High winds, heavy snow, wildfires, accidents — these are all common causes of power outages. In 2017, 36.7 million people were affected by outages, more than double the year prior, according to Eaton’s annual Blackout Tracker.
The high count was due to the deadly wildfires in the West and two major hurricanes on the East Coast, but less susceptible areas were also affected. For example, a snowstorm cut grid power to more than 360,000 people and businesses in the Atlanta area, and in Portland, Oregon, high winds knocked out grid power to 200,000-plus utility customers, according to Eaton.
Builders can get ahead of the game by talking with new and existing customers about standby power before outages happen. While whole-home generators are ideal, many customers may not be willing or able to make the investment. Manufacturers offer a variety of products to meet the range of standby power needs that can be reliably and cleanly fueled by propane.
The first step is to determine how a customer plans to use their home during an outage.
Establishing a power profile
“We find out what their needs are, and then what their wants are,” says Todd Christensen, vice president of construction at Magleby Construction, a custom homebuilder in Utah. It installs generators in up to 80 percent of its largest homes, which are over 7,000 square feet.
Those needs typically include water sewer pumps, heating systems, security systems, and even refrigerators and freezers. Wants are less essential, though for some of the company’s high-end buyers they are just as critical. “Some of them want to be able to live for 20 to 40 days [on backup power]; some want to be able to run their theater or entertainment equipment with the power down,” he says. “We usually try to talk them out of being in full party mode.”
Homeowners with smaller budgets, lower risk of outages, or limited power needs — for example, just to power the sump pump to keep the basement from flooding — may opt for a portable unit.
“Rather than manage expectations, we try to work within their needs and their budget,” says Ray Stanek, senior product manager at Generac. “We feel everyone should have access to backup power. It’s essential, it’s about safety.”
Builders can work with generator manufacturers’ local dealers to find the right product for their clients’ power needs.
Finding the right unit
In recent years, portable generators have gotten smaller and less noisy while their output has improved. “Generally, efficiency has increased so [portable] generators can be smaller than in the past,” Ryobi product manager Gavin Conti says. The company also recently debuted two propane-powered portable generators, including a 6,300-watt option.
Portable units come in two types: inverters and conventional generators. Inverters offer power just like that from a home’s outlets and therefore can be used with sensitive electronics, such as mobile phones. They are quiet and fuel efficient. Conventional generators, meanwhile, are louder and can also support non-sensitive electronics, tools, and home appliances. Inverters tend to cost more than conventional generators.
Which one a homeowner chooses depends on their needs during an outage.
Another consideration is whether the homeowner will be present, as well as physically able, to turn on a portable generator during an outage and connect the necessary devices. Customers with mobility issues as well as those who may not be home during an outage may not benefit from a portable unit.
For those customers as well as homeowners with large power demands, a permanently installed standby generator is preferable. Installed units offer automatic start/stop when power supply is disrupted, meaning the homeowner doesn’t have to be home for the generator to kick on.
“When it comes to delivering power to a permanent structure such as a home or small business, an automatic standby generator is the most effective and efficient option,” says Melanie Tydrich, senior channel manager at Kohler, which offers standby generators for residential and commercial settings.
Magleby’s customers usually opt for installed generators. In its most remote markets, customers can experience outages at least once a month lasting for up to four hours. Because many of its homes are off the natural gas grid, the majority of generators the company installs use propane.
Managing the load
There are many ways to help homeowners manage power consumption during an outage, from basic instruction to installed systems that restrict or redirect use.
A 25kW generator is typical for Magleby’s projects. During outages, power is limited to a single, 100-amp panel installed in the home. That helps control what devices and systems draw energy.
Power management technology helps homeowners balance power demand and supply to prevent overloading the generator, which would stop power throughout the home.
It focuses on the circuits powering heavy-load items, such as electric clothes dryers, air conditioners, and water heaters. For example, if a homeowner is operating the clothes dryer, the power management system would not allow the electric water heater to kick on until after the dryer is finished. “It’s a more intelligent system to manage your power than just using the brute force of a larger-kW generator,” says David Duffield, director of standby sales at Champion Power Equipment.
That’s enabling more customers to consider standby power.
“More and more consumers wanted to have a home standby generator but they didn’t want to pay $5,000 for [it],” Duffield says. “Power management gave the industry a tool to get more people into the standby generator category.”
With the growing threat of severe storms and continued focus on resilience, generator manufacturers say they expect continued uptake and are already seeing more builders incorporate generators in new construction.
“Twenty years ago, a dishwasher wasn’t standard on all houses, but today you see dishwashers in almost any house,” Stanek says. “I think generators will get to the point where they are [also] standard.”
Download our brochure to help start the conversation about propane standby power with homeowners.