When power is cut off for an extended period of time, some people flock to hardware stores, DIY home centers and other retailers to purchase portable generators. A portable generator is sometimes viewed as the appropriate option when it comes to delivering extended backup power in an emergency situation or blackout.
However, it’s important for people to understand they have options when it comes to safe, reliable backup power. In addition to portable generators, there are permanent standby generators that attach to your home and automatically turn on when the utility power fails. Homeowners don’t need to be present to operate the generator.
So how does a standby generator work? A transfer switch automatically monitors utility power and transfers the electrical load to the generator if power is lost. This transfer process usually happens within 10 seconds. A standby generator is installed outside the home, much like a central air conditioner, and runs on propane or natural gas. It powers critical appliances and systems, including: lights, furnaces, air conditioners, refrigerators, sump pumps, home security systems, office equipment and delicate electronics.
Standby generators range from 8 to 125 kilowatts. It’s important to choose a standby generator that meets your needs and lifestyle. If the goal is to power a few key appliances in a large home, or everything in a smaller home, an 8- to 20-kilowatt generator works well. If someone owns a large home and wants to keep everything powered up, a larger generator will be required.
Now that we’ve established the basic differences between portable and standby generators, let’s do a side-by-side comparison to determine which option is best suited for your needs.
Standby vs. Portable
- A standby generator is permanently installed outside the home similar to a central air conditioning unit, while a portable generator can be moved from location to location.
- A standby generator runs on natural gas or propane and hooks up to existing gas lines. A portable generator must be filled with gasoline every few hours. As many gas stations will not be able to pump gas during the outage, gasoline needs to be stored to last through the outage (approximately 70 gallons of gasoline would be needed for a five-day outage.) In addition, the oil must be frequently changed, especially if running continuously.
- A standby generator is fully enclosed, while a portable generator has exposed engine parts, which are often very hot.
- Standby generators turn on automatically when the power shuts off. A transfer switch constantly monitors utility power and transfers the electrical load to the generator if power is lost, protecting the home even if the home owner is away. A portable generator must be manually started and stopped – meaning the homeowner must be home during a power outage.
- A standby generator can power critical and sophisticated appliances and systems in your home, including lights, heating/cooling systems, refrigerators, sump pumps, home security systems and more. If using a portable generator, appliances need to be plugged-in to the unit using extension cords. The extension cords must be rated for the electrical and distance they run to the portable generator outdoors. (A portable generator must never be run indoors due to carbon monoxide risks.) Any items that are hardwired to the home, such as heating/cooling systems, security systems, etc., cannot be powered by a portable generator.
- A standby generator delivers clean, consistent power, which is important for sophisticated electronics like big-screen TVs, computers, etc. Some portable generators provide lower-grade power quality, which can damage and degrade sensitive electronics.
- Standby generators are installed professionally in advance of an event and provide safe, “hands-off” operation for the homeowner. Portable generators must be operated by the homeowner under the duress of an unexpected outage. This can lead to the necessary safety precautions being overlooked.
If a standby generator is right for you, be sure to do your homework and look for a unit that offers some of the following:
- A commercial-grade engine that provides clean, consistent power, handles heavy loads and powers up quickly.
- Make sure to purchase a standby generator with a minimum five-year warranty.
- Don’t forget about appearance. A standby generator sits outside your home, so look for a unit with a bold, clean look that’s corrosion resistant.
- Some units have remote monitoring/operating capabilities. This is important for those who spend time away from home.