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Home Generators, Backup Generators

Home Backup Generators

Photo: wescarverelectric.com

A power outage lasting a few hours is often nothing more than an inconvenience, requiring a few flashlights and a bit of patience. But when a severe storm cuts electricity for days, life without a generator can get real bleak, and real fast. Food spoils, mold grows, and flood-prone basements are robbed of their working sump pump and start sucking up water. Extended winter blackouts can be even more dangerous. A sharp drop in temperatures and a house without heating can be a deadly combination, especially for the older and younger residents of the home. In these situations, a backup power solution can literally be a lifesaver.

Despite the fact that blackouts have been occurring in the United States since the inception of the power grid, there is still a lot of confusion among homeowners when it comes to their residential generator options. Whether it is educating the public on the correct use of a portable generator or instructing consumers on how to determine the right size for a permanent generator solution, the generator industry has come to a halt.

To make matters more difficult, today’s home consumes electricity like never before. Also, many homes also contain sensitive, high-tech electronic devices that can be inoperable or even damaged due to “unclean” power from the generator. Fortunately, generator manufacturers seem to have all of these bases covered. Not only do they make it easier for homeowners to choose the right emergency power solution, but the solutions are in line with the needs of the modern home.

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When considering the purchase of a generator, one of the biggest challenges for the curious consumer is the right size. The two questions people ask are “How do I choose a product?” and “How much will that cost me?” says Mike Petker, director of marketing for Briggs & Stratton, an engine manufacturer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Briggs and Stratton recently signed on to manufacturer General Electric’s line of residential standby generators. “Today’s generators can do a lot with less,” Petcker adds. Both standby generators (also known as “permanent” generators) and portable generators are rated by kilowatt output. To match the generator to the home’s needs, the homeowner can begin by gathering the wattage needs of the appliances that will run during a power outage. Particular attention should be paid to the starting power of larger appliances such as refrigerators, which will always use more than the running wattage.

To start the sizing process, generator manufacturers like GE, Generac, and Kohler feature handy gauges on their websites. Consumers enter the square footage of the home and check the list of appliances, appliances or systems, such as refrigerator, microwave, central air, and television, that will be powered by the generator during a power outage. To test Kohler’s Sizing Calculator, a 2,000 square foot imaginary home was entered. Among the items that will run during the outage are refrigerator, microwave oven, range, TV, PC, central air, dehumidifier, fan, security system and some other essentials. The calculator calculated the total wattage of the selected units plus the starting amps and determined that a 15 kW Kohler residential generator would be suitable for the fictional home. “The choice guide is getting consumers on the right track,” says Petker. “You don’t have to worry about the solution.”

Of course, homeowners who are still unsure of a generator match for their home can use an online resource or would prefer to speak to an expert who consults one. It’s recommended by some manufacturers, such as Generac’s product manager Jake Thomas, who says, “The best way to choose a spare alternator is to have an electric of its size.”

Sensitive New Age Generator

Electronic items such as plasma televisions, computers, and complex controls often found in current HVAC systems can be sensitive to the energy used to power them. When powered by grid-provided electricity, these devices work without a problem. But all generators produce something called harmonic distortion, which can confuse or even damage sensitive electrically connected devices. The total harmonic distortion, or THD, of the generator will determine the potential for problems with high-end or sensitive electronic devices during a power outage.

“Generator power is not utility class energy,” Thomas says. “High THD could mean that the controller for a high-end HVAC system is not recognizing power or that the plasma TV has a line running through it.” The problem of THD has been hot in the generator industry and has led to new models of generators that reduce THD to levels that will not negatively affect sensitive electronic items and systems in the home. Homeowners shopping for a backup power generator should consider a generator with a THD of five, six percent or less if it is going to run sensitive electronic devices.

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One of the necessary evils of a standby generator is the routine “workout” mode. To ensure that the generator will provide instant power during an outage, the units are programmed to operate themselves for a short period of time on a regular schedule. While this mode provides peace of mind for the homeowner, it also means regular interruption of peace and quiet around the house. Generators are engines and engines make noise. The decibel (dB) level of the generator is another point of comparison that manufacturers deal with on newer models. Generac’s Quiet-Test® feature lowers the alternator’s engine speed during weekly test runs, reducing noise to the level of a parked vehicle. “The engine runs at two-thirds of its normal RPM,” says Thomas. “This lowers decibel levels, uses less fuel and reduces emissions.”

Other solutions to the noise problem include optimizing the generator housing. “Our SoundVault® enclosure ejects air and sound through a chamber,” says Betker, speaking of the sound attenuation properties of GE’s branded Briggs & Stratton backup generators. The case, along with the automotive-style exhaust system and foam dampers that are part of Briggs & Stratton SoundShield® technology, help reduce the operating sound level of the GE 10-45kW-branded standby generators to 65 dB.

To reduce the impact that frequent test runs have on the peace and quiet around the house, most standby generators enable the homeowner to set the time of day the generator will perform this function.

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“One of the biggest improvements in generators has been the development of the larger kilowatts,” says Dan Giampetroni, Kohler’s director of marketing. “Today’s generators have more horsepower, so they can handle homes with large HVAC systems.” Kohler’s line of LP and natural gas standby generators range from smaller 8.5 kW systems to a massive 125 kW system. But, as Giampetronic points out, “As the strength goes up, the prices go down.” Four years ago, a 12kW standby generator would have cost roughly $4,400, not including the necessary transfer switch, which would have added another $1,000 or more, or installation costs. “The 18 kW Kohler Standby System has an MSRP of $4,769, which includes the transfer switch,” adds Giampetroni.

Related Topics: Blackout Survival Guide

The increased affordability of permanent generator systems could make more homeowners, especially older ones, consider this option over less convenient and less powerful portable generators. A permanent standby generator that starts automatically during a power outage to vital components of the home and can be purchased at a reasonable price can seem like a reasonable investment for any home, but especially for elderly homeowners who may find blackouts to be just as much a safety and health concern as an inconvenience.

Smart Features

In addition to all the improvements in power output, sound attenuation, and affordability, the modern generator is also undergoing a technological transformation. In today’s “smart home”, advanced controls and wiring connect the home’s sub-systems (lighting, heating, cooling, security, etc.) to each other and to the Internet. The smart home can now add the generator to the list of Internet ready devices. Some newer Kohler models of standby generators have Ethernet ports for connecting the generator to the Internet. According to Giampetroni, the connected generator, used in conjunction with Kohler’s OnCue home generator management system software, can send an email or text message to the homeowner or installer when the generator is running.

Vacation homeowners can access their generator online to perform a diagnosis and verify that the generator is ready for an impending storm or outage. This type of remote access feature adds an extra assurance for homeowners that their generator will be up and running when needed.

Generac has also added a technology boost to their generator package. Instead of forcing the homeowner outside to check the status of a permanent generator, the Generac Wireless Remote Monitor feeds real-time information from the generator to a small, battery-powered controller that can be hung on the wall or conveniently located. From the device, homeowners can run a test on the alternator or check to see if the unit needs servicing.

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