Paulette and John Rickard live in a rural area with one way in and one way out. When Rough & Ready was threatened by the Lobo wildfire, the Sheriff’s Office told the couple to evacuate immediately. It was the middle of the night.
“It was the worst feeling waking up to darkness, with no power, and knowing we were on a well and couldn’t even put out a sprinkler,” recalls Paulette of Paulette’s Country Kitchen fame.
After that scare, the Rickards installed a permanent standby generator connected to their home’s electric panel.
“If the power goes out or there’s another fire or both, the system will kick on within seconds,” Paulette tells me. “We’ll have lights and we could put out sprinklers. There would be power to pump water from our well.”
That peace of mind requires planning. This month, we’ll explore requirements, costs, and advantages of permanent standby generators that run on propane, natural gas or diesel.
With Pacific Gas & Electric warning of more frequent and longer lasting Power Safety Power Shutoffs due to increased wildfire danger, it is important to have a plan in place. It’s absolutely vital for those who rely on medical technologies such as assistive technology, breathing machines, a power wheelchair/scooter, or home oxygen or dialysis (see link at NCCABuildingPros.com).
Standby generators automatically turn on when the power goes out, and most are powerful enough to run a central air conditioner, kitchen appliances, television, and computers. But installation is not a DIY job. You’ll need to have the generator, transfer switch and subpanel professionally installed.
“There are regulations specific to backup generators and related plumbing and electrical improvements needed to integrate into the structure,” explains Nevada County Building Director Craig Griesbach. “We have a permit submittal checklist that includes a basic site plan, electrical plans, gas line plan, and equipment specifications.
“The correct sizing of electrical wires, gas lines, propane tank placement, transfer switches, disconnects, and etcetera is vital to the safety and functionality of the system. If you’re spending $5,000 to $20,000 on these projects, the last thing you need is to under-size a gas line or install incorrect wiring that ruins the generator within a couple of years.”
IN HIGH DEMAND
Nevada County Contractors’ Association members who install these systems are busy.
“Demand is currently off the charts,” says Rob Sorum, Gray Electric Company project manager. “There is a high awareness of the impending PG&E shutoffs. Many in our community are older and have essential electrical services or live in rural areas and depend on wells.”
“The system is fully automatic,” says Rachael Pfadt, project administrator at Precision Electric. “Nobody needs to be home during an outage for it to start, run, transfer back when utility power is restored, and shut itself off. It creates ‘cleaner’ power with fewer fluctuations, which is better for sensitive electronics. Plus, permanent-installed systems add value to the home.”
Standby generators are programmed to run no-load, automatic transfer switch exercise cycles once a week. Additional maintenance can ensure the longevity of the system.
“A certified technician should perform bi-annual and annual maintenance to preserve your investment,” says Scott Schmitt, owner of Guildhall Enterprises. “Inspections should include the DC electrical system, control panel, and accessories, plus the AC wiring and accessories. Load bank testing should be performed once a year. With proper maintenance, a standby generator set can last 15 or 20 years.”
Depending on the size of the generator and complexity of installation, costs range from $5,000 to $20,000,
“The way we size a system is to first have a conversation with our client to determine exactly what appliances they would like to have back-up power to,” says Andrew Twidwell, owner of ABT Plumbing, Electric, Heating and Air Conditioning. “Once we know the load, we can then size the system for demand. The more appliances on the system, the bigger the generator needs to be and the more expensive the system will be.”
“Consumers should consider the ‘starting’ power draw of their largest load, plus their other everyday loads like lights, plugs, etcetera,” says Pfadt. “Large equipment such as air conditioners, dryers, and pumps can have larger starting requirements than running requirements. For proper sizing and installation, seek the advice of a qualified installer.”
POWER AT THE READY
True, folks in the foothills have long used small portable generators, which can be great for powering basic essentials. The downside is you have to run at least 14-gauge extension cords everywhere you want power, and you must also manually start and maintain the generator. Neither is easy in the middle of the night.
There are also safety concerns. More people die from carbon monoxide poisoning from gas engines on generators than from disasters causing the power outages, so always plug in a carbon monoxide detector inside your home when using a portable generator outside.
To use a portable generator without the hassle of running extension cords, you can hire an electrician to install a manual transfer switch subpanel off your main circuit panel and install a dedicated inlet to power the subpanel.
“We do offer manual transfer switch installations for connection of portable generators,” Sorum said. “This can be a more cost effective method of supplying back-up power.”
“They can be a great option for people who already have a generator and only want electricity for a select few appliances,” Twidwell said. “But they are manual, so you need to be home to turn the electricity on.”
Whichever system consumers choose, Bob Reshatoff of Mountain Electrical Construction urges everyone to hire a qualified professional.
“If there were ever a fire or other problem,” said Reshatoff, “and your insurance company comes out for an inspection, you want them to be able to ascertain the system was installed correctly and everything was up to code.”
Barbara Bashall writes a monthly column for The Union. She is the executive director of the Nevada County Contractors’ Association, a nonprofit group of 320 general contractors, sub-contractors, building material suppliers, and other construction professionals whose mission is to promote high standards, integrity, and ethical practices within the construction industry. Visit NCCABuildingPros.com or call 530-274-1919. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.