What you need to know about portable generators

September 8, 2015

Portable generators are great for powering the essentials, like the refrigerator and microwave. They can also be very convenient to use. But they're not able to power everything in your house. Here's what you need to know about portable generators.

What you need to know about portable generators

Preparing to choose a portable generator

  • To determine the size (wattage) of the generator you'll need, make a list of everything you want to power during an outage.
  • Look for a label on each appliance that contains wattage information.
  • These labels are sometimes on the inside of appliances' doors, or on the back of them.
  • Add together your listed items' wattages, then multiply that number by 1.5.
  • The number that you're left with is the minimum wattage needed for your generator.

Wattage requirements

  • 10,000-Btu air conditioner:1,500 watts
  • Refrigerator:700 to 1,200 watts
  • Microwave:600 to 1,200 watts
  • Freezer:500 to 1,200 watts
  • Washing machine:1,200 watts
  • 1/3-horsepower sump pump:800 watts
  • Television:300 watts
  • Laptop computer:250 watts

Portable generators: the simplest solution

  • The most basic and least expensive method of supplying backup power is running a portable generator in your yard, then plugging in extension cords that plug into your appliances.
  • A major drawback of portable generators, though, is that you have to run extension cords everywhere, and you're limited to how many things you can plug in at once (most generators have either two or four outlets).
  • You also have to start and maintain most portable generators while they're running.
  • Portable generators range in price from $500 for a 3,250-watt unit to $1,500 for a 10,000-watt unit.
  • Options include wheels (generators are very heavy) and electric (key) starts rather than pull-starts.
  • Some portable generators run just a few hours on a single tank of gas, others have 60 litre (16 gallon) fuel tanks that can run up to 10 hours.

Using your portable generator

  • When the power goes out, place your generator on a flat surface outside, at least 3 metres (10 feet) from your house.
  • Don't set your generator under awnings, canopies or carports, or inside the house or garage.
  • It's absolutely critical that you keep the generator away from your house and especially away from doors and windows — your life could depend on it!
  • Plug in a carbon monoxide detector when using a portable generator so that you'll be alerted if generator exhaust reaches a dangerous level inside your house.
  • The extension cords you use with your generator must be at least 14 gauge to carry adequate power.
  • Follow the cord's maximum wattage rating (which you can find listed on the cord's label) when it comes to what you plug into your generator.
  • Start up the generator, then plug in the extension cords.
  • Don't plug any high-wattage appliances you didn't plan for into your portable generator — doing so will overload it.
  • It'll trip the breaker or blow a fuse on the generator, or damage the appliance motors.

Make portable power more convenient

  • To use a portable generator without the hassle of extension cords, hire an electrician to install a manual transfer switch sub-panel off your main circuit panel and install a dedicated inlet to power the sub-panel.
  • This setup gives you the advantage of powering entire circuits in the house, not just individual appliances.
  • However, even with this setup, you'll still have to start and maintain your gas-powered generator.
  • Before calling an electrician, choose what you want to power during an outage, so that your electrician can move these appliances from your main circuit panel to your sub-panel.
  • Appliances on your sub-panel will run when you have normal power and when you lose electricity and hook up your generator.
  • Expect to pay $200 for materials for this job and at least $500 for an electrician to install the sub-panel and special inlet.
  • During a power outage, run a cord from your generator to the sub-panel inlet, flip a manual transfer switch on the sub-panel, and all the designated circuits will have power.
  • To connect your generator to your sub-panel use a heavy-duty extension cord with twist-lock ends (generators have receptacles for these ends).
  • These ends will stay in place once they're plugged into the generator and inlet.

Remember these things that you need to know about portable generators an you'll be able to choose and use your portable generator more wisely.

*Not only is it dangerous, it may even be illegal in some provinces, such as Québec, to do your own electrical wiring. The solution: consider hiring a master electrician.

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