Week 38, 2017: Portable and standby generator use with sensitive electronics

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 38, 2017

Q. We are preparing for Hurricane Irma and my son tells me I should not use my portable generator to power my TV and computer. Is this true?

-J.F., Ridgeland, SC

A. Many portable generators are not entirely safe to use with sensitive electronics like TVs and computers. The power can be uneven and the surges and voltage fluctuations can fry sensitive circuits, especially if the generator runs out of gas and stutters. Inverter generators are electronics-safe, but they cost significantly more than a garden-variety portable generator.

When most people think of using a generator they envision wheeling it outside, running extensions cords into the house and starting it up. If this is what you want, there are lots of established brands as well as many budget-priced Chinese generators of varying quality. Champion makes some of the best inexpensive portable generators, known for good quality, service and support.

The best solution is a permanently installed home standby generator, typically delivered as a package that includes an automatic transfer switch. The generator is connected to your natural gas line (or a large propane tank if you do not have gas service) and the switch is wired to your home’s electrical panel. If utility power is interrupted the system detects it and restores power automatically within a minute or two. When utility power is restored the generator turns off. Standby generators come in many sizes and the bigger the generator, the more household circuits can be powered. Some homeowners opt for a smaller generator and only back up essentials like garage doors, sump pumps, the refrigerator and perhaps a room or two for lighting and entertainment. Big standby generators can power the whole home.

If this sounds fantastic, it is because it is. They are electronics-safe, you don’t have to store gasoline, you do not have to set up the generator every time the power goes out, and power outages will not affect you when you are away. If it sounds extremely expensive, it really isn’t.  Packages with generator and switch start under $2,000, and whole-house generators start under $4,000. Unfortunately, the installation can drive up the price. You can purchase from a dealer who does complete installations, or buy the unit yourself and hire an electrician to wire the transfer switch and a plumber to run the gas line, potentially saving money. Quotes for my own home were under $1,000 total for both connections. My favorite standby generators are from Briggs & Stratton (briggsandstratton.com), due to the small footprint and excellent support.

A cost effective way to get a bit of both worlds is using a portable generator with a manual transfer switch. Your electrician will wire the switch to the home’s electrical panel and connect it to an outdoor inlet box. When the power goes out you flip the manual transfer switch, set up the generator outside and connect it to the inlet box with a single, heavy electrical cord. The generator will then supply power directly to the circuits you elect to back up, eliminating the need to run extension cords through open windows and doors. I have seen a complete package offered with a Generac GP5500 generator, manual transfer switch, inlet box and connecting cord for $958. The GP5500 is not an inverter so it should not be used with sensitive electronics. If you like this idea but want clean power for electronics, Briggs & Stratton’s Q6500 QuietPower 5000-watt portable inverter generator is $1,499. Plan on another $300 plus installation for a manual transfer switch and inlet box.