The word “gridlock” has a whole new meaning these days, with the U.S. power grid serving a growing number of homes. Increased demand combined with power outages caused by severe weather have increased momentum in the whole-house standby power market. “Ten years ago, this market was nonexistent. But prices have come down and availability has increased, so it's growing on the side of retrofits and renovations,” says Jon Wehrli, product line manager for Eaton Electric in Pittsburgh.
Replacing dangerous and inconvenient gas generators, more homeowners are opting to have air conditioner-sized standby systems linked directly into their homes' power supplies. Installation usually requires a plumber to handle the liquid propane or natural gas fuel lines, as well as an electrician for the wiring. Once installed, the utility contact will switch off in the event of a power outage and signal the generator to kick on and send electricity back into the home within about 60 seconds.
In terms of living up to their billing as “whole-house” power sources, manufacturers say standby generators can allow homes to run on all cylinders if the right size system is installed. Wehrli says that sales of Eaton's largest generator (75 kw) have been strong.
Similarly, Guardian's new 16 kw generator is becoming its most popular model. “This size system will have 16 circuits of protection and a number of homes won't have that many circuits to back up,” says Dan Giampetroni, senior marketing manager at Guardian in Waukesha, Wis. He says homeowners will generally want to back up kitchens, HVACs, living rooms, bathrooms, and sump pumps.
With systems that start as small as 7 kw, generators can cost less than $2,000 to upward of $10,000. One higher-priced system comes from Washington, D.C.–based GridPoint, but it offers more than standard backup power. “GridPoint is an alternative to traditional generators that helps users cut their energy bills and more easily manage their energy use,” says Peter Corsell, president and CEO of GridPoint. Installed between the home's electric meter and circuit panel, Grid-Point systems store energy in batteries and monitor utility use. When the system identifies opportunities that using stored energy is more efficient than the primary energy source, it switches over. Like other standby systems, it also backs up the home's critical loads during outages, but uses stored energy rather than fuel. Renewable energy sources like solar power also can be integrated into the system.
At $10,000, Grid-Point is a big investment, Corsell says, but can save homeowners 20% to 30% on their energy bills. Likewise, manufacturers say fuel-operated generators save customers from the costs associated with power outages in an increasingly plugged-in world.