YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Mahoning and Shenango valleys are no strangers to volatile weather and subsequent power outages.
But for many, the intensity of the storms that rampaged through the region in late March and early April was the last straw. Homeowners, fed up with weeks of continuing power failures, are scrambling for electrical generators to provide a reliable backup should they recur.
On March 25, heavy rains and winds whipped across the five-county area, leaving more than 73,000 homes without power in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio, and Mercer and Lawrence counties in western Pennsylvania. Five days after the storm, hundreds remained without power.
The following Saturday, April 1, brought more severe weather, another rash of power failures and heavy damage. By that afternoon, 25% of Mahoning County was without electricity; 37% of Trumbull County was knocked out; while 19% of Columbiana County was in the dark. Once again, it took days to restore power.
Homeowners responded swiftly as they descended on businesses that sell and provide service for residential power generators.
“The demand is unprecedented,” says Angela Vincent, controller at Professional Engine Systems, Canfield. In the wake of the storms, she reports that business is up 48% from last year. “Our sales people are averaging six to eight appointments a day, including weekends.”
In particular, sales of whole-house generators have soared since the storms, Vincent says.
These generators can power an entire house – from furnace and air conditioning to lights and other appliances – during an outage. The units are powered by propane or natural gas and integrated into the home’s electrical system. A power failure automatically triggers the backup generator, restoring electricity within seconds.
“Everyone we’ve talked to wants a home standby unit,” Vincent says. “They want that seamless transition and they’re scrambling for home standbys.”
Since the end of March, Vincent says, Professional Engine Systems has placed some $250,000 in orders. She’s never seen such demand in so short a time.
“Demand went through the roof during COVID,” she says. “But this surpasses even that because of the concentrated period of time.”
According to Transparency Market Research, the U.S. market for residential generators is expected to expand at an annual rate of 4.5% by 2030. This anticipated growth is being driven by several factors, the research shows, such as increased frequency of power outages caused by natural calamities and an aging electrical grid.
Major generator manufacturers such as Generac, for example, last year reported record sales. In 2022, the Wisconsin company enjoyed a 22% increase in net sales, rising to $4.56 billion from $3.75 billion a year earlier. Residential product sales increased 19% to $2.91 billion.
The recent severe storms across the Mahoning Valley also have triggered a buying frenzy for backup power systems, says Mike Krake, president and owner of Generator Specialists Inc. in North Lima.
“Portable generators are in demand. We came in Monday after the storms and people were buying them up,” Krake says. “They naturally went to the big-box stores first. Once they ran out, they ended up coming here.”
Most of the sales at Generator Specialists are industrial and commercial grade generators. Approximately 25% are dedicated to residential customers.
Residential generators range from portable units that vary in price from $500 to $1,500, to whole-house standby generators that command between $5,000 and $7,000, Krake says.
“Every job that I’m quoting now is for whole-house generators,” he says. On a bright afternoon in April, the company’s shelves are stacked with boxes of these generators ready to be shipped to customers and installed.
“A whole-house generator measures about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide and is 29 inches high,” Krake says.
The units are placed outside the house and are powered by hooking into the home’s natural gas supply, or fueled by propane. The unit is then wired into the home’s electricity distribution system, where a transfer switch automatically activates the generator in case of an outage.
Krake says generator sales have steadily increased since the pandemic. “People were starting to get really worried,” he says. “Places were shutting down and people were home more often,” some working remotely and more in need of a reliable backup power source.
The latest round of extended power outages prompted an even bigger surge in both sales and service calls. “They’re buying from all over,” Krake says. “I was in Farmington last night and in Cortland a couple of times last week.”
For those who lack the budget for a whole-house generator, sometimes a portable generator would suffice, Krake says. Portable generators run on gasoline and are normally used to power select appliances that use less energy – refrigerators, sump pumps, televisions and lights, for example – or other electronics in the house, he says. All portable units come equipped with outlets that can accommodate an appliance with a standard plug.
These generators, however, are unable to power a natural gas furnace or central air unit without someone also installing a transfer switch, since furnaces lack plugs, Krake says. Higher wattage equipment such as electric or geothermal furnaces require more power than a portable unit, he says.
A factor likely to drive future sales of backup generators is the adoption of electric vehicles, Krake says. “When the power fails, how are you going to recharge?” he asks. “You can’t just put gas in it and go.”
Krake often asks potential customers whether they’re considering buying an electric vehicle: “If they are, let’s make sure we have enough generator to charge your car,” he says.
Generator Specialists carries Generac, Kohler and Cummins generators and has been in business for 45 years. Krake, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from Youngstown State University, entered the business during the 1970s.
“I started out with air-cooled engines. Then I went to an Onan generator school in Minneapolis,” he recalls. He suspected that this industry would prove to be a growing field. He was right.
“Our dependency on electricity has doubled compared to what it used to be,” he says.
Today, Krake says, as intense weather patterns continue and consumers gravitate to electric vehicles, the need for reserved power is going to be much greater.
“This weather that we’ve had is unusual. Could this be the norm? Could this be global warming? I don’t know,” he says. “If that’s the situation, then there’s going to be more demand for emergency power.”
Pictured at top: Mike Krake, president and owner of Generator Specialists Inc., North Lima, says his company sells both portable and whole house generators.