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Don't Curse the Darkness

Emergency Generators Give Peace of Mind

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, December 2014

You do not need the Weather Channel or Al Gore to tell you things are changing. I was at a backyard barbeque party in a home owners association complex just outside Kansas City when suddenly I was transported to the Indianapolis Speedway with the air filled with the sound of formula race cars starting their engines. I quickly came out of the moment when party goers recognized the power grid must have just tripped and the emergency generators were kicking on.
We Mainers think we have unusual weather and severe storms but we do not watch the skies like the folks in the prairie states. Tornado warnings and power outages are a way of life out there. And of course they are not alone these days. Super hurricanes; polar vortexes; and crushing ice storms are striking every point in the compass. How many Vermonters took hurricane warnings seriously before Sandy?

Emergency Generators

This reality is having both condo boards and property managers dealing with ever increasing inquiries from unit owners on the question of emergency generators. Many condominium facilities such as city high rises have had diesel-fueled emergency generators designed into their electrical systems with reliable transfer switches to power elevators; egress lighting; computer systems; and critical pumps to meet local codes. But even this is changing with municipalities adjusting these codes to encourage more modest condos to install these potential life saving devices. After Sandy’s destruction was analyzed, New York City passed a law allowing more cost efficient emergency generators by not having to service elevators in buildings less than 125 feet tall.
Here in Maine, boards are coping with requests by unit owners in the typical duplex - quad suburban complex to allow unit owners to install portable gasoline-fired generators to deal with the ever-increasing serious power outages as a result of an aging power grid infrastructure or nature’s weather activities. Many boards attempt to ban generator use due to concerns of safety; fire prevention; noise; and fumes. Counter arguments rise as most states have statutes advising rules can not be enforced if they are deemed ‘unconscionable’ and using an emergency generator during an actual emergency can be interpreted as such.

Policies and Options

When these types of portable generators are allowed, the association should have a written policy to provide guidance for their proper use. This would include how far to place them from flammable structures (i.e. > 10 feet); what times of day they are allowed to operate (i.e. 7 AM to 10 PM); and protocol to direct the exhaust away from nearby windows and vents. Suggestions from the local fire prevention officer should also be sought. Reminders of the dangers of carbon monoxide and the need for carbon monoxide alarms in units are important to protect all concerned.
There are much better alternatives to these portable generators. Today battery operated indoor units can be found in condo units in a variety of styles and are very compact to fit almost anywhere. They are very limited in kilo watt capacity (4 – 8 kW) but can provide some limited peace of mind to provide emergency power for medical, business, or food related equipment. There are even solar power options to recharge the batteries.
In the past, the more powerful (10-24 kW) automatic transfer emergency generators were limited to high-end single family residences. With prices dropping for these systems they have become a more acceptable option for new residential construction, especially in areas prone to power outages; isolation; or coastal storms. These generators often run on propane gas or natural gas where available. Generators can be classified as ‘emergency’ or ‘standby’. The difference is the emergency generator must start in 10 seconds while a standby generator may start in 60 seconds. Natural gas units need this extra time but are more efficient to operate.
Generators can be used for individual units or multi-unit buildings. For sites not having natural gas lines available, a 1000+ gallon propane tank is buried nearby to minimize the eye-sore factor. The generator units come in enclosures no more offensive than a heat pump compressor at the rear of the building and when operating are much less noisy than the portable generators. Maintenance is very important and the units should be programmed to self-start periodically to ensure their operation when needed.
Condo boards will need to address this issue in the future because times are indeed changing. With a wave of boomers retiring into 55+ condo communities they will want the security of interruption free power for their home business and future medical needs. Boards and facility managers should follow the scout’s motto of ‘being prepared.’ Emergency generators are similar to insurance policies, as you won’t need one till you do.