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Power to the People
A transfer-switch system is the safest and most effective way to connect a portable generator to your home. Installed next to the home's main panel, it allows users to choose which circuits to run in an outage.
In fact, a recent survey conducted by portable-generator manufacturer Coleman Powermate says that 75 percent of American homeowners experienced a power outage in 2000. That's more than 100 million households going without power for some period of time. But it isn't just the weather. The rolling blackouts during the California power crisis of 2000 are still fresh in people's minds. Even squirrels, solar storms or a car crashing into a utility pole can make the power go out. "The entire country is vulnerable to power outages," says Jon Hoch of Coleman Powermate, based in Aurora, Ill. "The ultimate question is: Do you want to spend a week without power?" In fact, the aforementioned Powermate survey also showed that three out of four Americans felt they were unprepared to go without power for more than 24 hours. Generator sales peaked in 1999 when millions of Americans were spooked into buying them because of the threat of widespread power outages from Y2K.
After the millennium, sales dropped sharply, but they have since climbed back and are holding steady, according to industry spokespeople. One reason for their recent steady sales performance is that people realize that power outages can result in costly damage due to frozen water pipes, flooded basements or spoiled food, not to mention lost revenue from a powerless home office. Their simplicity is another selling point, as they are essentially composed of an engine, an alternator, a control panel, a fuel tank and a frame to hold the parts together. Portable generators are small enough to keep in your garage, toolshed or basement. They come in many sizes and can provide enough energy to run just a few light bulbs or enough to power an entire household. They typically cost from $350 for the smallest model to more than $2,000 for the largest. A model to keep your house warm, lighted and comfortable for days or weeks can be had for $600 or $700. Most run on gas, although some models are powered by diesel or propane. Power Management When buying a power generator, the first and most important thing to consider is size. How big a generator do you need? Determining which household items you will run during an electrical outage can be thought of as power management.
Portable generators for the home are rated according to the number of watts of electricity they produce, typically ranging from 1,000 to 12,000 watts. The smallest models, those in the 1,000- to 3,000-watt range, are generally designed for portable power needs, such as tailgate parties, picnics or work sites, and generally won't suffice for backup emergency home power. To determine your needs, you must first assess how much power is used by the appliances, lights, computers and other items in your household, and how many of those things you want to run if the power goes out. Wattage ratings are printed on light bulbs and devices like hair dryers, so those are easy enough to figure out. Most appliances have their wattage ratings printed on a small metal label, often on the underside or back of the unit. A number of publications and Internet sites can show you general power consumption ranges of other household appliances. Look around your home and decide which items you would need in the event of a power outage.
If you're in a cold climate, you'll want your furnace. If you have a water well, you'll want your well pump running. You'll probably need a few lights, your refrigerator and possibly a television and computer. If you plan on running your washer, dryer, stove, air conditioner or assorted other items, your power needs will go up - and you'll need a larger generator. The same thing is true if you operate a home-based business with multiple computers, fax machines and the like and don't want your work to grind to a halt. Some general rules of thumb are that a refrigerator requires about 800 watts to run, a sump pump about 700, and a 1/3-horsepower furnace fan about 600.
A computer and television might need about 300 watts each, while a radio, a VCR and a CD player require even less. The exact requirements vary among brands and styles, so consult labels or owner manuals to determine the actual requirements. These items also require additional power, known as surge wattage, to be started. For instance, refrigerators these days are highly efficient and need only 500 to 800 watts of power to run, but they may need another 2,000 watts or more to kick on. The surge wattage for a furnace fan on a gas or oil furnace can range from 800 to 2,400 watts, depending on the size. Lights, televisions, computers and other items, conversely, don't require any additional wattage for startup. Generators typically have two wattage readings: rated wattage and maximum wattage. The rated wattage is the amount of power a generator can produce continuously. The maximum wattage is the power it can produce for short periods of time, such as when appliances are being started.
The wattage listed on a generator is the rated wattage. But they usually have extra power built in for the wattage surges. Many models also list their maximum wattage capabilities. The most common generator size for home use is around 5,000 watts, or five kilowatts.
Experts say this is enough for a furnace, a refrigerator, several lights, a television and a couple other items. If you want to run an entire household - including air conditioners if you are in the hot, humid South and a hurricane has knocked out power - you will probably need a generator in the 10,000- to 12,000-watt range. Charles Hampton of DeVilbiss Air Power Co. in Jackson, Tenn., says it is better to buy a generator that is too big than too small to meet your needs. "Watts are like dollars; you can never have too many," Hampton says. "We always recommend to buy a little bigger than you think you'll need." Buying the Generator Once you have determined what size generator you want, it's time to shop. You can buy portable generators at home-improvement, hardware and power-equipment stores, on Internet sites and by mail order. Prices vary widely. The smallest portable generator can cost under $400, while the largest and most expensive are priced at several thousand dollars. In general, though, you can count on spending at least $600 to $700 for a basic 5,000-watt model. Besides the wattage capabilities, you'll want to consider other features. Does the generator have wheels, so you can easily roll it from its storage spot to where it will be running? Generators generally weigh more than 125 pounds - not an easy load to lift on your own. You can buy wheel kits separately to make the generators more mobile. You'll also want to find out how long the generator will run on a tank of gas.
They may run from a few hours to more than 12 hours, depending on the wattage, the fuel-tank size and how much power they are generating. An electric start will eliminate manual pulling to get the machine started. But an electric ignition also means you have to keep the battery charged, which many people neglect to do. Sage Marie, spokesman for Honda's Power Equipment division, says people should also determine how noisy the machines are. Decibel levels vary among models, and some come with mufflers to make them quieter. "People don't always think of noise when they're buying a generator," he says. "But for hours on end a noisy generator can really wear on you." Hooking It Up Once you have your generator, you need to determine how you will operate it to provide power to the home. Hampton says that there are three ways to run generators: the right way, the easy way and the wrong way. The right way is to have a power transfer switch system, a panel that distributes power from the generator to your home's circuit box. These systems can cost $200 to $300 to buy, and another $100 to $300 to have installed by an electrician. A transfer switch is installed beside a home's main electrical panel and connected to the circuits you want to run during a power outage. When the power goes out, you run a single extension cord from the generator to the transfer switch and choose which appliances and circuits you want to use simply by flipping the switches. Hoch says the switches also give homeowners flexibility.
They can keep essential items such as the furnace and sump pump on all the time, and easily switch the power to other places within the house. For instance, a person could run the bathroom power then reroute the electricity to the kitchen with the flip of a switch. The easy, and most common, way to hook up a generator to your home is to use an extension cord. This approach does not require a transfer switch and is usually done by running the cord from the generator that is outside through a window or door to the chosen appliances. There are several drawbacks to this. After all, extension cords can't be easily plugged into a furnace or ceiling lights, Hoch says. But for people with minimal power needs, or for short power outages, an extension cord could make sense. The wrong way, Hampton says, is a process known as "backfeeding," or feeding power from a generator into wall outlets. Hampton says backfeeding is dangerous - and can even kill - by feeding power into power lines that utility workers might be working on. Backfeeding can also create a fire danger because the generator may be capable of producing more amperage than an individual household circuit can handle. Dangers and Precautions Backfeeding isn't the only danger associated with generators. Ventilation is a major concern, and people should never run their generators in their house, garage or other enclosed areas. "A generator is just like a car," Hoch says. "You can't run it in your garage or in your house.
It emits carbon monoxide." Hampton also suggests keeping the generator a good distance from your house. Generators hold several gallons of gasoline, making them inherently dangerous. Never run your generator at maximum output for more than 30 minutes at a time. Using an inappropriately sized extension cord can also be a major hazard. Overloaded cords can overheat and cause fires. Use only a thick, all-weather extension cord rated for your generator's power output. Of course, never run an extension cord under rugs or carpets where heat could build up or damage to the cord could go unnoticed. For more information and safety tips, visit www.powerprotection.org. Also, Coleman Powermate has set up a toll-free hotline at 800-445-1805 to answer any generator-related questions, regardless of the manufacturer. Having a portable generator doesn't mean simply putting it in the garage and forgetting about it until there's a blackout. The gasoline and oil should be changed regularly, just like a lawnmower. For electric-start models, the battery needs to be regularly charged either by starting the generator or using a charger on the battery. A little work upfront will save hours - or even days or weeks - of agony down the road if you happen to have your power knocked out. "People are realizing they can't depend on the utilities for power all the time for a wide variety of reasons," says George Thompson of Briggs Wed, 01 Jan 2003 00:00:00 Clarke Canfield Now You Can Paint With Plastic http://www.smart-homeowner.com/node/8922