Standby Generators 101

While most people know about gasoline-powered portable generators, which can power essential electronics in the event of a major power outage, these options are not great in the event of a major, multi-day outage. However, there is another option, called a standby generator, which can power your whole home for several days, nonstop. The downside is they can cost upwards of twenty grand once installed, and some are the size of a small car like a Fiat 500. So, in order to help you decide whether a standby generator is a good choice for your home and family’s emergency energy needs, here’s some things to consider and evaluate in your search.

What is a standby generator?

Standby generators are a permanent solution to outages that last longer than just a few hours. They are especially helpful in situations where your family needs electricity all the time; for anyone with diabetes or other cooled-medicine requirements, or the elderly or very young, heating and cooling systems are necessary for the health and well-being of your family. Trying to run an air conditioner or heater off of the output from a portable, gasoline-powered generator, is like trying to fill an Olympic-standard swimming pool with a teaspoon.

Standby generators are powered by an external fuel supply, like natural gas, propane, or diesel. They come in a variety of sizes, usually customized to your family’s unique needs. Smaller, air-cooled units can energize just a few essential circuits at a time, while larger, liquid-cooled systems are used in the “whole-house” sense.

How does a standby generator work?

A standby generator is controlled by something called an automatic transfer switch. This computerized component automatically disconnects your home from your utility services after an interruption is detected. Once your home is safely off-grid, the switch turns on your generator. Once the generator is running, the switch activates the power transfer system, funneling the generated power into your home.

The beating heart of the system is an internal combustion engine, which runs off the designated fuel supply (natural gas, propane, or diesel). Take care to remember that if your system has only a finite supply of fuel, an extended outage that prevents delivery or refueling of the system may cause your generator to eventually run out of fuel.

Once municipal power is restored, the switch shuts down the generator and restores your home to power by the grid. This seamless operation makes standby generators ideal for those families with small children, the elderly, or those needing constant electricity for medicines or electrical equipment. The transfer switch also prevents back-feeding into the grid, which could potentially start fires and harm utility workers on the lines.

What are the potential drawbacks?

Installation can sometimes be tricky with a city environment, for a number of reasons. One is that many municipalities have noise ordinances; a common level of restriction is a rating of 65 decibels from a distance of 25 feet. Some models of generators easily break that level. In addition, many building codes and ordinances require generators to be placed at least 5 feet from any home openings (window or door) and the same distance from any flammable materials. Fuel-tank placement is also restricted, especially anywhere near parking areas and schools.

There are many more points to this discussion that are too lengthy to discuss in one short blog. For the rest of this discussion, make sure to check back in with the April blogs!


Randy Murphy

Randy Murphy has been building his knowledge of the air conditioning and heating business for several years now. He first started applying his knowledge while working for his father’s HVAC company. Later, in 1987, Randy started his own business: Metro Express Service. He has been a top 10 Trane & Amana dealer for over eight years. When it comes to heating and cooling, Randy knows the business better than anyone.
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