Thinking about installing a whole house generator in your home on the Texas Gulf Coast? Good call. The Gulf Coast, including Houston, is prone to hurricanes, flooding and power outages. And after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, interest in natural gas standby generators is growing.
Here’s what you need to know about installing a whole house generator in Houston or elsewhere in Texas.
How Does a Whole House Generator Work?
A whole house generator is a natural gas powered system that generates power for your home. It takes the place of electricity from the grid when there’s a power outage.
There are two parts to the system: the generator and the automatic transfer switch (ATS).
The generator itself is the workhorse. But the ATS is what will start your standby generator automatically when it senses a power outage. Once the generator is operating at full speed, the ATS will cut your home off from the power grid and connect your home fully to the generator. That protects you and the grid from power surges or overloaded circuits.
Because the whole home generator has a continuous natural gas supply, you don’t have to worry about purchasing and storing gasoline. And since it’s attached to your main electrical system, you don’t have to run extension cords, like you do for a portable generator.
Cost is usually the biggest factor when deciding whether to go with a portable generator vs. standby whole home generator.
How Much Does a Standby Generator Cost?
According to Centerpoint Energy, the electric and gas utility company in Houston, a standby generator for a 2,000 square-foot home usually requires a 16-18 kW generator, which costs approximately $8,500 to $12,000 installed. That includes running 6 feet of both electric and gas lines, permits and licensing.
The size of your whole house generator depends on the size of your home and the number of electric devices you want it to run. But not only will it give you peace of mind as we enter hurricane season. It may also increase the value of your home. You’ll have to decide if a whole home generator is worth it for you personally. Here’s how to decide if it’s worth it.
Is a Whole Home Generator Worth It?
Whether a whole home generator is worth it depends on where you live, risk factors, lifestyle and cost.
First up, risk factors and where you live. The Texas Gulf Coast is prone to hurricanes and hurricane prep is an important part of home ownership here. When a hurricane hits, power could be quickly restored. Or it could take days or even weeks.
Next up, lifestyle. Are you able and willing to stay in a home without electricity for several days waiting for power restoration? What might start as an interesting adventure (Yeah! Camping at home!) becomes a major inconvenience in 90 degree heat or 30 degree cold.
Then, look at the upfront cost and possible financing. Is this something you can budget for, without causing a financial hardship? Most generator resellers offer affordable financing.
Lastly, some people evaluate home improvements like a standby generator based solely on their monetary payback. Does installing a standby backup generator increase your home value?
Remodeling Magazine publishes an annual study showing the return on home improvement investments. Their cost versus value (CvV) rating on a back-up generator is around 60%. Meaning, if you spend $10,000 on a generator, you’ll get back a $6,000 increase in the value of your home. On the Texas Gulf Coast, a whole house generator is a big selling point.
What Size Standby Generator Do I Need for My Home?
The size of standby generator you need for your home depends on what you want to run while the power is out.
The official name for this is a load analysis. A professional load analysis is typically part of the purchase process when you work with an installer. But here are some tips to estimate the size of generator you need, if you’re at the beginning of shopping for a home generator. That will get you started on pricing out the cost of a standby generator.
Time needed: 1 hour.
How to estimate the size of standby generator you need for your home.
- Make a list of the electric devices in your home and their wattage. Here are examples of what needs to be on your list:
Garage door opener
Electric stove top and oven
Below is an example of a wattage tag that you’ll find on most, if not all, appliances in your home. To convert watts (W) to kilowatts (kW), divide by 1000. For example, a device that uses 2000W is 2kW.
- Review the list and highlight the items that are a “must have” in one color. Highlight the “nice to have” in another color.
This depends on your personal preference and budget. Do you need to run the dishwasher or a hair dryer while you wait for the power to be restored? Does your garage door have a disconnect that would let you open and close it manually?
- Add up the kilowatts (kW) for the must have items and add a 10-20% buffer. That’s the minimum size standby generator you need for your home.
- Then add up the KW for the nice to have items and add a 10-20% buffer. Add that to the must have total. This is the maximum size standby generator you need for your home.
Keep in mind that you may not be running all the “must have” devices at one time. You can have a smaller generator size if you carefully manage your devices and don’t run them all simultaneously.
That smaller generator may save you money. But sizing up gives you room for growth in the future. Plus you’ll have the built in convenience of not figuring out what to turn off when you turn something else on.
As we said at the start of this section, your professional installer will be able to help you size your whole house generator. But gathering the information above will give you a great head start.
Process to Install a Natural Gas Standby Generator in Your Home
After you determine what size generator you need for your home, you’ll want to shop around for a professional generator installation company near you.
Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations and read reviews. This is a big purchase. You need to pick a solid generator brand. But you also want an installer with a good reputation for customer service that knows the local permitting process. The installation costs can be equal to the amount that you spend purchasing your generator. So it pays to shop around.
TIP: Generac is one of the more popular brands of standby generator. And the biggest Generac dealer in Houston (and in all of North America) is Generator Supercenter, which is headquartered in Tomball, TX. They have generator sales locations in Tomball, Beaumont, College Station, Round Rock, Lufkin and Tyler, Texas.
Here are the steps that your installer will take to set up your standby generator:
- Site Visit: Your installer will visit you on site to pick the best location for your natural gas generator. They’ll work to locate the device close to the electrical circuit box but also close to your gas meter to limit the amount of new wiring or piping installed. They’ll also take code requirements into account. Your personal preference will of course factor in as well!
- Permits: Your installer will need to pull the proper permits to install your whole house generator. That will include electrical, plumbing and building permits. Separately, you may need to file paperwork with your neighborhood homeowners association.
- Installation: Depending on the elevation of your home, the generator will be placed either on a cement slab at your home or on a wooden platform built above flood level. Once installed on the base, a plumber will connect the natural gas line. An electrician will hard wire the generator to your home and install your automatic transfer switch (ATS). The ATS will trigger your generator to start when it senses a power outage.
- Inspection: Depending on where you live, a final city inspection may be required.
- Meter Change-out: Once your natural gas utility company receives the permits and inspection approval, they’ll come out to upgrade your gas meter.
Portable Generator for Electricity Back-Up Plan
If a whole house standby generator is our of reach for you financially, you may want to consider a portable generator for your electricity back-up plan.
A portable generator will range between $500 and $2000 depending on the size you purchase.
To go along with your portable generator, you’ll need to have gasoline on hand to keep it running. That means multiple gas containers. You’ll need to stock up with gas before a storm hits.
And you’ll need heavy duty extension cords such as 12, 14 or 16-gauge. You could also buy a “gen-cord.” This is a heavy duty cord that connects to the 20 or 30-amp outlet on your generator. The other end of the cord has multiple connectors. You’ll plug our extension cords into the gen-cord to connect several electrical appliances at once.
Here’s the most important item for a portable generator. You’ll need to make sure it’s properly ventilated to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Never run a portable generator inside your house. Instead, leave it outside and run the gen-cord or extension cord in through a window or door.
Portable generators are a great, lower cost option for back-up electricity in Houston and across the Gulf Coast region. Most people use these generators to run their refrigerator, television and fans during a power outage.
Some people also purchase a window unit air conditioner or portable air conditioner to connect to their portable generator. (You can’t connect a portable generator to your central HVAC system unless you have a special switch installed ahead of time. You would also need a more powerful generator unit.)
When you are calculating the cost difference between a portable generator and a whole house generator, keep these additional costs in mind.
Install Solar Panels for Electricity Back-Up Plan
Some home owners are investing in solar panels to be energy grid independent. During a hurricane or winter storm, the skies are usually overcast and cloudy, lowering the amount of home solar energy you can produce.
Because of this, solar panels are only a back-up electricity plan if you also invest in a home storage battery, such as a Tesla Powerwall, or a Generac PWRcell. That way, regardless of the weather, you can use solar power that you have generated and stored in your home battery.
Cover photo source: Generac.com