A generator is a fantastic way to maintain an independent power supply when you need it.
But if you want to use your generator to power electronic devices, you run the risk of damaging sensitive equipment like laptops and computers, mobile phones, and DSLR cameras. Here’s everything you need to know to make a generator safe for electronics.
Can a Generator Damage Electronics?
Conventional generators are designed to consume fuel and run at 3,600 rpm in order to generate direct AC power of 120 volts and 60Hz. However, like most conventional motors, these generators do not maintain a steady, constant 3600 rpm; there are momentary fluctuations.
These fluctuations are called harmonic distortion, and they create moment-by-moment small power drops and surges. These surges can be extremely harmful to electronic devices.
In contrast, inverter generators have a much more complex mechanism that converts AC to DC power, and then converts it back to AC power for output. This means that inverter generators produce a constant, steady voltage of electricity without harmonic distortion.
Inverter generators produce energy without the surges that can damage electronics. They also have the advantage that they can produce only as much electricity as is demanded at a specific time, making them more efficient.
Generally speaking, inverter generators will not damage electronics, while conventional, non-inverter generators might.
Can You Make a Conventional Generator Safe for Electronics?
Yes, there are a number of devices you can use to protect your electronics from the power ebbs and surges of a conventional generator. Here are the best options.
Use a Surge Protector
Most people should use surge protector strips for all electronics, even when using the main power supply and not a generator.
A surge protector, when used properly, detects excess voltage and redirects it to a grounding wire. This means, of course, that your surge protector needs to be connected to an outlet with a grounding pin to work properly; many people don’t plug in surge protectors correctly, and therefore don’t get the protection they are expecting.
Surge protectors are rated by the amount of joules they can absorb over their lifetimes, and normal daily use slowly reduces their effectiveness. An old surge protector probably offers little to no surge protection at all.
When using a surge protector with a generator, choose a high-quality surge protector (look for one with a guarantee), replace it often, and don’t rely on it as your only means of protecting your devices.
Add a Surge Arrester
A surge arrester is a device that protects a whole house from power surges, and can protect from surges from a generator, main power supply, or even nearby lightning strikes.
While surge arresters may not be able to absorb and divert the entire strength of a power surge, particularly in the case of lightning, they are able to divert 85-90% of the surge, and plugged-in surge protectors are able to manage the remainder.
A surge arrester (also called “whole house surge protector”) is installed by a professional electrician at the home’s service panel. It’s a good idea to add separate, smaller surge arresters for phone and/or cable lines, to protect modems, televisions, and other devices connected to those lines.
Use an Uninterruptible Power Supply
An uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, stores electricity and provides a steady flow of energy for a short time after the main power supply fails.
These devices give you time to safely power down or disconnect your electronics to prevent them from being damaged from unstable electrical current, and provide a few minutes of power in which you can start your generator.
UPS devices can be small, used indoors to protect a single computer or device, or large units that protect a whole building at the main power supply. There are many different types of UPS devices, so here are some things to look for.
Look for a UPS With a Generator Mode
These UPS devices are designed to recognize and compensate for the power from a generator.
Choose a Double-Conversion UPS
This type of UPS does what an inverter generator does: It converts AC power into DC and then back to AC, for stable, clean, consistent energy that doesn’t damage devices.
Use a Dedicated UPS for Your Electronics
While you can use a UPS to protect an entire house, it’s best to dedicate a UPS specifically for your sensitive electronics. If necessary, add a second UPS to provide a short period of power to other home electrical equipment.
When the same UPS is used to protect electronics and other appliances (like a refrigerator) that cycle on and off, it may strain and drain the UPS prematurely.
Correctly Install a UPS
Like surge protectors, a UPS system that is not correctly installed and grounded will not protect your electronics, and may give you a false sense of security. If necessary, have your UPS installed by a professional electrician to ensure that it will work when you need it.
Using an inverter generator is the easiest way to make generator power safe for electronics on a reasonable budget.
With conventional generators, it’s best to add additional surge protecting devices to give your electronics the clean power they need and protect them from damage.