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How to Choose a Generator

A summer power outage is no picnic, especially in Florida. As many residents of Volusia and Flagler counties learned in 2004, the heat and humidity from a prolonged, hurricane-induced blackout can be unbearable.

Another lessoned learned by those around during that summer and fall when four hurricanes hit Florida—three of them strongly affecting this area — is that generators are in short supply immediately following a hurricane. So now’s the time to evaluate your options for emergency power if you’re not already prepared on that front. These tips are adapted and published with permission from Jim Braugher, generators expert at

Small generators are great for camping and tailgating.However, they’re not designed for posthurricane trauma. Yes, they might keep a small refrigerator and table fan running. But, they lack the power to run much else. These gasoline-powered devices are available in wattages from 1,000 to 3,000 and must be refueled three to five times a day to keep a few appliances running, connected with extension cords.
Prices start at around $399.

Gasoline-powered portable emergency generators provide enough juice to power major appliances, multiple rooms in your home or even your central air, depending on the size you choose. If you want to power a central air conditioner, however, you’ll need an extra-large one.A 15,000- watt portable generator will power a 4-ton air conditioner; a 17,500-watt unit is required to start a 5-ton air conditioner. Since your central air conditioner is hardwired, you can’t plug it into your generator. Your electrician will need to install a manual transfer switch to connect your generator with your electrical panel. If that size and installation is beyond your budget, you can always purchase a smaller portable generator and simply plug a window air conditioner into it instead.

Here are some details about the features and prices of portable emergency generators of different sizes:

MEDIUM — Don’t let the name fool you. Medium emergency generators (3,000-5,000 watts) may be relatively small, but they pack a
good punch. Unlike smaller camping generators, mediums ized emergency portable generators can simultaneously power multiple survival appliances, including your refrigerator, sump pump and furnace fan. Most homeowners simply run the generator outside and string extension cords through an open door or window to the inside appliances. You have to pull a cord to start them. Tanks typically hold 3.5 gallons of gasoline. Prices range from $419 to $999.

LARGE — If you want to thrive instead of just survive, consider a large emergency portable generator (6,000-9,000 watts) instead. Yes, you can string extension cords from the generator, but you won’t be able to tap its full potential. Instead, large generators work best with professionally installed manual transfer switches that can restore power to up to 10 circuits in your main electrical panel. In other words, they can energize multiple rooms in your home (minus a central air conditioner). Though some feature recoil starting, electric start models are available. Gas tanks hold about eight gallons. Prices range from $779 to $1,299.

EXTRA LARGE—If you want the strength of a home standby generator without as high of a price tag, get an extra-large portable emergency generator (10,000-plus watts). These portable generator behemoths generate enough juice to keep your central air conditioner humming during a summer sweltering black out. While electric start is standard on most extra large models, they are not automatic. If you’re not home, the electric start button won’t press itself.Gas tanks hold about 16 gallons. Prices range from $1,999 to $2,699.

Standby generators are the ultimate hurricane solution for a couple reasons. First, they’re automatic. While you’re evacuating, your generator will keep your security system and mission-critical appliances constantly working. Secondly, they’re powerful. Larger standby generators have the strength to power central air conditioners, so you can return to a cool home. A 14-kilowatt standby generator will power a 4-ton central air conditioner; a 17-kilowatt model will run a 5-ton central air conditioner.

Standby generators generally are categorized as essential circuit, smart circuit and whole house, with progressively higher prices and better features.All must be professionally installed. They run on natural gas or LP gas, so there’s no gasoline to mess with.

ESSENTIAL CIRCUIT—Essential circuit generators are a cost-effective way to automatically back up the mission-critical appliances in your home. They’re light years better than portable generators. However, they can only energize 8-16 circuits in your electrical panel. Engines are air-cooled and generate 8 to 17 kilowatts, so smaller ones will not quite handle the central air but larger ones will. Prices range from $2,199 to $3,999.

SMART CIRCUIT — If 16 circuits just aren’t enough, you can install a smart circuit generator instead. These new generators can power your entire home if you limit your electricity consumption. If you have two central air conditioners, a smart circuit system’s unique transfer system will
automatically alternate between them,keeping one running at a time. Price range from $4,000 to $5,000.

WHOLE HOUSE—If you have the financial resources to power your whole house, go for it. These liquid-cooled giants can light up your entire home and make your neighbors extremely envious. They’ll even run two central air conditioners simultaneously. Prices start at $7,500.

Types of Generators


  Recreational Portable Standby
Wattage 1,000 - 3,000 Watts 4,000 - 17,500 Watts 8,000 - 48 kilowatts
Fuel Gasoline Gasoline Natural gas or LP
Refuel 3-5 times/day 3 times/day Never
Powers Few Appliances Multiple appliances/ few rooms Most or all of House
Central AC No Unlikely Possibly
Connection Extension Cord Extension Cord
or Manual Switch
Automatic Switch
Price About $400 $419 - $2,699 $2,199 - $7,500
and up