In the old days, power outages dictated that we break out the candles and kerosene lamps. If we suspected that an outage was imminent, we would fill every container in the house with water. Thus armed, we were prepared to go for hours and even days without electricity.
Gas-powered generators were not mass-produced and not readily available to the average homeowner. All that has changed. Today, not only are generators widely available, they come in all sizes and in a wide range of prices.
The budget-conscious homeowner may well get by with a “suitcase” generator, a small unit priced at not much more than $100. These can run a refrigerator. I once had one and it powered my fridge, computer and TV at the same time. But these have small gas tanks, are not suitable for larger, electric appliances and often don’t last for too many years before vibrating loose. But they are cheap and will do in a pinch.
Somewhat larger generators, costing from $300-$500, can handle far more than the little suitcase types. These are perfect for smaller homes and camps. But even they have their limitations. In places with a big, electrical draw, as in a house with an electric range, electric water heaters and other big-ticket appliances, a larger generator is needed.
Back when I lived in a little cottage and had only a small generator, I would open a window just enough to run an electric cord out to the generator. Inside, a cube-type receptacle allowed me to plug in both the fridge and the computer.
This wasn’t an ideal situation, but it sufficed. At least my frozen food would stay frozen, and I could do my work on the computer. Then, last year, I bought a new house, and everything changed.
The new house requires far more electricity than my old cottage. Plus, a small but steady flow of water in the basement dictated that I install a reliable and rugged sump pump, the one in place was of poor quality and would shut off at will, not a good situation.
So, it was plain that I needed a generator of some consequence. To that end, I checked with an electrician who suggested I purchase a generator of at least 7,500 running watts. This was a big-ticket item and cost a bit over $1,000, but there was no other option.
Along with the generator, the electrician said he could wire the house so that if I just plugged in the generator, it would power everything inside, including the critically important sump pump.
This required some work on the main electric panel and when that was accomplished, running a specially made electric cord beneath the house to a location just to the left of the front door. There, the electrician would install a special outlet that would accept another specially made cord, the cord that came with the generator not being suitable for that use.
The day the electrician came to do the job of wiring my house to accept a generator, was a big one for me. The thought of not having to worry about losing my refrigerated and frozen food, stumbling around in the dark and the sump pump running as always had me excited.
The job took about half a day, a great deal of which was spent rigging the electric panel. In addition to adding new wires, the electrician installed a sliding panel that, once slid into position, would not allow electricity from the generator to flow back into the power company’s lines. This is required by law, and it only makes sense.
After everything was done, wires run, attached to the panel, outlet installed on the side of the house and a cord ready to attach generator to house, the electrician talked me through a test run of my new device.
First step was to start the generator, which was easily accomplished by pushing a button. Then, after allowing the generator to run for a few minutes, it was plugged into the outside outlet.
Back inside, it was time to throw the house’s main breakers, slide the panel to expose the new breakers for the generator and turn them on. With that, my house was running on generator power. Everything worked as advertised and I was duly impressed.
Fast forward two weeks. An accident somewhere took out electric service for four hours. This was the time to put the generator to work. Everything went well. And even though it was suggested that I don’t run the electric range, I ran one surface unit, and it didn’t bog the generator down at all.
Feeding The Generator
One final thought on home generators. Like all small engines, Ethanol-laced fuel can harm the engine, so the manufacture suggested adding fuel stabilizer with each fill up. But even then, some damage can occur.
The only workable solution, unless you don’t mind taking your generator to the shop every once in a while, is to run non-ethanol gas. This costs a bit more, but you never have to worry about it gumming up your generator.
If you are considering buying a generator for emergency use, know that there are many kinds out there. Shop around for the best deal. As per power, let your needs dictate your choice.
Tom Seymour, of Frankfort, is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.