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Automatic Standby Generators Provide Peace of Mind

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, automatic standby generators were once a rare thing. But more and more homeowners are installing these to make certain their families are covered in the event of a sustained power loss. It also adds a tremendous value to their home.

    TOM: And with extreme weather seeming more and more common in a power grid that is decades old, power outages are also much less rare than they used to be. You want to make sure you don’t get stuck in the dark. We’ve got advice now from This Old House host Kevin O’Connor.

    Hey, Kevin.

    KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be here.

    TOM: You know, it seemed that even just 10 years ago, this would’ve felt like a less critical investment than it is today, huh?

    KEVIN: Well, it is certainly nice to have the peace of mind that you can actually keep the power on. Because when it goes out, you’ve got a whole host of problems, right? I mean you could lose your heat in the winter, your air conditioning in the summer. You can lose the food in the refrigerator. You can drop down the communications, because so much of us rely on the internet and stuff. So knowing that that power can stay on or come back on in an emergency is great peace of mind.

    LESLIE: Completely.

    TOM: So let’s clarify the differences between the different generator options that are out there.

    KEVIN: Well, the way I think about them is like this: you either have a standby generator or a portable generator. A standby generator is installed by a professional. It is hooked up into the circuit – the electrical panel of your house.

    LESLIE: It’s a permanent application.

    KEVIN: It is a permanent application with a permanent fuel source: either natural gas piped to it directly or propane, if that’s what you’re burning. Whereas a portable is something that probably sits in the garage and you can pull it out. You’re often pouring gasoline into it and then you’re plugging in just the critical circuits.

    TOM: And then the issue there, of course, is that portable generators need gasoline. Gasoline has to come from gas stations, who also don’t have power to pump the gas.

    KEVIN: And they’re generally smaller, so you can’t just run it for an entire day or two days.

    TOM: Yeah.

    KEVIN: You have to kind of continually feed it with gasoline. And it is giving off emissions. They all give off emissions but it is giving off emissions and you could put it in the wrong place.

    LESLIE: Right.

    KEVIN: And that is critical to be thinking about with a portable generator. Do not ever run it indoors or anywhere near the indoors where the combustion gases can get into the house.

    TOM: And that includes an open garage.

    KEVIN: Absolutely.

    TOM: So within the standby category, there are some options within that, as well.

    KEVIN: There are. And these are great for the reasons we just discussed. They are permanently installed, they’re ready to go. They have a fuel source. They’re placed appropriately so that they know they can operate safely.

    And then when you’re in the standby category, it’s about size. Are you going to try to run the entire house when there is an outage or you’re just going to pick some critical circuits? In either case, these things are going to be hooked up to a transfer switch so that when the power from the grid goes out, the transfer switch says, “OK, I don’t sense power there. Let me go to the generator for power.” And then it’s a question of how many circuits are attached to it. If you have it for the entire house, it’s a no-brainer. Everything goes on and you can operate everything.

    Now, they’re more expensive. They’re bigger, obviously, so you can choose to have that transfer switch just linking to a couple critical circuits. Keep the refrigerator on, the heating, the power plant on and a couple critical lights so that you could be in the house safely. That’s a question of size and convenience. You have to make that trade-off and obviously cost, as well.

    LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Well, it’s funny. I think, being from the Northeast, we all suffer from “Sandy shock,” which is what I like to call it. I had a baby and then we had no power for 18 days, which was just mind-boggling. I will never, ever be in that situation again. So when I was meeting with the KOHLER team to talk about getting a standby generator for the house, I started at first looking at something in the 7 to 11k range and was like, “Well, maybe this’ll be good.” And then you sort of get power-greedy when you start thinking about it and the prices aren’t that different when you get to that level. And suddenly, you’re like, “Yes, 20kW for the entire house.”

    KEVIN: And what peace of mind you have there, that the entire house will be operational in a power outage. That is nice.

    TOM: And that’s a good point. And there are actually estimators on the websites of these major manufacturers, where you can figure out how many kilowatt hours do I need in terms of power. And you can buy these standbys, perhaps, as small as 7kW?

    KEVIN: Mm-hmm.

    TOM: And that’s good if you have a really small house, perhaps a retirement house, a cabin, something of that nature. Small lot. And they go all the way up to 22,000 watts. So, yeah, you really have a wide range of choices.

    I think the other thing interesting is that they’re now remotely monitored, so you can know what’s going on at any time.

    KEVIN: Well, you guys know this from your own experience. These things are very intelligent.

    They’re doing a couple things. They’re turning themselves on, so that they’re running a test cycle to make sure that they’re in good stead. They’re doing that on a regular basis. They’re sending a report to a service technician saying everything’s OK or it’s not. And they’re also sending a notification to you saying, “Hey, I’m doing OK. Don’t worry about it,” or, “Hey, we’ve got a problem. Check into it now.” Because you want that thing to work when you need it.

    LESLIE: When you need it.

    Now, what about maintenance? This is an appliance that you’re putting in your home. Do you need to do an annual maintenance check on a whole-house standby generator?

    KEVIN: Somebody does.

    LESLIE: Not me.

    KEVIN: Not you, necessarily. But yes, absolutely. And oftentimes, the installer will actually give you that plan where they will make sure that they come out and give it a checkup, just like with your car: make sure all the fluids – everything’s working properly, make sure that circuitry is working and that we know that it will come on when you need it. Because if it doesn’t do that, it’s of no value to you.

    TOM: And now is a great time to think about an automatic standby generator because the prices have come down a lot over the last several years.

    KEVIN: I’m curious to know, Leslie, how it is that when you gave a baby, you took out the entire grid.

    LESLIE: It’s amazing.

    TOM: How’d that happen?

    KEVIN: That’s quite a child.

    LESLIE: It’s amazing. And I didn’t even name the baby Sandy or anything. It’s crazy.

    KEVIN: No, just in time, absolutely. The affordability and the variability – the fact that you can get different sizes for different applications. I think they are more common and people are leaning towards using them and installing them more now than in the past.

    TOM: Kevin O’Connor from TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for powering up this edition of The Money Pit.

    KEVIN: My pleasure. Thank you, guys.

    LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.

    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you on PBS by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

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