Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Generators and power outages

Widespread local power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene were a reminder of how dependent we are on electricity. Whether it's heating, cooling, refrigeration, communications, entertainment or computer usage, so many key elements of our lives grind to a halt when the power goes out. The question becomes, how much time and effort would be appropriate to expend on preparing for a scenario that happens only occasionally. In the abstract, it's easy to answer that question, "not much" but when you're the one with a refrigerator full of spoiled food, the calculus changes. While the registry certainly requires electricity to operate, today I'll focus on the issues of losing power at home.

A generator seems like the most likely solution but that gets pretty complicated. First you have to decide what appliances you desire to run and then calculate the wattage needed. The simplest setup would be to run an extension cord from the generator - which must be outside when operated - to the appliance to be powered up. That may be a good way to run a sump pump or even a refrigerator, but not much more. There are only so many plug outlets on a generator. A more elaborate solution is to have an electrician install what's called a "transfer switch." This allows you to disconnect the circuits that power certain appliances from your home electrical system and power them completely by plugging the generator into a box installed on the outside of the home. Trying to power the entire house with a generator without the use of a transfer switch is extremely dangerous since power can migrate through the home system up into the outdoor power lines posing an extreme hazard to utility workers.

The most sophisticated approach would be to install a natural gas powered generator that is totally integrated into the home electrical system. This device resembles a central air conditioning unit and can be programed to immediately begin providing the home with electricity when the normal source of power is disrupted.

Most power outages around here last only a few hours, nothing anyone could not endure. But at times, like in the aftermath of the hurricane or back in December 2008 after a severe ice storm, the power has gone out for days at a time. It is for those occasions that a backup electrical system would really be needed.

No comments: