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In Pepco territory, blackouts mean more home generators, more noise complaints

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 9:16 PM

For Arthur Bennett, blackouts now come with a soundtrack.

When last month's "thundersnow" knocked out power in Bennett's Montgomery County neighborhood, the preindustrial hush inside his house - when even the refrigerator seemed to hold its breath - soon gave way to the two-stroke roar of engines up and down his block.

"As soon as the power goes out, the generators come on," said Bennett, a resident of the tree-filled, outage-prone village of Garrett Park. "In the last couple of years, it's gotten to be like a bunch of lawn mowers running all night. It means I don't sleep very well."

Bennett, like many residents of Pepco's service area in Maryland and the District, has concluded that blackouts are likely to get even louder as the utility's fed-up customers turn increasingly to backup power. According to retailers and electricians, home generator sales are booming in the area Pepco serves, especially since the company has been plagued by repeated, prolonged outages over the past few years. Portable generators sold out at several home stores after the latest storm, and installers report that sales of high-end whole-house units have skyrocketed.

Jim Holt of Gaithersburg's Holt Electrical said his sales of home generators have been climbing steadily and reached a near "level of panic" after the last blackout - mainly on Pepco's turf.

"We've got people begging us to come out right now, offering to pay extra," Holt said. "A few years ago, we had a lot of sales in McLean and Great Falls, places where they have a lot of trees. Now it's all Potomac, Bethesda, Silver Spring. That's Pepco."

"It's definitely been good for business," said Amanda Keller, office manager of Baltimore-based Innovative Energy Systems, which operates in areas covered by both Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric. "Our biggest activity these days is not up here, it's down in the D.C. metro area."

A Pepco spokesman said the utility was aware of the trend.

"We know some people are buying generators, but don't give up on Pepco," said Bob Hainey, the utility's manager of media relations. "We want to provide safe and reliable electricity for all of our customers, and that's what we're working on."

But as generators pop up in more back yards, so do questions of generator etiquette. How many lights is it polite to have on when the rest of the block is dark? (One Garrett Park family raised eyebrows during the January outage by firing up their still-hanging Christmas lights). How many cellphones and iPods is it okay to bring over to a neighbor's generator-equipped house for a quick charge? How late is too late to run the equivalent of a minibike engine right outside your neighbor's window?

The noise "has definitely become more of an issue," said Stan Edwards, chief of Montgomery County's Environmental Policy and Compliance Division. His agency responded to 15 generator noise complaints last year, up from an average of one or two in past years.

Montgomery law caps household generator noise at 65 decibels (a level similar to a vacuum cleaner) in the daytime and 55 decibels (about the same as a window air-conditioning unit) after 9 p.m. Most commercially available generators far exceed those levels, Edwards said, but the racket can be muted by careful placement and noise-dampening fences.

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