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Thinking about getting a generator? Texas families share what works for them – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth

If you're considering backup power for your home as a result of recent storms, you have many options available besides extension cords that plug into a portable outdoor generator.

There are other options, ranging from inexpensive to high-end. Some use a medium or large portable generator combined with a transfer switch or interlock device to power the main appliances in a home. There are other systems that can power an entire home.

Read on to consider questions and get expert advice.

BUDGET-FRIENDLY PLAN

When the power goes out at his home, Todd Koch can keep the essential things running.

“It doesn’t power our whole house, but it does power our refrigerator and the core functions of the house,” Koch said.

Ten years ago, Koch bought a portable, gas-powered generator from a home improvement store. Then he hired an electrician to install a transfer switch next to the home's fuse box. The transfer switch allows circuits to be switched on a home's electrical panel without having to run a separate extension cord to each appliance. The transfer switch also allows appliances that may not have a plug to stay powered, such as a furnace or water heater.

Koch showed NBC 5 that in about five minutes he can get the generator outside, plug it into the system and flip a few switches to get the power flowing.

“It plugs directly into the generator when it's running and allows us to power very specific circuits in the house,” Koch said. “We could choose which ones we wanted to power.”

With a 20-litre petrol canister, the family can light a few rooms in the house and keep the fridge, heating and internet running. In frosty weather, they can also use it to run the pool pumps.

“There is uncertainty about what you will lose and what you won't. This removes that uncertainty, doesn't it?” Koch says of the system.

Koch said the generator, transfer switch and labor costs from a professional electrician totaled about $1,500.

“I would say that for us as a family, it paid off from the very first use,” says Koch.

Someone would have to be home to set up the system. If the family is out of town and there is a power outage, the refrigerator and other essential appliances will be without power.

Koch said they don't use the current system to power the central air conditioning: “It just uses a lot of power and puts a lot more strain on the generator.”

AUTOMATIC POWER SUPPLY

In Lex Green's house, a whole-house generator starts automatically when it detects a power outage.

“Everything is automatic, we don't have to do anything,” Green said. “You don't have to be here and it turns on and switches to the generator source. Everything runs normally.”

Green said the generator, mounted on a concrete slab next to the house, provides power to the entire house – including the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

“Heating and cooling are top priorities,” Green said. “We wouldn't care if we had lights if we could stay cool in the summer.”

Green said the generator cost about $6,500 plus professional installation by an electrician and a plumber. The generator's fuel source, natural gas, had to be moved from one side of the house to the other. In total, Green said he spent about $18,000.

“You ask yourself, 'How much is it worth to you?' For me, it's comforting to know that it's there when I need it,” Green said.

WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?

Generally, there are three types of generators: portable generators, inverter generators, and whole-house generators.

Within these categories, there is a wide range of options for residential emergency power supply – depending on the amount of power required, the available fuel source and the desired level of comfort.

“From a portable generator that you can just carry around and hook up to a couple of freezers. You can upgrade it a little bit and get a bigger portable [generator] with a switch and set up that facility,” said Dustin Owens, a trained electrician at Milestone.

He added: “There are also smaller whole-house generators if you only want to power part of your house and want it to be automatic.”

Owens says the installation cost for a whole-house generator's automatic standby power can also vary. It depends, for example, on whether a homeowner can use an existing natural gas supply. Is the volume sufficient? If a natural gas supply is not available, propane may be an option.

“That's probably one of the most important factors: where your fuse boxes are, where the gas is, all those important things that play a big role in this,” Owens explained.

Also, be sure to comply with local ordinances, your utility company's regulations, and your homeowners association's rules.

“Some HOAs don't allow them because of the noise,” said Tommy Parker, Fox Electric's operations manager. “Even most cities have certain noise limits. You have to do your research because every city has different requirements.”

Parker said a consumer should also ask about the lead time for permanent backup power. Demand for generators is usually high after storms and before hurricane season – Parker noted.

“You may want a generator today, but it may take months to actually physically install it,” Parker said.

If you're considering a portable generator, Parker said there are several safety devices an electrician can install in your home to make it easier to switch to backup power during a power outage. These include a transfer switch, a locking device and a GenerLink transfer switch. Parker said it's important to make sure the unit you choose is approved by your power company.

“This should be installed by an electrician,” Parker said. “Then you would have a power source, preferably outside the house, that you would plug the cable into. That would then be connected to your generator. The generator would be outside.”

HOW MUCH POWER DO I NEED?

To figure out what size generator you need, make a list of the most important appliances you want to power in the event of a power outage. This could be the refrigerator, pool pump, or garage door opener.

You can find buying guides and calculators online to enter the appliances you want to power and get an estimate of the total wattage you'll need. This can help you narrow down your search as you shop. An electrician can also help you measure the load.

Home improvement stores offer guides like this one and this one. Many generator manufacturers also have online calculators you can use. They can also help you factor in startup power—the extra amount of electricity needed when an electric motor in an appliance starts up.

“Most portable generators actually have two ratings. One is for peak power and output and one is for normal output,” explains Paul Hope, senior home and appliance editor at Consumer Reports.

When purchasing the right size generator, Hope said, a consumer would not necessarily plug in all of their appliances at the same time. While a refrigerator requires constant power, a consumer may only plug in another appliance occasionally during a power outage.

“Make sure you have something that can comfortably accommodate everything you plan to use. Ideally, the generator will have a peak capacity that can meet temporary power needs when they are actually used,” Hope said.

REFRESH YOUR SAFETY KNOWLEDGE

If you use a portable generator, follow the manufacturer's operating and maintenance instructions carefully. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends operating portable generators at least 20 feet from the home and directing exhaust away from buildings. This includes making sure the exhaust is directed away from neighbors' homes as well.

Carbon monoxide is invisible, odorless and toxic. A 2022 report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that about 85 consumers die each year in the U.S. from CO poisoning from gasoline-powered portable generators.

“Many people are tempted to run a generator in a garage or an attached garage with the door open during thunderstorms, especially if the weather is still bad. That's really not a safe solution,” Hope said. “You really don't know if the carbon monoxide will blow back into the house. That can happen with even a small gust of wind.”

If you need to use a generator in the rain, there are model-specific covers or tents for generators.

Consumers can look for portable generators that automatically shut off when CO levels are high.

Install battery-operated CO detectors or CO detectors with battery backup on every floor of the home and outside the separate sleeping areas of the home. Make sure smoke detectors are installed and working. Test CO and smoke detectors monthly. If an alarm sounds, go outside and call 911.

The Red Cross website explains that a generator must be kept outdoors, away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to enter. When fueling a generator, turn it off and let it cool down first. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.

Koch and Green both said they keep their emergency power systems under lock and key.

“When generators are running and there are very few of them, people steal them. We even lock ours with cables,” Koch said.

They guard the equipment that ensures their peace of mind.

“When the power is out for 15 minutes, the thoughts that go through your mind are: Will it be back on in five minutes? Will it be three or four days? During that time, we just say we don't care. We hope it comes back on soon, but we're OK,” Green said.

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