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November 16, 2012
by Norm Jen
With Sandy, this is the third time I’ve lost power for a significant period of time in two years (I lost power during Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snow storm last year, too). In the coming weeks and months, there is sure to be plenty of discussion about what we can do to prevent such outages in the future. Personally, two adages come to mind: a) “You can’t fight Mother Nature;” and b) “Always be prepared” (compliments of my old Boy Scout days). So when it comes down to natural disasters, I boil it down two words: self help. Apply these two words to our recent mess, and for me, I can further boil it down to one word: generator.
Generators can be wonderful, but they also pose new problems. My best suggestion to those considering buying a generator is to invest the time to plan properly (a trustworthy licensed electrician is very helpful here). Among the considerations:
• How much are you willing to spend on a generator?
• How big a generator do you really need? Put another way, do you need the whole house to run off a generator, or are you prepared to forgo the use of major appliances like air conditioners, washers, dryers, electric stoves, etc?
• When the power goes out, are you capable of setting up a generator and starting it?
• Where will the generator be located?
Generally, there are two types of generators: permanent and portable.
Permanent generators are ideal for large applications (powering most or all of a house). Many feature an “automatic transfer switch” which senses the loss of power from the utility company, automatically starts the generator, and switches the house electrical panel from the utility line to the generator (when power is restored, it automatically transfers the house back to the utility line and shuts down the generator). These generators can burn a variety of fuels including natural gas, liquid propane and diesel fuel.
Properly planned, you will have at least several days’ worth of fuel stored in a tank, or your generator is connected to an existing natural gas line. Either way, this means you won’t have to keep filling the generator with gas (no waiting in gas lines!).
So what is the downside? Permanent generators are quite expensive to install (around $12,000 and up) and a building permit is most likely required. No doubt about it; if I hit the lottery, I’d install a permanent generator.
Portable generators are ideal for smaller or, with planning, moderate load applications. The primary benefit of portable generators is cost ($1,000 and up, if you hire an electrician to do some wiring work as I’ll discuss below). There are two drawbacks to portable generators: First, when the power goes out, the homeowner must do a little work: get the generator out of storage, fuel it up, plug it into the house, and start it up. Second, portable generators are not likely to deliver sufficient power to run an entire house, so the homeowner would need to sacrifice the use of appliances that draw lots of power.
I opted for a portable generator. I felt comfortable setting it up and keeping it filled with gas (boy, those gas lines bring back memories from the 1970s!). In my case, the generator ran the essentials: the refrigerator, boiler, microwave, lights, and TV. What did I not have available when on the generator? The washer, electric dryer, electric stove, and air conditioning. All in all, my family survived “Sandy week” in relative comfort.
Planning is critical to a happy life with a generator.
If you are planning on a permanent generator, the installer will work through most of the matters for you. For those considering a portable generator, you might need to do some planning on your own. Some of the key considerations include:
Figure out how big a generator you need. Electrical power is measured in watts, so most generators are rated by the number of watts they can deliver. Most larger portable generators deliver around 5000 watts. Is that enough for your house? Calculating the amount of power needed involves taking an inventory of the devices in your house that draw power. The Honda generator web site has two excellent web pages that I like to reference. One is a “wattage estimation guide.” The other is titled “Power Management: get more power from a smaller generator.” The latter page is a great lesson for us homeowners. Have a good read and you’ll learn that with some power management on your part, a portable generator can keep a very substantial part of your house running!
Find a location where the generator will be set up and operated when the power goes out. Consider the following:
• SAFETY FIRST: This must be an outdoor location with plenty of ventilation. Generators can produce carbon monoxide. Make sure there is a battery-powered operating CO detector in the house when running a generator.
• Will you be able to get the generator out of storage and set up in its designated location (in the dark)? These so-called portable generators weigh somewhere around 150 lbs. so don’t plan on pulling one out of shed and up a hill by yourself.
• Can you easily bring full gas cans from your car to the generator to fill it up?
• Is there a way for an electrician to run a line from the house main electrical panel to the generator (see below)?
Hire an electrician to install a manual transfer switch and a generator receptacle. All generators have a couple standard electrical outlets on the side of the generator and I have seen several cases where homeowners were running extension cords to the standard outlets. While this is nice, the chances are that larger generators are being under-utilized in such a configuration—you are not likely to get all the power the generator is capable of delivering through those standard outlets. There is a better solution: most larger generators also have a large four-prong receptacle that is intended to power the house electrical panel.
I strongly recommend that you hire an electrician to install an electrical line from the house electrical panel to a weather-proof receptacle mounted to the side of the house. From there, it is a simple one-cord connection from the house receptacle to the four-prong generator receptacle. Not only does this make setup easier, but it is safer (fewer wires) and it ensures that you are maximizing the utilization of the generator.
Very important: male sure to also have a transfer switch installed. If a generator is connected to the house without a transfer switch, you may be energizing the power lines going out from your house. This is a definite safety hazard to utility line workers.
Generators can help us all prepare for the next big one. Plan and prepare. Above all, be safe!
Here’s a link to the town’s website, where you can download a fact sheet on the town’s permitting process and a construction permit.
Norm Jen, a New Castle resident, contractor and instructor, is Energy Coach for Energize New York and its sibling, Energize New Castle. Both websites lead to info on critical measures each household can take to save energy and dollars.