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Generators, batteries spring to life when power conks out after Isaias

A gasoline-powered generator being used at an Oceanside

A gasoline-powered generator being used at an Oceanside residence on Aug. 9 after Tropical Storm Isaias caused a power outage. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

When Tropical Storm Isaias hit on Aug. 4, thousands of private generators and even some solar-fueled batteries powered on across Long Island, and so did the phone lines.   

As the hot days and long nights wore on, phones of companies who sell, install and service those sometimes lifesaving systems lit up with nearly the same urgency as customers' attempts to report their power outages, industry officials say.

Hugh Gahn, general manager of Mayfair Power Systems in Freeport, says he’s fielding an inordinate number of calls for home and business generators. A disclaimer on his company's website asks for customers' patience because "we are extremely overwhelmed at this time."

“It’s much greater than after Sandy,” said Gahn, referring to the flood of calls he’s received after Isaias in comparison to the even larger October 2012 superstorm that knocked out power to nearly 1 million of LIPA’s 1.1 customers. Isaias took out upward of 420,000. “Much greater than I can ever respond to," he said, citing the August heat as the likely increase over Sandy.

It wasn't just potential customers looking for alternative power sources. Older systems that hadn't been maintained or run for years belched and sputtered after a few days of constant running.

"We got a huge influx of calls from people needing service and repairs," said Frank Navetta, president of PowerPro Generators in Bohemia, which kept six phone lines staffed all day and into night after the storm to field thousands of calls from new and existing customers who needed to troubleshoot their generators.

"Even those people who had generators, and especially the older ones, they were expecting their systems to perform to their maximum capacity, but they could not support that level of use," he said. 

Those who wanted a new generator during the outage were mostly out of luck. It wasn’t just that COVID-related restrictions had limited production of new generators — installing a new one on such short notice was out of the question, Navetta said.

PowerPro's generators, which cost upward of $13,000 and keep an entire 4,000-square-foot house powered through a blackout, can take weeks or months of engineering and permitting to install.

“Thousands of people called looking for generators,” said Navetta, who is still tending to those with service issues and only now getting to those who are looking for a new system.

Tony Leteri of Fort Salonga is one of them. His neighborhood lost power for days after the storm, and a smaller gasoline powered generator he owns required so many trips to a gas station with a 5-gallon container to refill during the prolonged outage that his son sprang for a new one powered by natural gas.

“I’m not going to count on [PSEG Long Island] keeping the electric going to my house — they just can’t do it,” said Leteri, describing a decadeslong problem of keeping the lights on in his neighborhood, even on sunny days. With the utility, he said, “the only thing that changes is the acronym — it goes from LILCO to LIPA to PSEG. Everything else stays the same.”

But for some more technically savvy customers, the idea of keeping the lights on during an outage comes without the need for fossil fuels.

When Andy Robles and his wife, Heather, had a new solar system by Sunrun installed on the roof of their Oakdale home last year, they decided to buy an LG battery storage unit that works with it to keep the lights, internet router, a refrigerator and a fan, going for a day or more. When the sun shines the next morning (if the sun is out), the battery is recharged. The Robles paid $35,000 for the 22-panel system and a single battery unit (at $3,500), and received tax credits and rebates that reduced that price by around half, or $17,000, he said. During the recent outage of six days, it allowed Robles, who works in technology for JP Morgan, to work from home.

“The battery kicked in immediately,” Andy Robles said. “It was a game changer, really.”

David Schieren, chief executive of EmPower Solar in Island Park, said around 10% of new solar systems included batteries before Isaias, but he'd seen "a surge in interest" after the storm. 

EmPower over the past several years has installed 150 of the units, called Powerwall, made by electric-car maker Tesla, across the region, he said.

The state and PSEG/LIPA offer generous rebates on the units, which have a base price of around $13,000 for one 5,000-watt unit. With a $3,375 rebate and $2,096 federal tax credit, the units can cost around $7,400. (Three units can cost upward of $19,000, with rebates and credits).

A single unit can power a dozen LED lights, a refrigerator, a TV, router and computer for a day or two. A three-unit Powerwall can power 20 lights, up to two TVs, microwave, refrigerator, router, up to three computers and a window AC for 10 hours, Schieren said.

“It’s wild,” he said of the surge in interest. “It’s everything we wanted to happen, though not for the right reason. It speaks to the value and functionality of the technology. Demand is by far as strong as it’s ever been.”

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