If you lose power during a storm, a generator can help restore some normalcy during recovery. Depending on the model, it can allow you to run your refrigerator, some lights and a few fans. Larger models can power your air conditioner, electric stove and more.
Sites like consumerreports.org have online wattage calculators that allow you to check off what appliances you want to plug in, and figure out the total wattage needed.
As with most things in life, you get what you pay for — portable generators producing 2,500 to 15,000 watts cost $300 to $4,000. A standby or stationary generator that can power a whole house can run from $12,000 to $20,000, depending on installation needs, the unit size and fuel.
After you buy a generator, learn how to use it safely.
First, invest in a carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup, and put it outside of your sleeping areas. Carbon monoxide, known as the "invisible killer," is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that portable generators produce. About 170 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States each year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In 2005 alone, half of the generator-caused carbon monoxide deaths occurred during power outages after severe weather, including Hurricane Katrina.
Here's the rule of thumb: Your generator should be at least 10 feet from the opening to any building. Do not run it inside your house or garage, even if you have doors and windows open. If you live in a multi-unit building, don't run it on your balcony — it's too close to your living areas and to your neighbors' homes.
Never run a generator on grass, or on a metal surface. Use a concrete pad, and elevate the generator if you're in a flood-prone area. Make sure the surface is dry before starting a generator, and always dry your hands before touching it.
Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission, cpsc.gov, for safety updates. Here are the basics:
Read your generator's manual very carefully. Follow all directions and pay close attention to the electrical load rating.
Use a heavy gauge, outdoor-rated extension cord to run into the house to power your refrigerator or other appliances. Be sure the extension cord can handle the wattage you send through it.
If you don't want to use multiple extension cords, you can have a licensed electrician connect a portable generator directly to your home with a transfer switch. This will redistribute power from the generator to the circuit panel. When the generator is turned on, you flip on the circuits you want to use.
Do not connect the generator to your home wiring system, fuse box or circuit breaker unless you have an electrician install a transfer switch. If not correctly connected, the power can flow outside the house to the power lines and fatally injure workers trying to restore power.
Don't exceed the recommended wattage. Don't try to run high-wattage items like the air conditioner, an electric stove or hot water heater unless you're sure your generator can handle it.
Turn off all connected appliances before starting your generator. Let the unit reach operating speed before connecting anything. Start the largest electric appliance first, then plug in other items, one at a time.
Never refuel a generator while it is running or still hot.
Disconnect electrical loads before turning off the engine. Don't allow the engine to run out of gas while appliances are connected.
Make sure the generator is grounded. Connect a length of heavy-gauge wire between the generator grounding lug and an external ground source.
After hurricane season, here are ways to ensure your generator is ready for next year:
Store the generator in a dry, well-ventilated area. Check your owner's manual to see if you should empty the fuel tank.
Give it a good cleaning before storing. Remove traces of oil, dirt and other foreign matter.
Do not store near fuel supplies.
Do not store near appliances such as water heaters or pumps, especially if they are gas-powered.
When you pull your generator out after any storage period, remember to inspect it carefully for broken or missing parts.