Power outage? Not with a generator

Backup power generator brings peace of mindLast Thursday, at approximately 7 p.m., the power in my house – indeed in much of my small town – went out thanks to a snowstorm that dumped two feet of the wet-and-heavy version of the white stuff on trees and power lines, taking down quite a few of both. I lit a fire and some candles and took out the Monopoly board.

Friday morning, with the power still out and no school, I told my kids to settle in for the day. It was 55 degrees in the house. They played in the snow. I lit another fire, rigged up a very crafty version of my mom's old Chemex coffee maker with a funnel and a mug, and boiled some water (thank goodness for gas stove tops), then settled in with The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Friday evening there was still no power and the troops were getting restless and cold. It was 52 degrees in the house, but we layered on more sweatshirts and we had fun. My neighbors came over and brought the food they didn't want to go bad. We added it to what was in my fridge and the 14 of us ate by candlelight and roasted marshmallows in the fire for dessert.

Saturday morning it was 47 degrees in the house and pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder had lost its appeal. We cleaned out what was left in the fridge and melting in the freezer, packed up and left for the weekend. The power came back Monday morning and I am now in the market for a generator.

I turned to my source of 15-plus years, WalletPop contributor Tom Kraeutler. He explained that there are really two types of generators: portable and standby. Portable are significantly cheaper. You can buy them for $300 and up.

But they're pretty inconvenient. "Just imagine there's a big snowfall," he said. "You have to dig it out, take it outside, and find a can of gas to fill it up." Also, according to the American Red Cross portable generators aren't the safer of the two options. There were 85 carbon monoxide poisoning deaths related to these generators in 2006, according to a recent Consumer Product Safety Commission report.

The prices for standby generators – which have been dropping – start at about $1500 and go up from there. These are appliances about the size of an air conditioning compressor. They're permanently installed outside your house to run off natural gas or propane. And when the power goes out, they kick on automatically within about 15 to 30 seconds. You keep the cost down by getting a unit large enough to power just the things you need rather than the entire house.

If you, like me, are thinking a generator is for you, what else do you need to know?

What size do you need? There are calculators on the web that can help you figure this out based on how big your home is and how many circuits you want to cover. Go to: www.electricgeneratorsdirect.com.

What's the cost of upkeep? Very little, says Kraeutler. Once a year, you should have the company that installs the unit come out and change the oil. This costs $75 - 100. After that, your generator will fire itself up on a maintenance cycle (typically once a week for about 10 minutes). If you notice that's not happening, call for service.

Is there a manufacturer you recommend? Kraeutler recommends Generac, which sells a 7-kilowatt starter model (enough to power eight electrical circuits and keep your refrigerator, freezer, furnace and lights going strong) for $1699 plus installation.

Can I install it myself? Please don't. It's akin to doing your own electrical work (which is far more dangerous than doing your own plumbing.) Call a licensed contractor and have it done right.

Jean Chatzky is an award winning journalist and best-selling author. Her most recent book is
"Money 911." Check out Jean's blog at jeanchatzky.com and learn more about the The Debt Diet Online.
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