Everyday life depends so much on electrical power. Refrigerators, lighting, central air conditioning and heat, telephones, security systems, and computers are no longer luxuries, but necessities. What happens to the homes you build and their owners when severe weather or a failure of the power grid causes a loss of electricity, potentially lasting days or weeks at a time?

If they have an automatic standby generator, their homes will be well-equipped to weather power outages in relative—or complete—comfort. The systems have received a lot of attention lately. Recent hurricane seasons have reminded homeowners that our power supply is highly susceptible to weather events and that when it goes out, they are not only inconvenienced, their health and well-being may also be compromised. Previous generations would tough it out, but today's custom home owners demand 24/7 comfort, and many want their homes to be more self-reliant.

“People don't want to go without power for very long. High-end homeowners are the ones who can afford not to live through those events without power,” says Roddy Yates, marketing manager for Baldor.

Wired into a home's electrical load panel and connected to a natural gas line or liquid propane tank, automatic standby generators sit on call, waiting for a power outage. An automatic transfer switch manages the power supply by sensing when utility power is lost, signaling the generator to start up, and transferring designated electrical loads to the generator power supply within seconds. It also senses when utility power returns, transfers loads back to the utility supply, and shuts down the generator.

Even when the owner is not at home, an automatic generator will keep critical systems operating, an important benefit in humid regions where a few days without air conditioning can allow mold and mildew to grow and in cold regions where loss of heat can allow water pipes to freeze.

Generator capacity is determined by the number and type of electrical loads homeowners want during a power outage. “Some people want the entire house backed up, with nothing left out during an outage—a whole-house system. Some people just want a few key items—an essential load system,” says Melanie Tydrich, senior product manager for Kohler Power Systems. Survivalists can make do with a 6kW or 7kW generator, but luxury users typically require at least a 20kW unit to provide enough energy to run everything from the refrigerator to the security system.

Several technological improvements have made standby generators more efficient and compact, quieter, easier to use, and able to supply “clean” power. Some generators still use manual transfer switches, but automatic transfer switches have started to replace them. In addition to automatically transferring loads from utility to generator and back again, automatic transfer switches also exercise the generator periodically to keep it functioning properly. Some switches incorporate alarms to notify the homeowner when the generator needs service.