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After storm, a big uptick in requests for generators

The Interview: Arnold Friedlander, owner of Winn Electric Contracting

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

July 22, 2012

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Nothing makes a generator look more tempting than a days-long power outage in a 100-degree heat wave.

Arnold Friedlander's Winn Electric Contracting in Timonium was so flooded with calls early this month that staffers are still working their way through the backlog of requests for estimates and installations.

Selling and setting up home-standby generators — the nonportable kind — is a regular but usually small slice of the company's work, which ranges from lighting to computer wiring. Then the damaging derecho storm blew through the region June 29, leaving about 675,000 in the Baltimore area without power, some for up to nine days.

Friedlander, 48, co-founded the company 26 years ago. The master electrician got his start at age 11 working at an uncle's hardware store, learning about sales and the names of all the specialized products he would later need to use.

The Reisterstown resident and father of two talked with The Baltimore Sun recently about the storm's effect on his 16-person business, who's asking for generators and how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

What happened to business after the derecho storm hit?

After the storm, the phones started ringing.

A lot of people out of power for five to eight days were calling for estimates on generators. Some of them were calling because their generators ran for a few hours or a few days and then quit.

In a four-day outage, all of a sudden a generator may turn off because it's low on oil. … You don't want to overfill it; some people did that, and therefore the generator didn't restart. So we would come out, check it, drain some oil or whatever it needed — help people out.

We're giving a lot of quotes on units, giving people all the facts. Some people just have no clue what's involved with doing a generator. Some people, it's more than they want to spend, and that's it.

How many calls do you normally get in a week from people thinking of buying a generator?

Maybe half a dozen or a dozen a week [from] people who want to get estimates on a generator. After a storm like this, we were getting 50 to 75 a day.

After [Hurricane Irene], the storm of August to September, we were probably getting maybe 30, 40 calls a day. … Now that [a bad] storm hit again, all the people that were undecided are saying, "I want an estimate."

What were people saying? Did they want a generator just because of this long outage?

Pretty much. They all are just fed up.

When is — and isn't — a generator a good idea for a customer?

What it comes down to is what you want to spend. … You can do something for as low as under $4,000, and then you have people spending $6,000 to $8,000 to do the average house, and then you get some people that have all-electric heat that have no choice, they need to pick up the whole entire house, and they may need to spend anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000.

It's not whether someone has the money or not, it's whether their power goes out enough that they can justify spending that $6,000, $8,000, $10,000 for a generator. I have customers who call me up every time the power goes out, wishing they [had] a generator. They have the money, but [they ultimately decide], "I'll go to a hotel if the power goes out." Well, this time the power was out so long, people couldn't find a hotel.

[Also], if you're on a well, if you have no electric you have no water.

Do you have a generator for your home?

Nope. My power never goes out. [The last] 17 years, I lost power only two times, for like 10 minutes. Because everything's pretty much underground from the substation out to where I live.

What are the safety implications of having a generator? What does an owner need to do to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, for instance?

The generator has to be five feet away from a window, and it cannot be under a deck. So they have to have clearance around them.

If you have gas in the house or any gas appliances, you should have a carbon monoxide sensor on each floor of the house, regardless of whether you have a generator or not.

What generators do you sell?

Generac generators and Kohler generators. … We sell 100 Generacs for one Kohler. Now we're working with Kohler to sell more of their units, and we've got the pricing down to be very similar.

What work do you do when you're not installing generators?

We're the guy, after you buy that new house, you call us to come out and hang your fixtures and your chandeliers. … We're a general practitioner. We do everything.

The generator business is a nice part of what we do, but it's only probably 10 percent.

Outside of power-outage periods, when people are just fed up, what sort of customers are coming to you for generators?

Pretty much everybody. We're getting calls from people that are in modest neighborhoods [and] the people in multimillion-dollar homes.

You can't do a generator for a townhouse; most of them, they're too close together. … Some neighborhoods, you have to get authorization from the neighborhood association before you can do it. They want to make sure the noise levels will be proper.

When the power goes out, do you think, "Oh boy, generator sales!"?

I think, "Oh my God."

This storm and the last storm, they both happened on a weekend. … Nobody had full manpower. I brought guys in Saturday, but … I didn't have full crews back until Monday.

Here's a problem nobody thinks about: You lose power and you call somebody in the middle of the night … [but] a lot of roads are blocked by trees and power lines, and we can't even get out to help you.

These last two storms, the damage was so bad and so many roads were closed, to go someplace that should be a 10-minute ride was taking an hour.

If [you own a generator], you know a big storm's coming and you haven't had any real outages [for months], I would test the generator to make sure it's working before the storm. If you're not capable, put in a service call so somebody can test it for you.

You need to change that battery before you break down. … We had every one of our trucks carrying oil and batteries.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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