When generators fly off the shelves after a winter storm, some Texans choose to build their own DIY version

When generators fly off the shelves after a winter storm, some Texans choose to build their own DIY version

Frank Paul never wanted to be without electricity again after losing power and heat for 12 hours during the February freeze. He knew hurricane season was about to happen.

So Paul, 46, went shopping for a 9,400-watt Fermann tri-fuel generator that could run on gasoline, natural gas or propane and power his entire house in cypress. He called his local Costco and asked the manager if the store had a $800 generator in stock.

“He started laughing,” said Paul.

Generators are always in high demand in Texas, which has its fair share of hurricanes, wildfires and hurricanes, but extended outages during the February freeze led to increased demand. Consumer says popular models of generators are hard to come by, as they fly off the shelves as soon as they arrive.

Electricians say they have a backlog of customers waiting to install generators with memories of the winter storm that plunged millions of Texas into total darkness and killed nearly 200 people, and billions of dollars in property damage remains well-established.

“People don’t have confidence in government and elected leaders anymore to provide basic necessities,” Paul said. “At the end of the day, you should have a backup plan.”

Data on generator sales is scarce, and comparisons between 2020 and 2021 are distorted by the pandemic. However, consumers said that some brands of generators, such as the Tri-Fermann fuel generator, are often sold in stores.

Retailers and consumers said generator sales, especially during the Texas sales tax holiday for emergency supplies in April, have been particularly active this year.

Harbor Freight Tools, a California equipment retailer that sells the Predator-branded portable generator, declined to reveal the exact numbers, but said it had seen a “modest to healthy” increase in portable generator sales across Texas in the wake of the winter storm. While some customers are buying portable generators for camping and backyard, the California retailer said others are buying his generators as emergency backup power.

The company said it saw a spike in generator sales during the Texas sales tax holiday for emergency supplies in April.

“We’ve seen interest in our line of portable generators across the board,” said Harbor Freight spokesman Craig Hoffman. “It is reasonable to assume that storms increased the desire for home backup generators.”

DIY generators

Even before the freeze, generators that could power entire homes, such as those made by Generac and Kohler, were in high demand. These standby generators usually cost upwards of $10,000 and have a maintenance fee of about $25 per month.

Some buyers have been waiting two months or more to get one.

After a winter storm in February, many Houstonians choose a less expensive option Do-it-yourself home generator setup. They are buying portable generators that can run on natural gas, and they are hiring plumbers to connect a natural gas line to power their generators. Some install electricians to install special connections that feed generator power directly to wall outlets and wired light fixtures — eliminating the need to run separate wires from the generator throughout the home.

Jury-equipped home generator sets can cost as little as $2,000 to purchase and install, a fraction of the price of traditional whole-house generators. If installed by professional electricians and plumbers, these DIY setups are legal and code compliant. Homeowners can do their own maintenance and repairs to portable generators, and move them around easily when they move in.

DIY home generators are gaining popularity after the Sugar Land man attracted widespread attention by equipping his home with a similar setup during the February freeze.

In Katy, a man used his Ford F-150 gasoline-electric hybrid truck to power his home during a storm. The truck’s gasoline engine charged the car’s electric battery, which powers the home. The all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning has a similar advantage, allowing owners to run their homes for three days using the truck’s battery.

During a winter storm, Brian Milan used a tri-fuel Fermann generator to power his roughly 3,700-square-foot home in cypress for 64 hours straight. The Louisiana transplant said the $1,500 generator setup was able to power a washer and dryer, his heater and all the lights inside his home.

After sharing his experience with some neighbors, he decided to create a Facebook group to help others set up his DIY home generators. The group, called “Generators: Portable Generators to Power an Entire Home,” has more than 800 members throughout the Houston area. Milan said about 90 people visited his home to take part in parade demonstrations.

“I had no problems with freezing,” Milan said. “The only downside was that we didn’t know when the electricity would come back.”

New job

Before the winter storm, electrical engineer Glen Searcy said his typical work day consisted of installing ceiling fans and recessed lights and troubleshooting wall plugs that stopped working. These days, a Northwest Houston electrician spends most of his days installing portable generator connections.

Searcy said he receives about three or four calls per day from customers looking to connect portable generators, and expects to complete 10 generator connections per week for the foreseeable future. The job typically takes about three hours and costs about $600 for labor and materials.

Installations of portable home generators are in high demand, and electrical parts such as circuit breakers and power inlet boxes are being ordered weeks late, Searcy said.

“It’s really exploded since the freeze,” said Cersei, 69. “It’s the busiest in my life.”

Plumbers, who have been in high demand since the freeze to fix broken pipes, see a new wave of work coming from installing natural gas lines to portable generators.

Gino Boutros, a third-generation plumber serving the northwest Houston area, said his family business, Tony Blooming, has installed nearly 100 natural gas lines for portable generators since the freeze, and he expects to do five installations per day during the summer. The job usually costs around $350.

“The first month and a half was pipe repairs,” said Boutros, 29. “Now, I have one technician just making the generator connections.”

Paul, the United Airlines flight attendant, last month bought Fermann’s portable 9,400-watt generator, then hired Cersei to install the electrical connection so he could power his home in Cypress. With hurricane season here, Paul said the $1,300 he spent on equipment and installation was worth the peace of mind to keep his family comfortable when the power goes out again.

Paul, 46, said, “I have an 8-year-old and a boy coming in July. I didn’t want to get caught in the heat with a newborn. I can breathe easier knowing we can keep cool.” xxxx

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