Selecting and Installing a Whole Home Generator (Podcast)

In this podcast, we talk about how to select and install a whole home generator. An increasing number of homeowners are installing whole home generators so they can continue to operate electronics and appliances during power outages. Are you ready for seamless outage coverage? Here’s what you need to consider.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher and I’m here today with Brett Rogenski, General Manager of NETR, a residential and commercial HVAC contractor in Massachusetts. Welcome, Brett.

Brett Rogenski: Hey, John. Thanks for having me.

John: Sure. And our special guest today is Jay Spanks of Green Mountain Electric Supply, the largest Generac generator distributor in the Northeast. Welcome, Jay.

Jay Spanks: Thanks, John. Glad to be here.

What Is a Whole Home Generator?

John: Sure. Yeah. So Jay, what is a whole home generator and what is that used for?

Jay: The home generator is used for when you lose power either for emergency backup or for the whole home. So whenever a home loses power due to storms, downed power lines, this keeps the power on. And you can do smaller portions of the house where it’s just the fridge and stove or you can do the actual whole home itself, which includes lighting, emergency backup lighting, pretty much everything top to bottom.

John: Okay. And how are generators rated? Is it by the amount of power that they supply?

Jay: Yes. Yeah, it goes by the amount of kilowatts that you need.

Selecting the Right Generator for Your Home

John: And so how do you determine that and select the right generator for a home? You said you can get ones that would just run the essential things like your refrigerator and then you can get other ones that will supply lights and electricity, maybe continue watching TV during a blackout or something like that. So how do you select the right size generator for a home and how does that load management play a part in operating a generator?

Jay: So you actually select your size two ways. First, you want to determine whether you want emergency circuit power or you want a complete backup system. The size system would be chosen based on the demand. So the allocation of the power can be handled in two ways. One, self-managed to an interlock in the load center or a gen trans system, and that has predetermined emergency loads. Two, you can also use an automatic transfer switch so it’ll transfer the power with an outage when an outage is detected.

Choosing the Right Size of Generator

John: And can you go into a little bit more detail about those different types and what people should be looking for and what those do?

Jay: So you really want, based on the size of your home, the amount of power that you’re consuming. If it’s a smaller square footage home, obviously you don’t need a larger kilowatt system. You can get away with a 14 or 16 KW generator. But if you have a larger home and want to have everything powered back up as soon as the power goes out, you want to go to a larger size and really maximize the load.

John: Brett, what do you guys generally see in terms of installing generators? Are you looking at these 14 to 16 kilowatt ones or are you looking at larger ones generally?

Brett: So John, that’s a great question. There’s an application for everyone and everyone’s needs are a little bit different. So we do certainly have some people who need or want to simply cover the essentials. So I want my refrigerator, my freezer, and my HVAC to be able to run during an outage. So they can usually get away with a smaller generator, maybe a 14 kilowatt generator.

We have other folks who want life to be uninterrupted so the power goes out, they want it to come back on and they want to be able to use everything from the microwave, the stove, the HVAC, the hair dryer and everything else. And that’s great. And there’s a solution for each. So it all starts out with the site survey. When we visit with the homeowner we ask a lot of specific questions about what their goals are.

And also some people have specific needs. So for instance, some people may have health issues that require things like oxygen concentrators or other things like that. So we try and identify what must you have, what would it be nice to have, and then lastly, what is it that you want? What’s your picture of this like? My experience has been that it tends to fall into two buckets. You have folks who want just those essentials, “Hey, I want my heat and hot water to work. I’d like to have some lights on and I want my fridge to run. The rest of it, I’m unlikely to be without power for days on end. I’ll figure out a way.”

 And then the other end of the spectrum is, “No, I want there to be two seconds where I have no power in my house and then I want everything to go back just like I’m connected to the grid.” So that’s what I find and certainly there’s folks in between, but those are the two most common categories for us.

Installing a Whole Home Generator

John: Okay. And how is a whole home generator installed? Do you have to get permits for that? Are there certain electrical requirements that you have to have on your electrical panel in your house in order to install a generator?

Brett: Sure, sure. Yeah. And so I’ll take them in the order that you mentioned. Yeah, permits. Yeah, you absolutely have to pull permits, appropriate permits to have that put in. If you were ever to work with a contractor who was telling you that, “Oh, and hey, we’ll do this without permits,” permits are there for your protection so that if someone from the municipality, a licensed inspector comes and inspects and verifies that the work was done in a workman white professional code meeting manner.

So permits aren’t a bad thing. They’re there for your protection as a homeowner. So yeah, typically you need an electrical permit because we’re doing some fairly significant electrical work. The next thing that you typically need is a gas permit, because we’re now typically connecting these to… Well, it’s obviously one of the two, either natural gas or propane.

So you need a gas permit pulled. And in some cases, because of where it’s put, and this is very different by municipalities, sometimes you even need a building permit, even though it’s just something that’s going on a pad near your home, it depends how far it is from property lines and stuff. Those aren’t super common, but there are some places, especially in more urban areas who do require those. So those are some of the things that you really have to see there right away is making sure that you’re working with someone who’s doing that and that they’re using licensed professionals to do it.

In the case of NETR, we use our own staff licensed electricians to do all the electrical work. So these are all Massachusetts and New Hampshire, depending on where you’re having the work done, licensed journeymen, electricians or apprentices working under that electrician. Same thing with our gas connections, we have a licensed gas fitter on staff who’s out there doing all of that, shall we call, all the gas fitting, all the plumbing work that needs to happen to supply fuel to this generator so that you have unlimited power during that outage. So two very important things there.

Powering the Generator

John: Yeah, and you brought up a good point there too that people might not think about, which is that gas connection, you said you can run these generators off of natural gas or propane. When I think of a generator, I think of getting out the gasoline tank and then filling it up with gasoline like I would my lawnmower or something like that. Jay, are all of the different types of generators that you supply run with natural gas or propane or do some of them still use that old gasoline tank?

Jay: The only one that uses the gasoline is the portable ones, but everything else is either natural gas or liquid propane. And it has the option on each unit where you can run either natural gas or liquid propane.

John: Okay. And what’s the advantage of that over the gasoline ones?

Jay: It’s a more solid unit. It’s a permanent solution as opposed to if you just have your temporary gas, because if you have gas that’s sitting there, it’s going to get dirty, it’s going to start clogging up the parts. This has free flowing lines and it keeps everything fresh.

Brett: Correct, correct.

John: Right, you don’t want to have that gasoline sitting there for a year or a year and a half or something like that before the next power outage and then you find out, oh, it won’t run because that gasoline’s too old.

Jay: Exactly.

Natural Gas Vs. Gasoline for Generators

Brett: The other thing that I’ll say, John, is the advantage of, let’s say natural gas is it’s unlimited. Okay, so you can be without power for literally almost forever. So I used to live in a very rural area and I did not have natural gas so I had a generator on my home, a portable one that was hooked up there where I would have to fill with gasoline.

And I literally used to, because I would lose power sometimes for three to five days on end, I would have to keep that full and 30 gallons in my garage of fuel, that’s a lot of fuel to have through my garage. And I had to go out there every eight hours or so, shut it down, refuel it, which is not what you want to be doing during an ice storm, a snow storm and stuff.

And especially in those days as a fairly able-bodied younger man, yeah, I could do that, but a lot of folks maybe aren’t in that situation where they can physically do that. The beauty of natural gas, propane is limited, but you can certainly attach it to a very large tank or set of tanks. With natural gas, it can just run and run and run. You could be without power for two weeks and still run your entire home on that because again, it’s essentially an unlimited supply. So big advantage there over gas.

John: Right. Absolutely.

Portable Vs. Whole Home Generators

Jay: Definitely. And also when you get the portable units, a lot of times you’ll store them inside a garage or inside of a shed. When you’re in the middle of a storm and you lose power, you’ve got to take that out for health reasons. For safety reasons, you can’t have it running indoors. So just physically it’s a lot tougher to do. Say if you have 6, 8, 12 inches of snow, and you try to drag out this 200, 300 pound unit. It becomes a little bit of a hazard, if you will. So having the permanent standby unit is definitely the way to go.

Whole Home Generator Maintenance

John: And do generators like that, the whole home generators need regular maintenance, and what’s involved in that?

Brett: Sure. So to keep your warranty intact and quite frankly it’s just good practice, they do need an annual maintenance. And in that annual maintenance it’s not a lot different than having your HVAC system maintained.

We come in, we clean it, we replace filters, we replace spark plugs if necessary, if there’s an oil change ’cause there is an engine in there that’s lubricated. So yeah, we come in and we fix or replace anything that we find. We find small issues before they get big. And then again we do that regular maintenance, get a fresh air cleaner in there, get fresh oil in there.

If your spark plug is approaching the end of life, get that replaced. And that does two things. Number one, it keeps your warranty intact with the manufacturer. It’s been serviced by a certified professional, which our teams are certified. And then the second part is, well guess what? It’s going to work when you want it to work. That’s probably even more important. It’s great to have a whole home generator and then if you don’t service it for three years and you go to use it and it doesn’t work, why do you have a whole home generator? So, it’s inexpensive maintenance done annually that pays a lot of benefits.

John: So you want to have that regularly maintained, even if it’s not being used. Like you said, you could potentially go a couple of years or a few years without having to use your generator ’cause you haven’t lost power, maybe there hasn’t been a bad storm in your area or for whatever reason your area hasn’t lost power, but you still want to have your generator maintained to make sure, like you said, so that time when the power does go out you’re able to have it run right away and not have any issues with it.

Brett: Correct.

Jay: Yeah, it’s very similar to your car. Even if you don’t drive your car a lot, you want to make sure you’re keeping up with the basic maintenance, your oil changes. The longer you do that, the more regular and consistent you are, the longer it’s going to last. Home standby generator, that’ll be on your property 20, 30 years. So you take a couple hours, I’m going to say once a year, do the updated maintenance and you’re good to go.

Brett: Yeah. Yeah. Very much like your car and changing your oil and rotating your tires. Yeah, there’s a little maintenance that’s involved to ensure that that thing is ready to serve you when you need it.

Jay: Yeah, a little bit of maintenance for a lot of peace of mind.

Brett: Yeah.

Responsibilities of Owning a Whole Home Generator

John: Is there anything that a homeowner can do themselves to keep it working? Should they be running the generator every so often to just make sure that it’s running properly?

Brett:Yeah, I would tell you part of the beauty of whole home generators is that there’s really not much that the homeowner has to do. So the whole home generators of 20 or 30 years ago, yeah, you should go out. Okay. You had to run it a certain amount to help make sure that the battery that starts it is charged and several other things. Now you don’t have to do any of that. So the system will automatically run itself and perform a diagnostic that’s usually, there’s different intervals that can be set up, but weekly or twice a month.

It does a couple things. It does its own diagnostic. It also charges the battery that then starts the generator when the power is out. And then the other thing that, and of course it lubricates the engine by running and that sort of thing as well. And then the other thing that it does is the modern generators are typically wifi connected. If there’s an issue it’s going to go tell someone about it. So it’s not a matter of you’ve got to go do something to make this happen, it’s taking care of it all on its own.

John: Yeah, it is running, but it’s occasionally in order to keep in shape, but it’s doing it on its own. You don’t have to think about it at all.

Brett: Yeah. It’s pre-programmed and what, Jay, typically every two weeks?

Jay: Yep.

Brett: Two weeks, it’ll run 20 to 30 minutes, which exercises the engine, lubricates the engine, recharges the battery and also again, it’s performing its own diagnostics to make sure that power output is correct. And if there’s an issue, again, great news is it tells someone about it.

Contact NETR to Talk About Generators Today

John: All right, well that’s really great information. Brett and Jay, thanks again for speaking with me today.

Brett: Thank you.

Jay: Thank you, John. Appreciate it.

John: And for more information you can visit the NETR website at or call 781-933-NETR. That’s 781-933-6387.