Creating an American Business

Good Reasons To Buy a Portable Generator Before You Need One

By Lisa Kaplan Gordon

I’m always prepared.

At the hint of bad weather, I replenish my garage provisions of bottled water and toilet paper. I stow a bag of batteries in the hall closet – Ds for flashlights and Cs for the portable radio. Our basement is filled with cans of tuna and ravioli I stacked after 9/11. And somewhere there’s a manual can opener still entombed in plastic, which I bought to prepare for Y2K, when the world’s computers would rise up and rule the planet.

But somehow, I never bought a portable generator. The numbers, my husband said, don’t add up. Here was his thinking.

Power lines in our northern Virginia neighborhood swag along streets lined with old-growth trees. During storms, huge branches break and fall on the lines knocking out power for hours, days or more. When Hurricane Isabel smacked into us in 2003, we lost power – and everything in our freezer -- for a week.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. Mostly, power bugs out for a couple of hours, not enough time for a rump roast to thaw and, in my husband’s mind, justify paying $500 to $1,000 for a portable generator.

I – the family’s emergency preparedness warden -- don’t think that way. Even though the weather emergency is usually a quick event, my anxiety begins at the first “the sky is falling” report and lasts until the lights flicker on again. My food may still be cold, but my mood is hot after worrying about the fate of 100 pounds of meat I bought cheap at Costco.

So, after 20 years of marriage and the portable generator debate, we were stalemated in late June 2012, when we entered our local Home Depot for some light bulbs and saw a portable generator sale. I lingered over the shiny models yearning for the jewel in my emergency preparedness crown while my husband waved me along muttering, “Don’t need one.”

The next Friday night, a “derecho” -- a land hurricane -- slammed Fairfax County, upending trees and knocking out electricity for 230,000 families until, the power company said, God knows when.

Debate over. At dawn, we called our Home Depot, which said the last generator had just rolled out the door. We widened the radius of our search, like a rescue plane hunting for a life raft in the ocean, and got only chuckles when each big box or local hardware store reported, “Yes, we have no generators.”

At 6 p.m., we finally found the last portable generator on earth in Philadelphia – more than 100 miles away. I still bless that Lowes in a rough part of town for holding the $600 machine while we drove two hours to claim it minutes before the store closed for the night.

We returned home at midnight, fired up that baby, and fell asleep peacefully knowing that our freezer was tucked into our portable generator for the night.

So, here’s what my husband learned – and I knew all the time -- about why he should have bought a portable generator before he needed one.

1. When a storm hits, everyone rushes to stores at once. Even big box stores sell out of supplies, like generators, within hours of a big blow.

2. Crisis shopping rarely gives you enough time to research an expensive purchase like a generator. You easily could buy too much or too little generator for your needs. And stores rarely hold generator sales during bad weather. You’re more likely to get a good deal on a portable generator when the sun is shining than when storm clouds are churning.

3. If you buy a generator online, you’ll wait days for it to arrive – days you’ll be without power.

4. Firing up a portable generator isn’t brain surgery, but it isn’t simple, either. Learning how to operate a portable generator for the first time when the wind’s blowing and rain’s falling makes the learning curve steeper. And, you likely won’t have a GenTent around to protect your generator from bad weather, which is a safety must.

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