If it feels like extreme weather is getting more common, you aren’t just imagining it. Research shows that extreme weather events have become more frequent over the last two decades and are causing more destruction than ever before. That presents risks to aging infrastructure, including our energy grid.
Much of the United States’ electric grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s, before the rise of more frequent extreme weather. The North American Electric Reliability Corp recently warned that much of the country faces an increased risk of blackouts during extreme weather events.
If you’re looking for ways to keep the power in your home on during outages, a whole home generator might be a fit. But knowing which one is right for you is dependent on your home and your needs.
Factors to consider when shopping for whole home generator
There are a number of factors to consider when shopping for a whole home generator. First and foremost, you’ll want to consider whether a generator is right for your situation. Then you’ll need to consider what capacity, fuel type and additional features you might need — all while keeping in mind a budget that makes sense for you.
Do you need one at all?
Before anything else, you should ask yourself this foundational question: Do you need one? The reality is that some situations do not necessitate or are not suitable for a whole home generator.
If you live in an apartment complex in a populated city, you are unlikely to need this much power and may face challenges even installing one. You are also less likely to experience long term power outages if you live in densely populated or wealthier areas. Studies suggest rural and suburban areas and low-income neighborhoods are statistically more likely to experience extended outages.
If you are in a smaller space or do not need to power your whole home and instead just need access to essential spaces or appliances, consider a portable generator or even a home power station that can provide power for essential devices like cell phones or small appliances.
Determining your wattage needs
Determining the wattage necessary to keep your house powered should the grid go down is a key consideration.
One practical method is to simply add up the wattage of the appliances you’ll want to have access to during an outage. You’ll need to regulate usage to ensure that you do not exceed your capacity, but this will allow you to save on both up front costs and fuel.
A reputable generator dealer or installer should also be able to help you determine which size you need. It’s probably best to speak to more than one so you can compare their answers.
Determining the best fuel
Whole home generators typically use three main fuel options: natural gas, propane and diesel. Each fuel type has its own set of benefits and downsides.
Natural gas generators are popular due to the convenience of a continuous fuel supply provided from the utility grid. They’re cleaner-burning and require less maintenance compared to other options. However, gas lines can be disrupted by storms, affecting the generator’s functionality.
Propane generators offer flexibility as they can use portable propane tanks or be connected to a larger, stationary tank. Propane has a longer shelf life than gasoline, but is sometimes less readily available than natural gas and the cost can fluctuate. You’ll need to monitor and refill propane tanks to make sure you have the fuel necessary to ride out an extended outage.
Diesel generators are often more fuel-efficient than their gas counterparts and can provide a stable power source for extended periods. However, diesel generators usually require more maintenance and the fuel can degrade over time. Storage of diesel fuel also requires attention to prevent contamination.
Typically generators powered by gasoline or diesel “must be refilled every 12 to 16 hours depending on the load on the machine,” explained Don Whaley, founder and former president of Direct Energy, and current advisor to OhmConnect Energy. “Homeowners choosing this option will need to ensure an ample supply of fuel on hand to carry them through several days of outage.”
Batteries connected to solar panels don’t require a fuel supply in order to provide power. Solar batteries also come with a high price tag, so the up-front cost will play a major factor for most people.
Keep your budget in mind
While a generator has a host of benefits, the reality is that budget will be one of the biggest determining factors in most peoples’ decisions. HomeAdvisor estimates that whole-house generators range in cost from $5,000 to $25,000. This expense, along with the cost of fuel, will be a limiting factor for many households.
If cost is a significant factor, Whaley suggests going with a cheaper, smaller option like a portable generator. “Smaller generators will run refrigerators, lights, televisions, computers, and Wi-Fi routers,” he said. There are trade-offs, though: “Most [small generators] will not run central air or heat, so if consumers opt for smaller units, they will need to make allowances for heating or cooling their homes in extreme weather conditions.”
Whole home generators and safety
Whole home generators keep you safe by keeping essential home systems functioning, but they are not without risks. The potential for carbon monoxide emissions means there is a potential for CO poisoning, which can cause headaches and dizziness and even lead to loss of consciousness and death.
To address this, many modern generators come equipped with CO shutoff switches that automatically turn off the unit if elevated levels are detected. These are essential to your safety and the safety of others in your home. You’ll also want to ensure proper ventilation for the device. Generators should be installed away from windows, doors and vents to prevent exhaust gasses from entering your home.
Whole home generator options
There are a number of trusted and reliable brands of whole home generators to choose from, most with modern safety features and flexibility when it comes to capacity and fuel sources that will allow you to find the right option for you and your home. Below are three suggestions of options to get you started, though CNET has not reviewed or tested any of them.
- Generac Guardian Wi-Fi Enabled Standby Generator: A modern generator with a 22-kilowatt capacity, it’s capable of powering most homes. It comes with built in safety features and a Quiet Mode. Runs on natural gas or propane.
- Honda EB10000: A whole home backup power option with electric start and fuel efficient power. Built with an advanced carbon monoxide detection system that will shut down should levels get too high. Easy to install, runs on gasoline or natural gas.
- Briggs & Stratton PowerProtect DX 22kW Home Standby Generator: A commercial-grade generator that can be used to keep your whole home powered in an outage. Offers hookups for liquid propane and natural gas with protective features to combat corrosion and other risks. Easy installation and removal. Graded for non-emergency use in case you’d like to go off-grid.