How to make sure your generator works when you need it

When Tropical Storm Andrea roared up the East Coast recently dropping buckets of rain, it underscored the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's forecast that 2013 will have an extremely active hurricane season with 13 to 20 named storms. And since we still have letters B through Z to go, there's no better time to buy a new generator or make sure the one you have now is working properly.

As outdoor-gear dealer Paul Menascalco warns, too many people buy and fuel portable generators and then neglect them until the power goes out. By that time, the gas may have deteriorated and the engine won't start. Then folks like Menascalco, manager of RC Power Products in Bedford Hills, N.Y. get calls that could have been avoided with proper maintenance.

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Still, even if you are diligent about maintaining your generator, you can get caught short during a storm if local gas stations lose power or roads are closed by fallen trees. If you find that keeping lots of gasoline, diesel fuel, or propane on hand is a hassle, consider a stationary (standby) generator. They're powered by natural gas or large propane tanks so running out of fuel is less of a concern. And since stationary generators need professional installation, maintaining the dealer relationship is easier, which increases the odds that you'll be prepared. Standby generators also start themselves up on a regular schedule, performing diagnostic routines and displaying error codes when something is awry.

Once a generator is up and running, safety becomes a concern. Every year people die of carbon monoxide poisoning from generator exhaust. The professional who installs your stationary generator should place it where fumes won't enter the home. When moving a portable generator into place yourself, make sure it's at least 15 feet away from the house. Never use a generator indoors, including in homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces, and other enclosed or partially-enclosed areas, even with ventilation.

Our current generator tests include 11 portable and three stationary generators. And we have 10 more portable and five stationary generators in the labs that we've just begun testing. Results will be ready later this summer. Our top-scoring portable generator is the Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477, $900. It's rated for 7,000 watts, delivered more than enough wattage to power our test appliances and handled surges very well. Our top stationary generator is the Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200, which delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 using propane. And it was a quiet operator.

Ed Perratore

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