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Stand-By Power for During and After a Hurricane

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A hurricane can take power lines down and even destroy power stations at any time during the storm. Once you lose power, it can be weeks before your power is restored. If you live in a remote area or if the damage is so extensive that roads must be cleared and, possibly, repaired before power company crews can reach your area, it could be months before your power returns. Just look at what happened to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

At the very least, you need power restored within a few hours to avoid losing the food in your refrigerator and freezer. Excessive heat and humidity can create life-threatening conditions for the very young and the elderly, so your air conditioning may also be a necessity rather than a luxury. To maintain the power in your home, you need a standby generator that will begin operating automatically within seconds after the power goes off.

Standby vs. Portable Generators

standby generator

 

A standby generator is installed in a permanent location next to your home and anchored to a concrete slab. It is then attached to its power source(s) and to your home’s electrical system. Standby generators usually draw power from two sources – your home’s natural gas line and a propane tank. So you are not likely to have to leave your home in the midst of the destruction left by a hurricane to seek fuel at a time when supplies are likely to be scarce and prices are likely to be high.

Standby generators have a sensor that monitors your home’s electrical system, and when it senses that your home has lost power, it starts the generator. Your standby generator comes on automatically within 10 to 30 seconds of your loss of power. It will start whether or not you are at home, and if you are home, it does not require you to leave the safe room of your house to plug it into your home’s electrical system and start it. Standby generators can provide enough power to run everything in your home, including pools, hot tubs, and spas. However, standby generators are generally more expensive than portable generators.

Portable generators are less expensive than standby generators, and you could take a smaller one with you if you had to evacuate to the home of a friend or relative to maintain their power. However, if you are home when you lose power, you will have to leave your safe room and your house to connect a portable generator to your home’s power supply and then start the generator. You will also have to leave your shelter to refuel a portable generator at least three times during the course of a day.

If you have evacuated already or if you are away from your home and are unable to return, no one will be there to operate the generator, and your home will remain without power.

Also, a portable generator may be able to power your lights, your refrigerator and freezer, and any medical equipment that someone may need, but it may or may not be able to power the entire electric range.

It won’t be able to power your central air conditioner unless you purchase one that can generate 10 kW to 17.5 kW (kilowatts). Portable generators of that size are comparable in price to standby generators but lack the convenience of an automatic start, a permanent connection to a long-term fuel supply, and a permanent connection for supplying power to your home.

Choosing a Standby Generator

While most standby generators connect to two power supplies, some use only one. Standby generators with a single power supply may use natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel.

Once you decide on which power supply you prefer, you will need to determine how much power you need your generator to supply. A certified electrician can determine the exact wattage you need to provide an ample power supply for your home.

To get a general idea of the size generator you need, though, check the data plate on your air conditioner. It will either list its size in BTUs (British thermal units) or tons. Since each ton equals 12,000 BTUs, divide the number of BTUs by 12,000 to convert it to tons. If you want to power everything in your home, the following table provides a general guideline that estimates the size generator that you might need.

Size of Home Size of AC in Tons Estimated kW Required
< 1,000 sq. feet 2 tons 13.8 kW
1,000 – 1,600 sq. ft. 3 tons 14.7 kW
1,600 – 3,000 sq. ft. 4 tons 21 kW
3,000 – 5,000 sq. ft. 5 tons 24.6 kW
5,000 + 5 tons 24.6 kW

Again, this table offers only a general estimate of the number of kilowatts you might need to power your home. You should have a licensed electrician survey your home to determine your exact power needs. If your exact needs fall between the outputs of two generator models, then it’s wisest to ensure that your home has enough power by installing the larger generator than to underpower your home and have to turn one major appliance off in order to use another.

Maintaining Your Standby Generator

You should test your standby generator periodically to make sure that it will operate properly when you need it.  If your generator doesn’t have a test button that simulates a loss of power, then your owner’s manual should have instructions that explain how to temporarily disconnect your home from your electrical power supplier. In either case, when the power is disrupted, the generator should start within less than a minute.

In addition to testing your generator to make sure that it is operating properly, you should also check its supply of propane and its oil levels. If your standby generator comes on when you test it, then its connections to your home’s gas line are secure. If your generator uses propane or diesel fuel, you should maintain at least a three day. If your propane or diesel fuel level is down, have your tank topped off while prices are low, before demand rises and prices go up as hurricane season approaches. Check your owner’s manual or check with your generator’s manufacturer to learn what the proper oil levels are for your generator.

With these guidelines, you should be able to find the right standby generator for your home and maintain it for years.

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