Consider This . . . Portable Generators

My wife and I have lived in our present home since 1975, and we thought we had survived more power outages than any other family in Annapolis---until Hurricane Isabel came along. Since we both rely heavily on the Internet and we had recently moved an elderly parent in with us, and we still needed electricity to flush, this 60-hour outage was my last wakeup call-we were ideal candidates for a portable generator.

During less severe outages and as part of my never-ending search to find new and interesting web sites, I would often turn my attention to generator-shopping. Good news---I kept much of my research. Apparently I am not alone. According to Consumer Reports, portable generators have joined candles, flashlights and bottled water as must-have survival items.

Like any new gadget, there are many technical issues to learn about and consider. First we had to decide what our running wattage and surge wattage power requirements were. Surge wattage is the electrical energy required to start motors and compressors; running wattage is the electrical energy required after the initial start-up phase. I made these two calculations based on information gathered from several web sites, including; www.electric, and a closer resource at and My wattage calculations looked something like the following table.

As you can see, the running and surge wattage totals are quite different. That is why all generator specifications include dual wattage ratings. It was not uncommon to see many smaller and mid-size portable generator units with minimal differences in the two wattage measurements. Although my wattage needs are based on my own situation, it is clear that the circumstances for most homes or home offices are similar and will need 50 to 60 percent more surge wattage than running wattage.

In my opinion, most households can operate the essentials using a 5,000-running-watts unit with 8,000 surge watts. Remember, my power requirements are unique to me, and they are determined by the essential items that make life tolerable at the Hammond house. Your local electrician would also be helpful with this calculation.

Another very important issue is the quality and type of current output. Most units I looked at had brushless alternating current (AC) generators delivering 12 volts, 120 volts AC and/or 240 Volts AC. According to Consumer Reports, several units they reviewed failed to deliver more than 108 volts consistently which, in some cases, could cause damage to some appliances if operated at these lower power settings for a prolonged period. Read the specifications carefully and, if in doubt, I recommend that you measure the power output. Regardless, always use a quality power strip to mate your computer or other sensitive electronic items to the portable power supply.

The next considerations were related to fuel capacity, running time and sound levels. At the author states "Quiet is expensive! Loud is cheap!" The wattages I considered required an 8- to 15-horse power (HP) engine which translates to a gallon of fuel per hour. Many sites and technical people sing the praises of the Honda portable power units, although the unit I decided on was a Porter-Cable 5,500/9,000-watt unit with the latest generation Briggs & Stratton electronic ignition pull-start 10 HP 4-cycle engine with a 7-gallon tank. I found the starting sequence easier than my lawn mower, and the sound level of 72 decibels was about average and quite tolerable. The 7- gallon tank will provide about 9 hours of operation at full power load and 13 hours at 50 percent power, which is more than adequate for our Annapolis outages.

After the unit arrived I made my final location and connection plans. I decided that I would not invest in a permanent interface panel. Instead, I would bring the four 15-amp power leads into a central location in the home through a new utility panel opening and then disperse the power to the critical home and home office items with properly-rated extension cords.

After several significant outages here and on the East Coast, supplies of generators are slowly returning to normal and, as you might expect, prices did rise. I was very happy with where I purchased my unit for $625 delivered, but there were several others like, and that I could have purchased from if they had any units to sell. More permanent applications could also be found at these sites and locally. Home Depot had two larger units on display, priced from $2,999 to $9,999 installed. There is a unit for every home at and one to fit your budget.

In the end, I have had several people tell me that the power would never go out again now that I have a generator. We lost power this past week again and, just as I was about to electrify my critical appliances, BGE arrived in record-breaking time to get us back on line. Maybe having a generator just makes BGE come faster. Regardless, we can work and flush without BGE and that is a good thing. May the power be with you!

If you have comments or suggestions, or have an idea for a future computer or business topic, e-mail me at or

Jimmy R. Hammand, CPA, is a resident of Annapolis and a consultant to businesses in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.


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