HOME GENERATORS SIZING GUIDE AND ADVICE
HOW BIG OF A GENERATOR DO I NEED FOR MY HOUSE?
The single most important thing to determine when choosing a backup power system for your home is how much watts you will need in an emergency. Since the electric consumption of many devices is variable, there are three basic generator sizing requirements: continuous
(running) watts, peak
(startup) power and surge current
Of course, there are plenty generator buying guides on the web. However, in my view, most of them are either useless or even misleading. For example, many power calculators give you the wattage charts for various categories of appliances. I see two problems with this method. Firstly, within each category actual wattage of different models often varies within 2 to 1 range (see for example our quick study
of refrigerator power consumption). Obviously, these charts may be good only for ball park estimates, but not for real sizing.
Secondly, this method does not take into account possible imbalance of the loads
on two 120V lines of your home wiring. The thing is, most homes in U.S have 120/240 volt service, which has two separate 120V buses derived from line transformer (see diagram below). A genset likewise has two outputs. Each of them can provide not more than half of the total rated power. For this reason, if you want to connect a generator to your house wiring, the lump power consumption will not will give you sufficient information.
WHAT GENERATOR DO I NEED: RULES OF THUMB
- For 2-3 essential loads (fridge, small furnace, window A/C)- 4,000 watt 120V ($400);
- To run most items in a small home- 8,000 watt portable 120/240V ($1000);
- For whole house with a central A/C - 8-20 kW standby ($2,000-5,000 plus $1,500-8,000 installation).
That's why for example, measuring the rotation time of your electricity meter's revolving disk as some suggest is not very useful.
If you are sizing a portable generator to run a few cord and plug appliances, you may find the rated power of your devices from their nameplates and then add up all the wattages.
A little problem with such method is you may wind up with an over-sized unit: the nameplate rating usually is just the worst-case number required by UL. Sometimes it is well above the actual operating level, often by up to 50%. In addition to this, compressors of fridges and a/c are continuously cycling on and off. It is highly unlikely that everything would operate at full load at the same time. The U.S. National Electrical Code (NEC®) 2014 recognizes this fact and in certain cases allows electrical system designers to use adjustment factors from 50 to 80% under assumption of load diversity
of 50%. Aside from this, this calculation will work. However, for sizing a generator that will be connected to your house you need to know how your power consumption is split between two 120V lines. Below we'll show you how you can find it.
For a complete step-by-step sizing procedure for different setups see my Home Generator Guide
DETERMINING RUNNING WATTS.
In my view, if you are technically inclined, the best way to determine how big home generator you need is to actually measure
your required power. It's not so difficult as one might think. First, of course, decide what lights and equipment you will need to operate simultaneously during an emergency.
Then have your electrician measure your electric consumption when all these loads are running. If you have a proper electrical training and know how to safely work with electricity, you can do it by yourself. All you will need is a hand-held clamp-on amp meter
with "Peak" function to capture inrush currents and line-worker's rubber gloves. To do the measurement wear the gloves, remove front panel of the main disconnect box and enclose the line cable within the clamp-on device. Read the value of current on each of two "hot" wires separately. Make several measurements with 10-minute intervals and take the largest readings. Then multiply the greater of these two values by 240V. For example, if your load measurements on the two lines are I1=30A and I2=20A, then you need a genset rated for at least 30A×240V=7,200 volt-amps. This number does take into account imbalance of your loads. Do not attempt to do these measurements by yourself unless you have proper electrical qualifications: you are dealing with lethal voltage levels!
If the loads were balanced (in our example they would be 25A each), you would need 25×240=6,000 VA. Note that for a 2-wire single-phase service, such as 220-230VAC in Europe, or old 120VAC in US, you need to measure the current in only one AC line and multiply it by the working voltage. Finally, you may add 10 to 20 percent safety margin for system derating and to prevent false tripping of your generator circuit breaker. This will be your required continuous volt-amps rating
. If you don't feel like doing all these measurements and calculations and want a quick simple guide, see the rules of thumb above.
Note that single phase residential and commercial generator sets are normally rated for the loads with power factor PF=1.0. In reality, PF is always less than 1.0 and volt-amps (VA) are always greater than watts. This means that your total volt-amps should not exceed the genset's rated wattage. For an explanation of the difference between watt and VA see this guide to power factor calculation
. For a reference, real power is P=V×I×PF
. Also note that if for a cost reason you have selected a genset that can't supply your entire house, in an emergency you can always rotate usage among essential appliances as you need to. For example, run a refrigerator for an hour, then run an a/c, etc.
For an average single-family home with up to 5-ton a/c, you likely need a 15-17kW system. In this class among top brands my pick is GUARDIAN® 16kW
model, which has one of the lowest costs per kW. For most small homes such a system is usually adequate. In general, if you need to operate a central a/c or another large motor-driven load, you need to know its start up current and select a genset with proper surge capability. For starting requirements
see our guide to sizing generator for air conditioner
or a motor.
Many genset's manufacturers provide "intelligent" control to aide in running air conditioning systems. For example, Briggs and Stratton offers automatic transfer switches with optional AC Power Control
module (ACCM) that lets you prioritize your loads. It monitors the currents in selected circuits and if necessary, temporarily turns off lower priority lines to allow the air conditioner to start. Generac Guardian® automatic systems likewise offer load management. Intelligent control costs more, but you may save by choosing a smaller genset.