REWatch: Reliable Backup Power

2013-06-30T00:00:00Z REWatch: Reliable Backup PowerMichelle Krueger Times Homes Columnist
June 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

We’ve lived in the same home for 21 years now. Our son was six months old when we moved here in December of 1992. You would think that at some point - from the time he took his first steps to earlier this month when he cracked his first legal beer - we would have become wiser homeowners.

Not so much.

I’m currently sitting in my very warm and fairly dark kitchen writing this column on his laptop, which is plugged into a gas generator on the driveway. Once again, we are without power in our neighborhood. It happens at least a few different times each year. Usually, it lasts 24-48 hours. Once it was nearly five full days. At this point, NIPSCO’s online updates tell us we are definitely looking at the longer end of the spectrum.

Don’t get me wrong - with trees down on houses and power lines all around us, we are extremely grateful to be among the unscathed in the wake of last week’s “severe storm event.” The path of devastation from this particular storm missed our home, and, in the scheme of things, we are simply inconvenienced by the power outage.

We do have a couple of orange extension cords coming into the house from a generator that is a hand-me-down from my parents. In the past, our neighbor was kind enough to offer us a similar “lifeline.”

While we really do know how lucky we are - we had a very large old cottonwood take our power lines down in 2000 (the small handprints in the cement that was replaced in the aftermath are a constant reminder) - when we came home from watching the Blackhawks score those amazing late goals to win the Stanley Cup, we couldn’t help but be a little jealous of our neighbors with their lights on - despite the fact that their houses were located right smack in the middle of an otherwise entirely dark block.

Severe storms can strike at any moment anywhere, and homeowners who learn from the experience develop an emergency plan before the next big storm hits.

Even though our little generator is great for charging mobile devices and helping meet deadlines, we’re still burning candles and using flashlights around the house when the sun sets. Plus, since we somehow neglected to plug the refrigerator into the generator Monday night, we were tossing out most of the contents on Tuesday – better safe than sorry – and dreading what the clothes in our locked washing machine will smell like once the door finally opens.

With nearly 87,000 electric customers experiencing power outages as a result of the severe line of thunderstorms early last week, if you live in a neighborhood like mine where power lines are often damaged by falling trees, high winds, heavy rains and/or ice, it might be time to consider a permanent whole house automatic standby generator, according to Paul Starcevich, an Electrical Engineering graduate of Purdue University and an owner/partner at Meyer’s Companies, Inc. HVAC/Plumbing/Electric in Griffith.

“These systems first became popular with the general public about 10-11 years ago,” he said. “They have become more affordable over time, and we always get a lot of calls after a storm.”

Viewed as the best option for homeowners to maintain power during and after severe weather because it provides automatic, whole-home power during extended outages, a permanent standby generator has a number of benefits over the gas-hog on my driveway, according to Starcevich.

For starters, he pointed to my computer and the tangled mess of cords feeding into the power strip on my kitchen table.

“Modern technology is driven by computers – even the latest appliances and furnaces have computer systems – and the power from your generator can cause problems for them,” he explained. “Gasoline generators produce ‘dirty’ power, meaning it fluctuates in voltage and can damage sensitive circuitry. Standby generators produce “clean” power, sometimes cleaner than what you get from NIPSCO, making them more reliable for modern technology.”

Beyond that, a permanent standby generator seamlessly provides compete whole-house coverage during a power outage. It automatically starts within seconds of detecting power loss and runs on the home’s existing natural gas supply.

“When the power goes out, it completely changes the way you live,” Starcevich said. “A standby generator can power an entire home during an outage, which means your life continues uninterrupted. This is especially important for homes with medical necessities such as oxygen or hospital beds, in maintaining comfort for the elderly, to keep sump pumps running and prevent water damage, for food preservation (especially if you happen to be out of town during a power outage), to open and close the garage door, and, of course, if you’re a home office worker.”

Because most towns require a permit and licensed electrician to install permanent standby generators, Starcevich recommends calling a company like Meyers, which was voted Best Electrician in the Times & Shore Best of the Region 2013, for more information.

“The first thing we look for is the gas meter (your permanent standby generator needs to be first in line), then the electric panel. From there, we work with our customers to determine their needs,” he explained. “We use Generac Power Systems by Honeywell exclusively for many reasons including the remote monitor, nice look, aluminum cabinet, warranty (Meyers offers an industry-leading 5-year parts/2-year labor warranty), GFCI outlet on the unit and load shed. Then, we provide complete service, 24/7 365-days a year. That’s especially important if you experience any problems down the road. We see a lot of people who are no longer able to reach their contractor.”

Similar to an insurance policy, there's no telling when, or how often, you'll need a backup generator. Whether it's worth the investment depends on your personal situation, your tolerance for interruptions and your budget.

Since our home falls under the worst-case scenario (gas line and electric box on opposite ends of the house with a finished basement in between), we’ll probably rely on our current generator for the time being. However, our neighbor down the street has a home that’s the best-case scenario and will have a permanent whole house standby generator installed by Meyer’s next week. I’m making a mental note not to drive by there during the next power outage!

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