When a major storm unplugged my home from the power grid for the fourth time in recent years, the whining started immediately: Here we go again with the spoiled food, the lack of running water, the dormant oil burner.
We cooked food in the fireplace like good campers. Then, heading into the second night of the storm, we settled around the fire. All I could think of was our vulnerability to a house fire or carbon monoxide fumes from the fireplace.
Time for a generator.
Time, in other words, to bleed money and enter a process where I’d try to conceal deep ignorance while talking to retailers and electrical contractors – all of whom, of course, knew better.
To keep the fiscal bleeding to a minimum, I sought guidance from people who know a thing or two about buying and installing generators. They included Julie Selton, a master electrician; Stephen Borrelli, president of All-Brite Electric in Connecticut; Michael McAlister, a co-author of “Wiring Complete,” a reference book for homeowners; and Lisette Rice, the Home Depot’s generator merchant. (She reminded me that the smart time to buy and install a generator is when the forecast is free of hurricanes or blizzards, when you don’t have to fight the crowds for one.)
My experts suggested brushing up on some basic electrical knowledge, getting to know your home’s wiring and thinking hard about what you really need to get through a storm. Doing so, they said, can save you considerable amounts of money, and maybe save a life in the meantime.
Homeowners should decide which parts of their homes are truly crucial. “Is it a freezer with hundreds of dollars’ worth of meat in it?” Selton said. “A well pump? A home office you have to power up?”
If you want your entire house to work as it normally does, have an extra $8,000 to $10,000 on hand. So-called standby generators from manufacturers like Kohler, Caterpillar, Generac and Cummins Onan switch on automatically when your electricity shuts off, and can power everything in your house. Units that can power an average-size home sell for roughly $5,000, and they require a concrete slab, a propane source and wiring connections installed by an electrical contractor.
How much power?
After you identify the electrical appliances you’ll need to withstand a power failure, tally up the wattage those appliances need to run. Voltage can also be crucial., but I’ll get to that nuance in a minute. Check the nameplates of your major appliances and record the amps and the volts. If information is missing, call the manufacturer or retailer who sold it to you. I wanted to run the refrigerator, well pump, furnace and maybe one or two outlets for lights. Total watts: about 3,800.
In theory, I could get away with a $350 generator rated for 4,000 starting watts and 3,500 running watts. An appliance requires more wattage to start up than it does to run, so the “starting watts” measure covers that surge. It just so happened that days after the storm, my mother bought a 3,500-watt generator before realizing that it wouldn’t suit her home. Retailers generally adopt a no-returns policy on generators, so she was stuck with it – and offered it to me. While the 3,500 measurement obviously falls short of my overall capacity of 3,800, I could simply unplug the fridge and run the well pump when we needed running water.
Call an electrician
If my well pump and furnace had outlets, I could have connected them to the generator, with roughly $100 worth of cords. But neither of those units had outlets, so I sought help from an electrician.
Some homeowners avoid this step and power the house by plugging the generator into existing outlets, but this is dangerous and illegal. With that type of setup, homeowners can send electrical current from their generator to the power lines, endangering workers who are repairing the lines. It can also endanger anyone handling the power cords in the house, and leave it vulnerable to fires. (Google “backfeeding” for horror stories.)
My experts all suggested installing a transfer switch, which is a secondary panel that typically sits next to the house’s main circuit breaker. It includes a limited number of circuits dedicated to the appliances or areas of the home you deem important. When the power goes off, you use the transfer switch to shut off the power to the main circuit breaker panel and then send electricity to your chosen few circuits with the generator.
A good electrician will choose the best transfer switch for your needs and apply for the installation permit with your city or town.
Just before having the transfer switch installed, I called Mom’s house again to ask why exactly the generator wouldn’t work for their home. The generator delivered enough wattage to power her well pump, but not enough volts.
I called my well pump’s installer.
“Oh yeah,” said Bill, the representative. “It’s 230 volts, so a 110-volt generator wouldn’t work. We’ve seen a lot of pumps burn out in the last couple years because they were underpowered.”
This was the day before my transfer switch installation, which would total $850.
I had three options. I could go ahead with the installation and simply choose not to run the well pump on the generator. I could instead bail on the transfer switch and buy cords to power my refrigerator and a window air-conditioning unit in a summer storm. Or I could try to sell my existing generator on Craigslist and subsidize a 220-volt generator for between $500 and $1,000.
With the transfer switch and smaller generator, I could at least keep the house warm in the winter. But how much more would we have paid for working showers and toilets in the previous storms? How much would we have paid for hotel rooms?
Would $500 be a fair number?
When all this spending stops, at least one thing is certain. I will sleep peacefully, knowing that for the reminder of my stay in this house, even the most vicious storms will somehow leave my neighborhood’s power lines unscathed.
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