Power Out? Have a Backup Plan to Power Up - October 3rd 2011

Power Out? Have a Backup Plan to Power Up

With the storm we saw come through the coast this week, more than a few of us found ourselves without power. Moving into winter, I'm sure this isn't the last storm we will see. To avoid the inconvenience of a power outage, a back-up generator is a great way to ensure that you are never without power.

A home generator can be useful for backup electricity anywhere there are frequent power outages and the demand is increasing among homeowners. There are a few important items to consider when choosing a generator since they can also be very dangerous if they are not installed or operated properly. Generators range in, size, type and price so it is worthwhile to shop around and talk to various distributors and your electrician to determine a unit that will suit your needs. Typically, the more power required the more costly they are. Smaller, portable generators are great for powering the essentials like the refrigerator and microwave while a permanent standby system can power everything in your home and with most Canadian homes relying on electricity to operate their heating systems, increasingly more homeowners are purchasing generators for their homes. Typically, the lower power and portable units use gasoline, whereas larger units, especially permanent installations, will likely use propane or natural gas.

A major question for homeowners considering a backup generator is choosing between gasoline or propane as well as one of the more convenient fuels, "natural gas".  Each source has its own pros and cons but the decision will depend on what a home already has installed. If you live in an area where natural gas is available this would be the best for you since it would be the most convenient and requires less maintenance. For homes without natural gas propane is a good alternative. Both natural gas and propane tend to last longer and burn cleaner than their gasoline counterparts. Gasoline generators are by far the most common type since gasoline is readily available and still remains a relatively inexpensive fuel in comparison to propane but a gas generator usually requires frequent maintenance and storage of gasoline which has a relatively short shelf life.

Hire an Electrician:

Installation of a generator is a job for the experts. All portable or fixed generators must be connected to the residential grid using a proper CSA-approved transfer switch installed by a registered certified electrician. An electrical permit is required for the installation. Never connect a backup power system without a transfer switch that disconnects your home from the municipal power supply. This is to protect electric utility field crews from being electrocuted by your home power system when working on municipal lines.

What Size Generator Do You Need?

The first step is to determine the amount of power you require during a power outage and that depends on how many appliances you need to run. This will determine the size or wattage of generator you will require. You may decide that all you need is to provide power the essential items such as to your sump pump, refrigerator and furnace.

Portable Verses Permanent?

Portable Generators: Portable generators can replace part of a household load during an electrical outage and they are the simplest and least expensive back up power system. When the power goes out you have to start up a gas powered generator and plug into your appliance using an extension cord. The down side is you are limited to the number of appliances that can run at any one time, they are noisy, hard to move and you have to start up and maintain the unit. They do require fuel to run so consider how long a tank of fuel will last. This can range from just a few hours to up to ten hours. When the power goes out it's absolutely critical that you keep the generator away from your house especially from door, windows and enclosed areas. It's important to follow the manufactures directions. Never try to attach a generator directly to the homes wiring system yourself. To use a portable generator without running extension cords you have to hire an electrician to install a manual transfer switch off your main circuit panel and install a dedicated inlet to power to the subpanel. This is not a DIY project.

Permanent Generators: Standby generators are powered by natural gas or propane and they are directly wired into the homes circuit panel so they can start automatically during a power outage. They are more powerful and quieter then their portable counterparts. When power resumes, the system flips back to the house circuit and powers down the generator. There is enough to power an entire large home. This is the best option if you frequently lose power and want to keep most of your appliances running. You don't have to worry about storing gas and running cords but the drawback is cost and they must be installed by licensed electrician.

Protect against CO poisoning:

The primary hazards to avoid when using a generator are carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Each year, people die in incidents related to portable generator use. NEVER use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas, even when using fans or opening doors and windows for ventilation. Be sure the generator is not positioned outside an open window, which can allow fumes into the home.

Install battery-operated (or with battery back-up) CO alarms in your home, according to the manufacturer's instructions. CO alarms should be certified to the requirements of the latest safety standards (UL 2034, IAS 6-96, or CSA 6.19.01).

Before you buy, check with local officials since your municipality may have restrictions on the noise caused from your generator. (good neighbour policy)