Electric Generators: Part 1 of 2
We now live in a world of instant tragedy and disaster news reporting, motivating us to purchase security. One of the big fears for many people today is a loss of electrical power. The question underlying this is how much power do you need, how much fuel must you have, and for how long will the generator be operating.
In this article we are only discussing fuel driven AC 120V/220V permanently installed electrical generators.
Three years after moving to this semi remote location in Floyd County we saved enough for an electrical generator. At that time, and since, we have been through Hurricane Hugo, numerous severe ice storms, some snow interruptions and two floods that had led to power loss for up to three weeks at a time. I praise APCO, our electrical power source, for their hard work and professionalism in restoration to millions of homes and businesses in such emergencies.
Our first generator was a 9,000watt industrial-commercial Winco™ model with a Wisconsin 20HP engine that I chose to run on propane. I installed two 100 lb. bottles and considered my self-secure. NOT! When Hugo struck I found out how much a generator sucks fuel. The two one hundred lb. bottles really only held 8 gallons of propane. That lasted me two days. I started to learn-the hard way, of course. During the eye of the storm I had a five hundred GALLON tank delivered and filled. When dealing with storage propane, think in gallons, not lbs. This of course was not in our budget.
I did not want gasoline because of fire hazards, and diesel at that time was cost prohibitive-not the fuel, the diesel motor. Today it is the other way around as fuel is very costly but engines have come down in price. Both gasoline and diesel are problematic for upkeep.
My choice of propane was basically sound as one tends to add on propane stoves, refrigerators, on demand hot water systems, fireplace logs, and heaters for greenhouses, bird rooms, children’s rooms, and the list goes on. You just do not run a generator to provide power for an electric range, electric heaters etc. Refrigerators and freezers will require recharging every twenty, or so, hours. Natural gas and propane by the last estimate will be available for the next 90 years. Gasoline and diesel- well who knows?
Propane is clean and not polluting-leaving only water vapor in its track. Natural gas is also a fuel source and both are carburetor friendly in that the non-mechanical person in the house does not have to monkey with fuel jets and such as you would with the diesel or gasoline fuels on a cold, stormy dark night. I have only changed a few sparkplugs and air filters since 1986.
The amount of consumption of my 9000-watt generator is about 2 gallons an hour, maybe 3 on a full demand. Natural gas would be a bit more, gasoline about on par with propane and diesel consumption the best with a slow speed motor. Presently I think diesel is best left for the commercial accounts, and gasoline generators for the portability, which we will discuss shortly.
The fuel costs will be a major consideration, however you have to think of fuel storage tanks too. Common sense dictates you are not going to afford, much less have a gasoline bomb in your back yard. If you go the underground storage route a 1000-gallon in ground tank will cost at least $1000 dollars (new) plus installation dig out, sand packing and copper fuel lines. However you may have a underground heating oil tank in place, or a couple of heating oil free standing tanks that can be connected to a diesel generator-gravity feed of course, as most diesel generators do not have a fuel pump. Home heating oil and diesel fuel is really “Universal Fuel”, and differs only in the dye that is put in it for marking road use taxation. I see no problem in home heating oil fueling a diesel generator at home as there is no road use. I am sure the state will correct me if I am wrong on this.
The move today, for safety in new home construction, is propane, or natural gas. This is the way to go. Big propane tanks are now costly, however many old farms going out of business have propane tanks that they used for drying grains. These can be had reasonably. Your local fuel service, as in this case, for Floyd County is Clark Gas and Oil, will pick up the tank, service it, and deliver it to you. Or you can purchase a new or used tank. Rentals are also available, but the monthly costs amortized over several years will add up to more than paying for a tank outright. If you have a big tank, you get a discount on filling it too.
Currently we use about 150 gallons of propane a year to heat water with an on-demand water heater, and cook, plus related emergency generator service. We are discovering that the 9000-watt generator is a bit small now, and to maintain our expanded farm empire we might go to a 12,000 watt generator, although my argument is “cut back on use’. Before your generator purchase a rule of thumb is to add up every electrical item in the house and farm that is measured in watts, add 20% and that gives you an idea of what you need in size-so sez the experts. In any event you will probably have to turn off some household items-like the Video games, computers, hot water electrical tank service etc to maintain your necessary circuits and lighting.
For the suburbanite, or Mc Mansion owner, there are wonderful self-contained generators available at the big box stores where they will arrange installation for you. They offer for quick installation a plastic pad footing. I recommend a solid concrete pad.
Where you locate the generator is not for ecstatic appearance as you have toxic exhaust to contend with. Locate your generator in accordance with the owners manual suggestions down wind, and perhaps plan on a long exhaust pipe to get the exhaust away from the house as the wind shifts. Our prevailing winds are from the west; my generator is on the east side with a twenty-foot exhaust pipe and muffler.
An electrical generator is a lightning attractor and must be grounded with a copper ground rod. The use of a Lightning Arrestor and whole house surge protector is strongly recommended. You will probably have to construct-separate from the main power switch box-a small well-ventilated generator house outside the main house, unless you purchase as a package enclosed unit mentioned above. Generators really get hot, and for God’s sake do not put it in the basement, many homes have burned down and the carbon monoxide fuels have killed people upstairs.
It is important to note for winter time service when the temperature drops below freezing for several days your generator will be difficult to start, and when it does start it will take time for warming up. You are not generating the proper voltage at this time. It is wise to place an engine oil heat mat: from www.jcwhitney.com on the engine. Some of the new large total automatic units have a heater. You will also need to have a battery heat mat, and connected to a battery automatic charger. The heat mats are inexpensive and can be plugged into a thermostat in- line circuit for about twenty more dollars. Always place the battery on a Styrofoam pad-for unknown reasons batteries discharge quicker on cement floors.
A realistic fear of APCO linesmen repairing your service in a storm is that people run generators that are not switched off from the power lines, feeding back into the APCO power lines, causing them severe electrical shock hazard. It is imperative to have a disconnect switch that will flip you to APCO, or generator, but not both at the same time. That protects the linemen working. It also protects you from criminal and civil liabilities. www.HarborFreight.com, item #42163-9RAH, 200 amp manual transfer switch is the type I use.
In summary: natural gas propane is the modern fuel of choice for permanent large generator power. Although the propane storage tank is a costly investment, it is personal property, and usually can be sold when you vacate the property along with the generator to the new owner. There exists in the 4000-watt range a Tri-Fuel generator that operates on propane, natural gas and/or gasoline.
The major supplier for generators in the NRV is www.NorthernTool.com . Next week we will discuss portable electrical units that appeal to most people because of price and pure emergency needs.
Copyright 2008: Back2theLand, Mark Steel