Q: While we were preparing for Hurricane Irma, my son told me I should not use my portable generator to power my TV and computer. Is this true?
A: It's impossible to say without more specific information about your generator. The quality of generators varies, and many of them are not safe to use with sensitive electronics like TVs and computers. The power can be uneven, and voltage surges 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 extension cords into the house and starting it up. If this is what you want, there are lots of established brands available. Champion makes some of the best inexpensive portable generators, known for good quality, service and support. (championpowerequipment.com)
The high-end solution is a permanently installed home standby generator, 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 kicks into action within a minute or two. When utility power is restored, the generator turns off.
Standby generators come in many sizes; obviously, the bigger the generator, the more household circuits it can power. Some homeowners opt for a smaller generator and back up only essentials like sump pumps, the refrigerator and lighting in a room or two. Big standby generators can power the whole home.
These generators are electronics-safe. Plus, they have other advantages: You don't have to store gasoline, you do not have to set up the generator every time the power goes out and you don't have to worry about a power outage while you are away ruining everything in the refrigerator or freezer. Packages start under $2,000, and whole-house generators start under $4,000. Keep in mind that the installation can add another $1,000 or more. You can do some of the work yourself, but building codes likely will require you to hire an electrician to wire the transfer switch and a plumber to run the gas line. My favorite standby generators are from Briggs & Stratton (briggsandstratton.com) because of their small footprint and excellent company support.
A cost-effective way to get a bit of both worlds is using a portable generator with a manual transfer switch. An electrician wires the switch to your home's electrical panel and connects it to an outdoor inlet box. When the power goes out, you set up the generator outside, connect it to the inlet box with a single, heavy electrical cord and flip the manual transfer switch. 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. One caveat: 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 5,000-watt portable inverter generator is $1,499, plus another $300 for a manual transfer switch and inlet box.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.