Don't buy more than you need. List appliances you depend upon in an emergency: refrigerator, freezer, minimal heating (or air-conditioning), a few lights, basic kitchen appliances, and the home security system, for example. Then pick a generator capable of supplying just those items. But don't go overboard. You need one that's big enough for you―not big enough to power all of Boston. For help evaluating your generator needs, visit the sites of two popular manufacturers, Guardian ( guardiangenerators.com) and Kohler ( kohlerpowersystems.com/residential).
Make it safe. The American Red Cross offers advice for operating smaller, portable generators during emergencies ( redcross.org; type "portable generators" into the search field). Some permanent generators automatically switch on when your regular power cuts out. Because outages can occur when no one is home, you have to feel confident that your generator will start and run safely on its own. Hire a contractor who is experienced in installing units with good performance records in your region. Humidity and salt air speed the degeneration of housings, hoses, and connectors, so inspect them regularly, or have the system customized to stand up to the elements.
Think of the neighbors. All generators are noisy. But you can't seal them off in soundproof housings, because that would rob them of the air they need to operate safely and efficiently. Locate your generator as far away from neighbors' windows as possible. Try not to run generators at night, schedule test runs of the system when most of the neighborhood is working or at the beach, and be generous with apologies.
Choose the right fuel. For permanently installed generators, I prefer propane over natural gas and diesel. Gasoline is too unstable for anything other than small, portable generators operated in the open, and gas degenerates over time. Propane is easy to handle and store, and it burns cleanly. Many gas kitchen appliances in coastal locations run on propane, so you can easily tap into a fuel source you're already using.
Invest in quality. If you were ever tempted to cut costs on beach house appliances, resist the urge when you buy a generator. It's a piece of equipment you rely on in the worst possible conditions. Don't compromise your family's comfort and safety on a less-expensive generator that can't be serviced locally. Experienced contractors rely on local specialists to design and service generator systems. Go for local and reliable. Pay the premium for peace of mind.
How to Speak Fluent
You'll need to know these common terms when discussing generators with your contractor or a salesperson:
Most generators are ranked by kilowatt power. The larger the kilowatt output, the more the generator can handle. Because generators are basically engines like those in trucks and tractors, there's something to be said for larger ones that don't have to work as hard. They should run more quietly and more efficiently, and last longer.
The transfer switch automatically channels power from the generator into the house's normal circuits in the event of a power outage.
An exercise program turns the generator on for periodic trial runs to make sure all systems are working. If you have a stored portable generator, you'll have to perform your own test runs from time to time.