Kenny Marshall lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where 100-plus-degree summer days have at times brought on rolling blackouts. As people crank their AC, power lines can overheat from the added demand for electricity and must be shut down temporarily to prevent catastrophic fires. “Last year we were without power for three days in 117-degree heat,” Marshall says. “You cannot survive here without air-conditioning.”
This February, in Austin, Texas, Joe Rizzo experienced a polar opposite (pun intended) problem: Unusually frigid weather led to power outages for 3 million Texans. “We had elderly people stuck in their homes for up to a week, with indoor temperatures below freezing,” he says.
Marshall and Rizzo are in the generator business (they’re the owners of All American Generators and Capital Power Systems, respectively). It’s a booming industry across the country as homeowners seek a way to keep the power on in an era of unprecedented weather-related outages. One major producer, Generac, reported that sales of residential generators nearly doubled in the first half of 2021, compared with the same period in 2020. Generators will keep your home running when the power grid can’t, but they can be a major investment. Here are a few pro tips.
How They Work
Standby generators connect to the utility grid through a switch that kicks on when the grid goes down — “within 10 seconds,” Marshall says — and use the home’s gas supply (whether propane or natural gas) to fuel the generator and create electricity. Generators are typically housed in a metal box in the yard, with underground connections to the gas and electrical lines that must be installed by licensed professionals. Permits from local authorities are typically required.
Where to Put One
Household generators resemble a large ice chest. They’re typically bolted to a concrete pad, Rizzo says. The closer they are to electrical and gas supply lines, the cheaper the installation is. Generators are essentially a small engine, which means they make noise. “They’re not that loud, but you might not want it next to your bedroom window,” he adds.
System Size and Cost
The cost of standby generators depends on the size of the home and its power requirements, says Rizzo, though they typically cost $10,000 to $13,000 (including installation) for a home up to 3,000 square feet. Homeowners may be tempted to cut costs with a portable generator powered by gasoline or diesel; these can be purchased from home improvement stores for less than $1,000 and do not require professional installation. But they have significant drawbacks. While portable generators are not designed to be stored outdoors, they must be operated outside. So you’ll need to haul it out to a rain-protected location each time it’s needed, says Rizzo, who notes that people are often tempted to run them in their garage, where they create a carbon monoxide risk. “They’re dangerous,” he says. Plus, they won’t power your whole home, only what can be plugged into an extension cord (lamps, computers, phones, space heaters, a single refrigerator).
Worth the Expense?
If you are hoping to make your money back on a whole-home backup generator when you sell your house, don’t count on it. The equipment will increase the value of your home, but on average by only a little over 50 percent of the cost of the generator, according to a 2017 study published by Remodeling, a trade magazine.
But there’s more than return on investment to consider. The Department of Energy doesn’t track every power outage in America — only those deemed “electric disturbance events.” The criteria for those varies, depending on whether the cause is, say, a natural disaster, a cyberattack or a lack of supply to meet demand. From the early 2000s to 2020, the number of such events increased nearly 12-fold. These are more than an inconvenience; hundreds of deaths were attributed to the loss of power in Texas this winter. Marshall says assisted living facilities and homeowners aging in place are among his top clients. CPAP machines, electric adjustable beds, medications that require refrigeration — there’s a long list of reasons that standby generators are not just a luxury, but essential. “My clients can’t afford to have the power go out,” he says.
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Rizzo says 80 percent of his clients are over 50, which is not just about health essentials but, for some, family considerations as well: “They want to be the hub where the kids and grandkids come over when the power goes out.” To cut costs, he says, some clients pool their resources to buy a generator for one home that will serve as a refuge for multiple friends or family members. When to buy? Like planting a tree, the best time was yesterday. Demand for generators is so high that installation wait times of up to five months are not uncommon. “I’m doing 10 installations a week,” Marshall says. “The market is hot.”
If You Can’t Afford a Generator
Here are some tips on preparing for a power outage, from FEMA and the American Red Cross.
• Sign up for emergency alerts from local governments. Opt for text messages, because a charged-up phone will continue to work after the power goes out.
• Create an advance emergency plan with people who could help deliver supplies or offer a place to stay during an outage. Keep a paper copy of your contact list.
• Keep refrigerators and freezers closed as much as possible. Food should remain cold for about four hours after losing power. Eat non-perishable food as much as possible.
• Keep a portable generator on hand (along with fuel for it) if you have needed electric medical devices or medicines that require refrigeration. Make sure the unit you buy can sufficiently power such devices.
• Remember that any portable generator should be operated outside and at least 20 feet away from windows. Still, if you use a gas-powered generator, propane heater or lantern outside your home, install carbon monoxide detectors indoors as an extra precaution and keep backup batteries to power them.
• Unplug appliances and electronic devices if you have a prolonged power outage. Once power is restored, the jolt of electric current can create a surge that can cause damage.
• Do not use gas stoves or ovens to heat your home during outages.
Brian Barth is a California-based journalist who also writes for outlets such as the New Yorker, National Geographic and The Washington Post.
Gabriel Baumgaertner contributed to this report.