Ask the Architect

Generators, large and small

Posted

Q. We’re trying to decide whether to put in a whole house generator or, as our electrician friend suggested, just get a portable unit that provides enough power when we need it. I keep seeing better and quieter stand-alone models in my internet search, but wonder if it’s worth the expense to install a big unit that has to be run once a month just to maintain. What do you think?

A. Over the years, I, too, have debated which way to go. My only advantage over most consumers is that I see the installation, the permit process (yes, you do need to file for a building permit) and the sticker shock of clients installing generators. Electricians are the best way to go to install one, although a friend told me he did it himself. There are issues with surges, compatible harmonics and power conditioning, and most do-it-yourselfers may not know about possible dangers.

I appreciate that people want the monster generator, so the lights just keep burning and the air conditioning keeps humming after everyone else sees their lights go out, but you have to consider cost vs. the number of times you’ll need the monster vs. dragging out the rolling model that you keep in your garage. You still have to run the portable models so that the oil can circulate; just like any engine, parts need regular lubrication. The rolling unit can be kept above a flood and moved into place for use, while a stationary units just gets submerged.

Having a hookup to your home gas line is great, and more trouble-free than lining up at a gas station at 4 in the morning, and a preset installed panel for the portable also helps. It really comes down to money and the labor of setting up a portable during a storm, or, if you’re really prepared, moving it before the storm. You’ll need to go without power until the onslaught is over, and you’ll need to protect the generator, and both types need to be cleared of snow and debris before use and run in open air.

My choice, so far, has been to wait for technology, which I’ve been reading about in several engineering and electrical engineering publications, to go through further improvements in power vs. efficiency, storage and quietness. My preference is to go to DC power for my whole home, which requires electrical engineering to connect with the next generation of solar panels so the system runs independently of the power company (currently frowned upon). Right now, your solar panels are useless in a power outage because they send DC power from the panels through an inverter and onto the power grid. The power company benefits year-round, while you get a maximum $1,000 discount. With DC generation and solar DC on your DC system, you’ll have the full benefit. The portable is more economical, short-term, if you can wait and have a place to store it.

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.