Karen and Jeff Allen were on their way to visit friends in Richmond, Va., on Aug. 27. Meteorologists had been predicting Hurricane Irene's arrival all week, but the Monroe couple had only encountered a breeze while driving on the highway that Saturday.
"Suddenly it got really dark and windy," Karen Allen recalled. "Trees and branches came down. You couldn't really see. We had to stop."
Allen could see brake lights, downed trees and the road was covered by a green carpet of debris.
"We got to Richmond and there was no power," Allen said. "My daughter was home in Monroe. She was losing her cell phone connection when she called, so we already knew what we were facing. We thought we should find a generator because I didn’t know if we'd find one in Connecticut."
The Allens traveled west on Interstate-81 to avoid the coastline, calling the nearest Lowe's and Home Depot locations along the way.
"A Home Depot in Hagerstown, Maryland, said they had gotten a shipment of five generators," Allen recalled. "We said, 'Can you hold one?' And they said, 'No.' We took our chances and were lucky to get one of the few on the floor."
People from the east side of Maryland had been coming to the Home Depot all day with some driving for three hours, so when the manager met the Allens he asked, "Oh, where are you from?"
When they told him they were from Connecticut, the manager marveled that the Allens had come the longest way to buy a generator.
"I said, 'No we're not coming from Connecticut,'" Allen said with a chuckle.
The Allens were not alone in the mad scramble for generators. Jennifer Baranello of Monroe said she had waited in line at a Home Depot for five hours. Fellow town resident Shannon Monaco said, "My husband tried all the Home Depots and finally got the last one on the shelf in Hamden.
Chief Building Official James Sandor's office issues permits for the larger generators — normally 15, 20 and 30 kilowatts — that are set up outside people's homes. From 2007 to 2009 he said 6 permits were issued.
Since then, massive and prolonged power outages caused by Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm many dubbed as "Storm Alfred" caused a spike. From 2010 to 2012, Sandor said 81 generator permits were issued.
Danger on the Lines
As the purchases of permanent generators rapidly increased, Sandor reasons that sales of smaller, portable generators likely rose even more. Though permits are not needed for the portable generators themselves, a electronic transfer switches are.
"That worries me because I haven't gotten a lot of permits for the switches, so I wonder if they're wired properly," Sandor said.
If an extension cord is used to attach a few appliances to a portable generator, Sandor said that is fine. However, attaching it to the panel box to power the entire house poses potential problems, he added. An electronic transfer switch senses when the main power goes off and kicks on the generator, and when power from the street is restored it turns the generator off — making it safer for line workers.
Without the switches, Sandor said some people try to hot wire a generator to the panel using things like jumper cable clips to get the job done. The problem is that when power is restored outside and the generator is still on, it back-feeds electricity to the poles.
Aside from safety, the electronic control transfer switch is on timer, starting up once a week to charge the battery.
Jeanne and Sean DeLessio and their nine-year-old daughter were without power for several days after Irene hit.
"My husband was tired of using the wood burning stove," Jeanne recalled. "He said, 'Let's get a generator.'"
When they got to the Home Depot in Trumbull, Jeanne said the last generator was on a push cart and the couple that planned to buy it spoke with the cashier before leaving the store without it.
"We thought their credit card didn't go through," Jeanne said.
When Sean told the cashier they wanted to buy it, she told them they couldn't because the other couple had gone home to get their I.D. and would be back.
"If they really wanted it, the husband should have left the wife there guarding it, while he got his I.D." Jeanne reasoned. "An employee, who we thought was the manager, came to us and said, 'If 20 minutes goes by and they're not back, it's yours.'"
The DeLessios waited for 25 minutes and the cashier still refused to sell the generator to them.
"We told her that the manager told us we could buy it if they weren't back in 20 minutes and she said, 'That wasn't the manager. He's in lumber.'"
A half hour had gone by and the cashier called the head cashier over — she didn't know what to do.
More time passed.
"My husband said, 'Can't we call the store manager? We've been waiting for like 45 minutes,'" Jeanne recalled.
It was now 10 minutes before closing and the manager told the couple to wait it out and if no one came back, they could buy it.
"No one came back. We bought it," Jeanne said. "When we went out of the store, my husband said, 'Let's hurry to the car in case these people come back.'"
The next day we came back to Home Depot," Jeanne said. "I went up to the head cashier and asked, 'Do you remember me?'"
The cashier told her that the other couple finally came back after the store was closed, knocking on the window, and had to be told that the generator had already been sold.
Jeanne asked if they were mad. The cashier replied, "Yeah, the husband was pretty ticked off and he talked to the store manager."
The head cashier has remembered the DeLessios ever since, having shared their story often.
"She called us 'The Home Depot Trumbull Store Generator Stealers,'" Jeanne said. "Whenever we see the head cashier, she says, 'Hi how are you doing? Everybody watch your items!'"
Sandor said that permanent generators require health department, zoning and inland wetlands approvals, as well as several inspections from the Building Department.
Inspections cover installations of the tank and trenching for the piping from the tank to the generator; electrical from the house to the generator; and for the generator itself, according to Sandor. He said a generator is checked for things such as exhaust fumes and it must be so many feet from the windows of a home.
"We make three stops for every generator we do," Sandor said.
'Slapping Them Together'
The DeLessios generator got them through two major storms, powering their refrigerator, TV, two lamps and two space heaters, as well as recharging their cell phones and laptops.
"We're very happy with our generator," Jeanne DeLessio said.
Shannon Monaco wasn't so lucky.
"We bought one of the portable ones in August and it broke — that one leaked gasoline," she said. "It was in our driveway, right outside our garage. We couldn't get a new one at that time. We figured we'll save up for one of the big ones that hook up to your house."
Then Storm Alfred struck and the Monacos shelled out $1,000 for a portable generator at the Home Depot in Hamden.
"The circuit breaker was broken," Monaco said. "It would trip and not restart. We had to return it. One of the employees said, 'I'm not surprised that you're having problems with these generators, because factories are just slapping them together and getting them out because of the demand.'"
The Monacos are thinking about getting one of the big $7,000 generators, but Shannon hopes that heat put on Connecticut Light & Power will eliminate such prolonged periods without electricity.
She said, "I'd like CL&P to do their job properly, so we don't need one."
How did you cope with the long power outages? Share your stories in the Comments.