Timing is everything, in product launches as well as in life. When the product development team at Generac Power Systems Inc., Waukesha, Wis., launched the DG 50 generator early last year, they were understandably proud of the product. Powered by natural gas and offering remote control and monitoring, the DG 50 generator offers small retail and commercial users a “one-two” punch — 50kW of backup power during blackouts or power interruptions and an on-site power source that can help them slash their electrical bills by managing their power consumption and feeding excess power to the utility grid. Generac also wanted a quiet unit with a small footprint that blended unobtrusively with a building's exterior.

Not long after the launch of the DG 50, California's power crisis came on the radar screen, and it boosted interest in generators and other forms of distributed power generation. “The publicity surrounding the power situation in California is nationwide,” said Mike Carr, Generac's manager of marketing communications. “The publicity has created an awareness of the need for reliable power from the grid and in a standby situation.”

Frank Wedel, Generac's chief electronics engineer, is a 16-year veteran who manages the company's electrical department. He worked with four electrical engineers and up to three mechanical engineers to design the product. He said technological issues in the generator market made timing of the DG 50 launch opportune.

“We wanted to offer a standby system or a load-management system where customers could have under their control some distributed generation that would allow them to control some of their utility costs. We felt it was absolutely mandatory that it was easy to install and easy to be understood by the customer base.”

“The existing technologies were somewhat cumbersome, and it's difficult for the average user to install, maintain and cope with and service. We were looking for a completely self-contained system where the user could simply pour a pad, set the unit down on the pad and bring natural gas and the utility to it and they would be done, unless they wanted to get elaborate. We also wanted the unit to be very innocuous, to sit out there and look just like your air conditioner…We wanted to have an appliance-like feel to this thing.”

Wedel said while the unit is primarily designed to be a stand-alone generator for small users, the company wanted customers to be able to add other generators to their electrical system when or if they needed them. With this goal in mind, Wedel's product development team modified the Gen-Link communications software that Generac uses to remotely monitor and control its larger generators to fit the DG 50.

“You can bring online a number of generators at one time via the Internet or whatever SCADA system that you want to put together,” he said. “If you have one 50kW generator out there, thats not any big deal, but if you have 100 of them spread around the city of Chicago, that's a lot of power.”

Wedel said the early feedback from customers on the DG 50 is positive, and that the unit's backup power capabilities have already helped some customers make it through power outages. “People who have installed them are very much in love with them. The DG 50 can carry them through a power interruption and save their computer system. This thing will run 50kW from morning until night. Some customers are also marrying them with UPS systems and doing power management.”

Another feature that has proven popular with customers is the fact that the unit is very quiet, he said. “The mechanical guys (on the design team) deserve a real pat on the back in terms of the unit being environmentally friendly. You can stand right beside it and have a conversation.”

Carr likes to think of the unit as a backup power generator that has the brains to help customers slash their electrical bills with customizable power management. For instance, in markets where utilities hit customers with premium rates during certain times of the day, the DG 50's peak-shaving features will tell the unit to start generating power during these times so these rates do not kick in. He gives the example of a restaurant owner who could program the unit to supplement his power supply during busy meal times, such as when his kitchen is running at full capacity and using a lot of electricity during a time period that coincides with the utility's peak demand cycles. In addition to this benefit, some utilities offer cash incentives to produce power off the grid.

“The distributed generation options allow you to take control of your own energy costs. We think small businesses and small commercial users will find this particularly useful,” Wedel said.

Carr said that same restaurant owner who uses the DG 50 for backup power will come to rely on it as a competitive advantage, too. For instance, if the power goes down on a busy Friday night because of a lightning storm, that facility can tap into the DG 50 for backup power, where a competing restaurant down the block without a backup power supply might have to shut down.

While distributed generation can help end users save money on energy costs and produce backup power, they first have to tie these units to a utility's grid, and that sometimes can be an obstacle. Different utilities often have different methods of tying on-site power their equipment, and Carr said at times it can be “a bit of an uphill battle convincing them that this can be a good thing.” “They can be overly protective of their equipment,” he said. “We want to work in concert with them.”

Carr and Wedel agree that while the California power crisis raised public consciousness on distributed generation and created additional sales inquiries for generators in the Golden State, environmental hurdles there complicate the installation of new power sources.

“We are getting a lot of inquiries out of California, but it has been a notoriously hard place to do business because of the length of time to get a generator installed compared to other states. There are lots of entities to comply with — city, state, etc.,” Wedel said. “It's one of the reasons that California is where it's at.” Adds Carr, “California is a world unto itself because of the regulations they have for generating equipment and emissions. It has always been more stringent.”

Still, said Wedel, “It's a good time to be in the power generation business, as long as you are on the selling side and not the buying side.”

But he said it takes more than the power crisis or the increasing public awareness of distributed power or generators such as the DG 50 to successfully market a new generator — it requires tight communications with potential customers. “We know very well that it doesn't matter what you design, if it isn't what the customer wants, it doesn't matter how good it is or how little it costs.”

Tech specs on the DG 50

The DG 50 distributed generation product is much more than just a 50 kW standby generator set — though it's designed for that role whenever power outages occur. An added feature is its ability to allow businesses to avoid peak demand charges imposed by their utility during high usage periods, and keep electricity costs under control.

In the face of those costly surcharges, or the uncertainties of interruptible power agreements, the DG 50 allows users to generate some or all of their required power on a regular schedule or upon demand. This avoids extra expense and prevents service interruptions and loss of business.

The DG 50's integrated paralleling switchgear gives users the flexibility to parallel with the utility in a base load or peak shave configuration. The DG 50 is rated at 50 kW of output, and is especially suited for commercial establishments like restaurants, food stores and retail outlets. The fully enclosed package is compact and quiet, with a footprint of just over 20 sq ft and a sound rating of only 58 decibels at 7 meters. Other key technical specifications include a natural gas fuel system, remote control capabilities through Generac's GenLink software and a self-contained transfer switch inside the power module.