When the electricity goes out, you don't have to be helpless.

By Michael Haigley
November 06, 2006

In storm-prone coastal areas, power outages can prove disastrous,resulting in frozen pipes and water damage (not a pretty picture).But buy the right kind of generator and you'll keep the heat on andyour plumbing protected. Here's what the pros say:

Don't buy more than you need. List appliances you dependupon in an emergency: refrigerator, freezer, minimal heating (orair-conditioning), a few lights, basic kitchen appliances, and thehome security system, for example. Then pick a generator capable ofsupplying just those items. But don't go overboard. You need onethat's big enough for you―not big enough to power all ofBoston. For help evaluating your generator needs, visit the sitesof two popular manufacturers, Guardian (guardiangenerators.com)and Kohler (kohlerpowersystems.com/residential).

Make it safe. The American Red Cross offers advice foroperating smaller, portable generators during emergencies (redcross.org;type "portable generators" into the search field). Some permanentgenerators automatically switch on when your regular power cutsout. Because outages can occur when no one is home, you have tofeel confident that your generator will start and run safely on itsown. Hire a contractor who is experienced in installing units withgood performance records in your region. Humidity and salt airspeed the degeneration of housings, hoses, and connectors, soinspect them regularly, or have the system customized to stand upto the elements.

Think of the neighbors. All generators are noisy. But youcan't seal them off in soundproof housings, because that would robthem of the air they need to operate safely and efficiently. Locateyour generator as far away from neighbors' windows as possible. Trynot to run generators at night, schedule test runs of the systemwhen most of the neighborhood is working or at the beach, and begenerous with apologies.

Choose the right fuel. For permanently installed generators,I prefer propane over natural gas and diesel. Gasoline is toounstable for anything other than small, portable generatorsoperated in the open, and gas degenerates over time. Propane iseasy to handle and store, and it burns cleanly. Many gas kitchenappliances in coastal locations run on propane, so you can easilytap into a fuel source you're already using.

Invest in quality. If you were ever tempted to cut costs onbeach house appliances, resist the urge when you buy a generator.It's a piece of equipment you rely on in the worst possibleconditions. Don't compromise your family's comfort and safety on aless-expensive generator that can't be serviced locally.Experienced contractors rely on local specialists to design andservice generator systems. Go for local and reliable. Pay thepremium for peace of mind.

How to Speak Fluent Contractor
You'll need to know these common terms when discussinggenerators with your contractor or a salesperson:

Most generators are ranked by kilowatt power. The larger thekilowatt output, the more the generator can handle. Becausegenerators are basically engines like those in trucks and tractors,there's something to be said for larger ones that don't have towork as hard. They should run more quietly and more efficiently,and last longer.

The transfer switch automatically channels power from thegenerator into the house's normal circuits in the event of a poweroutage.

An exercise program turns the generator on for periodic trialruns to make sure all systems are working. If you have a storedportable generator, you'll have to perform your own test runs fromtime to time.