If Hurricane Irene was not enough to convince home and business owners that it’s time to invest in a generator, then it’s likely Hurricane Sandy sealed the deal.
And it’s not only property owners who are thinking about generators. At the state level, senators Linda Greenstein and Barbara Buono have both introduced bills dealing with generators.
Greenstein’s bill is aimed at protecting residents of retirement communities. The legislation would require an existing or newly-constructed retirement community to install an electric generator to provide electricity to a common use area, such as a community room or clubhouse, for the purpose of using it as a shelter in case of an emergency.
The bill calls for the Board of Public Utilities to develop and administer a program to provide grants and low-interest loans for the purpose of ensuring that existing retirement subdivisions and communities can comply with the bill. Greenstein says she also expects that other sources of funding — such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — could be used to retrofit existing retirement subdivisions and communities.
“We have to do a better job of ensuring that senior and retirement communities are equipped for these kinds of emergencies,” says Greenstein. “Many individuals living in these developments are dealing with mobility or other health-related issues, and may not be able to easily access a local public shelter.”
The legislation introduced by Buono would help provide funding for the purchase of generators for gas stations, fire companies, health care providers, and first aid squads.
The bill would direct the state Economic Development Authority to provide low-interest loans for the purchase and installation of a generator device to businesses deemed by the State Office of Emergency Management as vital to the public interest following a disaster.
It also calls for the state Division of Purchase and Property to enter into a purchasing agreement with a generator supplier so that eligible businesses can buy generators using a bulk rate.
It would also require the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority to include a provision in any contract for the right to sell fuel on New Jersey toll roads — including the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and the Atlantic City Expressway — requiring the retailer to maintain a power generator or a device to operate pumps, payment acceptance equipment, pump shutoff switches, and other safety equipment.
“It isn’t just a matter of having enough gas to get to the store or to get to work when businesses reopen,” said Buono. “It’s a matter of public safety and public health for people who need gas to keep their own generators going, including facilities that care for New Jerseyans who require special attention, such as individuals on ventilators or other life support equipment.”
“Frustrated motorists shouldn’t have to wait in lines that are a hundred cars long at the relatively few gas stations with generators,” she said. “Because of the high demand after Sandy, those gas stations quickly ran out, while other gas stations with full underground tanks sat idle nearby because their pumps wouldn’t operate.”
Both bills will have to be reviewed by Senate committees before consideration by the full body.
Meanwhile, many of those who lost electricity as a result of the storm — and even those who didn’t — may want to seriously consider a generator as a way to help mitigate the damage from future Sandys. Those looking to install a generator can go two routes — hire a private contractor like Robert Griffith, owner of Hamilton-based An-Mar Electric, or use a larger HVAC company, such as West Windsor-based Princeton Air.
Both Griffith and Scott Needham, president of Princeton Air, say that since the storm they have been inundated with requests for information on generators.
“The volume of inquiries has been unbelievable,” says Needham. “What’s driving it is not only the recent weather event, but the frequency of how often these events are happening. People think it’s looking like this might be the new normal.”
According to Griffith, An-Mar has been working around the clock, seven days a week, installing generators in the Mercer and Middlesex county areas since the Saturday before Sandy hit. Princeton Air, meanwhile, has installed about a dozen units in the past few weeks, Needham says.
“Part of the problem has been getting units into our shop to respond in a timely manner,” says Needham. “Supply has outstripped demand. The good thing is that they are manufactured throughout the country and suppliers are resourcing different warehouses in different parts of the county. We seem to be catching up.”
Griffith advises people not to wait until the last minute. Whether stores were already sold out or electrical companies were too flooded with business to make it out to every call, many who scrambled to find a generator days before Sandy hit found themselves in the dark, he says.
When purchasing a generator, the first decision is whether you want a less expensive portable one or a standby generator, which costs more, but is more powerful, convenient, and better for the environment.
Portable units run anywhere between $450 and $3,500. They run on either gasoline or diesel fuel and can come in handy for a person looking to use a generator and then loan it out to a neighbor or family member in need, he said. The downsides are that they are noisy, require a lot of work, and can be dangerous since they emit carbon monoxide. For this reason, they must be used outdoors.
A standby unit is installed directly into your home or business building and is powered by natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel. The costs is based on the size of the building and its power needs and can range between $5,000 for a small residential unit to more than $100,000 to power larger commercial buildings.
Needham says these units, which have a lifetime of between 15 and 20 years, turn on as soon as electricity is interrupted and are useful for homes that require a sump pump or that are supplied by well water.
When it comes to businesses, the number one issue is loss of revenue. Since you don’t need to be there to start it up, a standby generator can restore power immediately to an office and keep vital systems — such as phones, Internet, and computer servers — running.
According to Needham, some of his clients are justifying the cost of a standby unit by considering it as a potential backup plan in case electric prices skyrocket in the future. “If a commercial operation has a unit sized to power its building and for some reason electric prices spike, depending on how the costs work out it might be less expensive to use a gas-powered generator rather than utility power.”
Needham says that generators also have accessories and add-ons. For example, one accessory hooks the generator to the Internet. It can send out alerts when it turns on during a power loss as well as allowing the owner to manage the device remotely or change its power cycling schedule. Standby units exercise themselves automatically once or twice a week to ensure that they will work during an unexpected outage.
All generators are measured by the amount of electrical wattage they can provide, which in turn affects the cost. The company you hire to install the generator should do a survey of the building’s electrical needs and then suggest a certain generator based on the wattage.
For example, a house that has central air and furnaces might require more electrical wattage to keep the whole house running, says Griffith. In most cases, a 20k watt generator can run a whole house, but some with smaller homes with less electrical needs can make do with a 7k watt generator.
“I always tell people, in the case of generators, bigger is better,” he says. “You’re spending a lot of money here. Do it right the first time and be done with it.”
Certain permits are needed when installing a standby unit, including an electrical permit, a fire permit, a plumbing permit (for the installation of fuel lines), and sometimes a zoning permit, depending the municipality.
Every town has different regulations, Griffith says, but you should let the electrical company installing the unit acquire all permits, which most companies are willing to do.
“I discourage any home or business owner from getting the permits himself,” he says. “If the property owner gets the permits, he puts them in his name and then he’s responsible if something goes wrong.
Also, people who live or own businesses in complexes with property associations need to check with them to make sure that there are no specific rules in their complex regulating the installation of generators. “Homeowners Associations are probably being inundated with comments and questions from residents in their development who want to have a generator,” says Needham. “The association has got to get together on certain guidelines. When we have an inquiry from someone who lives in that situation, we ask them to check with association before we come out.”
Needham adds that offices with condo associations face similar issues, although guidelines probably are not not as stringent as in residential settings.
While some choose to purchase generators from retail stores or from the Internet and install them on their own to save money, Griffith says he never recommends that strategy. While it might save you money up front, it does not provide you with the support, safety, and maintenance you would receive from having a licensed electrician or HVAC company do the job.
“If you buy from certified technicians, you just call them when you have a problem,” he says. “In our case, we’ll be right out.”
Aside from being president of An-Mar Electric, Griffith is also a veteran, and says that his electrical experience over the years, combined with his military training has taught him to be aware of any situation that could occur, which is why he has a generator of his own to keep his home powered in the case of an outage. He says he hopes others who were not prepared for Irene or Sandy will take steps now, like purchasing a generator, to ensure that their homes and businesses are safe and able to run if we are ever hit with another storm.
“Think, ‘What if,’” he says. “This way, when ‘what if’ actually happens; you already have an idea of what you can do.”
An-Mar Electrical Contractor, 20 Maguire Road, Box 2866, Hamilton 08691-0366; 609-587-3988; fax, 609-584-7861. Robert P. Griffith, president. www.anmarelectric.com.
Princeton Air, 39 Everett Drive, Princeton Junction 08550; 609-799-3434; fax, 609-799-7036. J. Scott Needham, president. www.princetonair.com