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Renovation & Design

Installing backup generator may be a wise choice

Question: I have seen back-up generators installed, on shows like This Old House, for hurricane prone areas, and see company advertisements here. In our climate, and with weather extremes, is this a concern here and what might the steps be to determine critical draw, and therefore appropriate size of a unit for a winter event?

Any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks, James.

Answer: Installation of back-up generators in homes may be a very good idea, in case of a temporary power outage. This is largely dependent on where you live and how prone your home is to weather or disaster related events.

Putting in a temporary electrical generator is quite a common feature in many areas of the world, due to the possibility of a breakdown in supply from the local electric utility. These gasoline or diesel fueled units are typically set up to provide a minimum amount of electrical current to the property, to power only essential components. In colder climates like ours running power to the furnace, in many cases just to run the blower and electronics, may be critical in the frigid winters. This will ensure that enough heat can be constantly circulated to prevent frozen water pipes and for the safety of the occupants. This may be even more essential for snowbirds, who vacate their homes for warmer climates, in the coldest months of the year. If the power supply fails in that situation, with nobody in the home to notice, frozen pipes and fixtures is almost a certainty. That will not only do damage to the plumbing system, but could cause a catastrophic flood should the swollen, damaged pipes thaw before the homeowner’s return.

One main consideration for spending the time and money on installation of an emergency generator is the likelihood of power outages due to extreme weather events. These events are definitely becoming more of a serious threat in many areas, due to climate change. In the last decade, we have witnessed unprecedented weather-related disasters all around the world. Just this past year we have seen drought-related wild fires, followed by record rains and flooding in British Columbia and the west coast of the United States. Also, severe summer-like storms with deadly tornados, in December, in parts of the middle and southern portions of the U.S. All of these temporary events have caused some form or power utility outage and ultimately major property damage, even loss of lives. Back-up generators may not have helped in some of these cases, but could have prevented major property damage in many other situations.

Another major factor to weigh in your decision is the reliability of the current utility in your area. If your home is in a rural or semi-rural area, away from a large urban centre, the chances of temporary power outages are greater. Also, the chances for quick repairs to damaged power lines and other utility components after a major failure is much more unlikely. If you are often away from your home for large portions of the day, or for several days at a time, the requirement for a back-up system is higher. In our area, the public utility, Manitoba Hydro, is very reliable and typically quite quick in repairing any damaged infrastructure.

One reason for the reliability of our system is the fact that more than half of our total Provincial population lives in and around Winnipeg. This allows for an excellent concentration of major Hydro resources within an hour of the majority of homes. So, when a damaging summer thunderstorm occurs, repair personnel and equipment can be quickly deployed to limit any power outages. The downside to this is that remote areas, especially in the northern half of the Province, may have proportionately limited resources should a major problem occur. For this reason, the majority of the homes with emergency power generation systems are often in smaller towns and rural areas more prone to prolonged, weather-related power shortages.

In our area, which is essentially a prehistoric lake bottom topography, we are highly prone to spring flooding. What effects climate change will have on the frequency of these floods is unknown, but larger, more frequent occurrences are not out of the question. Because of this, flood protection for our largest urban centres, and some smaller communities, has been enhanced in the last couple of decades. Regardless, in the last major “Flood of the Century” two of the critical shortages were generators and water pumps. Flooded, rural property owners who had enough of these systems, along with properly built dyke systems, were most of the ones who saves their homes from catastrophe. So, if your home is not located in a flood-protected community, or is in an area prone to spring issues, more the reason to install the back-up power generation system.

Determining the size and type of generator required for your home and property should be left up to professionals, trained to evaluate and install such a system. Many licensed electrical contractors, especially those working in smaller communities, should be able to answer those questions. They should also be hired to do the actual work, to ensure it will work properly during an emergency event, and to make sure it is safe. Proper permits will be required, followed by inspection by the municipality or Hydro, to double-check that your new safety back-up generator is installed by the book and ready when needed.

Installation of a good back-up generator for use in electrical utility power outages, especially during weather-related events, is a wise choice depending on where you live. If your home is in an area known for frequent flooding, severe summer storms, or far from urban infrastructure, the investment in a professionally installed system may be well worth the cost.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and a Registered Home Inspector (RHI)(cahpi.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

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