Why the North Fork gets so many power outages and what you need to know about backup generators.
This is storm season on the North Fork and we're starting to get a surge of calls from homeowners asking us to supply and install backup generators. The calls often come in right after a storm from homeowners who lost their power for an extended period of time and vowed it would never happen again.
I thought I'd share the common questions that North Fork homeowners ask us about generators. This includes questions such as "Why do I keep losing my power?" to "What kind of generator is best?" to "How big a generator do I need" and "How much do they cost?".
Here are the answers to these questions and more.
Why do we keep losing power on the North Fork?
Few people know that the North Fork's power grid was actually built in the 1940's and is seriously fragile. While the grid has been upgraded in some neighborhoods, most are running on antiquated equipment. Making matters worse, power moves along above-ground poles where the entire grid is constantly being exposed to heavy amounts of salt air from the water bodies that surround us.
The result is that many of the connections in our power grid are at the failing point. Which means, it often just takes a small storm to knock out our power for days. Once that happens, replacement equipment must be located that matches the grid's 1940's-era equipment, which is often difficult to secure quickly, keeping power out for long periods of time.
Even with Superstorm Sandy, which essentially missed the North Fork, there was a serious loss of power. 15 days after the storm, a substantial amount of North Fork homes were still without power.
This means that, until our power grid gets upgraded, generators are a necessity for North Fork homeowners.
What does a generator really protect me from?
When people think of getting a backup generator, they're thinking about keeping themselves warm and their food cold, but there are so many more important reasons you need backup power in your home, even when you're away.
For example, in the event of a winter storm power outage, the entire home could be destroyed. The water pipes typically burst as they freeze, not only resulting in a flooded basement, but water causing damage from the second floor, or maybe even the attic down throughout the entire home. And don't forget that the backup battery for your security and life-safety system--that also monitor your smoke detectors and cameras--will fail within about 24 hours.
Even if by some miracle your pipes don't freeze and burst when the power goes out in the middle of the winter, the cold will cause your home's wood to shrink and then expand again when it warms up. That can cause moldings and hardwood flooring to come undone and tiles to become brittle on the bathroom floors and break. So there's a lot of different damage that can happen just because the heating and/or cooling system is not working properly during the event of an outage.
If it's during the summer and there's flooding, any pump system you have in the basement to get rid of water will fail resulting in significant water retention on the property and cause further damage.
Lastly, a flooded or freezing cold house often means you'll need to seek other accommodations until power is restored. This can add to your expenses, too, at least until your insurance company reimburses you.
Would insurance cover these damages?
You should check your policy. But keep in mind the amount of time involved in navigating the insurance and repair process. Best case, a widespread power outage could affect tens or hundreds of thousands of other homes simultaneously, overwhelming insurance companies and local contractors, and leading to major delays in insurance claims to be processed and approved, quotes to repair the damage to be created, and the repair work itself begun. And depending upon how the damage happened, these insurance companies may want to go for an exclusion and not cover the damage to at all. It happens. A lot.
How much do backup generators cost?
Prices for generators vary based on how many watts you require, and that's determined by what electrical devices in your home you'd like to power when the grid goes down. While there are smaller portable generators in the low thousands, a $5,000 generator (installed) can be enough to provide back up power for necessities such as heat, refrigeration, and medical and office equipment. On the other hand, a $20,000 generator can power virtually everything in a large house and keep your home functioning as normal. Keep in mind you don't have to pay that all at once. There are payment options to avoid a big upfront expense and we can help figure out a generator and payment plan that works for your needs.
As you can imagine, a generator often pays for itself the very first time you need to use it.
What kind of generator is best for the North Fork?
It really depends. Here's what the different kinds are and what our most people end up choosing.
Whole home generator
In terms of the actual size of the generator, it mostly depends on how much inconvenience you're willing to tolerate during a power outage. Do you want a generator that will allow you to continue using your electricity throughout your entire home as normal? This is called a whole home generator, which are the largest--often 32,000 - 42,000 watts.
Critical load generator
If you're just hoping for a generator to power the essentials, again, the heating system (that'll keep you warm and your pipes from freezing), your fridge to preserve food, any medical equipment you have, and office equipment, then you'll typically need what's called a critical load generator. These are much smaller, somewhere between 14,000 - 20,000 watts. On average, most homes on the North Fork use a 20,000 watt generator, which costs about $7,000 installed.
What's the difference between air cooled or liquid cooled?
These 20,000 watt generators common to the North Fork (and smaller models) are air cooled. But the larger generators, such as a 32,000 watt model are going to be liquid cooled. Liquid cooled generators are more like a car engine and these can run for a long extended period of time. The air cooled generators are designed to run only for a few days of constantly running. You'd need to manually shut them down for a few hours every couple of days so they can cool down. On the other hand, the liquid cooled generators can run consistently for many weeks at a time without stopping.
What's the best fuel to use in generators?
All generators are made to run on both propane and natural gas.
One of the limitations with natural gas is that not everybody has it available in their neighborhood. If you have it running to your house already and the natural gas meter on the property is large enough to allow you to increase gas consumption during a power outage, that's fantastic. If the meter is too small to handle the increase in volume, you'd just need to increase the size of your meter. As electricians, we're not licensed to work with natural gas, but we can refer you to people we work with to make the upgrade.
Without a natural gas hookup, propane is your other option. For 14,000 watt generators and smaller, an above ground tank may be sufficient. And if you have multiple above-ground tanks, For a 20,000 watt backup generator you may want to add additional above ground tanks. The problem with above ground tanks is that most tanks are owned by a propane company and you have to stick with them to fill it up.
A below grade tank, also known as a direct burial tank, is typically 500 gallons, 1,000 gallon or more. The benefit is longer run times and you can also shop around for the best price to get your tank filled up.
But we'd recommend natural gas from the street as the best way to go if you have access to it. But, again, all these generators are capable of running on either one.
What brand should I choose?
While we will work with a customer to install any brand they'd like, Kohler is what we find the most reliable--they hardly ever need repairing. We used to carry Briggs & Stratton and Generac generators but found we were repairing them too often and spending too much time trying to get the repairs covered under their warrantees. Ironically, we've found Kohler has both the most generous and least needed warrantees. And, nowadays, all Kohler generators can be remotely monitored and controlled nowadays, so we can regularly test it to make sure yours is ready for the next power outage.
Another reason we work exclusively with Kohler is that we have a very close relationship with the local Kohler warranty and maintenance guy, and he's based right here on the East End. So in the rare instance any replacement parts are needed, they're nearby and we can get your generator back up and running fast and under warrantee--something we think is essential for an important piece of equipment like this.
Read more about our generators here, or click below to contact us.
Author Ben Doroski is a master electrician with over 20 years of experience in the field. He is the third-generation of master electricians in his family. Ben is the owner of Custom Lighting of Suffolk, a lighting and electrical company serving the North Fork of Long Island and Shelter Island.