(Chicago) Early Bird gets the Generator

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By James Janega
Tribune Staff Writer December 9, 1999

Joliet's fifth annual Symphony of Lights was almost darkened this month because when organizers started looking for power generators last March, it was already too late.

Even the generators used to power the city of Chicago's Christmas tree in Daley Plaza were hard to come by this year.


Y2K, of course. Despite Commonwealth Edison's assurances that the power won't go out on Jan. 1, business owners, festival organizers and municipal officials still are renting the huge generators like there's no tomorrow.

"Right now, this is millennial fear. That's very common now. Just the slightest little glitch in things is enough. But something like Y2K, people just go bonkers," said operations manager Tom Pahl, of Forces Inc. in Naperville. His generator inventory in his 6-acre lot was all but depleted by early December.

"This year, people are renting for anything."

Well, almost anything.

While there has been a run on the truck-size, diesel-fueled generators capable of powering light shows, banks and hospitals, sales of smaller generators more suited to keeping refrigerators and home furnaces running have been less than brisk.

At the Ace Hardware in Orland Park, salesman Jack Zuzak said they only have in stock one 4,000-watt generator--a medium-size unit that would keep a few lights on and prevent the contents of a home refrigerator from going bad if power went out. And it's been in the store for three weeks, gathering dust.

Other area hardware stores posted similar ho-hum sales on smaller, home-suitable generators.

But the big generators have moved much faster.

David Barber, who sits on the board of Naperville's Celebration 2000, ticked off the power units his city began renting late last winter: "We've got a 20-kilowatt generator, a 30-kilowatt, a 70-kilowatt and an 85-kilowatt generator for our various tents," roughly enough power to light up a suburban office complex.

The board has been planning the western suburb's millennial New Year's Eve party since 1996, and Barber said, thanks to an early start, there has been no trouble finding generators over the last few months.

Naperville's efforts and similar pushes by outdoor party planners, other towns and corporations nearly zapped Morning Star Mission's annual Symphony of Lights festival in Joliet out of existence this year, said mission Executive Director Marilyn Farmer.

The mission planned to hold its two-week-long annual fundraiser, in which tens of thousands of festivalgoers are expected to drive their cars through acres of elaborate light displays, in the parking lot of a local community college. Four high-power generators were needed to supply the electricity, Farmer said.

"When we called the rental place we usually use to deliver them, they didn't have any," Farmer said. "They asked if we were kidding."

That was nine months ago. Since then, they've tried at least 15 different supply companies, all with the same result. "There wasn't a generator within 1,000 miles of the type we needed," Farmer said.

After the mission canceled the event in early December, Empress Casino in Joliet offered the use of its recreational vehicle park--and its ComEd-supplied power. The show will go on again, though the generators were never found.

For the most part, those who figured on needing a generator for the millennial rollover tended to put their bids in early.

Jack Netter, in charge of renting generators for a New Year's Eve party held by the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts, said he got to it last February.

"I was anticipating the rental market being tight. And it's always best to tie those things down as soon as possible," Netter said. The head start snared him a 200-kilowatt generator; a month later, his supplier was out of stock.

Things have gotten so tight that rental companies are calling clients with open-ended contracts to persuade them to bring their generators in early; if the clients refuse, the rental companies will be hard-pressed to fulfill obligations to other customers.

Forces' Pahl threw his hands up when he thought about the quandary he was in. On the one hand, he said, the rental business is twice as good this year as it was last year.

On the other hand, he's had to turn down a parade of companies seeking backup generators that included BP/Amoco, Lucent Technologies, Abbott Laboratories and even ComEd.

Despite the scattered shortages and all the attention, nobody--from ComEd to hardware store managers--expects electrical outages on New Year's Day.

In fact, the monthslong rush to buy generators had Phil Benton, the electrical contractor for Joliet's Symphony of Lights, already making a New Year's resolution:

"I'm waiting until March or April of next year, because I figure I'm going to be able to buy these generators in droves at half-price," he commented dryly.

-- plonk! (realaddress@hotmail.com), December 09, 1999


Note this line:
"On the other hand, he's had to turn down a parade of companies seeking backup generators that included BP/Amoco, Lucent Technologies, Abbott Laboratories and even ComEd. "

ComEd is our own electric supplier.

They were "seeking" backup generators and had to be turned down!

-- plonk! (realaddress@hotmail.com), December 09, 1999.

Looks like this forum ain't big enough for the both of us, plonk.

-- lisa (lisa@work.now), December 09, 1999.

yeah, well I got it here first and posted the whole article.

:P~~ *Phlbbt*

-- plonk! (realaddress@hotmail.com), December 09, 1999.

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