I love a good storm, but – do we need a generator?

When a storm seen from space – like Sandy, here – completely covers the part of the world where one lives, it turns one’s mind to things like generators.

Like most of eastern North America, Raymond and I are closely watching the progress of Hurricane Sandy tonight. It was pretty blowy in Montreal as we made our way home from work, but of course nothing like what they’re seeing on the Eastern Seaboard.

(I love that phrase “Eastern Seaboard,” don’t you? It somehow sounds so different from “East Coast.” More urban and populated, maybe – and thus likely to suffer a lot more damage when a hurricane comes to call.)

Anyway, the storm’s trajectory makes it appear that both Montreal and Queensborough – where the Manse is – will get some pretty heavy wind and rain over the next couple of days. As our Queensborough friend Dave deLang put it in an email last night, “Whatever leaves are left have a good chance of having the tree blow out from under them.”

Which leads me to ponder: should we buy a generator for the Manse?

I know that a fair number of people in the area do have generators. A while back I inquired of another Queensborough friend, Ed Couperus, about how often and how long power outages tend to be, and he suggested that generally speaking it isn’t a big problem. But still, on a night like tonight, I can easily imagine power going out at the Manse (my handy Hydro One iPhone app tells me that there are already outages between Bancroft and Madoc) and, if we were there, being cold and uncomfortable (not to mention hungry). It would be awfully nice to flick a switch (or whatever you do with generators) and have a backup source of power.

What do you think, people, especially those of you with experience living in rural areas? Is a generator a good investment? If so, how powerful should it be? (I see from a quick search at homehardware.ca and canadiantire.ca that they can range from 1,000 to 9,000 watts.)

I appreciate your advice, though of course there’s nothing I can do about the situation tonight. (Well, I suppose I could order a new generator online, but I’m not quite ready for that.) I think instead I will sit back and watch CNN’s coverage, listen to the wind blow, and feel very glad that we are indoors and cozy and dry on a night like this.

Because that is absolutely the best part of a storm.

15 thoughts on “I love a good storm, but – do we need a generator?

  1. The cozy and dry part IS definitely the best bit…I’m listening to wind and rain against my window, hoping everyone’s as comfy as we are. We ran through our (limited) emergency preparedness list over dinner, and agreed we could manage a few days of 10 degrees celsius with no hydro. Winter would be quite another matter. Pipes (and people) freezing is the point at which a generator (however one uses them) starts to sound like a good idea. From our A-frame to yours….

  2. We haven’t used ours in 18 months. Prior to that, it was a year. So, a large generator like ours [8000 Watts] has been an overkill — they are more suitable for frequent-use industrial situations. However, a smaller one, perhaps 1500-3000 Watts [Lowes has a 1250 Watt unit for $278 & a 3250 Watt unit for $324: (http://www.lowes.ca/generators_1989.html?sort=priceLow)%5D, might be handy to run the oil furnace to prevent plumbing freeze-ups [in the winter, of course] or the fridge & freezer in the summer, along with the well pump, a few lights, the TV/radio, etc. You wouldn’t want to use such a generator to run portable electric heaters as each one typically uses 1500 Watts or the A/C.

    There are two types of set-ups. Heavy-duty units are typically plugged directly into the household electrical system via a special adapter to your SmartMeter. This would require installation by an electrician. In such situations, there are generators available that will start automatically in the event of a power failure but these units do have a price premium…

    The other method is to use a small generator as a stand-alone unit with appliances [ie., lights] plugged in [via an extension cord, as the generator should be outside].

    You would need to decide between manual or electric start models. In the latter case, battery charge would need to be monitored as time passes between use of the generator.

    Finally, in terms of noise, size does seem to matter. The small units by Honda & Yamaha are virtually silent — much quieter than a typical push lawnmower

    • Today [Nov 17] I attempted to start the generator as part of winter preparation and yard clean-up. I fully expected to have to use the pull-start but, amazingly, the battery was still fully charged…the electric starter turned the engine over easily. When the choke was activated, the Honda engine promptly came to life, despite the presence of of 18-month old gasoline. Simply amazing! Makes one wonder what kind of special battery the unit has.

      • Good information, Graham, thanks. While my siblings and cousin Bruce are counselling getting a wood-burning stove (and hurricane lamps, which I am happy to say we already have) and not worrying about a generator for the Manse, realistically it will be a couple of years at least till we know where we’d want to put a wood stove and what kind it would be. In the meantime, maybe it makes sense to buy a small generator.

  3. Great summary Graham – except for the part about directing people to Lowes. Avoid the Walmart of DIY and seek out your local Rona retailer like a good Canadian.

  4. If you do decide to buy a generator, I would agree that the small Yamaha or Honda inverter generators are quiet and light.
    Running extension cords into the house requires you to leave a door or window open a bit and you would have to know enough about electricity to hook up your furnace.

    The biggest problem is fuel storage as gasoline has a limited storage lifespan. You have to add a gasoline stabilizer after a period of time. Better although more expensive are the dual fuel units which run on either gasoline or propane. Propane, the same as used in your barbecue, can be stored indefinitely and produces less pollution as well.

  5. Spend the money on a good wood stove and installing a proper single valve plumbing drain.
    If you’re there when the power fails pile on the wood and light a candle – just like when you were a kid. And drain the plumbing. Drain it regardless when you leave every sunday night during winter. Then if the house freezes so what?
    The catch 22 on generators is that any big enough to the job properly are prohibitively expensive considering they will get used about 4 hours every two years. The smaller ones have about enough capacity to run a string of christmas lights and an iPad simultaneously. Don’t count on anything working automatically. Machines need to be run a certain amount of hours reasonably frequently or they fail. Why add expensive complexity? None of us ever had a generator growing up and the only time in our lives it’s ever been truly needed was during the famous ice storm a decade or so ago. In fact the best place to buy one Canadian or not is probably Kijiji. There are a lot of unused 10 year old models out there…

    • Well, you are certainly right that we all grew up sans generators and lived to tell the tale. At the Manse there were some old hurricane lamps (they’d probably be worth some money now) stashed in the back porch that Dad would pull out when the power went off. And of course we had the wood stove to keep us warm, which as you say really is the ticket. For sure I want a wood stove of some sort, and that would probably be fine if we were at the Manse. But I do worry about the power going off on some brutally cold day when we’re not there to attend to things. We are very lucky to have Ed, who keeps an eye on things, but he probably doesn’t need that particular grief either.

      • I know where you’re coming from, Mel (and Bruce) – but as one of the very few extremely lucky people who never lost power, heat or light during the famous Montreal ice storm, and having witnessed the misery all around of those who did, I think I have a lot of time for the generator option. Especially as storms seem to be getting worse. (Can you tell I’ve been watching CNN dissecting the mess in New York/New Jersey tonight?) One evening without power is nothing; three days (or more), something else altogether. Do we trust Hydro One to keep us powered?

  6. Storms aren’t getting worse but the media is getting far more overwrought in their reporting. I find it ridiculous that the quest for ratings has even led to the sensationalization of weather reporting.
    The only thing that can go really wrong in a cold house is that pipes freeze. Solve that and there are no worries while you’re away.
    Generators on the other hand are extremely complex. The automated ones that you wire in directly also have to break off the circuit to the power grid before they turn on, otherwise you risk electrocuting the guy on the pole doing the repairs. Then the fuel supply has to be relatively infinite unless you can make it from Montreal before the gas tank runs dry. Finally if you look at load ratings, a generator big enough to run the whole house like normal is pretty large -in the neighbourhood of Grahams 8000 watts. Pricing out the actual unit along with certified and inspected installation etc is really expensive. Add in the maintenance and I wouldn’t get near it. Not for the remote possibility of preparing for an event that has happened exactly once in our lifetime. Insurance and candles are (tens) of thousands cheaper.

    • Oh you and your convincingness!

      But I would hate to lose a freezer or two’s worth of food; I hope that at the Manse I will be able to store the many containers of Katherine’s Famous Homemade Chicken Stock and Beef Stock and Fish Stock and other things that I like to make in bulk, not to mention lots of Ray’s Famous Spaghetti Sauce. It would be awful to have to toss a whole bunch of that lovingly made stuff because of a power outage. Still, perhaps not $10,000 worth of awful.

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