CORNWALL — The thrumming of a generator, the crackling of logs in a fireplace, heating dinner atop a woodstove. All make us feel secure, with a leg up on whatever Mother Nature might dish out.
But anything that offers welcome heat and light during a power outage also bears close monitoring when in use — and maintenance when not. It’s not so easy for us creatures of an automated world.
For the “Are you prepared for the next storm?” forum Feb. 11 at Town Hall, the Cornwall Association put together a team of experts to talk mainly about generators. (See the Feb. 16 Lakeville Journal for a story on keeping food safe in a power outage; online, go to www.tricornernews.com.)
Among the presenters were local electricians Steve Saccardi and Brad Hedden. Scott Goff, owner of Goff’s Equipment Service in Litchfield, brought an assortment of red and black Honda generators. He has sold more than 500 since the October nor’easter that left people without power for as long as 10 days.
The crowd of about 70 quickly learned the experts were not kidding when they said there is more to using a generator than just starting it up and plugging things into it when the time comes.
The general attitude of most coming into the forum was that a generator is something they definitely want. Cornwall always seems to be the first town to lose power and the last to get it back. However, some audience members left two hours later saying they might just opt to go without, or head to a hotel or shelter.
Others said they felt more confident, and had not bought one yet only because they didn’t know how to choose or operate one.
Purchasing a generator is something to look into when there is no immediate need. Anyone who wants to enjoy a backup power source at the worst of times is going to have to make some good decisions up front.
Carbon monoxide dangers
“I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” Stanley MacMillan prefaced his part of the presentation. He might have been paraphrasing Ronald Reagan’s famous joke, but the words were apt in this instance, and not intended to be ironic.
MacMillan is an area building official and fire marshal. He knows the building and fire codes that govern the installation of generators. He knows how easily a good situation can go bad when it comes to generators and backup heating sources.
“Most people who die in fires die from smoke inhalation,” he said. “But what’s in the smoke they’re inhaling is carbon monoxide. It replaces the oxygen in their blood. It puts them in a deep sleep and they never wake up.”
Those were sobering words for people who just want to keep their furnace, refrigerator, television and microwave running. But everyone here remembers the snowstorm last October, when a local family nearly died when their properly installed generator filled their home with carbon monoxide (CO). Fortunately, they were awake and got out before being overcome. A Sharon man was not as lucky; he and his dog died from inhaling generator fumes.
Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless. It is toxic and produces flu-like symptoms that generally come on late. It is the product of incomplete combustion and can come from anything that burns fuel, whether it be wood, oil, gas or coal. It is heavier than air, but can infiltrate an entire home quickly. It can find its way in through the tiniest air leaks, and through bathroom exhaust fans and dryer vents.
“People think it won’t reach the second-floor bedrooms of their house until the whole house is filled,” MacMillan said. “We had one CO call that turned out to be a propane generator that was installed properly, but that was not serviced and not running properly. You could see the smoke settling in the heavy air. The CO levels were high in the house and highest in the upstairs bedrooms. The heat rising in the home was pulling the bad fumes up to the second floor, where the CO settled on the bedroom floors.”
In the case of the Sharon man who died from CO poisoning. MacMillan said the cause was a muffler that had broken — not an uncommon occurrence with generators. The same happened in another Sharon home during the same storm. No one was home at the time. Neither home had a CO detector.
Essentials: a CO detector
If you don’t already have one, buying a CO detector goes hand-in-hand with buying a generator. There are many options. They come combined with smoke detectors, hardwired or plugged into an outlet. Separate units should have backup batteries, which should be changed regularly along with those in household smoke detectors.
A CO detector reads two things: low levels for long periods and sudden spikes. It will alert for both, and neither should be ignored. The building should be evacuated and 911 called. Leave windows and doors closed so the fire department can meter CO levels and investigate the source, MacMillan said.
That said, a generator can also be a lifesaver. Things like heat and power for medical equipment can be vital.
Choosing a power source
The advice from experts is to consider needs and desires for backup power, balanced against cost and how much you are willing or able to do when it comes to maintenance and operation.
Options run from the low-end portable models, which must be carried or rolled out into the yard and fueled; to permanent installations that take a flip of a switch and have a dedicated, large-capacity fuel supply.
Consideration needs to be given to building and safety codes for hard-wired installations. A building permit and possibly a zoning permit will be required.
But with those can come valuable guidance.
Generally, the larger the generator, the more power it will produce, and the more it will cost.
Add to the mix all sorts of new technologies that are now available. Honda has a new inverter technology, for example. It eliminates voltage fluctuations that could create problems when powering a computer; regulates engine speed in accord with demand, to save fuel; displays wattage produced; and allows some models to run incredibly quietly.
Of course, there is a price to be paid.
Outside, at the end of the forum, Goff fired up two nearly identically sized models. One chugged loudly and spewed fumes. The other did little more than hum. But the quiet model costs several times more than its noisier counterpart.
Generators can run on gasoline, diesel, propane or natural gas. Installations will require an electrician, and possibly a plumber.
They can have a variety of switch configurations including: ones that connect to an existing circuit panel; or a standby panel that will automatically take over when the electricity goes out and power preselected circuits.
Meters can manage load and switch circuits on and off to shed and reapply load to meet demand when, for instance, the water pump or furnace kicks on for short spurts.
There were numerous questions about how and where to install a permanent generator. Local building codes specify distances from structures and other factors depending on the particular installation. The answer boils down to this: hire professionals.
Saccardi advised having a plan and starting with some knowledge about wattage needs for your home’s vital functions, including appliances and even light bulbs. It all adds up quickly when power is limited.
The largest portable generators average about 6,000 watts. Saccardi offered a mock scenario that used up just about that amount of power, to run a computer, a television, a refrigerator, a microwave, a coffeemaker, lights, an oil burner and a water pump. He recommended adding a 20 percent cushion for additional items. While that may seem like a lot, Saccardi said most people will want to power more things after the first couple of days.
Of course, that is factoring in the potential for everything being used at once. A smaller generator could suffice with a little planning, to avoid using the microwave (at a typical 1,500 watts) and coffeemaker (900 watts) at the same time.
Instead of using a desktop computer (200 watts), use a laptop (45 watts).
Or think about it in terms of horsepower, when generator shopping, with one HP producing 746 watts of power.
Among the things to keep in mind is that a furnace, water heater and anything that doesn’t have a power cord attached can only be powered if a circuit box is hooked up to a generator.
With most homes here on wells, water is sorely missed when the power goes out. Toilets cannot be flushed without manually filling the tank. After the recent storms, a popular idea was to buy a small generator just to power the well pump. But Saccardi warned that well pumps use 240 volts, an amount that smaller generators cannot produce.
It is important to have a switch on installations, or to switch off portable generators as soon as power is restored. Power produced by a generator can back feed onto the grid, energize power lines under repair and cause injury or death to linemen.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is ignoring not only the generator when it’s not needed, but a gasoline supply. Goff advised that gas cans should have a good seal to prevent not only evaporation but also water infiltration.
“The problem is the ethanol in our gasoline. It boosts octane but basically is alcohol that absorbs large amounts of moisture. A gallon of gasoline can easily absorb 4 to 5 ounces of water from the air overnight.”
Water beads can form and actually grow algae if left long enough. Any impurities can keep the gasoline from burning properly, which in turn can cause the generator to malfunction, or worse, create carbon monoxide.
Solutions are to use a fuel treatment product and, once a month, dump the stored gasoline in your car’s gas tank and refill the container.
Follow recommended maintenance and safety checks for a generator. Starting it occasionally is necessary. In the two emergencies MacMillan described, the muffler problem could have been detected.
Goff offers on-site service plans that ensure generators will be ready to go, safely, when needed.
Noise and emissions were also addressed, by the experts and residents. The answer, again, is to be prudent when using a generator, for your own safety and the comfort of others. Many problems arise when people leave a generator running around the clock and don’t keep an eye on it. MacMillan said the rule of thumb is to turn it off while you’re sleeping. Six hours of downtime will allow fumes to disperse and give your neighbors a break.