The second I saw the email I jumped up from my desk, images of lights and warmth and refrigerated food dancing in my head. It was Thursday, November 1; four days after Sandy left much of the eastern United States, including my house, without electrical power.
The email from the Consumer Reports test-sample warehouse read: "Due to the destructive nature of Hurricane Sandy, generators have been added to the test sample sale. The generators will be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis starting immediately."
By the time I got downstairs to the warehouse there was a line of fellow CR staffers waiting to snap up one of the 14 generators that subscribers can find in our latest generator Ratings. I was lucky enough to snag the last one available, a small 3,000-watt propane powered unit made by Eastern Tools & Equipment. (As it happened, this was the one generator CR purchased but did not test.)
As life slowly returned to normal this week, I decided to check in with my colleagues to see how they fared setting up their new generators. What I learned: Even if you manage to find a generator for sale at the moment you need it, there's a good chance it won't do you any good until the next emergency.
For example, Gayle Williams, deputy editor for health and family, bought the gas-powered 6,000-watt Yamaha. Her problem was that gasoline was hard to come by in our area last week, as were gas cans. "And we needed an electrician to hook this up to our furnace," she says.
Julie Levine, associate director for product safety and health, borrowed a generator from a colleague who bought it from CR last week, even though this storm didn't rob him of electrical power. (Somebody is thinking ahead!) Like mine, it's an Eastern Tools & Equipment propane-powered generator. But his is a 6,000-watt unit that we did test. These generators run off those 20-pound-capacity canisters you probably already own if you have a gas grill. But unlike your grill you'll need one canister for every four to 10 hours of operation--depending on the size of the generator and the load you draw from it. Julie's grill canister cost her $28 to fill. She bought two more canisters, which cost $48 each including the propane.
Julie's happy she borrowed before she bought, because she learned it's not the right one for her. "Too inconvenient," she says, "and it uses propane too quickly. Those canisters are heavy--I can't lift one when it is full." She is looking into buying a generator that will run on the natural gas that she uses to heat her house.
That's the best way to go for anyone who has natural gas, notes David Trezza, our senior project leader who tests generators. Likewise, if you heat your house with oil consider getting a diesel generator, since home heating oil and diesel are the same stuff. Same goes if, like me, you heat or cook with propane. I certainly will install a hook-up--it was frustrating to keep filling those little propane canisters while a 300-gallon propane tank was sitting uselessly in my yard.
Chris Hendel, associate director for health and family, who shivers up in CR's Vermont office, already had a stationary 10 kilowatt Generac Guardian Series installed and ready to go when Sandy switched off his power. This unit requires permanent connection to an electrical service panel. Hook-up costs vary depending on your situation, so be sure to investigate that before you buy a generator that requires permanent installation. Chris paid $600 to have his unit connected to his service panel and his home propane tank.
Chris's generator is convenient--it starts up automatically when the power goes off and he doesn't need to buy separate fuel. Propane costs less when purchased in bulk for home heating but running a generator on the stuff is still costly so Chris uses it judiciously.
"We don't run it continuously," Chris says, "just a few hours a day to run the fridge and the furnace."
David Trezza notes that most generators, even portable models, can be plugged directly into your home service. The safest way to do this is to have an electrician install a manual transfer switch in your service box and a power inlet on the outside of your house. David recommends doing this, to save the hassle and potential danger of extension cords. Also, it's the only way to power hard-wired appliances such as your furnace, hot water heater, or well pump. You should never "backfeed" the power from a generator directly into your homes electrical panel--it can be a safety issue for the homeowner and any power utility service people who may be working on overhead lines outside of your home.
"Don't just leave your generator in the box when you get it home," Trezza says. "Take it out, set it up and make sure you can get it running." Find a location far enough away from the house so deadly carbon monoxide won't enter your home yet will still allow all the power cords to reach their destination.
If your generator won't be hooked up to your home fuel, make sure you have several 5-gallon containers of gasoline or diesel or 20-pound propane canisters on hand. And remember gasoline must be fresh. Even if you add stabilizer to the gas, you'll need to dump the gas into your car and refill the cans every six months.
Read your owner's manual carefully when you first set up your generator. It will tell you about maintaining the machine so it will be ready to go when you need it. Plus you may avoid unpleasant surprises like a battery that doesn't come charged.
Okay, so a generator may not dissolve all the hassles of a power outage but it can sure make life a lot more pleasant if you get the right one and set it up properly in advance. To help make sure you choose the right model for your needs, see our generators buying guide. Also see our wattage calculator which will help you make find a unit that will meet your power needs.