As a subcontractor to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), I see the immediate need for the installation of home standby generators firsthand. After a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, the air is filled with noise until electricity is restored, which could be days, weeks or longer. Add to that rolling blackouts, snow, floods and ice storms, and it is easy to see why generator sales are going through the roof.

While generators can be found at most hardware stores, it does not mean that homeowners should attempt to install them. Improperly installed generators can lead to serious injuries or death to customers and electrical contractors alike. Emphasize this to customers. In some states, electrical contractors are required by law to perform all electrical work, generator installations included. Contact your authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for your local laws.

An overview of the types of generators and a quick refresher on installation follows.

Automatic start units

Automatic units are typically placed on a slab against one wall of the house that has no operable windows or doors. When the power goes out, there is a slight delay of 15 to 20 seconds, then the generator automatically kicks on—whether anyone is home or not—and continues running until power is restored, when it will automatically shut off. This is a great kind to suggest to older customers who might not have the ability to turn a generator on and off in the dark, or those who are not comfortable with working with electrical equipment. One downside is that automatic systems need to run once a month to verify all is in working order. Many have this function built in, however.

Normally, people want a lot of wattage with automatic units as compared to portable. Kohler, for example, has units between 8.5 and 100 kilowatts (kW). Onan has units that start at 7 and go up to 150 kW. For homeowners who want systems large enough to run the house with all appliances including central air, typically a 17 kW unit is needed. However, Kohler advertises a new 12 kW unit that can do the same.

A good feature of new standby generators is they generally have digital readout controls on output, battery voltage, oil pressure, engine hours, run conditions, system fault conditions and password-secure access (Kohler offers this on units 8 to 30 kW).

One big downside to automatic systems is the cost. Your customers will have to shell out $7,000 for the unit alone. Depending on the size of the unit, when it is all said and done, customers could be dropping $10,000 or more.

Make sure to ask customers where they live. If, for example, the live in a flood plain (like New Orleans), they should not opt for an automatic system. Also, an automatic generator should never be installed where you are susceptible to a tidal surge, such as nearby the ocean.

Portable units

You will find that most customers prefer portable generators over anything else. They are less expensive to buy (approximately $1,000 to $3,000), can be stored above flood level and moved out of danger such as when a gutter collapses during a storm.

Portable power is created through a frame-mounted generator (pull start or key start) with wheels. The generator is normally stored in an outbuilding or garage. Once power goes out, the generator is retrieved, started and electrical power is transferred to the house by a heavy-duty cord. On one end is a four-prong twist-lock male plug (connecting to the generator). On the other is a female of the same connecting to a special transfer switch that separates the utility power from generator power in a way that both cannot be feeding the house at the same time or back feeding into the power lines.

Modern generators give you more

If your customer has an older generator, you may want to suggest an upgrade. In the past, generators were basic with few controls. Once started, they ran full blast until they ran out of gas or the motor seized because of lack of oil. Today’s modern portable generators, with their state-of-the-art electronic controls, can do more than just provide power. Safety controls—including one for low oil—abound. Then we get into the fancy stuff. Honda’s i-monitor series allows us to see a digital display of wattage, voltage, engine speed and hours of operation.

Installation basics

Most generator-related injuries are caused by back-feeding electricity into the provider’s system. To avoid this, install a transfer switch. When a generator is in use, a transfer switch will automatically cut off the electric connection between the electric company and household using the generator. Similarly, it will disconnect the generator connection once power has been restored.

In the past, we put the switch in its most logical place—between the meter base and the service panel. But that is no longer allowed according to the National Electrical Code (NEC). Now we have panels that connect directly into the service panel. The good news is that these panels install quickly and easily.

It has been predicted that the weather will get more unpredictable in years to come. Power outages are always a strong possibility and because of this, generator sales will continue to grow. Education is key. Providing your customers with solid knowledge on generator selection and reviewing the NEC on proper installation will help avoid accidents caused by misuse. EC

CALDWELL is a contractor, master electrician, master plumber, home inspector, author and speaker who lives in Rocky Mount, Va. He can be reached at ltmtnele@yahoo.com.