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Ten questions to ask when shopping for a generator!

What goes into shopping for a generator? Here's 10 (actually 11) questions to ask yourself about what kind and what size generator to buy. Do some homework to avoid some big potential problems.

 

A popular pledge after Superstorm Sandy has been, “We are definitely buying a generator this time.”

Generators cost anywhere between a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands dollars. They come in many sizes and configurations and run on many different kinds of fuels. Comments from readers to last week’s column focused on generators. So let’s take a brief look at what you should consider when shopping for a generator.

Most people buy a generator to avoid long and trying power outages. Others do so, because their home or work site is either permanently or temporarily off grid.

For example, contractors building new homes that do not have electric service often use gasoline powered generators to energize the power tools and work lamps for the job site.

We can divide the world of generators into two major categories: fossil fuel-based generators versus non-fossil fuel-based generators, with the former group being the most common and well-known.

Fossil fuel generators can be further divided by whether they are portable or permanent. Portables are generally less pricey, but may be noisier and messier to deal with. 

Consider the following questions when shopping for a fossil-fuel generator, beyond the purchase price:

  1. Maintenance: What are the weekly or monthly run times required? Is lubricant required? Do air filters need regular replacement?
  2. Run time: How long can I run this generator safely before giving it a rest? While larger, permanent generators can run 24 hours a day, even these will shut themselves down periodically to cool off, be refueled or avoid lubricant or air filters issues.
  3. Fuel: What is my personal capacity or tolerance for storing this fuel (for gasoline, propane, or diesel) or regulating its pressure and volume (for piped natural gas)? What is my fuel resupply plan?  How much fuel will I need to operate my generator for 3 or 4 days?
  4. Location: Where will I store a portable generator when I don't need it and deploy it, when I do? They are heavy, so you will want to wheel them only short distances and have fuel nearby. If you are considering a permanent generator, where will you locate the concrete pad it should be set upon (to be adequately far from nearby buildings, yet accessible to fuel by pipe or tank).
  5. Emissions: What is my personal tolerance for the resulting air pollution? (At minimum, this involves staging your generator the appropriate distance from your building (Hint: 5 feet is NOT enough!).  During longer outages, how will you or neighbors react to the fumes and exhaust that may build up. Many homeowners operated their portable generators in ways that I can only
  6. Noise: What is my personal tolerance for the resulting noise? (At minimum, compare the projected decibel levels from the generators specifications with the noise ordinance levels in your town.) The biggest, most expensive natural gas generators are quieter than the lower priced portables. The most common portable gasoline generators can be deafening. 
  7. Installation procedure: What are the proper electrical connections for the generator I am considering?  Assume you will need an electrician to properly install a sub panel to identify and segregate the base load you want to energize with the generator.
  8. Permits: What local permit requirements are needed in your municipality or county? A permanent generator almost assuredly requires a building permit application and fee. (At minimum, check with your municipality about whether a building permit or separate generator application is required.)
  9. Automatic on/off: How do I turn on or off the generator? Will it come on automatically if the power goes out while I am not at home or am asleep?  Will it shut off automatically, when the power goes back on?
  10. Base load v full house load: The smaller the generator, the fewer appliances it will energize. Running a large permanent generator to energize a whole house can use a large amount of fuel. So choose the load (in kilowatt-hours) of the fixtures that are most essential to energize in your home or office. It makes sense to scale the generator to that essential base load, to avoid buying more generator than in practical. (See final point below!)
  11. Return on investment: How do I feel about spending money to buy a generator that I will only use in the emergency of a power outage?  In short, the any money I spend on that generator, and the electrician, and on any permits or concrete pads or wiring or gas piping will only pay off during the hours that it operates.
  12. Backfeeding the grid: Am I sure that when my generator is on, I am NOT sending energy back through my service panel out to the power lines on the street?  In other words, did I remember to open (OFF position) the main swich on my service panel BEFORE I started the generator. If not, I may be backfeeing the power line in the street and potentially setting up an electrical surge in the nearest transformer that will rudely surprise the line man coming to fix my outage, who thought the line was de-energized. 

New York State offers no incentives whatsoever for buying emergency fossil fuel generators. Any shekels you invest in such equipment may only ever come back to as peace of mind by avoiding the loss of a refrigerator of food and having an operable furnace.

Next week, we'll take a look at non-fossil fuel generators. There has been some great recent breakthroughs, particularly in photovoltaic (solar panel) controls for battery storage systems. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

ED HICKEY November 25, 2012 at 02:53 PM
Great information that I wish my father and I had 4 months ago when the decision was made to get a permanent generator with automatic transfer switch, powered by propane. I can't stress more your point about researching inspection requirements and selecting a company or contractors to install the unit! If I may add ... be sure the electrician and plumber are licensed to work in your area and ask/check references of recent previous installations. Also note that just because you may choose a company that promises to streamline whereby simplifying the whole planning, obtaining permits, and contracted workers. The company may subcontract electricians or plumbers that may be licensed but not to do the work required to obtain a permit in your particular area. As you have likely already gathered, this was our unfortunate experience, but a good learning one.
ED HICKEY November 25, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Do your homework! Know how many feet from the building the unit needs to be, know the necessary distance required in front of the unit for safe maintenance, necessary distance from closest window, And the required minimum distance from your Con Edison meter! Despite choosing a relatively well known company in our area, believe it or not, all the above mentioned safety precautions required for passing inspection were not met! And the subcontracted electrician was licensed but out of our area therefore unable to obtain the necessary permit. Hope some of this info helps others in addition to your informative article when making their decisions regarding a generator
Bob Rohr November 25, 2012 at 05:29 PM
If you check the NYSEG site they have a nice drawing of how a generator should be hooked up. Interestingly is is not a very hi tech setup. It is essentially a simple switch. https://www.nyseg.com/MediaLibrary/2/5/Content%20Management/Shared/UsageAndSafety/PDFs%20and%20Docs/Combo%20Generator%20Safety%20Brochure.pdf
Leo Wiegman November 26, 2012 at 03:53 PM
@ Ed, Great advice. The permitting requirements are vital to identify well in advance and to secure properly. @Bob: Thanks for the NYSEG guide. Also, larger generators may also be subject to a Westchester County Health Department combustion (emissions) permit, under air quality regulations that historically apply to boilers, but target burning large amounts of fossil fuel: http://health.westchestergov.com/air-quality-forms If so, you will need to hire a PE (Professional Engineer).
Leo Wiegman November 26, 2012 at 03:56 PM
ConEdison has quite a bit a information about stand-by (emergency) generators on their website, but it is fragmented all over the place. See for example this requirement: http://www.coned.com/es/specs/electric/Section%20XI.pdf "BEFORE THE CUSTOMER'S EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT IS INSTALLED, THE CUSTOMER MUST SUBMIT TO CON EDISON, FOR ITS APPROVAL, THE FOLLOWING:..."
Bob Rohr November 26, 2012 at 08:48 PM
I looked and the NYSEG instructions are the same. Since I have NYSEG that part of Con Ed I don;t have to worry about. It seems like adequate gas pressure and/or flow may be an issue that needs to be addressed.
ED HICKEY November 28, 2012 at 06:23 AM
Thank you again for the additional information! Our new and local licensed electrican will begin work this week; his initial visit was impressive in his knowledge, professional, and very compassionate when explaining to my father and I that the unit needed to moved altogether and properly grounded. The plumber, who works often in conjunction with the above mentioned electrician was also knowledgable. It certainly paid off so far for me to do all necessary "homework" prior to their proposals! Thanks again gentlemen and Happy Holidays
Dr.SusanRubin November 30, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Leo, here's question #11. What about solar powered generators? I see fossil fuel guzzling generators as short sighted and polluting. You never know about the next "disruption", if the electric really goes out, there will be no pumping gas or propane into trucks. What do you know about solar and/or wind powered generators? I saw some out in Rockaway on thankgsiving.
Leo Wiegman November 30, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Dear Susan: Absolutely, solar panels can definitely charge battery banks that wil keep your home's vital appliances (refrigerator, oil burner, a phone charger and a few lights) running at night. In fact, a solar system with a smart brain and modest battery bank will pay for itself within 9 years, while sending you electricity every time the sun comes up. I am going to write about this solar option for the next column. Thanks for the feedback.
Leo Wiegman December 01, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Here is information about a back up solar generator alternative that never needs fuel and has no moving parts: http://ossining.patch.com/blog_posts/what-if-your-generator-never-needed-fuel
Wayne Tompson June 11, 2013 at 04:55 AM
Thanks Leo for the great help. I found this one also a they sell Generators and portable.. http://www.mygenerator.com.au
Leo Wiegman July 01, 2013 at 05:40 PM
Wayne: That's an interesting site in Australia.

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