I call this the $1,200 solution to a $12,000 problem.
When we moved into our house, I knew we had sump pumps in the basement- and as our realtor put it “they’re your friend”. Here’s a hint for anyone house hunting: if your house requires a sump pump, unless you REALLY REALLY LOVE IT… pass. It’s better to not need a sump pump. But for us, it's too late.
As a former Boy Scout, I still seriously believe in the motto “be prepared”. When hurricane Irene was heading toward my area, I just shrugged. We have all sorts of battery backup items to charge phones and keep ourselves entertained. He have a barbecue to cook with. What could possibly go wrong? The power inevitably failed as it often does in our area. No big deal. But then I had a thought. “Hey- do those sump pumps need electric?”. I went down to the basement to check. The water as at the top of the well for the pump. My HEAD exploded. I grabbed a Black and Decker battery gadget, powered up the inverter on it and plugged in the sump pump. Nothing. Not nearly enough power as I would later learn. A neighbor had a handy water powered sump pump gadget! You connect it to your faucet- and for every gallon of water you pass through it, it removes 6 gallons! AWESOME. Except it didn’t work. The town had cut the water due to concerns of contamination after the power failed at the water supply.
Our power was out for 5 days during Irene. A neighbor with a portable generator threw us a lifeline for our sump pumps and another neighbor who never lost power ran us a line. No- you’re not supposed to do that! But it beats a flooded basement.
Then came a series of TORNADO warnings in my area. I was already feeling like a WWII Veteran after too many air raids. My head would spin every time I heard RAIN in the forecast. Now they’re adding tornadoes?? Screw this! On the night of one of those pending storms, my wife and I ran to The Home Depot and purchased a generator and two 5 gallon gas containers. The moment we got it in the car, the sky opened up and it felt like someone threw a bucket of water on us! Luckily we never lost power.
Then came Hurricane Sandy! Two days before it hit, I finally uncrated the generator! I had it all ready to rock should the power go out. And it did. For NINE DAYS. But it was not an elegant solution. I had long extension cords running down the driveway and into the house… requiring the door to be opened a crack in some pretty cold weather. I ran a line to the refrigerator with a splitter to charge cell phones… and a second line ran to the basement for the sump pumps. Ahhh. No need to worry about flooding. We were all set. Until it started to get REALLY COLD… and snowed! The power company told us that we would have power back the next day… then the next day… times nine. Finally, an electrician came over for us and wired a connector to our heating system so that we could power it from the generator. It worked PERFECTLY. And an hour after he left, the power came back on.
What I REALLY needed for the piece of mind I desired was a WHOLE HOUSE generator. I had started doing research after Hurricane Irene. It was nearly impossible to get people to return calls for estimates, but the ballpark I was getting was $10,500… the bulk of which was for the plumber to run gas lines and for the electrician, permits, etc. Post hurricane SANDY, the numbers are more like $12,000 (our neighbor had one installed for a grand total of $12,500).
But by now I already owned a generator that handled our needs like a champ. Dealing with it during Sandy was not elegant. Opening the garage and wheeling it out in the morning… firing it up… running extension cords down the driveway and through the house. Powering it down around 11pm and locking it all back up and putting the cables away. I was missing something to make life easier!
More research pointed me to a transfer switch. It would allow me to pick some circuits in the house to power by connecting the generator to a port on the rear of the house. AWESOME! I got some estimates for it. One place quoted me $2,500… but web research suggested it was about an $800 job. Then a friend said “Why not just get an interlock on your breaker box?”. “A what?”, I replied.
Enter the electrician he recommended. He came over and put a port on the back of the house, and the line to the breaker box and installed the interlock switch, which turns out to be nothing more than a punched out piece of metal that prevents you from frying utility workers out working on the line because your generator is sending out power. You fire up the generator, power down your currently useless electric box, slide the interlock gadget up, and flip on your power, which in my case has been assigned to the upper right corner of the breaker box. PRESTO- the whole house is getting power- including the heating system!!!
So here’s what I call the “$1,200 solution to the $12,000 problem:
$425 for the electrician to install the interlock and port on house (they vary- so shop around!)
Now, we live in a nearly 100 year old house with steam heat radiators and central air. We don’t gobble a ton of energy day to day. The generator linked about runs at 5,700 watts and can take surges over 7,000 watts. We found that out sump pumps, refrigerator, TV, charging cells phones and some lamps came in at a MAXIMUM of 1,900 watts… about 1,000 of which was a momentary emptying of the generator well. Then it dipped right back down to around 400-700 watts. More than enough power to suit our needs.
Our electrician assured us that we can go about our lives running the house off the generator- but be mindful of what’s running! Don’t use the central air. In fact he suggests shutting the breakers for it to prevent it from coming on. You can run the dishwasher. You can run the washing machine. You can run the dryer (our is gas heated… uses less electric). BUT DON’T DO IT ALL AT ONCE!
And there you have it! It’s not a whole house generator that comes on by itself when the power goes out. But it’s something that, for a fraction of the cost, will allow you to live your life in a during a blackout.
Assuming you can get gas.
Subsequent internet searching and talks with friends have brought up other things I hadn’t considered, which may help you.
Consider a tri-fuel generator. They can run on gas, natural gas or propane tanks (like for your BBQ). One friend bought one… and when the power went out, he disconnected his BBQ from the natural gas line he had run to it- and fed it into the generator. He never had to worry about gas shortages. Pretty smart!
All this thinking about generators led me to researching batteries! I have owned a Black and Decker ‘Powerstation’ (http://www.walmart.com/ip/21804453?wmlspartner=wlpa&adid=22222222227016811762&wl0=&wl1=g&wl2=c&wl3=35701309836&wl4=&wl5=pla&wl6=50567700036&veh=sem) for a while. It’s an all in one battery pack that has an air pump/ pressure gauge, area lamp, DC outlet (for you car charger gadgets) and an AC inverter. Oh- and you can jump start your car with it too! Pretty great in a blackout. You can charge your phones, have a lit room, etc. But when the electrician during hurricane Sandy had installed a female connector to my heating system- that made me think: Could I run the system off a battery at night when the generator is down? I spoke with an electrician who says yes. We’re exploring installing a UPS battery backup permanently inline with the heating system! Steam heating systems take only a tiny bit of power to run. In fact, they used to requite NONE!
More on UPS backups and beyond in my next post!