How to Keep the Power on When Storms Hit
Natural gas generators are sparing homeowners the agony of losing power and their cool during this summer's many storms.
The thunderstorms that left thousands of residents without power this summer have prompted an increase in homeowners to install standby natural gas generators to avoid being left in the dark—and heat—again.
Nicor Gas service representatives have noticed since late April, and most recently this July, an uptick in requests for gas meter upgrades to accommodate natural gas generators in DuPage, Lake and western Cook counties, said Nicor Gas spokesperson Richard Caragol.
Local generator dealers agree their business has spiked in the last several weeks because of weather-related power outages in the suburbs, but they are quick to note generator sales and installations have been increasing over the past few years.
“We used to do one installation a month, but now we’re doing three or four a week,” said Paul Adank, partner with Mpower, a Downers Grove-based generator dealership serving the Chicago area. “It’s become a desirable appliance.”
How it Works
When a power outage occurs, a standby generator automatically switches on to run everything from critical appliances including the refrigerator, sump pump and lights, to whole house systems such as central air conditioning. The generator, which can run on propane or natural gas, sits outside the home and is hooked up to existing gas lines. A transfer switch automatically monitors the utility power and transfers the electrical load to the generator. Therefore, the homeowner does not need to be home during an emergency to transfer the power.
This differs from a portable generator fueled by gasoline that requires manual operation during a power outage. With this option, appliances also have to be plugged into the unit with extension cords that are rated for the electrical load and distance they run to the portable generator, which must be stored outside to avoid carbon monoxide risks.
“Most people think of the portable option when they think of a generator, but for backing up the home, it is not the best solution,” said Melanie Tydrich, senior channel manager of Residential Generator Products at Kohler Power Systems, a manufacturer of generators in Kohler, WI.
The Right Size
Exactly how much power is sufficient for one household? To answer that question, experts advise homeowners to conduct an assessment of critical appliances and systems they would need to be backed up during a power outage.
“It’s more than just lighting candles when the power goes out," said Tydrich, citing a substantial financial loss if the sump pump fails and the basement floods, or food spoils. More people are reliant on electronics and being connected so there is also the loss of convenience, she added.
“Think about things that need to be backed up from a safety and security standpoint,” Tydrich said. For example, is a family member on medication that needs to be refrigerated? Does a family member work from home? Is there a sump pump in the basement or security system in the house?
To calculate the generator size you need, click here.
A crucial item to back up for homeowners is central air conditioning, especially during this hot and humid summer. But most don’t understand that air conditioning systems will increase the size of the generator, to not only keep it running but to start it up, said Steven Kruzich, owner of Get Power Now!™, a generator dealership based in Joliet that serves the Chicagoland area.
“The starting current for air conditioning is four to five times greater than the running current,” said Kruzich, who is also a licensed electrician. “Smaller generators for critical appliances can run the AC but cannot start it.”
Knowing what appliances need back up will help determine if a generator is needed for the whole house or only a few select circuits. Adank said a rule of thumb in determining what size generator to purchase is one kilowatt for every electrical circuit.
Tydrich, who confirmed Kohler has seen an increase in sales of residential generators in recent weeks, said the most popular model is the 20 kW air-cooled generator. She said for a house with 3,000 square feet or less, the 20 kW is sufficient to power the whole house including central air conditioning, a sump pump, refrigerator and other critical appliances.
Homeowners interested in selective circuits can opt for the 7 to 10 kW range of generators, according to Kruzich.
The 20 kW generators typically start at the retail price of less than $5,000, but the price does not include installation.
Since the generator is an investment, whether it will increase the value of the home depends on the location and electrical services. “I haven’t had a buyer say they want a back-up generator (as an amenity) in the 10 years I’ve been in the business, but if you’re in a neighborhood with excessive power outages, a back-up system will have value,” said Joe Kenny, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Hinsdale.
The physical installation of the generator may only take a day, but the entire process typically takes two to three weeks. It involves obtaining a permit from the city or village and working with Nicor to determine the equipment necessary to accommodate the extra natural gas load. For this reason, homeowners are encouraged to work with a generator dealer, who can take the customer through the entire process.
Homeowners must obtain a permit from their village or city to install a standby generator. While each municipallity will differ in its requirements, most codes are for location of the unit and noise.
So far in 2011, the village of Glen Ellyn has issued five generator permits, and in 2010 the village issued 19 permits.
Here's how you can obtain the proper permit for a generator in Glen Ellyn:
- Submit an application for building permit signed by the homeowner along with a copy of a survey, which has the proposed location of the generator and an equipment specification sheet published by the manufacturer.
- Generator must be installed by a licensed, registered electrician.
- The suvey is reviewed for lot line setback placement (preferred placement is in rear of the house).
- Upon approval of placement, a permit is issued and the fee is $60.
- A final inspection is then completed.
A Nicor service representative will assess how to best accommodate the generator, whether it’s with a larger gas meter or a larger service line. Caragol said the majority of cases do not require a larger service line, but it will depend on factors such as what exists in the location and when the house was built.
Kruzich said the majority of the time a generator larger than 8 kW will need an upgrade in the gas meter. Having an upgrade to accommodate the size of the generator is crucial to avoid dropping power to other critical appliances, he added.
A licensed, professional electrician also must install the generator, because it requires extensive electrical work.
“This is not a do-it-yourself project,” Tydrich said.
Experts also stress that much like a car, for the generator to run optimally, it requires upkeep after the installation including oil/filter changes, power quality tests and battery/charger checkups.