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How To: Choose a power generator

November 13, 2009

Many people today find themselves depending on portable generators to provide power for a variety of uses.

AT HOME -- Power outages are more than an inconvenience. They can result in financial loss due to spoiled food, frozen and broken pipes, and water damage to buildings and furniture. A portable power generator can avoid such losses and keep the family comfortable, safe and secure by powering refrigerator/freezers, sump pumps, heaters, microwave ovens, lights and small appliances.

AT WORK -- Every day workers depend on reliable, portable power on the job at construction sites to operate essential tools and equipment. And around the home and farm a generator also comes in handy for operating power tools in remote areas.

AT PLAY -- For weekend camping and RV power, portable generators have made it possible to enjoy the great outdoors with all the comforts of home. In recent years generators have become very popular at concerts, races, flea markets and trade shows, not to mention tailgate parties. Camping and hunting trips are also frequent uses for portable power.

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CHOOSING A GENERATOR -- Generators are available in several basic types. For many years the standard design has been an alternator, coupled to an engine running on gasoline, propane, or diesel fuel.

Better quality brands have employed automatic voltage regulators on these units to sense and adjust the power to proper output. More recently, some models have employed a flywheel alternator on the engine with a central processing unit to condition the raw power and eliminate the need for a bulky generator/alternator. This makes these units considerably lighter and more portable.

The newest generator technology employs an inverter, passing the current through a special microprocessor, resulting in a lighter, more compact unit.

An important advantage of this inverter technology is that it produces "clean power" with an exceptionally stable "sine wave" which is able to provide consistent, reliable, and portable power for computers and other sensitive electronic equipment wherever you need it.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- It is important to purchase a generator that is of sufficient size to meet your power requirements, while keeping size, weight and fuel consumption reasonable. An experienced generator dealer can help you determine what size and type unit will be best for you, and will offer to service and test run the generator before you take delivery. Quiet operation is an important feature for many applications.

Noise levels are measured in decibels, and can be used to compare brands and models. Keep in mind that a noise level increase of 10 decibels means double the noise, so a unit rated at 90 decibels is twice as loud as an 80 decibel unit.

The best and quietest generators have a rating from 50 to 80 decibels, while many others range from 80 to 100 decibels. Due to the heavy load exerted by a generating unit, for satisfactory operation and a long life it is important that the engine horsepower is adequate to handle this load without overworking its capacity.

Better generators have engines with at least one horsepower for every 500 watts of generating capacity. This helps to avoid the loss of sufficient amperage output which can result in damage to electric motors and compressors.

You may want to consider a model with an electric start engine, or even with remote starting, depending on your application and needs. Choose a unit with wheels if you will need to move it from one area to another, unless the unit you choose is light enough to carry. Units which feature simultaneous AC/DC current output are handy for battery charging should this need arise. If you are purchasing your unit for emergency back-up power for your home or office, be sure to investigate the available transfer switches, exterior inlet boxes and accessories that will make this application both safe and convenient.

Again, an experienced generator dealer can guide you in finding what will best meet your needs.

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