How to choose a standby generator

How to choose a standby generator

Published: January 18th, 2017

Standby generators…What you should know…

How do you choose?

Standby generators systems are the safe and convenient way to power your home or business during a power outage.  Unfortunately, we are experiencing more frequent outages of longer duration.  These longer outages are due to a number of factors.  The surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean is causing more violent weather and this weather is tracking closer to the eastern seaboard.  Less preventative maintenance by the utilities, and changes in their labor policies have also played a role in this.

Portable generators?  These are designed for the remote operation of power tools. The low quality of the electricity produced by these units has little effect on the operation of power tools and lighting. Portable generators, due to the poor quality of power they produce, are not a good choice for back up power in a home or business.  Fumes, noise, and the volatility of gasoline add further concerns.  Standby generators, powered by natural gas, LP or diesel fuel are a much more suitable choice.  Lets kick around standby generators for a bit.  We will discuss their use and offer suggestions and identify some important considerations.  We’ll also look in this article, at possible locations for the generator.  

Standby generators are an excellent choice when it comes to convenience…they start and stop automatically when the powers goes out, and when utility power is restored.  They require a minimum of care, if installed properly.  They have a nearly unlimited fuel supply during long outages.  Most importantly, the quality of the power they have the potential to produce may be as high as, and in some cases better than, utility power.  As they are permanently mounted on the exterior of the building for which they are providing the power, locating the unit is an important consideration.

The least expensive, hence the most practical location is usually a spot close to the fuel source.  It is preferable to tap into a gas line BEFORE it enters the building.  This will eliminate pressure issues with the other appliances being supplied by that gas line. By tapping in to the line before the pressure regulator, it will have little effect on the appliances that are already being served by that supply line.  It is difficult to run a gas line across a finished basement ceiling and it is even a potential problem when the ceiling is not finished.  Accordingly, locating the generator near the point of entry of the gas service is preferred.  Keeping in mind that the electrician will have to run power and control wiring between the generator and the existing electrical panel, it is always best to locate the generator where the access to the electrical panel and the gas service is easily available.   In addition, the generator should also be elevated, and located 2-3 feet from the building, 10 feet from the gas line tap or LP tank, and 5 feet from the closest opening window. These general rules apply in most cases.

That brings us to consideration number two, and the most important decision in the process, who to choose to design and install the generator system?

Here’s the thing…and it really all comes down to this.  Even a  machine of dubious quality will run better, and last longer, if it is well-installed and properly adjusted.  This is the key to getting the performance from your generator that you  purchased it to provide in the first place.

Here’s what to look for;  your installer must have the reputation and experience to install the generator properly.  An installer who has installed many generators over many years will have the experience.  Keep this in mind…a good installer  must have the skills of an experienced electrician, the experience and skills of an engine technician, and the technical training from the maker of the specific generator that he installs.  This usually requires certification from factory training school, (a.k.a.  an Authorized Service Provider.)  The adjustments needed to the engine and alternator  demand this knowledge.  There are many manufacturers that require an authorized dealer install the unit, or at least inspect the installation and perform the technical adjustments for the warranty to be valid.  While it’s true that most good electricians possess the skills to make the electrical connections required, they lack the experience and the training to make the technical adjustments required for the unit to run properly.  Mistakes made in the orientation, installation and initial adjustments to the generator, especially the power quality adjustments, can all become factors that lead to generator failure.  Some units may require that manufacturer-issued software be utilized in order to properly adjust the unit.   Of course, most electricians do not possess the equipment or skills required.  Many of them will not reveal this to their potential clients.  I have heard, many times, the lament ” my electrician said he had installed several generators so I went with him.”  While the generator may run “out of the box” without technical adjustments, it almost certainly will not be running at its top efficiency.  Often, having started out producing poor quality power, it will eventually operate outside of the “window” that it is pre-programmed to accept, and will shut down.  If this happens, it will necessitate a warranty claim that the non-dealer will not be able to handle.  You are then at the mercy of whatever manufacturer you made your investment with. (Suppliers such as Home Centers and electrical supply houses don’t take back units with problems…You will be instructed to call the manufacturer.) In short…engine and alternator adjustments are best left to those who have the certification and training to make them.  Purchasing from an authorized dealer will protect you from initial or future problems by providing an agent to handle these problems.  If you choose to purchase from a Home Center, or through an electrician, you may find yourself in a bad place if the generator fails.  Remember to do your homework when you are spending this kind of money.  You can find a list of Authorized Dealers on the manufacturer’s website.