Cody Severtson found out about the Oct. 9 Pacific Gas & Electric public safety power shutoff around noon the day before. By the time Severtson was able to get off work, Costco had already sold out of generators and Sportsman’s Warehouse had just one left.
“I fired it up the night before and it had no problems,” Severtson said, “but didn’t plug anything in. When the power went out the next day, I went to charge my phone and the outlets didn’t work.”
Given the short notice, Severtson had to get whatever was available.
It’s important “to start your research sooner rather than later” when buying a generator to avoid getting stuck with one that doesn’t fit your needs or turns out to be faulty, said Darshan Khatavkar, sales manager for home and small business generators at Cummins Inc., which builds generators among other things.
“It’s not something you decide and do the next day,” Khatavkar said. “Make sure your comfortable with your choice.”
Making the right choice
The first step is to figure out what kind of generator you want, Khatavkar said. There are two broad categories of generators, portable and home standby.
Portable generators are typically inexpensive and available off the shelf, “although maybe not in California right now,” Khatavkar said. These generators typically require gasoline to run and need to be kept in a well-ventilated area outside of the house, he said.
Standby generators are larger devices, such as air conditioners, that sit next to your house and are permanently wired to it, Khatavkar said. These generators are typically powered by natural gas or liquid propane and can automatically turn on to power your whole house, he said.
“They are typically expensive and you need a professional, licensed individual to install them,” Khatavkar said, “but once you do, it’s a lifelong investment. It can run for days at a time.”
Adding up energy needs
It really depends on how much energy you’ll need to use, said Russ Biasca, president of Don’s Rent-All.
“You have to know how much load you’re going to put on that generator,” Biasca said. “You always need something a little bit bigger than what you’re actually running.”
Appliances come with stickers that state how much electricity they use and hardware stores also sell devices that you can use to measure how much energy a particular appliance is using. A smartphone charger might need 20 watts while a dishwasher might need 1,500 watts, according to Consumer Reports, but some appliances will use more energy when they’re starting up.
You add up the wattage of everything you plan to use to get an idea for how powerful a generator you need, Biasca said.
“If you’re starting motors, like a pump for instance, you could need up to five times the running energy to start that,” Biasca said. “Things like lights don’t require a lot of electricity. Things that have a heating element in it, like a toaster or a hairdryer, things like that require a lot of electricity, but don’t require a lot of startup energy.”
Biasca added getting too big of a generator can also end up leading to wasting fuel, so it’s important to know which generator will meet your needs.
A small recreational generator could provide up to 2,000 watts for between $400 and $1000, and would provide enough energy for a 700 watt fridge, 200 watt laptop, five to 10 light bulbs for a total of 250 watts, a 20 watt smartphone charger and a 100 watt security system, according to Consumer Reports.
On the other hand, standby generators can power a house but can cost $4,000 or more.
“You should plan at least the same amount if not more, depending on your scenario for installation,” Khatavkar said. “It’s a big part of the expense.”
Biasca and Khatavkar both said it was extremely important to make sure you have a licensed, professional electrician do the installation and make sure they are well-versed in the brand they’re installing.
There are a few key things the industry professionals said were important to remember when operating a generator.
“One of the typical unsafe things we see people do is run the portable in their garage, they think that’s outside enough,” Khatavkar said. “It’s not. It has to be honest to goodness outside your house.”
It’s also important to make sure to let the generator cool down completely before refueling.
“If you spill gas on an engine while you’re fueling it, you’ll have an instant fire,” Biasca said.
It’s important to check the generator every few hours when it’s running to make sure enough oil is in it and top it off to avoid damaging the generator, Khatavkar said.
“Just like any machine, it needs preventative maintenance every once in a while,” he said, such as making sure to clean and change the air filter.
Even though it’s unclear when the next power shutoff is going to happen, Biasca said people should start preparing now. The installation process for standby generators, to get them properly permitted and done by a licensed professional, can take weeks or months, Khatavkar said.
“Just be prepared because PG&E gave us a taste of what they can do when they turn the power off and they’re probably going to do it again,” Biasca said. “So have a generator on standby so when it does go out again, you’re ready.”
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.