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Over the past few years, says Horacio Muslera, a Washington, D.C.-based master electrician, “the whole horizon” has expanded for standby generators as an increasing number of consumers have begun to demand the units.

In June 2012, less than a year after Hurricane Irene swept across the East Coast, a derecho knocked out power to millions of Northeastern and Midwestern homes. The widespread blackout prompted homeowners to buy standby generators that would keep the lights and air conditioning on during power outages. And manufacturers started to see more demand for standby generators that are more powerful, less expensive, smaller, quieter, and easier to operate and care for.

The result: Generators with air-cooled engines as powerful as 20 kilowatts are now available for less than $5,000, plus installation costs. The new 20-kilowatt air-cooled units can power a five-ton air-conditioning system, as well as most of the home’s other electrical devices, including a sump pump, refrigerator, lights, and computers. (For a more in-depth discussion of how to help customers choose a standby generator, check out the Propane Training Academy’s on-demand webinar, Specifying Propane Standby Generators: Installation and Value Considerations.)

Manufacturers are also developing high-tech ways to leverage that power capacity even further. The feature that has most impressed Muslera, owner of Plus Electric, is an optional load-management system that allows a stationary generator to monitor the circuits it’s powering and shut down one appliance at a time when the homeowner turns on others that otherwise would overload the generator. “Customers love it,” Muslera says. “They have the ability to choose which appliance to turn on and which one turns off.”

So, if a family is cooking dinner, running an exhaust fan, and watching a flat-screen TV in a heated home during a power outage, the load-control switch might shut down the water heater for half an hour until the cook powers down the exhaust fan and wall oven. Chances are, the family wouldn’t run out of hot water during the pause and wouldn’t notice that the generator had interrupted power to the water heater.

“It’s as if nothing happened to the consumer,” says Jake Thomas, senior product manager for Generac.

The load-control system allows owners of larger homes to opt for the reduced-price 20- kilowatt air-cooled generator, even though their power needs exceed its capacity. Or someone in a smaller home might buy a less-expensive 8-kilowatt or 14-kilowatt generator and add the load-management system, figuring the family won’t use every appliance at the same time, so trading off won’t be a problem during a power outage. Many customers won’t know that these technological advances have brought the cost of standby generators within their price range, Thomas says. His advice to trades: “Let them know. There is a range for the entire pocketbook.”

Generator manufacturers are also giving homeowners more ability to monitor their generators remotely via the Internet, a particularly appealing feature to on-the-road customers. This option allows owners to turn the generator on or off, view a history of its activity, and get real-time status updates via text or email to the owner’s phone.

Remote communication has capabilities beyond those needed to control the generator. Kohler Power, for one, can pair its On Cue system with the home’s security system or with remotely activated individual devices such as those in automated hurricane shutters and porch lights.

Here’s what else is new with stationary standby generators:

  • Enclosures for hard-wired units are shrinking, a change popular among homeowners with small yards and townhomes. Some units are up to 30 percent smaller than comparable models from prior years. And instead of designing with rust-prone steel, some manufacturers are making the cases out of aluminum or galvanized steel to resist corrosion. Kohler makes a unit composed of polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), which the manufacturer says is corrosion-proof and impact-resistant.
  • Fire-tested units can contain a fire within its enclosure for at least an hour, so the National Fire Protection Association approves them to sit as close as 18 inches away from buildings. Units that are not fire-tested must sit three to five feet away from buildings, which can also interfere with landscaping.
  • Some brands have fine-tuned their generator displays for easy reading in both direct sunlight and in low light. Backlit LCD screens are easier on the eyes, manufacturers say.
  • Advances in generator fans have made them quieter. In fact, some manufacturers advertise outdoor units that make less noise than a vacuum cleaner. Others have lowered volume levels even further for routine weekly “exercises” – the automatic testing the generator runs to diagnose problems and keep itself in tune between uses. Generac, for instance, does this by programming the devices to operate on less-than-full power during exercises.

Portable Power

Most new automated features appear only on permanently installed, hardwired standby generators. But in early 2013, Generac will introduce a 55-kilowatt portable generator with a manual transfer switch that will feed power into the home’s electrical system. That advancement will allow the generator to connect to devices, such as the furnace, that are out of the reach of the extension cords typically connecting a portable generator to an appliance.

The switch would safely connect the portable generator to the home’s central load panel and power-up the home’s critical devices.

The homeowner would work with the electrician at the time of installation to choose which circuits in the home would be powered without an extension cord, such as living room lights and the refrigerator, after the homeowner manually turns the system on. But the customer could still disconnect the generator for use camping or at tailgate parties.

The LP5500 runs only on propane and features a fuel tank attached to the generator, so there’s no need for the user to carry or hook up the tank separately.

For the contractor, the generator’s manual transfer switch also presents a business opportunity, since switch installation isn’t an appropriate do-it-yourself job for the homeowner.