Those piles of branches snapped off by the hurricane finally are disappearing from the front of homes in the Tampa Bay area, one last reminder of the bullet many dodged by not preparing properly for the day when a storm may hit the region head on.
If Hurricane Irma stirred you to consider action, keep in mind hurricane season still has five weeks left — and that the process goes a whole lot easier when a hurricane isn't bearing down and you aren't waiting in line for the things you'll depend on.
But if you're going to do it at all, warn experts in hurricane preparedness, do it right, especially when it comes to the two moves that draw so many to the home improvement stores at the last minute — protecting your windows and buying a generator.
Installing custom-made shutters requires time and money, so many slap on cheap, versatile plywood — just $17 or so for a 4-by-8-foot plywood panel — figuring it's just as good at warding off flying objects.
And weathering the aftermath of a hurricane in comfort means forking over $400 or so for a portable generator, hauling it home and plugging stuff into it, right?
No and no, say those who make, sell and study the products.
"The least effective method, used by many people with minimal time to prepare, is to let the plywood overlap the window opening and attach it to the structure using concrete nails," said research scientist Stan Goldberg in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. "This technique can cause more harm than good since even in moderately high winds, most of these poorly-attached boards will be ripped off and become dangerous flying missiles!"
Generators done wrong can turn discomfort into danger. A 7-year-old Lakeland girl was found dead Sept. 13 from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a generator running indoors after Irma passed through.
"It breaks my heart when I hear about a family whose dad was trying, but the kids are killed," said David Stresler, a licensed electrician and owner of Interlock Electric in Tampa. "It's so unnecessary."
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Nailing plywood to a home damages it and plywood doesn't meet most building codes, said Matthew Poinsett with High Velocity Hurricane Shutters in Naples, meaning insurance probably won't pay for the damage if the wood fails.
If you're going to use plywood, choose exterior grade at least five-eights of an inch thick and heavy-duty, three-quarter-inch barrel bolts, NOAA advises. Waterproof the panels with a coat of varnish or paint and store them in a cool, dry place so they don't warp over time.
The best alternative is shutters or other hurricane-rated products, and expect to pay at least $1,800 to $4,000, depending on the size of the house, according to the website HomeAdvisor.
Still, on the lower end, that's cheaper than, say, the cost of a curved, HD, 55-inch TV from Samsung. And if every opening in a home is protected, a homeowner can qualify for insurance discounts by filing a Uniform Mitigation Verification Inspection report.
Products, according to HomeAdvisor, can include storm panel shutters of polycarbonate, steel or aluminum, installed via a steel channel bolted at the top and bottom of each window; rolling or accordion shutters operated by a crank and permanently attached via tracks; colonial shutters, also permanently attached, in single, bifold or trifold design; Bahama shutters, providing shade as well as protection, mounted to the top of the window and unlatched to secure below it; and fabric shutters, made of mesh or reinforced PVC and attached with wingnuts.
When Rachel Glynn of Tampa, 45, decided on fabric shutters, she had so many friends ask her about them she decided to post a video on Facebook.
"Putting them up is a time-consuming but simple process," Glynn said in the video, demonstrating how to roll them up like carpets for storage. "Metal shutters can cut you, and these let in light during a storm so you aren't totally in a cave."
Fabric shutters, said Andy Ayers of Roll-a-Guard Hurricane Shutters in Largo, are the cheapest hurricane protection product on the market that are rated for hurricane protection. At the other end of the market, motorized shutters can cost 5 percent to 10 percent of a home's value.
Homeowners may want to shop around.
"When you're dealing with a catastrophic hurricane, products with the words 'lightweight' and 'easy' are not products you want to be using," said Poinsett with High Velocity Hurricane Shutters. "You're only as good as your weakest point."
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When it comes to home generators, everyone advises hiring an electrician.
The reason: Step one should be installing a transfer switch in your home to separate the generator from your main power supply so it won't backfeed, pushing power back into the power grid and putting you, your neighbors and even utility workers at risk for electrocution.
In addition, plugging extension cords directly into a generator can also damage both, according to the magazine Consumer Reports.
A manual transfer switch will run $500 to $900 plus labor, potentially doubling your investment in a portable generator, but it's worth the peace of mind, said Tom Pernice, who's been in product development at Honda Power Equipment for 35 years.
Also key to safe operation of a home generator is setting it up at least 15 feet away from a home and never in an enclosed space.
"Opening doors or windows or using fans will not prevent carbon monoxide buildup in the home," warns the American Red Cross. "Although carbon monoxide can't be seen or smelled, it can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death."
Home generators can be stationary or portable.
Stationary models often have an automatic transfer switch that can read when the power goes out. They run on diesel, propane or natural gas, so no scrambling for gasoline.
They run $5,000 to $10,000, according to Consumer Reports.
Portable home generators account for about 90 percent of all those in use, Pernice said. They weigh around 200 pounds, are easy to move around and use regular unleaded gasoline.
"You can even siphon gas from your car in a pinch to keep your food from going bad," he said.
Generators are sold by wattage; figure out how much you need by deciding what appliances are most important. About 5,000 watts will cover the basics of a standard home. Portable models provide 3,000 watts to 8,500 watts, with a price range of $400 to $1,000, according to Consumer Reports.
Among the questions to consider in deciding wattage needs is whether you have a water pump and whether your heating and cooling and water heater are run by electricity or gas.
Consumer Reports' highest-rated portable generator is the Honda EU7000i, with a capacity of 5,500 watts and a cost of around $4,500. A mid-range recommendation is the Kohler PRO7.5E, providing 6,300 watts for $1,500, and a budget choice is the Predator 68529, retailing for $669.97 and with a power delivery rated "good" for 5,500 watts.
Above all, decide how much help you'll need with choosing and installing when you do hurricane preparation work.
Said Stresler with Interlock Electric, "A lot of people don't even know where their breaker box is."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected],com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin