In light of the Super Storms we have seen over the course of the past years, many people are purchasing generators for their homes and many more are talking about them. While our ancestors may have lived without heat, electricity and hot water times have changed and these things are really no luxury, they are a necessity. It may be inconvenient to lose power for a couple of hours should a transformer blow, but when a Super Storm takes down trees, wires, and poles, a simple fix is clearly not the solution. Our electrical systems are intricate and complicated ones. On day 6 after the storm a few years ago, Hurricane Sandy, I was still without power.
This became, to me and my family, less about surfing the internet and messaging friends or even writing architectural pieces for Freshome, and more about simple human needs. My children needed heat to keep warm as temperatures were dipping into the 30s outside. We needed warm food but I had no stove or oven that I could use. All the food in my refrigerator had spoiled. We needed showers. It all felt so primitive. We needed these simple and basic necessities. We needed to survive and we needed to get on with our lives and our routines. Now we’re into the cold, dark and long winter months. Heavy snows and freezing temperatures make being powerless not only uncomfortable but dangerous as well. I started to think about generators but really had no knowledge about them. So I contacted my friend, and home builder, Todd Vendituoli, and asked him some questions that would provide me with some basic information. This should be your first step as well, getting in contact with someone that does this for a living and they know what they doing.
Where can someone go to get generator information and advice?
Like many affected by Hurricane Sandy, I’m thinking of getting a generator but have no idea where to start. According to Vendituoli there “are numerous places where you could start, and the first would be your local lumber yard, hardware store or a local electrician. Any of these resources should be able to help with your initial questions.”
Because generator sizes and budgets, as well as homeowners needs, are so varied there are no general rules involving generators. Vendituoli goes on to explain that “generators come in various sizes depending on their intended use. A small portable model can be used with an extension cord to power a few lights and your refrigerator to keep food from spoiling. As the units grow larger they are capable of being integrally attached to your home wiring systems, and some can be made so that they are fully automatic. With these larger models, when the power goes off there is about a 15-second delay and the generator starts itself and transfers the power to the home. When the power comes back, it will automatically shut itself off too.”
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How long will generators supply power?
According to Vendituoli, the duration of the generator will “all depend, but with an average home and a 500-gallon propane tank, if you use your generator wisely, it can last you for days and days. You really shouldn’t run it 24 hours, anyhow.” Because part of the power outages on the east coast, aside from the downed wires and trees, had much to do with the incredible flooding he suggests that for those homes where flooding is an issue, generators should be built on a raised platform.
How much do they cost?
I wanted to know what I might expect to pay for a generator? Vendituoil explains that “depending on the generator you buy you could spend roughly $500 for a small one that could be used for a few circuits or with an extension cord and from there the prices rise to in the area of $30,000. An automatic system for an average home should be in the $5-7,000 range with all of the needed parts and installed.” If an automatic generator is installed by a supplier, an electrician can run through the operation and maintenance that needs to be done. The installer or supplier will be able to thoroughly instruct you on all that you will need to know to operate your generator.
How much gas do these generators require?
Having heard so much about the recent gas shortages I wondered how much gas one would need to have on hand. Vendituoli told me that “generally the smaller units require gasoline but the larger automatic ones are connected directly to your propane tank or natural gas line. Your local propane company can bring over a tank to be used for that purpose.” The people who install the large generator will have to bring a propane tank specifically sized for your particular unit. “Smaller, portable models, generally have a small tank with a few gallons of gas at the most. The amount of gas needed really depends on the unit size and how much power they are generating.” He continued on telling me “my sister keeps the tank full and if there is a chance of bad weather or power outage she will go before and get 10 gallons. If it’s a bad outage and she can’t easily get more, she rations the time the generator is running to save fuel.”
General maintenance tips:
- Be sure to pump unused gas from the tank into storage containers with an inexpensive siphon pump.
- Add stabilizer to stored gasoline; use up the aging gas in your lawn equipment or car.
- Purchase spare oil and filters for your home generator so you’ll have these on hand during an emergency.
- Run your generator for a few minutes each month to keep the carburetor clean: shut off the fuel valve while it’s running and run the carburetor dry.
- Always check the oil before starting your home generator.
- Generators need frequent oil changes – do this diligently during extended use and plan for the collection and proper disposal of used oil.
- Don’t let your home generator run out of gas when it’s supplying electricity – this can damage the generator coils.
- Let the generator cool off before refueling. Never refuel when it’s running.
- Also, follow all recommended safety procedures and maintenance schedules in the manual. It’s been said that “with great power, comes great responsibility”. If you’re not ready to commit to the regular care and feeding of a generator, you just might be better off without one.
Of the dozens of deaths attributed to Hurricane Sandy, many were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators being run in garages, basements, porches and other enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. Unfortunately, the rush to power a home without lights, heat or a running refrigerator, can leave little time to protect yourself and your home from the generator itself. Before the next emergency, here are five known hazards you can prevent.
Running the generator too close to the home. If you have a stationary generator, it should have been professionally installed as far away from the home as its instructions and local codes require. But for a portable, the threat from carbon monoxide—an odorless, invisible gas—can be deadly. Keep it away from any doors and windows. Never run it in a garage, even if the doors are open. Instructions for a portable generator warn you not to run it in the rain. To protect it from moisture, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends operating it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure.
Overusing extension cords. When a storm hits, many supplies become hard to find, extension cords included. This means that for a brand-new generator, you have to rely on cords that might be years old—and unsafe for what you’re connecting. If your generator has a 220-volt outlet, have your electrician install a transfer switch with an outdoor power inlet—meaning one safe connection rather than multiple questionable ones. But if your generator is small and lacks a 220-volt outlet, your only possible connections are through extension cords. Stock up on 12-gauge cords, which can handle most 110-volt appliances.
Connecting directly to your service panel. Anything hard-wired to your service panels, such as ranges and heating/cooling systems, have no plugs you could connect to the generator. So the temptation may arise to connect the generator right to the service panel. The danger? When the power comes back, the excess could flow back up the line and endanger utility workers.
Shrugging off fuel considerations. Ideally, you’d think about available fuel before buying a generator—and envision the blocked roads, closed gas stations, gas rationing, and other problems some people are still experiencing after every SHTF event. So whether your generator uses gasoline, diesel fuel, or propane, you need to have plenty on hand at the first sign of a storm. (For a stationary unit using natural gas, you should be fine.) Most portables use roughly 8 to 22 gallons of gasoline a day, compared with four to eight 20-pound tanks of propane for portable models. A 250-gallon propane tank for stationary units can run 8 to 15 days. Before refueling a gasoline unit, however, you’ll need to turn it off and let it cool. Splashing gas on the hot exhaust, near the spark plug, or elsewhere on a running generator could easily start a fire.
Neglecting the maintenance. Your owner’s manual will tell you how often to change the oil and which to use—including instructions for doing so after the first few hours of operation. If your generator uses gasoline, mix in stabilizer before fueling and avoid long-term storage of fuel. (Every six months you can pour unused gasoline into your car’s gas tank and start with fresh stabilized fuel.) Skipping routine maintenance won’t ruin your generator but the lack of attention may mean it won’t start or seizes up. And no power means that sump pumps can’t drain a flooded basement. If you have a well, you’ll have no water for showers or toilets. During the winter, pipes can freeze and burst.
Todd adds ” As with any engine there is routine maintenance such as changing the oil, spark plugs and if there is a battery, re-charging or obtaining a new one.” He recommends “for smaller units, periodic starting is a good thing as well as adding a gas stabilizer because gas does go bad after a while. The automatic ones are generally set to start themselves once a week to make sure the battery stays charged and that they are working properly.
What is the future of the generator?
I asked Todd what his thoughts were regarding generator trends. I wondered whether the buzz was greater now on the heels of the most recent Super Storm or whether they would indeed become the not new home item of the future. “I think that as these events potentially become more common, every or most household’s will have some version of a generator for when outages occur.”
Todd stresses the importance of placing all generators outside away from the home and away from windows. “Generators give off carbon monoxide which can be deadly.” He adds that “while it may be more convenient to start one in your basement versus going out into the rain or cold, this should never be done.” Please be sure to have the necessary carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in place throughout your home, and check them regularly to ensure that they are working properly.
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