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Generators: A Lifeline and a Danger During Power Outages

  • Posted: 08.25.2020
portable generator
Image: Safe Electricity

Having a generator helped many Iowa homeowners weather the recent storm that took out power across the state. Access to a generator prevented food spoilage in refrigerators and allowed families to charge phones and keep a light on.

On the other hand, if not installed or used correctly, generators are a danger to your family and to the line workers who come in contact with power lines as they work to restore power.

If you are thinking of purchasing a generator to have on hand for the next big storm, here’s a primer to help you figure out what to buy and how to stay safe.

What size to buy?
According to Consumer Reports, here's what you can power with the model you select.

  • Small portable model (3,000 to 4,000 watts). This one will cover the basics, such as your refrigerator (600 watts), microwave (1,500 watts), sump pump (600 watts), several lights (400 watts) and TV (200 watts)
  • Medium portable or small stationary model (5,000 to 8,500 watts). In addition to the appliances listed above, this size can handle a portable heater (1,300 watts), computer (250 watts), heating system (500 watts), second sump pump (600 watts) and more lights (400 watts).
  • Large portable model (10,000 watts). All of the above plus a choice of a small water heater (3,000 watts), central air conditioner (5,000 watts) and electric range (5,000 watts).
  • Large stationary model (10,000 to 15,000 watts). This handles all of the items that a large portable generator operates plus a clothes washer (1,200 watts) and an electric dryer (5,000 watts).

Types to consider
Safe Electricity and Consumer Reports describe the types of generators available:

  • Standby generators are wired directly into the home and must have an approved safety transfer switch to avoid feeding electricity back into the electrical system outdoors, creating what’s known as “backfeed.” Backfeed is dangerous for line workers as well as anyone who may be near downed power lines. Like with many instances of severe weather, during the recent Iowa outages after our derecho storm, there were reports of potential backfeeds related to generators. Our goal is to eliminate as much of the risk our linemen face as possible. That’s why it’s important for cooperative members to ensure their generator safety switches are working properly.
  • Portable generators are not permanently attached to the home and can only power appliances plugged into the generator. For safety, these generators should be run outside the home (at least 20 feet away) to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Consumer Reports cautions that even a portable generator needs a transfer switch or an interlock device on your service panel’s main cutoff switch, both of which must be installed by an electrician. These prevent the generator from accidentally coming on when power is returned to your home.
  • Inverter generators cost more than portable generators, but they are quieter, run more efficiently and have fewer emissions than other types.
  • Portable power stations are powered by a battery. They are charged by either plugging into an electrical outlet or with an included solar panel. They can be used indoors and are quiet. While these units cost more than other portable generators and won’t power as many appliances, they may be the only option if you live in an apartment.

Best for your sensitive electronics
Most conventional portable generators cannot maintain a perfectly steady output of 120 volts and a frequency of 60 Hertz, so they don’t provide considered “clean electricity.” The power produced by conventional portable generators are OK for appliances and lighting, but not sensitive electronics.

Because of the microprocessors in televisions, mobile phones, DSLR cameras and computers, these products are very sensitive to the quality of the electricity supplied. Consider an inverter generator or a portable power station for powering these devices. Inverters and power stations produce electricity by converting direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC). This power is much “cleaner” than the power produced by conventional portable generators; it’s almost the same high quality as the energy supplied by your electric cooperative.

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