Backup power generators: Necessity or ‘wonderful luxury’?

By Bob Karlovits

Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012

John Hill from the Summerset area in Squirrel Hill says the advantages of backup power generators are obvious.

“When my lights are on and everyone else’s are out, it’s easy to see the benefits,” says the owner of a backup generator that comes on automatically with any power failure.

Yet some in the electric industry say backup generators are little more than what electrical inspector Tom Waldron calls “a wonderful luxury.”

But as winter weather looms and a possibility nears of heavy snow pulling down power lines, the interest in a second source of power emerges, says Brian Fabich, assistant manager at the McCandless Lowe’s outlet.

“A couple years ago when we had that heavy snow, we were pulling in generators from anywhere we could,” he says, talking about the February 2010 storm that dropped 21.1 inches on the area. “We were taking them from stores in the South.”

Then, as in many times of stressful weather, portable generators began popping up to run refrigerators or even keep the blowers on furnaces powered. They claimed a presence in neighborhoods with their gasoline-powered chugging.

Generators at the McCandless store range from $649 for a smallish, 5-kilowatt portable unit to $4,999 for whole-house, 20-kilowatt backup units.

“At times like that, a portable generator seems essential,” says Carissa Gingras, marketing manager of the Wisconsin-based Briggs & Stratton, which makes engines for generators and other equipment.

But she contends many homeowners fail to see some of the problems with portable generators.

Mostly gasoline-fed, she says, they need to be kept 5 feet from a house so exhaust does not drift inside. That placement makes then susceptible to rain and snow. They are powered by extension lines but, even it they are heavy-duty outside cables, they also can be victimized by moisture.

Gingras suggests a permanently installed backup generator, fueled by natural gas or propane.

It is the route Hill took, but Waldron has some doubts.


Waldron sees the benefit of permanently installed backup generators, but cautions that the job probably will cost between $10,000 and $20,000 for equipment, a base to hold the air-conditioner-like unit and hookup both of the electrical connection and the lines to supply it with fuel.

“Really, do you need it?” says the head of Waldron Electric, headquartered in Pleasant Hills. “The utilities around here do a good enough job we don’t have problems.”

He admits his price is based on a higher-quality generator that he says could cost has much as $8,000 for the unit alone.

“That’s if you want good stuff,” he says. “I really don’t think that is equitable in our area.”

Hill says he paid $14,000 for the total job at his Summerset home, and has been pleased.

“It is especially good when there is trouble in the winter,” he says. “People are putting their food out in the snow to keep it cold, where it gets eaten by the deer. Not me.”

But he also admits “it is all what you are used to.” Hill says he is accustomed to the security of a generator because his father bought one for their home in 1959.

Waldron contends this area is more suitable for a upper-end portable generator connected to a transfer switch that can direct power to elements of choice, such as refrigerators, heating and cooling equipment even garage door openers.

He says a portable setup like that could cost between $4,000 and $8,000.

Joey Vallarian, a spokesman for Duquesne Light, declines comment on the wisdom of the use of generators, but advised owners to let their utilities know if they are installed.

He says utility workers could be injured by “backfeed” from generators when working on what they considered a dead line.


Even though Waldron suggests generators are largely unnecessary, he admits he likes the security of having a portable generator at his home.

When power goes out, a homeowner is likely to second-guess the decision not to buy a generator, he says.

Briggs & Stratton’s Gingras agrees, saying when generators are needed “it seems like the worst of days.”

But she still recommends a permanently mounted backup generator. She says the company’s research has shown 83 percent of homes in America would be best served by a 20-kilowatt generator.

That size moves the price of the project to the top of the scale.

But she says her company’s 13-kilowatt unit, with what is called “Symphony Technology,” is able to balance power needs by shutting down service to areas not needing electricity at a given moment.

That means a smaller unit can work for a whole house at a price of about $3,299, she says

Hill is pleased to have his and says it is used more often that Waldron might suspect. He says construction in the area, and Summerset’s high, weather-susceptible location make it prone to more outages than other areas have.

“It is nice to be lit up like a Christmas tree,” he says.