If we never see another weather disaster like the devastating Ice Storm of 1998, that will be just fine with me. I was one of the unfortunate without electric power for 11 days. If you were in the same predicament, you know why I bought a portable generator.

“If you want to be able to use your gas or oil furnace when the power’s out, consider the purchase of a generator,” said Darryl Farris, sales and service manager at Farris Equipment on Route 202 in Greene.

A generator is an electrical device which operates on propane, diesel or gasoline fuel and is used to convert mechanical energy to electrical energy.

Farris not only sells generators, but also is factory-trained and can follow up sales with parts and service. He also uses a 6,300 watt generator at home, making him knowledgeable on a practical level as well as professional.

The most common reason for purchasing a generator is for a standby source of energy during a power outage. It can bring comfort, security and protection to be able to keep your appliances running. “During cold weather, a generator can keep your furnace working to prevent freezing of pipes,” noted Farris. He explained that Switchgear is a mechanism used to switch from your normal power source to a standby power source and is often called a “GenTran,” manual load switch, line transfer switch or an automatic transfer switch.

Back to the Ice Storm

As you can imagine, after being without electricity for three days, I missed the comforts electricity brings – especially heat! I heard about a shipment of generators being delivered to a local business, and I arrived there just as the truck pulled into the parking lot. It was an amazing sight. People were lining up to buy the generators as they came off the back of the truck.

Once I had the generator at home, I called an electrician. “Connecting the generator to your electrical system is a job for a qualified, licensed and insured electrician who knows local building codes,” noted Farris.

Mitch DeBlois, vice president of operations at DeBlois Electric on Sabattus Street in Lewiston, agrees with Farris’s statement about having a licensed, insured electrician do the installation of the transfer switch. “Depending on the homeowner’s preference,” DeBlois added, “the electrician will install either a manual or an automatic transfer switch on the power line going to the furnace to which the generator will connect. This serves an extremely important function. Without this switch, you run the risk of frying the electrical components of your furnace.”

“The option to have a disconnect switch on your power supply could prevent the generator’s power from being able to backfeed into the main line and cause problems for the electrical utility company, your neighbors, or yourself,” DeBlois added. “During the ice storm one of the first questions homeowners were asked before their power could be restored was whether or not they were using a generator and, if so, had it been disconnected. The backfeed could kill a lineworker.”

Sizing is a critical step in your choice of a generator. A generator that is too small won’t last, can stall, and can do damage to your electrical equipment. If it is too large, the engine will ‘carbon up’ because the engine is not coming up to temperature, burn more fuel than is necessary, and run inefficiently. Also note that the larger the generator, the more expensive it is. “Another important thing to remember when running a generator is that it produces carbon monoxide, a deadly gas. Never run a generator indoors where CO2 can build up,” said Farris.

“Determine what loads will be connected to the generator and include an additional amount for start ups,” Farris advised. “Furnaces, well pumps, refrigerators, stoves, lamps – all the appliances you feel you need for day-to-day living- should be included in the load, but that doesn’t mean you should run all your appliances at the same time on your generator.”

A natural gas or oil heat furnace can use 500 to 2,350 starting watts, depending on its size. This information can usually be found in the owner’s manual of your furnace and/or a tag on the furnace.

“Keep in mind that your generator should not be run continuously at more than 80 percent of its rated capacity for an extended length of time,” said Farris. “This allows a reserve of power for the starting of appliance motors.”

Optional and installation equipment may be available for your generator. Some generators include a muffler for noise reduction or you can purchase muffler kits separately. For diesel run generators, a good primary fuel filter/ water separator helps protect the engine’s fuel system. “Change the oil and fuel in the spring and fall. If you put your generator into storage, siphon out the remaining fuel. Do not dump the fuel siphoned from your generator. Instead, add it to your vehicle,” said Farris. “When it comes time to use the generator again, add fresh fuel and a fuel stabilizer.”

DeBlois had one final word of advice. “Homeowners sometimes try to run a furnace on a generator with an extension cord that is too small to handle the voltage. The cord should be sized properly to do the job. The wrong size cord can damage your generator and furnace.”

Farris’ last comment was to remind standby generator users to always unplug the generator before adding fuel. “Static electricity can build up around the fuel tanks. Plastic tanks should be grounded and metal tanks should have a grounding strap. A little bit of spilled fuel on a hot engine can create a dangerous situation. Please don’t take any chances, and learn to operate your generator safely.”

Free publication available

A new publication is now available that contains a wealth of information about standby generators. Called “Sizing and Selecting Your Standby Generator,” this 20-page illustrated guide helps homeowners, farmers and small business owners understand a correctly sized and safely installed standby generation system. It explains the various types of generators available, such as engine or tractor driven, portable or permanently anchored units. Three examples are provided to illustrate proper matching of the electrical capacity to the particular load requirements. One section is devoted to the need for a double-throw transfer switch.

Also the names, locations and phone numbers of 32 major generator suppliers are included to assist readers with the selection process. To order this booklet, call the National Food and Energy Council (NFEC) at 1-573-875-7155 or fax 1-573-449- 5322, mentioning “Sizing and Selecting Your Standby Generator.” The price is $9.75 (includes shipping and handling). Learn more about this, and other electrical topics at www.nfec.org

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.