Sales of backup generators surge after storms, homeowners turn to permanent power systems

Instead of again spending thousands of dollars on a hotel, Mike Addessi is putting that money into creating a hurricane refuge in his home. Addessi is buying a permanent generator as a way to make life more bearable after hurricanes. Once the power goes out, the generator will kick in and run lights and appliances in his home west of Boca Raton. “We will have so much peace of mind,” said Addessi, who took his family to a hotel across the state after Hurricane Jeanne.

It’s peace of mind hundreds across Palm Beach County are seeking. County officials are processing about 30 permit requests per week for standby generators, which cost $2,000 to $25,000. City officials, engineers and home-improvement retailers have noticed the trend, too. The reason is simple, said Fred Hammond, owner of Electric Pros in Boca Raton: “We’ve learned from the past hurricane season.”

Portable generators are more popular, but, Hammond said, he has been getting a lot of calls recently for the standby models. Some people change their minds once they hear the costs and what’s involved.

Installing a standby generator requires a county or city permit, an additional transfer switch and, depending on the unit’s size, an underground fuel tank. Typical standby systems are 7,000-12,000 watts and can be twice the size of an outdoor air conditioning compressor.

“A lot of people are still wanting to go through with it,” said Kim Scofield of The Home Depot in Delray Beach, where sales of generators have been brisk. “They’re considering it a long-term investment.”

The city of Boca Raton is processing dozens of permits for standby generators, said Jorge Camejo, development director. Prior to last year’s hurricanes, the city had few requests.

As a result, codes were changed to make generators less noticeable. Units now are restricted to side or backyards, after a resident had a 50,000-watt generator installed in his front yard, Camejo said.

Palm Beach County officials returned to the National Fire Projection Association for an opinion on sizing and load requirements after a resident west of Boynton Beach questioned their interpretation.

National fire officials agreed the county should require an automatic transfer switch that runs only some appliances and not a home’s entire electric needs, said Rebecca Caldwell, county building supervisor. The setup is an issue of safety, she said.

Officials from Florida Power & Light Co. said consumers must make sure generators are wired according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Both standby and portable generators must be in well-ventilated areas, said FPL spokesman Bill Swank.

An FPL subsidiary, FPL Energy Services, last week launched its own program to sell standby generators, spokeswoman Pat Davis said. Its models start at $5,000.

“It doesn’t make our job easier,” Davis said. “It’s strictly an offer to our customers so they can have the comfort, convenience and peace of mind of having a backup power supply.”

Personalized Power Systems, a Boca Raton company that began selling air conditioners in 1970, sold its first generator in 1998. Sales have more than quadrupled since last year’s hurricanes, owner H.J. Frank said.

Buyers of the $13,500 to $25,000 models mainly are in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, but some are farther south, Frank said.

“[For] anybody that has a house worth half a million dollars or more, it just makes economical sense,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not for everybody yet. They used to say that about air conditioners 30 years ago.”

Theodore Lerner, who bought a 15,000-watt generator from Personalized Power Systems, said he doesn’t want to live without air conditioning after another hurricane. That’s why he opted for a generator.

“I view it as a necessity in life,” said Lemer, who lives west of Boca Raton. “I was willing to pay the price.”

Picture Caption : backup: Danny Ford and George Lugo of Personalized Power Systems install a transfer switch for a 15,000-watt generator at the home of Theodore Lerner, west of Boca Raton. “I view it as a necessity in life,” said Lerner. “I was willing to pay the price.”