Could you live in your home without power? Electricity—and all that it allows us to do—is something that many homeowners take for granted, and understandably so. Aside from paying the electric bill on time every month, there’s usually not much to think about when it comes to keeping the lights on and the outlets working. In some areas of the country, however, that’s starting to change. And it begs the question: should you have an emergency generator for your home?
In 2019, major electric companies in California started staging preemptive blackouts in an effort to help prevent wildfires—a practice that isn’t expected to stop any time soon. Also known as public safety power shutoffs, these forced blackouts shut down power lines to prevent them from sparking wildfires, leaving millions of homeowners and renters without electricity until the power returns. While there’s been plenty of pushback, wildfire season doesn’t seem to be getting any easier to deal with. So just like with a home emergency kit (advice on how to build one here), an emergency generator might just be one of those things that you don’t normally need, but when you do need it, you’ll be very glad you have it.
To help you figure out what’s best for your home, we’ve put together this quick guide to emergency generators, including what they do, how much they cost, and three signs you should probably have one.
What Is An Emergency Generator?
An emergency generator is a back-up power supply that provides electricity to your home in the event of a utility outage. There are two primary types: standby generators, which have a trigger that’s automatically switched on in the event your main power supply goes out; and portable generators, which also supply emergency power but must be operated manually.
Standby or portable, an emergency generator is an insurance policy of sorts against the effects of a power outage. Think of it like an independent electrical system completely off the grid that powers your home and community, with the degree of power offered ranging from just keeping the lights on to powering your whole home at full force, depending on what type and size of unit you buy.
Standby generators are generally permanently and professionally installed, and are housed outdoors just like many of a home’s other utility hook ups. The generator is hooked up to a home’s main utility panel, and must be wired into the existing electrical system—hence the need for professional installation. Because standby generators can’t be powered by electricity themselves (for obvious reasons), they run on gasoline, propane, or natural gas, depending on your set up. Portable generators, on the other hand, run on gasoline and do not need to be professionally installed.
Don’t want an emergency generator that runs on fuel? Consider a portable power station, which is a type of portable generator that operates via a rechargeable battery or an included solar panel. They’re typically a bit more expensive than standard portable generators and can’t run for as long or provide as much power, but you won’t have to worry about storing gasoline.
For safety reasons, all generators (except for portable power stations) must be run outdoors. Standby generators are permanently installed outside, so you won’t have to worry about this consideration. You will have to make sure however to have a designated outdoor spot for running your portable generator if the occasion arises. That’s because portable generators release carbon monoxide when in use, which is incredibly dangerous to breathe in. So while you can store your portable generator inside, you’ll have to move it outside when you want to operate it.
How Much Does an Emergency Generator Cost?
Similar to air conditioners, emergency generators come in different sizes and different wattages depending on the needs of your home. Prices vary quite a bit between the different sizes, as well as between portable generators and standby generators.
For a standby unit and professional installation, expect to spend about $2,500 to $4,500 for a small generator, $4,000 to $10,000 for a mid-sized generator, and $9,000 to $15,000 for a large generator. Costs may vary as well depending on whether you go with a propane or natural gas power supply. Note that if you do opt for a gasoline-powered emergency generator, you’ll need to keep a supply of gas on hand—about 15 gallons to run a 7,500-watt generator at half-power for a full day.
- Triggered on automatically in the event of a power outage
- Can power an entire home
- Can increase home resale value
- Costs for unit and installation can run high
- Require regular maintenance, including allowing the generator to run for about 15 minutes a week
- Take up a lot of space outdoors
- Cannot be moved once installed except by a professional
If you’re looking for a more affordable option, consider a portable generator, which runs closer to the $330 to $2,000 range.
Portable generators can be a good choice if you’re looking for limited power in an occasional power outage, and like many standby units they also run on gasoline. What you save in money however you lose in convenience, since portable generators must be operated by hand. Another important consideration is that portable generators can’t power your whole home. But if you’re mostly just concerned about food in the freezer going bad or being able to keep your cellphone charged during a bad storm, then a portable generator might fit the bill for a whole lot less than a major standby unit.
- Can ensure certain essentials are powered in an outage, such as refrigerators and air conditioners
- Don’t take up permanent space in the yard
- Require little to no maintenance
- Must be turned on manually, meaning you must be home to get the power started
- Not always able to power an entire home
- Release carbon monoxide when in use, so they must be used outdoors and away from any doors or windows
- Require you to store fuel separately
One notable con of both standby generators and portable generators is that they can be quite loud when they’re running, with portable generators generally louder than standby units. This noise shouldn’t be too much of a problem though since your generator will be outside when in use.
If you’re concerned about the noise of a portable unit, consider an inverter generator, a type of portable unit that varies its power supply based on demand instead of running at full power the entire time. Inverter units tend to be a lot quieter than standard portable generators, in addition to running more efficiently. Portable power stations are also a quieter alternative to standard portable generators.
To save on cost, some homeowners buy a small emergency standby generator that will supply power to just one or two primary rooms, or share the cost (and use) of a portable generator with neighbors. Others invest in a large standby generator in order to ensure their home has plenty of power to weather an outage. If you do decide to buy an emergency generator, do plenty of research so that you can be sure to find the right power supply for your home at the right price.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Aside from choosing the type of emergency generator that best suits your situation and budget, you’ll also have to figure out just how much power you’re going to need. A generator’s power supply is designated by watts, with more wattage offering more power.
The amount of watts you need with your generator depends on what you want to keep running. Each electrically-powered item in your home requires a certain wattage to turn on (starting or “surge” wattage) as well as to keep running, with about 5,000 watts needed to power your average home.
If you’d rather break it down to only purchase the amount of watts that you need, go item by item and add up the required wattage, then buy a generator that can accommodate. For example, a refrigerator requires about 800 watts of power, your phone charger about 20 watts, and your air conditioner about 1,000 watts. If you just wanted to ensure these three things will have power in the event of a power outage, you could get away with a 2,500 watt generator, which leaves room for surge wattage.
Use a wattage calculator to easily add up how much power you’re going to need out of your emergency generator based on what you want to keep running. Standby units generally range from about 5,000 to 20,000 watts, while portable units range from about 3,000 to 8,500 watts.
Emergency Generator Maintenance
It’s important to properly maintain your emergency generator so that you know it’s going to work when and if you need it to. For standby generators, this requires that you run the unit once a week for 15 minutes to ensure it’s working correctly and does not require any maintenance, along with more thorough maintenance on a set schedule.
The frequency of professional maintenance for a standby generator depends on the exact unit that you purchase, with many requiring yearly or twice yearly check-ins. When you have your standby generator installed, ask about maintenance plans. In many cases, you can pay a monthly or yearly fee and have your provider take care of any maintenance needs.
Maintenance is always crucial when it comes to a standby generator, including when it’s running. Expect to require service after 24 to 48 hours of continuous use, and to require a change in oil and filters after 10 days of continuous use.
As for portable generators, there’s not much that you need to worry about in terms of maintenance. However, to make sure that you’re prepared in the event of a power outage you’ll want to occasionally check on your stored fuel supply to ensure you have enough to operate your generator. Depending on where you’re storing your portable generator, take a look at its wires too to check for fraying or rodent bites.
3 Reasons to Get an Emergency Generator
An emergency generator is a back-up, and one that you hope you never have to use. And while there’s a chance you never will, if any of the below situations apply to you, you may want to consider making the investment.
You Live in California, or Another Place With Seasonal Wildfires
A few years ago, preemptive blackouts might have seemed like a crazy idea. Today, they’re considered by some major utility providers to be one of the best and only tools they have to help prevent the start and spread of wildfires, at least until they rework their infrastructure enough to accommodate in other ways. Despite the outcry against them, preemptive blackouts may become a more common practice in our global effort to stem wildfires. If you live somewhere that could be affected, it’s important to at least consider the possibility and to prepare your home by having an emergency generator installed.
Someone in Your Home Relies on Electrically-Powered Medical Equipment
It’s one thing to be inconvenienced by losing your WiFi because the power went out, and a whole other thing to lose access to necessary durable medical equipment (DME) like ventilators and oxygen generators. Many DMEs feature additional power supply through a battery pack, but those are limited in their use (oxygen generators, for example, may only last two to four hours on a battery pack).
Power outages are risky for a few different reasons, but one of the major ones is that they cut off DMEs. If you or someone in your home relies on medical equipment that is powered by electricity, an emergency generator will make sure that if your power goes out, you can still get the care you require.
If You Live Somewhere With Extreme Heat
If you can’t imagine going without an air conditioner or fan during certain times of year, then an emergency generator might be worth looking into. While your heating system runs on gas and will keep going even in the event of a power outage, your home’s cooling system relies on electricity to stay powered on. If you live somewhere that gets exceedingly hot, or if someone in your household cannot withstand heat due to age or physical ailment, then an emergency generator will be a lifeline in the event of an outage.
So, Should You Buy an Emergency Generator?
An emergency generator is always a good thing to have, but since it can be exceedingly costly it’s worth doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine if you really need one, and if so, whether a standby generator a portable generator will be your best pick.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict with certainty that you’ll face a blackout, but if the chances are high because of where you live, or if your home situation requires that your power always be working, an emergency generator is a smart purchase. Consider the extent of power that you’ll want (i.e. enough to keep the TV and fridge going or enough to power your whole home) in addition to the cost of the unit. If you don’t have particular concerns but just want to be sure you have a backup power solution in the event of any sort of outage, a portable generator or portable power station could fit the bill.
Note that, if you do buy an emergency generator, it’s going to be sitting idle a lot more than it’s in use. To make sure it stays up and running and that it will be ready to go in the case of a true emergency, you will need to have it tested and serviced by a professional on a regular basis. When you purchase your generator, ask what the maintenance schedule entails. The frequency will depend on who installs your generator, what type it is, and the specifics of the model, with many generators requiring maintenance about twice a year.
Everything from your water heater to your cell phone requires electricity to work. And while it’s easy to take power for granted, it’s not always a guarantee. Take a look at your home and your budget to determine whether an emergency generator is a necessity for you, and talk to a professional to learn more about what type and size generator will be the best fit.