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Standing by for extreme weather, year-round

Storms, cold snaps, and the aging electrical grid fuel demand for propane backup power.

By Cheryl Weber

For decades, generators have been a household staple in hurricane- and twister-prone parts of the country, but now homeowners nearly everywhere are giving them a second look.

Sales of standby generators ticked up after summer hurricanes Irene and Sandy cut power to swaths of the Northeast in recent years. And they've become more than a one-season essential. As utilities struggled to keep up with last winter's multiple ice- and snowstorms, people in the Northeast and Midwest realized that cold snaps can be dangerous, too. With more extreme weather predicted in general and an iffy power grid putting homeowners on edge, standby generators are an increasingly rational option in new homes and remodeling projects.

Awareness levels have risen as more people are affected by power failures, especially in the Northeast, says Daniel Giampetroni, residential/light commercial business manager for Kohler Power. "It's a unique category because, unlike air conditioning, only 2 or 3 percent of U.S. households have standby generators," which flick on automatically when the power goes down, he says. "But more people are looking seriously at them because they know about them. Consumer Reports covered them three times in the last year and a half, along with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal."

Remodeling magazine's latest Cost vs. Value Report underscores that awareness. The annual survey, which ranks the return on investment of popular home improvement projects, showed that an $11,742 backup power generator installation could be expected to recoup 67.5 percent of its cost at resale on a national average. That's an increase of 28 percent over the previous year, and the biggest jump of any project category. It's also prime supporting evidence when you're making the sale to your remodeling customers.


 
   
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Even small storms can have a big impact on propane-fueled standby generator demand. "Most people run to the hardware store to buy a portable generator and then discover the huge hassle factor of running extension cords to electrical appliances, finding a gasoline station that has electricity, and constantly refueling it," Giampetroni says. Standbys are more reliable because gasoline may be scarce after storms, and propane can be safely stockpiled and stored before an emergency.

Generac's registration data show that a third of the people who buy portables will upgrade to a standby. In the new-home market, the manufacturer's strongest footprint is with regional builders, who are standardizing generator installations in 80 percent of homes in certain markets, especially age-restricted communities in the Carolinas and the Mid-Atlantic. "The pain of no power is probably more intense for the 50-plus group than others," says Russ Minick, executive vice president of residential products for Generac Power Systems. "But we also see a lot of young families wanting to invest."


As hurricane season approaches and homeowners begin planning for power-outage emergencies, standby generators look like an increasingly sound investment.


Manufacturers are responding to the expanding market. This July, Generac launched two standby generators at opposite ends of the price spectrum. The downsized PowerPact, priced at $1,899, can run up to 8 circuits. Guardian Synergy, the company's new premium model, has variable speed technology that uses less fuel and runs significantly more quietly.

Briggs & Stratton's compact 8kW and 10kW generators target entry-level buyers and those in dense urban areas with smaller homes and lots. And last fall Kohler unveiled PowerSync, a paralleling module that lets owners of large houses run two 20kW generators instead of one big one. "When demand increases over 20kW, the second one starts up," Giampetroni says. "The biggest advantage is fuel savings, and with fewer hours on the two engines, maintenance decreases."

As hurricane season approaches and homeowners begin planning for power-outage emergencies, standby generators look like an increasingly sound investment.

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