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Archive for December 2013

Home Generator 101

December 27, 2013

generator house

With snow storms affecting much of the U.S. people have power outages on their minds. We’ve found that people have plenty of questions about generators for their home, including where they can run a generator, how big of one they need to buy and how to connect it to the house’s power supply.

Here are 10 basic generator questions people ask, and their answers.

1. How Big a Generator Should I Get?

We’re not talking physical size, but, rather, a generator’s electrical capacity. This size depends on the sum of the electrical loads you want to power simultaneously, measured in watts. First, add up all the loads you know you want to be able to run simultaneously. Then, as a precaution, figure out which electrical item in your house requires the most electricity to start its motor and add that to your total. The reason for this is that large items like air conditioners tend to use a lot of juice when they start up—two or three times what they use while they’re running. You want to make sure your generator can accommodate that extra electricity requirement; that way, larger items won’t overload the system if they start up.

Every generator has two wattage ratings: running wattage and surge wattage. Generators are rated for surge wattage because they should have some excess capacity in case the load you need is temporarily larger than what you’ve calculated. When you buy a generator, choose the size based on the running wattage and its surge wattage should automatically fall into line with what you need. If you’re worried about needing more surge wattage, buy a larger generator.

2. What Loads Should I Consider Powering with the Generator?

Here is a typical example:

First-floor bathroom

A couple of lighting circuits

Refrigerator

Furnace

Garage door opener

Well pump

Other loads to consider are a sump pump, a sewage ejector pump or a circuit into which you can plug a window air conditioner.

3. How Do I Calculate All This?

Generator manufacturers and retailers post helpful sizing worksheets or wattage calculators on their websites to help you figure it all out. GE is a good example.

4. Do I Need to Hire an Electrician to Set Up a Generator Safely?

The safest way to run a generator is to plug it into a piece of electrical equipment called a transfer switch. This is a combination switch and electrical subpanel. It’s wired directly into the house’s service panel, and the generator is plugged into it. When you throw its switch, it does two things. First, it disconnects the house from the grid outside. This prevents power from the generator from flowing outside the house, where it can injure or kill a utility worker. Second, it sends power only to house circuits that you’ve designated. That way, the generator won’t be overloaded.

Unless you’re an experienced amateur (you have previous electrical and mechanical training but lack an electrician’s license), it’s best to have a licensed electrician install a transfer switch.

5. Can’t I Just Plug My Generator into a Wall Outlet?

No. This is known as back feeding, and it’s blatantly dangerous for a variety of reasons. For instance, if someone forgets to throw the main circuit breaker to electrically isolate the house from the grid, then the generator could send electrical power beyond the house and out onto the grid. When that happens, the electricity you’re generating could injure or kill a utility worker who has come to repair the downed grid.

6. What are the Differences between a Standby Generator and a Backup Generator?

A standby generator is permanently installed apparatus, much like a compressor for a central air- conditioning system. Its engine runs on natural gas or propane. A backup generator is a small, gas-engine generator that you wheel into position outside the house and then plug into the transfer switch. Or it can be connected to electrical loads via heavy-duty extension cords.

7. If It’s Raining or Snowing Outside, Can I Put the Generator in the Garage and Run it There, as Long as the Door Stays Open?

No. Never run a generator inside a house, inside a garage, under a carport, on a porch, inside a screened porch or near an open window. Even with the garage door open, the carbon monoxide (CO) in the generator’s exhaust can sicken somebody inside the house or, in the worst case, even kill someone.

8. What Other Safety Tips Should I Keep in Mind?

Have working smoke and CO detectors in the house when using a generator.

Keep the generator at least 10 feet from the house to minimize risks from CO and also the risk of the generator’s hot muffler melting vinyl siding.

Never fuel a generator while it’s hot. Remember: “Let it cool before you fuel.”

9. Generators are loud. What Can Be Done About That?

Unfortunately, not much. More mechanically advanced generators do a better job than older ones at adjusting engine rpm to their electrical output. This reduces their running speed, which is quieter and conserves fuel. Some home tinkerers are experimenting with putting mufflers from motorcycles and ATVs on their generators. This can be done if you have the requisite metalworking skills. But be warned: In most cases it will void the generator’s warranty.

You have to do your part, too: The simplest way to reduce generator noise is to reduce the electrical load you’re imposing on it. Besides, it’s unrealistic to think you can maintain your typical lifestyle on a small gas-engine generator outside your house.

10. Does the Generator Need to Be Grounded?

Follow the instructions in the owner’s manual. If the manual calls for grounding the generator, that’s relatively easy to do. One simple way is to run a 12-gauge ground wire from the grounding terminal on the generator to a copper ground rod you’ve driven into the soil next to the generator. (The generator will have a grounding terminal symbol to help you identify the terminal’s location.)

As an alternative, the manual may ask you to run a ground wire from the generator’s grounding terminal to the ground bus inside the house’s service panel. As long as you follow the instructions provided in the manual, the generator will be safely grounded.

Choosing the Perfect Lighting for your Home

December 24, 2013

Lighted Cabinet 1

Lighting in your home is one of those items that you don’t always notice when it has a good presence and feeling when you’re in the space. Although, when the lighting is poor and you are trying to perform a task, or you feel the opposite of how you would like to feel in the space, you notice it immediately. Lighting is for ambiance, aesthetics, tasks, and seeing better in your home.  Think about your home and if it has all the lighting qualities you would like.  If your answer is no, here are some tips on how to choose the perfect lighting for you and your family.

Determine what your lighting goals are: Direct or task lighting is focused in the space you are trying to work. Ambient or indirect lighting is used for ambiance and for overall lighting of a space. Once chosen you can begin to choose lighting options.  Each room in your home should have a mood you want to set, as well as a function you want your lighting to serve.

Provide lighting for safety and security on the exterior of your home: Walkways, sidewalks, perimeter of your house, and the front entry should be lit with ambient lighting.  Too dim of lighting on the exterior is a welcome sign for intruders. While too bright of exterior lighting is costly and disturbing to neighbors. Consider installing flood lights at the exterior corners of your home that are motion activated to further discourage intruders. Follow the aesthetics and security lighting of your neighborhood for further guidelines as to what to implement at your own home.

Light and Stairs

Use exterior wall sconces for décor: Outdoor lighting doesn’t have to only be no-frills.  Wall sconces can provide washes of light against the exterior walls of your home to create ambiance in the evening hours.  Directional sconces pointing upwards or downwards can focus on architectural elements on your home, and draw attention to exterior niches and plantings around your home.

Inside your home use multiple light sources for one space: For rooms like the kitchen, bedrooms, and living spaces, multiple light sources will help you achieve a variety of functions and activities in that space. In the kitchen, under counter lights can provide great task lighting. While in a living room, opt for a floor lamp next to a couch or favorite reading chair. In bathrooms the lighting at the mirror should be free from shadows and glaring light.

For high ceilings and modern décor use recessed lighting: “Can” light fixtures, so called because of the metal recessed “can” that is inserted into the ceiling and the light fixture fits inside. These fixtures are subtle and can be directional, and can be connected to dimmer switches to give a range of light from subtly dim to full brightness to illuminate an entire room.

In nurseries and kid’s rooms, remember night lighting: Think about the lighting for when children sleep when planning lighting requirements.  Night lights can help small children from being scared, but can also help parents navigate through dark rooms.  For nurseries consider a dim wall sconce, or table lamp that can be used for changing diapers, or rocking infants to sleep.

 In formal living and dining areas, research chandeliers wisely: In spaces that a formal chandelier is considered, choose one that will not date your space. Often time’s chandeliers are bought without thinking of the space and the décor that surrounds it.  Chandeliers come in extremely simple designs that include faux candles, small bulbs, or a few lights to the ornate and expensive crystal varieties. Whichever is your décor choice, measure out the space, and ceiling height before ordering to ensure enough head room will be available below the hanging chandelier.

Don’t be afraid when choosing lighting for your home, it can help your ambiance and mood in the space. Just like the color of your rooms, lighting should enhance your space and make it feel warm and inviting!

When It’s Time for an Electrical Wiring Upgrade

December 16, 2013

Old House Two

The lights come on when you flip the switch, the TV works, and the refrigerator keeps food cold. That means the electrical wiring must be fine, right? Not necessarily. There may be times, especially if your house is more than 40 years old, when you need to upgrade electrical wiring for safety, or because the existing wiring no longer meets your family’s power needs. Rewiring can be a messy and expensive proposition, but with a little upfront planning you can minimize the disruptions and even turn the job into an opportunity to add features that will increase the value of your home.

Safety issues with older wiring

Faulty wiring is the leading cause of residential fires, according to a study by the National Fire Prevention Association.  And the older your house is, the greater the chances that the wiring might be outdated or unsafe.

Old wiring—even knob and tube wiring that dates back to the early 20th century—isn’t inherently dangerous, but unless you were around when the house was built, you can’t be sure the electrical system is up to code. Plus, materials such as wire insulation can deteriorate over time.

If you don’t know when your wiring was last inspected, it’s worth paying a licensed electrician to give it a once-over, especially if you have any of these warning signs:

Breakers that trip or fuses that blow repeatedly
A tingling sensation when you touch an appliance
Flickering or dimming lights
A persistent burning smell from a room or appliance
Warm, discolored, or sparking outlets
Two-prong ungrounded outlets throughout the house
No ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets in kitchens, baths, and other areas exposed to moisture
Another reason to consider upgrading is that some carriers refuse to insure houses with older wiring, or charge owners higher premiums

Be on the lookout for aluminum wiring

Instead of the standard copper wire, many houses built in the 1960s and early 1970s have aluminum wiring, which is considered a safety hazard.  Aluminum wiring connections often loosen up over time that can cause overheating and possibly fires at receptacles when appliances are plugged in to them. An inspection can determine whether it’s safe to leave the wiring in place. Sometimes the addition of copper connectors, called pigtails, at receptacles and circuit breakers can resolve potential problems.

When you need more power

Sixty amps used to be the standard for household power. Today, houses often need 200 amps to run air conditioners, flat-screen TVs, computer equipment, and all the other gadgets our parents and grandparents hardly imagined.

Not having enough power isn’t just an inconvenience; it can actually damage sensitive electronics. “It’s very hard on these devices if the voltage drops off. Even with adequate power, you may need to add outlets to avoid relying on power strips and extension cords, an inconvenience and a potential safety hazard.

Prepare to open your walls

Upgrading electrical wiring is a big job, for one simple reason: All the wires are behind the walls. Every house is different and prices vary by market, but for a whole-house rewiring job, you’re easily looking at a bill of several thousand dollars.

Depending on the circumstances, though, you might not need a top-to-bottom rewiring. Examples are when you need to add circuits to run a new appliance or power an addition like a swimming pool. In those situations, the expense and disruption could be reduced.

Plan ahead for future power needs

If you’re going to spend the money and cut holes in the walls, you might as well run all the wires you can. That way, you’ll be ready for any possible future power needs.  There are things to be bought and plugged into a receptacle 10 or 20 years from now that are not even invented yet.

One smart investment is structured wiring. These are heavy-duty data cables that enable the latest features of TVs, stereo equipment, computers, game consoles, phones, security systems—even Internet-based remote control of house systems like heating and lighting. While a standard electrical upgrade essentially maintains the value of your home, adding structured wiring can increase it.