Providing your own power during an outage

If you’re wondering whether to buy a home generator in case of a power outage, you’re not alone. Backup power sources have gotten so popular that manufacturers now offer a range of choices.

From pull-start gasoline models costing a few hundred dollars to permanent outdoor installations for several thousand, the variety of options makes it easier to get exactly what you want. But it also makes it harder to choose.

First, ask yourself if you really need a generator. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. home is without power for about seven hours a year. Is that enough to justify the expense and attention?

Then consider what you want a home generator to do. Do you just want to keep your phone charged? Do you want to make sure food doesn’t spoil? Do you want to have heat and air conditioning through an extended outage? Answering those questions will require you to know the wattage of the appliances you want to run so you know the capacity of the generator you need.

Here’s what to know about the four basic choices in home generators.

Portable generators

These generators are small enough that you could take them on camping trips. The costs for these vary from more than $2,000 to as low as $400. Most should be able to run a refrigerator or a window air conditioner.

Special attention to safety is required. They should never be used indoors, not even in a garage. The carbon monoxide they produce can be deadly in minutes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 85 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gasoline-powered portable generators. Portable generators should be operated more than 20 feet from the house and be connected only with outdoor extension cords matched to the wattage being used. Look for models with a carbon monoxide detector and automatic shutoff.

Appliances should be plugged into the generator, and the generator should never be plugged into an outlet or your home’s electrical system.

You should also spend the money to have an electrician install a transfer switch. It acts as a mini-circuit breaker to protect your appliances and can be an easier way to connect the house to the generator.

Inverter generators

These are the higher-tech versions of the standard portable generator. The power these produce changes to match what the appliances are using. Although they are more expensive, they use fuel more efficiently and make less noise. The same safety guidelines apply to both inverter and standard portable generators.

Standby generators

While they can cost $7,000 (plus installation), they have the benefit of turning on automatically during a power outage and running your whole house. Standby generators are typically permanently mounted outdoors, are connected to your home electrical system and run on propane or natural gas. They must be installed by a professional electrician.

Power stations

Also known as batteries, power stations charge themselves while the power is on. They’re not as powerful as other options and can be more expensive, but they’re quiet, easy to operate, and some are designed to look good hanging on the wall. They can cost between $400 and $6,000. One common use of power stations is to pair them with rooftop solar panels so electricity from the sun can also be available at night.

Regardless of what you choose, another part of your planning should be contacting your electric co-op to get their expert advice on the best and safest fit for your home.