Who wants to be without lights, heat, air conditioning or a working refrigerator? Try asking someone who experienced days of power outage after the Oklahoma tornado or during Superstorm Sandy.
“We’re still putting generators in since Sandy,” said Dale Durling Sr., president of Wire’s Electrical Shop, Hackettstown, N.J. “People don’t realize how important electricity is until they don’t have it.” That’s for sure.
In conversations with homeowners interested in residential generators, an electrical contractor can assume the role of educator.
“The role of the EC is a large and important [one] regarding generators. They know all the codes. They understand voltage, amperage, circuit breakers, starting watts, and understand the product from a safety standpoint. They are the gatekeepers for these products,” said Dan Giampetroni, business manager, residential and light commercial, Kohler Power.
“When I talk to people about buying a generator, I give them all of their options,” Durling said. “Each house is different, and the size of the generator is determined by what they want to power. Conversations can start with the customer saying, ‘I want the whole house.’ I detail it for them, and they might say, ‘Well, 15 grand is more than I wanted to spend on the generator.’”
Cost is only one issue.
“The larger the generator, the more fuel it’s going to use, so the customer has to consider that,” Durling said. “During Superstorm Sandy, my family was without power for 11 days. I ran our 12-kilowatt [kW] automatic standby generator 24 hours a day during the outage. My liquid propane gas bill for those 11 days was $900. It’s something to consider.”
During a conversation with a client, Durling brings up all the issues starting with the basics, suggesting a water pump for use of the bathroom, a heating system, a refrigerator. Then, he expanded the choices: Do you want the TV, the electric lights? Do you want the garage door opener, or can you pull it up yourself? Want to be warned if the oil is low? Or too hot? Pick a generator with a low-oil cutoff to safeguard the engine. Pick one with a high-temperature shutdown, which protects the generator from overheating. Can you pull the generator around and put it in place during a storm? Can you start it yourself with a pull cord, or do you need a generator with an electric start?
Durling also informs his customers about load—the energy consumed by a generator in providing power to a certain number of appliances or systems.
“After the customer tells me what they want to power, I figure the load and then determine what 75 percent of that equates to in order to determine the size generator needed,” he said. “We can’t load a generator to 100 percent because some of the load is motor load, and motors draw three or four times the amount of current to start them. So many things govern the size, kind and cost. They have X number of dollars to spend, and you try to come up with a solution to do what they want to do. Sometimes it’s hard to find that happy [middle] ground.”
An EC can also handle generator sales. Some ECs are signatories to a certain company. Some are not.
“We use multiple vendors,” said Jeremy Wilcox, estimator, Wilcox Electric and Service Inc., Normal, Ill. “When a customer tells us what they want to power, we tell them they need a specific kilowatt generator. Then, we ask for pricing from different vendors, and we usually give them options. We’ll give them a base bid. Then, we’ll say, if you want to add AC, add this much. Add a well, add this much.”
He said price and warranty are two important distinguishing factors. Warranties vary company to company and product to product in terms of time—two to five years.
There are two types of residential generators: portable and permanent standby. They are rated by their maximum electrical power output in kilowatts.
Many homeowners buy a portable generator at a local hardware store or online, but others contact an EC. Portables range in price from $300 to $2,600, depending on power, which ranges from 2,000 watts (W) to 15,000W or more. They are manually operated, powered by an internal combustion engine, fueled by gasoline or liquid propane, and require the use of properly rated extension cords. Generally, they are designed to power a few items—such as a refrigerator, a few lights, a heater or fan or sump pump—but not an entire home.
“The downside to portable generators is that, on the high side, they run for 8 to 9 hours on one tank of gasoline, which means the customer has to refill them and often go somewhere to buy gasoline if an outage is longer than that,” Durling said.
During Superstorm Sandy, he continued, “There was a picture in the newspaper of lines of 40–50 people waiting to get gas for their portable generators. Others who needed propane couldn’t get fuel because the trees were down and propane trucks couldn’t get to their neighborhoods.”
While many people carefully and successfully refuel their portable generators, there can be problems.
“When you fill a hot gasoline engine with gas and overfill it and it spills, it’s a potential fire hazard,” Durling said.
An abundance of extension cords can be a problem as well.
Part of the EC’s role as educator should include informing customers of proper positioning and how to maintain a generator after the sale. Portable generators may be stored but not operated in a garage or shed. During an outage, they should be placed at least 10 feet from a residence.
“If they’re running a gas engine, [homeowners] have to know they can’t run it in the garage, the porch or the house because of the carbon monoxide fumes,” Durling said. “It has to be a safe distance away so that fumes do not seep into a house or any nearby buildings.”
As far as maintenance goes, homeowners must take certain steps, for a portable generator to be ready to use when they need it.
“I’ve sold generators years ago to people who put them in the garage, and left them in there with gas in them. When they pulled them out to start them, either the battery was dead because they had an electric start unit or the gas had lacquered up, gone bad, since gasoline has an average shelf life of about six months,” Durling said. “Customers have to check the battery, change the oil, and replace their gas fuel supply at least twice a year. They also will need to add fuel stabilizer that lengthens the fuel life.”
An EC also can offer a customer a pricier, but more convenient option: Hooking up a portable generator to permanent wiring of through their home’s circuit box at a cost of about $800 to $1,500 installed. The EC installs a permanent emergency subpanel; a transfer switch that will prevent backfeeding to the power lines, which would endanger technicians working on the power lines; and a weatherproof bulkhead with a plug on the outside of a residence. In the event of an outage, a resident’s portable generator can be moved out of where it is stored, be positioned outside the house, and be hooked up using an extension cord to the plug on the side of the house, a setup that relieves the homeowner of the inconvenience of running multiple extension cords.
“We manufacture a full line of manual transfer switches that allow contractors to set a home up to be able to take power safely from a portable to a home. That’s a midrange solution,” said Kyle Raabe, vice president, sales, wholesale distribution, Generac Power Systems Inc.
Other generator companies offer similar services.
Permanent standby generators
“Most people’s awareness of permanent standby generators is very limited,” Giampetroni said. “According to market research, 45 percent of those who bought a standby had previously owned a portable. And the reason was the ‘hassle factor.’ They make comments like, ‘I’ll never go through that again.’ The people who buy them are the ones who’ve suffered through a storm.”
Customers who want a permanent standby generator need an EC’s participation for installation and to apply for the installation permit required by municipalities. To do the setup, the EC will install an emergency subpanel to the main circuit breaker in the home, mount an automatic transfer switch that will monitor utility power and transfer the electrical load to the generator in the case of a power outage.
The EC will also prepare the site for the generator and set it in place. It’s not recommended by Code or warranty to set a permanent standby generator directly on the ground. It is conventional to set a permanent standby generator on poured concrete. Another viable option is specially made pads created as a base for a generator, and these pads are one-half the weight of poured concrete and cheaper, since they do not require a concrete pour. The generator pad—available from several manufacturers—can be set directly on the ground, and the generator is bolted to it.
“When we install standbys, we build a base out of 6-by-6-inch Wolmanized lumber a bit larger than the composite pad that comes with the generator, fill it with three-quarter crushed stone, lag bolt the pad to the wolmanized base, and secure the generator to the pad,” Durling said.
Since the installation process also involves a natural gas or liquid propane connection, an EC can subcontract that undertaking to a plumber or gas professional, or the customer can arrange for their gas provider to handle the connection.
While pricier than portable generators, with a price tag of $2,800 to $7,000 and up for larger water-cooled units, permanent standby generators are automated and can power a whole house depending on size.
“The transfer switch is the brains behind it,” Giampetroni said. “During a power outage, the automatic transfer switch is always sensing electricity coming from the utility. As soon as it sees electricity go away, it automatically starts the generator. When it is up to speed and is producing electricity, the transfer switch shuts off the utility connection, and opens up the connection so that the generator can power up the house. As soon as the power comes back online, the transfer switch will switch automatically back to the utility and the generator will shut down. It’s all automatic, which is why we call it the brains behind everything.”
According to several manufacturers, the most popular permanent standby generator model is the 20-kW, the largest air-cooled engine generator. It retails for approximately $5,000. Larger generators, 24 or 30 kW, have liquid-cooled engines, and the price can be double that of the 20 kW. Installation ranges from $4,000 to $8,000, depending on the variables, such as fuel. Standby generators are built to be fueled by either liquid or natural gas—a conversion made simple by manufacturers. Therefore, if a liquid propane tank already exists on the property and is large enough, installing one wouldn’t be necessary, but piping to the generator may be. If natural gas to the home exists, that could be used as a fuel source, and no tank would be necessary. Another variable is the price of permits, which can vary by city.
What’s new? This year’s standby generators address previous model issues. Kohler’s 14RESA and 20RESA 14-kW and 20-kW models have lower sound levels and also feature the load control module, which presents a customer the option of buying a smaller generator because the technology allows for loads to cycle on and off depending on priority—for example, air conditioning on, water heater off. Another new feature of the Kohler line is the programmable interface module, which is tied into Kohler’s OnCue/E Generator Management System and allows for “smart home” capabilities, such as remotely operating porch lights or automatic hurricane shutters.
Generac’s new Guardian Series is compatible with Mobile Link—a cellular remote monitoring system—and includes smart transfer switches that can manage loads and multilingual LCD displays.
Beyond the specifics, the bottom line of residential generators is that there’s no need until there’s a need, and when homeowners have them in a power-outage situation, they’re thankful they made the investment.
“You don’t need one unless there’s no power,” Durling said. “The last 30 years I lived in my house [in New Jersey], the most I was out of power was for eight hours. Then came Superstorm Sandy. Generators quickly sell out before and during emergencies, and with more frequent storms, we’ve probably done more generators in the last five years than in the 65 year history of the company.”
“Customers will call me,” Wilcox said, “and say, ‘I’ve had X amount of days without utility power and I was still able to do everything I normally do because of the generator.’”
That’s the point.