Friday, April 29, 2011

Considering a gas-powered standby generator

I've been wearing my Bo Williams Risk Analysis™ cap a fair amount for the past couple of days, and this post started life as a comment on his post Friday miscellanea, post-Alabama tornado super-outbreak edition.

Our house has gas heat and a gas set in the fireplace. I've been letting the latter slide in a state of disrepair. I recognize and accept this BWRA™ Demerit. It will be ready before winter 2011, which will mean redundant sources of heat. You ought to see my related GTD project list!

The option is obvious now, but it took a conversation with my dad to learn about permanent standby generators that run on natural gas and periodically test themselves. I priced them online and may be able to purchase a unit that would power most of my house, perhaps in staggered operation for heavy loads such as HVAC and dryer, for around $5k with no headaches of managing a gasoline reserve or just-in-time fuel purchases.

The last week-long outage in the area was nearly forty years ago, but sidestepping even hours-long outages due to storms, ice on power lines, drunks hitting poles, and so on is awfully appealing too. I emptied the refrigerator and freezer, and temperatures in the Huntsville area are projected to be mild. My one power-related worry is my 55-gallon cichlid tank. I turned on a battery-powered air pump, but that's about the best I could do. I think I was a week overdue for a water change when we lost power, so staying on top of aquarium chores in the future will help there too, assuming optimistically that these hardy critters make it.

Other questions:
  • Where can I find comprehensive lists of electrical and gas outages to find whether I'm trading more-or-less equivalent problems?
  • How expensive would backup mode be?
  • Fossil fuels in general aren't getting any cheaper, so at what gas price does such a generator become a total dud?
  • What about purification of, say, rain water?
  • I expect a crazy run on generators when we're no longer part of the third world. What are good value metrics?
  • What other issues do I need to consider?


saintseester said...

I want a house generator like youspeak of. I am also considering a smaller set up. I'll price them here in ark and maybe have some comparables for you

Bo said...

Dude, I just gave you an 800-word (or so) comment that was swallowed into oblivion by some glitch or another. (Insufficient risk analysis.) :-)

I'll try again in the morning.

Bo said...


The first one should be a briefcase-sized, inverter-equipped, wow-that-is-so-trick, Honda or Yamaha. This will probably be a 1000-watt unit, though there are larger ones. A 1000-watt one will be $800-900. This is what you'll use to run your cable modem, router, laptop, cell phone chargers, and so forth, as well as audio/video equipment. (I'm watching a Seinfeld DVD and writing this comment with mine right now.) Unless you've got it really maxed, you can run such a generator continuously for 16 hours a day for less than a gallon of gas. Totally awesome.

The second one should be a larger one for intermittent duty, like washing machines, microwaves, and so forth. This will also be the one off which you'll run your refrigerator, if you make that call. You should probably make this one 3500 or 4000 watts minimum. Steer clear of any junk; there's a lot of it in this market segment. Think of $1500-2000 as a price floor.

Buy good stuff and cry once. What's it worth to you when you really need this equipment for it to start on the first pull and run rock-solid reliably for days? You'll want to get them out and fire them up--run them for an hour or so, with some load on them--every six to eight weeks. Use high-quality gasoline with fuel stabilizer added, and run them out of gas before putting them back up. With no extended duty, which will be the case almost always, a biannual oil change is plenty. (I'll be changing the oil in mine after this crisis is over, obviously.)

Budget another few hundred dollars for high-quality, heavy-gauge extension cords; uninterruptible power supplies; and so forth. If you're running the generators in a garage with the garage door slightly open, I recommend a small industrial blower to position between the exhausts and the outdoors. Carbon monoxide detector is a must, obviously. Put that just inside the man door that leads to the garage.

When you get to poking around on this online, you may find advocates of backfeeding. That's essentially getting an extension cord with two male ends on it, plugging one into the generator and the other into whatever circuit you want to power. Never, ever do this. This is extremely dangerous, both to you and potentially to utility workers.

My current backup power plan has one significant risk, but I like the odds for it. There are two things likely to cause an extended power outage around here: an ice storm, and what we've just been through. In the first case, I have a source of gas heat. You do too. So, no problem. In the second case, it's almost certainly going to be spring or fall, so the weather's probably going to be mild, particularly following the storm. That's been the case for us, and it's going to warm up a little bit today, but still not much.

So my risk is that I don't have a temperature comfort option for the heat of the summer. I don't have a transfer switch as part of my house wiring, and there's no easy and safe way to run the air conditioner off a portable generator without one. If you're more concerned about that than I am, an option is to purchase a window air conditioner and keep it in reserve.

That's about what I've got. I guess losing my comment last night did allow me to organize my thoughts a little better, so that's good. Hope I helped.

Bo said...

THIS IS PART ONE to be read before the previous comment:

My thoughts follow. Keep in mind I'm an interested amateur and not an expert:

I appreciate the risk analysis kudos, but I got caught with my pants down in too many ways this time around. I was very thankful I got my potable water problem solved so relatively easily on Thursday morning in Pulaski, for example. It wouldn't have taken much more chaos for my route to be considerably more difficult or even impossible, either. I was fortunate. I'm appreciative that I could get a serious reminder without paying sustained consequences.

I understand your concerns about fossil fuels, but as of today, they'll be part of our daily lives for decades more, so for now my lot is cast there. There's no way to get all of the benefits of fossil fuel-powered portable generators with alternate sources without spending several times more money.

I hear you on the whole-house generator. I suspect there's one in our future as well. It costs a grand or so annually to have one, but it'd be worth it for the peace of mind.

In my opinion, the best thing to do with portable generators is to get two--both to allow you some specialization, and to give you something of a way forward if one fails.

Bo said...

Should have read more carefully. I'm just now noticing that you're talking about natural gas whole-house. In my comment, I was talking about something with an on-site fuel supply that would have to be turned over (hence my comment about annual costs.)