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Buying Guide to Generators: Power up

by Jon Groebner,

Generators put you in control of your power source. And when you're faced with an unexpected outage, standby power can be more than handy. Depending on your needs, you can buy a reliable generator for as little as a few hunderd dollars or spend up to $8,000 for a deluxe model. With such a wide price range, it's important to choose a generator tailored to your situation.

Selecting a Size
Before buying, you'll need to determine how much power you'll require from a generator, which is rated in watts.

  • Decide which appliances you can't live without. Refrigerators, microwaves, furnace fans, lights, televisions, and radios head many people's necessity lists.
  • Calculate how much electricity those items need by checking each product's faceplate or owner's manual.
  • Find the total wattage of all your necessary appliances. The generator you buy needs to deliver at least that much wattage--and preferably a bit more.

Warning: Appliances with motors (such as freezers, refrigerators, and furnace fans) require additional wattage to start. A 700-watt refrigerator, for instance, could require an additional 2,200 watts when firing up. If you plan to start a group of motors simultaneously, you'll need a generator with the capacity to supply the necessary starting current for the total wattage. Without sufficient starting power, motors can overheat, burn out, or trip the generator's circuit breaker.

Earplugs, anyone? With generators, noise is an issue. Some purr, while others roar. If peace and quiet is a priority, consider the generator's noise level, listed in decibels.

  • The low end of the noise range measures 50-60 decibels.
  • If a generator rattles at 80 decibels, you might have to raise your voice to be heard. That may be fine at a job site, but frustrating in a tent.

Encased motors and antivibration devices can bring the decibels down, but of course they cost a little more.

How portable is it? Some generators come with wheels and move easily, others have handles and must be lugged around. So check the weight of the model you are considering, and remember that a generator without wheels can be awkward, if not impossible, to carry very far.

Fuel Tank vs. Run Time
Before buying, find out how long the generator can run on a full tank of gas. As a rule, the more powerful the generator, the worse the gas mileage. Between models, the run time can range from 2 to 10 hours. Fuel tank size varies, too, so check the tank capacity. This will give you an idea of how often you'll have to stomp out in the night, uncap the gas can, and refill the tank. Of course, you face a tradeoff: a bigger fuel tank guarantees a bulkier, heavier generator.

Start Your Engines
When choosing a generator, consider the starting device--recoil or electric?

  • The recoil method, featured on most inexpensive models, starts with a pull or two, much like a lawn mower.
  • If you want the ease of flipping a switch, then a more expensive model, with an electric starter, is the way to go.

Beyond Y2K
Generators were hot Y2K sellers but their usefulness didn't vanish with the (calm, as it turns out) dawning of the new millennium. With the right generator, you can make your power portable. Film crews, hunters, and campers have long relied on generators to power their sites and equipment. In addition, windstorms, ice storms, earthquakes, blizzards, and hurricanes--things far less predictable than Y2K was all threaten to leave us in the dark without warning. But with a generator waiting in the wings, if the lights go out, you'll be prepared.

In the wrong hands, a generator is a dangerous thing. Even the smallest generator produces electricity at levels high enough to cause property damage, injury, and death. Always make certain your manufacturer provides clear safety and user guidelines.

Jon Groebner has worked as a carpenter in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. He is now a writer and editor for

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