standby vs portable1


Special Topic – Home Generators

December, 2018

Extended power outages, like the ones after the recent snowstorm in Chicago, make a lot of people wonder about home generators. Let’s talk about the options.



Portable vs. Standby

The first question to answer is whether you want a portable generator or a standby generator. Portable generators are less expensive, but you have to manually hook them up during each outage. Standby generators are directly installed on your home and turn on automatically when needed.

Standby generators: 
Standby generators are expensive – they can cost $7000 or more (after all installation costs). However, the high price tag comes with a lot of benefits.

  • Standby generators turn on and off automatically when needed
  • Standby generators are connected directly to a gas line – no manual addition of fuel
  • Standby generators can provide power for your entire home
  • Standby generators can increase your home’s value

Along with the high cost, some drawbacks to consider are the complexity of installation (often including permits and inspections), the greater amount of space required, and the regular maintenance required.

Portable generators:
Portable generators, in contrast, are much less expensive and take up much less space outside your home. Maintenance is negligible, and you can take them with you when you move or if you need them in another location.

Drawbacks include needing to manually set them up and fuel them (and therefore stockpile the necessary fuel) and needing to be home when the power fails to minimize the outage time. Plus, most don’t generate as much power as a standby generator, which may limit the number of items in your home you can power at one time. Additionally, portable generators can be significant sources of carbon monoxide.

Questions to Ask:
Here are some questions to ask that can help you zero in on the right generator for your needs:

  • Do you have critical medical equipment at home? If so, you might need the automation of a standby generator to minimize power interruptions.
  • Do you have a well pump? It’s probably 220V, which can increase the cost and complexity of your generator choices.
  • Do you have new appliances, or high-end electronics that could be damaged by the “dirty” power of a portable generator?
  • Are you physically able and willing to move and install a portable generator in an emergency?
  • How much power do you need? Are you willing to pick and choose what items you operate, or do you want or need your entire house to have power?


Other Power Ideas

While you do your research and consider your generator options, there are some quick solutions you can put in place now.

Power Banks: there are lots of choices today for small, portable chargers for phones and other electronics. I kept three cell phones fully charged for a week of camping off an Anker power bank the size of a TV remote control. Larger ones can even jump-start your car.

Solar Lights: those inexpensive outdoor solar lights are a simple way to bring light inside during a power outage. Set them outside to charge during the day, or prop them in a window that gets direct light.

Portable Propane Heaters: while these can be a good source of heat during an outage, you must also carefully consider their placement and ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide buildup.

Crank Radios: these are a simple, reliable source of NOAA weather alerts, light, and power. Crank radios are considered an essential part of any emergency preparedness kit. 

Don’t forget the details – generators don’t work without fuel. Power banks don’t work if they aren’t charged up. Propane heaters don’t work if you don’t have any propane. A portable generator may require long extension cords to reach the items you want to power. Think through the pros and cons of your choices and be prepared!


Here are some resources to learn more and help you prepare: