What Iowans should know when buying a generator to beat power outages

2022-06-10 23:02:20 By : Ms. Elena zhuang

With a forecast that Iowa could be facing power shortages this summer, should you invest in a home generator?

A growing share of Iowans are answering in the affirmative.

Sarah Butters, office manager for Action Electric in Des Moines, cites the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho — which left some Iowans in the dark for weeks — as the catalyst for homeowners turning to generators for backup.

"That's the day it started," she said.

Butters' company, which specializes in permanent power solutions for homes, has tracked the growing demand.

"We could possibly, if we had everything we needed, almost install a generator every single day," she said.

More:Iowans warned they may see rolling blackouts this summer as NOAA predicts above-average temperatures

She doesn't expect sales to decline.

"There are more power outages, and they are lasting longer because the grid is getting older," she said.

There is an array of do-it-yourself options. They include battery units priced from a few hundred dollars and capable of providing periodic energy for small-scale uses, like running a laptop computer. Higher-wattage gas-powered units capable of running large appliances such as a clothes dryer go for $1,000-plus.

Having whole-house backup available at the flip of a switch costs a good deal more.

"A typical price range for a whole home generator installed with everything you need, start to finish, including gas lines, typically is anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 installed," Butters said.

Cameron Green, owner of Absolute Generators in Des Moines, cautions his clients that power outages are not limited to the summer months and recommends they "shop early." 

"Compromised grids are happening all over the United States at various points in the calendar year. So there's no one season of discomfort," Green said. "It's not like tax season where it just comes and goes."

Green's company supplies equipment to Iowa businesses and the military and also sells portable units to consumers. He recommends that buyers "understand their needs, versus their wants."

His advice to homeowners is to take into account the listed kilowatt output of a generator when considering an investment. A kilowatt hour is 1,000 watts — about what it takes to run a typical microwave oven for an hour.

"A person wants to probably have no less than about 5 kW to to run some lights, and maybe some fans and maybe some refrigerators and freezers. And then if you say, 'But I want air conditioning,' now you want to be at, or above, 12 kW," Green explained.

"For the person who says, 'I want life to be normal, as if the grid is not compromised,' now you want to beat 20 kW or more."

Safety also is an important factor when considering an alternative power source. For limited use, you can simply run an extension cord from the generator to the items you want to power. But if you don't want cords snaking through the house, you'll want to install a transfer box that allows you to detach your home from the electric power grid while the generator is running, negating the possibility of hazardous overloads. That's a job for a professional electrician.

 There's also the issue of where to place the generator. Any unit burning gasoline, propane, natural gas or diesel fuel needs to be either outdoors or in a space with plenty of ventilation.

"Obviously, the basics are: Don't bring a combustion engine into your home. You need to even question the use of a garage, because if you shut the garage door, you might as well put it in your living room," Green said.

At the same time, a generator outdoors without protection from the elements has its own set of risks.

"A lot of generators are outside, but when you're mixing rainwater with electricity, you need to take the necessary precautions to protect your connections from coming into contact with it," Green said.

He also encourages homeowners to not make it easy for opportunistic thieves to discover the expensive gear.

 "Generators are easy to walk off your property at 2 in the morning," he said.

Kilowatts consumed by some typical household devices in an hour (1 kilowatt hour = 1,000 watts).

Richard Lane is the real estate reporter for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at rlane@registermedia.com.