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Keeping the Lights On

You've seen it all before: The storm approaches...the winds gust...the trees bend... the lights flicker.

Then, darkness.

That all-electric home suddenly has no modern conveniences. Even if you heat with fuel, most gas and oil furnaces, and all air conditioners, require electricity. If you have your own well you're without water because the pump runs on electricity.

Some people actually enjoy the novelty - until everything in the freezer begins thawing.

Minimize the Problem

Before buying something you might not really need, make sure you do what you can to keep the utility power flowing to your house. Keep trees, especially dead or dying trees, away from power lines, and cut back branches that are extending toward or are reaching above the lines. Most utility companies will provide these services for you for free, but it often takes a few phone calls before they finally respond.

If you like to burn wood anyway, consider an efficient, low-emissions wood stove or wood stove insert that you can use to heat your house (and cook on) during an outage.

And remember that if you lose power in the winter, you can often save your perishibles by moving them from the powerless freezer to the cold outdoors.

A Look at the Back-up Options

If your lights generally go out for no more than a few hours - and you don't have any serious medical needs or critical business requirements - then you probably don't want to fool with the expense and bother of a back-up system.

If you experience power outages a few times a year and they typically don't last over a day or two, consider a portable gas, propane, or diesel generator and a transfer switch (isolates your home from the power grid). Almost any local hardware store is a good place to get the equipment and assistance you need. A much quieter and cleaner option is a battery back-up system, consisting of a a set of DC batteries and an inverter/charger. Portable generators are relatively labor intensive, must be started manually, require monitoring

If your outages last longer than a couple of days, consider either 1) a conventional auxiliary generator or 2) a solar or wind (or a solar/wind hybrid) system that runs on renewable energy.

A conventional residential standby generator system - a generator and an automatic transfer switch - monitors your utility power and immediately starts the generator during a power failure, even if you're not home. When power has been restored, the switch shuts down the generator and shifts your home back to utility power.

The renewable system includes the solar panels and/or a wind turbine and special electronics (inverters) that can supply power to your home during a power outage. Although this system is more expensive than the standby generator system, it will also reduce your utility bills by supplying supplemental power whenever the sun shines (or the wind blows). It may also qualify for rebates and tax credits. This system can also be integrated with the battery back-up system described above to supply long-term power.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Portable Generators
Portable generators are the least expensive option, but are relatively labor intensive, very noisy and dirty, must be started manually, require monitoring, need refueling every few hours during use. Due to the exhaust fumes, heat, noise, risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, they must be used outside. Diesel-powered generators generate the most fumes, followed by gasoline-powered generators. Both are noisy. Usually less than 5 kilowatts.

Auxiliary Generators
More expensive than portable generators, but much less troublesome. They are usually enclosed outside the home in a housing that keeps them ventilated and quiet. They are usually powered by natural gas or propane, fuels that generate fewer emissions than diesel and gasoline and can easily be piped directly to the unit if you already use them in your home. Usually supplied in 8-22 kilowatt sizes.

Battery Systems
Often less expensive than Auxiliary Generators, but they provide less power (2-4 kilowatts) and generally run low after 2-12 hours. Battery systems are silent and very clean.

Solar/Wind Systems
Most expensive, but provide clean, renewable energy. They can pay for themselves in the long term by supplying free supplemental power, and are often eligible for rebates and tax credits. Don't install such systems in cloudy, calm areas.

But whatever you do, if you have some sort of auxiliary power during an outage, remember your neighbors. A couple of extension cords might forge permanent friendships.

Content updated on 8/3/2006

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