Stores swamped by demand for rare generators

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you're trying to buy a generator now - poor soul - get in line.

Two hundred seventy were delivered to the Bel Air Home Depot on Saturday, and in two hours they were gone. The Catonsville Lowe's has been generatorless for a week, even though the company is trucking every unit one of their producers makes to areas without power. The few stores with a few left yesterday didn't expect to have them long.

Tropical Storm Isabel's effects have challenged the perception that only hospitals and people in the middle of nowhere need a backup power source.

Generators are expensive, from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000, but the cost apparently looks more reasonable when electricity goes down for days instead of hours. Nearly 300,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. customers were still without power yesterday at noon, most of those outages thanks to Isabel but some from the follow-up storm that started Monday night.

"There's no question that this is going to permanently change our view of the generator," said Anirban Basu, head of Optimal Solutions Group, an economic and policy consulting firm in Fells Point. "It has transitioned in many houses from a luxury to a necessity. ... This is the land of pleasant living, so we become accustomed to living pleasantly."

Chuck Neary, manager of the Rosedale Home Depot, said one couple sat on the store's floor for eight hours Saturday, waiting for generators to arrive. "We made sure they got one," he said.

The phone is ringing off the hook at Milton Electric Co. in Baltimore, but owner John Borz can't install generators for people who haven't gotten their hands on one - and "there's no more generators left." When callers hear his company has a dozen for construction sites, "they want to borrow them."

"Panic sets in," Borz said. "People just never realize how important electricity is until you don't have it."

When the power goes out, buildings may also end up without water, especially ones that rely on wells. Sump pumps, the last line of defense against flooding, stop pumping. Food spoils, computers sit useless and businesses are left in the dark, unable to operate.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, said the longer electricity is out, the wider the ripples of economic losses.

"It's fundamental to the way we live," said Tierney. "You can't check out of a grocery store, pump gas or live normally without electrical power."

Generators can act as a stopgap or a complete replacement. Portable gas-fueled units that produce a couple thousand watts can power a few key appliances - for instance, the refrigerator and the sump pump. A professionally installed 40,000-watt generator churns out enough electricity to run everything in a large house.

They're not dangerous if used properly, state officials say, but generators turned on indoors can kill - and have killed three people since the storm, two in Pasadena and one in Prince George's County. Gas-powered equipment produces carbon monoxide and must be kept outside homes.

"Make sure there's proper ventilation for it," said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "We had tried to warn people."

Sales of conventional small-scale generators have been rising for years in the United States - from $1.2 billion in 1992 to $2.2 billion in 2001, according to a recent study by the Freedonia Group Inc. - but the sudden peak is too much demand for producers to handle at once. Home Depot spokesman Don Harrison blames that on a one-two punch: Isabel coming on the heels of the August blackout that affected millions.

"We're in this business and trying to preach the wisdom of being prepared for an outage ahead of time and having this when you need it, but human nature being what it is, people want to defer the expense," said Mike Carr, manager of marketing communications for Generac Power Systems Inc., a Wisconsin manufacturer of residential, commercial and industrial generators. "It's when it really hits home that all of a sudden they've got to have one."

Home Depot shipped 25,000 generators to its stores in Isabel's path last week, "and that's not nearly enough," Harrison said. Lowe's sold more than 24,000 in the past week and a half in that area and was trucking 1,250 to Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina yesterday.

Pasadena resident Melinda Dunker made it through the outage with property unscathed because she managed to snag a $659 generator Sept. 17, two days after she put her name on a waiting list at a Lowe's.

"My husband was ready to shoot me for buying one," she said, but he changed his mind when the power blinked off and stayed off for three days. The 5,500-watt generator kept the family's two refrigerators humming, their sump pump pumping and their television playing, and four neighbors were able to plug into it as well.

"It was well worth the money," said Dunker. "There were a lot of generators running in the community: It was like a big buzz - that's all you heard."

Ellicott City resident Dawn Coston tried to buy a generator before the storm but couldn't and spent the pre-dawn hours Friday hauling water from her sump pump to her toilet.

She thinks Isabel was the last straw for a lot of people as far as generators are concerned. She certainly plans to get one - as soon as one can be gotten.

"You don't need a snowblower either until you need it," Coston said. "We bought one, and it sat in our garage for three years before we needed it; but then we were real glad to have it."

Chapelgate Presbyterian Church in Marriottsville has been moving its five generators - bought during the Y2K computer-glitch scare - and a few borrowed ones to families without power. It's the first time the church has tried this feat of logistics, and Dwayne B. Dixon said it has been a challenge finding the affected congregants, getting units to them and, once the power is on, moving generators on to the next recipients.

"Next time, we'll be much more ready for it," said Dixon, director of caring at the church. "We felt we were blessed with the means, and we should take advantage of that and offer help where we can."

Sociologist Margaret L. Andersen was struck by the way people in her community south of Elkton pulled out generators and attempted to re-establish the normal social order.

Some ran extension cords into neighbors' homes so they could share the power. One offered a standing invitation for showers to everybody without generators - and therefore without water. Another made coffee for the neighborhood each morning.

Electricity at Andersen's house wasn't restored until Monday evening, but a neighbor with two generators lent her one Saturday that was powerful enough to run her refrigerator.

Alas, she had to pump out her well hourly for the first day and a half.

"Of course we couldn't buy a generator anywhere," Andersen said, "though you can probably believe we will now."

Borz, the Baltimore electrician, doesn't know whether they're really worth it for the average person - especially the $10,000 sort. His suggestion is to save the money and spend the interest on a hotel room during those rare occasions when the power goes out for more than a day. He doesn't have one at home.

But now he wonders. People are calling him in despair because their fish are dying in uncirculated water. One restaurant owner lost all his food.

"I'm thinking about it this time," Borz said. "This is the first time in 35 years I'm even starting to think about [getting] a generator."

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