AUSTIN (KXAN) – Just like it did after the epic winter storm of 2021, demand is expected to spike for home generators in Central Texas after a tree-snapping, blackout-inducing ice storm left more than 100,000 Austin-area customers dark and cold in early February.
And just like 2021, customers will be waiting weeks or months for Austin Energy to schedule electrical shutoffs needed to complete home generator installations, according to multiple generator company executives and experts who spoke with KXAN.
The 2021 storm caused blackouts across the state. This month, ice caused thousands of tree branches to break and rip down power lines. Austin Energy has struggled to quickly restore power to homes. Some areas have been out of power for a week, and could stay dark until Sunday, according to the utility.
James Taylor, electrical project manager with Jon Wayne Service Company, says his business is already fielding numerous generator inquiries a day. These generators are permanently installed, hard wired and typically natural-gas-powered motors that can keep a home energized when the grid goes out.
Taylor says people are worried their pipes could freeze and burst, or they’re concerned about expensive equipment – like pool pumps – getting damaged. Some individuals need power for vital medical equipment.
But the most common refrain Taylor has heard from customers: “I just don’t want to be without power when it’s frozen and have to leave my house and worry about the plumbing and all that stuff,” he said.
Joe Rizzo, owner of Capital Power Systems, said he’s getting a call every few minutes asking about generator pricing and installation.
“I think this is going to be similar to two years ago, and the reaction to that outage,” he said.
Mike Brownlee, director of residential operations with Austin Generator Service, said he’s seen a “marked increase” in calls for generators. This time, Brownlee said his company has deep inventory to meet demand.
Since the ice storm, T.J. Mills, owner of Generator Supercenter of Austin, said he seen the volume of demand for home generators “equal” that following the 2021 disaster.
“They want peace of mind. People want to work at home,” Mills said of customers. “They want to stay warm and safe. They want their family to be warm and safe.”
Prices for home generators vary widely. West Austin zip codes had the most generator permits. You can see how many homes had generator-related permits by zip code below.
Mills and every other generator company KXAN spoke with said they’re poised to meet demand, but there’s still a speed bump in the way of completing installations: Austin Energy.
Austin Energy delay
Generator installers continue to experience extended wait times for Austin Energy to schedule temporary power shutoffs. This type of power disconnection is necessary to complete a generator installation, according to several suppliers and companies.
Back in 2021, Austin Energy acknowledged the backlog. At that time, the utility said an array of issues – including construction industry demand and pandemic-related staffing issues – were causing disconnection requests to “stack up.”
The problem continues. Mills – owner of Generator Supercenter of Austin, a franchise of a corporation with locations across the country – said he’s often waiting months to get on Austin Energy’s schedule.
“Even on a normal day with the City of Austin, it is by far the longest time period and the most complex inspection that goes on anywhere in Central Texas,” Mills said.
To address the backlog, Austin Energy said it recently began the Contractor Disconnect Program to expedite the path for “most generator installations.”
“This effort was in part due to a growing need for generator installation requests and long lead times to schedule an appointment for disconnection of service equipment with AE,” a utility spokesperson wrote in an email.
The Contractor Disconnect Program allows participants “to complete all phases of electrical residential service rebuilds — specifically disconnects and reconnects — that would otherwise need to be performed by Austin Energy,” according to the program webpage.
The work still has to be inspected by Austin Energy. Participating contractors must be licensed by the state, formally apply for enrollment and take a mandatory training class. Each permit accepted into the program would be charged an additional $165, according to the webpage.
The generator companies KXAN spoke with had mixed responses about the new program. Only Rizzo, owner of Capital Power Systems, said his company uses it and found it useful for expediting the disconnection process.
Mills said his company signed up for the program, but they didn’t find it effective. He said there were additional costs, and they could only get inspections through the program on Wednesdays, which made scheduling difficult.
Brownlee, with Austin Generator Service, said he’s aware of the program, but his company is still evaluating if it will participate.
It isn’t clear how Austin Energy promoted the program or notified contractors about its existence. Rules for the program are available online. KXAN has requested more information from Austin Energy about the program, such as how many times it has been used and how much in additional fees it has generated. We will update this story when we receive a response.