Ask the Electrician

man doing electrical workQ. What’s the difference between an automatic and portable generator and why would I need one?
A. Recently, thousands of homes on the East Coast lost power for several days due to a snow storm that left many in the dark and cold. Electricity provides much needed heat in the winter, keeping you safe and warm. Having a generator provides backup power when you need it. We believe Generac Generators are the best on the market for both residential and commercial use. Generac uses an engine specifically designed for their generators, so they last a long time. They operate in extreme weather conditions and have a high customer rating for efficiency, dependability, and trust. Our answer below applies specifically to Generac Generators and the quotes come directly from their website: www.generac.com.

An automatic standby generator is a back-up electrical system that operates whether you are home or away. Within seconds of an outage, it automatically supplies power directly to your home’s electrical circuit breaker box. After utility power returns, the generator shuts itself off and waits for the next outage. It operates on natural gas or liquid propane gas and sits outside just like a central air conditioning unit.

A portable generator can be moved to most any location that needs power. Usually, they’re used in remote locations where no power exists, such as isolated construction sites. Portable generators use gas and are manually operated. During a utility power outage, an automatic standby generator provides numerous advantages over a portable generator: The American Red Cross recommends permanently installed standby generators as a safer way to provide backup power to a home than a portable generator. With an automatic standby generator properly installed outside, your home is protected from deadly carbon monoxide poisoning that is a much greater risk with portable generators. Running on the home’s natural gas or LP fuel supply, it is less expensive to run than gasoline and does not need to be refilled. Automatic standby generators start automatically within seconds of a power outage, and eliminate the need to haul a portable generator outside or run extension cords throughout your home. They provide protection 24/7, whether you’re home or away, and they turn themselves off when utility power returns, so there is no need to monitor the unit during an outage.

Big Bear Electric is a dealer for Generac Generators. We can customize a generator to fit your needs and budget. What if the power goes off? Are your backups in place? Call us today.

Q: How do LED lights differ from compact fluorescents (CFLs), and how do they work?
A. In reference to LEDs and CFLs, let’s use incandescent lights as our base since most of us are switching from these to something more energy efficient. The most obvious difference from CFLs is how they are designed and perform. Even though both are lights, it’s not an apples to apples comparison. Compared to incandescent lights, CFLs are much more energy efficient and provide better lighting. Most homes have the traditional receptacles designed for incandescent bulbs. When a CFL is placed into one of these they usually begin to hum and will continue to do so until the light is turned off. CFLs are not designed to be placed in most of these receptacles and in some cases can create a fire hazard, so make sure to read and follow all of the directions when buying a CFL. CFLs contain mercury and must be properly recycled when they stop working. Since most of us are inclined to just throw them away, Big Bear Electric advises using LED lights over CFLs in most cases.

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. In the most simplistic terms, the diode of an LED is a two terminal device consisting of an anode and a cathode. This combination forms a unidirectional flow of electricity. This design makes them extremely efficient. They have no filament, like an incandescent light, so they don’t heat up. This is why we see LED technology being used in everyday electronics like MP3 players, clocks, and Christmas lights to name a few. LEDs are manufactured within an epoxy resin making them virtually indestructible. Because they can be mass produced, they are very affordable. Often they are less expensive than CFLs and can last much longer. They also have no moving parts which means they are less likely to malfunction compared to all other lighting.

LEDs are quite versatile, you can use them everywhere: under cabinets, in offices, as track lights, indoors, and out. They also come in many colors including red, green, and of course white. LEDs can also be put on a dimmer, so if you’ve been putting off using LEDs for this reason, wait no more. Come out and see for yourself- we have our LEDs on a dimmer in our showroom.

If that weren’t enough, LEDs are also extremely energy efficient and last for years; some lights up to 50,000 hours. They produce high quality lighting and use little electricity, saving you money on your utility bill. There are many LED manufacturers and like everything else, all are not created equal. Big Bear Electric installs and carries the best LEDs on the market. Call us to see how we can help you save money by switching to LED lighting today.

Q: There are many wind turbines on the market. How can I choose the right one for me and what cost factors should I consider? What do you recommend?
A. Yes, there are many wind turbines to choose from and several things to consider when buying one. Efficiency and pricing are the two main factors to consider when buying a Wind Energy System. Remember, every building is unique and electricity use varies from home to home, and from offices to industrial buildings. Every Wind Energy System should be customized to fit the energy needs of the property. A licensed electrician trained in alternative energy applications should help you determine the most efficient system and install it for you. Big Bear Electric is trained and licensed in Wind, Solar, and other Eco-friendly alternatives.

A quality wind turbine should provide energy in extremely low and high winds. Most wind turbines function in a limited speed window. This factor alone should narrow your search. Also, consider the size and placement when choosing a wind energy system. Some turbines must be cemented into the ground and not attached to the home. Ask yourself if you want to sacrifice your lawn or view to accommodate such a system. Rooftop mounted systems are out of the way and feed directly into your home.

Your cost considerations should be: What am I getting and is it of value to me? Your system should provide energy at a wind speed from 4mph up to 150mph, be able to provide electricity to ALL areas of your home whenever you want it, have a full warranty (we recommend at least a five year warranty with the option of buying an extended warranty), and operate in extreme temperatures, from -45 degrees F up to 130 degrees F. The manufacturer should have a strong Research and Development department and you should have direct access to their customer support team.

Think about savings on your utility bills and savings in taxes both federal and state when considering the cost of a system. Your system should definitely reduce if not eliminate your utility bill. The utility savings over the life of your system is a strong consideration in the cost.

Tax incentives account for approximately 30% of the cost of your system. Your tax accountant should advise you of what incentives are available to you and for how long. Current incentives placed under the Bush Administration are set to expire next year.

We researched extensively to find the best quality wind energy system on the market. We recommend and install Magnetic (MagLev) Vertical Axis Wind Turbines made by Enviro Energies, the only wind turbines endorsed by environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. Big Bear Electric was recently awarded dealership status for Enviro Energies. Prices for these systems are again customized to meet your needs and a site analysis of your building is required to accurately compute the cost. However, we would like to leave you with an estimate of potential costs. Our systems range in size from 2.5 kw, for most homes, to 5kw, and up to 10kw for larger buildings. A 2.5 kw system starts at about $13,000.00. Remember to consider the tax savings of approximately 30% as well as utility bill savings into this cost. For more information, call Big Bear Electric today.

Q: Last winter we lost power for about 12 hours when a tree fell on a power line. What options are available for alternative energy and what kinds of backup power do you recommend?
A: For the kind of power loss situation you are describing, a small backup generator would be the best and most economical solution. A 5000 watt generator from any number of different retailers would provide enough power to keep your refrigerator/freezer going and a few small lighting or outlet circuits powered up. You would have to have previously installed a Transfer Switch, which allows the power from a generator to feed only your residence and not go back to the utility grid. Transfer Switches can be either automatically operated or manually operated. If you are looking to provide power for everything in your home, a much larger and more complex generator system should be installed. Generators are mainly for backup purposes only. Alternative energy systems can be used for backup power as well as everyday usage. Some locations do better with solar than wind, so it is a good idea to assess what your needs are and which option is better based on the location of your home. A qualified and licensed electrician should install this type of equipment to ensure compliance with electrical codes and safety. Between now and November 1st, Big Bear Electric is conducting free electrical energy audits so we can see how you’re using your electricity and how we can customize a backup and/or alternative energy system just for you. Call us today.

Q: When I had satellite TV installed in my home, the installers drilled a hole in one of my walls and cut through a wire. How should I fix this?
A: You have couple of options: (1) Remove the wall board exposing the damaged wiring, install a junction box for splicing the damaged wire together (wire length permitting, may possibly require 2 junction boxes), then reinstall the wall board, and lastly reinstall blank covers over the junction box (boxes). (2) You can also locate the affected devices of the damaged wire (outlets, switches, etc.). If the wire is accessible from above or below the damaged wire, rewire the damaged section by installing new wire between the two device locations. This may require you to drill through the top or bottom of the wall. Then ‘fish’ the wire up or down to the affected device location the device that still has power to the device that doesn’t. Remember to disconnect and cap off damaged wiring at each end. This happens more often than you might think. If these remedies seem too much for you, call Big Bear Electric today. We fix these types of problems frequently and can do it for a minimal cost to you while giving you the peace of mind that the job was done safely.

Q: What is Green Technology and what Green services does Big Bear Electric provide?
A: Green Technology is a growing industry that encompasses many areas. Examples of Green Technology include: alternative energy, green building, and environmentally preferred purchasing with sustainability as the goal for each. New developments in Green Technology are happening everyday as this new industry is growing.

As electrical contractors we get a lot of questions about going off the grid or reducing utility usage. Wind and Solar energy systems can do both. Maximum efficiency for solar and wind energy systems depends on their locations and how they will be used. Big Bear Electric can help determine the best option for every location and customize a system for you.

Green Building is another technology that people can use to go green. Building a home from the ground up using Green Technology is cost effective and energy efficient. Most people start with their existing homes, so let’s focus on existing homes and how we can transition them to clean and green efficiency. The most common approach to going green in the home or office is to change out the lights. Traditional incandescent light bulbs use a lot of energy. Compact Fluorescent Lights or CFL, Light Emitting Diode or LED, High Efficiency HID lamps, and High Efficiency Fluorescent lamps are great energy efficient alternatives. Each lighting option listed above is unique and Big Bear Electric can help you determine which one is best for you. Home automation systems and independent sensors are also ways to reduce electricity usage while maximizing its benefit. Big Bear Electric can customize an energy plan just for you by conducting a Home or Office Energy Audit. We can visit your location and customize a plan of Green action to fit your goals and budget.

Q: I’ve heard there are solar energy systems available to the public. How do they work and can you install these?
A: Photovoltaics, or PV for short, refers to the solar panel systems that convert sunlight into electricity. This process has evolved over time and today we have options using this technology in a variety of ways. Yes, they are available to the public. How they work depends how they are going to be used. The Direct Current produced by the solar modules is converted to an Alternating Current. This AC power is fed directly into the electrical system of your house or building. If you are consuming more electricity than the PV is producing, then you will need to supplement your electricity from your utility company. If you are producing more electricity than what you are using, the excess power is sent to the grid and your meter is credited. This is called Net Metering and no electricity is lost. PV systems can be installed so that you can Net Meter and/or go completely off of the grid. Most PV systems produce about 8 to 10 watts of power for each square foot of roof space. Yes, Big Bear Electric does install Photovoltaic systems. We are trained in the latest solar technology and are happy to customize your PV system to fit your needs and your budget. For more information call Big Bear Electric today for all of your alternative energy needs.

Q: I heard that there are new fluorescent light bulbs available – what’s the advantage?
A: The new CFL or Compact Fluorescent Lights now come in almost any configuration and can be used in almost any existing light fixture or lamp. They provide a very bright and clean white light while using over 60% less energy. A 13 Watt CFL lamp puts out light equivalent to a 60 Watt incandescent traditional bulb. Watts are a measure of electrical consumption and are what the Power Company uses to calculate your electrical power bill. CFL Lamps also have the advantage of much greater life span lasting 5 times as long as a traditional bulb. The only downside to these new lamps is that they must be disposed of responsibly so they can be safely recycled.

Q: If I want a new electrical outlet put on one of my outside house walls, can you install this without running a lot of new wiring and a lot of cost?
A: The Cost of Electrical work on your home is always a concern whenever you ask for professional assistance. Most electrical contractors can provide you a written estimate of the costs you will incur. Your agreement and signature on this estimate is binding and should express the final cost and the desired outcome you want. Getting an estimate from more than one contractor is a way to control and understand those costs. Most small jobs can also be negotiated with your contractor and a working relationship with them can also help you control costs. Any manual labor involved, such as trenching that you can do yourself, will also help keep the price down. Professional workers in any field can be expensive, but you should expect a professional and safe installation when you hire one.

Q: If a circuit breaker keeps shutting down, how can I tell if it’s a bad breaker or a real overload?
A: A combination Volt meter and Amp meter can determine if the circuit breaker is shutting off due to overload or because of a short circuit. Even if it is just a defective breaker the circuit should be checked and repaired for safety.

Q: If I want to put more lights and appliances on a circuit, can I simply change the breaker to handle a bigger load, or does the circuit need to be split?
A: Actually, neither option will work as circuit breakers are sized according to the size of the wiring they are connected to. Splitting a circuit does not increase its capacity. A new circuit in the same area is the best solution.

Q: I had new fluorescent lights installed just 4 years ago, but now they’re humming loudly-what’s with that?
A: There are many types of fluorescent lights on the market today as well as many different types of fluorescent lamps for those lights. It is possible to install lamps that are not compatible with the ballast inside the light that powers the lamps. Also, if the lamps are mismatched in the light it can cause the ballast to hum. Unfortunately, once a ballast becomes unbalanced and starts to hum it almost always needs to be replaced to solve the problem.