Why consider a generator for my home at all?
Power outages can last from a few hours to a couple days…or even several weeks! Natural disasters and weather conditions such as ice storms, wind events or tornadoes can quickly turn the normal utility power off for neighborhoods, cities and even large sections of counties and states. Accidents, human error, utility failure and sabotage or vandalism can unfortunately send an area into a blackout.
Are there different styles or categories of generators?
Yes. Broadly speaking, most generators used around the home fall into one of two categories. One is a “portable” generator. A portable one is small–about the size of a lawn mower–and can be used for a handful of appliances that you plug into it, using the appliance’s normal power cord. It must be started manually and is very limited in what its motor can power. Most generators of this style run on gasoline.
The other type of generator is a permanently installed system that is tied into an always accessible power source. Natural gas works best. These units are installed on a concrete pad and wired into the structure of the home. They come in a wide variety of sizes and, depending on the size you select, could power your entire house if electricity is interrupted from the electric utility provider. These are commonly called “whole-home” or “standby” generators.
When my power goes out, what happens?
Emergency standby generators do just that–standby until the electrical power supply to the home is disrupted. The generator system contains an electronic controller and an automatic transfer switch. The system monitors the electrical supply coming from your utility company and when power is lost, it begins a quick sequence of events. To avoid starts during a momentary outage, the generator has a pre-programmed delay time before starting. The delay is commonly 10 to 15 seconds. If power is not reestablished during the delay, the engine starts and ramps to full speed. After this ramp up, the generator signals the built-in transfer switch that it is ready to begin supplying power to the home.
At this point, the transfer switch disconnects the main utility lines and enables power from the generator. Depending on the generator size, this can include the entire main service panel, enabling every electrical device in the home. Other configurations may only move limited circuits onto generator power, allowing previously identified circuits and critical appliances to run.
Can I install a standby generator myself?
Yes–if you’re a well qualified, licensed electrician and possibly a plumber. Otherwise, it’s best to leave this work to licensed electricians and plumbers.
Will I need a permit to have a generator installed?
You will. City or municipal inspectors sometimes get a bad rap for the wrong reason. Their primary job is to ensure the safety of you and your home. They are supposed to be picky, and that’s a desirable characteristic when it comes to a family’s safety. A generator installation requires considerable modification of your home’s electrical system. Wiring for something this significant is not something to do poorly. A demanding inspector makes sure the system is installed carefully and won’t cause problems later. Doing it correctly means everything works, all the time. Doing it incorrectly means the possibility of problems, dangerous conditions and considerable liability if someone is injured.
Additionally, if the install is found to have been done incorrectly, your homeowner’s insurance could deny coverage in the case of a claim arising from its installation. The manufacturer of the generator may also refuse to honor a warranty claim if you are unable to provide proof of proper installation.
How do I decide the proper size of a standby generator for my home?
This is perhaps one of the most critical decisions (actually, several decisions) you’ll make during the process. There is no absolute right or wrong during the “sizing” deliberation process. A good contractor should help guide you in this process.
In a nutshell, you’re faced with deciding exactly which of your home’s electrical components will work when the generator is operating. Only the electrical plugs, switches and appliances you’ve pre-determined will work. The more you decide need to work, the greater the electrical load requirement, and the larger the generator needs to be. This in turn impacts the price for the unit and for its installation. There are many size units, and a good contractor will help you determine the kilowatt size you need, plus enough headroom to allow for a reasonable margin of operating safety. If you get multiple estimates for generators from several contractors, compare sizing estimates carefully. Be aware of any that appear to be recommending units of significantly different kilowatt size–larger or smaller. Ask them to explain their recommendation.
For example, one of the easiest decisions for most homeowners is any type of refrigeration device–refrigerators and freezers. Most homeowners will want those appliances permanently connected to the generator for the convenience of having fresh food as well as to protect the investment of food stored there. Another common choice is to connect central AC systems or electric water heaters, so the luxuries of every day living are still accessible. However, things like lighting in certain rooms or plugs that power TVs, computers and other appliances will need to be considered. During a freeze event, do you need to be able to power the pump system on your pool or other water features? What about cameras, lighting and security systems in place around your home–is it important to keep them functioning?
In short, every single plug, switch and appliance in your house will require critical thinking about what is essential to you and your family during a power loss. All of these decisions will need to be made, and a good installation company should offer help and advice.
Where will the generator need to be located?
That decision can be impacted in a number of ways: local codes, specifications from the generator manufacturer, the layout of the yard and home and proximity to natural gas lines (if natural gas is to be the power source of the generator). You’ll want the generator installed as close to the gas supply as possible to minimize plumbing costs.
Some generators meet municipal codes that allow installation as close as 18 inches from a home, but that does not mean they will meet all local codes. Standby generators produce carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that can reach dangerous levels in just minutes. Local codes can dictate things like proximity to vents and fresh air supplies regarding where the generator is placed.
Additionally, do you have neighbors? Your installation can impact them with noise and exhaust fumes. At 20 feet, a quality air-cooled unit can make about as much noise as a central air conditioner. Minimizing these factors should be considered.
Some general guidelines which may vary by manufacturer or by local building codes include:
- The top of the generator and any roof overhang–are there codes which come into play?
- Distance from any windows or doors that open.
- Proximity to vents or other opening in the house.
- Manufacturer specifications regarding the distance from the generator back/rear to the house.
If natural gas isn’t accessible, where would a propane tank need to be located in order to be in proximity and allow operation? Can the tank be above ground or does it have to be buried?
All of these questions will need to be answered, and a good installation company should offer help and advice.
Can any contractor (plumber, electrician, AC company, etc.) install a generator?
Like any large purchase–or any purchase that can significantly impact health and safety–you want to do your homework concerning choosing the right company to install a standby generator.
The first thing you can check or ask is “are you licensed by the state of Texas as appropriate for your trade?” Texas has stringent laws concerning licensure for electricians and plumbers. You’ll want a licensed electrician to make all the electrical connections and circuit decisions and a licensed plumber to make all of the gas connections–natural gas or propane.
Additionally, it’s never a bad thing to ask about “years in business” or years of experience. You’ll want to make this purchase decision with someone that’s been involved in electrical service for a number of years. You might also inquire about number of electricians or plumbers on staff. That’s pertinent for your project, but it’s also important for service and maintenance after the initial installation. The last thing you’d want to have happen is to get partway through the job and not be able to complete the installation because of poor staffing. Same goes for maintenance and repairs in years to come–make sure the same company can properly maintain the generator they’ve installed.
What other factors should be taken into consideration?
Financing and purchase price. On the lower end of the cost spectrum, you should expect to pay somewhere in the $10,000-$20,000 range for the generator itself and an “average” installation. If you have a larger home or want to be able to run every electrical device in your home (as you would when there is no blackout), you could be looking at something in the $25,000 range.
Maintenance after installation. Generators will have a manufacturer’s suggested checklist and schedule. Most generators will probably start themselves monthly and go through a brief internal system check. However, most manufacturers will also require/suggest an annual checkup from a certified installer or electrician. All of these items should be discussed and explained by your initial contractor.
Timeframe and length of installation. The installation and hookup of a standby generator will likely take a full day, maybe even part of a second day. For several hours during the process, electricity to the home will be turned off and gas service could be interrupted. Perhaps plan on a time of year when the temperatures and weather are more moderate so you can remain relatively comfortable in your home while those services are temporarily suspended.
Consider informing neighbors. While it may not be mandatory for them to know, there will be a number of workers and quite a bit of activity around a good installation. There could be several vehicles arriving (such as a truck delivering generator), electricians, plumbers, helpers, etc., and most of those will need to park along the curb around the home for a number of hours.
Can ABC install a standby generator?
Yes. With a large staff of electricians, plumbers and helpers, ABC can deploy one of the most skilled work forces in the area. All of our specialists are licensed as appropriate for their trade and work under the leadership of a Master Electrician and a Master Plumber. Furthermore, all the people involved will be full-time ABC background checked specialists, so you can feel comfortable with our team on your property.