Portable vs. Home Standby Generators  – The Big Decision

** this blog post was originally posted in September 2015 and was lost in the recent website upgrade.  Thought it was pertinent considering the last couple of weeks in NB.  Stay tuned for some new articles on generators.  AF 2/5/2017

With all of the power outages we have had in New Brunswick over the last couple of years, and the expected increase in extreme weather conditions, many people are considering installing a generator for their home or business. Fortunately NB Power has been addressing the problem and trying to decrease the incidents of power outages through increased tree trimming and other measures. Unfortunately, power outages will remain a fact of life in New Brunswick; by installing a generator you can minimize the inconvenience of a power loss and potential problems like a flooded basement because of the non-functional sump pump.

Now that you have decided you want a generator the big decision is whether to go portable or home standby. Both solutions will give you power when there is a utility outage.

A home standby automatic generator can restore your power within ten seconds of the hydro going out and you don’t have to lift a finger. It is all automatic and the only reason you know the power went out are the lights going out or the TV going off with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. Ten seconds after the outage everything comes back on. The lights are back on but unfortunately in that 10 seconds the batter is rounding third and you missed the big hit! Thank goodness for replays. You can now sit comfortably and not worry when hydro will be restored and continue what you were doing.

With a portable generator the length of time for the power to come back on is considerably longer. When you realize the power will not be coming back on you will need to go out to the garage or storage shed (this is especially fun in a blinding snow storm or thunderstorm), wheel, carry or drag it to a well ventilated area, make sure the tank is full, pull the start cord (some do have electric starts) and hope it will run after all those idle months of sitting. If you don’t have a generator panel with a transfer switch you will need to run some extension cords into the house to plug in what you to keep on. When you finally get back in the house, cold and/or wet, at least your power is back but your work is not over. You will need to make sure the tank is refilled at some point so the generator does not stop running.

As mentioned, both solutions will get your power restored, so why would anybody choose a portable generator over an automatic standby generator considering the convenience of the automatic solution? The example of the portable generator scenario is reality for a lot of people. You can make it a little more convenient by installing a generator panel and dedicated generator receptacle, storing the generator in a place that is easily accessed like a small shed devoted to the portable generator, and running it once a month to ensure it will start easily. All of these things will help but it still requires a considerable amount effort to keep the power on. The automatic standby solution is virtually effortless; you just need to get it serviced once per year to ensure trouble free use.

Again the question, why would anybody choose a portable generator? Well, like most things, it comes down to cost. At minimum an 8 kilowatt automatic standby generator solution costs about $7000 – $9000 which includes the cost of the equipment, the propane gas installation fees and the installation costs including the electrical work. It quickly adds up. By contrast, a decent 8 kW portable generator can be purchased under $1500. For another $500 – $1000 you can have an electrician install a generator panel with a manual transfer switch.

So, how can you justify the additional $5000 or more for the automatic standby solution? In the example above I used an 8 kW generator. If you go with a larger home standby such as a 20 kW generator the cost difference could be as high as $10000 – $12000 If we try hard enough we can justify just about anything but for the purpose of this discussion I would like to submit five reasons why someone would pay this premium:

  1. Convenience. Some people just do not want to be bothered with all of the effort required to manage a portable generator. This is good enough reason alone for some people.
  1. Peace of Mind. When my wife and I go away and cannot take our dog with us luckily her parents offer to come stay at the house. A few years ago when we were away during Christmas her parents were staying at our house (taking care of the pooch) the power went out for almost two days. So, my older mother and father in law (belle mama and beau papa – sounds much better en francais) did not have running water, hot water or lights for two days (fortunately we have a propane stove and wood stove for heat). Needless to say, this is reason enough alone for us to have an automatic home standby generator. Even if we had a portable generator I wouldn’t want my wife’s father to have to go out in a snow storm to get the lights back on.
  1. Peace of Mind 2. If you rely on a sump pump to keep your basement dry, or fear that your water lines will freeze in an extended outage, having an automatic generator will relieve some worry if you are off on vacation. Oh, did I not mention your deep freeze and fridge?
  1. Safety. Don’t get me wrong, you can operate a portable generator safely. That being said you need to ensure it is operated in a well ventilated area (this does not include an open garage attached to your house) and you have to be extremely careful running cords to the generator during a rain or snow storm. Portable generators are also heavy and you have to be careful not to put your back out. A properly installed automatic home standby solution eliminates these risks.
  1. Power. The limit of output for a portable generator is about 10 kW. You can do a lot with 10 kilowatts but it probably won’t run your entire house if that is your goal With a home standby generator the sky is the limit. You could install a generator that could completely replace NB Power. Most homes could get away with a 20 kW generator which is roughly equivalent to a 100A service. This can run everything in your house although not at the same time if you have an electric furnace, pool, hot tub etc.

A lot to think about. If you have an unlimited budget don’t think too much and just install the automatic solution. Most of us do have to work on a budget. Again, both solutions – portable or home standby – will restore the power when hydro is lost. There is nothing wrong with a portable generator. I actually like getting out in a storm (snow or rain) and if it was just for my use a portable generator would work fine. I am sure that I could show my wife and father in-law how to get the portable started but really, I would rather them not have to do it. For myself, having a home standby automatic generator does give me peace of mind. But, that is me, you have to make a decision for yourself.