from the labels. Note: appliances or tools with a motor take about TWICE as much power to get started up (surge capacity) as they do to keep running (continuous capacity)! That’s why you’ll see generators advertised with two different wattages.

For example, I recently checked on our house, taking a look at keeping just the refrigerator and freezer and some lights going in an emergency. We need about 2,400 Watts to get everything started — but less than 1,000 to keep everything running! So I was searching in the 2500-2000 Watt range.

The only way you can figure out what size you need is to add up all the appliances/equipment you intend to run. Here’s a wattage chart to get you started. As you’re making your list, consider how many appliances you’ll need to plug in at the same time. (Judicious scheduling can give you better efficiency.) And note what sort of plug each appliance requires. Every generator will have a variety of plugs but it’s limited.

How much generator can you afford?

A stand-by generator will be a custom install, so I can’t anticipate what it might cost. As mentioned above, it will be in the thousands of dollars.

The cost for the dual-fuel generator shown below is around $600. Other similar units won’t cost much less but may cost as much as $2,000, depending on where you live. (We’re having a hot summer here in California, and are anticipating power outages, so prices are higher than usual.)

Prices for the inverter-generator start low, but also go up sharply. It all depends on how much power you need.

Finally, don’t overlook the fact that different states have different emission requirements – notably California. This can also change the prices.

As you consider price, compare to what you might lose if you don’t have a generator. A freezer full of food? Days worth of work?

What to look for in the advertising?

Good advertising is helpful. Look for the wattage output, size of the gas tank, noise in decibels, and safety features like overload and oil sensors, CO sensors, and surge protectors.

Example of a dual-fuel portable generator

This generator could easily serve to get you through a temporary power outage. I’d certainly consider this one for myself.

It’s one of the mid-size models from Champion. If you click the image or link and head to Amazon, you’ll find smaller and larger versions on that same page. Read everything, including reviews, and compare! It’s worth learning all you can before making a buying decision!

Champion Power Equipment 76533 4750/3800-Watt Dual Fuel RV Ready Portable Generator with Electric Start

Example of an inverter-generator

In our household we spend hours everyday at our computers, and we have an office full of printers, lights, fans, etc. For us, a power outage is above all a business disaster! So we’ve also been looking at generators that will provide high-quality power for devices. The model below looks as though it would fit our needs well. And I could lug it around!

WEN 56203i Super Quiet 2000-Watt Portable Inverter Generator w/Fuel Shut Off, CARB Compliant, Ultra Lightweight

The real solution to whether you need a generator for emergencies will be a personal one.

You final decision will require some advance planning. You’ll need to figure out what size you need (based on what appliances or equipment you want to run, and how often), where you’ll store the generator and fuel when you don’t need it, and how you’ll start, refill, and maintain the machine. The best generator for you might be very different from mine.

Full disclosure, we haven’t yet made our final decision!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. Please share your personal experiences with home generators! We need more information to make a decision about the best generators for emergencies.


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