Choosing a Generator: The Ultimate Guide

In 2018, Americans experienced electricity disruptions totaling an average of 348 minutes. This was down from a high of 470 minutes in 2017 but still higher than the previous ongoing average of 120 minutes a year.

Across years and regions, the frequency and duration of power outages vary. However, the threat of disruption remains. Due to hurricanes and tropical storms, tornadoes, excessive heat, winter storms, usage patterns, or simply fallen trees and chewed power lines, power outages happen every day.

When they inevitably happen to you, you can be prepared. Choosing a generator that is right for your needs is the best step you can take to ensure that disruptions to the power grid don’t disrupt your life.

Read on to learn more about how to choose a generator for your specific needs.

What Type of Generator Do You Need?

As you investigate generator options, you’ll find four main types available. These include home standby generators, large inverters or portables, midsized inverters, and recreational inverters.

Key differences across these types — and factors to consider when purchasing them — include size and portability, output and efficiency, noise level, and cost.

The largest and most expensive generators with the greatest output are standby, or stationary. These generators are installed permanently on your property and can take over seamlessly when the power goes out.

Recreational generators are the smallest and most portable. They are also the quietest. However, they are not designed for heavy or long-term use.

As the name suggests, many families purchase “recreational” generators for their recreational needs. So if you’re wondering how to choose a generator for camping, recreational generators may be the way to go.

When choosing a home backup generator, however, your needs are likely to exceed a recreational generator’s output. Therefore, many people opt for a midsize or large inverter or portable. While portable, these units can temporarily power essential appliances in most homes.

How to Choose a Home Backup Generator

Once you’re familiar with the main types of generators, the most important and basic factor to consider in choosing a generator for your home is size. As you choose a size, you should ask yourself several questions:

  • How often do I experience power outages?
  • What size generator can my property accommodate, and what size can I physically manage?
  • What do I want or need to power?

Frequency of Power Outages

If you live in a region where power outages, especially lengthy power outages, are common, a standby, or stationary, generator may best serve your needs. However, these units are large and installed in a permanent location, so they are not suited to every property owner.

Personal, Property, and Community Considerations: What Kind of Generator Can You Accommodate

Depending on your type of residence, your generator options may be more limited.

If you live in an apartment, condo, or other multi-family dwelling, you’ll likely be limited to the smallest options. Before making a purchase, you should also investigate any building or community regulations regarding generator use. If you are physically unable to move a mid-sized or large inverter or portable, those options are also unlikely to serve you well.

A final personal preference and community consideration is noise. Aside from large stationary generators, which are relatively quiet, larger portable generators can be quite noisy. As you decide how to choose a generator for your home use, you’ll need to weigh these disruptions in your “peace and quiet” against disruptions in your energy supply.

Power Needs

For most people, avoiding disruptions in the supply of energy to key appliances is the most important consideration. Therefore, choosing a generator comes down to a calculation of your power needs.

1. Make a List of Essential Appliances

Experts recommend beginning your calculations by making a list of your essential appliances. In the event of a power outage, what appliances can you simply not live without? What appliances will you use the generator to power simultaneously during an outage?

2. Make Note of Each Appliance’s Maximum Total Power

With your list in hand, make note of each essential appliance’s maximum total power requirement in watts. You can find this information on the back or bottom of the appliance or on its nameplate or data plate. It is also available in the manual. If all else fails, you can locate this information for most major appliances online.

When noting an appliance’s power requirement, keep in mind that you need to determine its maximum power requirement. The maximum power requirement is the power required to start an appliance, which can be 3 to 4 times higher than the power required to run the appliance. Your generator will need to start your appliances before it can run them. Therefore, your calculations of power requirements must include starting watts.

The data plate or manual lists starting watts for some but not all appliances. If you can’t find this information yourself, contact the manufacturer or retailer, or use a watt meter. A generator specialist can also help you determine starting watts from the size of the appliance’s motor.

3. Calculate Your Total Power Needs

Add up the watt usage for all appliances on your list. Now you’re ready to choose a generator that meets these needs.

4. Convert Generator kVA to Watts

When you explore generator options, you’ll notice that a generator’s output is given in kilo-voltamps (kVA). To express this number in watts, multiple the generator’s kVA by 0.8.

A generator that produces 5kVA would, therefore, provide 4000 watts of power (5kVA x 0.8 = 4kW, or 4000 watts).

Although most generators are capable of producing more power than this for a short time, this number is the generator’s rated output, and you should think of it as its maximum output in your calculations. If your power needs are near or even slightly above 4000 watts, for example, you’ll likely need a larger generator than in the example above.

While every home’s needs are different and generator options vary, this simple equation can help you narrow your options and choose a generator that’s best for you. If you’ve ever wondered, “What size generator do I need for my business,” a similar process can identify the ideal generator for you there as well.

Do the Math: Choosing a Generator

Knowing how to choose a generator for your house involves weighing various factors, including the frequency of disruptions, your preferences, and your needs. Ultimately, choosing a generator is a matter of math. You need a generator that can produce power equal to that required by your essential appliances.

This guide helps you make those calculations. For more valuable information on improving your home and lifestyle, check out our blog.


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