Ask the Architect

What kind of generator?

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Q. We’re trying to decide whether to put in a whole-house generator or, as our electrician friend suggested, just get a portable that gives enough power when we need it. I keep seeing better and quieter stand-alone models in my internet searches, 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 about 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 the possible dangers.

I appreciate that people want the monster generator so the lights stay on 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 the stationary units just get 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 a generator before a storm. You’ll need to go without power until the onslaught is over, and you’ll need to protect the generator, but 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 have 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.

© 2018 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.