Rick BissonModern, daily life has a certain rhythm: Running water, hot water, electricity, heat, internet, television, cold food, hot food. The list of the expected amenities goes on and on. This normal rhythm of life was suddenly interrupted early Oct. 30 when a ferocious storm swept through the state causing widespread damage.

There were ample warnings predicting the storm’s high winds and heavy rains. Some prepared. Others didn’t. Regardless of their choice of preparedness, Mainers went to bed at the end of a mild Sunday and awoke the next day to blown down trees, blocked roadways and a reported 484,000 homes without power by midday on Monday.

As the sun rose and the winds subsided a bit, the early morning silence broke into an ensemble of droning generators. For some households, these generators provided a few lights, maybe running water and heat. A rare few enjoyed the luxury of a full house generator that fired up automatically as soon as the power went out.

Those without generators were left wondering how long they’d be without heat, and carrying buckets of water. When the predictions and expectations of an extended period of time without power became evident, some rushed out and bought generators.

For those who bought in the early hours after the storm, the size and variety of generators available provided lots of options. As the rush to buy a generator continued, inventory diminished. Whether they were early to buy, later in the process or too late, these shoppers were all faced with purchase decisions they may or may not have been prepared to make.

For anyone whose plans for preparing for the next big storm include purchasing a back-up power source, the key considerations are size, portable or fixed, and cost.

The first step in determining the appropriate generator for a home is to calculate how much power will be needed to run the appliances and electrical driven devices at the same time. Do this by adding up the combined wattage of each. There will also be a startup wattage for a well pump, sump pump, heating and air conditioning units. Once the maximum wattage is known, be sure the home generator’s wattage is greater than the electrical demand at one time.

Next, based on the electric demand and budget, it’s time to review whether a portable or permanent unit is best. Both can power a home; however, there is a difference in the amount of power each offers.

Portable generators, the type that are typically rolled outside, run on gasoline and are manually “plugged” into the home. These generators will power the home’s basic needs such as a well pump, refrigerator, sump pump, sewer pump, toaster oven and microwave.

Costs for simple portable set ups range from $500 to $1,500 to units with sub panels that range from $1,500 to $3,500. Since these units run on gasoline, determine how long the generator will run on a single tank. To avoid refilling the tank in the middle of the night, make sure the tank has enough capacity.
To operate a simple, portable setup, extension cords are plugged into the generator, run inside the house and plugged into separate devices.

To use a portable generator without the hassle of running extension cords, hire an electrician to install a manual transfer switch sub panel off the main circuit panel and install a dedicated inlet to power the sub panel. This setup provides the advantage of powering entire circuits in the house, not just individual appliances.

To power the entire house with basically no interruption in power and without the hassle of setting up and starting the generator, the best option is a permanent standby generator. Most standby generators are powerful enough to run a central air conditioner, kitchen appliances and other large items all at the same time. They’re also quieter than portable generators and there are no cords or storing gasoline.

Permanent standby generators require a transfer switch and sub panel. This transfer switch constantly monitors power. When the power goes out, the generator automatically starts and powers the house. When power is restored, the transfer switch shuts off the generator.

Most permanent standby generators run on propane or natural gas, as opposed to regular gasoline. The installation cost of a standby generator ranges from $5,000 for a 7,000-watt unit to more than $15,000 for a 30,000-watt unit.

If a back up power supply is on your list of must haves before the next big storm, be sure to do your research. Seek advice from a reliable generator supply company and your trusted electrician. Most importantly, make certain to adhere to the many safety concerns associated with the installation and operation of a back up generator.

This column is produced by Rick Bisson and his family, who own Bisson Real Estate with Keller Williams Realty of Midcoast and Sugarloaf.