Q: I’m sick of candles, flashlights, and spoiled food. How much do I need to spend for a generator that will keep the power on no matter what Mother Nature throws at us this winter?
A: You’re smart to think about this now because by the time the first storm hits, you may find the local home center cleaned out of generators and face a long wait for an electrician. You have three basic generator options at three different price points, says master electrician Matt Tomis of Fairfield, Connecticut.
1) Portable Generator with Extension Cords
The lowest-cost approach is to simply purchase a portable, gasoline-powered machine, which will run $400 to $1,200 for 5,500 to 6,500 watts. You’ll also need several heavy-duty exterior-grade extension cords, which typically cost $30 to $40 each for a 50-foot cord.
Works for: Your fridge (you’ll have to roll it out of its cubby-hole to connect the cord) and some lamps and other plug-in devices.
What it won’t power: No hardwired equipment, meaning it doesn’t plug-in, such as the heat or ceiling lights. “And no sensitive electronic device, such as a TV or computer, because emergency generators produce dirty power, meaning it’s prone to mini-surges, sags, and spikes that can damage your equipment,” says Tomis. (If you want to safely plug in electronics, you would need to invest in what’s known as an inverter generator, which runs $2,000 to $4,000.)
Inconvenience factor: High. You need to keep plenty of gas on hand (with gas treatment added to keep it from going stale), and you need to start the generator each month all year round and run it for a few minutes to keep it at the ready. Then when an outage strikes, you have to wheel out the generator, pull-start it, and run your cords—taking care to keep the generator 10 feet from the house to avoid letting carbon monoxide inside. You may also want to chain the generator to a tree if you think someone might take it in your area.
Total cost: $600 to $1,400.
2) Portable Generator with Transfer Switch
This approach combines a slightly more powerful gasoline-powered portable generator with a minor electrical rewiring project that allows you to jack the generator right into the side of your house and run certain, pre-selected household circuits. Figure the stronger 6,500 to 7,500 watt machine will run $600 to $1,500, plus you’ll spend $1,200 to $1,500 for the electrical work.
Works for: Your electrician will help you choose circuits for hallway and kitchen lights, heat, hot water, microwave, refrigerator, and sump pump—and tell you exactly what size generator you need to power them.
What it won’t power: Unless you spring for an inverter generator, the electricity still isn’t clean enough to safely operate computers, televisions and other delicate electronics. Also the portable generator isn’t powerful enough to operate your air conditioning, something you may care about if you live in a warm climate.
Inconvenience factor: Moderate. Similar to the first, less expensive option, you need to wheel out your gasoline powered generator (which you’ve been starting monthly all year long), keep fresh gas handy, and lock it for security. But attaching it to the house inlet is far simpler than running extension cords.
Total Cost: $1,800 to $3,000.
3) Automatic Whole-House Generator
Your best yet priciest option is a natural gas or propane powered generator that’s large enough—and produces clean enough energy—to run every single circuit in your house, and automatically takes over when you have a power outage. You’ll pay around $11,000 to $15,000 for one fit for a 3,000 square foot house, including the generator, wiring, and gas-line connection, or perhaps $22,000 to $26,000 for a large manor house.
Works for: The clean, steady power can run everything in your house—plus all of your neighbors’ phone chargers.
What it won’t power: Even with all of your electronics up and running, this generator can do nothing, of course, about phone, cable, and Internet service interruptions.
Inconvenience factor: None. There’s no gasoline to buy, no pull-cord to yank on, and the unit even starts itself every week and conducts a self check. You can even get a text if there’s any problem that requires a visit from a technician. Of course that convenience comes at a price.
Total Cost: $11,000 to $15,000.
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