Best's Review


Insight: Out of the Dark

Recent storms have powered an interest in electric generators.
  • Ronald J Panko
  • February 2013
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Electric generators have been in the news lately, especially in the Northeast where Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for millions of residents. Many were without power for two weeks or more. Throughout the region, portable gasoline-powered generators sold out within a day after the storm, and people waited for hours at gas stations to refill gas cans to keep their generators running.

Generators can be an invaluable home accessory when the power goes out. They can provide much-needed electricity for lights, heaters, refrigerators, TVs, cellphone chargers and garage door openers. They can also aid in preventing additional losses following a major storm.

During a heavy rainstorm, generators can keep a sump pump running in the basement and prevent serious water damage. If it is cold outside, a generator can keep the furnace on and help prevent pipes from freezing. An air conditioner powered by a generator can help prevent mold growth in warm climates after storm water has entered a house. A generator hooked up to a refrigerator can help prevent food spoilage.

Anyone considering the purchase of an electricity generator will need to decide if they want a portable gas-powered unit or a permanently installed whole-house generator typically fueled by the same fuel that heats the home.

Portable generators are economical and plentiful, but they are not intended to run all the time or for weeks at a time.

Portable generators also produce less electricity than their larger counterparts, which means a homeowner will have to decide what gets the juice and what doesn't. Plug in the big screen TV? That sounds nice, but is it more essential than a water heater, stove, refrigerator, sump pump, HVAC system or alarm system?

A whole-house generator can cost thousands of dollars, but it can provide peace of mind and keep a family out of the dark for weeks at a time-- with no trips to the gas station. Whole-house generators kick on automatically when the power goes out, so the transition is seamless. Many insurance companies offer premium discounts for homes with permanently installed generators.

Even though a generator may seem like a savior to anyone who has lost power for a long period, it can turn into a killer if not operated properly.

As with any gas-powered tool, there is a fire risk. Portable generators should be properly maintained and used only outside and away from combustible materials. Never connect jerry-rigged appliances, such as the furnace, to a portable generator. Hire an electrician.

A few days after Sandy, there were reports of several carbon-monoxide-poisoning deaths caused by portable generators in homes without power. Portable generators should be used outdoors, away from windows, vents or doors. Never use a generator in a garage or any area with a partial enclosure. And install carbon monoxide detectors with battery backups.

An electrical generator can be an important tool to help protect one's home and lifestyle during an extended power outage. But as with any major appliance, safety is critical.

(Best's Review columnist Scott Spencer is senior vice president, Chubb & Son, and worldwide appraisal manager, Chubb Personal Insurance, Whitehouse Station, N.J. He can be reached at

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