Monday, 01 December 2014 05:28

Who’s Got the Power?

Written by  Ed Malet

Want to keep the lights on this winter?

Power Winter StormDuring a February snowstorm last winter, over 39,000 homes—a fifth of Chester County—were without power. For many, that outage lasted several days. For some, it was one of several cold and dark times last winter.

Others, however, only experienced a temporary flicker, and the lights, heat, refrigerators, appliances … continued unabated. What sorcery did they possess? Magic? No. Foresight? Planning? Investment? Yes.

In general, the empowered ones had a stand-by generator. Their units kicked on automatically. Having spent about six to ten thousand dollars initially, and followed up with annual maintenance, those homeowners merely heard about the outage. Or perhaps a neighbor came by with a tale of woe, seeking information, a cell phone charge or a warm place to stay.

Others had portable generators: not an optimal solution—usually less powerful, and thus unable to run their “whole house”— but more economical than a stand-by, and, everything considered, better than nothing. Typically for the portable variety, the owners had to throw a switch, plug it in, press a button or yank a starter cord. They sacrificed some convenience and power quality. Once going, though, the unit, more or less, performed the same and kept the lights on.

Who Needs a Generator?

Anthony Guerrera of Guerrera & Sons installs generators professionally. So does George Goglia of Southern Chester County Electric, among others in our area. Not surprisingly, both report a substantial increase in installations following the winter of 2013-14. And both Guerrera and Goglia say that “anyone who can afford one” should get one. Many homeowners, however, are flummoxed and a bit hesitant given the cost.

As the interest in home generators soars, Guerrera suggests caution may be appropriate to those doing their research. “Buy American,” he advises. Not out of jingoism, but practicality. He’s thinking about replacement parts: you’ll need them ultimately. Your supply chain—think China—can be very, very long.

Both he and Goglia advise that the engine and the warranty for the generator are important. The name brands—Briggs & Stratton, Honda, Kohler—are key. For warranties, two to five years is suggested. Although ideally, you’d like the warranty to last as long as your house…

Installation Counts

After you buy your generator, the next step is to comply with the warranty’s conditions, including installation by factory-certified, experienced, code-compliant professionals. Installation counts! (Though less so for a portable generator than a stand-by.)

Guerrera says that at least four specialist skills may be needed in an installation, and it’s rare to find one person, or even one company, that has them all.

For one, a plumber is necessary for the pipes that tie your generator to the natural gas line (or propane, diesel or gasoline).

Second, a small engine specialist must tune the engine—it’s “not a lawn mower,” says Guerrera. The tuning is based on the unique combination of local site conditions including load, load sensitivity, fuel pressure, gas pressure, atmosphere, etc.

Third, wiring and other connections must be handled by a master electrician.

And finally, the installer must be trained and authorized by the specific manufacturer of the unit. The generator will require technical adjustments, which can only, under the warranty, be made by the factory-authorized provider.

This is all part of that initial investment.

As Does Maintenance

Similarly, the plan for maintenance counts. Goglia observes that a typical generator must be run at least 250 hours every year, even if not used. Once installed, a unit must be run weekly all year. Most are set up to do this automatically. And, each year, a technician will have to visit it to change the filters, plugs and oil. Think of this maintenance as similar to what you do for your heating and other systems.

With the season upon us, we all hope that this winter won’t be like last winter. We can hope. But, if there is a repeat, or if next summer Hurricane Sandy’s sister rolls up the coast, or if … Wouldn’t you like to have power?

Plan B: Go Portable

If you’ve decided a stand-by gener­ator is not for you, you may want to consider the portable option. George Goglia cautions, though: you’ll need more than the generator itself. You need a proper transfer switch—that’s not just a light switch, it’s a $500-plus panel. You can’t just plug it in and sit back.

Your first step is to determine how much wattage you’ll need from the generator. Second, what appliances and systems you’ll do without. Typi­cally, you’ll forego energy sucks, like central air conditioning.

Even after you’ve narrowed down the size you need, you’ll still find a wide choice of brands. Honda, West­inghouse, Briggs & Stratton, Generac …. and the differences may not be obvious. Honda, for example, makes a 5 kW unit for about $2500. Briggs & Stratton meanwhile makes the same size for $650. Both carry a three-year warranty, use gasoline and have about the same fuel efficiency and capacity. So why is there a three-fold price difference?

One difference is the Honda has an ignition switch; while the B&Smodel needs its cord pulled to start—think lawn mower. Another difference is the “surge wattage”—the power needed largely to start an appliance or other power-user, like sump pump, garage door opener. The Honda has more.

Other features missing in the B&Smodel are the “ground-fault circuit inter­ruption” and “low-oil shutdown”—tech­nical sounding, but they’re key safety features. The Honda may be quieter as well—ranked at 72 dB, while B&S’s level is not advertised. The cost is $1850 more, though, not to mention about 50 more pounds in weight—it’s over 220 pounds.

All this for something that probably won’t be used and will have to take up room in your shed until then … Why not think about it tomorrow?