For many businesses, purchasing a generator isn’t worth it

When strong storms at the end of June left Chevy Chase Supermarket without power for five days, owners had to throw out almost all of the food in the store.

But even the store’s estimated losses of $100,000 were not enough to justify the purchase of a generator to guard against future outages, co-owner Jason Kirsch said.

“Nope, we won’t be doing anything like that,” he said. “Can’t afford it.”

Local businesses have responded to this summer’s multiple power outages — some lasting nearly a week — in different ways, but many said they are finding that the cost and size of backup commercial generators are leaving them without too many options.

“It’s just one of those physical impossibilities,” said Patrick Ahrens, a manager at the Ben & Jerry’s in Reston Town Center which lost electricity for three days this summer. “We have so many machines and so many different plugs that it would be a logistical nightmare.”

The cost for a commercial generator can exceed $50,000, said Dale Davis, president of CMI Solar & Electric, a Newark, Del.-based company that serves customers in Maryland.

There are other logistical issues, too: the generators can be large in size, often as big as a van, and can be so loud that they violate noise ordinances, Davis said.

“There’s really no place to put a generator in the usual urban restaurant,” Davis said. “We’ve done it — it’s not out of the question — but it just isn’t a choice for a lot of businesses.”

Commercial generators, often powered with gas, can provide more than 20,000 watts of electricity, enough to power entire stores, hotels and restaurants. Residential generators, by comparison, typically range from 1,000 to 8,000 watts in output and can power a handful of household appliances including refrigerators, microwaves and air conditioners at a time.

Sales of residential units, which start at about $4,000, have fared much better, Davis said.

“You can almost track it by where the lines on the power outage maps are,” he said of the recent bumps in residential sales.

Davis says business has increased by 60 percent since May. Demand for generators has been higher than ever at Potomac Generator Service and Repair and Beltsville. And at Old Dominion Innovations in Ashland, Va., generator sales have hit record highs in recent weeks.

“Over the last three weeks, we’ve had 60 to 70 calls for generators,” said Dawn Fitchett, the company’s office manager. “That is probably more than we had all last year, combined.”

The company’s best selling residential unit is about the size of a chest freezer and sells for about $10,000.

“People are looking at it like just another home improvement,” Fitchett said. “A lot of times it’s a selling point when you resell your home, especially if the family has young children or elderly parents.”

Fitchett added that the company has sold a few commercial generators — mostly to medical facilities and hardware stores that need to stay open during power outages.

The Monday after this summer’s derecho storms, Fitchett said she had booked a week’s worth of installations by 10 a.m.

“People hadn’t had power for a few days already,” she said. “And at that point, they were like ‘I can’t do this anymore. I need to get a generator.’ It’s been good for business.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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