Updating the Electrical Service

click to magnify Exterior electrical goodies (2 photos).

As described in the mechanical systems introduction, the wiring was in pretty bad shape when we bought the house. I was going to have to replace everything, which I was actually looking forward to doing. Back in my wrenchin'-on-cars days, I was the "electrical guy" for the shop then I later opened my own business building electric cars, so I enjoy tinkering with wiring. Household wiring isn't too terribly difficult, so I planned to do all circuit design and the wiring installation myself. Homeowners are not allowed to make the connection from the pole to the meter and panel however (which is fine with me), so we would have to find an electrician to get the panel installed. The original plan was to have the local electrical inspector (who's also an electrical contractor) do the service panel installation, since he had done the wiring for the septic system effluent pump and said he'd do the panel as well. I played phone tag with him for a while but wasn't getting anywhere, so I talked to the plumber for a recommendation of another electrician. I figure it's a good idea to not upset the electrical inspector, so I let the him know we were going to find someone else to do the job, and he actually called back to say that was okay with him (I think he was relieved to not have to deal with me and this junky old house). The new electrician contacted us right away, and after some discussion of price and timing, we decided to have him install a new 200 amp service.

One of the first things we had to address with getting the new electrical service installed was trying to figure out where to locate the new panel. The pole is near the center of the lot, and there's no power anywhere near the back of the lot. Our only option was to bring the power in the front of the house someplace. The existing service was hanging off the rotted barge rafter (the outermost rafter of the roof overhang) between the main house and the old screen porch. I'm pretty sure the original service was installed before the screen porch was added (since there was no power in the porch), and we couldn't put it back in the same spot (code doesn't allow overhead service to go over the roof). If I'd have run the power to some other part of the front of the house, that would have meant the panel would be back in the living room our in our bedroom. The power was going to have to go into the entryway somehow, which would have meant wires coming into the house with some huge mast thing sticking up right next to the front door. In order to put the panel where we wanted, we decided the best option was to install an underground service.

Getting the dominoes lined up to have the underground service installed and the new panel put in took a little time and prep work. I needed to demolish the old wall and window framing where the panel was going to go, and get the new wall framed for the panel. I had to have siding up on that section of wall for the meter box, and get the panelling stripped from around the old service panel so we could tie it to the new service. I also had to ensure the electrician, excavator and electrical inspector we're all ready to jump at the same time, since we were living in the house and didn't want to go without power for days on end. It didn't work out exactly as planned, however.

The Saga of the Service Panel

I worked on rebuilding the porch and getting the section of wall ready for the new panel in Fall of 2005. The electrician called and said he'd had a cancellation, so he'd be here in a couple days (rather than a couple weeks as planned). I called my septic guy in a bit of a panic and left a message saying we needed the service trench as soon as possible, since the electrician was on his way. He didn't call me back. The next morning I awoke to the sounds of machinery outside and there was George, sittin' in his backhoe, chompin' on a cigar. He'd driven the thing to our house from his shop. He swung the cab door open and shouted "Where d'ya want it, Rock-boy?" I sorta waved a vague line from the pole to the corner of the porch. He nodded, shifted the cigar stub a bit, swung the door shut and got busy. I stumbled back into the house for my first hot cuppa Joe, and by the time I returned George was finished and on his way up the street. One of a kind, that guy.

The electrician showed up the next day with conduit and the new panel, and installed the panel and three conduits for telephone, cable TV and power. He then added a big hunk of 8/3 NMCB inside the house from the old panel to the new so I could start getting new circuits installed - which I didn't care about at that time - I wanted that overhead wiring gone so I could work on the roof. The old meter and overhead wire were still there, so we were stuck with the cable in the living room until I could get the wall ready for the meter. He said to call him when it was ready and be right over to finish it up. I believed him. Apparently I hadn't learned my lesson from the bad experience we'd had with the landscape contractor.

I finished the wall prep and was ready for the panel in about a week, so I called and left a message with the electrician. I'm not sure how some of these guys stay in business. I've worked in the service industry as an auto mechanic. I've owned my own business. Rule number one was always answer the phone. In the construction trades I think "answer the phone" might be somewhere between wiping their feet before coming in your house and cleaning out the cab of their truck on their list of priorities... it just doesn't happen. I've figured out that the only way any communication takes place with these guys is through their Nextel 2-way. If you're one of the select few that have their 2-way number, then they'll immediately answer your "chirp" (especially if they're in the middle of a conversation with a client). Without the 2-way, you're not worthy of their time. They only get new clients when some other contractor chirps them on the 2-way and tells them about a possible sucker they can screw over a customer in need of their services. Okay, I'm calm. I'll continue...

click to magnify The new panel was worth the wait.

After the first few daily calls with no response, I decided I wouldn't get anywhere by being a pest. I switched to leaving a message once a week, in hopes that he wouldn't find that too bothersome and come finish the job (he hadn't been paid for anything after all, so I assumed he was interested in getting paid for the materials at the very least). Nothing. After a couple months , I cut back the calls to once every two weeks, and started to try and figure out how I was going to get another electrician to come finish the work this guy had started. After months of steady messages with no return calls, the electricians truck rolled up in the Spring of 2006. He hopped out and started feeding cable through the conduits without even a knock on the door. We didn't engage in a lot of friendly chit-chat (and there was no apology for the delay). He installed the meter and tied it to the new panel, then much to my surprise he went up the pole on a ladder and tied the new power to the old overhead lines and snipped off the old lines to the house.

As he was loading up the truck to leave, I confirmed the price with him, and asked if a check was okay. It was not. I was then informed that the price was a special discount since I was a friend of a friend (naturally), and that he would need to be paid in cash. This guy came highly recommended, and did a very good job (when he actually showed up). He's even been featured on "This Old House" when they were doing a local renovation. I had no problem with the quality of work he performed, but I couldn't get past his troubles with using his phone... perhaps he didn't know he could flip it open and push the number keys to initiate a call, since he'd only ever used the push-to-talk button on the side. Poor guy. I told him I didn't have the cash on me, since I didn't know he was going to come and do the work that day (I took a little shot there, but either he didn't understand it, or chose not to acknowledge the comment - I tend to think it was the former). I told him I'd give him a call when I had the cash so he could come pick it up. Mwuahaha.

I got the cash from the bank the next day, but didn't call him. When the lovely bride got home from work and asked if I'd paid the electrician so we could finally be done with him, I said "Nope - didn't call him either". She wasn't pleased, but I would have my revenge! This fellow blew off my phone calls for over 6 months , when all he had to do was let me know he was on another job, out of the country, his grammy had passed - whatever... just some form of communication would have be nice and I'd have some idea of when we'd have the new power hooked up. I had decided that if he was going to make me wait 6 months, I was going to make him wait a while for his money and see how he liked it. She didn't approve, but I insisted we hold for a month at the very least, and she relented. Every night between 5 and 6 pm for the next 30 days, we'd get a phone call from "Unknown Caller" (he obviously Caller ID blocked his cell number). On night 31, I answered the call, and said he could come get the cash the next day, as if no time had passed at all. He was happy to act like nothing had happened, so I did the same and handed him the cash the next day (I put it in a crumpled up brown paper bag for added effect).

Our new panel was in and all was right in the world. I got a call the next day from the electrical inspector saying the electrician had contacted him and that we were good to go. He came and signed off on the panel install, I set up the time and date for the utility guys to come and do the permanent tie-in at the pole, and a few weeks later the job was done at last.

The final chapter to this whole saga occurred in the Summer of 2008, and it's so ridiculous it's funny. One fine day I was working in the temporary shop in the driveway when our electrician pal pulled up in his truck. I hadn't spoken to or thought about this guy for over 2 years, yet here he was. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and he commented on how well the place was coming together. I had no idea why he was here, so I rather awkwardly asked what brought him by. "Oh, I got your message that you needed something or other done with the new panel" he said. I couldn't help myself and laughed out loud. I told him I'd left those messages two years ago! I don't think he believed me, but we both had a good laugh about it and he hung out for a while to have a look at the changes inside the house since the last time he was here. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

Wiring Plans

click to magnify Planning started with the panel (2 sheets).

I completed the wiring plans in Winter of 2005, having worked on them for a month or two while waiting to get the new service installed. I think the old mess of wiring that was originally in the house helped drive my desire to try and create an ideal wiring system for the renovation, since I had a very good idea of what I didn't want to end up with. The idea was to have plenty of receptacles in every room so we'd never need an extension cord or power strip, as well as lights and switches located where they'd make sense. A couple issues I especially wanted to address were the lack of attic lighting and outdoor receptacles that we'd suffered through with the old system. I also wanted to ensure plenty of power would be available in the kitchen and the bathroom, via multiple circuits, so we wouldn't have to deal with our old "don't make toast when the coffee maker is running or using the hair dryer" scenario, which would pop the fuse in the old days.

I started the electrical layout with the service panel plan, and tried to put in whatever circuits I could imagine needing for the completed house. We had also decided what appliances we were going to outfit the kitchen with by this point (although we hadn't bought them yet), so I was able to download the installation instructions and verify the power requirements for each of those while doing the planning. I didn't worry about switches and receptacles at that point, and just dreamed up whatever I thought might be useful then made a spot for it in the panel. With a notion of the number of circuits I'd want, I then tried to balance the power distribution across both legs of the service panel. Next I started working out where I was actually going to place lights, switches and receptacles, and totaled up the power requirements for each circuit while adjusting the distribution of circuits in the panel. Working off a tentative house plan with the service panel schematic as a guide I layed out wire runs, and tried my best to minimize the number of junction boxes (especially under the house) while providing adequate power and light to each room. I must add that a great deal of the wiring layout was based on the information in Rex Cauldwell's Wiring a House link opens a new window from Taunton Press. Cauldwell not only clearly explains what is required for safe household wiring and why, but he also makes a lot of what he calls "above code" recommendations based on his years in the industry. A highly recommended read for anyone planning to do some household electrical work.

click to magnify The completed wiring plan.

The wiring plans have been extremely useful, and I'm very glad I took the time to get them worked out early in the project. Nearly every wall has some wiring in it, so having the plans finished before any carpentry work began has helped avoid the need to tear any new work apart because I neglected to get the wiring in place first - almost. I somehow completely missed the air conditioner circuit, probably because I was working on the wiring plans in our 60° barely heated house in the middle of Winter. I did place extra runs of 12/2 in the walls before I installed the GWB around the panel, but as we shop around for efficient A/C units, it's looking like I'm going to need to get a piece of 10/3 in there to supply adequate 220v power to the A/C unit. I think I can thread the wire into the wall from under the house without having to tear out drywall (and here I thought I was finished under the house), so it may not be too bad.

Household Wiring Installation

Before drilling holes in studs and feeding wires, we had to decide on colors and styles for switches, receptacles, electrical boxes, and all the rest of the stuff needed to make the light come on when we flick the switch. Because we live here while the renovation is happening we couldn't just run all the circuits then wait until the finish work in a particular room was done to install the fixtures - I needed to disconnect the old circuit and be able to use the new one pretty much on the same day - which meant the switches and receptacles had to be on hand. As with most of the mechanical systems supplies, you get what you pay for with this stuff so we decided early to eliminate the bottom end stuff from the mix. I couldn't see putting in the effort to re-wire the house only to have switches fail and plugs falling out of the wall because we wanted to save a couple bucks on supplies. I made a few trips to the store to get an idea of what was available and take some notes, then planned a hot date with the lovely bride to the Home Depot electrical aisle (I'm so romantic). She agreed that the 89¢ light switches were not acceptable, and we moved on to the higher-end stuff. After much flicking of sample switches, we decided to just go for the best and use Lutron® link opens a new window Designer Style lighting controls in Light Almond for the entire house. We selected their Diva® and Maestro® lines for dimmers and fan controls, the matching Claro® line for regular light switches and receptacles, and decided to finish everything off with screwless wall plates.

click to magnify The wiring kit & PT-1600 labeler.

As I started to add up the costs for the switches and receptacles we were going to need, I had some doubts about our decision since a basic dimmer was going to run $20-$30 each (with some of the three-way units topping $75). We stuck with the decision on switches (and I'm glad we did), but decided we could skip the designer style wall receptacles and just use normal stuff for the units that wouldn't be located at counter-top height (the $5 ones, not the 89¢ junk) . As we've gotten closer to finish work in the kitchen, we also decided to go with black controls and stainless-steel wall plates to better match the appliances, rather than light almond stuff. Because of the relatively high cost of all the lighting controls, I did some poking around on the 'net and found I could save a significant amount of money by purchasing all the units online, rather than from local stores. It takes a little while for the stuff to show up (since it's just getting processed by the online retailer and then shipped from the manufacturer), but the cost savings is worth the wait - online costs were less than half the local prices, even with shipping.

In addition to selecting the switches and receptacles before work could begin, I also selected the heaviest, largest electrical boxes available for use in the walls. The cost difference between the tiny, thin-walled boxes versus the heavy-duty units is insignificant compared to having a roomy, solid box for wiring that the screws won't pull out of the first time you snug up the light switch in the box. I also put together a little "home wiring kit" of tools and supplies to allow me to work without constantly having to go find more wire nuts or staples in the middle of the job. Finally, the most important item needed to install household wiring, in my opinion, is a label maker. No matter how nice the plans are and how good you think your memory is, everything should be labeled throughout the wiring project. I used a Brother P-Touch® PT-1600 link opens a new window handheld label-maker when I was doing data center wiring in my IT days and loved it, so I purchased the same unit for use on the house renovation. Apart from the obvious need to label the breakers in the service panel, I labeled the ends of wire runs at the wall and junction boxes, as well as inside the panel itself. This was especially helpful for our project since many of the new circuits were not connected until months (sometimes years) after they had been put in the walls and ceiling during the installation of the new panel. I also labeled the cover plate of every junction box with the breaker number for the wiring inside, as well as the back of the wall plates for any receptacle or switch. Before doing any electrical work, it's now a simple matter of pulling the wall plate (or looking at the junction box in the attic) to see what breaker to switch off prior to exposing the wiring.

Once all the supplies and proper tools are assembled, the actual wiring installation is a pretty simple matter. As I said, I find wiring quite satisfying, especially when the homeowner heads to work in the morning after using old switches she had to jiggle to make work and comes home to new, soft-touch illuminated paddle switches in their place at the end of the day. Most of the house wiring is now complete, although a few circuits will get additional receptacles added as I finish the carpentry work in the living room, bedroom and walk-in closet and extend the wire runs around the remainder of those rooms.

Voice & Data Wiring Installation

click to magnify The voice & data wiring access.

While installing the wiring for switches and receptacles, I also tried to get everything in place I could think of to meet our needs for home networking, home entertainment, telephone and CATV. Looking back now on what I managed to get installed, I would have done a couple things differently on the home networking end, although the latest wireless tech has resolved any shortcomings of the initial installation.

I set up the voice & data wiring much the same as the household power wiring, so all voice & data runs would emanate from a central service entrance and feed various locations throughout the house. We receive telephone, internet and CATV from the same provider (Comcast), so there's just the one coax cable coming into the house near the electrical service (we did install an extra conduit in case we switch to FiOS or add some other service at a later date). I added an access panel and mounted the cable modem and all my coax-splitters inside the wall below the electrical panel. I then split the coax line from the pole to feed the phone modem, broadband modem, and CATV through another splitter for CATV distribution. The second splitter feeds CATV wall plates located in the living room, bedroom and the lovely bride's office (we only have the one TV, but we're not going to live forever, so it made sense to add CATV drops where ever they might be needed). I purchased a roll of good quality RG-6 coax, a crimp tool, and gold-plated connectors so I could custom make all the lengths of coax required for the installation. The telephone wiring from the cable modem (RJ-11 output) is connected to a junction block in the wall with the modem, where I distribute the phone lines to the same areas as the CATV, as well as a couple lines to my office. I also ran a spare phone line and healthy length of RG-6 into the attic as spares, in case we need to add another drop somewhere else.

click to magnify Multiple RG-6 leads behind the home entertainment area.

I changed the configuration of the stuff in the wall behind the TV when we recently upgraded to Hi-Def (I was trying to hold off on the new TV until the renovation was done, but the 25+ year old Sony finally conked out last year) and wanted to clean up the mess of CATV signal splitters that were kicking around behind the home entertainment center. One of the problems with wall plates for coax is that they introduce additional signal loss to the line compared to just running the coax through a hole in the wall and connecting it to the back of a device. With the wall plate, the coax is terminated in the electrical box and screwed onto the back of a little adaptor on the wall plate, then another piece of coax runs from the front of the wall plate to the device. Every little adaptor adds -3db signal loss, (and every end connection in a line doesn't help either) so they can start to add up. I had tried to cram a couple 3-way splitters inside an electrical box (1 in-2 out, with one of the "outs" feeding another 1 in-2 out splitter), then connected all the outs to the back of a multi-gang wall plate with little pigtails of coax. It was ugly. I started over by losing the wall plate / electrical box combination, and went with a little double-gang wall plate that's shaped like a big louver so you can just feed wires out of the wall without having to use adaptors. The open plate is attached to a "backless" electrical box, and I mounted a good quality 4-way splitter to the wall behind the opening. I can remove the wall plate and gain good access to the splitter to screw on the coax through the double-gang opening, and I got rid of all those little pigtails of mangled coax. It's much neater and provides a noticeably better signal to the TV, cable box and VCR. I'm also planning to add a TV antenna soon, so the new configuration gives me a little room to add the additional coax drop from the attic. With all the signal splitting going on at the service entrance and behind the TV, I decided to add a CATV line amp on the coax line from the pole as well. I also added termination caps to all of the coax runs that don't connect to a device (office, bedroom, attic) to eliminate any ghosting or interference in the CATV signal.

I tried to minimize the home networking wiring in the walls, since the technology changes so rapidly it didn't make a lot of sense to install a bunch of components that would likely be obsolete by the time I finished. Even though the phone modem can also be used for internet access (it's got a pair of RJ-45 outputs on it in addition to the RJ-11 outputs), I decided to just run RG-6 coax to my office, then connect a dedicated broadband modem there and keep all the Ethernet cable in the office. I did install a length of Cat-5e cable in the wall between my office and the lovely bride's through a couple of RJ-45 wall plate connectors, thinking she could use that to connect her desktop to the network. We've since decided her office would be more of a traditional Sukiya style room, so with no desk there wouldn't be a desktop system either. The wall connection might still get used for her laptop, but most of that will be handled through wireless networking now. What I thought I should have done when I had the walls open was run an Ethernet cable to the home entertainment area. Our Blu-Ray player is set-up to have an internet connection (for additional BD Live content), and with Netflix streaming movies available, it would be very nice to have the throughput of fast Ethernet available at the TV. The problem with running wireless G networking for streaming video was it could only run at 54mbps (compared to 100mbps fast Ethernet) so the feed was pretty choppy. I upgraded our home network to gigabit Ethernet (1,000mbps) not long ago when we lost a router, and picked up a wireless N access point and bridge to connect the home entertainment goodies to the internet. Wireless N runs at 300mbps, so it ended up working out better than if I'd connected the TV with fast Ethernet in the first place (as suspected... it would have been obsolete by the time I was ready to use it). Okay, I admit I've still got some computer geek in me even after all these years of working on the house.

FM/UHF TV Antenna Installation

click to magnify Installation details (10 photos).

Yeah, I know - seems really silly, doesn't it? With all the wonderful options for cable, FiOS and satellite, why bother with an antenna? Well, two reasons: 1) Picture in picture TV viewing. Comcast used to broadcast the local networks in HD through the cable without the need for a converter/decoder box to tune in about 30-40 channels. When they upgraded to all digital Xfinity service, they quietly dumped the network HD feeds. I can still plug the cable directly into the TV and tune in a bunch of stations, but the stations are only available in SD (480i) which is pretty awful to look at on an HD TV. With the antenna, I can grab over-the-air digital HD broadcasts from most of the local networks at 1080i. It's quite handy to be able to have one picture with the Red Sox via the cable box, and another picture with the Patriots running the over-the-air network feed. 2) FM radio listening. There's some fine music stations and public radio in Boston, and I don't want to pony up the dough for an XM satellite tuner to pull them in to our little house. We pretty much listen to Pandora whenever we want some music on (using a Squeezebox to get it to the entertainment system), but for those times when we want to listen to the radio however (mostly NPR), without the antenna we just get static across the dial.

Before getting anything for an antenna, I needed to figure out how big the thing was going to have to be, and how high to mount it. With all the hoopla surrounding the end of analog TV broadcasts in June, 2009, there are plenty of tools available on the web to help get things worked out. One of the more useful is AntennaWeb link opens a new window from the Consumer Electronics Association. Enter your address and it tells you what stations you can receive and what kind of antenna you'll need. Another site that does the same sort of thing (and that I think actually works a bit better) is from the FCC at DTV.gov link opens a new window. The thing I like about the FCC site is they give you a nice map with the location of the tower on it (both sites provide compass directions), as well as the broadcast frequency for the stations.

In our case, most of the stations are broadcast from the same couple of hills outside Boston, so all the transmitters show up within a couple of degrees of each other (which means a directional antenna will work nicely). They're all also using the UHF band, with broadcast ranges between 18 Mhz and 42 Mhz. There are a couple Hi-VHF stations about 20° off-axis from the UHF towers, and I have no idea where exactly the FM transmitters are, but I figure they're likely in the same neighborhood. Rather than try and make my own antenna based on wavelength calculations and folded dipoles and all that jazz, I just looked for a fairly small Yagi-type antenna that was tuned to receive UHF and FM, and found exactly what I wanted at Denny's Antenna Service link opens a new window, which is a very informative website in case you're looking for an antenna. I was leaning heavily toward Denny's EZ HD link opens a new window antenna, then gave Denny a call to verify it would meet my needs for the frequencies I wanted to tune for both TV and FM. We had a nice chat and he assured me it would do the trick.

click to magnify The installed antenna.

I purchased the EZ HD antenna, as well as the J-tube mounting bracket and balun from Denny's, then picked up a Holland amplifier, some good quality splitters and a ground block from Solid Signal link opens a new window, as well as a few other coax wiring goodies since I was also doing the voice & data wiring described above at the time. I've had that antenna and bracket kickin' around for nearly a year, but now that I've been working on the gable end trim up on the roof, I've finally gotten the antenna installed as well. For details of the installation, please look over the photos in this section.

Once the antenna was up, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of stations the TV found when doing the channel scan... it came up 14 stations (I was hoping to get 5 or 6), and all but 2 of them are in High Def. The really big difference was in the FM reception, with crystal clear stations coming in at almost every stop on the dial. We're very pleased with the results (but if the Red Sox don't make the play-offs this year we won't get to try the picture-in-picture fun), and it all cost less than a single month's cable bill, so no complaints here.

Standby Power System

I'm not sure what the problem is with the utility power grid in these parts, but the reliability leaves much to be desired. No exaggeration - the power goes out or varies wildly on an almost weekly basis here. Most folks probably don't notice it, but I've got 6 uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) in the house for all the computers and home entertainment gear so when the wind blows or it rains, all the UPS's start beeping due to the variation in line voltage or frequency. I've lost hard drives and even fried a home theater receiver once due to the surges and outages, which is why I've got all those line-conditioning UPS's in the first place. We also get the occasional violent thunderstorm or hurricane from time to time (we're only a couple miles from the Atlantic ocean, after all), so having the UPS's for all our sensitive electronics makes sense.

Deciding on the Need for Standby Power
Even though the power goes out briefly and we get strange surges during storms, it's not that often that we actually lose power for more than a few hours. When I was doing all the planning for the new service panel and the subsequent installation, it never occurred to me to add a proper home standby power generator. Then in the early Spring of 2008 (I think), we had a freak late Winter ice storm and the power went out for 4 days. That was pretty miserable. 2 days in, the neighbor let me borrow his generator and run it through a tank of gas just to make sure the freezer stayed frozen and to cycle the boiler a few times. We decided then that we needed to get our own generator and never go through that mess again. I did lots of online research regarding standby power systems, since the only generators I knew anything about were huge commercial units from back in my days of data center planning. It became clear rather quickly that I should have taken care of the standby power system while doing the new electrical service panel planning and installation. I guess I was overwhelmed with holes in the roof and missing walls at the time, so the generator just never made it onto my radar.

click to magnify No space for a transfer switch here.

In order to have a standby generator automatically come on when the power goes out, there's lots of stuff that has to happen with the electrical panel and service entrance to get an automatic transfer switch in place. The transfer switch then detects when the power goes out for more than 10 seconds and fires up the generator (usually a large, natural gas fueled unit) to power whatever circuits have been hard-wired into the transfer switch. It also monitors the power lines and when power is returned, transfers the load back to utility power and shuts down the generator. Another option is to go for a manual transfer switch, which also needs to get installed within a couple feet of the main service panel. Like the automatic transfer switch, the manual switch has a limited number of circuits available which are hard wired into the main panel. When running on standby power those circuits are energized by a generator (usually a portable, gasoline fueled unit) that's simply plugged in to transfer switch with a large capacity extension cord. The down side of the manual switch is that it obviously doesn't automatically start and stop the generator as needed, but more importantly for us, it also needs to be installed right next to the existing service panel. The only location options we had for the transfer switch would have been to either put the thing in the living room on the other side of the wall near the service panel (for an automatic switch), or mount it outside the house next to meter box and service entrance (so we could plug in to a manual switch). Either way, I would have to remove a lot of the drywall around the main panel to get at the knock outs and install the wiring for the transfer switch circuits. This was not going to be a simple project.

Selecting a Generator
Apart from the transfer switch issues, I also had to decide on a generator make and size. At least that part was easy for me... There's lots of generator brands out there, but most of them use some sort of lawn mower engine and a generator that's made who knows where. Lawn mower engines aren't made to run non-stop for a week, so I quickly eliminated most of what's available. The choices left were pretty much from Honda Power Equipment or Generac. Hondas still have a standard little gas engine in them, but as far as gas engines go, those are mighty fine units. Generac on the other hand, only makes one thing: generators, and they've been doing that in Wisconsin since the mid-50's, doncha know. No lawn mowers or pressure washers or whatever, just generators. I was pretty familiar with their big commercial and residential standby units, but had already decided that we regrettably would not be able to install a residential standby unit due to the issues with the service panel location. I was happy to learn that Generac recently started making smaller portable units. As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to generators there's Generac, then there's everyone else. For more information about these fine units, look over the Generac link opens a new window web site.

click to magnify The Generac GP8000E.

Sizing the generator was pretty simple too: get the largest capacity we could reasonably afford was the basic rule. All we really needed to run was the refrigerator and the heating system (1,200w for the 'fridge, and 800w for the heating pumps and H.R.V.), so a little 2kW generator might have done the job, but only barely. There's a lot to consider in addition to just what the proposed load might be - How would we be making the connections? What fuel will be used? How much stuff do we really need to power? What are the start-up loads compared to the running loads? How long will the generator run between fuelings? So, something bigger than 2kW would be needed to run any kind of load with a motor, since the power required for motor start-up can be as high as double the rated power draw when running... plugging in the 'fridge just to have it blow the breakers on some little generator every time it starts wouldn't help much. The unit would be connected with a plug and cord (more on that below), so I wanted to not get something too big otherwise the power cord would cost as much as the generator. Discarding the 2kW and smaller sizes put us basically into the 4kW and larger.

Looking at the prices of these units it became pretty clear we were going to be in the $1,000 neighborhood. A 6.5kW or 7kW unit would likely handle all the proposed loads and a few lights, but the price difference between a 6.5kW and an 8kW is only a couple hundred bucks. Once we get into the 10kW and larger, the price really changes (as in, the 10kW is double the cost of the 8kW). The other thing I liked about the 8kW size is it's rated for 10kW surge (to deal with those start-up loads) and it has a big 8 gallon fuel tank. It's rated to use about 1 gallon per hour, but that rating is based on running at half load. That's another reason to buy a larger generator than what you'll likely need - it's much less stressful on the engine (and more fuel efficient) to run an 8kW generator at half-load than to run a 4kW unit at full load. Also, at 8kW the 240v output is around 30a, so a 10AWG 4-wire extension cord will handle the load.

click to magnify The generator extras.

Assuming we were getting a Generac 8kW unit still left a few variables. They make a couple different product lines of generators in that size and again, the price varies between those by a few hundred bucks. Their portable generators include the XG series, which are basically designed as a job site generator with all GFCI outlets, a nicely lit control panel, and weatherproof covers on all the outlets. They also added a new XP "professional" series in 2011 which are even more rugged than the XG series, including a more sturdy frame with a lifting eye, and a complete GFCI protected, weatherproof control panel. Both nice, but not something we need for simple home standby power. The covered outlets would be nice of course, but the GFCI system isn't needed at all, since all the house wiring already has GFCI breakers or plugs and the generator loads are run through those circuits. All we need is the GP series, which doesn't have the GFCI stuff or any other bells and whistles (although the new 2011 models now have covered outlets). Since we're not in California we don't need the CARB compliant model (which saves about $250), however we did go for the electric start unit (which adds about $100), since I wouldn't want to have to pull start the generator in the midst of an ice storm or hurricane. The unit we purchased is the Generac GP8000E, model 5696-0. I had been planning to purchase a factory reconditioned unit from CPO Generac link opens a new window, since I've purchased other stuff from CPO and not had any trouble with them. However, they sold out of the electric start models by the time I'd made the final decision (and Generac is replacing the old GP8000E with a new model that has the covered outlets now). I ended up making the purchase through Electric Generators Direct link opens a new window for just under $1,200. The only thing that was a little odd was that I ordered a GP8000E model 5681, which is the 49-state electric start model, but they shipped a GP8000E model 5696, which is the CSA compliant model. Not a big deal, since Generac is changing the model line up, and I'm pretty sure EGD is just selling off whatever inventory is left. The 5696 is the same as the 5681, it's just got a little different exhaust on it. They didn't charge me any extra for it, so no big deal.

In addition to the generator purchase, we also picked up a few extras that of course added to the total cost. The generator doesn't do any good without a means to connect it to the house, so I bought a 25 foot, 30 amp, 4-wire generator cord. I was going to buy a 30 foot cord from Reliance Controls, but I noticed Home Depot had a nice orange and black cord with a covered end - since my generator was orange and black, I had to get that one instead. I also got a cover for the unit from Classic Accessories, which fits perfectly and has a couple spots in it for the handles to fit through. Lastly, we needed to get some proper fuel cans. Plastic gas cans are pretty awful, leaking fumes and expanding and contracting with any change in the weather. We decided to get the real deal with some proper Type 1 safety cans from Justrite. Eventually I'd like to convert this unit to natural gas, since it's going to get parked in a permanent spot after the garage is built, and Generac uses the same OHVI engine in their residential standby units (so getting the parts to make the switch should be possible). In the mean time I picked up 2, 5 gallon cans to get us by. If I don't make the switch to natural gas then I'll likely get another 2 or 3 cans, but at around $40 each, this should do for now. The cover and gas cans were all purchased through Amazon.com.

Connecting Standby Power
We still need a safe method of connecting the standby generator to the house wiring, and I just didn't like the idea of putting a manual transfer switch with its breakers on the outside of the house. Some folks just use a bunch of extension cords from the generator output panel to outdoor outlets, which back feeds power through those outlets and into the panel (or run them through a window or door to plug in individual appliances). It works, but it's very unsafe. Not only is there a risk of overloading the wiring in your house, but it's also quite illegal - if the house main breaker is left on when back feeding the panel, you're essentially sending power back into the utility grid with your generator. While it's unlikely that the generator would handle that load (trying to power every house between you and where ever the power outage occurred), the fact remains that you're sending power into the utility lines and possibly energizing downed power lines. When a utility crew attempts to re-connect those lines, they now have power in them thanks to your generator. Electrocuting the utility workers is generally frowned upon if you want them to restore power to your house. Extension cords to individual appliances work fine and are fairly safe, but that means moving appliances and running cords all over the place, and doesn't do anything for loads that are hard-wired (like the boiler).

click to magnify Getting power to the panel (2 photos).

Fortunately there's another option for standby power supply into the panel, which is called a safety interlock kit. All standby power transfer switches have some manner of safety interlock built into them, which prevents the possibility of back-feeding the grid by making it impossible to have the utility lines connected to the standby power lines at any time. A safety interlock kit does the same thing, but it's just a simple mechanical lock out that's installed in the home's service panel between the main breaker and another breaker that's connected to the standby power supply. The interlock uses a sliding metal plate that must be moved in order to engage the main or standby breaker, making it impossible to have both breakers in the on position at the same time. A safety interlock kit is especially attractive for retrofit applications, since there is no additional re-wiring of the panel circuits required - when running on standby power, you simply turn on the circuit breakers for whatever you want to supply power to, and leave the rest of the panel off. The safety interlock kit does require the addition of a 2-pole, 240v 30a breaker (depending on the size of your generator) for standby power input located right next to the main breaker, which might be a problem if you have a packed service panel. We still had plenty of room near the main breaker so installation space wasn't an issue. Safety interlock kits are also relatively inexpensive (less than $150) compared to a transfer switch (which is at least $250). Since we have a Murray electrical panel (made by Siemans), I selected a Siemens Safety Interlock Kit #ECSBPK03, purchased from Kirby Risk link opens a new window. More information regarding Siemens / Murray interlock kits is available in their Power Interlocks Brochure link opens a new window.

With an interlock kit selected, I still needed to get power from the generator to the panel. I had already added a new 10/4 line to the panel when installing the central air conditioner, and wasn't looking forward to trying to snake another one of those big cables through the already crowded wall space below the panel. Instead I decided to just run the line outside the house using the meter box on the other side of the wall from the service panel. I had a knock-out available next to the main power input conduit, so added a bit of 3/4 inch conduit and an angle box to route the wire down the wall to the water table trim. I ran the entire 35 foot length of wire through that conduit and hole (leaving some extra up top for inside the service panel), then foam sealed the hole and caulked around the opening, adding a screw through the angle box into the wood to secure the box in place. Back under the house once more, I routed the wire up above the radiant insulation and along the floor joists over to the East wall, where I was planning to install the power inlet box for the generator. The idea is that when there's a garage there, I'll be able to park the generator either behind the garage or inside (with a door open), and still be well within range of the plug with the 25 foot generator cord. I mounted the Reliance Controls PB30 power inlet box on the side of the house, under the roofed section that will eventually connect the house to the garage. All the was left to do now was some work in the service panel.

click to magnify The interlock kit in the panel (3 photos).

Interlock Kit Installation & Service Panel Labelling
Interlock kit installation began with moving a couple of existing breakers in the panel to make room for the new standby power input breaker. Not only must the standby input breaker be up and to the right of the main breaker (since my panel is installed upside down, that is), the breaker spot next to it must also be vacated since those lugs in the panel would share power with the input breaker. The interlock kit makes it impossible to install a breaker there too, so there's no chance of screwing it up. I had enough slack wire inside the service panel so re-locating the Clothes Dryer, Well Pump and Central A/C breakers was simple enough. I then wired in and mounted the new 30a breaker for the standby input. The interlock kit doesn't require any modification of the panel (some after market models do), but it does take a little wiggling and pushing to get into the right spot. It has a set of clips that snap into place around the input breaker, then mounts with a screw to the main breaker. Because off how the interlock bars work, I found it easiest to sort of hang the interlock on the panel face, then attach the panel face back on to the enclosure ensuring the clips engage the input breaker. With the interlock installed, I then spent a little time re-labelling the service panel to clearly mark the standby power input breaker, as well as indicate which breakers should be engaged when running on standby power.

The day after I finished installing the interlock, I decided to fill the generator with oil and fire it up (I'd had it plugged in to charge the battery but hadn't started it since I received it). The wind was blowing pretty well, and just as I finished topping up the engine oil, the power went out. I put in a couple gallons of gas and hit the start button, and the generator fired right up. It wasn't as loud as the lawn mower (but it's still pretty loud), so I left it in the temp garage with the door open to help dampen the noise in the house. I ran the cord from the generator over to the plug, then came inside and switched off the main to engage the standby input breaker. Oops - I forgot to turn off all the stuff in the panel first! All the lights and TV came back on, and I heard the 'fridge restart as well as the pumps on the boiler fire up. I could tell by the sound of the generator that it had quite a load on it, but it didn't shut down or blow any breakers. I guess 8kW is enough output to run the whole house. We went through the panel (I hadn't labelled anything yet) and switched off a lot of the breakers while keeping enough engaged for a few lights, outlets, and the essentials. The standby power system had passed it's first unplanned test with flying colors. The only thing we noticed was that there's no way to tell when the power came back on now. The folks across the street have a big Kohler residential generator, so seeing if their lights are on doesn't work. Looks like we're going to need to get one of those Reliance Controls PowerBACK™ sensors to call this project finished.

click to magnify The PowerBACK™ monitor.

I ordered the PowerBACK™ from Amazon.com and had it a few days later, ready for installation. The thing is very simple to install, although I wasn't sure where I was going to mount it. Luckily it has a magnetic back panel, so I could just stick it to the panel cover. Not pretty, but effective. I removed the panel cover (but left the section with the labels hanging on the breakers, since the interlock kit sort of holds it in place), and ran the 2 wires from the power monitor into the panel. I put a piece of woven cable protector over the wires (since they had to sneak out from under the edge of the panel cover), then connected the ground wire to the panel ground buss and wrapped the induction cable around one of the hot leads ahead of the main breaker. A couple wire ties secured the induction lead in place, and everything went back together. As I was re-installing the panel cover, the lights in the house flickered a couple times (it was another very windy day outside) then all the UPS's started beeping and the power went out again. I told you we lost power here all the time! The PowerBACK™ comes with a 9V battery, so I popped it in, turned the thing on, and went outside and fired up the generator. An hour or so later something that sounded like a smoke alarm started making noise, which meant the power was back on and the new unit had done the job. It's comforting to know we're fully prepared for future power outages.