Until recently, homeowners hoping to protect their homes against blackouts had to choose a few select applications that would remain running during a power disruption. The refrigerator and heat, for instance, might keep running, but the rest of the house would be powerless in an outage.
Today, however, several factors are combining to make whole-house standby protection a realistic possibility for most U.S. households. Recent improvements in generator load-monitoring technology have made it possible to keep power flowing throughout the whole house, even as demand surges and shifts. Now, if a generator gets to the point of overloading, it can automatically shut off nonessential appliances and then bring them back on when demand subsides. As a result, many homeowners who initially hopped on the generator train with portable models are retrofitting their homes for whole-house standby units.
“If you had asked me four years ago, I would say we were doing mostly partial-house installations,” says Bob Camper, owner of AllInstall LLC, a Virginia-based installer of Generac standby generators. “We’d put in a subpanel, with critical systems wired into the panel: heat, water pump, and refrigerator. Now, every machine we install can do load monitoring.
“These generators have a load monitoring switch with four levels of priority,” Camper explains. “If a generator overloads, it immediately will drop off the four biggest electric draws, then reapply them one at a time to make sure it doesn’t overload. For example, a 20-kW generator, which normally puts out 82 amps, can bump to as much as 125 amps to start an air conditioner, although it can’t sustain that. If more than 80 amps are drawn for more than three seconds, then we’ll automatically drop what we’ve selected to protect the generator.”
Complementary propane systems
Builders and remodelers can also combine a propane generator with a suite of propane appliances to provide their customers with whole-house standby protection at an affordable price. When critical systems such as space heating and water heating are fueled by propane or natural gas, the standby generator can typically be downsized — and made more affordable — because it isn’t running power-hungry electrical heating appliances.
Customers can save as much as $2,000 on the generator, according to Dave Dawson, CEO of Smart Homes of Virginia, a generator installer based in Charlottesville.
“On a typical electric indoor air-handler, the emergency heat strips will take as much as 10 kW or even more if the emergency heat kicks on,” Dawson says. “So it takes a big generator – or they have to do without that heat or risk shutting the generator down.” Alternatively, if the furnace runs on propane or natural gas, it uses minimal electrical power, he explains. “Not only does the heat come on when they want, but also instead of a 20-kW [generator], they might get away with a 14-kW, which will allow them to save $1,500, even $2,000 or more on a generator.”
Bundling for savings
As installers do the energy-consumption audit needed to properly size a generator and pipe the house for propane, remodelers can offer homeowners the opportunity to convert other major systems to propane or natural gas to maximize energy efficiency and cost savings.
When critical systems such as space heating and water heating are fueled by propane or natural gas, the standby generator can typically be downsized — and made more affordable.
“It does make a big difference if they have at least one or two gas appliances,” Camper says. “Because we’re going to be doing a gas line to get the propane to the generator, it’s an ideal time to upgrade heating, water heating, and cooking appliances. I’m encouraging people to switch to gas, to put in a gas heater, a gas tankless water heater in lieu of a water tank, and a gas cook stove.”
Propane forced-air furnaces provide airflow up to 25 degrees warmer than the average electric heat pump and typically last twice as long. Condensing tankless water heaters can provide energy savings up to 40 percent over conventional, electric water heating systems while providing endless hot water delivery.
Most of Camper’s customers live in rural areas and use propane to fuel their generators. “About half our customers have buried tanks or will have us do so when we do the generator installation,” he says.
Both installers stress the importance of having a certified professional size and put in a whole-house generator because of the computerized load monitoring system that comes built into the switch. “If you overload generators you can easily burn them out, and then you are talking a couple of thousand dollars to fix them,” Camper says.