portable power generator on a city street

6 Crucial Questions to Ask When Choosing an Emergency Backup Power Generator

Electricity is so readily available that it’s easy to take for granted. That is until you lose power. 

Brief outages are minor inconveniences, but longer power interruptions can trigger pressing concerns like “How will we stay warm?” or “How can I prevent our frozen and refrigerated food from spoiling?”

Even though the power grid is mainly reliable, numerous things can take it down for hours or days, including extreme weather events, operational issues, and cyber attacks. 

Many homeowners invest in an emergency backup power generator instead of remaining vulnerable to future interruptions. Before purchasing a unit, however, here are several essential questions to consider.

1. What size generator do I need?

Generators come in various sizes, from small recreational units that provide a few hundred watts of power to whole-house standby generators that produce 20,000 watts or more. 

Decide which of your appliances are essential and add up their wattage. For example, you might prioritize a refrigerator, a microwave, up to 10 lights, internet service, a laptop, a furnace, and a sump pump, totaling 4,500 watts.

Since appliances need extra power when they start up, multiply your total wattage by 1.5 to estimate the ideal generator size for your needs.

Also, consider how frequently you expect to need backup power and for how long. For example, if your area is prone to blackouts, you might want to invest in a more powerful generator to get more appliances online and manage extended outages. 

2. How can I connect a generator?

Generally, there are three approaches to bringing power from a generator into your home:

Drop cords - Portable generators typically have two or four outlets that allow you to run long, heavy-duty extension cords between the generator and the appliances you want to power. This is the least expensive and best DIY approach but inconvenient.

Twist-lock extension cord - Connecting a portable generator to your home is much easier if you install a subpanel to your breaker box that isolates your most essential circuits. However, this is a job for a professional electrician. They’ll also install a switch to transfer power to the sub panel and a power inlet mounted outside your home. 

Then, if you lose power, you can connect your generator in two simple steps: 1) plug the generator into the power inlet using a twist-lock extension cord, and 2) flip the manual subpanel switch.

Automatic transfer switch - Standby generators fire up whenever the power is interrupted. They’re the most expensive option, costing thousands of dollars to purchase, install, and operate, but they’re also the most convenient and reliable solution. 

3. What’s my best power source?

That depends on several factors, including where you live. For example, a suburban dweller’s alternatives might be a portable generator powered with gasoline (stored in containers) or a standby unit connected to a natural gas line. 

In rural areas, propane is frequently used for home appliances that don’t use electricity, like gas cooktops. So a large propane tank on a property is a convenient fuel source to power portable and standby generators. 

Diesel fuel is another option for portable generators, but it tends to be more expensive than gasoline, and it might be harder to find stations with diesel pumps.

When choosing a power source, consider your ability to access fuel, its cost, and how long you expect to run your generator. Will you be able to get more, if needed? (Remember, if local gasoline stations don’t have power, you won’t be able to pump their gas.)

4. How are inverter generators different from traditional generators? 

If you’ve ever used a traditional, portable generator, you know how loud they can be. That’s because they always run at full capacity. 

In contrast, newer inverter generators throttle the engine, so it only runs as hard as needed to meet your power demands. 

For example, an inverter generator will work harder if your refrigerator kicks in. But once the fridge completes a cooling cycle, the generator reduces its output. This makes inverter generators considerably quieter and more fuel efficient.

Their primary downside is the purchase price. Inverter generators cost more than traditional ones, but you’ll spend less on fuel, produce fewer emissions, and enjoy substantially less noise.

5. What if I prefer a solar power generator?

Fortunately, solar is another option—and solar generators are silent! But it’s important to understand that they operate in an entirely different way and require built-in battery storage. 

A solar generator’s capacity depends on how much energy the panels produce and the battery can store, as well as abundant sunlight to continue powering the battery. 

They are the most environmentally friendly backup power source, but they do cost more, and the battery will degrade eventually. However, fueling a solar generator doesn’t cost a dime.

6. What are the primary safety considerations with power generators?

Fuel-powered generators emit high rates of carbon monoxide and can be deadly if they aren’t used correctly! 

Always use a portable generator outside, at least 20 feet from your (and your neighbor’s) home, with the exhaust directed away from any properties. Never operate a portable generator in your garage, basement, or under partially enclosed carports or awnings.

Fortunately, generator manufacturers are starting to incorporate carbon monoxide sensors into their equipment, so you may prefer buying a unit with this feature. 

Fuel storage is the other primary safety concern. Always use approved gasoline storage containers and keep them outside your home, in a garage or shed, and away from direct sunlight.