Backup power for you home can be delivered in two ways. One is a portable generator setup and the other is a whole house system. Yes I know there is a third option, which is a battery backup system such as a Tesla Powerwall. For the purposes of this blog post we’ll stick to the two generator options as the Powerwall’s are far beyond most people’s budgets.
So, how do you decide between the two? This is a great question and can honestly be quite challenging. It really comes down to your own situation, and how much effort (or money!) you are willing to expend to make it happen.
A whole house system is a generator that is installed in a fixed position in your yard. Its electrical output ties into your electrical panel through an automatic transfer switch. This means that if your power goes out, the generator will automatically kick on and power your home. When the utility power comes back on, the generator will kick back off. These generators are powered through gas or propane. Whole house generators come in all different sizes and can be sized to literally power your entire homes electrical load if needed. Yes that’s right, if you want a whole house generator to pick up an entire 200amp load, that’s an option!! If a smaller generator is used to save money, there are load shedding modules that won’t allow the heavy electrical loads to run while in generator power. Heavy loads such as A/C, electric range, etc.
A portable system is a smaller movable generator that you store somewhere on your property and pull out when needed. These generators will tie into your homes electrical system through a manual transfer switch or panel. There are a few different options on the manual transfer we’ll cover in another blog post. These generators run on gas or propane (or both!). Portable generators also come in a wide range of sizes, typically between 4,000 watts and 12,500 watts. These generators will not be able to power heavy electrical loads.
Let’s start with some pros and cons of each generator system.
Whole House Generator Pros:
- Backup power will come on automatically. No need to start it yourself
- These generators come in a wide variety of amperages. You will be able to select a generator that can power your entire house, or the majority of it with load-shedding modules.
- Will run off your existing gas or propane service
- Most brands are quite reliable with solid warranties.
- Did I already say it can power your entire house and do it automatically?
Whole House Generator Cons:
- Expensive upfront cost. Material cost of the generator itself, wiring, transfer switch, plumbing pipe etc. adds up!
- Expensive installation cost. An electrician and a plumber will be needed. Also most generators will need a trench dug for the plumbing /electrical.
- Most customers will not service these units themselves. Think of the generator like a car. It needs its oil changed on a yearly basis, and its transfer switch tested. If you are unwilling to do this, hiring a company to service it yearly is necessary and of course costs $$$.
- If you have natural gas, your gas meter may need to be replaced. If you have propane, your existing propane tank may not be large enough.
- The generator will test itself on a weekly basis. This means it will kick on to exercise at a time you set. It’s important to know this as all generators aren’t the quietest things in the world.
- Additional permit fees from the town during installation. Most towns and cities require an electrical permit, a plumbing permit and a building permit. More $$$.
Portable Generator Pro’s:
- Lower upfront cost. Both installation and material costs are low. Only an electrician is needed to install / setup
- You only use it when you need it. No weekly exercising.
- No service contracts
- Only 1 permit with the town / city, electrical.
Portable Generator Con’s:
- Can only power a portion of your house
- Manual start up. They need to be moved into place, connected to your house wiring and started up.
- Manual transfer. Regardless of the kind of transfer switch you opt for, you will need to manually turn it on allowing the generator to power your home.
- Need a place to store the generator when not in use
- Need to store gas or propane tanks to power the generator when needed.
Personally, I’m a huge a fan of both options. At my own house I have a portable generator with a basic manual transfer switch. The main reason being the power at my house has never gone out in the 2 years I have been here. I can’t justify paying for a whole system that may only get used once every few years if that. My house also has all gas appliances (heat, range, hot water) so the electrical load is on the smaller side, making it a good fit for a portable generator. I do have 2 A/C systems and I’m OK with not being able to use those under generator power. That’s a tradeoff that needs to be made going with the smaller portable setup.
So which generator option is right for you?
After looking at the pros and cons ask yourself these last few questions –
- How often does the power go off in my area? Your power company can give you these statistics if you are new to the neighborhood. When the power is out, on average for how long?
- What is my budget? If I have $2,000 or less to spend then a portable setup is your only option. If you have $8,500 + (and often 15k++!) to spend, a whole house setup may make sense.
- Does your home have a lot of heavy electrical loads?
- Are you OK with being unable to use you’re A/C system and other heavy electrical loads during a power outage?
- Are you comfortable with paying a company a yearly fee for servicing?
- Do you need the power transfer to happen automatically? Or can you move / start the generator as needed?
We install both of these options quite often. I’d say 90% of our customers go with the portable generator setup and the remainder with the whole house system. I had a customer a few years back that was dead set on the whole house system. Upon meeting this customer for an estimate I laid out all the pros and cons that you are finding here. By the end of it, he changed his mind and went with a portable setup. It’s been 3 years and we recently worked at his house and I asked about the generator and how it’s been working. He said I don’t even know, the power has not gone out since you installed the manual system! It’s funny; sometimes it just works out that way. He was very happy he didn’t pony up the 10k+ for the whole house system!
Please check back for a blog post about picking out the correct portable generator for you. Coming soon!