Preparing for Power Outages…Remember the PSPS?

As we all adjusted to life in the face of a shelter-in-place order from the coronavirus outbreak, it got me thinking about other disruptions. Usually, we cannot know the exact nature of upcoming disasters, but typically, we know enough to plan for the kinds of interruptions they can pose.

The last time my life was interrupted by a disaster of sorts was the during the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), when PG&E turned off power for days, spoiling food, darkening homes and offices, and making electronic communication all but impossible. Knowing we’re likely to lose power each fire season for the foreseeable future, my knee-jerk reaction was to order a generator, not a buy-it-at-Costco-and-drive-it-home-in-my-pickup generator, but a whole-house generator, one that will power everything except my air conditioner.

A generator like this is big and heavy. It requires a substantial fuel source (in my case, propane), a concrete pad for the generator and another for the fuel source, plumbing for the propane, electrical wiring to connect the generator to the electrical panel, and a professionally installed cut-over so that as soon as PG&E stops delivering electricity, the generator automatically takes over.

Several years ago, I had an office in a part of town where electricity went out a few times a year for short bursts. As you can imagine, that’s bad for business, so I had a generator installed. It wasn’t quite as fancy as the one I just bought for my home; it required a manual start. Sadly, all my brilliant planning was for naught because when it came time to start it, it didn’t work. So, a word to the wise, if you get a generator, test it and confirm you have enough fuel monthly.

Speaking of fuel, you have a few choices when it comes to powering a generator. If you live within the Ukiah city limits or in other select locations around Mendocino County, you can opt for natural gas. This is the most convenient and least expensive way to go. You simply add another appliance (the generator) to your natural gas service.

However, for many of us, that’s not an option, which leaves propane, gasoline, or diesel fuel. I chose propane. Because I plan to power my whole house with this generator, I’m having another propane tank installed. I prefer propane because it has a longer shelf life than gas and diesel fuel. And as far as safety, as long as you follow the rules (i.e., install the tank in a place with plenty of ventilation at least 10 feet from your house), you should be fine. Be aware that although propane evaporates, it is heavier than air, so if there’s a substantial leak, it can pool on the ground and that is a highly flammable gaseous puddle, so don’t go lighting any matches in the vicinity.

The cost of a whole-house generator properly installed will run between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on the size of your home and your electricity consumption. If you want to forego this whole generator business, you can install solar panels with batteries. Solar panels without batteries will lower your monthly electricity bill, but if you’re tied to the PG&E grid, when the grid goes down, you go down. You cannot switch the solar energy to power your home without batteries.

The great thing about solar is that you have no additional fuel costs. Sunshine is free. However, whole-house batteries are expensive and they become less efficient over time. The cost of a solar installation depends on the type and size of installation but can easily run twice as expensive as a generator. Be aware that although people are less horrified than they once were about the aesthetics of a solar installation, the cost of installing solar panels is rarely (dare I say never?) recouped in the house’s value, should you choose to sell.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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