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What to know before investing in a standby home generator

September 1, 2023      

South Shore Generators - Standby Home Generator

After Hurricane Ike knocked out electricity to most of Houston in 2008, my 83-year-old father fired up his portable generator, running extension cords through an open kitchen window to a handful of lights, a fan and the refrigerator. He dutifully kept it running for five days, refilling the generator’s gasoline tank every eight hours, so he and my mother could comfortably remain in the house. After Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, the city went dark again, but this time my parents barely noticed. Within two minutes of the blackout, the entire house, including the air conditioning, had power. The difference? My father had a 22-kilowatt standby generator installed the year before.

Extreme weather, prolonged outages and increased demand on an aging electric grid are driving consumers to consider reliable backup power for their homes. While homeowners have long opted for portable generators, the convenience of a standby — including not having to manually refuel it every 8 to 12 hours or pick and choose which handful of outlets to power — is driving a shift.

In 2002, only 0.63 percent of U.S. homes had installed backup generators, mainly along hurricane-prone coastlines. That number has grown to 5.77 percent, according to Randy Sandlin, senior vice president of global product management for generator manufacturer Generac. A decade ago, Jesse Adams, president of Adams in Elkhorn, Wisc., estimates he sold and installed 35 standby generators annually. Now that figure is more than 2,000 a year. “More people are working from home, using electric devices, even charging their EVs,” Sandlin says. “A standby generator is not just for storms, it’s for peace of mind.”

How to stay warm and safe in a winter power outage

That’s the reason Tom Dolan and his wife Christina purchased a standby generator shortly after moving into their home in King of Prussia, Pa. “We were concerned about a medical device Christina uses, as well as food spoilage, frozen pipes and just being stuck in the house for days without power,” Dolan says. “Two years ago, when lightning struck an electric pole, the generator kicked in so quickly, I didn’t even have to reset the clocks.”

There are several factors to consider before buying a standby generator. Here are some things to keep in mind.

How they work

Instead of electricity, backup generators run on natural gas or liquid propane, so your home needs access to one or the other. The generators have a transfer switch connecting them to the electrical panel that tells the home to switch from the power grid to the generator when service is disrupted. Unlike portable models, a standby doesn’t need refueling because it taps into your natural gas or liquid propane line.

Misha Kollontai, a senior test project leader who assesses generators for Consumer Reports, says that during testing, portables showed variations in performance, but standby generators performed well regardless of manufacturer. Major brands include Briggs & Stratton, Generac, Winco, Champion and Kohler. Standby units are not much larger than a large air conditioner, usually about three to four square feet, says Kollontai.

Every week the system performs a self-test so you don’t have to worry about being left without power in an emergency. Some models have mobile apps so you can manage the generator remotely or see maintenance notices. And standby generators are quieter than their portable counterparts. Most produce a noise level in the mid-60 decibels (similar to an air conditioner or washing machine), compared with 75 to 100 decibels for a portable unit.

It’s an investment

Expect to pay for the unit and transfer switch, plus installation. While a small 7.5 kW model starts at about $2,000, most generators are in the $5,000 to $7,000 range. Installation ranges from $2,500 to $4,000 or more, depending on where you live; the location of your gas meter or propane tank and electrical panel (whether they are next to one another or on opposite sides of the home); whether you have a flat or steeply sloped yard; the ease of access; and permitting fees. Typically, installation takes a day. Generators also require annual maintenance, which costs up to $300.

Dolan spent $14,000, including installation, on his generator, but considers it worth the money. “I wanted something to power everything in the house,” he says. “I love that it’s seamless and runs whether we’re home or not. That means if we’re out of town and lose electricity in the winter we don’t have to worry about our pipes freezing. We consider it one of our better purchases.”

What you power determines size

The greater the wattage, the more you can power. Whole house generators range from 7.5 kW to 26 kW. House size doesn’t matter as much as how much power you need, says Adams. You decide what you want to power during an interruption: the entire house or just essential circuits for things such as central air, large appliances, the garage door and the primary bedroom. Typically, an installer will perform a walk-through assessment of your home to calculate how much electricity is being used. Or you can check your energy bills for average kilowatts per day usage, suggests Kollontai. Also, Generac has an online home back up sizing calculator.

You need a professional installer

Installing a standby generator is not a DIY project. Adams recommends finding someone who installs generators on a regular basis, rather than someone who does it once or twice a year. A specialist handles the job from start to finish — assessing your needs; ensuring you are in full compliance with municipal codes, HOA rules and required permits; installation and hookup to gas meters or propane tanks; and follow-up maintenance.

Because you don’t want to be scrambling to choose one during a power outage, it’s best to shop ahead of time. Visit a dealer’s brick and mortar location, where you should be able to view different products, makes, models and sizes. You may even be able to try the product, so you can see what might fit best for your home, try some of the newest features and hear the noise level, Adams says.

An in-person visit also allows you to check out the dealer. Ensure they are licensed and insured, and that they employ factory-certified technicians.

And ask how they respond if the generator doesn’t turn on or work during an outage.

“If they can’t answer, they aren’t the right partner,” Adams says. “A generator is a piece of 20-year equipment, so you want a company that’s going to be around for 20 more years.”


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