As the weather gets colder, and those pesky power outages become more frequent and longer, many of you may find yourselves admiring your neighbor’s standby generator and be thinking about your own. I thought I would share my experience which has been extremely positive.
For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are two types of generators, standby and portable. I will not be discussing portable generators. Standby generators sit in the yard on a pad and run automatically. That’s what is discussed here. Again, for the sake of discussion, let’s say there are two variants of the standby generator, true “whole-house” and “essential circuit” generators. Most of my comments below cover both variants, since an essential circuit generator really is just a smaller standby generator that only powers specific, predetermined circuits.
I installed my generator in Jan 2012. I talked to several companies, including Dominion (they had included a flyer with my bill) and Home Depot, and settled on a company called NeverDark (434-975-3275, https://neverdarkgenerators.com/) out of Charlottesville. I have been very happy with NeverDark and I am not compensated in any way by citing them here.
When I started speaking to salesmen, their first question was always, “Which circuits do you want to be hot when the generator powers the house?” I tried to figure this out, but ultimately gave up--too hard! I want power everywhere! I probably could have saved some money by installing a smaller generator and selecting only a few essential circuits to power, but I decided I did not know what the future might bring in terms of power needs in the house, so I installed a 20,000 watt GE generator, enough to power the whole house. There are other popular brands, most notably Generac, which NeverDark also installs, but they recommended the GE for me.
During a major renovation of our home two years earlier, I added a second power panel to increase my service in the home to 400 amps. This meant I needed two transfer panels to support the generator. A transfer panel sits on the wall outside your home, usually next to your electric meter and manages the transfer of power to the home from either Dominion or the generator.
Another choice you will make is fuel source—propane or natural gas. Propane means that you will need to install a tank and have it filled periodically. We already had natural gas, so I decided to simply hook into the gas line that already provided service to the house. NeverDark coordinated all hookups and install actions--it was completely turnkey and took only a day.
Now that you’re all set to run out and buy your generator, I should address a common misperception--that you will never lose power. That’s not exactly accurate. If the power goes out, even if you have a generator, you will lose power (one caveat further below.) The way generators work is that they tie into your electric power panel provided by Dominion Power. When the power goes out, a sensor detects this and signals your generator to start running. Altogether, it takes about 20-30 seconds for the system to sense and confirm the power is out, start the generator, allow the generator to run for a few seconds to get up to speed, and then finally switch your "input source" to your generator and bring the lights back on. So, you actually do lose power, but only for about 30 seconds. The magic, though, is no matter how long Dominion's power is out, your home will be warm and snug--or cool and refreshing--with lights, internet, and TV while your generator is running.
Now, if losing power for even a split second is a problem--like for computers and DVRs that are recording your favorite shows--then you need to also invest in an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)—more on UPSes in a moment. When used in combination with a generator, you can breathe easy because the UPS will keep your essential devices running and protected while the generator powers up and switches on.
One of the key factors in a decision of this magnitude is cost. Today’s systems run anywhere from $6,000 to $15,000 for the generator. You will also need one or two transfer panels, depending on your power requirements, and the labor to install it. The panels are about $1,000 each and labor for a day, including moving the generator, installing it, and testing it, will be several thousand dollars. A neighbor who is also considering a generator and received several quotes told me she is getting quotes of about $16,000 for a 20KW generator and one transfer panel, installed. I mention this because a generator is a huge expense and if you are considering one, it helps to go in with some idea of cost so you don't get a shock (no pun intended.) You should also plan to purchase (or do yourself) semi-annual servicing. NeverDark charges $500 every two years for four service calls, one every six months, for generators purchased from them.
Bottom line, think $15K, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, depending on your choices. If there was an increase in my gas bill, I never noticed it. Of course, long outages are rare, but even the time we were on generator for four days, I saw no major impact.
UNINTERRUPTIBLE POWER SUPPLIES
UPSes are small battery power packs that are able to power devices, such as a computer, DVR, router, etc., for several minutes. Having a UPS not only ensures that your shows will be completely recorded, but your two hours of work on your computer without remembering to save your work won't be lost when the power winks out.
I have used UPSes since the early '90s when I lived in Orlando--lightning capital of the world. I can't tell you how much work I lost when the power blinked and my computer crashed. UPSes come in a variety of sizes and are readily available on Amazon, at MicroCenter in Fairfax, and probably many other places. There are several highly regarded brands including APC, CyberPower, and Tripp-Lite. I have used APC and CyberPower and recently have grown to prefer CyberPower for their features.
UPSes range in price from about $50 to $200 and more. The price is driven by capacity, usually expressed in VA (volt-amperes), but the actual wattage capability will be less. For example, an APC Back-UPS 350 is rated at 350 VA, but only 255 watts. Wattage is key. Decide what you need to be sure remains on during a power outage, check the specs of those devices for their wattage requirements, and add them up. The 350 is on the small side, but it can generally power a computer and monitor, and perhaps some other small devices such as an external hard drive, hub, switch, or router, for 20-30 minutes. Again, be sure you add up the wattages from the specs for each device and don't cheat! Overtaxing the battery can cause it to fail early--usually just when you need it the most. The less load you have drawing power, the longer the battery will last during an outage. When used in conjunction with a generator, they will absolutely keep your key devices powered without interruption.
Some additional notes:
A QUICK WORD ABOUT SOLAR
Earlier, I mentioned a caveat to losing power. Solar has become a popular choice for harvesting free energy and some of the solar systems being offered include a battery as part of the system. The battery stores energy from the panels during the day and allows the home to be powered during darkness. Solar is a completely different animal and I will not delve into it here. I did extensive research in 2020 and, while I decided solar wasn't right for me, I believe it would be a smart choice for many in the Hunt. I mention it now because if you have a solar system or are considering adding one, and you add/include a generator, the battery in the solar system should keep you from losing power even for the 30 seconds while a generator engages, potentially eliminating the need for any UPSes in the house.
When I discussed purchasing a generator with my wife, she thought I was crazy--thousands of dollars for something that only is needed a few times a year?!? Well, she capitulated and today, when the power goes out—every time, EVERY TIME—without fail, she tells me I’m a genius. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but over the past 9 years, we’ve “missed” countless short term outages, at least one 4-day outage, have never had to sit in the cold and dark wondering when power would be restored, never had a freezer full of food defrost and be thrown away, never had to worry about an errant candle falling over and burning the house down, never had to get out of the car in the rain to manually open a garage door, …. I think you get the idea.
Many Hunt homeowners have generators, so please send your questions to the list-serv and take advantage of the wealth of experience from your neighbors!
Good luck in your decision!