Increasingly severe weather and aging infrastructure are exposing Americans to longer power outages.
Hurricanes and tornadoes get the most play in the media, but any extreme weather -- heavy rain, wind, hail or snow -- that results in a power outage can cause turmoil in your household, says Consumer Reports. Generator sales tend to spike right before those storms land and once a major power outage occurs, which is the worst time to shop for one. You need time to size, choose and properly set up a generator.
Based on your tolerance for "roughing it," Consumer Reports lays out two scenarios that might suit common circumstances during a power outage. Pick the approach that's best for your needs.
Let's say you want nothing less than a generator that fires itself up the instant the lights go out. That calls for a stationary model that's permanently installed on your property; it does not need to be wheeled into place and manually connected each time there's a power outage.
A home that requires an all-out setup might have multiple school-age children, with the need for lots of food in the fridge. A telecommuter might have an active home office with computers, a printer and ready charging capability. There might also be family members who need uninterrupted power for medical devices, stair lifts and other AC-powered machines. And if your household includes the very young or the elderly, ample lighting and keeping heating and air conditioning running are essential for safety, not just for comfort.
Stationary generators can take months to get up and running because of permits and site approvals that some towns or cities require. A good installer should know the specifics of your locale and include obtaining the needed approvals and permits in the overall cost.
Practical and Penny-Wise
Between the "worry-free" crowd and those who need power without fail are many of us who perhaps have older children, no medical devices to power and can live without central A/C. For such homeowners, a portable generator could be a better choice. Depending on the time of year, you might not need it to run 24/7 to be useful; running it even every couple of hours can rechill the contents of the refrigerator, heat the house and charge phones and other portable electronics.
For the safest, easiest connections to your home circuits, Consumer Reports recommends you have a transfer switch installed (some areas require a permit for one). That component connects the generator to your electrical-service panel and lets you power hard-wired appliances while avoiding the risk and hassle of extension cords. It also keeps utility power from frying the circuits you're protecting once the power returns as well as putting at risk any utility employees working outside on the lines.
When shopping for a portable generator, look for features that help you start your machine and keep it running when needed. Electric start, powered by batteries, saves you the effort of pulling on a starter cord.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.