The Must-Have Appliance for a Changing Planet

November 28, 2012

About 10 years ago, we had an exceptional winter ice storm, followed by an enormous mass of deadly cold arctic air that shut off power throughout much of the state for several days. When it happened, no one could be sure if the power would be off for hours, days or longer. With 2 kids at home, water in the pipes, and food in the fridge, I needed to some up with some kind of emergency power supply.

When I got to my nearby hardware store, there was a line of worried guys like myself, looking for generators.  I’ll never forget the faint smell of real fear among the group as they were told that the generators were sold out, and no guarantees for when more would be available.  Not available? To hear that in this community had kind of a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” feel.

Here’s where it pays to know your hardware guy.  The manager tipped me when another truck would be in, possibly with more units.  I managed to snag one, and with some creatively cobbled cable, road out the cold wave with minimal losses.  I still have the thing in my garage, but I’ll have to take it in to get serviced before winter sets in – if you don’t  run it on a regular basis, it gets gummed up and almost impossible to start.

I must have missed the moment in succeeding years when emergency home generators became a must-have consumer appliance for the suburban home. Was it economic disaster, climate change, or hurricane Sandy that pushed this ad into my youtube stream?

Anyway, good news. The friendly folks at Kohler now have the solution to an unfriendly new weather regime.

With any luck, in coming decades they’ll perfect the Star Trek replicator to produce food and water, as well.

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15 Responses to “The Must-Have Appliance for a Changing Planet”

  1. witsendnj Says:

    Right. The power didn’t used to go out so frequently, or for such long periods of time. Now, everyone but me in my neighborhood has a generator. I had to throw out all the food in the fridge and freezer after losing power for over two weeks following the Sandy Storm.

    We all missed the moment when emergency home generators became a must-have consumer appliance, which was right around the moment we missed that we stopped thinking of trees as solid as rocks and instantly got used to the idea that they fall over regularly on people, cars and houses. When I was growing up, you NEVER heard of a tree falling over unless it was hit by lightening.

    And no, it’s not because they’re not getting old! Most species are meant to live for centuries, and trees of all ages fell over. (I, however, am getting old).

    During Sandy, aside from the surge along the coast, the deaths and lost power were all due to falling trees – 118,000 fell in New Jersey where I live. And why? It wasn’t that windy – all my gardening supplies and lawn furniture left outside didn’t move an inch, and yet four huge trees fell on my driveway, and countless others out in the woods.

    Just looking at news stories and reader uploads, it was perfectly obvious that the fallen trees were already rotting inside.

    Photos here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/11/what-happened-to-power.html

  2. MorinMoss Says:

    And the Kohler “solution” requires fossil fuels.
    Just the ticket for a “changing world”.

    *deep sigh*

    • NevenA Says:

      How many people are living in that blue house? 25?

      And isn’t it great for that family that they can keep dancing with all their lights turned on?

      That Kohler thing looks like overkill to me.

      *another deep sigh*


  3. My speculation, but maybe governments and utilities, in their efforts to save money in the short term, are running down the quality of electricity infrastructure and its support, making it easier to for the power grid to break and more difficult to fix it.

    To me it is more than asking people to have backup generators. You look at public information on emergency preparedness and they are recommending that people have almost a parallel household, so we can be ready to go camping in our own homes for extended periods, at any time.

    Could natural disasters (other than earthquakes) be getting worse, and governments’ ability to deal with them falling further behind? Whenever something goes wrong, you can almost smell the cost cutting.

  4. alexsisxela Says:

    The ideal investment for when there isn’t a catfish within 130 light years

  5. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    My huge Black Jack tree lost a VERY heavy arm years ago during an ice storm..It tore my deck up..I refuse to cut it down,so I have been religiously watering her during these sever droughts in Okla..That tree really cools things down in the summer.I had better get a generator,altho electric cars could be used to keep the freezer going…


  6. Guys, I hate to be Mr. Irony (and Mr. Preachy) here, but we are talking about how to keep using fossil fuels when our mainline supply of fossil fuels goes out on a blog about climate change.

    The problem has a source – and it’s our insistence on powering every aspect of our lives. Buy some candles, get a wood heater as a backup, do an energy audit on your home and seal up every leak, get a window solar air heater, get a couple of (rather cheap now) solar panels and connect it to a battery (then connect that to a fridge or freezer), better yet build a root cellar, learn other natural means of keeping food cool (http://www.provident-living-today.com/Alternative-Refrigeration.html), and learn how to use a LOT less electricity as a matter of standard practice.

    Do these things and the electricity going out will be nothing more than a chance to snuggle with your family by a fire and read them stories.

    The problem we face with climate change and dwindling resources is cemented in place BECAUSE the culture insists we continuously maximize our energy use. We have to keep powering those iPads (that replaced books and board games), after all. We’ll never best the EROEI of fossil fuels (at least in our lifetime) on the widescale basis we have now, and yet we can’t continue to use them at the pace we’ve been using them. The math on this is simple – we HAVE to figure out how to use less energy.

    Someone has to set an example. It might as well be those who care about the issue.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Perhaps it’s time for the Passivhaus standard to become widespread?
      I’m no expert on building standards so if anyone can explain why this isn’t something that should be pursued, I’d be grateful.

      • rayduray Says:

        Morin,

        Re: “I’m no expert on building standards so if anyone can explain why this isn’t something that should be pursued, ”

        I speak of my experience in the U.S.A. Up until 1998 I maintained credentials as an ICBO certified Building, Mechanical, Plumbing and Electrical Inspector. I sat on a code writing committee in a small U.S. city for a brief period.

        The general reason that something like “Passivhaus” will not become code-mandated in the U.S. is because no lobbyists are advocating for such a solution. Throughout the 1990s what I saw coming into the code as new regulations or interpretations-of-regulations (IORs) were by and large driven by the profit interests of the corporations. Advocates for “Public Citizen” type solutions rarely if ever got traction in the code writing process because of an unwillingness to pay bribes, and a whole lot of representatives of industry who had far fewer scruples that the do-gooder crowd.

        There is no effective advocacy in the U.S. any longer for general welfare provisions in things like the ICBO codes. Everything is being driven by special interests. I frankly do not see any avenue by which can be turned around any time soon. Frankly, America is falling apart. That’s why we even advocate $6,000 generator solutions for the individual when it would be a lot cheaper to harden the existing electrical grid. But there is no will for community solutions today. Everything has been reduced to “what’s in it for me” as an atomized individual. Americans are profoundly idiotic in this regard. It was barely a century ago we ceased to engage in community barn-raisings. Now that the barns are falling down, good luck even knowing who your neighbor is. http://photos.oregonlive.com/photo-essay/2012/11/oregon_coast_storm_november_19.html

        • jimbills Says:

          Okay, I created this account. I’m going to stop using the Twitter account, which I only created for here, anyway.

          Good insights on codes, Ray. My strong suspicion has been that many building codes the last 50+ years have been corporate-driven (meaning, some may protect the individual and the general welfare, but many are meant primarily to increase profits to vested interests by mandating the public uses particular products or services).

          On passive housing, MorinMoss, the U.S. did think about such things in the 1970’s. I bought a book a while back called ‘Solar Dwelling Design Concepts’. It was published in 1977 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. All the concepts for passive housing are there (and it’s great, too, because it writes about the passive housing types best suited for each region). We’ve known about the issue a long time.

          Sadly, I have to agree with Ray – there simply wasn’t money in passive housing. Why have people provide most of their heating and cooling needs for free when they can be provided with electricity for AC and heat (or natural gas)? So the nation as a whole pursued the path of building huge swaths of massive and rather flimsy housing with no thought to solar gain (ensuring they needed power almost all the time).

          This is what comes of a culture that values money over anything else. Such a culture automatically thinks the solution to a problem caused by the love of money is to just apply more money.

          • rayduray Says:

            Welcome to the zoo, jimbills,

            Who are you billing by the way? Sounds lucrative. Maybe I should get into the racket. (wink)

            OK, more seriously, you state: “I bought a book a while back called ‘Solar Dwelling Design Concepts’. It was published in 1977 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. All the concepts for passive housing are there…”

            You remind me of a painful memory for a masonry contractor I met on a job in about 1978. His task was to build a passive heating trombe wall into a new residence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trombe_wall He completed the wall with terrific speed and cackled a bit about how easy it was to make a lot of quick cash off such a business. The city building code called for the wall to be completely grouted. The contractor was in such a hurry that he left a couple of voids as he was erecting the brick courses. He thought nothing of it. When it came time for the inspection of the wall the inspector insisted on doing a drill test to check for voids. The first penetration and he found a void. So, he drilled a second penetration with the same result. A void. And the third time? Again a void. At which time the inspector failed the wall and the contractor was forced to tear it down and do it over. I watched as the masonry contractor stewed in his own juices as he was tearing down the wall. The most profound irony was that the inspector had literally found the only three serious voids in the whole wall which was 97% properly grouted. To this day I think about that inspector and how I might get a hold of such a remarkable guesser before every big Powerball lottery event.

  7. leptoquark Says:

    During Hurricane Sandy, I attached a power inverter to my Nissan Leaf electric car, so I could run appliances, specifically the refrigerator, should we loose power. I had been planning this since the surprise derecho in June that had us without power for three days, in hot muggy weather. It’s not going to run the whole house, but for critical appliances, like the fridge, and coffee maker, it’s great. I tested it before the storm hit, and it worked great. It allows me to run the fridge for about 3.5 days, purely off the 24 kWh traction battery of the car. You just have to make sure the car is charged, which was easy with all the warning we had for Sandy.

    It also beats a $1000 trunk-sized generator you have to refill every 12 hours. The inverter is about as big as a Kleenex box, and ran about $400 with cables and fuse. I used a pure-sine inverter. You can use modified-sine for about $100 less.

    The details are here:

    http://www.wired.com/autopia/2012/11/sandy-ev-powered-home/

    And here:

    http://evadc.org/2012/10/31/using-an-ev-to-power-a-home/


  8. What about investing in some solar PV panels and a battery pack to run the minimum required stuff for a few days? You can use it directly to cover some of you electricity bill the rest of the time.

    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/07/my-modest-solar-setup/

    Neil

  9. rayduray Says:

    As a former general and electrical contractor I found this generator issue to be fascinating. During my career, ending about 1998 I never encountered a stand-by generator except at mission critical facilities such as hospitals or an air-inflated IMAX theater I was responsible for erecting. The thought of needing a backup generator at a residence never crossed our minds. Perhaps the most daunting location I worked was Juneau, AK with lots of wind and ice storms. But essentially no one had an individual backup generator for residential locations. The utility company had diesel backup if the hydro went out and maintained line crews on standby.

    When it came to installing the wiring the backup generator demanded by the City Building Inspector for the theater, we were completely unsuccessful at locating an electrician in town who was capable of engineering the complex wiring necessary for an automatic backup system. We had to contract with an industrial oil-field specialist from Anchorage at tremendous expense.

    If you read some of the comments regarding the Kohler generator at the Amazon site: http://tinyurl.com/cxvwx4e you will get a flavor for what the difficulties are in wiring up such and automated system. Poorly written manuals, little support from Kohler and little local knowledge add up to big headaches for the one-time installer.

    Amazon quotes the unit at about $4,200 for a 14 Kw generator. I’d add another $2 K for the installation. So the homeowner is going to be out of pocket over $6 K for this measure of security. Somehow I doubt this is ever going to be a ubiquitous solution. Far better in my mind to enforce some standards on the utility companies and pay up for better infrastructure instead of an expensive bandaid.


  10. […] 2012/11/28: PSinclair: The Must-Have Appliance for a Changing Planet […]


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