How We Evaluate Expensive Purchases: Why We Bought A Generator
I reached the limit of my desire to re-enact Little House On The Prairie every time our power goes out. So, we bought a generator. Today I’ll discuss why, what type of generator we got, how to assess a range of price points for the same product, and perhaps most importantly, why we waited four years to make this purchase.
The 1870’s: Not For Me
I’ve tried living a la the 1870’s and, I’ll be honest, it’s not for me. I can get behind the dresses and bonnets, not to mention the quilts, but that’s where my interest stops. Modern conveniences were invented for a reason.
The biggest issue for us–here on our rural Vermont homestead–is that when the power goes out, we have no running water. I can live without electricity for a week. Candles and flashlights are fine, we cook with gas, we heat with a wood stove, and perishable foods can go in coolers outside in snow banks.
But folks, I draw the line at no running water. We have a well and that well is operated by a pump, which is operated by electricity. So when the power goes out, there’s no water, there’s no flushing toilet, and did I mention there’s no water?
The second biggest issue is that our phone is VOIP (voice over IP) and our internet is fiber optic cable, which runs… you guessed it… on the power lines. Most of our power outages are due to a tree falling across the lines, which means power, internet, and phone are usually all taken out in one arboreal accident.
The dream of the 1890s is alive in much of Vermont, but not so much for me. At least not while I have two toddlers in the house. If it were just me and Mr. Frugalwoods, we’d be willing to rough it (maybe… or maybe not).
The Wait and See Approach to Expensive Purchases
Mr. FW and I’ve been discussing the purchase of a generator since we bought our homestead four years ago. Coming from the city, we had no experience of rural power outages (or rural life at all, for that matter) and we weren’t sure how annoyed we’d be by losing power. So we decided to test it out, to wait and see, to experience first and buy later.
I’m a big fan of the wait and see methodology because I hate the thought of buying something expensive that I might never (or rarely) use. Since the previous owners of our property didn’t have a generator, we reasoned perhaps the power doesn’t go out all the often. So we settled in and waited and see-ed.
Here’s what we’ve learned: the majority of our power outages occur in the winter as a result of snow and ice building up either on the power lines themselves or, more often, the trees near the lines. Enough snow/ice will fell a tree onto a line. Rude. Occassionally we have wind-related outages at other times of the year (occurring when wind knocks a tree over), but winter is definitely power outage high season.
Our first two Vermont winters (2016 and 2017) delivered minor power outages that only lasted a day at most. Nothing major and not enough of a hassle to prompt a generator purchase. We decided to enter our third winter, the winter of 2018-2019, without a generator, hoping for a similarly light touch of the old frosty fingers. You know, just enough outages to make us grateful for electricity, but not enough to make life uncomfortable or anything.
The Winter of 2018 – 2019 Had Other Ideas
Last winter was bent on bending branches and icing roads and just generally being a pill about everything. At the end of last November, we were without power more days than we were with it. That life experience prompted the following, excerpted with edits, from my December 2018 On The Homestead post:
Power Outages Pre-kids
The height of romance! Light candles and place them on every surface–the floor too, why not! Create a cute meal of peanut butter sandwiches and open a bottle of wine. Lounge on the floor tickling one another’s chins, playing a decadent game of Scrabble. Discover a long-forgotten box of chocolates that was gifted for one’s work anniversary two years ago and drunkenly indulge. Also discover another bottle of wine.
Giggle at how silly humans are to think they need electricity all the time. Relish the absence of internet interruptions while reading Leaves of Grass aloud by candlelight as you stroke your beloved’s flaxen hair and smugly note how resilient you are in the face of such inconvenience.
Sleep soundly (two bottles of wine, remember), wake up the next day, shrug that there’s still no power, and repeat all of the above.
Power Outages Post-kids
1 minute in: we can do this. I am certain we have flashlights somewhere in this house. Locate flashlights, give one to toddler who proceeds to shine directly into baby’s eyes. Light a few candles. Extinguish candles as soon as the extended reach of toddler is discovered. Ear-splitting tears indicate it’s dinner time. Conduct a frantic search and realize you were planning to bake bread that day, but haven’t yet, and thus have very few non-perishables to feed to children.
Realize you can’t open refrigerator for fear that everything inside will perish. Locate jar of peanut butter and an orange. Slather orange with peanut butter and try to convince children it’s a thing. Watch in horror as baby vomits orange/peanut butter into toddler’s hair. Realize you’ve already used 2 gallons of stored water trying to wash children’s hands prior to dinner. Use baby wipes to inexpertly clean vomit off all family members.
2 minutes in: field 9,846 questions from toddler about: which lights are out (all of them), when the ‘lectricity will return (I have no idea), how ‘lectricity works (it’s an increasing problem that you have no internet), what we will eat for breakfast (not sure we’re going to make it that long), if her noise machine and night light will work (decidedly not), and a listing of everyone she knows followed by, “is their ‘lectricity out too?” Squelch desire to scream: “I KNOW NOTHING AND AM NOT A RELIABLE ADULT CAREGIVER AT PRESENT MOMENT. ALSO WHY ARE WE OUT OF WINE? IS THERE NO JUSTICE IN THIS WORLD?!”
5 minutes in: stand holding full (super full) toddler potty and contemplate fact that, due to water not working, you can’t flush the toilet. Calculate number of toilets in home (3) versus number of toilet-using household members (3) versus frequency of eliminations. Despair. Say a prayer of thanks that you didn’t get around to doing Elimination Communication with your baby, so she is still in diapers. Be grateful that procrastination has upsides.
10 minutes in: declare an early bedtime. Curse self that nearly all bedtime rituals require electricity: baths, teeth brushing, using the freaking potty (seriously kid, again?!), turning on the nightlight and noise machine. Forgo all. Settle for reading books by candlelight–kidding!–flashlight. Attempt to wipe layers of grime off children via baby wipes. Begin to detest scent of baby wipes. Put dirty children in jammies and futilely hope for best.
15 minutes in: wonder what the parents will eat for dinner since appetite for peanut butter and orange was obliterated.
Other than that, we had a magical time.
How Expensive Of An Inconvenience Is It?
Following last winter’s extended historical re-enactment and several early fall outages this year, we decided Generator Time was upon us. But what type of generator to buy? How much to spend? Generators range wildly in price from a couple hundred bucks to over $10,000(!!!). We had to decide how much we were willing to spend in order to prevent a power outage. The way I consider a purchase like this is: how expensive of an inconvenience is it?
I use the metric of inconvenience for a lot of stuff because it helps me identify how much money I’m willing to shell out for any given “convenience” item. And let’s be honest, just about everything we buy is a convenience item. Once you’ve got your food and shelter needs covered, just about everything else is a convenience purchase.
Here are a few non-generator examples from my life:
1) A Carseat For Every Car
We have two kids and two cars. With our first daughter, we bought only one carseat base, which meant we had to lug the seat from car to car anytime we changed cars. This didn’t sound like a major issue to us before she was born and so, we dutifully latched, carted, and re-latched between our two cars. With a screaming baby. In the freezing cold (she was born in November after all). On a city street since we had no driveway and no garage and no assigned parking spot. That got old fast.
With our second baby, we were firmly on team A Carseat For Every Car.
Yes, it’s a luxury, but it’s worth it to us to spend the money on four carseats to avoid transferring seats every time we switch cars. Especially since we both drive both cars equally and we still have no garage and it’s still freezing cold most of the year. As a matter of fact, we hate transferring carseats SO MUCH that I bought a carseat for our adopted grandma to use in her car and I just bought this carseat and had it shipped to my in-laws for use during our next visit (affiliate link).
2) Bedroom Slippers That Fit
Laugh all you want, but I minced around in bedroom slippers that were too tight for six months before I finally bought a new pair. I realized it was dumb and inconvenient to have aching toes. Since I work from home, I wear slippers all day every day (now you know how glamorous I am… ). I bought this pair of moccasins and never looked back (affiliate link). I have super long, super narrow feet (9.5, double A) and these are the first slippers I’ve found that come close to fitting (they’re still too wide, but less wide than everything else I’ve tried).
3) A Woodsplitter
We heat our home with wood and Mr. FW harvests, splits, and stacks this wood himself from our forest. For the first two years of our homestead life, he split wood by hand with an axe and maul. It’s totally possible to do this, but it takes forever and it limited the type of wood we burned since some woods (usually those that burn most efficiently) are too hard to split by hand.
After two years of hand splitting, he decided to invest in a wood splitter and is thrilled at the increased efficiency and speed. He was able to get us to our goal of filling up our entire woodshed (which he built himself) with nine cords of wood, which will last us three winters. This wouldn’t have been possible if he were still splitting by hand.
The Two Year Rule: Taking The 72-Hour Rule Up A Notch
The thread that weaves all of the above purchases together is the idea of testing out the cheap alternative BEFORE diving into the more expensive solution. In this age of endlessly available products that promise to solve every conceivable inconvenience, it’s possible to enter into a state of constant consumption. I could buy stuff for literally every single moment and experience of my life. So how do I push through the advertisements and prompts? I wait.
This form of waiting is an advanced technique to layer on top of my now-infamous 72-hour-rule. My full post explaining this approach is here and I’ve excerpted the relevant bits below:
The 72 hour rule: do not buy anything (except for out-and-out necessities like prescription medication) for at least 72 hours after you initially consider buying it.
- Next time you want to buy something, write it down instead
- Allow 72 hours to pass
- During this time:
- Consider whether or not you actually need the item
- Calculate what else you could do with that money
- Explore if you already own something that could suffice
- Ask yourself if it’s something you could find used for a much cheaper price
- After 72 hours, reevaluate how you feel about the item. Do you still want it? Do you need it? Or has the desire faded?
I apply the 72-hour rule to smaller purchases, such as spatulas. For things like the generator, the wood splitter, and the carseats, I wait a lot longer because they’re a lot more expensive. This waiting time isn’t meant to be miserable or to induce a state of deprivation. Rather, it allows me to think through a purchase carefully and consider all of my alternatives. In some cases, the wait time is years long; in other cases, it’s a few weeks or months. Thinking of a sliding scale is helpful: the more expensive the item, the longer I wait before buying it. This isn’t always possible or even reasonable, but for stuff that’s not an immediate necessity, I think it prevents a lot of unnecessary spending. Ok, let’s get back to the generator.
Generators: Evaluating Price Points from $500 to $10,000
The Ritzy Option
At the top end, there are automatic standby generators, which automatically switch on when the power goes out. These things require nothing from you and they immediately power your whole house. Nice, right?
The only problem is that they cost around $10,000 if you have them installed by a professional; slightly cheaper if you install yourself. But the costs don’t stop there. In addition to the generator, you have to pour a concrete pad to set it on, run the electrical wiring (you’d likely need to hire an electrician), and hire a plumber or the gas company to connect the gas, a technician to set up the generator itself, plus pay for an annual maintenance regime.
Adding even more to the cost is the fact that these generators run on propane. They typically burn several gallons of propane per hour, so you have to buy–and store–a ton of propane. I recently bought propane (which we use for cooking) for $1.95 per gallon, so you can see how this cost could spiral during a several days-long power outage. Assuming the generator burns three gallons an hour, and your power is out for 48 hours, you’d spend $280.80 on propane alone–just for that one outage. Mr. FW and I decided that being without power for a few days is not a $10,000 problem for us.
The Rather Expensive Option
Next up on the price spectrum is the Tesla Powerwall. These work similarly to an automatic standby generator in that they automatically click on when the power goes out and you run your house on battery. The issue here is that the batteries–as all batteries do–run down and likely wouldn’t last more than a day or two. I think a powerwall could be a great option for folks who live in the city and need–perhaps for medical reasons–to always have power.
Since you rarely loose power for longer than a day or so in the city, a powerwall could make a lot of sense in that use case. But for us out here on the homestead, our worst case power outage could easily be 7-10 days and a powerwall would simply run out of battery. Plus, powerwalls are expensive (circa $8,500 to $16,000 with installation).
The Dirt Cheapest Option
On the cheap end are 1,000 – 1,500 watt inverter generators, which run super efficiently, doesn’t use much gas, and are enough to power your refrigerator and freezer (you just run an extension cord from the generator to the fridge). These generators cost between $500-$800. They aren’t powerful enough to run a whole house, but they can do a fridge/freezer and charge your laptop. If the device in question plugs into a normal outlet (such as a freezer), you can run it on one of these inverter generators. You might only be able to run one appliance at a time, but this would totally work if your power outage needs aren’t complex. Unfortunately, this cheap option wouldn’t work for us since they only output 120 volts and our well pump alone is 240 volts. Thus, these are a literal non-starter for us.
The Middle Ground
We landed in the middle and got this Champion 100519 6250-Watt DH Series Open Frame Inverter generator (affiliate link). The downsides are that it’s loud and not automatic (you have to go outside and turn it on).
The upside is that it has enough wattage to run several things at once, including our power-hungry well pump. Furthermore, at $859, it fell firmly within the price range we were willing to spend. While it is pretty noisy, it’s located outside and I find it just sounds like a low thrum from indoors. Plus, we won’t run it at night, so there are no worries about sleep interruption.
This generator is a hybrid inverter, which is a relatively new type of generator. It was slightly more expensive, but it offers better fuel economy than a regular open frame generator. We were attracted to this generator in particular because our wood splitter is also Champion brand and we’ve been very happy with it and it uses the same type of small engine. This is one of the smaller generators that will provide 240 volts, which is awesome because it uses less gas, but is enough to power our well pump.
There are several options for hooking up an open frame generator:
- Cheapest: run extension cords. This wouldn’t work for us because our well pump (and most well pumps) don’t have a plug (they’re hard-wired). Additionally, this approach means you have extension cords running all around your house, which is not ideal for our current family composition of two toddlers.
- Most expensive: install a transfer switch. This involves rewiring your electric panel and selecting a certain number of circuits to be powered by the generator. In theory, this is the most convenient approach because it’s a separate circuit, which makes it harder to overload the generator. However, we didn’t feel it offered enough marginal benefit to justify the price.
- Middle ground: install an interlock kit. This is what we did. An interlock kit is specific to your breaker box and it makes it such that the generator and the mains breaker can’t be on at the same time. This makes it safe to backfeed from the generator into the breaker panel because the interlock makes it impossible to backfeed into the utility. This is imperative from a safety perspective because without the interlock in place, the generator’s backfeed could electrocute a line worker. Thanks to the interlock, you physically cannot turn the generator on until after the main breaker is off.
Generator Installation: A DIY Project
As with just about everything related to mechanics or construction, the labor is often as expensive as the part itself. Given that, Mr. Frugalwoods decided to stretch his DIY capabilities and install the generator himself.
I’m continually amazed at what this man teaches himself to do through YouTube videos and online tutorials. I also appreciate that rather than see this as a chore, he viewed it as an interesting challenge and an opportunity to expand his skill set.
Here are the steps he took to install our generator:
- Installed the interlock kit, per its directions, on the breaker box panel.
- Moved the breaker located in the interlock position and installed a new breaker for the generator.
- Ran 10/3 Romex from the breaker panel. Drilled holes in all the beams of the basement in order to run the Romex all the way over to the generator’s location.
- Drilled a hole in the side of the house to run the Romex from the basement outside to the generator.
- Ran conduit from the exit point in the side of the house to the porch where he installed a generator outlet, which carries 220 volts.
- Installed a power back detector, which does just what it sounds like: it sets off an alarm when the power comes back on. Without this little device, we’d have no way of knowing when the power came back on.
- Unpacked the generator and hooked it up.
That really makes it sound easy, but it wasn’t. We decided to set the generator up on our back porch because it’s a covered spot attached to the house that’ll make it easy to turn the generator on and off and also allows the generator to stay dry. Mr. FW plans to build a wooden cover for the generator; for now, it’s living under a cardboard box.
Operating the Generator
We’ve had the opportunity to use our generator twice since Mr. FW installed it last month, so we’re feeling pretty good about this purchase. When we need to run it, we do have to follow the below procedures, because it’s not a $10,000+ automatic standby model, but it’s honestly not all that complicated to execute:
- We select which breakers we want turned on and which turned off. We turn off the electric dryer and the water heater because those two, along with the well pump, would probably overload the generator.
We turn off the electricity to our solar system because we don’t want the generator to negatively interact with the solar inverter.
- The generator runs on ethanol-free gasoline with Marine Stabil added, which helps it stay fresh for up to six month. We don’t keep the generator tank full of gas because we don’t want it to go bad. Since we also use ethanol-free gasoline for our wood splitter, chainsaw, and lawnmower, we cycle through enough of it that the gas is almost always fresh.
- It then powers the whole house (all outlets and all lights and all sinks and all toilets work). We do have to be mindful of how much electricity we’re using on it. But within reason, and with LED lights and a propane stove (both of which we have), we can continue on with life as normal. Sidenote: we think we can run our water heater on the generator, but haven’t tried yet. I myself have taken many a cold shower in my day and don’t mind all that much. What I do mind is no shower at all.
- Our maintenance plan is to start up the generator at least once a month to ensure everything is running smoothly.
- The generator is on wheels and has a handle, which makes it super easy to maneuver into position.
Make Sure To Account For Total Costs
With purchases like a generator, it’s important to factor in all the ancillary costs. We didn’t just incur the cost of the generator itself, we also incurred expenses of related parts. If Mr. FW hadn’t done the installation and electrical wiring himself, we likely would’ve doubled our overall costs and spent roughly $2,000 just on the installation.
Here’s a spreadsheet detailing our total outlay on Project Generator:
|Generator||$859.00||We bought this Champion 100519 6250-Watt DH Series Open Frame Inverter (affiliate link).|
|Breaker, wire, conduit, and fittings||$277.74||10/3 Romex wire, 30 amp breaker, conduit and fittings|
|Interlock Kit||$69.00||Interlock Kit|
|Cord||$44.21||Generator Cord (affiliate link)|
|Power back detector||$37.65||Power back detector (affiliate link)|
I will note that since we bought all of this using our cash back credit card, we got 2% back on these expenses, which is $25.75. Hey, hey, hey! This is why I love credit card rewards: they’re literally something for nothing.
Building a Gratitude Mindset
I’m glad we waited three years to buy a generator because I am able to appreciate it in the fullest sense. Since we’ve been through several lengthy power outages without a generator, I understand the luxury of having one. Had we bought a generator when we first moved here, we wouldn’t have the frame of reference for how fortunate we are. Sure, we could imagine it theoretically, but unless I experience something, it’s harder for me to access deeper gratitude.
It’s easy for me to express flippant thanks for electricity, but it’s a different thing entirely for me to understand the full ramifications of being without electricity. While the wait-and-see method saves money, it also allows me to develop a gratitude mindset. And you know I love a two-for-one.
Have you used the wait-and-see method for larger purchases? How do you assess whether or not to buy something that’s a convenience?
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