A guide to selecting and operating the right generator for your needs
After Hurricane Alicia hit Houston in 1983, I remember all too well lying in a hot bedroom while trying to sleep with no air conditioning or fans. Not only was the lack of air conditioning a major issue, but due to the widespread nature of the outage, you couldn’t even find ice to keep your food cold or to chill a drink. Adding to the frustration, a single flashlight was our only source of illumination for the whole household. For 10 long, miserable days, I regretted not having invested in an emergency generator!
Generators can make riding out a power outage a lot more tolerable, but they may also require a significant investment in both time and money to ensure they are operational when you need them. Since most people don’t have experience in this area, this section will briefly cover the major aspects of generator selection, maintenance, operation, and safety.
For those who want more in-depth information on generator selection, operation, and safety, you should consider obtaining a copy of my book, Hurricane Preparedness for the Home and Family. In this book, generator information comprises the longest and most extensive chapter, and has 16 pages dedicated to the subject.
Portable Generator Selection
When faced with the potential of a hurricane blowing into their neighborhood, many people will often consider buying a generator to get them through the long, hot days when commercial power is unavailable. Unfortunately, the average person will just go to the local hardware or home improvement center and purchase whatever the salesman recommends, or more often, whatever is left on the shelf. Very often, what they end up with is what I refer to as a "construction" generator.
An construction generator is designed primarily for commercial use. They are typically large, heavy, loud, and guzzle gasoline. Usually, very little research conducted before this purchase. What the new owner soon finds out is that a generator of this type is not the best choice for the vast majority of people who need emergency power for just one or two weeks.
A typical 5,000 watt generator under full load will conservatively consume about 18 gallons of gasoline in a 24 hour period. Unfortunately, even under partial load, it will still use nearly the same amount of gasoline. That's because this type of generator is designed to run at full power continuously. To put this into perspective, at $2.76 per gallon it takes approximately $49.68 worth of gasoline per day to feed this monster. This works out to nearly $350 per week if you run it around the clock.
Then there's the issue of noise. If you have a generator running full throttle in your back yard, at least you get the benefit of a refrigerator, fans, television, lights, and many of the necessities of life that make it a bit more tolerable during a power outage. But for your neighbors, all they hear is the relentless roar of your generator while they swelter in the heat. Needless to say, you're not going to be very popular after the sun goes down and those around you with their windows open are trying to sleep!
Finally, unless you're powering some pretty large-load items—such as a window air conditioner or well pump—5,000 watts is far more power than the average house needs in a short-term emergency. Subsequently, what you end up with is a generator that is roaring along, continuously producing a full 5,000 watts of power even though you may only need about a third of that in an average emergency situation.
A viable alternative for most people is a much smaller generator, and I am particularly impressed with the Honda "EU" series. These generators use an inverter coupled to an internal computer to control the power output and speed of the engine based on the load applied to the generator. For example, if you are powering a TV, fan, a few lights, and a typical household refrigerator, you will only need about 1,000 watts of power. In this case, the Honda EU2200i would only need to run at about half speed to meet your electrical needs. When the refrigerator compressor cycles off, the EU2200i would then slow down to just above idle speed. In this type of load scenario, the Honda EU2200i will only consume about three gallons of gasoline in a 24 hour period. And anyone who has been around after a hurricane will tell you the most scarce commodity is usually gasoline!
The Honda EU series generators are also extremely quiet, and typically produce less noise than an upright vacuum cleaner. When you turn in for the night, you can still run your generator in good conscience knowing that you won't be keeping the neighbors awake all around you.
In addition to being quiet and thrifty to operate, the EU2200i is also very lightweight and easily transportable in comparison to a full-sized generator. Weighing in at just under 50 pounds, it can be easily moved from one location to another by the average person. It even makes a great companion on camping trips or powering the basics at a hunting cabin.
One of the objections I often hear regarding the Honda "EU" series of generators is the relative high price compared to industrial generators. It's possible to pick up an much larger generator for about $600, whereas the street price on an EU2200i is around $1,100. However, when you do the math, you'll make up the $400 difference in just a few days continuous of usage. After you pass that break-even point, the Honda pays for itself every time you use it!
The next step up from the EU2200i is the Honda EU3000is. One of my favorite features of the EU3000is is its ability to start and run an average window air conditioner all night and into the next day on one tank of gas. It also features a 30 amp locking plug, which makes connection to a central transfer switch into your house much safer and easier. Finally, I like the convenience and safety of the electric starter, which helps prevent back injuries from starting the engine manually. One final tip if you decide to purchase an EU3000is: be sure to add the optional wheel kit to the order. Though relatively small, the EU3000is weighs in at 131 pounds empty, and 154 pounds with 3.4 gallons of fuel.
I also acquired an EU1000i to run my commercial photography gear when shooting remote locations. Though this generator is really handy for very low wattage applications, it's probably too small for anything but minimal emergency power. However, in a worst-case scenario it will power a fan, television, and a few small devices around the home.
Shown here are the Honda EU1000i, EU2000i (the predecessor to the 2200i), and EU3000is generators. Though costing a bit more, the EU3000is packs many useful features making it well worth the price. Photo Credit: Haskell Moore
Emergency Standby Generators
Emergency standby generators with automatic transfer switches typically cost thousands of dollars to purchase and install, but are by far the safest and most convenient form of emergency power. In an average installation, the generator is mounted on a concrete pad and wired directly into the home via an automatic transfer switch. Instead of gasoline, they typically utilize natural gas or propane. This negates the need for storing fuel before a hurricane, moving a generator around after the storm, and having to constantly refuel it.
How emergency generators operate is quite simple: When the electricity goes off, the control panel senses the outage and automatically starts the generator. After a few seconds to allow the generator to stabilize, the automatic transfer switch connects the electrical feedlines over to the generator, and the generator then powers the house. When electricity is restored, the controller senses the restoration, switches the feedline back to the electrical mains, and shuts down the generator after the cool-down cycle completes. Under ideal circumstances, your home should be without power for no more than about 10 seconds.
When selecting a home standby generator, it's important that you choose wisely. Based on my research and experience, a good choice for most situations is the Kohler line of generators. Though costing somewhat more than some other brands, they have a reputation for rock-solid reliability. Ours served us well during Hurricane Harvey, and Winter Storm Uri, as well as several blackouts due to locally heavy thunderstorms.