Choosing the Right Generator to Prepare for Chicago Weather

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Lightning strikes Chicago, Illinois.
Lightning strikes Chicago, Illinois.

It may be no surprise to anyone living in Chicago who has encountered rain, hail, winds and multiple power outages due to recent thunderstorms, but the Chicago area has seen the wettest year on record for the first six months of 2013.

Maybe all that storm activity has you wondering what you can do to minimize the impact of future events? Well, arming yourself with a generator is one way to prepare for a storm and stay one step ahead of Mother Nature.

And while picking the right generator for your home may seem tricky, a little information may help with your choice.

The first thing to decide is what type of generator you’d like: a portable or stationary unit.

Portable generators

Portable generators are the most versatile generators available. They are fueled by gasoline and, because they can be moved from location to location, they are designed to deliver power wherever you need them: for emergency power at home during a storm or other power outage, for power in remote locations, or even for recreational purposes like camping or tailgating.

Portable generators include 120-volt power outlets (just like the ones inside your home). When the generator is running, you can plug in an appliance or tool to keep it running.

To determine what size portable generator you may need, consider what items you may want to run during a power outage. A small portable unit will cost less initially, but may be limited in the number of things it can power; you don’t want to be left in the dark because you underestimated your needs.

To power just a few items, like your fridge, sump pump, a TV and some household lights, a small unit with a production capacity in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 watts should suffice. To add a few more lights, your computer and a second TV, consider a medium-sized unit, with up to an 8,500-watt capacity. If you’d like to keep your central air running in addition to the appliances already listed, you’ll need to step up to a 10,000 watt unit.

Most appliances and other electrical equipment have labels indicating their power requirements, and generator manufacturers typically have a tool on their website that can help you decide how large a unit you’ll need.

When it comes to the energy needed and the length of time you can run your unit, these all depend on the items you are running and the size of the generator you plan to own.

Breaks in between usage can help extend the life of your generator. Manufacturers suggest that most generators should not be used for longer than eight hours continuously.

Note that, when using a gasoline generator, you should power down during refueling. Also, you should change the oil every 25 to 50 hours of operation, depending on your manufacturer’s requirements. Be sure to check the individual manual for specific times and operating safety issues.

Having extra gas on hand is a good idea, in case you need to run the generator for several days after an aggressive storm. Just check local ordinances, which may have requirements on how much fuel you can store, or where it’s safe to store it.

Stationary generators

Stationary generators, also called standby generators, run on liquid propane or natural gas and are permanently installed outside your home or business. They’re wired directly into your electrical system to power necessary circuits during outages and, once installed, they’re ready to go in times of need.

Some models will start automatically when the power goes out, and stop when it returns. Others will have to be manually started during a power outage. Standby generators have a somewhat complex installation (they require a permit in Chicago city limits, and in most area suburbs), they typically require annual maintenance, and they are most commonly used for businesses or larger homes that have the room to house a large, stationary unit outdoors. (Note: ComEd has provisions on how it prefers standby generators to be connected, and requires customers to schedule a check of the meter once work is complete.)

Additional features

Beyond knowing what type of unit you need, there are many different features and accessories to consider when shopping for the perfect generator.

Alternative-Fuel Capability: Portable generators typically run on gasoline, but some are equipped with the ability to run on natural gas or propane, using a conversion kit (sold separately). Stationary generators typically run only on propane or natural gas.

Inverter Technology: Inverter generators take the AC power produced by the generator and convert it to DC power, and then use an inverter to change it back to AC power. This process smooths out the resulting electricity, eliminating surges and lulls that sometimes occur with a traditional generator and making inverter generators suitable for powering sensitive electronics like computers. Inverter generators can also run at lower revolutions per minute (and, therefore, more quietly) than a standard generator.

Noise Reduction: Generators are simple machines designed to do one thing very well: make electricity. The resulting noise is often seen as a necessary evil. However, some generators offer extra features to reduce the noise created during operation. Look for large mufflers if noise is a concern in your home and neighborhood (the Village of Northbrook, for instance, restricts generator noise levels to a maximum of 68 decibels). Or consider an inverter-type generator (see above).

Transfer Switch: If you want to use your stationary generator to power part or all of your home, you’ll need the right sized generator and a transfer switch. This switch closes off the utility power line to your house’s electrical system and opens a direct line to the generator and reverses the process when utility power is restored. Standby models can work with either a manual or an automatic transfer switch. The benefit of an automatic transfer switch is that it senses when utility power has been lost and automatically switches to generator power.

Wheels: Portable generators are intended to be moved to wherever they’re needed. However, the weight of a generator can sometimes make that easier said than done. While the smallest portable generators might weigh just 30 pounds, larger, “portable” models can weigh as much as several hundred pounds. For these models, a wheeled frame is essential for moving it out of the garage or shed to power up after the storm.

Of course, an important part of buying a new generator is knowing how to operate it safely. That way, you can truly feel like you’re ready to weather the next storm fully prepared.

This post comes from the editors of the Abt blog. For a full selection of generators, as well as additional storm gear, visit the Abt Electronics Storm Gear page and be prepared for even the most extreme weather situations. 

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