Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Keeping the Lights On & the House Warm

The recent devastating ice storms in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri brought back memories of our brush with ice during early spring last year. While for the most part most of us in western Hamilton County and eastern Indiana were spared long outages of our electric service, I remember some in Clermont County that were without power for many days.

Today’s modern houses rely heavily on electrical power. Lighting, cooking, heat and air conditioning all depend on our ability to connect to and stay connected to the power company’s grid. Gone are the days when you could light an oil lamp and put a few more lumps of coal in the furnace and hunker down till the lights came on.

One of the most popular features of many new homes is a stand-by power generator. The top of the line models use gasoline, diesel or natural or LP gas and can keep most of the critical systems operating if the power company system fails. They are not cheap. Even a modest 16,000 watt system will cost some $5,000 by the time you get it installed. While 16,000 watts may sound like a lot of power, it really is not if you factor in all the electrical devices in your home. From cell phone chargers to heat pumps, a modern home can take five times that amount of power under normal circumstances. So if you do decide to go the stand-by power route, you will need to ration the power to only the most critical devices like refrigerators, water pumps etc.

I have to emphasize that if you decide to install a system you will need to hire a professional electrician for this project. If you put a system in wrong you not only endanger your home and its electrical system, you can endanger other people. An improperly installed system can actually send power backwards into the electrical grid. A Duke Energy technician working to fix the outage working miles away from your home can be killed because of your mistake. This is not a DIY project!

Another caution; if you decide to purchase a small unit, using it only for lighting and perhaps a few small items, make sure that the unit is kept outside. Every year we read of the deaths of individuals or families killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. A generator running in a garage or even close to the house on the porch can give off lethal fumes that can enter the house.

I have a relatively inexpensive option for those who heat with natural or LP gas or oil. While most of us can survive without air conditioning in the summer, when the temperature drops below freezing, our homes can quickly become unlivable. You can keep your furnace running with very little electricity. A modern gas or oil furnace uses electricity to pump the oil, ignite the flame, control the thermostat and run the motor in the blower. None of these takes a lot of electrical current.

You can ask your furnace technician to wire the furnace so that is can be easily isolated from your home electrical service and plugged directly into a small generator. This should cost a few hundred bucks. You will need to have him tell you how many watts the furnace will need. Remember that the blower motor will require extra power when it starts. Once you have the number of watts required, you can purchase a generator that can handle that load and perhaps a lamp or TV. In most cases this should be in the $500 to $750 range. If the power should go out, at least you will be able to stay warm and keep the pipes from freezing.

Thanks for all the good comments during the first year of this column. My best to all for a Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday and peaceful New Year.

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