Purchasing a Portable Generator

Before Katrina even made landfall, the 2004 Atlantic hurricane
season was still alive and well in the minds of those who lived in
areas that experienced the wrath of three major storms last year. The
names Charley, Jeanne and Ivan bring memories of widespread devastation
and significant rebuilding in the aftermath of those storms. Florida
was particularly hard hit, with four hurricanes making landfall on the
state, the first such occurrence since records began to be kept in
1851. And now 2005’s Hurricane Katrina is being considered one of the
worst natural disasters in United States history.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA), the most dramatic element of the 2004 hurricane season was the
number of storms that came ashore. In an above-average hurricane
season, two to three storms will make landfall on the United States. In
2004, eight hurricanes came inland. Had Hurricane Alex’s eye made
landfall, the total would have been nine, but NOAA does not count a
storm whose eye does not touch land.

The 2005 season will be worse than the 2004 season. In what has already
been the most devastating season on record, NOAA has increased its
projection of how many tropical storms and hurricanes will take place
this year as the season enters its high period — August through
November. An additional 11 to 14 tropical storms are expected this
year, with the possibility that nine to 11 could become hurricanes.

After a hurricane or tropical storm passes, power is one of the first
things that is needed, but is often unavailable. Contractors rely on
portable generators to begin the rebuilding process. Portable
generators can run lighting, air compressors for pneumatic tools,
submersible pumps to drain flood water or small diesel or kerosene
heaters used to dry out an area before mold forms. Powering hand tools,
drills, saws and other motor-driven tools are also typical uses for a
portable generator in

hurricane clean up.

Choosing the Right Portable Generator

Now is the time to purchase a generator, according to Todd Howe,
Ingersoll-Rand product marketing manager for mobile generators.

“Far too often, when a hurricane is approaching, people are in a
reaction mode when they realize they are going to need a generator and
end up making an impulse purchase. They buy the first thing available
without determining if the generator will suit their needs,” says Howe.

Instead of waiting until there is an
immediate need, a contractor should prepare well in advance to avoid
having to make a last-minute decision that could lead to the purchase of the wrong machine for the job. “A contractor, first and
foremost, should look for a contractor-grade product. Then, size the
generator as best as you can for what you expect the load to be,” says

Take inventory of what tools will be running off the generator. “Most
electric tools are going to have a data tag that will tell you the
wattage it takes to operate,” said Howe.

“Make sure to check how much power is needed to start a tool with an
electric motor. I think the biggest challenge for contractors is
knowing what type of tools they are powering so the generator isn’t
overloaded. For example, anything with a motor will typically have a
higher power requirement to start it up than it does to run,” Howe

Make sure there is enough generator power to both start and run your
equipment without overloading the generator. Most hand-held power tools
utilize 600 to 1,400 watts of power to run, but may require 1,000 to
4,100 watts to start. Most tools, but not all, fall into these power

Understanding the generator
rating can sometimes be confusing. Typically a generator has two power
ratings — the standby (surge) rating and the continuous (prime) rating.

“You should size your requirements to
the continuous rating to ensure optimum performance and maximum
lifetime,” says Howe. Think of the surge rating as a safety factor only
for short duration overloads such as starting motors. Howe also says to
give yourself some wiggle room

“After adding up wattage requirements, consider adding 10 to 15 percent
for a little extra insurance and flexibility. In fact, I recommend that
contractors purchase the biggest generator they can afford, because
there’s always an extra tool they forgot about. So a little additional
capacity will help to maximize the number of tools they can run on the
machine,” says Howe.

An overloaded generator will have voltage and frequency fluctuations
that can damage your power tools and cause the generator to fail
prematurely, so it is worth taking the time to properly size the unit
to suit your power requirements.

First-time generator buyers should also look for guides that will help
walk them through the selection process. These guides are available at
most stores where generators are sold and have information on how much
power typical work tools need. The generator selection process includes
examination of several factors. The type of engine powering the
generator should be considered during purchase. The engine in the model
you choose should last for 2,500 to 3,000 hours.

Howe cautions contractors against purchasing a homeowner-grade
generator: “Contractor-grade units may have a premium price in
comparison, but they are designed for daily use in a construction
environment and have two to three times the lifespan of a
homeowner-grade generator. A contractor-grade generator is actually
less expensive on a cost-per-hour basis.”

After determining how much power is needed, Howe recommends that
contractors evaluate the feature packages that come with the
generators. Wheel kits make it easier to move around the jobsite. A
lifting hook is necessary if the unit will need to be transferred to
different floors of a building via crane. Contractors also need to
consider how many receptacles will be required to support all the tools
and quipment that will be plugged into the machine.

“Our larger generators [the G5H and G7HE] have dual-voltage
capabilities. You can run larger equipment that requires 240 volts, as
well as tools that run on 120 volts,” says Howe.

The Ingersoll-Rand G5H and G7HE generators also have an automatic idle
control. If minimal power is demanded, the engine idles down and
results in reduced fuel consumption. This feature can help contractors
save fuel after a hurricane or tropical storm when it may be hard to
come by.

“Last year with Hurricane
Ivan, there were problems getting fuel because fuel trucks could not
get to certain locations,” says Howe. He also recommends that contractors ensure they have an adequate supply of fuel on hand in
preparation for a hurricane or tropical storm. Contractors who
anticipate using one generator in two work locations that are not close
to each other may want to consider purchasing a second generator.

“As with any power source, you don’t want to have excessively long
cable runs,” says Howe. “The longer the cord, the more voltage drop
experienced in the cord.

You will end up with less voltage at the
end of the cord than the machine is actually putting out, which can
affect the performance of your tools and shorten their life.”

Keep the generator as close to the work area as is safely possible. If
you must use longer cables, increase the cable diameter (gauge) to help
minimize the voltage drop.

While home improvement stores are often the first place many
contractors think of to purchase a generator, they are not the only
place to acquire one. Equipment dealerships sell generators and have
them available in stock.

dealers have prepared for hurricane season by stocking more units, and
they have factory-trained people to help size a unit to suit your
needs,” says Howe. Contractors should keep their dealer in mind because
big box home improvement warehouses are also where the general public
goes to purchase generators before a hurricane, and often run out of
stock. Of course, preparing for a hurricane well before it happens
should be a contractor’s focus.

Portable Generator Maintenance

Contractors who already have generators should make sure the units are
ready, especially if a generator has not been used for a while. “The
biggest issue for a generator only used in emergency stand-by
situations is that the generator may not work when it’s called upon
because it may have been neglected. Stand-by generators should be
periodically inspected and started to make sure they are operating
properly,” explains Howe.

In addition, precautions should be taken to prevent the fuel from
getting stale, which can cause engine problems. A fuel-stabilizing
additive should be mixed with the fuel, particularly if the unit will
not be used for a long period of time. Portable generators are much
more reliable when maintained. Howe says keeping a generator running is
easy to do.

“Maintaining the oil level is the most important thing to keep in mind,
because oil is used for lubrication and to cool the engine,” says Howe.
For added protection, some generators feature low oil level shutdown
that saves the engine from damage due to low oil.

In addition, contractors should follow the oil change schedule provided in the engine manual.
“This type of service can typically
be performed by the contractor in a minimal amount of time,” says Howe.

Safely Operating
a Portable Generator

If a portable generator needs to be used after a hurricane, Howe
reminds contractors to remember that safe operating procedures should
be used at all times. The exhaust from the machine can be dangerous, so
contractors should operate generators in a well-ventilated area. Keep
the generator away from any flammable materials, such as paper or oily
rags. Rain often lingers around after a hurricane or tropical storm and a generator should not run in the rain. Keep the
generator under a canopy to protect it from the elements, and remember
— electricity and water don’t mix.

Howe recommends regularly inspecting drop cords for damage such as cut
insulation, frayed wires or broken ground pins and replacing any
equipment as necessary. “It is important to always adhere to National
Electric Code requirements, particularly with respect to ground fault
protection to ensure proper safety,” says Howe. Consult a licensed
electrician if you are unsure of the proper requirements.

Howe also reminds contractors that working with electricity can be
dangerous. “Make sure you understand the operation of the equipment.
Read the owner’s manual. Make sure you are fully comfortable with the
controls of the generator and how to make connections to the machine,”
says Howe. “If you don’t understand something or you have questions,
ask your local dealer.”

Predicting the path of a tropical storm or hurricane is not easy, but
preparing for one is. Make sure you have a generator well before you
need one. Keep your generator maintained, so it will run when you need
it. Safely operate the generator so both you and the generator are
around long after the skies clear.

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