Living through several days without power through multiple hurricanes in the 1990s led Gary Jackson to become a generator person for life.
These days his primary Wilmington home has a 45kW generator, elevated more than 17 feet above sea level, that can power his whole house.
“It just gives you peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about it. The power goes out, but you have power,” Jackson said. “Once you have one, you’re not going back.”
The U.S. generator market is forecast to grow from about $5 billion in 2021 to $7 billion in 2028, according to a Fortune Business Insights report.
Dan Miller, owner of Generator Supercenter in Wilmington and New Bern, opened his Port City location in 2018 and has seen the demand continue to increase since then. He said he sees generators tracking a similar path as air conditioners 70 years ago.
“I think it’s interesting how the generator is almost becoming as essential as what the air conditioners were in the 1950s,” said Miller, who said his territory covers everything east of Interstate 40 in North Carolina.
Billy Eason, owner of Carolina Beach-based Cape Fear Generators, has been in the generator business since 2000. He said he estimates his company has installed upwards of 7,000 generators over the past two decades, including Jackson’s.
Among his customers are individual homeowners, municipalities and Lower Cape Fear LifeCare.
Eason offers five brands of heavy-duty generators (not the little ones that can only power a lamp or a phone), and they range in price from $10,000 to $40,000, the industry standard.
“The driving force here is people that have experienced power outages for 14 to 30 days, especially up North during the hurricanes they’ve had,” Eason said, on May 24, a day when he was already preparing the town of Carolina Beach’s multiple generators for a predicted Memorial Day coastal storm. “They’ve moved from that area and requested to have backup power, so then in turn, the builders get on board and say, ‘Well, you know, if these people want to get generators, the neighbors want generators, and then they all start feeding off that.”
Helping people with medical needs is a primary goal for Cape Fear Generators, Eason said, making sure hospice patients can remain comfortable, for example, and that the equipment people need, such as oxygen machines, can remain functioning even when the power is out elsewhere.
But there are other considerations outside of the most obvious, Eason pointed out: people who have aquariums in their homes who don’t want all their fish to die; residents who have artwork that needs to remain in a climate-controlled environment; and keeping security systems going when people can’t get back to their homes right away, for a few examples.
Not everyone needs or wants a generator, but for those who do, there are a variety of options, from whole-house generators that can run on propane or natural gas to small gasoline-fueled generators.
Generators get more attention in the leadup to hurricane season, which started this year June 1 and runs through the end of November.
“What we’re always seeing is an uptick starting around the April time period and then by June or July we’re at the max capacity,” said Miller, who sells Generac brand generators. “We do about 100 generators a month.”
Eason said some seasons are busier than others. “But with the progress of construction, people are putting the generators in when they’re building new homes, because that’s the best time to do it because you can do it pre-construction without tearing out what they just put in,” he said. “As far as sales going up and down with the economy, we came off a stronger economy. Now you can start to see the dip with what’s going on now, where people are tightening up a little bit, but we hold our own. We try to do at least 300 generators a year.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in 2020, “the generators disappeared,” Eason said, because manufacturers let all their workers go home. Offering multiple brands aided that situation, he said.
The need for generators and generator repair in rural areas can be overlooked, according to Eason. As a result of this concern and the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in September 2018, he opened a Cape Fear Generators location in Burgaw.
“When Florence came it cut us off, and we could not get to the customers up there with medical needs, without going to Jacksonville coming back down 24 and then coming back in,” Eason said. “We opened a store up there and we got generators, supplies and things that they will need.”
On May 25, forecasters with the Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, predicted this season could have 12 to 17 named storms, which means storms that have winds of 39 mph or higher. “Of those, 5 to 9 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 1 to 4 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher),” according to a news release.
But it’s not just hurricanes that can cut power. “The worst thing that I’ve experienced was when we had the ice storm, and people got cold, got scared,” Eason said.
Waiting until a storm is on the way to consider buying a generator is not a good idea because it can take time to install one, Eason said. Additionally, Cape Fear Generators goes into a mode of taking care of existing customers when a hurricane is bearing down.
“During Florence, we had to shut sales off for one year to keep up with repairs and replacement of generators,” Eason said. “There’s no need for me to go sell her a generator when I’ve already sold you one and it’s not working or there’s an issue.”