On the House: Hurricane generates power talk

Posted: September 18, 2011

Except for the fact that I drove 600 miles overnight from a camping trip in Maine to South Jersey to avoid wind and rain, Hurricane Irene's effect on me amounted to 45 minutes of gathering twigs from my lawn on a Sunday afternoon.

My neighbors also seemed to have fared better than they had two weeks earlier, when we were nearly drowned by several inches of rain over the same number of days.

(And who knew we'd have still more deluges after Labor Day?)

Since I don't watch TV news, national or local, I had little inkling of what was going on that weekend north or south of me until a Facebook post a few days later by my sister-in-law Liz, who lives in a small northern Connecticut town.

She was "thinking of how much I appreciate the lack of light pollution, allowing [husband] Mike and I to see every star in the Milky Way. ..."

The reason: No power from Sunday through the following Thursday.

Electricity was restored in time for a birthday party at her house the weekend after, but relatives from Virginia, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, and North Jersey all had similar stories to tell of outages and detours away from flooded roads.

Every story, except Uncle Neal's, had something to do with generators. His was about talking with Colorado-based utility workers restoring power in Queens, N.Y., and asking them if they still had snow in the summer.

Neal, who is in his mid-80s, skis most of the winter. He was disappointed there was no snow available now.

I was surprised how many of the others borrowed generators from those who still had power, and by how many now planned to buy a generator. Even I'm looking into buying one large enough to keep our sump pump operating during a prolonged power outage.

What impressed me more was the level of cooperation among neighbors. One cousin, in Cranford, N.J., had borrowed a generator from his brother-in-law that had failed after about a day. He said his neighbors on either side offered to hook him to their portable generators while he bought another, or had the balky one repaired.

Power restored, cousin Jeff was listing everything he'd found on the Internet about whole-house generators, and considering whether the expense - he was saying $3,000 to $5,000 - would be worth it in the long run.

Stationary, outside-mounted generators are a growing alternative, since they run on propane or natural gas and supply more power. My brother-in-law in Virginia acquired one for $800 in advance of Irene. He hadn't needed it, so he returned it, but was reconsidering that move.

An interesting part of the conversations was what the generators had been used for.

Sump pumps were at the top of the list in New Jersey.

There are sump pumps with battery backups. From what I've seen, they can run for 71/2 to 12 hours continuously and cost $300 to $500, but you need to do your own research. Manufacturers include Watchdog, Zoeller, Little Giant, Wayne, and Drytrol.

You're out of luck if the power is off for more than half a day. That's where a generator comes in.

Obviously, lights, refrigerators, and electric stoves are on the list of things a generator will power. If you have well water, hooking up the pump for showers and toilet-flushing is a smart choice.

Central air in late summer appears to be a lower priority than heat in the winter. Jeff was appalled, however, that one neighbor plugged in a TV when he hooked into the shared generator.

My sister-in-law Ally and her family roughed it for five days. Power was restored at 3:50 a.m. Sept. 2.

"After the house lit up like a Christmas tree, all [her husband] Terry could say was, 'Ally, could you turn off the light?' "

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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