Trish Bongard Godfrey

Stand-by Power Generation

15 December 2014
Trish Bongard Godfrey

Last Christmas, many of us experienced the wrath of rain and cold which left us without power. It wasn't fun. We moved out, drained our rads, and felt vulnerable to the elements and worried about the possibility of a break-in while we were away. When we moved to Ottawa in 1999, we just missed the now infamous ice storm; a few years later, while we were away on summer holidays, the power failed for several days in a massive province-wide black out. We've decided that we don't want to go through that again. Our next home improvement project will be to provide our house with stand-by power.

When we renovated our home in 2008, we used Dan Gojanovic, Vibe Electrical, to re-wire and replace the knob and tube system. At the time, knob and tube replacement seemed to be his company's main business focus. When I spoke with him recently, he told me that he and his crew of 7 have been busy installing about 100 backup power generators in 2014 and that this now dominates their activities.

I didn't really know anything about them before, so here's what I've learned about backup generators. Please get expert advice and remember that every home is different and that these need licensed electricians and gas fitters to install them.

Backup generators run off your natural gas supply. They come in different sizes for different sized homes and requirements.

My neighbour installed a smaller generator that would power up the things "that would cost her money" - for example, her tenant's fridge and stove and her freezer. She also wanted to be discreet and chose not to have lights on if everyone else lost power. However, for the incremental costs I've decided on a 20KW unit that would keep me operating most of the house seamlessly. If my neighbours are in a bind, I'd be happy to cook with them and eat with the lights on! According to Dan, generators should ideally be located out of eye-shot so they are less likely to invite vandalism.

Yes, they are noisy. Dan says that he can't really notice his own generator if the windows are closed, but it's like the white noise of a gas lawn mower. There is a plug on the generator, so some people keep the peace by allowing others to run an extension cord off and into other homes to keep a space heater or a fridge running.

I've always thought Honda was reputed to make the best engines, but Dan says they have yet to enter into this market. I've learned that the go-to supplier for permanent stand-by power is Generac in Wisconsin.

Maintenance

Apparently, the generators run once a week for about 12 minutes to keep the oil flowing and self-test. Once every two years the oil needs changing.

Cost

For us, the generator itself will run just under $5,000. Then, add on a 200-amp service entrance rated transfer switch, a battery, cold weather kit, custom concrete base, gas installation (which apparently by code needs to run off the metre), electrical installation (a longer distance from hydro source can add cost), permits, and hydro isolation, and it will cost us about $10,700 plus HST.

Insurance Savings

One reason I started to think about installing a generator was because when Chubb called to update the information about our plans, they asked if we had a stand-by power generator. I'm told that there will be savings, but I have yet to determine how much with our home insurer. Perhaps a few percentage points. I gather that this is particularly important when you have a sump-pump because without backup, a sump can quickly overflow and cause a bunch of nasty basement damage.

Environmental Impact

Obviously, noise pollution is a drag, but according to Dan it is legal to use a generator and make some noise in an emergency. It uses a lot of gas, but then again there must be some off-sets because we are off the electrical grid during a power outage. I also consider what the landfill and environment waste would be of having to re-do my basement, dealing with radiator breaks and floods all over the house, and what I am doing to the air by loading up my fireplace and burning wood for several days, as we did last winter. I have several green-minded friends who might provide me with a 360-degree evaluation of this question.