Cultural shifts often creep up unannounced until something that was once an afterthought starts to become standard. So if the increasing power outages are any indication, propane standby generators may soon be second nature on homes, especially in storm-prone parts of the country.
According to Eaton’s 2015 Blackout Tracker Annual Report, the United States suffered 3,571 power outages in 2015, affecting more than 13 million people. Whether they’re caused by extreme weather or aging infrastructure, this comes at a time when dependable power is more critical than ever as people are increasingly working from home and baby boomers are preparing to age in place. It certainly creates an opportunity for builders to anticipate climate change and buyers’ needs. Resilient design has rightly become a buzzword, and sturdy standby power, with a safely stored fuel source such as propane, is a key component.
Since 2004, growth spurts in Kohler Power‘s standby generator sales have been driven by major storm events, says Melanie Tydritch, senior channel manager of residential and light commercial products. “The market levels down from the peak but settles at a higher point each time,” she says. “We expect to see that trajectory continue upward.”
With the reliability component figured out, manufacturers are looking at other ways to raise the bar. Generac, for example, has made installation less expensive with an integrated sediment trap that saves a step for plumbers, flexible fuel lines at two, four, and six feet to reduce the amount of black pipe and bends, and a composite pad that eliminates the need for a concrete or gravel base. And its EcoGen units integrate into an off-grid home’s inverter and battery storage system and run on the home’s existing propane storage.
Kohler is building smaller standby generators that can still handle large loads and cycle on without dropping power. Its 10-kw generator will start a five-ton air conditioner with 5,000 watts preloaded, Tydritch says. Earlier this year, the company replaced its 38-kw model with a new 30-kw model, 30RCL, that’s 16 inches slimmer and reduced the noise level to 54 decibels in exercise mode — about the same as normal conversation — and 62 decibels at full power. “California is one of the more challenging areas” because of noise restrictions, she says. “We’re trying to keep the generators in line with the noise level people would expect from a central air conditioner.”
Rick and Liesl Ramsay know these challenges first-hand. They own Leete Generators, a firm specializing in backup power solutions in Santa Rosa, California, a state where sound laws set the bar for the rest of the nation. Emissions standards are increasingly stringent, too. “Every year they’re upping the standards,” Leisl Ramsay says. “On some units we’ve had to add a catalytic converter so they’re compliant in California.” The couple’s clients have diverse needs, ranging from people who rely on water pumps in fire-prone areas, to people on breathing machines, to homeowners protecting their wine cellar refrigeration. “This is the Silicon Valley–Bay Area elite,” Leisl Ramsay says. “Our latest customer has five car chargers in the garage.”
“We’re trying to keep the generators in line with the noise level people would expect from a central air conditioner.”
Remote monitoring is becoming a focus. Kohler’s OnCue management system lets users monitor generator operation in real time, and Generac’s Mobile Link lets homeowners check power status from anywhere. The Ramsays have used third-party generator monitoring technology Gen-Tracker to monitor their clients’ generator’s battery and propane storage level. “My tech person can start their generator from his cell phone,” Leisl Ramsay says.
As time goes on, these technologies are likely to give homeowners more reasons to invest in a standby generator. One study estimates that a power outage of just a few hours can cost an owner more than $1,000 when you consider damage to a home and sensitive electronics, the cost of cleanup, food spoilage, and needing to eat out while power is down. When these events happen repeatedly, the financial and emotional toll can far outweigh the cost of a propane standby generator.