So you finally decided to bite the bullet and invest in a generator. Three experts weigh in on the questions you need to ask yourself before you buy.
By Mike Kennedy
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Jersey Shore last October, Brian Difiore was prepared. Unlike the vast majority of his neighbors, five years ago he outfitted his house with a 17-kilowatt generator, a unit large enough to keep everything running in his home, including televisions and computers. “Our area was without power for nine days,” Difiore says. “I have three kids, a four-year- old, a two-year-old and a one-year-old. My wife would have gone crazy without the generator.”
Those neighbors should have taken notice of the work going on at the Difiore home. He lives at the business end of the Shrewsbury River, where storm surges can snap utility poles like matchsticks, and hurricanes such as Irene and Sandy can (and do) leave entire towns powerless. Oh, and he’s also the President of Mid-State Heating and Cooling, one of the larger electrical contractors in central New Jersey. Difiore’s father started the company back in 1968. His grandfather operated a similar business in the northern part of the state in the 1940s and 50s.
Steve Fortier, General Manager for Weltman Home Services, takes a similar view. Sandy left his neighborhood in High Bridge without power for a week. This wasn’t the first time he and his family had experienced a prolonged outage. In fact, the freak snowstorm that pummeled the northern half of New Jersey in 2011 helped convince him to get a portable generator, which made life after Sandy much more bearable.
“We ran it in six-hour increments,” says Fortier. “We used it for our fridge, heat, and hot water, and to keep our cell phones and laptops charged.”
Gary Marmo, Manager of Market Development for Elizabethtown Gas, doesn’t have a generator at his home. Sandy left his family without power for a few days. “We were lucky,” he says. “There was no real damage to the house.”
Marmo still isn’t sure he needs a generator. “It’s a personal choice,” he says. “It’s sort of like buying health insurance or life insurance. How secure do you want to feel?”
More and more New Jersey residents are asking that question since Sandy. In fact, Difiore believes the storm may have permanently altered the state’s housing market. “It used to be that air conditioning was not part of the basic package in new home construction,” he says. “Now it’s a standard feature. In the very near future, I think the same thing will happen with generators, especially in more affluent areas.”
Marmo agrees. “After Irene, we saw a significant increase in calls from customers in terms of home house generators,” he says. “Requests have been on the rise again since Sandy.”
For companies like Weltman and Mid-State, this has been a busy winter. Mid-State is a certified dealer for Generac, the brand of generator that Difiore uses at his home. Sales have been brisk, and so have installation and maintenance calls. “The market has taken off like a rocket,” says Difiore.
Weltman, which also carries Generac products, has also seen a spike in the generator marketplace. “It has been crazy,” says Fortier. “Everybody is looking into generators. They have lots of questions.”
Answers to those questions vary depending on multiple factors. We asked Difiore, Fortier and Marmo to put together a checklist of things to consider. They agreed that a consumer should consider five primary issues.
- How much power do I want?
According to Difiore, this is the first question that consumers should ask. Generators, he explains, range in size from portable units to the 17-kilowatt, whole-house model that powered his home after Sandy. “Do you want access to just the essentials?” he says. “Or do you want full integration where everything in your home is powered?”
Fortier says that portable units have drawbacks that whole-house units don’t. “They require gas to operate,” he explains. “Ours needed about 15 gallons to run for 15 or 16 hours. That can be a real problem when you have gas shortages like we experienced after Sandy.”
Fortier adds that there are ways to maximize your power supply. “A proper transfer switch can ensure that,” he says.
- How much do I want to spend?
Marmo points out that the decision to purchase a generator typically boils down to economics. “A small, portable unit from Home Depot or Lowes will probably be in the range of $500 to $1,000,” he says. “You can buy these right off the shelf. You see them on construction sites all the time. A full home house unit can be $10,000 to $20,000, which includes installation and permits. These sit outside your home and look very similar to a home air conditioning unit.”
Weltman typically walks its customers through the three primary decisions affecting the cost of a hard-wired generator: the size of the unit, the location of the unit and the number of circuits desired. “In general, the larger the generator and the more circuits you want,” Fortier explains, “the more expensive installation will be. Installing a unit farther from your home will increase the cost, too.”
- Where should I locate my generator?
Most people want a generator installed near their house, but that’s not always possible. “For example,” says Fortier, “you might have a deck or patio that makes that problematic. We’ve put generators up to 30 feet away from a home. That requires a lot more labor and supplies.”
Additionally, the location of a generator may be subject to zoning codes and electrical requirements. “Many towns are now re-evaluating the code process,” says Fortier. “Currently, the average time it takes to get the proper permits is four weeks.”
That has increased since Sandy, he adds.
- How handy am I?
First, it’s important to note that any generator—whether it’s portable or a whole-house unit—should be installed by a licensed contractor, and all towns require some sort of permit before work can begin. That being said, a generator also needs regular maintenance. “It is absolutely necessary,” says Marmo. “A generator is an engine just like in your car.”
Fortier echoes those thoughts. “Remember that a generator of any size is not built to run 24/7 seven days a week,” he says. “Any generator will break down faster if it’s operated continually.”
According to Difiore, Generac units reboot on a weekly basis and run for 12 minutes to charge the battery. That short period of usage alone makes maintenance essential. Difiore says the oil should be changed after 60 hours of operation and the fuel and oil filters should be replaced after 120 hours of operation. “But just doing the basics isn’t enough,” he adds. “These are engines that burn oil.”
That’s why Fortier and Difiore advise consumers to buy their generators from a licensed dealer who will also provide a service agreement. “We see a lot of people who buy their generators over the Internet, because that’s the cheapest way to get one,” Difiore says. “They may even do the installation themselves. Then a storm hits, and we get a call because the generator doesn’t work. We offer a full-service program that includes your first 90-day oil change.”
Fortier agrees with the need for regular maintenance. “You never know what you might find,” he says. “Maybe a chipmunk or squirrel is living in your generator.”
- How much noise can I tolerate?
Every generator is noisy; they average about 65 decibels. One of the advantages of larger units, offers Marmo, is they often run more quietly. “Noise isn’t as much of a factor because they come in a sound-proof enclosure,” he says.
Of course, a noisy generator will likely be the least of your worries the next time a catastrophic storm slams into New Jersey. Fortier was grateful to have a portable unit after Sandy and would like to upgrade to a whole-house generator. “We’re in the middle of a kitchen remodel, so it’s not in the cards right now,” he says. “But at a minimum, I advise people to get a portable unit.”
Editor’s Note: Mike Kennedy is EDGE’s Business Editor. He was born and raised in Ridgewood. Mike also edits the sports business website LicensingOutlook.com.