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Generators an increasing necessity — and nuisance — during Atlantic power outages

People line up with jerry cans to buy gasoline after post-tropical storm Fiona, in Charlottetown, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Generators are an increasing necessity and nuisance as Atlantic Canada experiences more frequent and severe storms with extended power outages. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brian McInnis

HALIFAX — Generators are becoming an increasing necessity — and nuisance — as Atlantic Canada experiences more frequent and severe storms with extended power outages.

For some, generators are life-saving machines needed to power medical equipment.

They also keep fridges cold, houses warm, smartphones charged and internet running when mobile networks fail.

"We bought a generator a week ago and it’s been worth its weight in gold with this storm," said Heather Reid of Gaetz Brook, N.S., after post-tropical storm Fiona tore through the region. 

"We're in a more rural area and it takes longer for power to come back," she said. "I was worried about food spoilage and I also just didn't want to be in a prolonged power outage with a baby."

Yet the proliferation of generators in the region has prompted electricians to warn of potential safety issues as the devices fly off store shelves.

"There’s a lot of extension cords and jury rigging going on," said John Benoit, an electrician and the owner and president of Benoit Electric in Beechville, N.S. "Some of the setups are super dangerous."

The death of a person in P.E.I. last weekend was believed to be related to generator issues. The province's emergency management co-ordinator warned Islanders not to use generators inside because of the risk of carbon monoxide.

Improper generator use can also allow power to back-feed to the grid, putting power line technicians at risk. 

For gas-operated standby generators, homeowners who don't use natural gas should have propane tanks filled ahead of a storm, he said.

People using gasoline-powered portable generators should buy enough to last several days to avoid long lineups at gas stations. 

"Some lines are a mile long. People are running out of gas to get gas."

Meanwhile, a surge in generator use, especially in more densely populated urban areas, has also sparked conversations about generator etiquette.

Some say the loud, inescapable hum of a neighbour's generator brings on headaches in the day and insomnia at night.

"People are in panic mode and buying these huge 15-kilowatt portable generators at hardware stores," Benoit said. "I call them screamers because when you start them up, you have to walk away to talk and even then you're yelling."

People should opt for a smaller, quieter gasoline-powered generator or consider having an electrician install a standby generator, said Tyler Jones, electrician and owner of Novatech Electric in Dartmouth, N.S.

"A small inverter generator like a Honda 2,000-watt would be quiet and enough to plug in essentials like your fridge with an extension cord," he said. 

Generators can also be turned off at night.

"The food in your fridge isn't going to spoil overnight and most homes can retain enough heat over eight hours."

For homeowners that want more power and to run a generator around the clock, Jones recommends hiring an electrician to install a standby generator. 

"When you start moving up to a 10,000-watt generator or more, unless you have an electrician come out ... then you really have no way to use the power that it's capable of."

Standby or backup generators are wired directly into a home, said Tami Kou, a spokeswoman for Generac Power Systems, Inc.

"Home standby generators switch on automatically in the event of a power outage, making the whole process hassle-free," she said. "There’s no need for long, bulky extension cables."

They aren't cheap. 

The cost of a standby generator and the full system setup by an electrician is about $12,000, Benoit said. 

Despite the cost, he said there's strong demand. 

"Never in the history of our province have so many generators been running automatically," said Benoit, who's worked as an electrician for more than three decades. 

"We've had 35 requests since closing yesterday until like 9 a.m. this morning for the full-blown standby generators."

Jones said he also has about 40 requests to buy generators or have them hooked up but the province is running out of supply. 

"By the time we get stock again, people are going to forget about it."

Electricians say proper generator maintenance is also critical. 

Many homeowners buy a generator during a storm, run it non-stop for a week and then neglect it until the next power outage, they say. 

"We've seen some issues were people haven’t had their maintenance done regularly or even turned their generator on for years," Benoit said. "Then they find out the generator is out of oil and the valves are seizing when their power is out."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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