Power To The People: Without Interuption!

Earlier this evening Leo Laporte of TWiT fame tweeted the following:

Power is out in Petaluma. TWiT Live is down until it returns but no ETA. Thank goodness for the iPad 3G. http://j.mp/dt8Oii

I must admit that I am surprised and a little shocked that such an incident would take TWiT Cottage off-line. Leo Laporte is unusual amongst the online media community. His TWiT related endeavors are an unparalleled success. His transformation from traditional to online media is the stuff of future textbooks.

An enterprise such as TWiT should not be taken down by something so simple as a power outage when standby generators are sold at every Lowe’s and Home Depot across the country.

I come to this conclusion in the wake of Hurricane Ike, which left us here in Houston without grid power for over ten days. The morning after the storm passed we had minimal electrical power provided by an extension cord run from a neighbors portable generator.

It happens that our DSL circuit was still up, but the Comcast internet service was to be down for over three weeks. I was thankful for redundant sources of IP connectivity.

With the DSL still working and minimal power we still had refrigeration, lights and laptops running. Our entire network and IP phone system was up and running. In short…we were functional.

Our neighbor to the north had a 8 kw gas powered generator. It burned about 15 gallons of gas per day under 50% load. You’d be surprised how much power 8 kw actually is. It ran both of our households handily.

We used the time off presented by the storm to take a complete electrical inventory. From this we know that our entire household, including a 4 ton central air conditioner, will run on a 14 kw standby generator. This sort of thing is available for around $4500 for the hardware. Figure just under $10k installed with the requisite new service panel.

Of course, if you don’t need to run air conditioning you can get by with a lot smaller generator. We have all gas appliances which helps as well. In truth, the 8 kw portable generator was quite enough as long as the weather was not too hot. Its one great disadvantage was that it was seriously noisy. In fact, the sound of generators filled our neighborhood for weeks after Ike.

In contrast, natural gas fired standby generators make very little noise at all. When installed with an automatic transfer switch they fire up on their own when there’s a loss of grid power. As long as you have some modest UPS units to handle the bump when the switch happens you need not even notice that power was lost.

Better yet, based on my best estimates at the time of Ike, a natural gas fired generator would have only cost $400/week to run. That’s considerably less than running a noisy gasoline powered portable generator of lesser capabilities. At least here in Hurricane Alley the investment in the standby generator is added right to the bottom-line value of the home.

Whereas I and many such as myself might claim to be home office dwellers, TWiT is something more. Substantially more.

For an operation such as TWiT I would have thought that standby power would be a sensible precaution to have in place. If you’re serious about working from home, and you live somewhere where power is a variable, it’s certainly worth considering.

  • Zach

    Nice post – I agree… but I think you are mistaken about natural gas burning generators being any quieter by default – the engines are basically the same thing. My guess is that the loudness of a generator is determined by the design of the exhaust system, not by what is being burned…

    Z

    • Your are correct, it’s not the fuel but the design. Household standby generators are designed for fixed installation and have more sophisticated exhaust systems. The Generac unit that I plan to install sounds about like a Honda Civic idling in th driveway. In fact, some actually run 4 cylinder Honda engines!

      I was surprised to find that natural gas supplies are generally constant throughout Hurricane Alley, even during big storms, making it an effective choice as a fuel. Although some generators can be ordered dual-fuel capable.

  • Jason Wertenberger

    Interesting read. This is a subject I haven’t put a lot of thought into being in an area that experiences little by way of natural disaster.
    By the way, the site works well with the Android default browser.

    • Natural disaster is just on motivation for a standby generator. An unreliable electrical utility is another. We lose power briefly a few time a month, making a UPS mandatory. I also know from experience that my UPS run-time is about 45 minutes. Beyond that a standby generator would be required.

      Glad the site works on your phone. I actually removed the iPhone/Android/Blackberry sensing plug-in a while back as it was causing issues.

  • Odd, yes. I would imagine that this will be changed very soon and perhaps there will be a new sponsor of the TWIT network, as well? IIRC, there is one or more T1 lines to the cottage so the actual Internet access might not have been down. I guess power outage is one of those things that, if it doesn’t happen for a few years, you never think about.

  • With critical apps, such as hosted voip, the BEST way is geographical redundancy. This allows you to survive power and other physical issues (fire, explosion, etc). Of course, it’s also expensive…

    • That’s fine for servers where you have them located at a hosting site. I would not have expected TWiT to have a second TWiT Cottage as a hot spare.

      FWIW, most TV and radio stations are on UPS and generator power. Here in Houston they also have “bug-out” plans that kick in if they can’t stay in their building during a major storm. That usually involves moving key staff to other facilities, perhaps in Dallas, Austin or Brenham TX. They would operate from those facilities until it was possible to return.

      We saw this happen with New Orleans broadcasters during Hurricane Katrina. They all moved to Baton Rouge for a couple of months, operating out of lesser facilities like the State University Media School.

  • Standby generators (whether gasoline, diesel, or natural gas) definitely come in different noise grades — it all just depends on how well the enclosure and the hot gas muffler are designed (quieter generally equals larger and more expensive). On larger units, the radiator cooling fan moves a heck of a lot of air and can be just as noisy as the engine, so the fresh air intake and radiator air discharge require deep banks of sound attenuating baffles.

    After 9/11, loads of buildings and businesses here in NYC (especially in the financial district) started beefing up their disaster infrastructure, including adding standby generation capacity — lots of 1000-2000 kW diesel packages. During the blackout of 2003, lower manhattan had a continuous diesel roar you wouldn’t believe. It was like walking around a truck stop parking lot.

    NY does have a very strict noise code, and although emergency conditions like blackouts are often considered exempt, large generators must be “exercised” once a month or so to stay functional, and such scheduled testing must comply.

    So take note — Houston has a noise ordinance too!
    http://www.nonoise.org/lawlib/cities/houston.htm

    • Yep, noise is a concern. In making a hardware selection on such a project a smart shopper will certainly take that into account. The residential standby generators that I’ve actually seen are in the 10-30 kw range and can be reasonably quiet. The Generac Guardian that I would like measures 63-66 db @ 23′ under load with a stock exhaust.

      Portable generators, with few exceptions are very loud. Only the very smallest of them, particularly those from Honda, could be considered quieter.

      • In that case, make sure you install it at least that far (23′) from your neighbors if you can — farther if it is going to be near sound-reflecting surfaces such as your house — and do any exercising during the daytime.

        To be honest, I grew up in Houston (itself not exactly a shining example of zoning regulation), and have never heard of the noise ordinance being directly enforced. Still, all it takes is one irritated neighbor with a lawyer to dig up what rules may happen to be on the books.

        • Compared to the lawn services that frequent the neighborhood with gas powered leaf blowers the Generac unit is dead silent. Actually, the Guardian models have a very low power test mode that they invoke once a week. You can barely hear them running. Since Ike we’ve seen about 20 of these installed around the area where we routinely walk our dog, so we’ve had some first hand experience with them.

          I also Googled a bit and found a number of exhaust modifcations offered for noisier units. It seems that anything can be hushed if you really wanted. Perhaps at a price.

          As a full-time home office dweller I’d like to have NC30 hereabouts, just like an old school studio. But that just ain’t in the cards.

          I expect that in another post-hurricane period we’d be the ones complaining about noise from everyone else’s portable generators. I just need to come up with the $10k to get it done. I don’t have sponsors like Leo Laporte.

  • Greg

    After Ike, I put together a relatively cheap solar charging system that would allow me to run a fridge, tv, a couple lamps and fans for approximately 5 days (assuming those days are sunny). I spent 600 dollars on the equipment and decided to go with solar over a gasoline powered generator due to fuel availability after a hurricane. If necessary, the system can be easily upgraded by purchasing additional panels (~$250 each) that would essentially double my power. I am hoping I never have to test out the system.

  • @Greg, I’d love to gere about a solar system for $600 that would run the fridge and a few small appliances.

    • Greg

      Absolutely. Its a rather simple rig only intended to power the bare essentials during an extended power outage.

      5 Amp Solar Panel – $250
      92 Amp Marine Cycle Battery – $150
      Charger – $50
      Inverter – $100
      Misc. connectors and brackets – $50

      In Houston, you get about 5 peak hours of charging per day (or so the theory goes), which allows the Solar Panel to produce roughly 25 Amps/day.

      Take an inventory of your necessary devices… I used a kill a watt over a period of a week to determine their usage… my list above consumes about 30 Amps/day

      Add in a “loss factor” of about 20% (DC-AC conversion) and I require 36 Amps/day

      Starting with a fully charged battery, I have 92Amps on day 1… minus 36 for usage… plus 25 for charging, at the end of day 1, I have 81 Amps left… day 2 I have 70… you get the idea… at the end of day 5, I will have 37 Amps left… thats about as low as you want to take the battery if you want to be able to bring it back to life later… you could always start using your cars as generators to charge the battery if absolutely required to keep the fridge cool…

  • With comment trails like this yer makin me think that I should install a forum. Then I’d never get any work done 😉

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