Homeowners investing in generators

generatorThere it is, the middle of winter, and a storm knocks out electric power for the third time this year. Hours pass and still no power. You have no heat, water and lights.

As a family, you huddle among blankets in the dark and look forlornly out the living room window at your neighbor’s home where a standby generator purrs, providing them with the comforts of home that you enjoyed before the outage.

Soon, things begin to get ugly. The kids cave in first, asking why “we” don’t have a generator. Before long their whining gets to your spouse, who points out the positive aspects of such a device, such as keeping that freezer full of food in the basement from spoiling. And even you have to agree that not being able to flush the toilet is more than a minor inconvenience.

Throwing up your hands, you give in. It’s time to go shopping for a generator.

When Mike Musetti of MCM Electric in Mount Desert began his business 30 years ago, it was rare for a customer to purchase a generator. Through the years the cost has come down considerably.

“Now the working man can afford a generator,” he said.

Musetti has some advice for those considering a generator for their home.

Basically, there are two types of generators, portable and stationary. They range from large units capable of powering a whole house to smaller units suitable for keeping a few lights and the refrigerator working. In general, the stationary units produce more electricity, which is measured in watts.

When a customer calls saying they want a generator, the first step usually is a site visit, Musetti said. During the visit he assesses the homeowner’s needs. What do they want — or need — to keep running and how willing or capable they are of doing some of the work themselves.

By far, a stationary generator requires the least effort on the part of the homeowner. These usually are mounted on a concrete pad outside the home and run on propane. Some units use diesel fuel, Musetti said.

When the power goes off, the generator automatically starts and a transfer switch connects the device directly to the home’s electrical system. The change from the utility company’s power can be imperceptible to the homeowner, as long as the generator is sized to power the whole home.

Another advantage is that these generators are hooked into your propane tank, making them basically hands-off for the homeowner. Musetti said a 100-gallon propane tank, like those found at most homes, can keep a generator running for four or five days.

Homeowners on a budget might want to consider a smaller unit, limiting their need for electricity to a few critical appliances, such as running the well pump and furnace.

“Most of the portable ones can run only a portion of the house,” Musetti said.

In that case a portable generator might fit the bill. But the homeowner has to put in some effort, getting it hooked up and started in what might be unpleasant weather conditions and refueling the generator every few hours.

Instead of running extension cords from the generator to appliances, Musetti recommends that a transfer switch be installed to connect it to the home’s wiring. In these cases, the switch often is manually operated.

When sizing a generator for a customer’s needs, Musetti said a good rule of thumb is to purchase a generator that produces 20 percent more power than needed. That way the generator can handle any surges, such as when a motor starts and draws more current.

In general, the smaller portable generators produce 1,000 watts of power, the larger ones about 6,500 watts. The smaller generators severely limit what household appliances you choose to power. To get an idea, ten 100-watt light bulbs draw 1,000 watts. That’s probably not enough power to run the sump pump to keep your basement from flooding.

The smallest stationary generator sold by Musetti produces 8,000 watts. He’s installed generators as large as 100,000 watts. For the average two- or three-bedroom home, Musetti recommends a generator that produces between 14,000 and 16,000 watts.

“Usually 16,000 watts,” he said, adding that he’s installed two of that size for family members. Even then, he said, his family has to be careful not to overload the system.

“They probably can do the laundry, but don’t put the electric stove on all four burners at the same time,” he said.

Musetti estimates the cost of installing a 16,000 watt system at around $8,000.

Homeowners aren’t the only ones getting on the generator bandwagon. In Ellsworth, the owners of Rooster Brother, George and Pamela Elias, have a generator in their store. The impetus for the installation was a Christmastime storm where downtown stores were without power for several days.

“The ice storm was devastating to our business,” George Elias. “We lost four days worth of sales.”

Sales weren’t the only issue.

“We have an enormous amount of perishable stuff here,” he continued.

Along with a commercial coffee roaster the store has numerous freezers and refrigerators and what amounts to a full commercial kitchen. Needless to say, the Eliases did not go with a portable generator. They chose a 36,000-watt propane-powered generator that is able to run the entire store.

The generator at Rooster Brother went into service early last fall. The “piece of mind aspect” is priceless, Elias said.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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