Buying a Portable Generator

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

It goes without saying that the best time to purchase a generator is before you need it. This gives you the opportunity to ask a lot of questions, pay a reasonable price (maybe a sale price), and have it properly installed before you use it. Always during hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, sales of portable generators increase and so do the safety concerns about using them.

Safety experts say common mistakes include operating generators in closed spaces without proper ventilation, overloading them with too many appliances and plugging or wiring them directly into residential electrical systems.

Before you buy, determine your power needs. Some people think a generator will provide enough power to run everything in the house, but in a power outage, you may want to cut back on some of the electrical conveniences that you use every day. An average household needs 3,000 to 5,000 watts to provide enough energy for basic needs such as lighting, cooking and refrigeration.

Calculate the wattage needed for additional appliances that are convenient but not essential for day-to-day living. Then find the right combination of power and price to fit your needs. Find a household appliance wattage table at

When you determine how many watts of generating capacity you will need, calculate running watts and starting watts. Starting watts are the extra power needed to start the appliance, and they are usually at least twice the amount needed to operate the appliance. Add the running and starting watts to get the total wattage that will be needed. This will insure that you will not overload your generator which would damage the appliances AND the generator.

It is important to start the generator without the appliances plugged in. After the generator is started, plug in the most necessary appliance and the one that consumes the highest wattage. Add other appliances one at time, allowing the generator to stabilize as each one is added. Stay under the wattage rating, and do not operate the generator at maximum wattage for more than 30 minutes.

Never plug a generator into a household outlet. This may cause a problem known as back feeding, sending a dangerous surge of power through the lines. When your utility service restores the power, the resulting power surge could damage your generator. Home-use generators can be permanently hooked up to residential wiring with a transfer switch. A licensed electrician should be used to insure safe installation.

Portable generators should be operated in a safe, secure, well-ventilated place. Generators give off dangerous carbon monoxide (CO) gas that cannot be seen or smelled. Do not place generators near doors, windows, ventilation intakes or any other place that could allow the entry of gas into your home.

Generators should be at least five feet from buildings or any flammable materials or structures. Protect the generator from rain by placing it under a roof or canopy. Keep children away from the generator, and keep it out of view to prevent theft. Be courteous to your neighbors. A generator can be very noisy, so try to place it in an area that’s as far away from other homes as possible. State of the art generators are available with noise dampening features.

Read the owner’s manual before starting the generator for the first time. Starting your generator regularly should be a part of your disaster preparedness routine. This will insure that when you need it, it will work for you!