TVs went dark. Air conditioners lost their cool. And busy streets descended into traffic gridlock.
The television picture in Chuck Beavers' townhouse in the Toledo suburb of Lambertville flickered off but returned in seconds. He and wife, Diane, stuck to their normal routine last month as other residents of southeast Michigan sweated out the Blackout of 2003 or hustled to find working gasoline pumps to get fuel for generators.
The Beaverses are among a growing number of people who are installing generators during construction of their houses or shortly afterward. And not usual generators that require gasoline, enough muscle to yank a pull-cord starter, and a homeowner who isn't away on business or vacation.
The Lambertville couple's fully automatic generator uses a battery for ignition and the house's natural gas line for fuel.
“It was great,” said Mr. Beavers, an employee of General Motors Corp. in Toledo who installed the system to safeguard costly saltwater aquariums.
The generators, which sense when the power is interrupted, have been around for at least a decade. But improved technology, lower prices, and last month's blackout affecting 50 million people in the eastern United States and Canada have helped boost their popularity.
“It's becoming like air conditioning; it's a standard item,” said Eric Kopmanis, a contractor in Monroe County who builds houses in the $300,000-and-up range.
Initially, he suggested them to customers. But increasingly, people are broaching the subject with him.
The National Association of Home Builders doesn't know how many new homes are being equipped with standby generators, but it plans to add the question to an upcoming survey of builders.
“We're definitely seeing there is more interest in this,” said Donna Reichle, association spokesman. “It may be because of lower confidence in the electric grid and power failure problems the last couple years. And after 9/11, there has been a little more desire for households to be energy self-sufficient.”
The trend has been observed in coastal regions of the Southeast, where a series of hurricanes played havoc with electricity service in the 1990s, added Peggy Laramie, spokesman for the American Gas Association.
Generac Power Systems, of Waukesha, Wis., claims to be the nation's largest manufacturer of home standby generators that are fueled by natural gas or liquid propane gas.
“Residential sales were good even before the blackout,” said Mike Carr, manager of marketing communications. “More and more, especially on high-end custom homes, standby generators are included.”
A lower-end 12-kilowatt unit, capable of powering a water well, sump pump, and 10 other switches - but probably not a central air conditioning system or power-hogging electric range - retails for about $3,500, he said. That doesn't include installation, which can add $1,000 or so.
When the generator is running, it uses up to $1.70 an hour in natural gas; the cost for liquid propane gas is about $2.90 an hour.
Pricier units can power a whole house. Mr. Beavers, the Lambertville homeowner, said he shelled out $6,500 for a 25-kilowatt system that kept the air conditioning and everything else humming during the recent blackout.
“The unit sits on a pad outside your home and looks like an air conditioner,” Mr. Carr explained. “It senses when the power goes off. It waits a few seconds to make sure the lights aren't just flickering, and then commands the generator to start. When the power comes back on, the generator senses it, and shuts off.”
But users caution that the generators are not without faults. Although quieter than they once were, they can still be noisy.
Although prices have fallen, the units still are not cheap, noted Jeff Shugarman, of Hafner Crafted Homes. “We've had people inquire about them,” he said. But there have been no takers. “People think it sounds like a neat idea. But prices can go up to $8,000 and even $15,000.”
Bill Decker, Sr., a Bedford-based home builder, has installed generators in seven homes, including his own, in the last two years.
“I love it,” he said. “It makes me feel a little more secure.”
He conceded that his $3,000 system has limitations. “I'm not going to be able to have every light in the house on, but at least I have my basic comforts met.
Among firms promoting generator installation is a unit of Detroit-based DTE Energy, whose electricity customers were affected by last month's blackout.
DTE Energy Technologies Inc. has used the blackout to try to further boost sales. “B-L-A-C-K-O-U-T!” screamed the firm's Web site in the weeks after the outage.
“We've been working very hard to get new construction to adapt to this technology,” said spokesman Brian Komorek.
The firm has installed more than 500 home generators over the past 31/2 years, primarily in the Detroit area. One condo developer there has hired the firm to install the generators in 50 units he is building.
Lambertville Hardware sold 10 standby generators after the blackout. “We still have people coming in every week to learn about them,” said manager Kevin Oswald. “They didn't get popular until about two years ago. The price dropped in half. One that sells for $3,000 now was well over $5,000 three years ago.”
Mr. Beavers, the Lambertville townhouse owner, conceded that the noise of the generator keeps his wife awake. Still, he doesn't regret the investment. “It's there for protection, like an alarm system,” he said.