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What I Learned About Portable Generators One Dark and Stormy Night

A sudden and long-lasting power outage makes a portable generator a must. But finding one when you need it isn’t easy. Here’s one home owner’s odyssey.

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Lisa Kaplan Gordon's portable generator

Always run a generator outside — carbon monoxide fumes will kill you indoors. Image: Lisa Kaplan Gordon for HouseLogic

A land hurricane blew through the mid-Atlantic Friday night and left 1 million of us powerless — no lights, no air conditioning, no nothing.

This isn’t the first time — or the 10th time — we’ve been without power in the 15 years we’ve owned a home in McLean, Va. Each time, I swear to buy a generator so we’re not caught with our watts down again, but after the lights return, the urgency passes.

What kills me is that I urged my husband, Greg, to buy a generator last week when we were shopping at Home Depot, but he vetoed my idea. And, since the extended forecast seemed clear, it was a marital hill I chose not to die on.

Not a week later, it’s 105 degrees, there’s a maple tree on the power line down the street, and the electric company won’t even guess when they’ll restore power. So, on Saturday morning at 8, we drove back to our local Home Depot and learned the last generator left the store at 7:45.

Thus began the great generator hunt that finally located a machine on a Lowe’s shelf in Philadelphia, 2.5 hours away. “Oh sure, we’ve got 8 generators, no problem,” said Ken Cooper, our new best friend.

Over the phone we chose and paid for a Generac GP5500. Not because we thoroughly researched generators and knew what we were doing. But because that was the biggest we could afford, and at the moment bigger seemed better.

By the time we sprinted into the store a little after 9 p.m., only two generators were left on the shelf. And the one they put away for us was lacking wheels, a manual, and nuts and bolts for the handle. Ken found us some wheels from an old generator, printed out the manual, and took $60 off the price for the inconvenience, which brought the machine down to about $590.

We also bought 15 feet of copper wire to ground the generator to prevent electrocution, and a 5-gallon gas can because the generator tank holds 7 gallons of gas.

You should know, I’m pull-cord phobic. I’ve never met a gas-powered chainsaw or tiller that started the first or 15th time I pulled their recoil starters. My biggest fear was that we’d get our new generator home and not be able to start it.

It turned out, the thing started with one half-hearted pull. But filling the tank with that freaking gas can was nearly impossible. The safety spout was inscrutable: No matter how we locked or unlocked it, gas spilled from the mouth and never made it out the spout. I ended up holding a funnel while Greg poured gasoline into the generator, fumes pounding our noses.

By 3 a.m., we had a working generator chugging away in our driveway. The only problem was: How to work it?

Watts and costs

Generators are named for their wattage output, the amount of power they can generate at one time. We had 5,500 watts to play with. We hooked up our freezer (700 watts) and fridge (700 watts), because saving our food was a priority. And we lent our neighbors 1,000 watts — because that’s just the kind of people we are. We also needed their forbearance because portable generators make a lot of noise.

That left us 3,100 watts to:

  • Charge the computer (500)
  • Run a two-bulb lamp (100 watts/bulb)
  • Toast some bread for breakfast (1,650 watts)
  • Run a portable air conditioner (750 watts) that cools us only when we’re sitting directly in front of it.

Whenever we want to plug anything else in, we do the math to make sure we’re not overloading and shutting down the generator. For instance, I unplug the toaster when I make a latte with my espresso machine, which uses a whopping 1,260 watts. (After the fact, I found a handy one-sheeter for determing how much portable power you need.)

Every 8 hours, we gas it up with another 5 gallons; power is us costing about $50/day. (Our neighbor chips in for gasoline, too). But without the generator, we would have lost at least $300 worth of food, so I figure the thing will pay for itself in another disaster or two.

Lessons learned

Since our generator has been chugging away for three days, I’ve become a portable power expert. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • Don’t place a generator in an attached garage, even with the door open: Fumes can still leak into the house.
  • Keep windows closed on the side of the house where you locate the generator.
  • Let the generator cool off before refueling. Never refuel when it’s running.
  • Offer power to neighbors, who’ll then be less likely to complain about the noise.
  • Bite the bullet and buy a generator before you need one ($250 for 2,000 watts to $1,000 for 10,000 watts). Be the ant, not the grasshopper driving to Philly in the dead of night.

Are you a take-your-changes type or will you buy a generator for peace of mind?

lisa-kaplan-gordon Lisa Kaplan Gordon

is an avid gardener, a member of the Fairfax County Master Gardeners Association, and a builder of luxury homes in McLean, Va. She’s been a Homes editor for Gannett News Service and has reviewed home improvement products for AOL. Follow Lisa on Google+.

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