Hurricanes and tornadoes get the most play in the media, but any extreme weather—heavy rain, wind, hail, or snow—that results in a power outage can cause turmoil in your household. Generator sales tend to spike right before those storms land and once a major power outage occurs, which is the worst time to shop for one. You need time to size, choose, and properly set up a generator.

From Consumer Reports' research, we’ve seen stoic folks who view a power outage as an adventure and stock up on candles, matches, flashlights, batteries, and lots of ice. That might be okay if blackouts are rare and short-lived events in your area. Or if your water doesn’t come from a private well and no one in your household is very old or very young, or uses medical equipment. Even then, living without electricity can get old fast.  

Based on your tolerance for “roughing it,” here are two scenarios that might suit common circumstances during a power outage. Pick the approach that’s best for your needs.

Complete Convenience

Let’s say you want nothing less than a generator that fires itself up the instant the lights go out. That calls for a stationary model  that’s permanently installed on your property; it does not need to be wheeled into place and manually connected each time there's a power outage.

A home that requires an all-out setup might have multiple school-age children, with the need for lots of food in the fridge. A telecommuter might have an active home office with computers, a printer, and ready charging capability. There might also be family members who need uninterrupted power for medical devices, stair lifts, and other AC-powered machines. And if your household includes the very young or the elderly, ample lighting and keeping heating and air conditioning running are essential for safety, not just for comfort.

Stationary generators can take months to get up and running because of permits and site approvals that some towns or cities require. A good installer should know the specifics of your locale and include obtaining the needed approvals and permits in the overall cost.

What you can power during a power outage.
Illustration: Thomas Porostocky

Practical and Penny-Wise

Between the “worry-free” crowd and those who need power without fail are many of us who perhaps have older children, no medical devices to power, and can live without central A/C. For such homeowners, a portable generator could be a better choice. Depending on the time of year, you might not need it to run 24/7 to be useful; running it even every couple of hours can rechill the contents of the refrigerator, heat the house, and charge phones and other portable electronics.

For the safest, easiest connections to your home circuits, we recommend you have a transfer switch installed (some areas require a permit for one). That component connects the generator to your electrical-service panel and lets you power hard-wired appliances while avoiding the risk and hassle of extension cords. It also keeps utility power from frying the circuits you’re protecting once the power returns as well as putting at risk any utility employees working outside on the lines.

If the $500 to $900 it costs to install a transfer switch seems steep, there’s another way: an interlock device. Like a transfer switch, it should be installed by a licensed electrician—but it costs hundreds less. The interlock must be matched to your specific electrical service panel. It lets you attach your generator to your panel without a transfer switch. But it requires more hands-on attention than a transfer switch. First, you’ll need to shut off every circuit breaker manually, then you switch on the interlock (it covers your service panel’s main cutoff switch). Last, you turn back on the breakers you want to power. That means you’ll need to know which breakers power which devices. Once utility power is back, you turn off all of the breakers, slide the interlock back, and turn the breakers back on.

When shopping for a portable generator, look for features that help you start your machine and keep it running when needed. Electric start, powered by batteries, saves you the effort of pulling on a starter cord. Most portables automatically shut down if engine oil gets low; a few also indicate when it has stopped for that reason. A fuel shutoff helps you drain gasoline from the carburetor and fuel lines, important for when the generator sits between power outages. If you keep fuel in your portable, we recommend that you add stabilizer and run the machine once per month to ensure it will start when you need it.

When You Lose Juice

What’s at stake when the power goes out? More than lights. Once you consider all of the things that stop working during a power outage, preparedness might look more appealing. Here’s a time line:

Immediately

  • Running water (well users) including toilets.
  • Heating and cooling.
  • Medical equipment. Batteries meant for backup may keep equipment running for a while.
  • Chargers for electronics, though devices already charged will work until drained.

An Hour or More

  • Sump pump. Depending on time of year, incoming groundwater could cover a basement floor within an hour.
  • Electric hot water (a few hours) depending on heating equipment and its settings.
  • Pipes could freeze in as little as 2 to 3 hours. Keeping a trickle of water flowing through the pipes can prevent or slow freezing.
  • Refrigerator contents stay safe to consume up to 4 hours, if door is kept closed.
  • Freezer will hold food safely for up to 24 hours when half-full and 48 hours if full.



Editor's Note:
 This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.