Severe Weather Guide: Emergency Power Generators

It just takes one downed power pole to interrupt the fragile chain of electricity connecting your house to the power station. A home generator can keep all of your essential and favorite electronic items working. There are two basic types of generators to consider: stationary and portable. Read on to learn more!

Emergency Power

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A home generator can keep your refrigerator running, plus lights, microwave, air conditioners, TVs, computers and cell- phone chargers—even the washer and dryer. And in the aftermath of a storm, it will allow you to run circular saws and other power equipment. It can make a huge improvement in your ability to comfortably weather a power outage, and quickly recover from a storm. There are two basic types of generators to consider: stationary and portable.

Stationary Systems

stationary generator

In these systems, the generator is connected indirectly to a home’s wiring system. They are most suitable for people who regularly experience long power outages or who have special requirements for continuous power. Stationary systems typically run off of natural or propane gas and have a “transfer switch” that allows you to select the equipment you want powered and prevents the generator from feeding power back into the utility supply system, endangering utility line workers. The whole system generally costs $3,000 or more and can provide 10 to 30 kilowatts or more.

In most areas, installing a back-up system requires getting a permit and having the installation inspected by an electrical inspector. Unless you are an extremely electrical-savvy do-it-yourselfer, we recommend the system be installed by a licensed electrician.

Portable Generators

portable generator

These units run off a small gasoline engine, and can power a limited number of lights and appliances via extension cords. They can be stored out of the way and rolled to wherever you need them, and are frequently used to provide emergency power during and after a storm. A portable generator for this use can typically run for 8 to 12 hours on a tank of gas and provide 2 to 8 kilowatts or more. Prices start at $500.

Generator Safety

Whichever kind of generator you select, think safety. Generators produce carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and deadly gas. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, 28 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with portable generators after Hurricane Katrina. However, you can use generators safely. Here’s how:

  • Always use generators outdoors, away from doors, windows and vents; never in homes, garages, basements or other enclosed areas, even with plenty of ventilation.
  • If you use a generator, even outdoors, install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms in your home and test them based on manufacturer’s directions.
  • Keep the generator dry, and dry your hands before touching the generator.
  • With portable generators, use heavy-duty, outdoor-rated, 3-prong extension cords that are in good condition. Use GFCI-cords for maximum safety.
  • Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool. Store fuel outside in properly labeled, approved containers away from any fuel-burning appliances.
  • When using the generator, start your high-wattage devices first, one at a time, then proceed to lower-wattage devices.

Learn more tips for using emergency generators here.

What Size Generator is Right for You?

Here’s how to figure out the generator capacity you need: Determine the electrical requirements of the devices you’d like to run, and add them up. For example, if you wanted to run a small microwave (750 watts), radio (200 watts), and four lights (300 watts), you’d require a minimum of 1,250 watts. However, devices with motors can require much more power to start them than they use running. For example, a refrigerator that needs 1,200 watts to run might require up to 3,000 watts to start. For running wattage and startup wattage for various electrical devices, visit

Here is a list of what you can expect from three typical sizes of generators:

  • A 3,550-WATT generator can easily power:
    • Refrigerator
    • Air conditioner (10,000 BTU)
    • Television
    • 4 Lights (75 WATT)
  • A 5,000-WATT generator can easily power:
    • Refrigerator
    • Air conditioner (10,000 BTU)
    • Television
    • 4 lights (75 WATT)
    • Microwave (1,000 WATT)
    • Deep freezer
  • An 8,000-WATT generator can easily power:
    • Refrigerator
    • Air conditioner (10,000 BTU)
    • Television
    • 8 Lights (75 watt)
    • Microwave (1,000 watt)
    • Deep freezer
    • 1/2-hp well pump
    • Electric stove
    • Security system
    • Garage door opener

Information for this post was made in collaboration with Lowes for a severe weather guide.

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