Portable power

Gasoline-fueled generators can provide electricity when lines are down, but must be used with caution.

Published April 17, 2005

When the hurricanes started racing through the west coast of Florida last August and September, the first thought for a lot of residents was: portable generator .

These gasoline-fueled devices provide electrical power when the lines are down. After a hurricane, when it may be days or weeks before electricity is restored, they can be a godsend.

They can also be a menace. A Tampa woman burned down her home when gasoline fumes from a generator were ignited by the open flame of her water heater. Three people around the state died of carbon monoxide poisoning created by their generators, and many were sickened by fumes.

In 2003, 36 people nationwide died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from generators, and 40 people the year before, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports.

"It's powered by a gasoline engine. It emits carbon monoxide. It's a piece of outdoor power equipment that must be run outdoors," said Scott Alderton, director of marketing for Briggs & Stratton Power Group, which manufactures portable and permanent generators.

The owner's manual for one popular Briggs & Stratton model, the 6,000-watt 01893, carries page after page of instructions with sections marked "Danger," "Caution" and "Warning."

The message: Don't mess with these things if you don't know what you're doing.

The further message: Know what a portable generator can and cannot do. It cannot, for example, restore your house to full prehurricane power: central air conditioning, water heater, washer, dryer and dishwasher churning away, computers, microwave, range, refrigerator, television, sound system, lights - all the comforts of home we take for granted.

What it can do is operate a few lights and essential appliances, maybe a fan or two, enabling you to do some cooking, be a little cool and see in the dark.

Further downsides: Generators are noisy. "They're quieter than a lawn mower, but in a neighborhood situation where multiple ones are running, you're going to hear them," Alderton said.

They are fueled by gasoline, so you'll need a supply of gas. If the power is out, gas stations have no way to operate the electric pumps. Keeping a supply of gasoline in your home is a hazard that safety experts strongly discourage.

Let's take a brief class in Generator 101.

Portable generators range in power from 1,000 to 7,500 watts. The 1,000-watt version enables you to run a few lights. You could turn those off and plug in a microwave to cook, but this size won't allow simultaneous operation of multiple items.

Most homeowners probably want a portable generator of 4,000 to 6,000 watts. This size would keep the refrigerator and freezer going, a few lights, a microwave for short periods. This size sells for $500 to $700.

Some portables come with wheels, which are handy for moving them around. Generators weigh 100 to 300 pounds and are typically 3 feet wide, 4 feet long and 31/2 feet high.

Note that there are also permanently installed backup generators, powered by natural gas or propane. These provide 7,000 watts of power and cost $2,500 to $3,000. They provide power through your home's electrical system.

A third type, permanently installed standby generator systems, cost $5,000 to $10,000 and provide 5,000 to 20,000 watts of power. These gas-fueled generators kick on automatically if the power is interrupted.

These permanent systems must be installed by professionals. These are not something you run out and buy the day before a hurricane is forecast to make landfall.

How do you know what size portable generator you need? "Total the wattage of the maximum number of items you will be running simultaneously," suggests the Lowe's Home Improvement Web site. It offers a chart with running and startup wattage (which is often higher - some appliances pull a lot of juice when they start up) for a number of tools and appliances.

Lowe's offers this example: to operate a 100-watt light bulb, a 200-watt slow cooker, a 1,200-watt refrigerator with startup wattage of 2,900 watts, and a 750-watt TV would requite a capacity of 3,950 watts. So you have some homework to do before you go shopping.

Generators are powered by gasoline. The 4,000- and 6,000-watt generators have tanks that hold 6 to 8 gallons, which provide 10 to 14 hours of run time, depending on the exact load.

Like your car's engine, a generator needs oil, which you'll want to check after every 15 to 20 hours of run time. Briggs & Stratton recommends changing the oil after 25 to 30 hours, using the same kind of oil you use in your car. (Add that to your list of hurricane supplies.)

Some generators have an electric start push button; others are started manually, like a power mower. Once you have it going, you either plug an appliance into the outlets on the generator or you run a heavyweight extension cord into the house to the appliance you want to power.

Those should be heavy-duty, outdoor-rated, three-pronged extension cords in good condition. Briggs & Stratton recommends stretching them out straight, not coiling them, because coiled cords can get hot.

Generators should never be placed inside your home or garage or in any enclosed space. They should be kept away from windows, doors, ducts and vents and away from combustible materials. They generate heat and carbon monoxide, which can be fatal.

"Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home," the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns. Keep them away from open flames and water, including rain.

Portable generators cannot directly operate your central air-conditioning or water heater or provide power for the ceiling fans and lights, which are hard-wired into your home's electrical system.

Never try to power the house by plugging the generator directly into a wall outlet or breaker box. This practice, called "backfeeding," can energize dead power lines and electrocute utility workers and neighbors on the same transformer. It also bypasses some of your home's built-in circuit protection devices, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

An electrician can install a transfer switch that allows you to safely plug a portable generator into your breaker box. Consumer Reports estimates this will cost about $600.

Told about the fires and deaths associated with generators and Florida's hurricanes, Alderton said, "It's unfortunate that for whatever reason people don't see these products as outdoor power equipment."

"Generators can be expensive to run and maintain, noisy, and most importantly may pose a serious safety hazard," Nevada Power says.

In the off season, generators require maintenance if you expect them to be in good working order next summer. A representative of Lazydays RV SuperCenter, which services generators for RV users, says it is essential for the owner of either gas or diesel generators to run the device at least once a month for an hour or two at 50 percent of its load capacity. That might mean connecting a few electrical devices to the unit.

Regularly change the fuel filter, and the oil and air filters if the generator has those. Changing the oil at intervals recommended by the manufacturer also is a good idea, and clean or change the spark plugs as required.

Generators can be terrific help at a job site to operate power tools. They can make the best of an intolerable situation, as residents of Southwest Florida learned last summer. If you think a generator needs to be part of your hurricane preparation kit, now is the time to learn how to operate one.

Generating interest

Briggs & Stratton Power Group has a Web site at www.briggsandstratton.com Read safety tips, review various models, download owner's manuals with technical information on how to set up, ground and start a generator, and view a video hosted by HGTV personality Pat Simpson on permanently installed backup generators.

At the Lowe's Web site, www.lowes.com type "generator" into the search box for information on choosing, buying and operating generators. Here you'll find a chart of the wattage consumed by various appliances and tools so you can estimate the size you'll need.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission site (www.cpsc.gov) provides more safety information. (Type "generator" into the search box.)

Consumer Reports evaluated generators in November 2003. It named the Generac Wheelhouse 5500 1646 and the Troy-Bilt 5550 01919 as CR Best Buys. Evaluations were based on wattage, run time, power delivery, ease of use and noise.