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Keep The Juice Flowing

Back-up power systems can help during an outage.

Last week’s power outages have some residents considering purchasing alternative power sources. Two possibilities for keeping a house powered up are generators and battery backup systems.

Generators are gas-powered engines which run outside the home. “Kind of like a lawn mower on steroids,” said Bill Hart, manager at Strosnider’s Bethesda.

While outages are still fresh in the public consciousness, sales tend to spike. “We see it as being cyclic,” said Shawn Fletcher, a manager at Strosnider’s in the Potomac Village.

Like lawnmowers, generators can be loud, but that doesn’t bother the owners. “It doesn’t really bother me because when it’s on, we need it,” said Sara Wagschal, a Persimmon Tree Road resident.

Her family’s generator operated for about 14 hours during the outages. She enjoys the measure of comfort and security that a backup power supply provides. “I know that the noise means that the refrigerator is keeping things cool and the water is pumping,” Wagschal said.

Wagschal’s husband purchased their generator after having received a brochure. “He said, ‘This is not a bad idea because we have so many outages here,’” she said.

GENERATORS CAN COST up to $7,000, but are likely a one-time purchase, since they are used relatively infrequently. “It will probably last a lifetime,” said Dan Lowe, a mechanic at Strosnider’s Bethesda location who works with generators.

While Pepco does not oppose the use of generators, it does urge that customers be cautious, particularly during the installation process. “If [the customer] doesn’t have the expertise, [they should] find an electrician,” said Robert Dobkin, spokesperson for Pepco.

Since generators would most likely be used when power lines are down, and therefore being worked on by technicians, they can create a hazardous situation. “If not hooked up correctly, they could send power back into our [power] lines and endanger the lives of our linemen,” Dobkin said.

Generators can run for two to eight hours on one tank of gas, depending on the size of the generator, gas tank and number of appliances it is running. Generators can be kept running indefinitely if residents continue to refill the gas tank.

BATTERY BACKUPS are another option. “It’s like putting a big, uninterrupted power source on your house,” said Fred Banner of Banner Power Company.

Banner compared his system to a laptop computer: When it is unplugged from the wall, the computer switches immediately to its battery source. His system works in a similar fashion. “If you are watching TV in your house and the power goes out, you wouldn’t even see a flicker on your screen,” Banner said.

Potomac Resident David Slan, who has one of the systems, agrees with that assessment. “There are times that it goes on that you don’t even know it,” Slan said.

Banner’s system can be installed inside a house, an option for townhouse residents or those with other community restrictions that prohibit noisy generators.

Slan found it appealing because of the permitting requirements such as distance from the house which are required for generators. “Basically [a generator] would be in the middle of our back yard,” Slan said.

Battery systems can run as much as $15,000 and typically power a home for eight to 12 hours. In the recent outage Slan was able to power his house, running everything except the air conditioning, for the seven hours that he lost power. “We were very comfortable,” Slan said. We watched a DVD during the outage.”

Banner can also provide an optional generator to recharge the batteries in the event of a longer power outage.

IN USING either system, residents are typically better off using less power. Those who have electric heat need to be careful in the winter. Banner recommends using space heaters in lieu of trying to heat an entire house in the event of a winter outage.

He usually recommends preparing a small area of the house to run on backup power ahead of an outage.

“It’s better to have everyone in one room than a light on in every room,” he said.