How to Choose an Emergency Generator

Equipment, Tips for Parents

How to Choose an Emergency Generator

By Lee Vander Loop
CP Family Network Editor

Many families with special-needs children face a multitude of challenges that others may never experience. The challenge of an extended power outage is frustrating and inconvenient to any family, but when you factor in a special-needs child who relies on medical equipment such as oxygen, a feeding pump or other life-saving equipment, a power outage can quickly become a medical crisis.

While raising our daughter with severe cerebral palsy, there weren’t many moments that would strike fear in my heart. Power outages, however, put me in full panic mode. Because Danielle was dependent on a variety of equipment to keep her stable, I was in “full throttle mode” when the lights flickered. In order to keep our sanity and ensure Danielle’s health, we decided we needed to invest in an emergency power source.

Selecting a Generator

A portable generator is normally the first choice when selecting an emergency power source. When selecting a portable generator or other alternate source of power, you first need to understand what your average “daily load” is. This is the amount of power required to operate equipment under normal working conditions. A certified electrician can assess your power needs in relation to lighting, medical equipment and other household usage you might need during emergency situations.

The number of household items or medical equipment to be powered will influence the type of power supply needed. Once the daily energy requirement is established, a range of options can be considered.

Types of Generators

Reciprocating Engines

These are the most common form of small generator. A reciprocating engine is similar to an automobile engine, using fuel combustion to drive pistons. In generator-only systems, the generator must be sized to handle the peak expected load, but the system frequently runs at lower loads at reduced efficiency. This type of generator has low initial cost compared to other options, but high operating costs due to the need for fuel.

Diesel Generators

  • Most common option
  • More expensive than gasoline, but more reliable and longer-lived
  • Fuel does not burn as cleanly as other options

Gasoline Generators

  • Gasoline is widely available
  • Cheaper than diesel generators and available in smaller sizes
  • Normally used as emergency back-up generators due to their shorter operating lifetimes

Propane Generators

  • Quieter and cleaner than diesel and gasoline options
  • Environmentally friendly; spilled propane evaporates rather than contaminating a site
  • Well-suited to use in a hybrid system with solar or wind, though they are not optimal for serving as the sole (or primary) energy source

Whole House Generators

Whole house generators are another option when considering emergency backup power. Although more costly than a portable generator, a whole house unit offers a more hands-free solution in emergency situations. The average price for a whole house generator unit ranges from $8,000 to $10,000. This does not include the necessary transfer switch.

Whole house generators come in 4 sizes ranging from 22-48 kilowatts. Your electrician will determine the size you need based on your electricity usage. The majority of newer homes are built with 200-amp electrical service. This means that the MAXIMUM amount of electricity that your home can use is 200-amps.

Home Standby Generators

Unlike whole house generators, these units are not capable of restoring power to an entire house. Standby generators are capable of powering 8-16 circuits in your electrical panel. Newer and more expensive models offer an intelligent automatic transfer switch that can actually restore power to your entire panel, with limited energy consumption.

Generator Safety Tips

  • Get advice from a licensed electrician. Make sure that the generator you purchase is rated for the power that you think you will need.
  • Do not connect your generator directly to your home’s wiring. Connecting a portable electric generator directly to your household wiring can be deadly. You could also cause expensive damage to utility equipment and your generator.
  • Hire a licensed electrical contractor to install a transfer switch. The transfer switch shifts power from the utility power lines to the power coming from your generator.
  • Never plug a portable electric generator into a regular household outlet. Plugging a generator into a regular household outlet can energize “dead” power lines and injure neighbors or utility workers.
  • Don’t overload the generator. Overloading your generator can seriously damage your valuable appliances and electronics. Prioritize your needs. A portable electric generator should be used only when necessary and only to power essential equipment.
  • Never use a generator indoors or in an attached garage. Just like your automobile, a portable generator uses an internal combustion engine that emits deadly carbon monoxide. Only operate it outdoors in a well-ventilated, dry area away from air intakes to the home and protected from direct exposures to rain, preferably under a canopy, open shed, or carport.
  • Read and adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions for safe operation. Do not cut corners when it comes to safety.
  • Never refuel a generator while it is hot. Fuel could spill on the exhaust and cause a flash fire. Always let the unit cool before refueling.

Other Emergency Considerations

  • Even if you have emergency backup power such as a portable generator, it’s still smart to have an emergency response plan in place.
  • Portable generators take time to start, so you need to be able to meet your child’s immediate needs until you can power up your generator or alternate energy source.
  • Always have a battery-operated lighting source or flashlights readily available in your child’s room and multiple rooms throughout the house. Battery-operated Coleman lanterns are nice for this, providing hands-free light.
  • If your child is on oxygen and has an oxygen concentrator that would lose power during an outage, always make sure you have a portable oxygen supply readily available and ready to use, including having the needed regulator attached.
  • Equipment such as feeding pumps and pulse-ox monitors come with a backup battery source, but they only last a few hours. Unless you’re using this equipment in transit, always keep it plugged into an outlet to conserve your backup battery source.
  • If you have a portable generator, always keep it fueled and have a backup fuel supply available.


Making preparations for unexpected emergencies can have a major impact on the wellbeing of your special-needs child, not to mention your stress level and sanity! Check out these links for more emergency preparedness tips:

Whole House Generator Buying Guide
American Red Cross Disaster Preparedness for People with Special Needs

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?