Episode 8: Installing Generators Safely transcript
Trevor Tremblay: Unfortunately, with all these shortages we are seeing a lot of unapproved, sort of approved, but not approved transfer switches coming into the market. They're rated as service entrance for the States, but not for Canada. They have completely different requirements in the States for their service equipment as we do. So one thing to watch out for.
Karen Ras: The deadly derecho windstorm that came out of nowhere on Saturday, May 21st serves as a stark reminder that we can now expect more frequent and extreme weather events. With climate change expected to cause more weather related outages, homeowners are seeking alternative reliable power sources, like whole home generators to stay connected. In this episode, we'll talk about what you need to know to safely install and maintain generators.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of Grounded in Ontario. I'm Karen Ras and I work for the ESA. With me today is Trevor Tremblay, a technical advisor at ESA who's going to talk to us about generator safety. Trevor, how are you doing today?
Trevor Tremblay: Very well, thank you. How are you doing?
Karen Ras: I'm doing great. It's a nice sunny day. I think all of our listeners will remember where we were during the May derecho windstorm, but I was surprised to learn that the last time this happened within Canada was in 1999.
Trevor Tremblay: I do still remember getting those Environment Canada alerts on my cell phone and it seemed to happen so quick, came out of nowhere. We were definitely not prepared for it.
Karen Ras: I think that was the first time they used that alert and it certainly saved lives. I think what made the May windstorm so incredibly devastating, and I've seen photos, was the fact that it affected the most populated parts of Canada. The storm left not only a path of destruction, it unfortunately killed 10 people and left hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power, in some cases for days. One of the more critical aspects was the major damage to infrastructure that takes long to repair and is very costly.
Severe storms are a question of when and not if. Homeowners and businesses need to be better prepared to protect themselves and their properties. Trevor, you're a person on the ground and you've seen a lot and have heard a lot and are very experienced in this area. What are you seeing in terms of demand for generator installations given these recent weather events?
Trevor Tremblay: We're seeing it really increasing overall. Early on, years ago in my early days of inspection, we were seeing a lot of GenerLinks. People just wanted backup power, but now people are turning to a whole home transfer switches and generation, just to make sure that it's automatic when the storm happens. If they're not home, everything keeps running because the last thing you want is maybe your sewage lift pump to not work for a couple hours or your sump pump. The unfortunate part is since the demand has increased, it's really hard to find any equipment. If you can find a generator, you might not be able to find a transfer switch. Or if you find a transfer switch, you might not be able to find a generator. It's hit and miss. People are changing brands going from they used to carry one brand, now they're changing to another. But then they found out as soon as they changed to the other brand and their supply was gone, they're in the same boat. It's getting very hard to find any of the equipment, but it is very popular.
Karen Ras: Wow! And supply chain issues are just not an issue for generators. We know that they span so many aspects of our economy. I'm a homeowner and let's say I want to install a generator in my home. Can you take me through what some of the different types of generators are available for me?
Trevor Tremblay: All right, for this podcast we're really going to be talking about the standby or portable generators, which are essentially the gas, the standard ones, diesel. We're not going to get into the alternative generation like solar and wind and that sort of thing. It's pretty much just a fossil fuel driven generator. There's really two types; there's the portable which could include vehicle mounted or mobile and standby. The only real difference is that portable is limited to 12 kilowatts and if you have a 240 volt circuit, the neutral has to be grounded to the frame. Standby generators, there is no limit in size and essentially it just has to be marked if the neutral is grounded to the frame or not. It doesn't have to be grounded. Then you have your under five KV or kilowatt generators. You're allowed to have 120 volt ones, which will not be grounded in any way, there will be no connection.
Karen Ras: Perfect, thank you for that. I know that ESA issued a bulletin on some of these elements and we're going to list all of our bulletins that are referenced in this podcast on the webpage. So stay tuned for more information on those bulletins.
Now, I'll be the first one to admit that I'm a bit of a technology junkie and I love to stay connected and be connected. I want to make sure that my lights are on, my kitchen appliances are working, my garage can open. Above all, also make sure my internet is working. We know that in some cases we get system wide outages. Like today, we're recording on a day where there's a major internet outage and we realize now how connected we need to be just to operate our lives. How big of a generator do I need to accommodate all of that load? All of those things that I want to run continuously and what are some of the factors that I need to consider when determining the size?
Trevor Tremblay: One of the most important things you're going to have to do is find out how much power you really need during these outages and determine how much the generator can handle continuously. Depending on what it's for, homeowners can typically get away with your general 30 amp plugin portable generator for your meter mounted transfer device. It just means you have to low shed a little bit. You can't put the dryer on, put the stove on. Most houses don't use a lot of power. If you want to charge your electric car, you're going to need a bigger generator. But if you go with a whole home transfer switch and you want to run everything, you have to make sure it's big enough to run all the loads in your home.
Commercial and industrial, it gets a lot more complicated. You're dealing with a lot more motors. You might have some life safety systems, there's in rush, there's power factor, dealing with single phase, three phase generators. If you go with the three phase, balancing those loads, important. You don't want to overload one phase. Eventually, it could shorten the lifespan of your generator. Most generator manufacturers have pretty detailed instructions on how to determine the size of the generator.
Karen Ras: When I was doing some research for this podcast, I truly had no idea how many factors to consider when choosing the right generator. Does location matter? Take me through your thought process what consumers should consider when planning for the location of the generator?
Trevor Tremblay: Well, it really does come down to location, location, location. Depending on where you put it, how far from the transfer switch and your panel, those are extra costs for cable. Then you have to deal with voltage drop. Depending if it's an underground run, how deep, how far you have to dig the trench. Depending on where your pressure relief vents are for say propane and natural gas, you have to make sure that those are not near any arcing and sparking devices. We do deem the generator an arcing and sparking device, so that generator itself has to be at least one meter away for natural gas and three meters for propane. Again, those can't be located near any arcing and sparking devices. Any light receptacle, that sort of thing, we deem those arcing and sparking, so they can't be in that area. It does happen a lot.
When you are burying cable, a lot of times you'll run the gas line in the same trench, keep it at least 300 millimeters away horizontally in the same trench. And don't forget you're buried cable tape above the conductors to make sure half the distance to the surface so people can identify it. Or if you don't want to use the tape, you have the other option of putting markers on surface, identifying the depth and location of the cable.
Karen Ras: With all of these things to consider, I've made the decision to install a generator and I've determined the size and location. Now the next step is that I've hired a licensed electrical contractor to do the electrical work. Does my LEC need to notify my utility company when installing a generator like this?
Trevor Tremblay: It all depends on the installation really, what the generator is doing. Usually anything running in parallel with the utility, say through an inverter that actually has grid tie capabilities, that would be in parallel so the utility has to be notified. We will notify them with a connection order saying there is generation in parallel, even if it doesn't back fit the grid, but has capabilities of it. We do have 2005, which exempts meter mounted devices if the utility's okay with it. A licensed electrical contractor can call the utility and schedule a disconnect and reconnect for the mounting of a meter mounting device transfer device.
Karen Ras: And would they also require an ESA permit to install a generator or are there exemptions?
Trevor Tremblay: The generator itself, if you plug it into the Generac or the GenerLink and you just roll up the generator and use a cord to plug it in, you won't need a permit for that generator. But if it's a hard wired generator, like a standby or more permanent generator, then you will need a permit to wire up the generator.
Karen Ras: Okay. You know based on some of the feedback that we've received, we get a lot of questions on grounding and bonding. Trevor, take us through what our listeners need to hear about for grounding requirements for generators.
Trevor Tremblay: Grounding and bonding across the board is probably the most misunderstood part of the code. It's always changing and it seems to be just everyone still thinks everything goes to ground. No, everything will use ground as a path back to the source to complete the circuit. Nothing essentially goes to ground if it doesn't have to. It's there as a safety measure. In 2018, the code actually tried to simplify when to establish neutral grounding. So they came up with a term, separately derived system. What that means is that there's no hot or neutral conductors connected to any hot or neutral conductors from the utility. You can interconnect bond wires and grounding, but you can't interconnect the neutral and the hot conductors. Essentially what they want to do is make sure that you only ground a system once after you establish it.
Because then again, if you can have more than one ground electrode, even though there's a better path, it will take the ground as a path. It might be very low, hard to read, but it is a possibility. Then because of separately derived systems, you could have two separately derived systems and the code addresses that by just saying if you have two separately derived systems, they should be grounded at a midpoint if they run together. Again, you can also use a four pole transfer switch to isolate all the neutrals so that they can ground each system.
Karen Ras: I know that response was pretty technical. We do have a bulletin for the separately derived systems that we're also going to be posting on the podcast page.
Trevor Tremblay: Yes, it actually identifies a lot of the scenarios, like grounded transformers, separately derived systems, utility systems all working together. It's got quite the nice pictorials there to do it.
Karen Ras: Excellent, because we want to make sure that people do these installations safely. Trevor, can you tell me what some of the different types of transfer switches are?
Trevor Tremblay: There's pretty much a few different kinds. You have your automatic transfer switches that automatically switch over on failure of power. You have your manual transfer switches, you have service entrance rated switches, your regular transfer switches that have to go after your service box. Unfortunately, with all these shortages we are seeing a lot of unapproved sort of approved, but not approved transfer switches coming into the market. They're rated as service entrance for the States, but not for Canada. They have completely different requirements in the States for their service equipment as we do. One giveaway would be having plastic covers over the lugs. It doesn't have a separate compartment for the main breaker. We're seeing a lot of that and panel boards too for service entrance. One thing to watch out for.
We also are finding a lot of stuff on online stores, you can mount the transfer device by yourself. Essentially all it does is screw into the front cover, so it'll stop one breaker from going on and stop the other breaker from going off. You can only have one in the open position at a time or closed position, but they're mounted to the front cover. In Canada, these are not permitted because you can just take the cover off and then now the transfer scheme, the interlock is actually defeated. It could cause a safety issue or it could just fall off over time. These are not accepted and we're starting to see a lot of them.
Karen Ras: Trevor, we touched on this before, but I know the ESA team is seeing a lot more of installations of generators. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the trends you are seeing in the field when it comes to their installation, good and bad?
Trevor Tremblay: We are definitely seeing a lot of grounding and bonding issues with transfer switches and standby generation. We do have that bulletin, it's very handy. It will be posted on our website under our podcast. It's very informative, gives you all the scenarios. Another reminder is that for any standby generation for life safety loads, transfer schemes and life safety emergency distribution, it is required to go through plan review. It will save you a lot of money. A lot of times we get there and people have spent a lot of money on this installation and we're writing defects. It's quick, it's easy, it's cheap. It's a requirement now in the code, so let's just make sure we're getting those done through plan review.
We're seeing a lot of T services being installed with meter mounting devices. Essentially there is no neutral in the meter base. There is a neutral connection required for the meter mounting transfer device. What they're doing is just putting it to the back of the meter base and using the conduit for the return path. They're actually putting the unbalanced load on the raceway, which is not allowed. It could potentially start a fire or even a shock hazard.
We're seeing some generator manufacturers send out their product with a pre knocked out hole for your cable. A lot of times it's oversized, so contractors have to use reducing washers. We always call them donuts for some reason. But when you do use reducing washers, you have to use a ground bushing. This was a new code requirement I think in 2018. We do get a lot of questions about Table 39, if it can apply to generators. If that generator is feeding a single dwelling or building associated with the dwelling, you can use the values in Table 39.
The trends seem to be, we're seeing a lot of generators being installed as a backup power to the solar, the energy storage. The technology is fast and furious with that stuff. We're seeing sites now like a house with 60 kilowatts of solar, six inverters, feed through capabilities, battery storage, generator input, and all that feeds an essential load panel. When they can, they can actually export 10 kilowatts back to the grid. Seeing these installations, actually, I really enjoy it. It's a lot of fun. Like I said, fast and furious and at the end of the day, we are struggling to try and keep up with the rules, but we're doing the best we can.
Karen Ras: I can imagine the LECs are in the same boat, which is hopefully if they're driving between sites, they can listen to these podcasts and get updated on some of the changes and things that they need to be aware of. Okay, there's a lot to think about. We know that generators are a big investment, whether you're a homeowner or a business. A generator also is not a crock pot, you just can't set it and forget it. Now, can you tell us a little bit about generator maintenance and why that is so important?
Trevor Tremblay: Just like your car, really. If you don't do any maintenance, eventually it's not going to run. For a lot of sites like hospitals and that, you actually get into the C282 standards, which has a requirement for load testing and maintenance and all that. It's one of those things that you just got to keep testing. Unfortunately, sometimes when you do these tests, it might work during tests. Say you're doing a load test, but your regular power's still on. That's not actually in loss of power conditions. So when you actually do lose power, you might find some other things that might not be on the backup power, like your damper motors and your backup fuel tank to send fuel from your backup tank to the main tank. Then you might overheat the generator and run out of gas. We've actually seen this happen in Ontario. So maintenance is very important. It should be done frequently, as for any electrical equipment.
Karen Ras: Thank you, Trevor. Now it's the time in the episode where we will answer a question sent to us by one of our listeners. We love when our subscribers send questions and topic ideas, so please keep them coming and it could be featured in an upcoming episode. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This question is from Frank D. from Vaughan, and it has to do with the recent Ontario electrical safety code changes. I know that many of our listeners are aware that we updated the code this past May, but Frank would like to know if there is anything that contractors who are listening to this podcast should be aware of that would be relevant in regards to the installation of generators.
Trevor Tremblay: In the last code cycle we really haven't had too many changes that really would impact, say the installation of a generator. We do have the deletion of Table 6, which could impact your conductor size, not your conductor size, but your raceway size for the conductors. Previously Table 6 gave you the worst case scenario on how many conductors you can put in a raceway. Now the Table 6 just gives you the square millimeters and you have to do the math depending on what raceway you're using. Since the old version was based on a worst case scenario, now by doing the math, you're more than likely going to be able to put more conductors in a raceway. That means you might be able to get a smaller raceway, saving you money when feeding the generator.
Karen Ras: I think those are good options. LECs have both Table 6 to go from, which is probably a more conservative estimate, or they can do a more specific calculation that could potentially save them time and money. Those are two good options.
Trevor Tremblay: Yes, the old Table 6, if they still want to use it, just remember it's a worst case scenario. It's no longer in the code, but for the most part, it'll be fine, but they'll get less conductors per raceway.
Karen Ras: Thank you, Trevor, for that response and for updating our listeners on this important topic. And thank you of course, to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed this episode and stay tuned for our next Grounded in Ontario episode.
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