Monday, May 15, 2023

Do You Need A Whole-House Generator?

Generators have their uses - but most remain unused.

As part of my maintenance duties for the Parcheesi club, I have to maintain the generator - or at least call the generator guy once a year to make sure it works.  I also sweep the leaves, dirt, and fallen branches off of it (!!!) lest they build up and start a fire.  The generator is a "Generac" alternator-type generator, which runs off a huge propane tank - enough to keep going for a month, in my estimate.  Why do we need this thing?

Well, during the last hurricane, the Parcheesi club flooded and all the Parcheesi boards got warped and the playing pieces moldy.  We lost power and the one sad old sump pump went dead and we had a foot of water in the basement.  First time the floor was clean in ages!   The problem is, of course, that an inundation of water isn't going to be counteracted by one lone sump pump, particularly if it fails.  We really need a huge trash pump, but even then, it is pissing into the wind.

So we bought this 9kW generator to... run a solitary sump pump.  Oh, and some lights, too.  Was it worthwhile?  Maybe the next storm will tell us.  Before going away for the summer, though, I thought I would have it serviced and the propane tank topped-off, lest I be blamed if this half-assed plan fails to function properly.

Walking around the island, I see a number of similar generators,  They are not cheap, and you have to hire someone to install them - and then have a special auto-switchover power panel installed that will provide power to selected circuits.  Yes, even though many of these are called "whole house" generators, they are only capable of running certain circuits in the house - maybe the refrigerator, some lighting, sump pumps, and that's it.  You want to run the A/C?  You're gonna need a bigger boat.

And professional installation is key.  A good friend of mine installed one of those generators from Harbor Freight in his shed and something worked loose and set the shed on fire.  Getting the fire department to come out in a hurricane is always problematic, even if you have cell service.

Are they worth it, though?  Spending thousands of dollars so you can avoid spending a few hundred on a hotel room or prevent a few hundred bucks of food from going bad?  It is very rare that we have extended power outages here (Thank you very much, Georgia Power!).

Not only that, but when a major storm hits, the best thing you can do is not be there.  Many people died in Ft. Myers beach when the hurricane hit - the water washed over the island, over eight feet deep in places.  Watching the security camera videos was horrifying - we saw landmarks we were familiar with, underwater.  Adorable beach shacks, mounted on stilts, still floating away.  Your generator isn't going to help in a situation like that, other than to be another item on your insurance claim.

The problem in Ft. Meyers Beach (Estero) was that they had a lot of storms and hurricanes before, but they were mostly wind storms that knocked out power lines and blew poorly made roofs away.  Many residents became complacent.  "Oh, sure, this time it will be really bad!  They said that last time!  I evacuated, spend hundreds on a hotel room inland, and then they wouldn't let me back on the island because the power was out!  Well, screw that, I got a generator! I can ride out the storm!"

Of course, they were found, days later, either up in the mangroves or in the attic of their own house, quite drowned.

So leaving is the best strategy - not generators or "riding it out."   It's also a lot cheaper.  Also, not having a basement near the beach is a good idea, too - or building on tall, sturdy stilts.  And the Parcheesi club may end up doing just that - we'll see.

But what about all the folks here on the island who have generators?  Are they getting good value for their money?  Well, maybe in some parts of the world, where power is sketchy and goes out for days at a time, such a setup makes sense.  But again, we've rarely had power go out for more than a few hours, tops, and so long as you don't open the refrigerator (or open it a lot) your food won't go bad.   And if you can't live without watching television for a few hours, well, I can't help you.

The problem with these generators is that they hardly ever get used.  The one we have, which I think is typical, is programmed to run every so often, so the oil circulates and whatnot.  If it fails to work, it will even send a message via the internet (unfortunately, disabled - they wanted a monthly fee for this feature) and you can have it serviced.  Or, you have a service contract on it and a guy comes out twice a year to check it and give it annual oil changes, put in a new spark plug, air filter and oil filter and whatnot.  It is only a couple of hundred bucks a year and well worth it - if you want this damn thing to work when you "need" it to.

I mean, you spend thousands on this useless thing, you might as well spend a couple hundred a year keeping it up.

But it got me to thinking - if these things hardly get used, how do you know they are any good?  It isn't like a car engine, where you drive to work every day and put 100,000 miles or more on it before junking it.  It never runs, except intermittently.  The one time you really need it, well, you will really need it and you have to hope it is not a Potemkin generator.

It would be like having an emergency parachute you paid a lot of money for, and one day, your plane is crashing and you dive out the cargo door and pull the ripcord and..... nothing but confetti comes out.  I mean, I suppose your next of kin could file a warranty claim, right?

My experience with Generac generators is not good.  We had one in our Class-C motorhome and many RVs referred to them derogatorily as "Generate A Racket" generators, as they were very loud.  The one we had was little more than a lawn mower engine couple to a car alternator. It was not like the inverter generators (which cost much more) that create an artificial 60Hz sine wave, regardless of engine RPM.  Those are quiet and quiet reliable.   The Honda EU series has a well-deserved reputation for reliability, provided you don't loan them to a neighbor who tries to take it apart (long story - I was able to fix it, though).

Anyway, the Generac on the motorhome died and early death and we replaced it with a Honda RV generator, which was a real piece of engineering - water cooled with a tiny radiator and fan and overflow bottle and everything.  Still loud, though.  Honda left that market - I would have been better off buying two EU2000 generators and running them in tandem.  But life is full of little lessons like that.

So why do people get whole-house generators?   There are some folks with medical needs who might need them, but then again, having an emergency oxygen bottle or just leaving might make more sense.  They are sold at end-cap displays at the local lumberteria, so that drives demand, I guess.  But I think the real reason is men (mostly men) buy them, thinking, "The next time a big storm comes, and everyone is out of power, I'll be the only house on the block with all the lights on, the A/C cranked, and the television blaring!  I'll be sitting in my hot tub, kicking back a cold one, while the rest of the plebes look on in wonderment and think, oh why didn't I have the foresight to buy a whole-house generator?"

You laugh - people really think this way.  Deep down where their own consciousness dares not go. It is the same thing that sells monster trucks and penis boats.  People crave status in weird ways, and the guy with the jacked-up jeep with bozo tires (and the hi-lift jack strapped to the hood) isn't just driving to Walmart to get groceries.  No, no, he's prepared to rescue everyone in an emergency with his tactical Jeep!   It sells a lot of crap, to be sure.  Status is a weird thing.

Problem is, like with our confetti parachute, most of this kind of junk never gets used for its intended purpose - and most of it is just styled to look rugged or professional.  When push comes to shove, you might want something a little more durable than a generator sold at Home Depot.  While I am sure the "Generate a Racket" will be fine for a few hours of emergency use, I doubt it would survive for days, weeks, or months, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes.  And it's coming, too!  Right?

Whole-House generators - just more junk to clutter up your life and another "thing" to pay for and maintain.   Better off to just leave when there is a major storm.  And if there is a minor power outage - even one that lasts for days - learn how to live like our ancestors did, without refrigeration and air conditioning for a few days.  You'd be surprised how easy it is to do.  Besides, that refrigerator should be defrosted every so often, right?