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Generac in Whitewater brings power to Texas

Hurricane preparedness mode: Whitewater plant reacts to Harvey

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

WHITEWATER -- Workers are putting in overtime at the Whitewater distribution center of Generac Power Systems because of Hurricane Harvey.

Generac makes portable generators that are in demand when natural disasters strike.

Generators made in Whitewater and at Generac's other Wisconsin factories are on the road to Texas as you read this.

But most of those generators are not going to be much use to residents whose homes are under water from the record rains in Texas.

They're for later, said Art Aiello, spokesman for the Wisconsin-based company that makes portable generators and home standby generators as well as larger commercial and industrial generators.

The company's main distribution center in Whitewater is shipping lots of generators these days in anticipation of a spike in demand for portable generators. The portables can be filled with gasoline and used immediately.

A spike in demand for another kind of generator, which is made in Whitewater, is expected after the area dries out and homeowners decide that next time they don't want to be caught without electricity, Aiello said.

These are the home standby models, which run on natural gas or liquid propane and are installed next to a house like an air conditioner.

The Whitewater production facility -- next to the distribution center -- has not changed its normal production schedule, said Tony Velotta, senior director of operations at Whitewater's Generac.

“Not yet,” Velotta said. “We won't really hit the ramp-up until all that water goes down, down there in Houston.”

The plant and distribution center together employ about 685 workers, part of Generac's Wisconsin workforce of about 2,800.

Generac also maintains a warehouse and distribution center in Edgerton.

The Whitewater plant was bustling Tuesday. As workers assembled generators, beeping forklifts sped around, and workers packaged generators for shipment, producing staccato staple-gun pops.

On the sides of the cardboard boxes was a Generac motto: “Power to live,” emphasizing the products' ability to keep daily life stable in the face of electric outages.

“People don't really understand how dependent they are on electricity,” Aiello said.

Generac always prepositions supplies around the country, so the supply line was primed when Harvey hit, Aiello said.

Even so, officials monitor storms so they can contact retailers in the affected areas and be on top of things before the storm hits, Aiello said.

“We're always prepared for situations like that affecting east Texas,” he said.

Decades of experience with major storms has taught the company to build flexibility into its procedures so it can respond to surges in demand, he said.

Aiello would not say how much product is being shipped from Whitewater. That's a trade secret, he said, but shipments have increased since the company went into “hurricane-preparedness mode” early last week.

In addition to keeping supply lines full of product, Generac has sent six service technicians to Texas to repair units already in use -- Generac's or any other brands. They don't charge anything in disaster zones, Aiello said, although the dealers and retailers might charge.

Generac also is sending repair parts.

The technicians have found the same problem that residents are experiencing: Flooded roads make getting around difficult, Aiello said.

Generac encourages people to prepare for such events, Aiello said, adding that weather has been more severe in recent years, that electrical infrastructure in some states has been neglected over the past 50 years, and Americans are using more electricity, stressing power supplies.

On any given day, more than 1 million people in the United States are without power, he said.

Wisconsin residents, ironically enough, are not a major market for Generac, Aiello said. Michigan, however, has infrastructure problems, more frequent outages, and residents there buy more generators.

Areas where major storms have cut power are very good markets, he added, saying a storm tends to create a “new normal” in which demand stays high long after the skies turn blue.

“We don't wish it upon anybody, but in situations where power goes out, the people here in Whitewater are very proud we're making products here in Wisconsin that are going to help people across North America,” he said.

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