backup generator output illustration
Illustration: Ian Worpole
"The first step in choosing a generator is to determine how much electricity your household needs in an emergency."
Jasper H. and Phyllis Wyman have lost power dozens of times during the 31 years they've lived in their restored farmhouse in Pittsfield, Maine. But after the ice storm of 1998, which left the Wymans without electricity for more than four days, they decided they'd had enough of living by the light of kerosene lanterns, huddled around a wood stove, with no running water because the well pump was dead. (They saved the food from their refrigerator by burying it in a snowbank.) So Jasper plunked down $7,000 for a standby generator. Sitting in the garage, its exhaust vented via a pipe through the wall, this diesel-fueled mini power plant produces enough electricity to run their lights, refrigerator, well pump, furnace, and water heater—pretty much everything the Wymans need to weather a power outage. "If we get another storm like that, it's more than adequate to do everything we need it to do," Jasper says.

The Wymans join a growing number of homeowners who are installing generators to guard against long or repeated power outages. Sales of residential units, which briefly spiked during the Y2K scare of the late 1990s, have been steadily increasing, helped in part by rolling blackouts in California, transistor-eating brownouts during summer heat waves, and the ever-present threat of a violent storm that might rip down power lines.

The unpredictability of outages gives stationary, permanently installed standby generators a clear advantage over their portable, gas-powered kin, which resemble big lawn-mower engines on dollies. A portable has to be rolled outside, started manually, and plugged in to the house electrical system, a process that takes several minutes at least—if someone is at home to do it. And if an outage lasts more than a few hours, a portable's gas tank is likely to run dry. A permanently installed standby generator, by contrast, is always ready to go and can run nonstop for days, fueled by a natural gas line, or tanks of propane or diesel.

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