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Every two years the American Society of Civil Engineers grades America’s electrical grid and pipeline distribution system. The latest grade: a D+. That disappointing grade would come as no surprise to any homeowner who experienced Hurricane Sandy’s sting, recent record snowfalls, tornadoes, lightning, ice storms, fire, failed electrical grid equipment, and other power-stopping events.

The trend line is unmistakable: Weather-related power outages have actually doubled since 2003. On any given day, an average of 500,000 Americans have no power.

Mounting concern

Power interruptions cost Americans $150 billion a year, frustration mounts, and a question from homeowners hangs in the air: “How do I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?”

Government and nonprofit organizations are taking note. Last June President Obama announced the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The nearly $1 billion competition invites communities that have experienced natural disasters to compete for funds that can help them rebuild and increase their resilience to future disasters.

Prescription for Resilience

Saratoga Builders offers propane standby generators as an option for the 30 resilient homes in its Schuyler Pointe community.

Emphasize that word resilience. It’s a term seen with increasing frequency as the debate over what to do about the unreliable grid grows at the national, state, community, and household level.

Homebuilders may play a critical role in the battle against power grid instability. A new class of homes, called resilient homes, goes beyond standard weather protection by anticipating natural as well as man-made disasters, such as a crippling terrorist event.

Central to that resilience is the capability to sustain critical household systems when the grid goes dark. For that, more and more resilient homebuilders turn to a propane standby generator.

High on the wish list

“Today the idea of resilient design isn’t a luxury, it’s fast becoming a necessity,” says Melanie Tydrich, Senior Channel Manager – Residential/Light Commercial for Kohler Power, a leading maker of propane standby generators.

“Maintaining the power for critical household systems often gets overlooked. Today more homeowners are wondering, ‘Instead of a granite countertop, maybe I should put in a standby generator.’ That decision could save them tens of thousands of dollars in household repairs, clean-up, and alternative housing.”

There was a time a homebuilder might cringe at the idea of a standby generator. Standby generators were expensive, loud, and unsightly, and they delivered the kind of fluctuating electricity that’s unfriendly to the sensitive electronics in today’s computers, variable-speed air conditioners, and other high-tech household devices.

Affordable alternative

Now propane standby generator technology is surprisingly affordable, quiet, and attractive, and it plays nice with sensitive electronics. “Today, propane generators start as low as $1,899,” says Clement Feng, senior vice president of marketing at Generac, another leading maker of residential standby generators. “Including installation, the package price for a larger-sized unit may run $7,000 to $8,000. Smaller units start at $4,000 installed. Propane standby generators have never been more affordable.”

What can the homeowner expect the generator to power? Just about anything they want. Some homeowners are content to save money with a smaller unit designed to maintain a few critical circuits, such as the sump pump, HVAC system, and refrigerator. Others want a seamless, automatic transition to their pre-outage lifestyle with a whole-house generator that powers everything from hair dryers to interactive TV games.

Generator ready

Feng says even if homebuilders are reluctant to directly offer installation of a standby generator, they can still differentiate their projects by making it easy to add a propane standby generator and the device that controls it, a critical piece of technology called the transfer switch.

The switchover to backup power can take as few as 10–15 seconds.

The transfer switch may be automatic or manual and serves as the generator’s gateway into the home. In other words, gone are the days of a tangled maze of wires running from the backup generator. “The transfer switch ensures a prompt, orderly power transition to the standby generator,” Tydrich says. The switchover to backup power can take as few as 10–15 seconds.

Some standby generator makers offer smartphone apps that allow you to test, control, and monitor your generator system remotely. That can be especially helpful for homeowners with a second or vacation home.

Resilient future

Standby generators are just one part of the resilient solution that propane gas is uniquely qualified to deliver. A new case study, With These Propane Homes, Resilience Is Built In, explains how Saratoga Builders of Saratoga Springs, New York, created a successful 30-home community in upstate New York that delivers a surprising array of resilient capabilities at attractive market prices.

The world is a perilous place. But a resilient home safeguarded by a propane standby generator can help eliminate the uncertainty.

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Dennis Harrington