- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Even before the double whammy of the East Coast blackout and the wrath of Hurricane Isabel, spending on generators capable of providing whole-home power was surging.

David Pettigrove, a senior analyst at Bainbridge Inc. in San Diego, was projecting that spending on residential backup generators would climb to between $200 million and $250 million nationwide in 2003 — up 15 percent to 20 percent from last year, when spending grew 30 percent from 2001, thanks in large part to California’s blackouts and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Now manufacturers are gearing up to meet even more demand.

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Should you join the frenzy and get backup power for your own home, especially with the snow from last week’s storm still lingering? The key, dealers and industry spokesmen say, is to determine your needs and the costs involved now — before the next crisis.

Carl Essl, manager of Christopher’s Glen Echo Hardware store in Bethesda, says generators vary so greatly in price and wattage that homeowners should estimate their power needs and budget before they go shopping.

A 4,100-watt model is adequate for most homes, he says. What customers have to determine is how much start-up power appliances will need, as opposed to the power needed to maintain use. A simple automated coffeepot, for example, often requires a great deal of energy to start, but once it does, its power needs dwindle.

“It’s in the owner’s manual how many watts it operates,” Mr. Essl says. Homeowners also can download the information from the various manufacturers’ Web sites.

“Things like microwaves tend to draw a lot initially then run on very little,” he says.

Most generators run on gasoline, while others can use propane if a conversion kit is purchased. A standard gas-run generator might run the consumer from $500 to $600, he says.

These machines should be placed either outdoors or in a well-ventilated area to prevent possible carbon monoxide poisoning.

Consumers also should check a generator’s sound level. The equipment’s decibel reading will be listed on the product. Anything at the mid-70s level and above means the generator will crank out plenty of noise while it’s doing its job.

Once the power goes out, buyers “have a four-hour window to buy a generator before they’re gone,” says Honda Power Equipment spokesman Sage Marie.

One popular option is a portable backup generator. Hardware stores sell these at prices that typically start around $400. These gasoline-powered units can generate enough electricity to keep the refrigerator going while operating a computer and microwave.

However, powering your entire house during an emergency involves more planning — and some real expense.

Costs for those systems range from $2,000 for a portable unit that can be plugged into a home’s wiring to $12,000 for a permanently installed power plant that will start up automatically after the wires to the house stop delivering electricity, Mr. Pettigrove says.

At a minimum, the generator buyer has to pay an electrician another $150 to $200 to install a switch that will isolate the house from the power company, allowing the portable generator to send electricity directly into the home’s wires.

For less than the cost of energy-efficient windows, a power plant attached to the same gas lines that go to a water heater and kitchen stove can automatically take over for the utility in less than 10 seconds.

Meanwhile, a number of homeowners have been turning to alternative energy, such as solar panels. Typically, they’re doing it for environmental reasons or (in very isolated locations) to save money, rather than as backup systems.

That’s because most solar-power buyers are unwilling to pay the additional 15 percent to 20 percent for batteries that would store the energy during the day and power homes at night, says Angelo Lombarto, who heads Solar Home Solutions, a residential marketing program BP rolled out this year in California, the New York City area, New Jersey and Greater Philadelphia.

Instead, they opt for systems that shut down when local power deliveries stop, in order to avoid sending power back up the wires to where linemen are fixing the breakdown.

By the end of last year, the Solar Energy Industries Association says, about 70 megawatts of solar power were connected to the grid — the wires owned and operated by the local utility — and estimates suggest that about half of that was installed on homes, mostly in California.

With its new marketing effort, BP Solar is hoping to expand the number of solar-powered homes in the Northeast. Another solar-panel maker, AstroPower, has enlisted Home Depot to market its systems.

The company is targeting “sunny, coastal areas with high-cost power and with good rebates,” says Jerry Shields, a spokesman for Home Depot. Some 100 stores in California, New Jersey, Long Island, N.Y., and Delaware carry the systems.

They don’t come cheap. Although BP will install solar systems generating as little as half a kilowatt, enough to power five light bulbs at once, most buyers install 3- to 6-kilowatt systems, Mr. Lombarto says.

Such a system costs about $8 per watt in New Jersey, before a state refund of $5.50 per watt, and $9 per watt in California, where the state subsidy is $3.80 per watt.

Thirteen states provide such subsidies, according to DSIRE (Database of States Incentives for Renewable Energy), a program of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by the North Carolina Solar Center.

Nevertheless, a 3-kilowatt system in, say, Parsippany, N.J., would set a homeowner back some $7,500 — even after the state subsidy.

Staff writer Christian Toto contributed to this story.

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