There are some downsides to having a generator for when the power goes out. Let me tell you why I don't have one.
I don't need one. There are only a few things that make power really critical, and many of them can be addressed in other ways. For me (and my house), the biggest elements are these:
Heat. I have a wood stove. It is enough to keep the pipes from freezing, and enough to keep at least the living room fairly comfortable. The wood stove is much more efficient with electrical power for a fan, but it will keep the house from freezing.
Here in New England, if you have no source of heat without power, you are in trouble fairly quickly (roughly a day; it varies a fair amount with the insulation capacity of the house).
Food. We won't lose any of the food in our refrigerator or freezers for a couple of days at least. There's some risk, but it's limited to the value of the food we're keeping. Furthermore, the higher that value is, the longer the freezer will keep the food safe (because a full freezer has a lot more thermal mass than an empty one, and will take a lot longer to melt).
We've also got a gas stove, which we can light with a match in the absence of electricity, and a gas grill. Add some canned food on the shelf and we're good for a while.
Generators, like any engine, need maintenance. To depend on them in an emergency, you need to check on them multiple times per year. Every time there's a significant power outage, I hear about some friend or other whose generator either doesn't start or needs babying to keep it running. If it doesn't work when you need it, you might as well not have it.
To take proper long-term care of a generator, you ought to be at least doing the following, regardless of how much the engine has been running:
Start it a couple of times a year. Make sure it's running smoothly, and put it under a load.
Empty the gas before storing the engine. Gasoline has a limited shelf life. Similarly (although not as critically), you'll want to change the oil regularly.
Knowledgeable maintenance on a regular basis. Unless you're good with small engines, you should take it to a professional. How often? Well, the owner's manual will probably tell you, but it's going to be somewhere on the order of every couple of years or every few dozen hours of operation (whichever comes first, naturally).
Personally, I'm not sure I would do the maintenance reliably enough. If I had another use for the generator that would get it some use every year, that would be a different thing. But I'm not gonna' take up ice fishing.
There are a couple of other factors in generator use that need more attention than they often get.
Wiring. There are two basic approaches to getting the power from your generator to your appliances.
Power transfer switch. This hooks the generator up to your house wiring, disconnecting the house from the grid in the process. This is the high-end approach; it costs a lot of money, requires a good electrician to install and depends on enough generator capacity to drive all the electrical loads that are turned on (or might turn themselves on) in the house.
Extension cords. The big disadvantage is having to bring the cords in from outside; you need to have a way to run them indoors without having to leave doors ajar. You also have to be able to plug your key appliances into the cords. Can you pull your refrigerator away from the wall by yourself?
Siting the generator. Ventilation is key. Carbon monoxide can be a bigger danger than doing without power — it kills people. You need
an outdoor location,
where the exhaust won't end up in the house,
sufficiently protected from the elements to operate safely.
Look, all I'm trying to do is point out a bunch of areas that you need to consider before getting a generator for home. For me, they are enough to keep me from getting a generator in the first place, but if they aren't as decisive for you, make sure that you understand them thoroughly and deal with them before you get into potential trouble.
last modified: 1:06pm, Sunday, 21 Dec 2008 by Lowell Gilbert