Generators, portable or automatic, can help homeowners survive weather's wrath

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By Kimberly Lankford
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 5, 2010

Home generator sales surged after this winter's snowstorms left many people without power -- and heat -- for days.

Roy Cranford, president of CDS Emergency Power Services, a Baltimore-based company that sells and installs generators throughout the mid-Atlantic region, did 40 estimates for permanent home generators from January to March 2009. The number swelled to 400 for the same three months of this year, when snowstorms blew through the area.

And we might be in for more rough weather. This year's hurricane season, which started Tuesday, is likely to be a "top 10 year" for storms, according to forecasters at AccuWeather.

At risk is not simply the comfort of air conditioning and television. Summer storms can knock out a sump pump just when you need it to keep the basement dry. Refrigerators full of food can spoil, wasting hundreds of dollars. A home generator -- either the portable, gasoline-fueled type or a permanently installed standby unit tied to a natural gas line or propane tank -- can keep you going when nature turns out the lights.

Bill Howard, who lives in Belle Haven, just south of Old Town Alexandria, used to incur expensive water damage in his basement after his sump pump stopped working when the electricity went out and his battery backup failed. As an insurance agent, he knew from experience that it wouldn't be wise to keep filing water-damage claims with his insurer whenever the sump pump overflowed.

"Insurance companies hate water-damage claims, and they're very paranoid about mold, so if you have a couple of water damage claims, they will let you go," he says. "I know how many at-bats I have with my insurance company, and I don't want to waste them with this."

So Howard bought a small portable generator from Lowe's for about $500 two days before Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003, and immediately put it to use when his electricity went out for several days. The generator has helped his sump pump keep working and prevented his basement from flooding three times since then.

"If the power's out and it's not raining, I don't worry," he says. "But if the power's out and we're in an extended rainstorm and I can hear the water coming into the sump pump hole, I'll plug that in because it will fill up in short order." He pulls the gasoline-powered generator out of the garage as soon as the rain stops, cranks it up like a lawn mower, and plugs in a heavy-duty power cord into the sump pump to keep it going. He does wish, however, that he had purchased a quieter model.

Portable generators are safer and easier to use than they used to be, but safety precautions remain essential. Gasoline-run generators emit carbon monoxide, so it's important to run the generator outside of any enclosure and to wheel it away from open windows, vents or doors. Garages, even with the outside doors left open, are not safe places to run a generator. Experts advise using a carbon monoxide detector, making sure extension cords are grounded and allowing the engine to cool for at least two minutes before refueling.

It has always been time-consuming to plug everything into the portable generator, but you can now have a manual transfer switch installed that lets you pick up 15 to 16 select circuits with one connection, Cranford says.

An automatic standby generator, which looks like a central air conditioner that sits outside your home, makes things easier. Such units are wired into the home's main electrical distribution panel and monitor the power coming into the house from the electric company. The generator automatically turns on within 20 to 30 seconds of detecting a disruption in power, then shuts off as soon as power is restored. You don't need to be there to press a button or plug anything in, which makes these generators helpful for the elderly, travelers or people who need the power for medical equipment such as an oxygen machine.

A 7-kilowatt automatic standby generator can cost about $1,900, compared with about $900 for a portable generator producing the same juice, says Troy Blewett of Briggs & Stratton, which manufacturers both types.


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