July 25th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Handy Solution for Homeowners

During the blackout, the local radio station KMOX-AM (1120) had an ad in unsurprisingly heavy rotation for a product that would have made a lot of people's lives easier during the blackout. But that's not why it caught my interest. It caught my interest because it solves a problem that's bugged me since I was a kid. I remember as a fairly young child, I must have still been in grade school, my parents discussing the possibility that we might have to evacuate the house if that particular winter-time blackout continued very long. Ice had brought down the power lines, and they were worried about how cold the house was going to get before things could be restored. I asked to have that explained to me, because I already knew that we had a diesel-fuel furnace, and couldn't figure out how the electricity being out meant that our diesel furnace wouldn't run. Being a child, I had to have it explained to me that while the diesel fuel would burn just fine, the thermostat and the fans that distributed the heat throughout the house required electricity. "So let me get this straight," I remember saying, "we lose our heat if we either run out of fuel or run out of electricity? Either one is enough to make us evacuate the house?" When it was explained to me that this was so, I pronounced it "dumb." And I still think it's dumb.

Guardian Generators was running ads through the blackout for their low-end, small- or partial-home, 7 to 13 kilowatt generators. No surprise there, lots of people were buying generators. At least four people put themselves in the hospital from carbon monoxide poisoning from stupidly using them indoors or parking them in the garage, and even in my working class neighborhood every block had at least one house with one. The Guardian generators are better than those because they're designed to be permanently-installed and have the ability to switch automatically when the power goes out. That's not the part that interested me; as cool as it is, for your average homeowner automatic switching probably isn't worth paying for. Although there is something to be said for having it permanently installed and wired into the house wiring system in advance, because that simplifies the job of deciding which outlets in the home get power during a blackout -- and ensures that they get it in a safe manner, with wiring that is up to the Uniform Electrical Code standards for safety and that was (most importantly) installed not under pressure, while the lights were still on. But even that wasn't the feature that interested me the most.

The feature that interests me the most is that the Guardian series of generators have no fuel tanks. They run directly off of your house's natural gas line. Use propane? You can plumb it directly to your LPG tank, instead, and it runs just fine off of that, too. This finally solves the problem that bugged me so much as a grade schooler. If the natural gas goes out, you plug in electric space heaters. Admittedly cooking and hot water become problems, but the house remains safe and comfortable even in the dead of winter. If the electric goes out, the generator kicks in automatically and your furnace, air conditioner, kitchen and all its appliances, and the lights and small appliances in a couple of more rooms all operate normally; at most you lose power to, say, a bedroom or two. This means that for a disaster to force an evacuation, it would have to wipe out both the gas and the electricity at the same time -- something that has never happened to any building I've been living in over my 46 year life, something unlikely to happen this side of the New Madrid Earthquake. (And when the New Madrid fault goes off, St. Louisans will have bigger problems than running their air conditioners. And if it happens in the dead of winter, we'll presumably heat our lean-tos and tent cities by burning the ubiquitous debris.)

Checking out the brochures on their website, I see that even their cheapest one, the 7.5kW one that they were just advertising nationally at $1,888.00, is smart enough to turn itself on automatically on low once a week to self-test and to keep the starter battery charged. This looks like a very sweet piece of engineering. If I were still a home-owner in the St. Louis area, I'd budget one of these into my home improvement budget right now, the first time I heard about it.