Dear Eco Ed, I am fed up with these power outages!

Dear Eco-Ed:

I am fed up with these power outages!  This is our third one in two years, and we were out for 8 days this time (14 days after Hurricane Irene).  I’ve heard about generators, and the whole concept seems complicated.  I do not feel comfortable with one of those portable units with power cords running everywhere.  I went to Home Depot and they gave me pricing for a whole-house generator.  It was $14,000, and I’m not really sure what I’m getting, or if it is overkill.  They did not take any time to explain it to me.  They just gave me this price, and asked me if I wanted it, Yes or No.  Is this a good option?  Will it protect me in future storms?  Am I being unreasonable in my expectations?

– Confused in Glen Rock

Dear Confused:

Ask Eco Ed any question and he provide a professional, helpful answer. He is here to help you tackle problems.

I have received dozens of calls on this subject over the past few days.  First of all, your expectations are not unreasonable.  With important issues such as emergency power to your home, and the costs involved, you are certainly entitled to understand and to deal with people who have the patience and understanding to help you.  Generators are a simple concept, but surprisingly detailed in actual execution.  So detailed, with so many options, that I will be meeting with one of my trusted electricians who specializes in generators this week.  We will package a simplified menu of options for homeowners, detailed below.

QUALIFICATION STATEMENT:  This does not happen often, so enjoy it for the moment – I am temporarily stepping away from my consistent position of always minimizing energy use and carbon footprint! We need to address the realities and the severity of this subject, as it has a great impact on all of our lives.  As fuel cells and renewable energy options become available and cost competitive, we will thoroughly research these options.First and foremost is understanding and assessing your family’s NEEDS and DESIRES with regards to power continuity. Your tolerance for modern conveniences (and lack thereof) is a very personal decision, where boilerplate options may not apply.  There is no simple answer, and you may merely not want to tolerate any inconvenience.  My family’s “needs” have shifted due to the increasing frequency of these power outages, along with my belief that the effects of Global Climate Change is making these weather patterns the “new normal.”  Our washing machine and dryer were not on our initial list.  However, after being without power for weeks, they have now sneaked up onto that list!  Some of the questions to ask yourself are: How critical is continuous power?  How often do you think there will be power outages in the future?  For what duration?  What appliances do you have that run on natural gas, as it is much more rare for natural gas service to be disrupted then it is for electrical service?  Do you have a home office?  Do any family members have critical care medical equipment?  Are there any other risks of power interruption, such as operation of sump pumps or other health and safety issues?  What kind of condition is your family in financially?

The next set of questions will help you determine the sizing of the generator you will need.  Do you want to simply power your entire house, with as little impact as possible?  If your budget allows, this is the most convenient option.  Do you need to provide emergency power to sump pumps only to keep your basement from flooding?  Refrigerators/freezers?  Kitchen?  Heating of cooling systems? Lights, TV’s or networks?   Washing machine/dryer?  Once you determine your scope of appliances needed, your electrician can then help you determine the proper sizing for your generator.

Then there are additional questions that a good electrician will lead you through to also choose an appropriate system.  How long do you want to be protected in case of emergency, and how much effort are you willing to undertake?  These are critical because you don’t want to be sold on a false sense of security.  Many generators are great options for short-term outages, but are not really made to run for weeks on end.  During an extended power outage IS NOT AN IDEAL TIME TO LEARN THIS ABOUT YOUR SYSTEM!  Some systems need to be shut down regularly to refuel, service, to add or change oil, etc.  Your generator is somewhat like an insurance policy.  In that sense you want to do your homework properly, so that you do not find out afterwards that you will not be covered when you need it most.

The following options all have pros and cons, so this is merely a quick overview from least to most expensive:  The simplest option is to get a portable gas-powered generator.  These units are easily moved into place, and can be set up outside your house in times of need.  You can run extension cords into your home with surge protectors and run to appliances directly, such as refrigerators, TV’s, lights, etc.  These can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.  Be sure to have gas cans and power cords available, and ALWAYS be cognizant to keep exhaust fumes away from any open windows or doors, as the carbon monoxide can be lethal.  You can have your electrician pre-wire your electric service so that these units can attach directly to your electrical box to avoid running power cords around your home.   These units can also be sizable enough to run all of your critical systems, and cost a couple of thousand dollars.  A more comprehensive solution is a stationary, or standby generator.  These can run on a variety of fuels, such as gasoline, diesel, propane, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), or can be hooked directly into the natural gas service of your home.  They can even run on battery packs or powered by renewable energy sources, but the costs of these options can be significant.  These standby generators are typically installed in a permanent location, and include a transfer switch, which automatically turns them on in the case of a power outage.  This can happen while you sleep or if you are not even home.  They can also be designed with a smart load-balancing switch, have cold-weather protection options, and can have UPS so that there is no disruption to any running computer applications or for servicing of the generator during use.  These units can easily be over $10,000, and can be significantly higher with all of the bells and whistles.  They will also add value to your home, as they are a capital improvement.

It is strongly recommended that all electrical and plumbing (gas lines) be done by licensed professionals, that proper permits are taken out.

As mentioned earlier, I will be sitting down with a well-qualified electrician, and will create a checklist of questions and a menu of options to help homeowners make the best decision that will meet their family’s needs.  It will be thorough and go into enough detail so that homeowners understand the options as best possible.  We will be reaching out to people to provide that level of detail and service.  For additional detail on these questions and qualified professionals, I can be reached at

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