The Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet for the United States so far this year, with only three tropical storms bringing rain to the Eastern Seaboard. But more than half of the hurricane season is yet to come, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center has predicted a near-normal year for hurricanes. That equates to four to eight hurricanes, of which one to three will become major, with top winds of 111 mph or higher.
Hurricane Irene in 2011 and the June 2012 derecho that spread mayhem across the Northeast and the Midwest remind us of the importance of preparing for power outages. Construction professionals can help their customers gain peace of mind and protect their investment in their homes by offering propane-fueled standby generators.
Backup power can be important to various types of customers, Jake Thomas, senior product manager for generator manufacturer Generac Power Systems, says. A homeowner who travels extensively may want to protect his family in the case of an outage, for instance, or ensure that an elderly parent doesn’t have to struggle with a portable generator.
“The protection of the home is another area where people find it very important to have a generator,” Melanie Tydrich, senior channel manager of residential generator products at Kohler, says. “Often it’s a bad experience that inspires them to buy one afterwards.” Homeowners with finished basements that have sump pumps should seriously consider a generator, she says, because sump pumps can fail even with battery backup, and repairs for basement flooding can be costly. In southern climates, losing air conditioning can cause mold and mildew, and in northern climates, losing heat can cause pipes to freeze and burst, even if the homeowner finds somewhere warm to stay.
Standby generators provide safe and convenient protection against these power-outage hazards. While portable generators may be an option in some circumstances, they’re not ideal for long-term use and won’t kick in automatically when the power shuts off. Standby generators are installed by a professional, so they’re safe, reliable, and hands-off. They include an automatic transfer switch that monitors the utility power and, when it senses an outage, sends a signal to the generator to start up (or to cool down and shut off when power is restored). And they run on clean-burning natural gas or propane, the home’s existing fuel source, so they have a long run time and eliminate the need to run to the gas station in a downpour or store gallons of gasoline in the home.
Generator manufacturers have added sophisticated technology to their products in recent years, so the category’s worth another look if you haven’t explored it recently. In July, Kohler launched the 6VSG, a variable-speed direct-current 6-kilowatt generator designed to provide efficient backup power to battery banks for alternative energy sources such as solar or wind. Ideal for off-grid use or homes that use solar power to back up the utility power, the 6VSG’s direct current output maintains battery banks directly without inefficient conversions from alternating current. And the variable-speed engine runs only as fast as needed to recharge the battery, reducing fuel consumption and costs.
Manufacturers are also lowering the acquisition cost of standby generators by packing more power into their air-cooled engines. It’s now possible to get an air-cooled generator that provides up to 20 kilowatts of power. That’s significant, because moving up to a higher-output liquid-cooled generator can increase the generator’s footprint and triple the price. Load management technology built into the generator switch can stretch the power of an air-cooled generator even further by managing the demand of certain loads, Thomas says. “So if the generator gets to the point of overload, it’ll shut off certain loads for a certain amount of time and then bring them back on,” he explains. Juggling those loads can allow a 20-kilowatt generator to handle closer to 25 kilowatts of demand, making it a more affordable solution than a liquid-cooled product.
Kohler’s remote monitoring and generator management system is another useful technology, especially suited to tech-savvy or on-the-go homeowners. The system allows owners to receive generator status updates on their mobile phones by text message or email and allows service providers to manage the generator remotely. “A lot of people are finding that very convenient,” Tydrich says, “because if something goes wrong with the generator on a weekly test, for example, they can get it taken care of before a major event hits.”
Manufacturers have also developed products that help builders make their homes generator-ready. Whereas a normal generator installation would require an electrical panel, a transfer switch, and in some cases an additional subpanel, leaving two or three boxes on the wall, Generac’s GenReady electrical panel is a hybrid with a built-in transfer switch. By planning ahead during construction, builders and remodelers can use the panel to help their customers save substantial money on generator installation in the future.
To learn more about the technology and installation of standby generators, check out the following courses at the Propane Training Academy.