Generators in short supply this year

Carmen Johnson, above, of Home Hardware Center on Presley Boulevard in McComb stands by empty shelves where generators usually sit.

When Hurricane Katrina hit 15 years ago, Angelyn and I didn’t have a generator. Our power was out for a week but we just went into camping mode.

Now, after umpteen hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes and power outages, we’re giving in and buying a propane generator that will hook to the tank outside our house.

We’ve had two outages in recent weeks, one overnighter during a hurricane and another for a few hours for no apparent reason — a squirrel, maybe.

We’ve learned ways to cope. We usually fill a 5-gallon Thermos with water when a hurricane is coming. I now have a hand-drawn well in case that runs out. I carry buckets of water from the pond for flushing toilets. We have a gas stove that we can ignite with a lighter, and a freestanding gas heater if we need it.

But still.

So we ordered a generator several weeks ago and, like many other people in our situation, are still waiting. 

“We order one now, they’re eight to 12 weeks out,” said Dusty Smith of Smith’s Heating-Cooling-Generators in Bogue Chitto. “They’re in high demand right now.”

At the end of July he ordered 16 or 18 generators. They promptly sold out.

“I ordered two a couple of weeks ago. They told me 10 weeks,” Smith said. “Every time we get them in, they’re gone.”

Smith sells Generac and Honeywell, both of which come from the same plant.

“They (factory representatives) are saying it’s COVID. I don’t know. It shut down their manufacturing plant at Generac, so they fell behind,” Smith said.

Plus, there’s considerably more demand this year, what with the unusual number of hurricanes.

“With less than a month remaining in the Atlantic hurricane season, the formation of Subtropical Storm Theta on Nov. 10 over the northeastern Atlantic Ocean made the 2020 season the most active on record,” according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report on Nov. 10.

And that was before Hurricane Iota, which brought the number of named storms to 30.

Several were forecast to come right over southwest Mississippi, though so far we’ve been pretty lucky. One hit a glancing blow to the west, knocking down limbs and trees and causing a power outage in the Gloster-Liberty area where I live.

Smith usually sells 30 to 35 generators a year. This year he’s looking at 48 so far.

Propane-powered generators are the most popular despite costing more than gasoline or diesel.

“Propane burns a lot cleaner. You don’t have near the moving parts,” Smith said, adding that gasoline generators generally won’t power a whole house.

The shortage situation is the same all over.

“We are busier with generators than we ever have been,” said Andrew Deere of Austin Electric.

“I think it’s a perfect storm in that you’ve had a very busy hurricane season, and in this area we had three tornadoes in a row. Also, the stimulus checks were a big deal when they first started. That’s when our business started up, almost the same time as the tornadoes,” Deere said.

The shortage is nationwide, he said, noting an early storm hit the east coast, and experts forecast an unusually active hurricane season.

Austin Electric sells Generac propane generators, and it takes eight to 12 weeks to get one in, Deere said.

The business normally sells 20-30 a year. “We’re probably 150-200 right now,” Deere said.

It’s not just hurricanes that are prompting the demand. There’s also the presidential election and the growing pandemic.

“I think people are nervous about infrastructure in the U.S. It’s the same thing as buying all the toilet paper and freezers, because people want to store food up,” Deere said.

And that’s not to mention guns and ammo.

Another reason for the demand in propane generators — which can be coverted for natural gas, by the way — is their practicality. They self-test every week or two and kick on automatically when the power goes out. No cranking, no stockpiling gasoline, no water in the carburetor.

“Contractors are actually including it in the price of a home,” said Bill LeMaire, manager of Blossman LP Gas Service in McComb. “It’s almost becoming the new central air.”

A 20-kilowatt model can power a whole house, central air and all, if the customer so chooses.

Installation involves a concrete slab — which comes pre-formed — electrical and gas hookups, so it’s not a quick job. The whole package costs $7,500 to $10,000.

Propane customers need a 250-gallon tank, too, which is bigger than the typical 150.

Blossman has a few generators in stock and a waiting list for 250-gallon propane tanks.

“This is all we’ve been doing all summer,” said LeMaire, who normally sells a dozen generators a year but has sold 30 in the past three months.

The situation is the same with gasoline generators.

“I’m out of them right now,” said Carmen Johnson of Home Hardware Center.

Covington’s Ace Hardware in Summit doesn’t keep generators in stock but special-orders them for customers.

“The last several weeks they’re out,” said Jake Holloway, citing both gasoline and propane models.

As for Angelyn and me, we’ve ordered a generator and 250-gallon propane tank and made arrangements with an electrician. Now we’re waiting — and hoping another hurricane doesn’t come our way in the meantime.

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