Hurricane Irma is still teaching us lessons. Some of the hardest lessons is when the cost is the loss of life. So far I’ve heard of two instances where homeowners were running generators indoors and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The best thing about generators is they give us the ability to function with some normalcy when the electricity fails. But there are some downsides. Like any internal combustion engine, the exhaust contains carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas which will kill you if you are don’t have proper ventilation. Best thing is to set it outside, run your extension cord inside or to your transfer switch. But never leave it in your garage when running. Or any other indoors location for that matter.
Our power company does an amazing job of keeping the electricity flowing, especially during our winter wind and rain storms. How those lines stay attached to their poles and keep the juice running is a marvel of engineering. But we all know there are still times when things happen and service is interrupted. Sometimes things get fixed right away and sometimes it’s days before the lights come back on. It’s those times when it takes more than a day or so that you need a generator. You may need to pump water out of your well, keep your refrigerator and freezer cold, or in some cases open your garage door.
Here are some things to keep in mind. Unless you’re in the position to spend upwards of $15,000 for a permanently mounted unit, don’t plan to energize your whole house. A smaller, portable unit of 3500 watt capacity will handle your fridge, freezer, a few lights and your TV. The going cost for a unit like that will be in the $500 range. The bigger the wattage output, the more the unit will handle. Like everything else, you get what you pay for. Avoid the $99.00 2-cycle unit. It will probably do more damage (like to your computer or to your $2000 flat-screen TV) than it does good. A high quality surge suppressor is a really good bit of insurance for your delicate electronics.
There are some nice features offered on today’s units. Electric start will save your back, muscle strain and a whole lot of physical energy. Some generators are designed to run on two different fuels. The ones I’ve seen will use either gasoline or propane. Very handy since propane will store longer than gasoline. Some are diesel powered and yet some will run off natural gas. The natural gas version must be plumbed into the natural gas supply which could become interrupted during an earthquake or other disaster. And finally, the wheel kit. The wheel was invented to avoid all the lugging, dragging and even adult language when it comes to putting your generator in it’s place. Get wheels.
The main drawback with generators; they require fuel. Don’t plan on using your generator as a long-term solution. Even running the unit only a few hours a day for more than a week, you’d need to store more stabilized fuel than most budgets allow. Not to mention the inherent dangers of storing gasoline. Speaking of gasoline, today’s ethanol-infused product presents its own problem. Ethanol naturally attracts water, thus dramatically shortening the storage life of gasoline. A generator sitting idle for months on end will almost surely fail to start because of bad gasoline. The solution is to purchase non-ethanol gas (at a much higher price) or using a product such as Sta-Bil to keep fuel fresh for 12 months or longer.
A very good resource for information is the Generator Buyer’s Guide at Northern Tool & Equipment’s website. They’ve got answers for your generator questions. They also offer a huge inventory of brand-name generators.
As always send your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns are on my blog at www.disasterprepdave.blogspot.com. Dave Robinson is a retired postmaster, and the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us,” available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.