Preparing Your House for a Generator

Home Backup Generators

Photo: BGE Home

When we moved to the beach in Southern Delaware, we had lots of “future improvements” in our new-construction building plan. Living close to the coast, a generator made the top of the list. In the wake of Sandy, we’re so grateful we had the forethought. No one wants to show up at the home improvement center just as a hurricane is approaching, having to scramble for one of the 60 generators delivered that afternoon. There’s a balance to strike between electrical load and generator wattage, and it’s best not figured out on the fly. If you think you might want to run your house (or a portion of it) on a generator, take some time to do some planning first.

Related: The Power Outage Survival Guide

1. Figure Out Your Load
We worked with an electrician to figure out what we wanted our generator to run. We decided on the sump pump, furnace, hot water heater, kitchen refrigerator and outlets, garage freezer, and the living room lights. A 5,000-watt generator will run all of that for us on about 13 gallons of fuel per 24 hours.

2. Install a Transfer Switch
You can’t just plug a generator into a wall outlet. That’s called backfeeding, and it is extremely dangerous. Your house needs to be disconnected from the grid before starting a generator. Otherwise, the electricity produced could travel beyond your house, entering the grid and potentially killing utility personnel at work.

Home Backup Generators

Photo: justgenerators.co.uk

The safest way to run a generator is by installing a transfer switch. The switch includes an electrical subpanel with a switch for each circuit you want to run with your generator. The transfer switch is wired directly to the house’s electrical service, and the generator gets plugged into that subpanel. (Our electrician wired an outlet for the generator on our garage exterior.) Throwing that transfer switch completely cuts your house off from the grid; meanwhile, power from the generator is only allowed to go to circuits you’ve designated.

3. Purchase the Right Generator
We don’t live in a secluded area, where services are cut off regularly (or at length). Nor do we have medical equipment that runs 24/7. So we didn’t feel a standby generator was necessary. A backup generator is just fine. Larger systems are obviously more expensive to purchase, install, and run. For us, a 5,000-watt backup generator struck the right balance between what we felt was essential for comfort and what our budget would allow.

Home Backup Generators - Champion

Champion 3500W/4000W Portable Generator from Tractor Supply Co.

4. Practice Installation
Take some time before disaster strikes to set your generator up and and get it running. You should plan to do it a couple of times a year, anyway—to make sure it starts, and so that it is a familiar routine for you. Put the generator outside on a level surface in a well-ventilated area at least ten feet away from the house. Carbon monoxide emitted from fuel can kill, so err on the side of caution. A generator’s engine can get very hot, so keep children and pets far away. Also, put it in a location that’s easy to access for refueling.

Disasters like Sandy, Irene, and the like have taught us all that we need to be prepared—and that may require more than stocking up on water, canned goods, and batteries a day or two before a storm. With some planning, you can be comfortable knowing that if the power goes out for a day, or a week, you’ll be able to sustain the essentials.

For more on electricity and storm preparedness, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Storm-Ready Roofs
A New Generation of Fabric Storm Shutters
Installing a Home Backup Generator (VIDEO)