Hurricanes, Rolling Blackouts and my Whole House Generator

generatorIt’s Hurricane Season in the US, a time of some concern for us in the Houston area.   Combining that with the expectation that the Texas power grid will be under strain again in these hot Texas months always leads me to one place in our backyard: our Whole House Generator.

September 16th, 2008 will be a day that lives forever in my mind as a joyous victory in every man’s quest to win approval from his wife for a totally over-the-top man-toy.  In my case, it was a Whole House Generator.

Like all good stories, the stage needs to be set.   So let us travel back in time to that fateful day in mid-September 2008, just three days after the landfall of Hurricane Ike onto the gulf coast shores near Houston.    It’s 6:00am, stifling hot in the house, and my wife is attempting to blow dry her hair in a sauna-like, semi-lit bathroom.   Extension cords snake throughout the house, connecting refrigerators, freezers, fans, a dozen or so lamps, the TV and satellite receiver (of course), and the aforementioned blow dryer all back to a small generator we use on the RV and for camping trips.   Swearing and sweating, my wife is valiantly trying to get ready for work in conditions far from ideal.

In a flash, I see my golden opportunity.   The prime situation if ever there was one.   The moment every man dreams of when trying to justify what is largely a luxury item.

“Sweetheart”, I say in an encouraging voice, “You know, if we had a whole house generator we wouldn’t even know the power has been out for three days and the air conditioner would be running.”    Then came those three little words every man longs to hear (I mean, they’re right up there with ‘I Love You’):   As she vainly tries to get the right wave in her hair in the damp, humid air, she replies, “Yes, you’re right”.

So thus began my journey to installing a Whole House Generator.

The following spring, after the “Great Generator Madness of 2008” had subsided in Houston, I called up a local generator contractor to get the process started.   I opted to go the route of a turn-key installation, where the contractor did everything from beginning to end, including working with the gas company.    A month later I was the proud owner of a 27KW whole house generator.   It was connected to the gas service for the house so never needed refilling.  It automatically turned itself on when the power went out.  It ran absolutely everything in the house.  It even turned itself off when the power went back on.  But most importantly, it made my neighbors insanely jealous (which is generally the point of all over-the-top man-toys).

I wasn’t home the first time it came on automatically.  We were at a local charity event one evening that summer when one of our neighbors, who was also in attendance, got a text from her daughter at home.  “Power is out in the neighborhood”, she said.  “Seems a transformer blew or something.”     I stood there in disbelief.  I wanted to run home right then.  I wanted to cry.   I was not at home while my beloved Whole House Generator was lighting up my house.  I was supposed to be standing in the driveway doing a victory dance while the rest of the street remained dark.  Some victories are bittersweet.

We’ve had a few instances since then in the five years since Hurricane Ike for the generator to come on.   A few hours after a severe thunderstorm once, a half a day when they had to re-route power to the house for the new swimming pool, and a handful of short blackouts due to some failure on the grid.    One of those short blackouts lasted a couple hours right during the time we get ready for work, and it was undeniably great to just go about our business like nothing had happened.  And I’ll admit to grinning like an idiot as I pulled out of my driveway and admired my well-lit house glowing like an island in the darkness of our section of the neighborhood.

Would I do it all again?   In a heartbeat.   The whole shebang cost as much as a decent, late-model “pre-owned” car.   I drop a few hundred each year for a maintenance contract to ensure it does what it’s supposed to do.   But the whole thing can be summed up as an enormous serving of “peace of mind”.    We decided not to leave during Hurricane Ike (a decision I don’t think I’ll make again),  but regardless of whether we stay or leave, knowing that we will have automatic, continuous power for the entire house is hard to measure in dollars.    Aside from the exorbitant amount it initially cost, I’ve calculated that it only costs about $60 to run it for a full 24 hours.   You can’t even stay in decent motel for that.

And while I’ve not gotten over my euphoria when my home is the only thing lighting up the night on our street after the grid has failed us, I have become extremely benevolent and purchased a monster extension cable to run from my house to my next door neighbor.    And I only charge him the going electricity rate.

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