Cambrian: Slice of Life

In Cambria, having an alternative source of power is smart. I just can’t decide what kind

For years, we’ve dreamed of buying a backup power system to provide electricity to our home in times of storms and outages. After all, we live in heavily forested Cambria, where aging, shallow-rooted trees tend to fall over, often onto or through PG&E lines.

Lights out!

But Tanners don’t do decisions well or fast. It’s hard enough for us to figure out what we’ll have for dinner, or if we really want to go to town today, let alone make a significant selection that will be quite expensive.

(You don’t want to go car shopping with us. Just sayin’.)

Then PG&E put our power-system decision making into warp speed.

Now, to help prevent wildfires in times of critically high temperatures, low humidity and/or strong winds, the embattled utility can proactively turn off our electricity. For days.

And the hazards don’t even have to be in our own communities to trigger planned blackouts here at home! According to PG&E spokesman Steve Crawford, the acute danger can be an hour and a half away, or more, as the crow flies. That’s like Kettleman City or further, folks.

Will PG&E warn us ahead of time? If they can, ideally with 48 hours’ notice. But maybe less, or none.

Sure, we’ve managed for decades without a formal backup system. But a family member is an asthmatic recovering stroke/COPD patient who depends on multiple daily treatments from some electrically powered equipment.

So, going without electricity for a few hours or overnight is one thing.

Being powerless, literally, for four or five days? No longer an option.

Other problems when power’s off

There are serious, non-medical situations when there’s no electricity.

No, I don’t mean when your ice cream melts, your cellphone battery goes dead or you can’t get on the internet. What about people whose toilets flush into the sewer system with the help of an electrically powered sump pump?

Yeah, that.

Individuals, families, business owners, agency and public facility leaders and state regulators are among the many faced with the conundrum of long power outages, and they’ve been talking with some urgency about emergency sources of electricity.

On July 18, for instance, I went from a State Board of Forestry webinar to a Cambria Community Services District meeting, and a much-repeated topic in both sessions was “generators.”

Among the forestry folks’ concerns were the fire-starting potential of petroleum-fueled generators.

And CCSD directors learned to their (and our) surprise that day that only one of its water-supply wells had a back-up generator, and that unit was no longer strong enough to power the well’s pump! Really?

(Fortunately, staff had leaped into action, renting a generator, which is temporarily in place on the district’s highest water-flow well, SR4 on the Santa Rosa Creek aquifer. Just in case.)

At our house

The Tanners’ problem is, if we can afford a backup power supply, which system should we get?

Buying a big unit or array could be one of the most expensive purchases many families would make, after buying a home, sending a child to college, deluxe weddings and buying that car, etc.

So extra-careful research was in order.

We had to logically balance benefits versus potential problems versus (cough, cough) the cost.

I went online to check out the options. Then I asked local experts, the people who sell, install and service each kind of system.

For links to many more resources, I went to the Cambria Fire Department’s nifty new emergency-readiness website,

Our choices seem to be:

1. Generator, with various options for size and fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane and natural gas, or dual propane/natural gas). Those systems can be as advanced (and pricey) as a permanent installation to power the entire house and as basic as one or more small generators to power individual circuits and appliances.

Generators can be noisy (about on par with a riding mower) and pose safety hazards in some situations.

2. Electric storage batteries (Hello, Tesla Powerwall!), which are charged off the grid or from solar. But batteries are toxic and relatively short-lived, and during long outages, we’d need a backup system, which is …..

3. Solar panels+storage batteries with inverter-charger. Solar is quiet, clean and “green,” reducing our carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels. Solar has nifty benefits when the power’s on, such as possibly reducing our PG&E bill by pumping kilowatts into the grid. It’s also the most expensive option, even with rebates and tax credits.

But, without battery backup, solar won’t provide power during a blackout.

Decision time?

While we could make our decision quickly, we could find that our selection is back ordered. That was the case for CCSD staffers, which, once they discovered the woeful lack at the wells, hustled to find a rental generator to cover weeks of waiting for the one the district is buying.

I recommend doing your own research, even though the mind boggles. I got advice from generator experts like Jim Rady of Rady Electric in Cambria and Josh Backlin of AllTech Services/Generac in Paso Robles, Phil Campbell of Solarponics, Bill Seavey of Cambria (a do-it-yourself solar advocate) and several other solar vendors and experts. They all helped us whittle down our options.

Here’s some of what I learned:

• Any option will be costly, even doing nothing. Why so? Because, if the power’s going to be out for days and we have no backup source, we’d likely have to pack up Husband Richard and his equipment and go someplace where the power is reliably on. He hasn’t traveled since his stroke, so that could be a tough trip to a distant destination.

• If someone in your household regularly uses electric-powered, life-support medical equipment, be sure to inform the county sheriff’s office and fire department, tell your insurance company and file PG&E’s medical baseline allowance application. We did.

• Certain things are essential: For a permanently installed system, be sure a licensed electrician does the work, meeting all building-code requirements, including an automatic power-transfer switch to prevent dangerous feedback into the grid. You may need a permit.

• Some built-in systems will kick on automatically. Others have to be filled, primed, turned on and connected. And some are difficult to start, rather like a chain saw.

• If you use a small generator to power certain appliances or circuits, don’t run the generator in your garage and don’t use an extension cord outside in the rain.

• All the options need regular maintenance. Since we know zilch about the machinery involved, that means we’ll have ongoing expense to pay someone else to do it.

• And, darn it, there is no one-size-fits-all pat answer that works for you, me and everybody else. The requirements, discomfort-and- inconvenience tolerance and ability to pay are vastly different for each family and home.

Our decision? You had to ask, didn’t you? We’re Tanners. We’ll make our choice soon, really we will, now that we know more about what it is that we really don’t want to decide.

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