Q: We moved to the country recently and got a rude awakening when we found the power goes off every other month or so, sometimes for hours. We decided its time for a generator. Can you give us some guidance?
A: Living in the country has many benefits; unfortunately a steady supply of electricity is not on the list. Hydro One certainly has a less than stellar track record of efficiency. We have lived in the country all our lives and on our road over 80% of the residents have generators. I would estimate that our power goes off 8-10 times a year.
The first thing you have to decide is what you intend to use the generator for. If you only want lights, maybe a TV and your refrigerator then you should make an essential list. My suggested list goes like this, your refrigerator will draw in the area of 800 watts when it's running, and a gas furnace is similar unless you have a new modulating model with a DC motor. Your microwave, coffee maker and some lights will add up to close to 2000 watts. If you want water, an average well pump is in the 750-1000 watt range. A TV can range from 500 to 1000 watts. If you add this list up you will quickly find you have over 5000 watts. The catch is the start up wattage. A well pump can often draw over 2000 watts to start up. If your frig, which can draw close to 2500 watts, and your pump start up at the same time then you have drawn nearly as much as a 5000 watt generator can handle. This is why generators are listed as peak output of say 6500 watts when in fact it will only operate for any period of time at 5000 watts. Pay attention to the operational load when you are pricing a generator, they advertise the peak load, not the run load. Anything under a 5000 watt run-load generator is really for convenience power only, not a standby electrical source for a home.
Next let's look at the kind of generator, conventional or inverter. A conventional generator must run at 3600 RPM in order to produce 120 volts at 60 cycles which is what hydro distributes to your home. An inverter generator produces power at a higher range that is converted electronically to a low distortion 120 volt supply that supplies a steadier wave output. If you intend to run sensitive electronic equipment and not much else then the inverter generator is your best bet. The drawback to inverter generators is they don't get much past 3000 watts so for a home standby supply they are limited. The newer conventional generators have improved over the past few years and the wave output has stablized considerably. I do have a couple of neighbours who have 7500 watt standby generators and 800 watt inverter generators that they use for their computers.
The next thing to discuss is the type of fuel you will use. In the country you have a choice of gas, diesel or propane. Gasoline generators are probably the most common and certainly the most accessible with respect to portability and readily accessible service. There are draw backs though, in a long power outage you will need to store a considerable amount of fuel and if the power is out, so are the gas station pumps if you need more. They are not extremely fuel efficient and certainly generate the most pollutants of all generators. You must be very careful refilling a gas generator, especially if it has been running. One other note on gas generators, they advertise run times at 50% for tank refill. Most of these advertised estimates are way off as you will find your run time per tank is probably closer to 80%. If they say 8-10 hours between fill-up, it's probably closer to 6-7 hours. Shelf life for gas is limited, we used to rotate our gas supply every six months and were recommended to use fuel stabilizer. Diesel is the least flammable of all the fuel, especially propane. It burns cleaner and is readily available. It also has a longer shelf life, up to 18 months. The disadvantages are similar to gas; amount of storage space and of course the ever present diesel smell. For years we had a 12000 watt gas generator and recently we move to a propane unit. Propane is cleaner burning and we already had a storage tank for our home use. Propane can be stored for a considerable time period. Even if the gas station has no power, their dispensing tanks are pressurized so you can get more propane if needed. When hooked to a stationary propane tank your generator can run for an extended period of time. You can also get home delivery if you have a large enough tank. There are disadvantages; the actual fuel system is pressurized and more complicated than a gas generator.
The last thing you should include in your search for stand-by power is a separate electrical panel with a transfer switch. Contrary to what I see far too often is where the home has a 30 amp electrical lead run from their electrical panel to an outdoor plug, this type of hook-up is strictly against the Electrical Code. A transfer switch ensures that your generator cannot feed power back into the hydro lines and risk the life of a hydro worker. A transfer switch and panel contains the actual power supply that you have selected as essential for your home. This type of installation should be hooked up by your electrician who can match your generator to the breaker size in the transfer switch.
You can expect to spend over $4000.00 for a properly installed stand-by system. I often see generators on sale where they advertise a 6000 watt generator for under a $1000.00. I will share this history, when we had the ice storm two of our neighbours bought these budget units. By the end of the ice storm, some 10 days later, both had failed. In generators you do get what you pay for. Finally, a properly installed stand-by unit will increase the value of your home.