The weekend before our disaster at our new house Wendy and I spent very lovely Valentine's Day with friends at the very same house. It's amazing what a week can do to your general outlook.

While it was a bitterly cold Valentine's Day, and we couldn't really enjoy being outside, we figured a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of work and crowds might be the best way to celebrate the day. Our plan was simple, celebrate with a delicious home cooked meal and some company from good friends.

Beyond the bitter cold, there was also a pretty ridiculous wind storm. Sustained winds of 35 miles per hour with gusts up to 65. The wind was howling all night, so much so that when we woke up on Sunday morning the wind had blown the tide out so far that we could walk on icy ground all of the way out to the end of our pier.

We were able to see some really interesting things out in the water, including things we'll need to fish out once things thaw out a bit in the spring, as well as a neighboring dock that looks like it could use some TLC.

Beyond our trek on frozen tundra, at one point during our Valentine's Day dinner, the lights started to flicker a little and I said "Well, if the power goes out, I guess we should just head back to Alexandria?"

That's the thing about living in a more remote area, you're pretty susceptible to power outages and unexpected disruptions, and you really have no idea how long an outage will last if it occurs. And whether you're in the nasty cold of the winter, or the sweltering heat of the summer, we all really need electricity in our lives in this day and age.

While the boiler that ended up freezing up on us may be oil fired, we still need electricity for the pump and valves that allow it to function as a heat source. Without electricity we're not only without light, we're also without heat. And though we don't have any air conditioning to worry about in the summer, we will likely have food in the fridge or freezer that will quickly go bad if the fridge has no power.

I've been thinking more and more about this issue lately, and especially now given the events of the last week and a half. In Alexandria we've been very fortunate and have lost power for maybe a total of about an hour since we moved in 12 years ago, but our local friends have not been as fortunate. From the Derecho to Hurricane Isabel to the Snowmageddon blizzards in 2010, we've had friends without power for days or even weeks at a time.

Now that we have a home that's in a more rural area, and one that is in a somewhat more vulnerable area on the water, we're much more susceptible to the elements. And with our recent disaster that caused our pipes to freeze, the need for redundancy in our home's systems have really be driven home. Because of this I've been looking into the options we have in the way of either a portable generator solution...

...or even a full time standby on demand generator.

Many people really only think of this when it comes to the violent storms that accompany the summer months, but as we are now well aware, along with the people in Buffalo and Boston this winter, the need for electricity during any possible extreme weather condition is a must.

Late last year, as I was doing a lot of research on the various options available, we were contacted by the generator company, Generac. They invited us (along with several other online and print publications) out to their Whitewater plant in Wisconsin to learn a little bit more about their product line for 2015 and the options that people have when it comes to standby power.

Generac, as a generator company, has been in business since 1959 and serves as manufacturer of commercial and residential generators for applications of all shapes and sizes. Though their offerings really run the gamut, our interest in visiting their facility had to do specifically with the various generators being offered for their residential customers.

There were two primary components of our site visit. The first was a trip to a stately home on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. This enormous home weighed in at more than 10,000 square feet and had been outfitted with a large 22 kW natural gas standby generator. But more on that later.

As a part of their showcase, Generac invited home improvement television personality, Danny Lipford, to talk about preparing a costal home for weather. While much of his presentation dealt with the preparedness items related to a southern costal home getting ready for a major hurricane, many of the tips of his talk were universal.

First and foremost, readying your home for weather starts well before the weather arrives. It doesn't matter if we're talking a full on hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a blizzard, or a deep freeze, if you're not ready when the weather hits, it's already too late.

Danny went over his must haves for hurricane season and that he stashes everything in a large rubbermaid container in storage so that it's ready when the event happens. Tops on his list are:

  • Paper Towels
  • Batteries
  • LED Flashlights (they last much longer than traditional bulbs)
  • Non-perishable food
  • Fresh Water
  • A hand crank emergency radio

Beyond this list, and after our experience last week, I'm unfortunately going to add:

  • Space heaters
  • Buckets
  • Towels
  • Heat Gun
  • Mops
  • Extension Cords

Many of these items are somewhat common sense, but I can tell you one thing for sure, we don't have them all in one place, and many of the items in our list we didn't have on hand at all. We can now tell you first hand, in a stressful or urgent moment, you don't have time to root around looking for your flashlights. And I can also tell you, finding any of the above isn't made easier when your spouse is yelling for it from the other room.

In addition to Danny's talk on preparedness, we were able to experience a simulated power outage in this large home, and we saw just how the Generac standby generator installed in the house worked when the power in the kitchen went out for about 10 seconds before the generator kicked on and began powering the essential items in the home. The generator responsible for this power is this pretty compact unit behind the garage.

The simple fact is that the house we were in is massive. It had a 600 Amp main service panel via three 200 amp feeder lines and an impressive electrical panel in the garage to gawk at.

Compare that to the 150 or 200 Amps that's more common place in homes today and you realize just how much electricity is needed to support the home. The 22kW generator they'd installed can't power the entire house, but it can power the critical elements the house needs in the event of an outage. So when the power was cut to the house by turning off the home's main service panel, the lights and items in the kitchen we were standing in flicked off, but power was restored to the room's critical lights, the refrigerator, the microwave, and a select few outlets around the room.

It was a great way to see just how quickly the generator can restore power to all of the critical items in your home.

The second aspect of our visit was a tour of their recently retooled manufacturing plant in their Whitewater, Wisconsin facility, which is responsible for the construction of some of their larger Guardian series water cooled standby units.

Getting to see how their various units are assembled, and the fact that every unit they produce is 100% Made in the USA was very cool.

Yes, those are engine blocks, not tremendously different from what you might find in a car. They're all completely made by Generac in their facilities.

The factory is actually one in transition, being actively converted form a more traditional factory of parts and assembly stations on one side...

...into a much more open, modern, and streamlined assembly line that improves the workflow assembly process in an ergonomic and employee friendly manner.

Though it was on a smaller scale, the modernized side of the factory reminded us a lot of the Volvo factory tour we got to experience when we went to Sweden to pick up our car we purchased doing the Overseas Delivery Program.

One of the things I liked so much about the factory tour was our chance to interact with the various Generac staff members. You can tell that they all have a huge sense of pride and genuine interest in the work they do. They are making a product for sale, certainly, but they also see that they are producing something that will help improve people's quality of life, and possibly even help to save a life in a critical situation.

Our takeaway from the tour is that we have several options for our home, and they all have to do with the level of manual intervention we're comfortable with for our needs. In either case we'll need to install a transfer switch at the main panel to, allow a generator to assume load and begin to optionally power certain circuits in our house. We'll just need to identify which items we want and need to power in the event of a power outage.

On one hand we can go the more manual route, using a portable gas or propane powered generator that we'll plug into the house if the power goes out while we're there. This approach is definitely more of a convenience mode of power backup, ensuring we have electricity when we're at the house, but it's by no means an automatic solution for when we're not there.

On the other hand we can use one of the standby generators that's powered by liquid propane and can automatically kick on whether we're home or away. We'll need to purchase and install a liquid propane tank as well, but given that we may end up with a range and potentially even a new boiler that uses LP, that may be the way to go. The transfer switch would then automatically fail over to keep our critical systems running whether we're there or not.

It's certainly a lot to think about, and a decision have had our minds changed on after last weekend's frozen pipe problems. If I had to say which way I'm leaning today, I think I'd prefer the liquid propane 7kW standby generator with automatic transfer switch.

There are a lot of other considerations when it comes to a standby generator. Everything from quality/cleanliness of the power that's being generated (since our home's all have sensitive electronic equipment in them now), so the circuits and devices we want to ensure remain powered. 

We'll ultimately need to make our decisions on this in the coming months, so we'll keep you posted on which way we're leaning. But if you have any experience in this realm, we'd absolutely love to hear your thoughts and first hand accounts. And we'd especially love to hear what you have to say about using liquid propane for home fuel if that's your scenario, because we don't have access to natural gas at this point.

And as for the planning of which circuits and devices to power, there are many automatic selections, like the fridge, heating, microwave, and sump pumps, but can you think of the one random thing most people don't consider but is a must when determining standby circuits? I'd love to hear your guesses in the comments section.

*Please note, this is not a sponsored or advertisers post and was not paid for or affiliated with Generac.

Comments 21

Comments

VIkas
3/2/2015 at 12:24 PM

Some fairly random ones
- Cable modem/wifi: stave off boredom
- Alarm system: it can't take much to keep it powered, but replacing a backup battery isn't cheap. Also freeze sensors (okay salt+wound)
- Garage door opener

Alex
3/7/2015

Random perhaps, but all very good ones. The garage door is one they actually mentioned during our tour.

Jennifer
3/2/2015 at 1:04 PM

Isn't it funny after a disaster strikes is when you start thinking about preparing for another one? We did lots of thinking about generators and specifically had our fireplace inspected after all our pipe burst. Found out the fireplace was not to code when it was built in 1936 so we stopped using it.

I came across this thread from Bogleheads a few days ago and I've been following it with interest - https://www.bogleheads.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=159533

For us, we are ham radio operators so be prepared is our mantra (just like the boy scouts). We will probably look into getting a gas generator because it would be more handy for other things versus just the house.

Alex
3/7/2015

I'm going to check out that thread and follow it as well.

I'm of the mindset that I'm always preparing for the next disaster, and many of the potential catastrophes have been averted through our prep, which is why this freeze in our house has me feeling so salty. So I guess I just need to be more on the ball for future items. Alt smile

Laurie
3/2/2015 at 1:06 PM

we have Lp heating (boiler) at our shore side house (we oddly parallel you right now with housing, living in Alex. And having a historic home on the eastern shores of md), and we are in our second winter. Lp is really expensive. We've closed it up in October because we knew we wouldn't be able to get out there this winter, and set the temp at 52 to avoid freezing pipes. So far, our gas bill has been about $1,000 and we haven't stayed there at all! We are starting the research for options (more efficient unit? Changing to on-demand system? Electric?). Now that this round of bills came through, I think I'll be able to get my husband to install the wifi thermostat I've been wanting since last year. I'd love to here about your research as well.

Alex
3/7/2015

I definitely have fear about the cost of LP. I feel like it's just too costly as a primary fuel source, so we'd need to approach it purely as auxiliary. Thanks for the info, it's very helpful.

Margaret Schleicher Bjorklund
3/2/2015 at 1:40 PM
Even if you never experience the type of weather we had this winter again, think about a main power grid failure--
Alex
3/7/2015

Yes, very very true.

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Margie
3/2/2015 at 3:56 PM

Our neighbor has one of the natural gas powered generators. When the remnants of Hurricane Ike came through our area and knocked out power for about a week, they were the only house on our street with power. They kindly offered us the use of their refrigerator. But the best thing they did was leave every outside light on at their house which provided a little bit of light for the neighborhood. Good luck with your decision.

Alex
3/7/2015

So, you're saying that we should definitely include a few extra circuits for additional refrigerators to help neighbors who have food that may spoil? I think that sounds like a good plan. Alt smile

3/2/2015 at 10:37 PM

A flashlight in every closet....its a good thing(Martha Stewart ) very handy anytime.
Be sure to get a winterization kit for a generator. Oil gets to be thick. Our friend's didn't do the weekly test last week.
We want a generator but it keeps falling down the to get list.

Alex
3/7/2015

Good point on the winterization aspect. I hadn't thought of that, but with the cold we've been having, definitely something to include.

Michael
3/3/2015 at 3:04 PM

Make sure that outside all exterior doors and interior paths to exterior doors are lit. Kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms should have light and power. Ventilation fans for stove and bathroom should be on backup power. Fans in bedrooms are also nice to have on backup, but not essential.

Convert all of your lighting to LED or CFL. This is pricey in the short run if it already hasn't been done. However, sometimes, in a house with a lot of lighting, this may reduce your connected load enough that you don't need to re-wire the entire house and therefore can be reasonable in comparison. If that is the case, you could install a new panel which has the incoming power, your washer/dryer loads, and a breaker that feeds your existing panel. Otherwise, a 7kW unit most likely will require a sub-panel that can be isolated from the main panel. The sub-panel should be fed by a breaker on the main panel that is interlocked to the automatic transfer switch. You want the breaker feeding the subpanel to break before the transfer switch makes (break before make) to avoid backfeeding the main panel. Definitely get an engineer or electrician to sign off on this.

Connected load is the full-load wattage listed on all your devices. Add it up and add 20% to the total for a safety factor.

Alex
3/7/2015

We're in the process of converting our lights LED and upgrading various devices to be less power hungry, so that is definitely step 1.

I'm somewhat okay with a sub-panel and smaller generator at this point, since we'll likely end up redoing a lot of the electric in the house and can prioritize standby items as we go, but what you've outlined is very good information. The breaker/transfer switch configuration is certainly a critical aspect of the whole setup.

Marc
3/3/2015 at 6:50 PM

This fall I helped a friend install a an LP Honeywell that is apparently a re-badge of a Generac (Identical to the one the 4th pic) and they really seem like nice units. He did a lot of the installation himself but he wanted to make sure the wiring (with an auto switch) was done by someone experienced. But things like pouring a small pad, trenching a gas line to his existing LP tank ( used for drying grain), and setting the unit were very doable. His loader tractor did help with setting the unit in place though...

Would you guys need to elevate the generator to floor level in the event of flooding? Of course that might be far from the weak point in your electrical system though.

Alex
3/7/2015

I don't think we'd need to elevate the generator much for flood protection. Our house is in the 500 year floor plane, and the rear elevation where the generator would go is even a bit higher.

Jen
3/4/2015 at 1:53 AM

When I was in high school (in the late 90's) our home in Richmond seemed to lose power ALL the time. I remember not just one but TWO Christmases when our turkey was cooked outside on our gas grill because ice had taken out our electricity. Then in 2003 Hurricane Isabel happened and we were without power for 10 days. I was in grad school at W&M and I evacuated to Richmond which was also hit hard by the storm. It was ROUGH. Hundreds of $$ of food in the freezer spoiled and was thrown out and bags of ice were in short supply since thousands of other families were in similar situations. It was miserably hot. Ugh. My mom channelled Scarlett O'Hara: "As a God is my witness we will never go without power again!" She bought a standby generator and it's AWESOME. She picked strategic rooms in the house to have electricity and so she has the kitchen and laundry room hooked up as well as the bedrooms (no AC but each room has a ceiling fan to help cool things down). The generator runs for 30 minutes each Thursday to keep it in good working order and a company comes out and inspects it once a year. Our neighbors come over to her house now when storms knock out the power. You DEFINITELY need to get one of these generators!!

Alex
3/7/2015

Thanks, Jen. I love the story, and it's very convincing. We were in our house in Alexandria when Isabel hit in 2003, and we lost power for only about 10 minutes. Like you, we had a lot of friends without power for a week or more, so we knew how fortunate we were.

Allison
3/4/2015 at 4:43 PM

I'm curious to hear what you thought of Lake Geneva. I spent quite a bit of time up there since I had friends with lake houses in high school. (I grew up in the Chicago suburbs).

We also need to research generators so I'm looking forward to hearing your take. With two hurricanes that aimed straight for the Big Island of Hawaii (our new home after leaving Alexandria in 2013) this past season we need to take storm prep more seriously. The first knocked out our power for a week. We're on catchment water and even though our tank was full no power meant no water pumping into the house. It sucked.

Alex
3/7/2015

We had a lot of fun in Lake Geneva. We didn't spend a ton of time there since we were pretty much going from the airport to the house to the plant, but it seemed like a particularly great place to vacation on the warm but not too sweltering summer days in Wisconsin. It was actually both Wendy's and my first time in Wisconsin, but we'd certainly not hesitate to go back.

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