The first power outage lasted five days. So did the second one. And the third. The hurricanes that racked Florida in 2004 were a miserable experience for Andre Biewend and his family – including his 3-year-old twins at the time. They were left in a stinking, sweltering home as Mr. Biewend argued with local store owners for dry ice for the fridge.
Not anymore. Biewend, a real estate developer in this suburb of Orlando, invested $15,000 more than a year ago in a standby power generator that keeps his 5,200-square- foot home running through any outage. He likens the generator to an insurance policy – he hopes he never uses it, but now with a baby at home, too, it gives him a sense of security.
"I know that if another hurricane comes, it's life as usual," he says. On his street, seven of 16 neighbors have generators, too.
The standby power generator, like an iPod, is the latest must-have gizmo. No, not those noisy, portable generators that require incessant refueling. Along the Gulf Coast and beyond, weather-weary Americans are investing up to tens of thousands of dollars in propane- or natural gas-run generators that automatically click on when the power is out, running major appliances – even the air conditioning.
The standby generator industry grew five-fold between 2000 and 2005 to a more than $500 million industry, according to Generac Power Systems, the nation's largest generator manufacturer. At Home Depot "it's a huge, huge market," says Bill Palmer, a buyer for the nation's largest home improvement retailer. "The growth has been something we're extremely happy with," he says, though he would not discuss sales numbers.
Once used almost exclusively by hospitals and businesses that couldn't afford to lose power, standby generators are now being snatched up by wealthy and middle-class homeowners, many of whom have endured a week or more with no power. They are popular even in the Midwest and Northeast where storms and power shortages have caused blackouts. The biggest sellers range from $2,000 to $3,000. People must also pay for the installation permits and inspection fees.
In Miami, many are buying larger models to ensure comfort after the next hurricane, says Oriol Torres Haage, chief of electrical compliance in Miami-Dade County.
In October, hurricane Wilma left millions of people, mostly in South Florida, without power for up to two weeks. A couple of years ago county inspectors rarely saw standby generators in homes. Today they inspect up to 100 a week, Mr. Hagge says.