Despite the downturn in residential construction, the health of the power generation market is robust. Growth in other areas such as special event, municipal back-up power and natural disaster-induced needs are sufficient according to OEMs and generator rental specialists to sustain the rental of portable generators.

Rental companies that specialize in generator rentals or carry a significant generator fleet can use the residential construction lull as an opportunity to focus their energies on developing generator business in those other markets including event rentals, and back-up and emergency standby applications. These types of power needs will continue to exist long into the future, regardless of the state of the construction markets.

“It's clear from recent events such as the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis to events that go back a few years such as the 2003 blackout that affected the northeastern U.S. and Canada, that as a nation we are going to have to address significant gaps in our infrastructure for the sake of public safety and for continued economic prosperity,” says Todd Howe, product marketing manager - power generation, for Ingersoll Rand Co. in Mocksville, N.C.

Looking beyond basic infrastructure needs to simple jobsite power demands, Wacker's utility product manager Marc Leupi describes how the strong economy and heavy construction activity in recent years has led to a delay on more jobsites in getting timely access to the power grid as well as an increased usage of large electric tools. Combined, these two factors have furthered the increased dependence on mobile generator power in the industrial construction segment.

Though Leupi notes that the slowdown in residential construction has already hurt demand for small portable gas-powered generators, which are commonly used by home builders, the overall market for generators should continue to be strong due in part to the needs of North America's overburdened power grid.

According to Chuck Westhofen, generators product marketing manager for Atlas Copco Compressors, the increased awareness in the potential for power fluctuations has brought with it an increased awareness of the necessity of reliable primary and backup power. “This increased awareness is good for anyone in the backup power business,” Westhofen says.

Emergency preparedness is always on the radar, but never more so than after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2006, and the need was overwhelming. Though the types of natural disasters that can strike vary depending on geography and seasonality, the potential need for back-up power is constant.

“Obviously, given the fact that we are in a hurricane-prone area, the emergency standby market is something quite pronounced in Florida, but it's not exclusive to the South,” says Richard Walker, president and CEO of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Discount Rental & Sales. “Other parts of the country experience ice storms, tornadoes, brown outs and power grid failures — all of which require emergency power solutions.”

As more and more general rental companies begin to specialize in power generation rentals, the expertise of these rental companies also increases, leading to added versatility among their fleets. Many specialists are outfitting their units with cold-weather options, battery chargers and auxiliary fuel tank connection kits — options that increase the flexibility of their fleets and open up new applications such as emergency standby. Or, as Westhofen notes, extremely unusual applications such as powering the construction of wind farms or experimental deep sea ocean agricultural watering are possibilities for rental companies.

“These additional features allow them to better suit special requirements a customer may have such as extended runtime over a weekend, or reliable startup in extreme weather,” says Howe. “For a rental company, the more applications they can find for their equipment, the better their utilization, and highly optioned equipment improves their value proposition, helping them differentiate from competitors.”

Wacker's Leupi has observed the same trend toward customizing generator units for specific applications. These custom options are added at the factory when the base unit is being built, which results in a fully tested and fully warranted package. In addition to cold weather options, Leupi notes that generator units can be customized specifically for one type of application — entertainment rentals, for example — just by adding integrated cam-lock panels.

For applications that require motor-starting capabilities for large tools and motors, some manufactures use a special alternator design on diesel-powered generators to provide more starting power, Leupi adds.

Along with customized machines, rental companies also need to have well-trained employees to help customers find turn-key solutions for all their generator applications. A stock of accessories is equally important. Discount Rental & Sales' Walker recommends having power distribution boxes, cables, ramps, transfer switches and secondary fuel tanks on hand.

“Accessories and options are a very important part of adequately supplying generators to a market,” Walker says. “That's true if you're renting them or selling them — especially when it comes to larger units.”

Power gen goes green

Environmental Protection Agency engine emissions regulations coupled with regional noise regulations have led in recent years to many modifications in generator design. As a result, today's units are cleaner burning and quieter operating. In addition, many of today's generators are engineered with more than a 100-percent fluid-containment frame so that the frame can hold more fluid than the unit contains — a green-friendly feature that protects the environment from leaks even if rainwater gets into the housing.

“Low noise is among the top three product attributes that are important to customers and therefore noise reduction is a key focus for our design engineers,” says Howe. “At the same time, as engine emission regulations become more stringent, the engines tend to run hotter and have more significant cooling requirements.”

According to Wacker's Leupi, those stringent cooling requirements have an impact on fuel economy.

“In the case of diesel engines, reduction in NOx and particulates is coming at the price of fuel economy,” Leupi says. “Tier 2 and Tier 3 engines, have, on average, worse fuel economy than Tier 1 and non-Tier engines, due to these cleaner engines running hotter.”

New engine technologies do however have their benefits, producing less smoke and particulate into the air, while at the same time performing with precise frequency control and well managed step load changes without excess disturbance to voltage and frequency stability. As a result, today's generators have improved motor-starting capabilities, longer run times and quieter dBA output.

Many power applications such as special event, hospital, residential and municipalities have maximum noise regulations — sometimes multiple requirements within the same jurisdiction.

“Our job as manufacturers is to produce generators that are quiet enough to work in most locations while still being priced correctly without compromising cooling performance,” says Atlas Copco's Westhofen.

According to Pam Meyer, equipment sales manager for Subaru Industrial Engines, Wood Dale, Ill., most small portable generators produce less sound than a washing machine, which is generally rated at 78 dBA.

“From a rental company's perspective, a quieter generator is a more rentable generator since urban construction work is getting more noise sensitive, especially night work,” says Leupi. “Complaints from unhappy neighbors are almost as compelling of a motivator as a municipal citation for most contractors. Also, a quiet unit can also be rented into the special events market where no one will tolerate the roar of a big diesel engine at a concert or party.”

No matter your rental niche, improved machine and engine engineering, and a continued trend toward specialization positions generators as a strong rental segment far beyond the reach of the depressed residential construction market.

Power To Go

A Florida rental company generates strong business with its new standby power business model.

In 2004 and 2005 hurricanes knocked out power to more than 10 million people in Florida. More than 4 million homes and businesses were without power in the aftermath of those seasons' hurricanes and, as a result, the state suffered a multi-billion dollar economic loss. People who were lucky enough to have generators waited in line for up to nine hours to get gas, and in many instances the amount they were able to purchase was limited.

Inundated with requests for generators and the fuel to keep them running, Richard Walker, president of West Palm Beach-based Discount Rental & Sales, was inspired to launch Power To Go in 2006. The new company provides guaranteed electrical power and fuel to businesses and others who must keep operating in spite of bad weather and power outages.

The company, whose business model is so unusual that it has a patent pending, sells generators to businesses and homeowners, stores the units in a secure facility, provides necessary maintenance, and ensures that the generators are in ready-to-run condition at a moment's notice. Power To Go maintains its own fuel sources and guarantees that each of the generators in its program will have the fuel necessary to continue running throughout the duration of the power outage.

“We guarantee everything,” Walker says. “We guarantee that your generator will be kept in good operating order, we guarantee its availability when you need it, and we guarantee that there will always be fuel available to keep it running.”

A company's ability to get electricity when the power grid fails can make or break their business. Power To Go guarantees the electrical power that everyone needs when such unfortunate circumstances happen.