How to hook up a home power generator and stay alive doing it
As millions of people in New York and New Jersey areas are without power a home power generator is an excellent way to take away the fear of losing power. Here is how to get what you need, have it installed right, and then use it safely.
Step 1: Things You Will Need
CO Monitors First
Before you set about finding a home generator and an electrician to install the interface for it, be sure that you have an operating CO monitor on each level of your home. CO kills Americans each year and the two inexcusable ways this can happen are improperly uses gas grills and portable power generators. If you don’t already have one, you should get a CO monitor that has a digital readout and also stores the peak reading in memory. Kidde’s Nighthawk AC/DC model is one example that has these features. Be sure whatever model you choose has a battery back-up because for this application you must have that in order to stay safe.
CO is a tricky poison. It is odorless, has similar density to air, and it can kill both slowly and also quickly. Read and understand the instructions that come with your CO monitor. They will tell you that if the alarm goes off you should leave the house. Don’t ventilate, don’t look for the problem. Leave the house and then call 911. If you ventilate the home you will make it harder for the fire department to find the source of the problem. Stories abound of homeowners who ignored their CO monitor thinking it was a false alarm. This is not because they were dumb. It is because CO poisoning impairs one’s ability to reason. So don’t. Just leave and call 911.
Fire Extinguisher and Other Equipment
Also buy a fire extinguisher, outdoor lock, 6 foot bicycle lock cable, a funnel, a good quality 5 gallon or larger plastic gas container, a headlamp flashlight, a brown tarp and some bunji cords. The fire extinguisher is to put out the fire you (or someone else) will start if you pour gasoline into the power generator and it spills on the hot manifold. The outdoor lock and cable is to allow you to make it hard for someone to simply carry off your generator, and the brown tarp will keep the generator dry and ice free during the storm. Brown is better than blue because it calls less attention to your little gem. The headlamp flashlight allows you to see in the dark when you will start the generator after the power goes out. I’m betting you know why you need a funnel and gas container.
Step 2: Buy a home generator and an Interface
Many home owners think that when they get a generator they will need one that can handle every single appliance in the house all at one time. Not true. All you will need is one that can run the furnace, or other highest load item, plus the well pump (if you have one) and lights in a few rooms. I will tell you now that answer is less than 3000 watts of power. Most units use the number of watts in the model number. For example, the Honda EU3000iS. As you shop for your generator be sure that the interface you select will accept the plug in-connection from your generator. Ask questions of the personal selling you the interface. Once you know what you plan to buy- stop. Call the electrician you will use to install the interface and tell him (or her) the part numbers and ask that he verify the equipment is to code in your area and that he trusts it. Ask that he confirm you will have the plug ends you will need as well. Some electricians will create power cord for you to go between the generator and the hook up to the interface (which will be on an outside wall of your home). The plug ends may come as part of your generator or interface, or you may need to buy them, or a completed cord may come with it.
Your budget will include the Generator, interface and the cost of the electrician’s time. Tell the electrician you want the town electrical inspector to certify the installation. He should not charge more for this, but there may be a modest fee from the town inspection.
Step 3: Installation of a home generator
After you source your equipment the electrician and you will select a spot for the home generator to operate when needed. If you are lucky, you may find an easy solution. The author’s home had a porch with good ventilation under which the generator could sit waiting for a storm. He uses boards to slide the unit out away from the house before use. You may need to move your generator into place. Plan for that considering mud, ice and snow will be part of the fun. Get a generator with wheels if you will need to move it. The electrician will install the interface near your electrical main in the basement or wherever it is in the house. He will then run a line to the outside connection and mount the connection on the outside of the house for you. A cable will be created or may come with your equipment to connect the generator to the connection on the house outside wall.
Once the equipment is in place, read all of the owner’s manuals so that you actually understand them. You will connect the cable between the generator and the interface per its instructions, fuel up the generator and then start the equipment. The electrician will already have marked the switches on the interface for you. Most have three positions for each circuit. Line (meaning the utility’s power is connected) off, and generator. The interface allows you to switch on and off different parts of the house’s electrical system. For example, you may want to run the oil burner or whatever heat you operate only when needed and use the generator to power other things. There is no need to be able to power the entire house unless you are a show-off. Some systems can work automatically. I will leave that for another article. We should assume that you will operate the switch over manually. Be sure the switches are labeled. While the generator is running switch them from line to generator and ensure they all work as planned. It would be wise to off your home entertainment systems while you do this.
Safety Note - It is important never to rig up your own input from the generator. You could send power to the grid when a line worker was fixing it and that line worker could die. You would be responsible, liable, and will have broken the law. The interface the electrician installs ensures this cannot happen.
Step 4: Power Your Home Off the Grid
Once you have a good system. Do a dry run. Put it all away and pull it all out and run the system using instruction you write for yourself and post in the basement next to the interface. Make them good and they will serve you well for years. Throw the manuals on the basement floor and you will be in the cold with wet moldy manuals to read while your kids shiver. Here are operating tips for running a generator;
1) NEVER run it in the garage, or carport, or in the home. You will die of CO poisoning. You may kill others.
2) Never re-fuel a hot generator (or anything hot). The fuel could ignite and burn you and burn your house down. That is very embarrassing. And since a storm is raging nobody is coming to put you and the house out.
3) Plan on a bedtime. Run the heat to make the house hot enough to stay warm for about 5 or 6 hours. Then shut off the generator, allow it to cool, and put it under your tarp. Then when you wake up, fill it with fuel and re-start it. Don’t ever go to sleep with your generator running.
4) Run the gas out of your generator every year at a minimum. Use a fuel life extender to keep the fuel fresh longer. Practice at least once before every storm so you are ready. Run the machine for 15 minutes every month to burn off moisture in the unit. Maintain it according to the manufacturer’s guidelines IN EARLY SUMMER.
5) If you store your generator outside keep it dry with a secure cover or tarp. Under that tarp some cayenne pepper or moth balls will reduce rodent activity around your machine. They love the little habitat you create and can make a mess or damage your stuff. Worse, if a skunk decides that your generator is its home you will have a bad day. If mice become a problem use d-CON, or whatever solution you prefer.
Conclusion - Power Generator Is Like Gun
Gun ownership imparts special responsibility on the owner. You must leave your gun safe from accidental or improper usage. A generator is the same. You must make certain that it won’t be improperly used by a neighbor or family member if you are not home and the power and phones are out. You must leave detailed, clear instructions on the plan for using the generator and you must train at least one other person on the use of the system you come up with. Your system will be unique to your home. Therefore, you will have to make up a plan for its use and post it.
This guideline is for your information only and is not a complete set of instructions. We suggest working closely with the electrician you choose and then having the local fire department know you have the equipment. They may offer to inspect it for you. As you can see “I’m going to buy a generator” has a nice simple ring to it, but to run your home safely and properly off the grid requires some planning and forethought.
About the Author: John Goreham is a retired mechanical engineer who currently writes auto news daily at TorqueNews.com. He worked for many years in the commercial gas monitoring industry and power generation industry.