Power Switch

About 20 years ago, electrical-sales engineer Paul Schnackenberg, founder of Gen-Tran Corporation, invented an electrical device called a transfer switch. It allows homeowners to use a portable generator to safely run several electrical circuits, including a furnace or well pump. The transfer switch is installed beside the main electrical panel, then it's connected to the appliances and circuits you think you'll want running during a blackout.

When the power goes out, you simply crank up the generator and run an extension cord from it to the transfer switch. Better yet, you can eliminate the cord by installing a power inlet box ($52) on the exterior of the house and plugging the generator into it.

Once the generator is running, you can pick and choose which appliances and circuits you want to use simply by flipping the switches on the transfer switch. It's important to keep track of what's being powered because the transfer switch typically is wired into more circuits than the generator can handle all at once. Plus, overloading the circuits can shorten the life of an appliance and burn out its motor. Carefully read the owner's manual that comes with the generator. Some manufacturers recommend operating the unit at no more than 80 percent of full capacity.

It's also important to match the transfer switch to the generator. For example, Gen-Tran makes several transfer switches and each has a maximum-wattage capacity. Its most popular unit is the six-circuit switch (Model 20216, about $260), designed for use with a 5,000W generator. For a home that requires greater capacity, Gen-Tran makes a 10-circuit switch (Model 302110, about $390) that runs off a 7,500W generator.

A transfer switch is relatively easy to install, but for safety's sake, we strongly recommend that you call in a licensed electrician. A typical installation will only take about an hour. Our job was a bit more complicated because it included the installation of a power inlet box. It took the electrician almost three hours and cost about $400. Still, it's an investment that will be fully appreciated the next time the power goes out.

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