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Getting the Juice: Using Power Generators Effectively

Diane Davis knows that failure to manage an event's power needs can be powerfully unpleasant.

As president of the Louisville (Ky.) Zoo Society board of directors, she and her volunteers were hard at work last June setting up the zoo's annual gala fund-raiser. "It was hot in the tent, and we decided, hey, we have air conditioning; we're stupid not to turn it on," she recalls. At last, "It was time for the event, our guests-in black-tie and sequins-start sitting down, and the air conditioning goes out. We didn't realize our air conditioning was running on diesel fuel, and we'd used it all up. The director of the zoo had to roll up his sleeves and pump more."

The gala ended successfully, but Davis concludes, "When it comes to electricity, Murphy was an optimist."

IT'S THE DETAILS Generator rental companies have two recommendations for event planners: Bring in the rental reps early in the planning process, and be generous with event details.

"We come in with a journalist's approach," says Don Gray, regional manager for Kohler Event Services of Sheboygan, Wis. "We ask the five W's for the event: who you're hosting, what you're doing, when is it scheduled, where will it be held and why are you staging this event. This information tells us what type of power generators and associated equipment you will need."

The answers to these questions go beyond simply making sure power is adequate; they can also involve aesthetics. "One client needed 60 tons of air conditioning in a tent, which we could have done with two 30-ton units," Gray says. "But our discussions showed us that he had several 7-foot displays in the tent, which would have been blown around with the 30-ton units. Instead, we used six 10-ton units, which gave the client control over the air velocity."

Gray encourages planners not to fall into the trap of laying out event sites by habit. "An event planner may tell us he wants the generator 100 feet away from the tent to cut down on noise," he says. "But generators are much quieter than they used to be, so maybe it can be placed only 50 feet away, which decreases the hazard presented by an extra 50 feet of cable."

POWERFUL SAVINGS Careful planning for power not only protects the operations at the event, it also protects the event's budget. "The most common mistakes we see are in the budgeting process," says Scott McShan, national event manager for Aggreko Event Services, in Woodlands, Texas. "Planners will put in a figure based on a wild guess. But even at a backyard wedding, the air conditioning can run twice the cost of the tent."

He recommends a venue tour for the rental rep. "We can do a site survey and meet with other vendors," McShan says. "If we find that we need to put the generator 500 feet farther away, that will mean adding more cable and maybe a transformer, which increases costs."

To protect against generator failure, McShan recommends either a backup generator or a twin pack, in which two generators work as one to share the load. "You get only one shot with an event," he says. "If the power goes out, everything you've already spent your money on-the bands, the lighting, the stage-all goes down the drain."

Ironically, failure to plan ahead also leads event planners to spend more money than they need to, says Roger Wood, rental manager with Peterson Power Systems in San Leandro, Calif., a Caterpillar dealer. Peterson handles events including the Napa Valley (Calif.) Wine Auction.

"Our experience is that people tend to specify units that are way too large," Wood says. "They will add up every breaker they have on the panel and rent that much capacity. But normally, they can get by with half that."

Careful planning early means fewer worries later. Gray says: "If we do our job right, nobody even knows we're there."

Resources: Aggreko Event Services, 281/298-9151,; Caterpillar Rental Power Group, 309/578-3839,; Kohler Event Services, 888/769-3794,; Peterson Power Systems, 510/895-8400

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