Emergency power: part 2

As we know look upon the ice storm season, I have realized that I have not continued my post on emergency power.  Like I mentioned in the previous article, I am going to talk about whole-house generators in this article.

Whole house generators are much more money than the typical portable contractor’s generator.  You can add another zero to the price for same equivalent wattage, but what you get is really worth it, especially if you must have power, like to run medical equipment.  Even if you don’t have a NEED for backup power, the comfort and convenience of having power when  the grid is out can be very nice.

Whole house generators have much more sophisticated engines than their portable counterparts.  Some of the smallest generators are air cooled, but most of the larger ones are liquid cooled, just like our automobile’s engine.  This, coupled with the fact that they are installed in sound-deadening cabinets means that many whole house generators make no more noise than an automobile engine idling.  Whole house generators have electronic control modules in them that do many things.  One is that they sense when grid power is lost, and automatically start up.  They also start the engine up occasionally when they are not needed for testing.  That way you won’t be surprised when the generator is needed, and it won’t start.  The electronic control module is also responsible for regulating the speed of the generator, and insuring clean, in-spec power is being produced.  If the power goes dramatically out of spec to the point it cannot be adjusted, the generator will disconnect your house, and keep your appliances from being damaged.

This leads us to the next advantage of a whole house generator, and that is that the generator is permanently installed and connected to your home’s electrical system and fuel system.  There’s no lugging out a big machine and plugging in extension cords.  Within a minute of a power failure, most whole house generators will start up, and change over a home’s power automatically without the user having to lift a finger.

There are several fuels that backup generators can operate off of.  The most common ones operate off of natural gas and propane.  Depending on if you have natural gas service running to your neighborhood or not will determine which one you can use.  Keep in mind that propane can be much more expensive than natural gas.  Many people who also have propane may also have a gas fireplace connected to the propane tank.  This is an effective combination, because heating one’s home with electricity generated from the generator is an extremely inefficient way to produce heat.   Many homes that have natural gas hookups however already have gas fired furnaces and water heaters.  Not needing to heat water allows one to reduce the capacity of the generator, and thus the cost of the install. The same holds true for powering the cooking stove off of electricity.  One caveat to natural gas is in the extreme case that a gas line, or the municipal gas system fails,  there would be no fuel for the backup generator.  Natural gas service though makes a whole house backup generator much more affordable both in the initial cost, and fueling it.

Also used occasionally is fuel oil.  Some backup generators have diesel engines, which will run off of the same fuel oil that a furnace operates on.  Diesel generators though can be pricier that their gas powered counterparts, and the fuel oil can cost about the same as propane.  The advantage however is that diesel generators are extremely durable and actually quieter.  The caveat however is that if it is running off the same fuel oil the heating system is running off of, so one has to be more mindful of the fuel level if a power failure occurs, so you may look into having your oil supplier install a separate tank.

If you are previously used to the amount of fuel a portable generator uses, you may be in for a little bit of sticker shock after a long outage if you are using propane or fuel oil.  After Hurricane Irene, I heard many people say “If I knew how much it was costing me, I would have shut it off at night!”  Because you can run more appliances and lights off of a whole-house generator, you will subsequently be using more fuel.  Many people left their generators running at night, and while they were at work even when they were not needed, and faced a big fuel bill the next month.

Whole house generators do require maintenance just like any fuel-powered engine does.  This includes the usual things like changing oil & filter, spark plugs, air filter and sometimes coolant.  If you are not interested in performing these services yourself, there are many generator service companies out there though that will come to your home and perform these services either on a per-call basis, or you can establish a service agreement with them.  Although this service is another expense, it is nice to know the generator will be ready when needed.

In synopsis, whole house generators are a much better alternative to portable generators.  They deliver quiet, clean power and can run many appliances easy without really altering one’s lifestyle too much.  They are expensive however, and one should make sure it is in one’s budget before purchasing one.

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