standby generator illustration
Illustration: Harry Campbell
Standby Generator Setups

Surviving a disaster in the form of a hurricane, ice storm, or earthquake is mostly a matter of luck. Surviving the aftermath—when the power lines are down and the roads are impassable—is a longer struggle to keep your food from spoiling, your basement from flooding, or your pipes from freezing as you wait for service to be restored.

With a standby generator parked in the yard, you'll never have those worries. Unlike the portable, gasoline-powered models trotted out by emergency crews, these mini power plants are always "standing by," ready to turn on automatically in the event of an outage, even if you're not home to flip the switch. Standbys are more expensive than their portable cousins—about $3,000 versus $900—but they're also more powerful, longer-lived, quieter, and safer. That's why more and more people, left in the dark by natural disasters or, increasingly, by the frequent hiccups of an aging electrical grid, are making the investment; sales of standby generators went up fivefold between 2000 and 2005.

The basic standby setup is simple. The brawn—the engine and the alternator that generate the electricity—lives outside, in a weather-shielded, sound-deadening box anchored to a concrete pad. The brains, otherwise known as the automatic transfer switch, reside inside and connect the generator to the house's main breaker panel. This switch senses when the power goes down, alerts the generator to turn on, and shunts its electricity through the load center, the subpanel for all the house circuits that need emergency juice. When the power returns, the switch signals the generator to stop and restores the house's connection to the grid. You don't have to do a thing, except perhaps keep an eye on the fuel tank if the engine runs on propane or diesel. For generators that burn natural gas, you don't even need to do that.
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