Outside Christopher Glenn’s house in the small Melrose community in Oregon, there is a white metal box next to the garage. The home standby generator was installed in 2019 after a long outage.
“It was a big snowstorm that brought about 3 feet of snow to our backyard and we were without electricity for about a week,” Glenn says.
Her spouse works remotely and would not be able to work without electricity. They also have an organic tea store that they have closed due to downtime.
“A customer in Ohio, Florida or Texas doesn’t care if we’re without power here in Oregon. They want to know why we’re not responding,” Glenn says.
In addition to snowstorms, he is also worried about outages during forest fires. Like California, Oregon utilities occasionally turn off power to prevent electrical wires from causing a fire.
In the United States, climate change is leading to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, often accompanied by massive power outages, e.g. devastating, they are as far-reaching as they were in Texas last year.
The reliability of an aging electricity grid is also a concern, as the grid is decentralized and decarbonised with increasing amounts of renewable energy. And finally, there’s the coronavirus epidemic, which results in more people spending more time at home.
Industry experts said all of this has brought a boom in the number of Americans installing home generators. The company’s president and CEO, Aaron Jagdfeld, said revenue from one manufacturer, Generac Power Systems, rose nearly 50% last year to nearly $ 3.7 billion in sales.
“It’s been a very strong year. The company has grown dramatically. We are now approaching 10,000 employees,” says Jagdfeld.
Buying a generator can be a big investment and a lot to consider. It is important to know what type of generator is best for your situation and how to use it safely.
Standing models vs. portable
In Oregon, Glenn’s model is in the higher category. The cost, including installation, was $ 9,000. But he says the next time the power goes out, he’s ready to keep the lights on and keep working. The generator supplies electricity to the house and an outbuilding where its tea shop is located. Big enough to charge an electric car too.
According to Jagdfeld, this is typical of Generac’s customers, who mostly live in suburban, single-family homes. Generators sold by Generac typically burn natural gas or propane.
But because home standby generators are expensive, they account for only about 5% of the market, says Paul Hope, home and garden editor at Consumer Reports. “The vast majority of generators run on gasoline and are portable generators of various sizes,” he says.
Portable generators cost just a few hundred dollars, but there are limits. Most don’t power an entire house like a permanently installed model, so you have to choose what to do in the event of a power outage.
According to Hope, these generators can be connected directly to a circuit breaker box. This requires an electrician and a device called a “toggle switch” that protects the electronics when the power is turned on again. It also prevents the generator’s electrical current from reaching outside electrical wiring, where it can harm utility workers.
Generators can be fatal, so proper use is key
You must run extension cables from the generator to each device without a toggle switch. And that poses a big security problem: where is the portable generator.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that about 70 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. The agency says the plane should be at least 20 feet away from a house and the exhaust should be led away from the home and other buildings where people walk. According to the CPSC, a portable generator should never be operated at home, in a garage, basement, climbing area or shed – or even on a porch.
Part of the problem, Hope says, is that many people wait at the last minute to buy portable generators when they need it. This may not allow time for good decisions to be made, such as rethinking safety tips.
He says many make the mistake of not having a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cord on hand to place the generator at least 20 feet from the house.
“So of course they try to bring it a little closer, they connect some things directly to the generator and so use less wiring,” Hope says. This risks carbon monoxide poisoning, although Hope says most new generators automatically shut down if carbon monoxide levels are too high.
In case of prolonged outages, it is advisable to store petrol
Another aspect to consider is how much gasoline needs to be stored to operate a portable generator during a longer downtime. Some people burn 20 gallons of gas a day. Hope says to make sure the gas is stored in approved tanks and add a fuel stabilizer to extend the life of the gas by up to two years. If you haven’t used it before, you can burn the gas in your car.
There are also more climate-friendly alternatives
If you are thinking about buying a home generator, Hope says another aspect is climate change. Generators are “actually terrible pollutants burning with fossil fuels that naturally contribute to man-made climate change.” And that, he says, causes the same severe weather events that lead to widespread power outages.
A cleaner but more expensive solution is to install solar panels and batteries in your home. They stay on like a generator, but only as long as there are enough days to charge the batteries.
There are also portable power plants that cost at least $ 1,000 and are limited in the amount of energy they provide.
“You can charge a laptop or cell phone, but it won’t actually power your fridge or anything for long,” Hope says.
On the plus side, these power plants use rechargeable batteries, so they’re quiet. And because they don’t burn gas, they can be used safely indoors.