Practical Considerations

The hard part comes earlier, in trying to figure out how big the generator should be and where to put it. People who want the whole house to run as if nothing were awry will pay dearly for the convenience: A 35-kilowatt unit will set you back $10,000 and incur high fuel and maintenance costs. But if you limit yourself to necessities—the sump pump, air conditioner, heating system, fridge, and a few lights—you can get away with something much smaller. A 7-kilowatt generator, for example, can be had for around $1,700. An installer can size the unit, or you can use the calculator at thisoldhouse.com/shortcuts.

Before writing the check, however, make sure you get the nod from your town's building inspector on where to park the unit. Like all internal combustion engines, generators spew carbon monoxide, so they must be sited well away from doors and windows. Noise is another factor: A generator can pump out 60 to 80 decibels, about the level of loud road noise. You (and your neighbors) probably won't begrudge the racket when there's a power outage, but those once-a-week, 20-minute exercise sessions, which the engine and battery need to stay in shape for the big event, can become a serious annoyance at three in the morning or during an evening barbeque. Have the installer set the exercise time to a neighborhood-friendly hour. Planting evergreens or a fence around the unit also helps screen the noise.

Like any insurance policy, a generator is something you buy hoping it won't be needed. Indeed, if there's one thing that mitigates the cost, it's this: Generators last 15 years or more. "Running a standby generator 100 hours a year—and that's a lot—is roughly equivalent to about 5,000 miles of driving," says Mike Carr, a spokesman for manufacturer Generac. "So it's not likely you'll be wearing out the engine."
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