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Home Backup Generator Options

The prolonged power outage caused by the recent ice storm has created significant interest in backup power generators for the home.  The City of Toronto’s policy to increase the number and size of trees, along with aging hydro poles and wires, suggest power outages will become more common.  For those running a business in a home, the elderly and disabled who are more dependant on power, or those who just want the convenience of power, a backup power source is important.

There are several options for backup power generators: size, fuel type, and wiring considerations.  One of the main considerations is how many appliances and electrical items you want to run during a power outage.  Are you satisfied with being able to operate a fridge, or some small appliances?  Or you need to connect the furnace?  If you’re living in the country, such as in Caledon, you’re depending on a pump to provide water, so a more robust solution may be required.

Portable Generator

The simplest and least expensive option is to have a portable generator.  These are fairly small and easy to operate.  Start up the generator, plug in an extention cord, and you’ve got power.  The drawback is  that you’re limited to items that can be plugged in, such as tv, fridge, and small appliances.  With a small generator, you will also be limited to the number of items you can run at the same time.  The benefit is that it is easy to move around – you can take it camping with you, or lend it to your brother-in-law when his power goes out.  Investment: less than $1,000.

Portable Generator, Wired to Electrical Panel

The next option is to wire a portable generator to the electrical panel.  This allows items such as the furnace, which are wired directly, to operate.  The size of the generator will dictate how many appliances can be run simultaneously.  During the recent power outage, we were able to operate a fridge, furnace, and well pump with a 5000 watt generator – still considered to be a portable generator, but weighing about 150 lbs – so a little more difficult to move around.  The generator will be plugged into a special outlet at the electrical panel using a heavy duty extention cord, and would require a licensed electrician to do the wiring.  Investment: $2,000 to $3,000.

Installation

Backup generators can be installed at any time.  However, the ideal time to consider adding at least the wiring, is during a renovation or house addition project, since electricians and other trades are already on site.

Permanently Wired Generator

The most dependable option is a permanently wired generator.  These operate on either diesel fuel or natural gas.  In the case of a natural gas generator, it connects to the same gas line that serves the furnace, so there is a permanent fuel supply.  Some of these generators have to be started manually, others will start automatically when the power goes out.  Size of generator will determine how many items can be run simultaneously, and if stove and air conditioners can be connected.  Investment: $5,000 to $20,000+.

Noise Considerations

Most generators operate with engines similar to those found in a gas lawnmower.  Some municipalities have noise restrictions that may limit the size and/or installation of a generator.  When installing a permanent generator, consideration should be given local by-laws and to the impact on adjacent neighbours.

Maintenance

Regardless which option you choose, maintaining the generator is vital.  The generator should be turned on periodically to ensure it is operational.  Fuel in the tank can become stale – a fuel stabilizer should be added and/or fuel changed periodically.  Permanent generators will often has an automatic test feature, where the generator will turn itself on once a week, or once a month, and perform a self-diagnostic check.