The past couple years have certainly been bad years for weather. Record snowfall in the winter, ice storms and high winds, and spring brought floods and devastating tornados. Summer was hot with heavy thunderstorms, and fall saw hurricanes, tropical storms and an early snow that brought down trees. Our aging and damage-prone infrastructure took a beating, with weeks-long power outages, dams collapsing, poorly maintained storm water systems, record storm surge, and sewers backing up and flooding roads, homes and businesses.
Many people went to home centers and bought gasoline powered generators to cope with the power outages, with the predictable results of carbon monoxide poisonings, fires, shocks, electrocutions and damage to home appliances. Hopefully, the following information will help to prevent some of these problems from happening again.
· Generators need to be sized for the load they are to carry. The output is clearly stated on the packaging. You can’t expect a generator designed for power tools to run an air conditioning unit! If you are going to use a basic portable unit, size it to run your sump pump, fridge, any medical devices and a couple light circuits so you can see at night, and charge your phones and laptop. If you live in a cold climate, you probably want to include your furnace or boiler, so the pipes don’t freeze. Most portable generators are designed to be used on construction sites to run temporary lighting and power tools. They are not weather proof, and are noisy. There are some higher-end units made for camping that are much quieter and have some advanced features like power conditioners. You WILL need a power conditioner, if you expect your generator to run the hi-tech boilers, furnaces and appliances that are installed today. Those do not react well to the “dirty” current from a portable generator. Power conditioners are separate units, installed by an electrician, and are not inexpensive. The “power strip” type conditioners sold in computer and appliance stores are not capable of handling the demands of a generator. You are going to need the services of a licensed electrician anyway, so have them figure out what your load needs are. Homeowners generally aren’t able to do this correctly. You will need the electrician to install the proper switching gear to isolate your house from the power lines when the generator is running, so you don’t kill a lineman working on the wires by back feeding your current into the system. The automatic type of switch usually is best for untrained homeowners to deal with. If you get a manual one, make sure you understand how to use it!
· DO NOT use the orange “home center” extension cords! They are not designed for that kind of service, and may melt or even catch fire if overloaded. Water can also leak into the plugs and cause a fire or if submerged in a puddle, a shock hazard.
· Shut down the generator before refueling it, and check the oil before you re-start it. Keep the exhaust away from anything combustible, and beware of carbon monoxide! DO NOT run generators in a confined space. Keep doors and windows closed, and make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors.
· DO NOT store gasoline near the generator, and ONLY store it in cans designed for gasoline. Milk jugs, washer fluid jugs and other flimsy containers are an invitation to disaster, if you fill them with gasoline. A cup full of gasoline, vaporized and ignited, can demolish a 2 car garage! Don’t compound an already bad situation.
· Gasoline, propane or diesel fueled generators have a serious problem in disasters. They need fuels, and it is dangerous and probably illegal to store large amounts of fuels on you property, so eventually, you will need to refill the tanks. Roads are likely to be closed due to flooding or downed trees, and the gas station probably won’t have power to run the gas pumps. It is best to ration your fuel carefully, run the generator for any medical devices, the sump pump, and to keep the fridge and freezer cold, and the heat to keep the house warm enough to prevent freeze up.
· The best solution is a “packaged” generator system. This consists of a natural gas powered generator that switches and starts automatically, as soon as the power goes off. Obviously, if you don’t have pipeline gas, this isn’t an option; however, propane and liquid fueled units are available as well. They are professionally installed, and can be sized to run your home as though there was no problem, or just to keep the basics running. They are not inexpensive, but with the way our power grid is deteriorating, and with more bad weather likely, unfortunately, they may become a necessity. There are many brands of portable and built-in generators. Be careful to comply with local codes.