The home appliances that make for comfortable living — refrigerators, TVs, microwaves — could suddenly stop working this fire season if PG&E makes good on its warning of prolonged electrical shutdowns in dry, windy conditions.
What’s a business or homeowner to do?
Many are thinking about buying portable generators, said David Near, general manager at Napa Power Equipment on Jefferson Street.
For an investment of $1,000 or less, a family can keep its most basic appliances running on gasoline power, Near said. Think of this as “camping at your house,” he said.
Vendors across the Napa Valley report a heightened interest in portable generators to keep frozen meat frozen, operate Wi-Fi and charge cellphones.
Near said he bought a generator for his own Napa house after the 2014 earthquake brought home how unpredictable urban services can be in an emergency.
Going into this fire season, Near said that he and his employees have signed up to talk about generators at community disaster preparedness meetings.
“With PG&E planning to turn power off three to five times, people are thinking about generators,” he said.
Interest spiked after PG&E implemented the first-of-the-season safety outages in early June in the Lake Berryessa area, Near said. He expects it to pick up again if outages become frequent, last multiple days and affect urban areas, as the utility has warned.
People can spend thousands of dollars for a generator big enough to light up an entire house and every appliance, Near said, but first they should ask, “What do I need? What do I want?”
“If you can treat it like glorified camping at your house, you can get by with a 2,000-watt generator. It’s not all the creature comforts,” he said, but a person will have food to eat and working cell service.
Steves Hardware in St. Helena has a sign near the back the store that shows how many starting watts and running watts you’ll need to run various appliances and power tools. For example, a typical refrigerator will need about 2,000 starting watts and 1,000 watts to stay running, said Tyson Bash of Steves Hardware.
Steves carries two brands of portable, gas-powered generators: Generac and Firman. The 1,700/2,100-watt Firman costs $579.99, and the 1,600/2,200-watt Generac costs $649.99.
Steves also offers a 3,000/3,300-watt Firman ($899.99) and recently sold an even bigger Firman, as well as a 17,000-watt Generac that runs off natural gas. The store itself is equipped with one of those so that it can stay open during a power outage.
There are two ways to hook up a generator. The easy way is to plug extension cords directly into the generator. If you want to feed power into your wiring to power your electrical outlets, you’ll need to buy a transfer switch and hire an electrician to install it. That will ensure that you’re not back-feeding electricity into the grid, which could electrocute a worker who touches a line during a power outage.
Transfer switches start at about $200 and can run up to about $1,000, depending if they are manual or automatic. Hiring an electrician to install the switch is about another $1,000, said Tim Petersen, co-owner of Silverado Ace Hardware in Calistoga.
If you’re planning to plug in sensitive electronics like a cellphone or laptop, be sure your generator has an inverter to prevent power surges. If you’re running a large generator that doesn’t have an inverter, use a surge protector to protect your devices.
Other emergency supplies
If you’re looking at a generator just to keep your refrigerator running, consider alternatives like keeping a lot of mass in your freezer – which keeps the food cold longer – or putting ice bricks in your freezer, Bash of Steves’ said. That might buy you enough time to ride out a three- to five-day Public Safety Power Shutoff.
Steves also carries an insulated Yeti cooler ($349.99) that will keep food cold for four or five days. “They’re expensive but they’re worth it,” Bash said.
The end of aisle 5, which has become Steves’ emergency preparedness corner, also features lanterns, batteries, emergency candles, and high-visibility address plates to help first responders find your house.
“Think about it now and have a plan,” Near said, “so when it does happen, you’re not in a panic mode. I saw what happened after the fires. It was a madhouse. I don’t want to go through anything like that ever again.”