Dan Rattiner's StoriesDan's North Fork

Four Explosions in 24 Hours: Fire and Smoke Destroy East End Generac Backup Generators

They were all Generac Guardian 17KW generators that blew up on September 13, 2018.

As I write this, it is 8 p.m. Thursday and Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall tomorrow just south of the aptly named town of Surf City, North Carolina. I am in Manhattan at this time, in our apartment. I spend most days in the Hamptons, but a couple of days a week I’m in New York this time of year.

The phone rings. It is the East Hampton Town Police. There is a fire at my house on Three Mile Harbor Road. Can I get there? I tell them I can get there right away. How bad is it?

“We think it is your pool heater. Apparently, it’s already been put out. But you should call Tom Baker, the fire marshal. He’s there on the scene.”

“It can’t be my pool heater. I heat with solar panels. So there’s nothing to catch fire,” I tell the police officer. “God provides.”

“Just call him.” They give me his cell phone number.

He answers the phone on one ring. What’s caught fire is a power generator the size of a refrigerator that sits on its side, 80 feet from the house. If the power goes out on the street, our electric panel is switched automatically to the generator. It runs on propane and can stay working for about three days. Nothing else has been damaged.

“Yours is the third one that’s exploded in Springs in the last 24 hours,” Fire Marshal Baker tells me. “We are opening an investigation. I’ve also called Consumer Affairs.”

“Somebody is driving around blowing up backup generators?”

“It’s possible. We’re looking into everything. All three generators are the same make and model. Generac.”

“I’m in New York. Do you want me to come out?”

“Not necessary. But if you have a friend nearby who could stop by, there’s papers to be filled out. We’ll be here another hour. And you’ll need to have an electrician come right away. If the power goes out on the street right now, the trigger in your electric panel inside will trip and that could cause a fire in the house.”

I made phone calls. Did what had to be done.

My friend texted me a photo of the remains of our generator (below). All twisted and blackened metal. It must have been some kind of bomb thrown at it to cause this kind of damage, I think. Who could do such a thing?

Dan's destroyed Generac Guardian 17KW generator by the pool
Dan’s destroyed Generac Guardian 17KW generator, Photo: Dan Rattiner

What would Sherlock Holmes think? If this was a bomber, for starters, it would have to be somebody who was mad at me. Or a person who doesn’t have a generator who is envious that I had one. Was it something I wrote? Did I write something that offended?

But that doesn’t explain the other two explosions. One was on Manor Lane and the other on Springs Fireplace Road. Could they be mad at me but not know exactly where I live, so took some guesses. Not likely. They’d have had to be mad at all three of us. What did all three of us have in common? I have no idea. But then how do you explain that all the explosions took place in Generac Guardian 17KW generators?

More likely, it would have to be somebody who not only hates us and wants us to suffer with those who don’t have generators when a hurricane plows through, but is also somebody who hates the Generac company. Maybe they had a run-in with Generac. Put in a Generac 17KW and it didn’t work? Well, that pretty well narrows it down.

I also thought maybe a particular installation company here on the East End might be angry. Were all three of us using the same company? I called Tom Baker back.

“Nope,” he said. “All three were installed by different installation companies. And now we have a fourth one that exploded up in Cutchogue. I’m in touch with all the other fire marshals.”

“Generac?”

“Yup.”

So, whoever this was, could it be possible that they’d broken into the Generac database and isolated all the Generacs sold on the East End? There were four incidents so far. Would there be a fifth?

“Have you called the Southampton fire marshal?” I asked.

“We’re all over it,” he said. “Another possibility is that there is something internally wrong with this particular model of Generac. We have an office in a building out back of East Hampton Town Hall. I want to get all three Generacs over to our place. Yours suffered the least damage. The fire department got there pretty quick. The one on Manor Lane had been burning for about 30 minutes. The Springs Fireplace road one even longer. We have an eyewitness. An explosion went boom. Then flames came out of it. I want to line all three up, and with the different amounts of damage we might be able to reconstruct how it exploded and how and where it caught fire. Maybe it’s a part inside these generators that’s deteriorated and failed.”

“So you don’t think it was a terrorist?”

“Lower down the probability scale.”

I told Tom about an extraordinary thing that once happened to the three carbon monoxide detectors at my house. Maybe that could be a lead to be followed up.

About nine years ago, we did a major renovation at our house. Installed at that time were three of these detectors. One was on a wall in the basement, one was on the wall in the living room on the first floor, and one was on the second floor in the hall outside the bedrooms.

One morning many years later, I woke up to hear a little mechanical chirping in the house. It took a while to track it down, but eventually, with the help of my wife and our problem-sniffing dog, I found it was coming from the detector on the wall in the basement. I turned it off and disconnected it from the wall. On the back was a message. It gave the date it was activated, and it had a note that this detector would have to be replaced in exactly 9 years, 6 months and 13 days.

I did the math. This was the day. I walked upstairs and stared at the detector in the living room. It was fine. So was the one in the upstairs hall.

The next day at almost the exact same time, the detector on the second floor failed, and later that afternoon, the one in the living room failed. As I recall, they repainted the basement on day one, the first floor on day two and the top floor on day three. But I could be wrong. What the hell!

“I don’t think that is what was going on here,” he said.

“Keep me posted?”

“Absolutely. And I have another theory,” he said. “We have a very high barometric pressure right now. Could be related to the low pressure in North Carolina. Maybe that was a cause of this.”

“Here’s something else,” I said. “Earlier today, in Andover and Lawrence, Massachusetts, over
50 homes caught fire when gas connections exploded. Could this be related?”

“Very unlikely. That’s all about natural gas. Here it’s all about propane. Different systems, all separate. Up there, I think it was somebody pulling the wrong switch for all these households, resulting in over-pressurization and fires.”

Baker asked me to write to anyone in the community who owns a Generac Guardian 17KW generator to call the company that provides the service for them. And call him. Baker’s number at town hall is 631-324-3473.

ADDENDUM: Generac has replaced our generator with a new one, all free and with all installation costs paid for.

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