In February of 2016, a tornado touched down in Appomattox, Virginia, destroying homes and businesses. Two years later, another tornado caused serious damage in tiny Elon, west of Brookneal. And who can forget the devastating effects of “Snowmageddon” or the mighty summer derecho that knocked out power for two to three weeks in many areas of Virginia in 2012?

No matter where you live in Virginia, you face the possibility of losing power because of a powerful winter or summer storm. These days, when so many aspects of our lives depend upon a constant supply of electricity — cooling and heating for homes, refrigeration for food, energy for well pumps and, perhaps most importantly for some people, charging for computers and smartphones — ensuring that electrical supply continues regardless of the weather is a priority.

The answer is a backup generator. You can buy standby or portable generators depending upon the power needs for your home. Backup power generators can provide you with peace of mind knowing the important outlets and appliances in your home will continue to work even in the worst weather.

If you have been wondering, “is a backup generator worth it for my home,” wonder no more. It makes a smart investment, especially if you follow the tips in our generator buying guide. Read on to learn everything you need to know before buying a backup generator.

What Are Backup Generators?

Backup generators provide you with full-time power protection. Standby generators can run for longer periods on a permanent liquid propane or natural gas fuel supply. Portable generators employ propane or gas tanks. Depending upon the size and type of generator you purchase, you can power everything in your home or selectively power the most important things.

How do Backup Generators Work

How Do Backup Generators Work?

Standby generators permanently connect to your home’s or business’s electrical system. They constantly monitor electrical usage. When you have a power outage, the generator automatically detects the problem and starts to provide backup power.

Standby generators use an automatic transfer switch (ATS) that connects your generator to your electrical system. Most good standby generators come already equipped with the transfer switch, but with lower-priced models, you may need to purchase one. In the ATS system, a standby generator provides power to every circuit in your home or only essential circuits you have chosen in advance.

When the power goes off, the generator’s controller waits several seconds and then signals the generator to begin producing electricity. At this time, the ATS transfers to the electricity generated by the generator. It closes the utility line that regularly brings power into your home and allows the generator to feed into your electrical system.

The ATS prevents any “back feed.” Back feed occurs when you don’t turn off the power coming from the utility line and start your generator at the same time. Electricity then back feeds into the system. This can cause a dangerous problem for linemen working on restoring electricity or even for your neighbors.

Meanwhile, the generator’s controller monitors the situation. It continues to provide electricity from the generator until it senses the utility line has been restored to its normal voltage level. When it senses this, it automatically turns off the power from the generator and transfers your home’s electrical load back to the utility line.

An important tip — if you buy a standby generator, purchase one from a local supplier. You can find standby generators for sale on the internet, but what happens if there’s a problem or something breaks down? It is always better to work with a local shop that can help you solve a problem. One last note, remember to notify your local utility if you purchase and install a standby generator.

What Are The Benefits of Owning a Propane-Powered Backup Generator?

Propane is a great fuel to use with a backup or standby generator for many reasons:

  • You do not have to “refresh” your propane supply every three months as you do with gasoline.
  • You can easily store propane either in large tanks or 5- to 10-gallon smaller cylinders.
  • If you choose a larger tank, you may be able to select a home delivery service to fill it when needed.
  • Propane can be obtained easily at many gas stations or grocery stores. During power outages, gas stations only pump gas if they have standby generators.
  • Emissions from a propane-fueled standby generator will be in line with local regulations.
  • If budget is a concern, you can purchase less-expensive standby units that are air-cooled rather than liquid-cooled.
  • Propane is a relatively inexpensive fuel source.

What Types of Generators Can I Choose From?

You have three options when trying to decide on a generator for your home:

  • Standby generators, which are installed permanently. They operate on gas or propane. Standby generators turn on automatically anytime the power stops. They are usually the most expensive kind of generator but also provide the most benefits and coverage.
  • Portable generators can be used anywhere. They usually run on gasoline. They are less expensive but can still provide adequate coverage for your most important appliances and electrical needs. You must keep these generators at least 15 feet away from your home or business, or you run a serious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Inverter generators have more complex engines than comparable portable generators. They also run on gasoline but are quieter because they have a better exhaust system than portable models. They are more expensive than portables but may be preferable if you live in an area where loud noises can be a concern.

Portable Backup Generators

Portable Backup Generators

Portable generators cost less than standby generators. Their advantage is their portability. You can use them at your home or take them to your cottage or anywhere else you need backup power.

You will find drawbacks to portable generators that run on gasoline. To prepare for potentially long periods without your utility lines working, you need to store a lot of gasoline. Yet you can’t let it sit for too long. Your generator won’t work if your gas is too old.

One way to deal with this is by using gas stabilizers. Even using stabilizers, you’re still going to need to refresh your gasoline on a regular basis. If you go a long period without needing your portable backup generator, you may spend a lot of money on gasoline you cannot use. Getting a propane-powered portable generator is a smarter solution.

Other things to know about portable generators:

  • Portable generators must be at least 15 feet away from your home. They must not operate in an enclosed space. Carbon monoxide poisoning created by gasoline-powered portable generators has killed more than 500 people since 2005. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 50 people were exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning created by portable generators, resulting in five deaths. If you plan to run a portable generator, you should install carbon monoxide detection devices in your home.
  • In years past, the only way to start a portable generator was the same way you started a lawnmower, with a pull cord. But now, you can purchase models with electric starters.
  • Portable generators can produce anywhere from 3,000 to 8,500 watts of power. In most cases, this will provide you with enough coverage to keep your most important appliances running, such as your refrigerator, but it will not power not your entire home.
  • Portable generators require the use of heavy-duty extension cords.
  • If you want to connect a portable generator directly to your house, do not do this on your own. While the internet may be full of videos that show you how to “save a few bucks” by doing it yourself, if you don’t work with a qualified professional electrician, you face serious problems with back feed. An electrician can install a manual transfer switch that will connect with selected circuits to power your home’s essential applications and appliances.

Standby Backup Generators

Permanently installed standby generators cost a lot more than portable generators but also provide many benefits. On average, permanent standby generators produce anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 watts depending upon the model you choose for your home’s electrical needs.

Unlike portable generators, permanent standby generators can spring into action very quickly. You don’t need to stumble around in the dark, rain or bad weather to pull the starter cord on your standby generator, as you do with a portable. And when the power comes back on, the transition between your generator and the regular utility line is much smoother. You also will not need to fumble with extension cords when you use a standby, since the power will flow directly to your electrical lines.

Kind of Backup Generators

What Kind of Backup Generator Should I Buy? Calculating the Watts

You measure the power output of a generator in watts. How much power you want in your generator depends on how many items in your home you want to run at the same time during a power outage.

Make a list of all the things you want to keep running during a power outage. Then add up all the watts it takes for each appliance, and that will give you an idea of how much power you need. Once you have the total wattage, multiply it by 1.5. You add the .5 because many appliances require a little extra power when you turn them on as opposed to when they run continuously.

It’s quite easy to find the wattage of most of your important appliances — look inside the door of the refrigerator or on the bottom of a lamp, for instance. Here’s a shorthand guide to give you some idea of what you’ll need:

  • Lights: 60 to 600 W depending upon how many you want to use.
  • Refrigerator: A must-have at 600 W.
  • Portable heater: Handy during a snowstorm at 1500 W.
  • Sump pump: You do not want your basement to flood, so figure 750 to 1,500 W.
  • Computers: Another critical must-have if you work at home, ranging from 200 to 600 W depending on if you have a laptop or desktop.

Consumer Reports has put out an excellent list that shows the wattage of many appliances in your home if you need further guidance.

Backup Generator Maintenance and Storage

Here are some tips on how to provide maintenance to keep your generator in tip-top shape so that it will last many years.

  1. Buy a Generator Warranty

One of the best ways to protect yourself against any problems with a generator is to purchase a warranty. Sometimes even the very best generators have issues. Make sure you know what kind of coverage you buy, either full or partial. The money you spend on a warranty now can save you a lot of money in the future.

  1. Build a Generator Enclosure or Invest in a Good Cover

Electricity and water do not mix well. Even a little rain can damage a generator, and you’ll end up spending a lot of money to fix it. If you have a standby generator outside the home, you’ll want to build a small enclosure around it. If you have a portable generator, which you can move in or out of a garage or some other covered location, you probably just need a cover.

  1. Turn on Your Generator Every Three Months

This is especially the case with portable generators. You should turn on the engine for about 30 minutes every three months. This recharges the battery for the electric starter and prevents motor burn-out.

  1. Make Sure Your Generator’s Tank Is Full

Regardless of the type of fuel source you use to power your generator, make sure your tank is full before the storm arrives. Don’t wait until the storm comes to start worrying about whether you have enough propane or gas.

However, don’t leave gas in the portable generator for long periods. If you must keep the gas for longer than a couple of months, use stabilizers to prevent corrosion.

  1. Change Your Generator Oil Regularly and Stock up on Filters

Again, a common-sense measure. It’s like caring for your car. If you want to keep it in top running condition, you make sure you regularly change the oil and the filters.

  1. Purchase a Generator Maintenance Contract

This is especially true if you’re using a permanent standby power generator. Think of your standby generator like a furnace. Furnaces work the best when they receive regular maintenance from a professional. Generators perform the same way.

  1. Lock Down the Generator

Generators are attractive items during times of power outages. Less-scrupulous people may be inclined to “borrow” yours permanently. It makes sense to secure your generator so no one can steal it.

Finding the Best Home Backup Generator: Cost Information

To close out our standby generator guide, a word on price. Standby generators will be much more expensive than portable.

The typical cost for a permanent standby generator can run between $3,000 and $6,000. Add in another thousand dollars for installation because all permanent standby generators should be installed by a professional electrician.

Portable generators run anywhere from $400-$2,800. Add another $1,000-$2,000 depending on whether you opt for extension cords or working with an electrician to wire the portable generator to your home.

Let Foster Fuels Help You Make the Right Choice When You Buy a Backup Generator

We hope this buyer’s guide for backup generators will assist you as you choose a generator for your home. We can help with whatever you need in this process. Foster Fuels, a family-run business, has operated in Campbell County, Virginia, since 1921. Originally focused on central and southside Virginia, we now serve customers in all regions of the United States. In our more than 100 years of operation, our customers have come to rely on us for quality service and guaranteed satisfaction.

If you’re looking to buy a backup power generator, Foster Fuels can help you find the right one for your home or business. Call us at 1-800-344-6457 or visit our contact page, and a member of our team will get back to you as soon as possible.