Considering a Portable Generator? Don’t Forget the Transfer Switch

If you live in an older neighborhood, with overhead power lines and plenty of mature trees, power outages come with the territory. It’s no surprise that lots of folks here – myself included – own portable generators. Over the years, my generator has gotten a lot of use and has been well worth the investment I made in it.

While portable generators can offer a great deal of convenience, they’re not always a good substitute for good old-fashioned power from the utility. That’s because portable generators can’t simply plug into household electrical systems; this means you can’t power devices like your heating and air system or water heater, and you can’t supply power through outlets.

There is a solution that allows you to connect a generator to your home’s electrical system: It’s called a transfer switch, and a licensed electrician can install one on your electrical panel.

What is a transfer switch?

A transfer switch is an electrical switch that switches a load between two sources, such as between utility power and generator power. When utility power fails, a transfer switch will begin drawing power from the generator; when power is restored, the load will be switched back to the utility line.

Some transfer switches work automatically; these switches sense when a source has gained or lost power, and transfer accordingly. For example, a transfer switch could automatically switch from utility to generator power during an outage; it could also switch back when power is restored. Other transfer switches require an operator to manually choose between sources.

Switches ensure that power travels only when and where it’s supposed to go. This is important. Switches can allow you to run only select appliances on the generator, in order to avoid exceeding its power capacity. Switches also keep generator power from traveling backwards up the utility line; back-fed power can be greatly magnified and cause great harm to utility workers and surrounding properties.

Alternatives to transfer switches

Transfer switches, whether manual or automatic, let you choose between utility and generator power in an instant. But in order to provide this level of convenience, your licensed electrician will require some installation time.

Another option is the interlock kit. These devices are simpler than manual transfer switches, and require less time and cost to install. The only downside of interlock kits is that they take a few seconds longer to operate – a three-step instead of a one-step process.

Most of the folks in my neighborhood have opted for interlock kits over manual transfer switches. Generally speaking, we would rather spend a few extra seconds at our electrical panel than have to pay extra for an electrician’s time. Like me, they’re more than willing to pay for convenience during a power outage, but mind spending a few extra seconds to save a few bucks.

One thing is for certain: Whether you choose a transfer switch or an interlock, you’ll be ready to get through your next power outage in style.

Posted in Blog.