Seeing the Light on Generators


Been through one too many power outages lately? Found yourself cooking up a freezer full of expensive meat on your barbecue rather than risk having it go to waste if the power doesn't return quickly?

Area dealers saw a small jump in portable generator sales during and after the Pacific Intertie power outage Aug. 10. If an occasional lack of power is more than an inconvenience for you, you may want a generator to run the most useful electrical items in your home when the power goes south.

There's a wide range of generators on the market, designed for the homeowner with occasional substitute-power needs. These generators have small gasoline engines and will last years if used and maintained properly.

Several factors come into play in your choice of a generator.

"It depends on how big your house is and what you deem as essential," says Steve Berkeley, sales manager at Champion Honda-Yamaha-Kawasaki in Costa Mesa. Other factors are price and the noise the unit produces.

The model number of the generator typically shows the generator's maximum output, and appliances and equipment have plates attached that show their power requirements in watts. By adding up the watts of power needed for the various appliances and lights you want to use, you can determine how large a generator to buy.

The refrigerator, furnace, electric range and air conditioner are not the only household items that put big loads on a generator. Anything used to generate heat, such as a hair dryer or toaster, is power-intensive, Berkeley says.

It takes three to five times as much power to start an appliance as it does to keep it running. For example, a refrigerator might take 1,500 to 2,000 watts to start, though it will require only 400 to 800 watts once it's running.

Each electrical device adds its starting load to the load of the devices already running, so it's best to start those with the largest loads first.

Honda is by far the best-known brand of generators for consumer use, though there are competitive models from Yamaha, Kawasaki, Onan, Suzuki and others. At the bottom end of the price and size range is the Honda EX350 ($460), a flyweight 19-pounder that generates 350 watts of power for about 1.8 hours on less than a quart of gasoline. The EX350 could run a radio and several lights, but it might not have enough beef to start a refrigerator or freezer.

The next steps up from the EX350 are the Honda EX650 and EX1000. The EX650 ($711) weighs 51 pounds and is rated at a very quiet 54 decibels. The EX1000 ($790) weighs 57 pounds and runs at 64 decibels. Both units will run for about 3.8 hours on a tank of gas (0.5 and 0.8 gallons, respectively).

At Champion, the Honda EX1000 has been the single most popular generator. "It's big enough to power a blender so you can make margaritas," Berkeley says, only half joking.

All three of these small generators rely on a recoil starter, meaning pulling a rope. The larger ones, such as Honda's 3500 series, can be equipped with an electric starter.

To connect one of these units, attach an extension cord to the generator and run it to the devices you want to power. The extension cord should be one of the three-prong grounded types, adequate to handle the load you're putting on it.

For larger power needs, a good choice for a portable home generator is Honda's model EM3500 heavy-duty generator, says Tom Watkins of Buena Park Honda motorcycles and power equipment. "The 3500 could pretty much power a complete household, as long as you don't try to start them all at once," he says.

Honda makes several versions of the Model 3500 generator. The EM3500 ($2,100) is designed for quiet running. It is rated at 68 decibels, which Watkins describes as about the level of noise made by a neighbor three doors away mowing his lawn. The unit is about 2 feet square and weighs about 160 pounds, depending on optional equipment. It will run about 8.3 hours on its 4 1/2-gallon tank of gas.

All these units will serve double duty. The EM3500 is probably the most popular for RVs and camping, says Sean Higa, sales manager at LeBard & Underwood in La Habra.

There are several safety considerations in owning a portable generator. First, don't run a gasoline generator in a closed area such as a garage or room. Vent exhaust fumes to the outside, so that carbon monoxide doesn't build up.

Protect against the possibility of fire by using three-pronged plugs and checking for frayed cords.

Finally, don't try to tie the generator into your home's circuitry unless you know what you're doing. If you have connected your generator to another power source, namely power lines, the unit can back-feed into the lines and do serious damage, for which you will be responsible.

Tying a generator into a home's electrical system requires a permit and must be done by a licensed electrician. Several safeguards are built into the circuit to prevent back-feed.

In addition to the surge in generator buyers after the August power outage, many people brought their generators in for service. Although portable generators are often forgotten when they're not needed, they do require periodic preventive maintenance.

One common problem is operating failure due to stale gas. Champion recommends using Stabil, a fuel stabilizer that helps keep the gasoline from gumming up the engine when the unit sits idle for long periods.

Generators as large as 6,000 to 11,000 watts are available. The Rolls-Royce of portable generators is the Honda EX4500, a super-quiet unit with a highly insulated box, Berkeley says. At $3,100, it's pricey--but worth it, when noise is a major consideration.

Foresight has its advantages. With a generator hooked up, you can keep your home humming through the power outages. In your otherwise dark and quiet neighborhood, there will only be the lights glowing in your home and the promising whir of your blender. You'll be the envy of your neighbors.

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