In light of the Super Storms we have seen over the course of the past two 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 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 last storm, 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. 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.
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 one 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.”
How long will generators supply power?
According to Vendituoli the generators duration 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 inexpensice 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 be 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.
- Shut off your home generator and let it cool down before re-fueling.
- 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.
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 households will have some version of 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.