Monday, July 9, 2012

The Ward Family Does Not Lose Power - the Generator and Lightning Protection

Like my husband Stephen Moore is an economist. Mr. Moore is also a journalist and recently published an article "When The Moore Family Lost Power."  It is an interesting opinion piece, but I'm an engineer and I think you should do something to ensure that we have electricity, sewage and water- not just talk about it.

When I lived in California I became obsessed with water (okay, water and earthquakes). I maintained a constantly rotated supply of 40 gallons of fresh water at all times and read the precipitation and snow pack levels daily. The average annual precipitation in California is about 23 inches (DWR 1998), but rainfall varies greatly across the state from more than 140 inches in the northwestern California to less than 4 inches in the southern cities where all the people live. California has 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs-the largest water storage and transportation system in the world that captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. Even with this extensive management system there are limits to the water supply; Californian are facing the failure their water- network, due to age and lack of maintenance, growth in population and demand, mining of the groundwater, and the potentially far-reaching effects of climate change. Each new drought is a crisis. For at least twenty years California has failed to plan for the inevitable and easily imagined future.

I could never convince my neighbors of the importance of planning for the future, preventative maintenance and maintaining of our infrastructure. So, when my husband wanted to retire and suggested we look around for a place to live-my criteria was water, location where a mild temperature increase would not be devastating and high speed Internet. My husband was born and breed in Virginia and in truth there was little chance of us retiring anywhere else. Fortunately, based on several different predictions, the eastern slope of the Piedmont region of Virginia is a climate change sweet spot. It was predicted to get wetter and warmer (like the Carolinas), has a moderate four season climate with lots of available water in the Culpeper Groundwater Basin and average annual rainfall of over 44 inches a year. (Virginia’s earthquake last year was quite the surprise, but did no damage here.) We found ourselves a foreclosure with a private well with an excellent recharge rate and good water ($1,600 of water tests before purchase verified those facts) and set to work improving the home and making it more sustainable, secure and self-reliant. I test my water annually to make sure that the water remains good. I can control only my own behavior and my private infrastructure.
My Generac Guardian under my deck

Without electricity I have no water, no septic and my freezer containing a quarter of a cow (grass fed sustainably raised down the pike) is in danger of spoiling, my carefully laid down wine is in danger of being damaged and my life generally disrupted with the loss of the all the modern conveniences. So five years ago when we first bought the house, I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in to power most of the house in about 20 seconds. (Generac advertises that the new generators come on-line in 10 seconds.) I had the generator installed so that the backup power automatically turns on. The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, backup furnace, gas grill and stove. The generator can supply the house for 23 or more days depending on whether the gas furnace is running, and is housed in a lovely insulated aluminum casing under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking good as new even after five years of sitting outside. (Note that if the generator runs more than a few days especially when new it will need oil.) The generator works great, though during a recent power outage in our area, the DVR took a couple of minutes to reload the program we were watching, the internet was back almost immediately. Over the years we’ve adjusted the load a few times, but we are never without power.  The generator is serviced annually by the electrician who installed it and my propane tank is never allowed to fall under 50% full. The propane tank has a very readable gage on it. Consumer Reports has a buyers guide for generators. 

The house also has a large south facing roof span. So in addition to the generator, I also have 7.36 KW gross, 6.2 KW PTC of Photovoltaic Solar panels on my roof. However, the panels are connected to the grid so that when the grid goes down, the solar panels do not supply power to the house. I would have to have a back-up battery and different configuration for the inverters. The solar panels have proved very reliable and actually produce slightly more power than predicted by the PV-Watts program. If electrical power were to become unreliable in my little pocket of the NOVEC service area, I would consider converting my PV solar system to directly powering the house. It turns out that except for the heat and air conditioning the solar panels can pretty much power the house on most days.

When I finished my basement and installed the elevator that makes it possible for those who can no longer climb steps to live in this house, I installed a secondary sump pump utilizing the elevator shaft (installed a couple of feet below the basement) as the natural drainage point. The elevator is one of many handicap features I’ve installed in this house. Each change or improvement is intended to be sustainable and accessible. Even if we did not need an elevator when we moved in, this is a retirement home and we will all be old and infirmed one day-plan for it. The sump pumps are also tied into the generator. Power is most likely to fail just when you need a sump pump. The sump pumps are tested and run each spring when I drain the hot water heater. The house has good natural drainage and I am not aware of the sump pumps ever needing to operate, but I have them. The elevator is greased, tightened and serviced twice a year and the type of elevator was chosen for its durable design.
Tying the solar panels into the lightning protection system

Installing an Air Terminal

It is large storms that tend to bring down the power around here. Generally speaking lightning strikes are geographically concentrated in the southeast, south and mid-west. Until we moved to Virginia (with an annual average of 344,702 lightning strikes a year and likely to increase with climate change) from California, I had not thought much about lightning. However, the fire that resulted from a lightning strike at my neighbor’s house convinced me that my husband was right and lightning protection (and whole house surge collar) was something we should buy. The air within a lightning strike can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and one lightning stroke can generate between 100 million and 1 billion volts of electricity frying every computer and electrical appliance in the house. Lightning is still a major cause of building fires, even though highly effective (though not perfect) protection has long been available. 

The National Fire Protection Association, NFPA, established the American standard for installation of lightning protection systems now known as NFPA 780 in 1904.  Installation of a system in conformance with NFPA 780 can cost thousands of dollars depending on the size and shape of the house. To provide effective protection, a lightning protection system must include a sufficient number of rods with tips exposed and extending above the structure. These lightning rods, called air terminals become the preferred strike receptor for a descending step leader from the thundercloud. That rapidly-varying lightning current must then be carried away from the building into the earth through a down conductor system that will provide the path of least resistance and impedance to the flow of current and prevent "side flashes" to other objects in the vicinity of the system. All nearby metal components of the structure (solar panels, generator, roof vents, water pipes etc.) must be properly connected to the down-conductor system to ensure the flow of current to the earth. I will never really know if I needed a lightning protection system. So far, the major benefit is I’m very relaxed and sleep well during lightning storms and I am satisfied that preventing the small probability of losing all my appliances and electronics is worth the price.

In the United States we have failed to plan for the future, to properly value and maintain 24/7 water, sewer, electricity and phone. This infrastructure needs to be maintained and improved constantly replaced no mechanical component has an infinite life span. Water, sanitary sewers or septic, electricity and phone and Internet service are not a birth right. We have failed to spend our money on maintaining the infrastructure we have and to fund the commitments we have made. The likely future is one with more and extended power outages, water supply disruptions and other failures. Think about it. The Moore family might, but the Ward family does not lose power.   

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