Buy a whole house generator?
December 11, 2012 1:05 AM   Subscribe

Whole house generator: Good planning, or overkill?

I has lucky in the aftermath of Sandy, the falling trees missed everything, no property damage to speak of, no flooding.

But man, eleven days without power sucked. We coped. We have a gas stove for cooking. I wired my water heater to run off of a computer UPS so I could get a shower, recharging it every day at work. Got the the cell phones charged there as well. Every flashlight we have uses AA batteries which weren't that hard to find. Ditto the radio. But the last few days were getting colder, and we were considering evacuating my mom upstate to Rochester for a month. Fortunately, we got the power back.

But some things were a little more serious. I have severe sleep apnea, and really need the CPAP to sleep. Mom was a trooper, but I could see she was cold, bored and hungry.

So, I've been thinking about a whole house generator. The price has jumped, the general range is $8,000-$11,000 fully installed. Powered by natural gas, auto start, auto transfer switch. Most of these guys offer a yearly service plan as well.

As I look at this logically, this seems a little nuts. I've lived here more than 30 years, and while we do get outages almost annually, I've never had one longer than about 18 hours.

But my hind-brain, Boy Scout mentality says to "be prepared, if it happened once it can happen again."

Then the paranoia creeps in, I start wondering what if there's a longer outage, and the natural gas pumping stations go down, or the town water pumps stop. I know this way lies madness...

But a generator really isn't an unaffordable extravagance, I can just make my car last a few more years.

Any other pluses to this plan? Does a generator add resale value?

I know if we get it we'll probably only need it on average a few hours a year, so it's probably overkill... but damn I hate the cold... and the dark... and the feeling of helplessness.
posted by Marky to Technology (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Overkill. I've lived in Africa where we had very frequent power outages ranging from an hour or two to a full 24 hours. We got by OK with a small portable Honda generator in the back yard which produced a few thousand watts.

If you've got gas to cook on, your generator can power some or all of your lights (depending on its size) and some appliances and you may have to juggle if you want to take a shower and boil the kettle.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:32 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your single generator does not work when you need it, you have a problem. If you have multiple small generators, then one or two can fail and you'd still be ok.
Solar water heating may also be a good investment.
posted by Sophont at 1:39 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whole-house seems a bit much. I would say get a basic, portable generator (With any noise-mitigating container or shed that's needed) and extension cords / power distribution to run your refrigerator and low-power cooking heat sources like a microwave or clamshell grill, any pumps needed for your water supply (possibly not applicable in your case, I don't know how city water works), your medical equipment, and phone/device chargers. I'd also get a couple of hefty power inverters (automotive ones like this) to provide extra juice from your cars as needed.

Regular yearly or quarterly maintenance is essential so that the generator actually starts up when you need it. I'm surprised that I don't see more solutions that try to use a car's engine as a high-capacity generator since you always keep your car in good repair. Less money to be made by manufacturers and the service guys, I guess.

If it's any consolation, many parts of the country go through this regularly, every couple of years if not more frequently. Basically, the more effort you put into preparation the more comfortable you are during the blackout / blizzard / whatever, the more your neighbors can depend on you and the less you're forced to depend on them being in a position to help you.

Previous AskMe that may be edifying and I'm sure there are many others.
posted by XMLicious at 1:40 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

>If your single generator does not work when you need it, you have a problem.

That's a concern, true. But the single full-house generator, aka "standby generator," runs a weekly diagnostic for fifteen minutes at a time, so you can catch and remedy problems before the storm.

Is this consumer item an extravagance? Well, it feels like an extravagance when the power's on. When the east coast gets mauled by a storm--seemingly an annual event now--it feels like anything but. During a long power outage, your standby generator will be your favorite consumer product. You'll love it more than your iPhone, your iPad, your spouse. The pleasure of living in a house that, to all intents and purposes, feels the way it usually does is unparalleled.

The only downside is, standby generators can't power up the Internet. So you're stuck with your phone for accessing the web, and if cellphone signals die, as many did with Hurricane Sandy, you're stuck with nothing.
posted by Gordion Knott at 1:49 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

FYI my parents live in suburban Plainfield, NJ. My aunt and uncle live in rural Sherman, CT. My parents lost power for three weeks after Sandy. By week #2, they had re-located to my aunt and uncle's house, where they have a single generator. The house in Sherman is now getting a whole-house generator. My parents are going directly to a whole-house generator. My parents are about as far from freakazoid survivalists as you can be.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:05 AM on December 11, 2012

We have crappy power reliability in our DC suburban neighborhood and lose power at least once a year for more than 24 hours. We have a modest portable generator, and that's really been sufficient for us. We patch it into the main breaker panel and then are selective about what circuits are on--we can run two refrigerators, two TVs, and plenty of lights.

The big "if" is your heating setup. We have a dual heat pump/gas furnace system and my husband's not been able to figure out how to set it so that it doesn't overload the generator when it comes on (and my husband's an HVAC professional, so if there were a way, I'd hope he'd have figured it out last winter when we lost power for a few days). However, we also have a corn stove that can run off generator power and provide partial heat to the house. If you've got regular gas or oil heat, it should be easy enough to run the electronics, if any, off a portable generator feed. For my money, I'd consider a portable generator + an indoor-rated kerosene heater or two for the heat issue.

One of the advantages of a portable generator is that if you're dealing with a selective outage, you can loan out your equipment to your trusted friends/neighbors if someone else is affected and you are spared.
posted by drlith at 3:14 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in the woods in Michigan, with above ground power lines. We lose power on a periodic basis. Only once has it been for a long enough period of time that using more than a small portable generator would have been nice. If you are running critical medical equipment, or equipping a house for very old and/or infirm individuals, an expensive installation is probably worth considering, but if that's not the case, you'll get by with a smaller unit.
posted by HuronBob at 3:18 AM on December 11, 2012

Suburban NYC here. 11 days without power. 41 degrees inside by the end. I am having an electrician put a link to the panel so that I can plug in a portable generator should I want that would basically run my boiler, kitchen and master bedroom. I am not buying the generator. If I were to buy one, it would be a portable unit. It is overkill. Previously, 24-48 hours was longest outage.

I would guess if you were to sell your house in the next 2-3 years, it would help the resale price, but after that, people forget. Also, I know folks who had a real hard time getting propane delivered without a medical emergency and waiting on line at a gas station for gas fired generators is/was a ordeal in and of itself.

My decision is that I would be better off taking the $10k and in the event of another Sandy type situation flying to Florida and getting some sun than laying out the cash now. It would be cheaper too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:13 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, take the cost of the generator + the amount of fuel needed for 24 hours divided by the number of (full) days you think you'll need it in the next decade or so. That's your cost per day.

I suspect that the daily cost to run a whole house generator is well over $1000. At that point it's probably cheaper just to stay somewhere else till the mess is over.
posted by zug at 4:42 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Storms are getting more energetic and frequent, but the maintenance budget for the various electric utilities has remained flat. One town over from where I live was out of power for almost a week, for the second year in a row. Until serious effort is put into transitioning to buried power transmission, a generator sounds better and better.

You don't need a whole-house generator, just protect a couple essential circuits - the fridge and heating equipment and a couple outlets in the kitchen for charging stuff and running the microwave.

If you have natural gas or propane heat, get a natural gas/propane generator. Gasoline supplies are an issue during an extended power outage, as we have seen. LNG supplies and distribution are generally good even when the electricity goes down, and propane tanks will be more readily available than gasoline during a prolonged blackout as well.

I would strongly recommend a fixed installation generator. The portable generators are meant for construction sites, not homes. They have a nasty habit of killing people with carbon monoxide, fire or electrocution as it's a pain to patch it into the electrical panel from someplace safe: the basement is not safe, the garage is not safe, the kitchen is not safe, and right next to a window or vent outside is not safe. A professionally installed generator will have all of that taken care of for you... just do the regular maintenance. They will generally run their own self-diagnostics once a week or so, which means there won't be an unpleasant surprise when it's needed. Also, it's much quieter than the generally unmuffled portable generators.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:53 AM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

our area is similar to HuronBob's; upper midwest, with overhead power lines. A common set up here is to get a largish portable. Big enough to run the refirgerator/freezer, the blower for the furnace (gas heat is common), and some lights. Usually the generator is only run for a while to keep things warm (or cold) enough to prevent problems. Everything else goes into emergency conservation mode.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:53 AM on December 11, 2012

I say go for it. As you say, it is a bit of an extravagance, but cost-wise, it IS just a quarter of a car. Over the lifespan of the whole-house generator, consider how many portable generators you'd go through, and how much gasoline they'd use up. AND how much hassle it is to hook everything up and keep it fueled. Especially not knowing whether the outage will be a half hour and not worth it, of two weeks and obviously worth it.
posted by gjc at 5:40 AM on December 11, 2012

An electrician can install a manual transfer switch for a portable generator for less than a thousand dollars in most cases. Much less in ideal situations. This will elminate extension cords running willy nilly and would solve siting problems.

You can get portable generators that operate on either NG of LPG. The former eliminates storage if you have gas service (but means you can't use it away from your home) and the latter basically eliminates gasoline storage problems and neither create the environmental disaster of a diesel spill.

I've got enough portable generation to power my radiant pump and my father's oxygen concentrator and either the freezer or fridge. Besides that we'd just treat an extended outage as a stay-at-home camping trip for which we are adequately prepared.

Sadly one thing to keep in mind with portable generators is they are, well, portable. You'll need to think about securing it against theft.
posted by Mitheral at 5:54 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have neighbors that you get along with very well then you may want to write up an agreement and split the costs.
posted by JJ86 at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2012

My parents live in a wooded area and regularly lose power due to suicidal squirrels, tree branches, etc. It is not unusual for their neighborhood to lose power for several days.
Their neighbors on either side have had generators for years and have always supplied a power cord or two - enough to run the fridge and the electric starter to their gas furnace/water heater and a couple of lamps. Last year, after a week without power, my mom bought a portable generator and had it wired into their panel to run everything except for the washer/dryer.

Once the power went out as Sandy approached, generator was started and all was well. We turned off the generator for the night and then were unable to get it re-started the next morning. The cause was water in the carburetor but it also pointed out a problem with the generator itself: pulling the starter took considerable arm strength and if any of us had to do it in the dark with muddy footing, we might not be able to get it going. Since my parents are both in their 70s . . . neither one of them is actually gaining strength at this point. They're getting a whole house unit in the spring.

If your mom is home and you are not . . . what are her options?
posted by jaimystery at 6:42 AM on December 11, 2012

Friends and relations who've taken the generator plunge have also made do with smaller ones rather than the whole-house variety. Our utilities are buried, and we're fortunately located near a large hospital, so our power outages are infrequent and short, or I'd have one myself.

If you get a small portable one, make sure to secure it well. They were apparently hot targets for thieves during the aftermath of Sandy. Heard from a co-worker up there about a theft near him (maybe on the news?) that a guy came outside to find his generator gone and the lawnmower running in its place. The thief knew enough to leave something behind making noise.
posted by jquinby at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The cons of a whole-house generator for me would be its portability. If you need to evacuate, you can't take it with you. If you have a portable, or a few, you could take it with you or loan it out.

And, yes, while you need to secure a portable generator if you are concerned about theft, the major con for me would be all those deaths that were attributed to generators in Sandy. Read the thread here where it was discussed the causes behind all the individual deaths. So many from generators installed improperly but also installed in a way the owners thought was proper but was not. If I had a generator in this situation, I don't think I'd run it for anything other than a medical emergency.
posted by amanda at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2012

My parents current and previous houses, both of which they built, are equipped with whole-house generators; the first one was added long after the house was built and the second was built with the house because they learned to appreciate it. The generators in both cases pull from in-ground tanks of natural gas, same as my parents' cooking appliances.

They don't get hurricanes where they are, but they live in a forested area, and they can rely on several storms a year killing their power thanks to fallen trees/branches. I don't think the first house had auto-engage, but the current one does, and it means they can run a fridge during the outage, some computers (and chargers), microwave, and maybe the TV, to say nothing of lights. (Heat, hot water, and cooking are all gas.)

My dad's a nuclear engineer, but he still had an electrician install the generator (and later checked his work, heh); I wouldn't let examples of bad installers and bad users prevent you from using something that's largely safe when things are done correctly as they are most of the time.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:54 AM on December 11, 2012

Get it. A natural gas (or even better, dual fuel) whole-house generator is quickly becoming a "move in condition" advantage in neighborhoods with above-ground power -- if you sell your house you'll get it back.

Our neighborhood was down 11 days as well, and people with the whole-house generators were sitting pretty whereas people with portable gasoline generators weren't much better off than people with nothing. They couldn't power enough circuits to support a reasonable lifestyle -- and in some cases couldn't provide the power needed for the furnace's electric regulator / starter / fan system to work. They also had to be shut down from time to time. And, worst of all they ran out of gas in a relatively small number of hours. Bottom line: most of the portable generator people didn't stick it out and were at their inlaws or a hotel within a couple of days.
posted by MattD at 8:03 AM on December 11, 2012

We have a fairly large "portable" generator, but we also don't live in an area with widespread power outages -- it's usually no more than a 60 minute run to a working gas station, even if the power stays off for an extended time. (Our generator will run everything except the AC and the wellpump, and we can turn everything else off to fill the water tank if we need to. The biggest problem we have when the power goes out is that we usually lose internet after 18 hours or so -- MrR is fairly addicted to his intarwebz.) We don't have any critical items, either medical or structural -- my parents had a whole house generator put in after an extended power outage that could have left them with a foot and a half of water in the basement had they not been home to make sure the portable generator kept the sump pump running.

If you have critical things (and it sounds like you do) or live where you can expect that power outages are going to be widespread, then a whole-house generator is probably not overkill. Your house is already piped for gas, so that will make it easier.
posted by jlkr at 8:30 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Folks, please make sure your answers contain generator suggestions]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2012

Someone I know very well (here in RI) had a transfer switch installed, with a few circuits pulled over to it, that runs out to a weatherproofed receptacle on the outside of the house. Then he got his existing natural gas piping run to a connection point, and bought a portable, natural gas-based generator.

In case of the next MegaSuperMostroStorm, he'll wheel his generator out around the back of the house, lock it down, hook up the power cable & gas line, and he's back online.

Sounds sweet!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:13 AM on December 11, 2012

That's a concern, true. But the single full-house generator, aka "standby generator," runs a weekly diagnostic for fifteen minutes at a time, so you can catch and remedy problems before the storm.

I think my dad's house has something in-between. He has a generator that he bought from Amazon [free shipping!] that is linked in to the gas lines in his house and lives outside. It's wired up to a specific set of circuits so that in the event of a power outage (the house loses power every so often, rarely for a long time but potentially for quite a long time) the power goes off and then SOME of the power comes back on again, enough to run the kitchen appliances, the office computer and I'm not sure what else, water pump? The thing is on a timer so it auto-cycles every week at a specified time. Last year one day when it was scheduled to come on it made an awful racket so we got the generator guy out to look at it and something had gone wrong and it was fixed which was cool because then when the power went out it was up and running again.

All of this is to say that 1) if you can afford it, this is a nice convenience to have 2) it may not be as expensive as you think
posted by jessamyn at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2012

Seconding Slap*Happy on the carbon monoxide risks of a portable generator. Something like half of the deaths I saw attributed to Sandy were from improper generator set-ups. Just a reminder to really, really do your homework on how they need to be vented.

Also, I say this a lot but: everyone should have a carbon monoxide detector in their house. They are inexpensive, maybe $20, and as easy to set up as a normal smoke detector. Especially if you are thinking about getting a generator of either type, get a CO detector.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:18 PM on December 11, 2012

jaimystery: "pulling the starter took considerable arm strength and if any of us had to do it in the dark with muddy footing, we might not be able to get it going. Since my parents are both in their 70s . . . neither one of them is actually gaining strength at this point. They're getting a whole house unit in the spring.

If your mom is home and you are not . . . what are her options?

you can buy electric start conversion kits for many portable generators. they use a small lawnmower battery.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:42 PM on December 11, 2012

How much would it've cost you to stay in a hotel for those 11 days? Let's include meals and movies, say... $1500? So, a generator will make economic sense after the 6th Sandy-level storm. One can be prepared via various strategies.
posted by at at 12:43 PM on December 11, 2012

In considering the cost of the generator, don't forget to include the cost of the fuel that will be required to run it. I talked to some folks who were feeling pretty smug about their generator until they got the bill for the propane (thousands of dollars to run it for ~ a week). The cost of the fuel is not trivial, especially in the aftermath of an emergency. Even though they have the generator, these folks plan to head for a hotel next time.
posted by Corvid at 1:27 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My parents are now reconsidering the maths of a whole house generator vs self-insuring for hotel stays. Can anyone speak to the issue of the gas bills for three weeks of running a generator?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:58 PM on December 11, 2012

LobsterMitten writes "Seconding Slap*Happy on the carbon monoxide risks of a portable generator. Something like half of the deaths I saw attributed to Sandy were from improper generator set-ups. Just a reminder to really, really do your homework on how they need to be vented.

It's really hard to gas yourself inside a house with a generator running outside the house. You'll find if you dig a little on those generator related deaths that most of them will be from people running generators actually in their homes or in attached garages. Or fire related deaths usually associated with refuelling.
posted by Mitheral at 3:19 PM on December 11, 2012

Self-insuring for hotel stays ignores the following:

1- Availability of hotel rooms. Either they are already filled with refugees, or the hotels are also out of power.

2- All your food goes bad.

3- Your pipes may freeze without heat.

4- Those annoying few hour outages where it would be silly to get a hotel room, but your life is inconvenienced.

As for cost, I'm sure it depends on the fuel. Propane is pretty expensive. Nat gas isn't. If you could find a diesel generator that ran on heating oil (and you already have heating oil), that would be cheapest. The cost also depends on the size of the unit. The smaller the unit, the less efficient it is going to be. Don't forget the cost of schlepping gasoline cans back and forth.

A *whole* house generator might be an extravagance, but a permanently installed generator that will run key systems with an automatic transfer switch is not nearly as bad.

Think of portable versus permanent like window units versus central A/C. There are upsides and downsides with both. Economics isn't the only consideration.
posted by gjc at 6:35 PM on December 11, 2012

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