Whether you’re setting up a camp in a rural area or starting a house on an empty lot, you’ll need some power to truly make it livable.
To get started, you basically have two choices: temporary power from a portable generator or temporary power from the local utility pole.
In most cases, the goal will be to have stable, permanent power from a utility company once your project is complete. Assuming that’s true, it makes sense to get it from the beginning; you’ll only have to go through setting it up once. But living beyond the reach of utility power, especially in extremely rural areas where people want their vacation homes or hunting camps to be, is common. Here, we’ll cover two approaches to address both methods of power installation: using a portable generator or connecting the utility line.
The costs of permanent power
Before you decide what type of power you want—even before you decide to buy the property—you should check how much the utility will charge to bring service to your site.
If power lines are running along the road in front of the property, then putting in a pole or two is something they do every day. But if the building site is a long way off the road (maybe a mile into the woods, for example), the cost of getting utility power to the site will be very different.
The power company will give some service lines for free—for instance, from the road to a site 100 feet away. But when you move beyond with many more poles and many more feet of wire required, then the cost can be $25 to $50 per foot. So for a hypothetical one-mile setback from the road, say, this means somewhere between $125,000 and $250,000. Some utility websites even offer to let you finance part of this cost at an APR of around 10 percent. Making sure you plan ahead—and understand the potential costs—is critical to your project’s success.
Portable generators are a good solution if it’s too expensive or difficult to install utility lines on your property. Even if you do connect to the grid, it’s nice to have a generator to fire up if bad weather knocks out your utility service.
Keep in mind that starting out with a portable generator is a pretty good long-term investment. Even if you finish up with utility power, you (and your family members or neighbors) will figure out many ways to put a portable generator to good use long after the camp or house is established.
When you buy a generator, you are buying watts (amps X volts). Generally, the more watts you want, the higher the price is going to be. Before purchasing one, you’ll have to figure out how many watts you need.
A quick Google search will tell you the approximate watt ratings of typical power tools and household items. A few examples:
- Portable drill – 200-450 watts
- Television – 250-350 watts
- Refrigerator – 400 to 600 watts
- Coffee maker – 600 to 900 watts
- Circular saw – 1,000-1,300 watts
Keep in mind that what you need for a part-time camp is different from what will provide real convenience at home when the power goes out.
You should also evaluate your tolerance for noise. High-capacity generators can be very loud, in the 80 to 90 decibel (dBA) range, which is comparable to a lawnmower or chainsaw. In many cases, a generator will stay at this noise level whenever it is on.
Fortunately, there are alternatives called inverter generators. These can cost quite a bit more ($800 for 3,600 watts in an inverter generator, compared to $400 for 3,600 watts in a traditional model). But they are much quieter, in the range of typical human conversation, around 50 dBA. Such noise reductions are possible because of more efficient engines, better cabinet sound-proofing and a high-tech control system. This allows the engine to run at high RPMs only when the demand is high, then go down to an idle until more power is required.
If you’ve decided to build your own house, either by yourself or by hiring subcontractors to do the work, everybody is going to need power. Most contractors will bring their own generators rather than depend on you to supply one. But eventually the house will need electric service before anyone gets a Certificate of Occupancy, so getting temporary power from the utility is not much of an extra cost.
They will generally have to put in a new pole and transformer, whether the service is temporary or permanent. The temporary service will come from a couple of receptacles attached to the pole, a few feet above the ground. These are served by a cable that comes down the pole, through a meter and into the weather-protected circuit-breaker boxes.
Usually, these will be a couple of duplex 120-volt receptacles. If you want more, you’ll have to negotiate installation with the utility company. The power for the construction tools is carried to the site by extension cords. Don’t forget that you’ll also need to outfit your finished home with the proper outlets and circuit breakers to keep power accessible in every room. Work with your contractors to make sure you choose the correct models and placement.
There are several big advantages to setting up temporary utility power. You don’t have to worry about a generator not working (or being so loud it drives you crazy) or running out of gas one afternoon when you’ve still got work to do.
Whether you just want a generator for a temporary campsite or you’re installing power in a brand-new home, doing your research beforehand will make installing power on a vacant lot a much smoother, easier process.
Steve Willson owned a carpentry contracting business in Rochester, New York, before becoming the home-improvement editor for Popular Mechanics magazine for 22 years. He has written extensively about home improvement and tools, including three books. He also writes for The Home Depot, which carries a wide selection of circuit breakers, breaker boxes and electrical tools you would need to install power on your vacant land. You can see them by visiting The Home Depot’s website.
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