My Generator Journey

I live in an area that frequently experiences power outages. Sometimes, they only last a few hours but in recent years, we have had some that have lasted several days. When you’re without power for three days, you realize how much you take it for granted. You can’t watch TV, go online, heat up something in the microwave and have to use candles or flashlights to get around when it’s dark. But you also have no heat, hot water and you need be mindful of opening your refrigerator or freezer.

My most recent extended power outage was in March of 2018 and lasted about three days. Part of my neighborhood got their power back within a few hours, including some neighbors two and three houses away (who were extremely generous by allowing the rest of to stop by for a hot shower, to charge our electronics or to just get out of the cold). I hate being helpless like this so I decided to take action.

Considering my options:

Over the next several months, I looked into four options:

  1. Work with my power company and local government to see if we could prevent extended outages.
  2. Natural gas generators
  3. Solar with battery back up.
  4. Gasoline powered generators

This was the order in which I did my research. The first option was my preferred option because it had no cost. Natural gas was expensive and solar seemed to also be pricey. Gas powered generators required refueling and maintenance.

Asking for help:

I started with the power company to see what they could do to help. I asked if my house could go on the same circuit as the houses within 100 feet of mine that didn’t experience extended outages, but they told me they could not do it. I asked if they could at least proactively review the wires in my area and remove limbs that could potentially damage them. They explained that they would be increasing their inspections.

Natural Gas:

In my initial research, natural gas was the best option because it automatically kicked in and required almost no maintenance. If the power went off while I was away, the generator would kick in and I wouldn’t have to worry about food spoilage or pipes freezing.

The main downside of these generators is cost – ads touted them at $4000-$5000 but when I spoke with actual companies, it was closer to $9000 (assuming there were no surprises). You have to buy the generator through an installer – most will only sell with installation, which is about half of the overall cost as you need both a plumber and an electrician. The other downside is that these are in high demand so many installers are booked out for several months.

Solar:

In the middle of my research, I stopped by local Tesla store to look at their Powerwall – a battery backup for the house. I had researched the Powerwall, but had ruled it out due to its cost and that it only would provide backup power for about a day. However, I found out that when combined with solar, this was the perfect option.

The rep at Tesla looked at my electric bill and put together a system for me. The system, including a Powerwall, cost $33,000. However, the system generated enough credits to pay for itself (including financing it) so I would actually get $20 back each month (and on top of that, I wouldn’t have to pay my $160 electric bill each month).

It sounded too good to be true, but I did more research over the next week as I awaited my solar study. In my state, they had a new solar incentive program launching and Tesla was cutting their solar prices by 25% so it became a no-brainer.

However, my dreams were suddenly smashed. My house was not a good candidate for solar as there were a lot of trees on my south side that would block the sun during the winter months when the sun was at its lowest. The analysis was that in December and January, the system would only collect 1% of the sunlight that it would collect in the summer. However, these are trees that become bare in the winter so I challenged it – their analysis didn’t factor in falling leaves. But they couldn’t guarantee that the system worked, so I followed their advice – and I was devastated.

Gasoline to the rescue:

After solar didn’t work out, I looked at another vendor for natural gas. This vendor came out and sowed me that the wires coming from my street into my meter needed to be replaced. Total cost to make this fix and install the generator was over $13,000! After doing new windows, new siding and a new roof, I didn’t have that much money lying around. I ran into a friend who is a licensed electrician and had him come out to take a look.

He found that my wires were in worse shape than I had thought – a branch landing the wrong way could have caused a fire. He happened to have a gas generator that he wanted to sell so I had him do the work. It cost me less than $3000 for the generator, to get the service into my house replaced and to install the transfer switch.

So I need to manually switch to the generator when needed and keep it filled with gas. And I have to do periodic maintenance. But the few times I’ve needed it over the past year (now that I have a generator, I don’t lose power as much), it’s been pretty easy to switch over.

Your mileage may vary:

I still believe that solar is the best option. If I were to ever move, being able to install solar would be high on my priority list. It makes financial sense and you don’t have to worry about ever losing power (unless it’s excessively cloudy for an extended period of time).

If you can afford it and have gas coming into your house, natural gas is a great option. Most natural gas generators will also run on liquid propane so that’s another possible option – just do your research on how much LP you can store and how long that can power the generator.

Gas generators are inexpensive and inconvenient. But it’s a good way to keep your heat on and give you access to most of your comforts (mine powers most of my house). Just ensure that you keep it filled and have more gas on hand. As long as you can get to a gas station every day or so, you should be able to get through several days.

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