Energy adviser: Handy portable generators good backup plan



Extended power outages are rare in Clark County, but knowing you have backup options may be comforting.

If you have an auxiliary generator on hand, you know that you can run a refrigerator, a deep well pump or an electrical device when the power is out during a winter ice or wind storm.

There are two kinds of residential-type generators:

• Portable generators can provide up to 7,000 watts of electricity. They sit outside and run on gasoline or diesel. Portable generators won’t create enough electricity to power your home, but can operate individual appliances, such as refrigerators.

• Permanent generators can provide up to 20,000 watts of electricity. These are wired into the electrical system of your home, and can keep several electrical appliances operating at once, depending on generator size. Permanent generators typically run on propane.

All generators must be operated outside at least 10 feet away from the house, so that carbon monoxide produced from their combustion engines won’t sicken or kill anyone. In 2005, 85 deaths were reported from improper use of portable generators in the U.S.

• What do you need? If you are thinking of buying a generator, first ask what its potential uses will be and how much you want to spend. Portable generators can cost from about $500 to as much as $4,000. Permanent generators are much more expensive.

If you just want to run your TV, fridge, coffee pot and a DVD player, a generator putting out about 2,000 watts should be enough.

If you want something that will power your furnace, a well pump and fridge, then 5,000 watts is probably the minimum. Your generator wattage should be slightly greater than the entire simultaneous load.

• System safety is key: Typically, homeowners will hook a generator up to a specific appliance, such as a refrigerator, using an extension cord.

However, if your house is newer, it may have wiring and a power panel that allows you to switch off the connection to the utility power grid and instead use a transfer switch, alternative power panel and a generator to operate certain circuits in your home.

If you use a portable or a permanent generator to put power into the house circuitry you must install a transfer switch. That switch should be installed by a licensed electrician and will likely cost about $500.

The transfer switch will cut your home’s connection to the utility’s electric grid before you start the generator. This is a critical safety feature that prevents your generator from back-feeding electricity into utility lines and putting utility workers at risk of injury or death. Do not ever plug a backup generator into a wall outlet in your home without first disconnecting from the Clark Public Utilities electric grid.

If there’s any doubt that your home is disconnected from the grid, always use an extension cord with a power strip directly from the generator to the appliances you’re powering. This will avoid putting yourself or the utility crews in danger.

• Factors to consider: Before buying a generator, be sure to consider these factors: wattage, noise level, size, portability and starting mechanism.

Generators emit carbon monoxide so use them only outdoors in a dry location away from the house. Never operate them in an enclosed space, such as the garage.

Make sure the generator has three to four feet of space on all sides to ensure adequate ventilation. Locate it away from doors, windows or vents that could allow exhaust to enter the home. Keep the generator dry, sheltering it from rain with a canopy if necessary.

Turn off the generator when adding gasoline and be smart about storing the gasoline safely.

If you experience an outage, be sure to call the Clark Public Utilities PowerLine, 360-992-8000 to report it and get updates.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.