Hurricane zone's latest must-have: Your own power

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The first power outage lasted five days. So did the second one. And the third. The hurricanes that racked Florida in 2004 were a miserable experience for Andre Biewend and his family – including his 3-year-old twins at the time. They were left in a stinking, sweltering home as Mr. Biewend argued with local store owners for dry ice for the fridge.

Not anymore. Biewend, a real estate developer in this suburb of Orlando, invested $15,000 more than a year ago in a standby power generator that keeps his 5,200-square- foot home running through any outage. He likens the generator to an insurance policy – he hopes he never uses it, but now with a baby at home, too, it gives him a sense of security.

"I know that if another hurricane comes, it's life as usual," he says. On his street, seven of 16 neighbors have generators, too.

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The standby power generator, like an iPod, is the latest must-have gizmo. No, not those noisy, portable generators that require incessant refueling. Along the Gulf Coast and beyond, weather-weary Americans are investing up to tens of thousands of dollars in propane- or natural gas-run generators that automatically click on when the power is out, running major appliances – even the air conditioning.

The standby generator industry grew five-fold between 2000 and 2005 to a more than $500 million industry, according to Generac Power Systems, the nation's largest generator manufacturer. At Home Depot "it's a huge, huge market," says Bill Palmer, a buyer for the nation's largest home improvement retailer. "The growth has been something we're extremely happy with," he says, though he would not discuss sales numbers.

Once used almost exclusively by hospitals and businesses that couldn't afford to lose power, standby generators are now being snatched up by wealthy and middle-class homeowners, many of whom have endured a week or more with no power. They are popular even in the Midwest and Northeast where storms and power shortages have caused blackouts. The biggest sellers range from $2,000 to $3,000. People must also pay for the installation permits and inspection fees.

In Miami, many are buying larger models to ensure comfort after the next hurricane, says Oriol Torres Haage, chief of electrical compliance in Miami-Dade County.

In October, hurricane Wilma left millions of people, mostly in South Florida, without power for up to two weeks. A couple of years ago county inspectors rarely saw standby generators in homes. Today they inspect up to 100 a week, Mr. Hagge says.

"[People] want the Cadillac of power. They don't want to be short of any necessity – air conditioning or anything else," he says. "The numbers are outrageous."

In Houston, one in five customers asks for standby generators as part of their building plans, something seldom seen a few years ago, says Ron Gholston, president of Gold Star Custom Builders.

Predictions for another active hurricane season and lower interest rates on home equity loans are fueling demand. A recent survey by the Propane Education & Research Council found that nearly half of residents in hurricane-prone areas expect to lose power for 24 hours or more in the next six months. A quarter said they owned generators.

Most people buy generators to prevent food from spoiling, to keep the air conditioning running, and to remain on top of the news, says Brian Feehan, the council's managing director of engine fuel programs. Standby generators are less noisy and require less refueling than portable ones, which can cause carbon monoxide accidents. They run on propane or natural gas – not gasoline, which is scarce after a hurricane.

A standby generator can be a source of pride for homeowners, Mr. Palmer says. "It's becoming a status symbol," he says. "You have the ability to make that huge house run in the wake of a storm."

Bobby Landeche evacuated to Texas from his home in the New Orleans suburb of Hahnville, La., before hurricane Katrina swept ashore last August. When he returned a few days later, his four-bedroom home was not only standing, it was air conditioned.

Mr. Landeche, who owns a consulting business, invested $2,715 in a standby generator when his home was built in 2004. The 12,000-watt generator, which operates one side of the house as well as major appliances, runs on natural gas.

"I grew up in this area, and we deal with hurricanes on a yearly basis," he says. "You don't have all the amenities, but you darn well have a bunch of them."

At 40,000 watts, Biewend's generator, anchored outside next to his air conditioner, can power the whole four-bedroom house. The last time he lost electricity, he didn't even notice. Biewend talks about spending time with his family and cooking a nice meal during the next hurricane.

"I don't think we'll have a hurricane party," he says, "but it will be close."

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