No electricity? Try a power generator

January 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Thousands of people lost power for days during last week's big storms. Many consumers got fed up waiting in the dark, so they ran out and bought their own power generators.

A 7 On Your Side spot check shows hardware stores around the bay sold out during the storms, but now more are available. So what should you look for when buying a generator?

Last week's storms cut power to thousands of people including Chris Macdonald of Fairfax.

"Definitely using the wood burning stove and trying to keep the kids entertained," says Macdonald.

He bought a small generator, but wishes it ran longer. "I'm trying to make a bigger gas tank for it or run an auxiliary tank because it only has a three-hour runtime."

Runtime is important when buying a generator and so is noise.

J.P. Pizzio is the supervisor in charge of buying generators at Jackson's Hardware in San Rafael. He suggests looking for one with a key ignition because they're much easier to start than other models. It's also good to have a circuit protector, a volt meter and wheels.

The Pro-Quip model is one of the few he has left after last week's surge of sales. It retails for about $700 and supplies up to 3,700 watts, the size most people get. It will power three or four essential appliances.

"Had a customer purchase one of them. He was running a fridge, TV, sump pump, a couple light bulbs..." says Pizzio.

A larger 7,000-watt machine could power a whole house.

"If you want to have a little more creature comforts, go for more wattage -- allows for more use," says Pizzio.

These generators operate on gasoline, so they should be outside, but not too outside, so make sure they're covered.

Pizzio says plug appliances directly into the generator with cords 50 feet or shorter. A long cord makes it harder for electricity to flow. Expect to end up with cords everywhere.

"It kind of looks like a mess of spaghetti on the floor during a storm," says Pizzio.

PG&E officials say home generators are okay, but don't plug them directly into your main circuit box.

"I know people think, 'oh I know my circuit breaker, I know where my meter box is, I'm going to connect this so my whole house can be still up and running.' Don't do that," says Darlene Chiu with PG&E.

Plugging into the circuit box links it to PG&E lines and that can cause problems by energizing a downed power line or if your power is restored, the two power sources can collide.

One important note, most low-priced generators shouldn't be used for your computer or other micro-processors. Get one with an inverter for a smoother electricity flow.