So was writing a piece about different fuel for generators and heating the pros and cons and such. And wouldn’t you know it the power goes out. This is not a rare occurrence at my place, today is windy with sub-freezing temperatures but I’m ready. With no internet I couldn’t do the research I needed, I hiked out to the main road and sure enough a falling tree had taken down some power lines along with a power pole so I figured I’m in for about 10 hours with no power. After making sure my place was rigged for the power outage I switched to a lap top that had a charged battery and wrote this piece. None of the three generators I own are running.
I have changed my approach to using generators over the years. 20 years ago I would have sprung into action, deploying the whole house generator. In about 5 minutes my wife could be watching TV with the furnace running and the refrigerator humming. Part of this was because it was just fun to see the benefits of the time, money and effort I had put into preparing for a power outage. These low level situations are wonderful practice and you learn from each one. Maintaining a power life style in a post power world might work for the short term, but not as a long term strategy. Since then my efforts have been to set my place up not to use electricity if it can be avoided. It comes down to want vs need.
Take today’s power outage, the thermometer read 17 degrees this morning, at some point the pipes are going to start freezing if I don’t keep some heat in the house. I’ve got a propane fired heater that takes no electricity that will handle this issue, I don’t need a generator. If not for that stove I would have to run the furnace occasionally and would need the generator. I’m on a community well so I currently have no running water but there are a couple 5 gallon jugs in the mud room for short term and much more elsewhere. I have a generator specifically for the well but won’t hook it up and run it unless this outage goes until tomorrow morning. The neighbors know this as well. I will run the well 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours at night so folks can do dishes take showers and such.
I have enough fuel to do this for a week or two but would switch to maybe 15 minutes a day, just long enough for everyone to refill water containers if it looked like a real long term crisis. As long as we don’t open the refrigerator a bunch of times I won’t need to power that up for several hours. In a long term situation with this weather I would just empty the refrigerator and freezer into coolers and leave them outside. If it was warmer I would power the refrigerator sparingly and begin eating everything in the refrigerator followed by the freezer, once empty it would become a food cabinet.
While I still have a whole house generator, several years ago much to my wife’s consternation I bought a little 1000 watt suitcase style generator. This has turned out to be very handy and versatile. My wife has no problem starting it when I not around, its surprisingly quiet and number one in my book, it sips the gas. When it gets dark tonight I’ll set it on the back porch run a cord into the house and power up my refrigerator , charge the lap top and phones, maybe hang a couple florescent work lights in the kitchen and living room while we make dinner. It’s just a matter of having enough extension cords and a power strip or two. Although cords running every which way in your house might be unsightly this is a valid strategy that anyone can do with a minimum of skill. If you have the funds a trip to the hardware store followed by a trip to the gas station can have you covered in an hour.
Other than firing up the whole house generator a couple times a year to make sure all systems are a go I have only used it once over the last two years. That was after 5 days of no power and my wife needed to do some laundry and as a bonus run the dish washer. It’s nice to know I have it, although in the big picture its importance has diminished considerably.
Me and generators go back a long way, my first was a Korean war era 2500 watt two stroke. I got it for next to nothing and proceeded to monkey with it till she ran and made electricity. That thing could run in a ditch half full of mud. My next was a basic 5000 watt Coleman with a big fuel tank. She has served me well and still powers the community well when called upon; she is one loud girl who likes to run hard and not much else. I fixed up an old no name for my Dad which he ran for many years. I built my own load tester so I could dial generators in. My real education on generators came from fixing them when I had an RV repair business. I’ve learned a few things, what follows are just my opinions so please take it as such
Small portable suitcase type units are in the 500 to 2000 watt range enough to run lights a TV some smaller hand tools, charge the batteries in an RV nothing too tough, units closer to the 2000 watt might run a microwave which is a very good thing and some roof top AC units on an RV. In my opinion don’t even bother with anything less than 1000 watts unless you just want to charge a phone, run a computer , lights or some other light loads, a 1000 watt generator can fire up most of the newer energy efficient refrigerators but an old refer will probably choke it.
These are incredibly handy ,easy to start machines just don’t ask them to do too much heavy lifting. Mid-sized units are in the 3500 to 6000 watt range these can all be started by hand to a point, more on this this later. These mid-sized units can power a typical house as long as you limit what you are running. If you have an electric furnace or water heater they are too small, maybe one or two burners on an electric stove or a micro wave. Once you get above the 6000 watt range you pretty much need an electric start and that means a battery which is another whole subject.
Beware of the generator ratings there is a lot of subterfuge going on here. You can be looking at two generators side by side that both are labeled as 5000 watts one is considerably less expensive than the other. What they don’t tell you is one is rated for 5000 watts surge the other is 5000 watts continuous. This means the 5000 watt surge generator can supply 5000 watts for a few seconds to handle the extra power needed to start a refrigerator compressor or furnace blower.
This generator might only be good for 3500 watts continuously. Were as a 5000 Watt continuous duty rated generator might handle 7500 watts surge, read the fine print. There is a simple way to cut thru this, look at the horsepower of the engine, as a good rule of thumb figure 500 watts of reliable power from each horse power. So a generator with 5 horse power is good for about 2500 watts continuously. An 8 horse power generator is good for 4000 watts and so on. This simple rule should keep you out of trouble.
Not all generators are created equal, you need decide how much you are going to rely on it and of course what you can afford. If your goal to make it a day or two every couple years a cheap unit is fine but if you are going to build a plan around a generator better step up to the plate. The engines you find in value units are typically good for a limited number of hours, while a more expensive unit might run indefinitely as long as regular maintenance is done. The main difference you have to understand is the engine design.
The good old L head engine has been around forever. It’s still found on your value brand generators. Remember the old Ford flathead V-8? This is an L head engine. There will be L head engines working after you and I are long gone. They are the simplest engine to manufacture and tear down and fix. In an apocalyptic scenario I would prefer working on an L head. I once did a de-carbon on an L-head generator in the open during a snow storm, of course it still didn’t run worth a crap once I got it back together but I did it. So what’s the problem with L head engine generators? Nothing as long as you run them hard, without getting too technical the problem is there is a lot of surface area in the combustion chamber where the magic happens.
This means if the old L head is not working hard and hot, carbon tends build up on the head, valves and piston. This is not good and I’ll leave it at that. For this reason an L-head engine is great for some tasks but powering a generator is down on the list. A generator needs to loaf along only powering a light load maybe for hours but still be able to start that refrigerator of furnace blower. The poor old L head just can’t hang loafing along. It just doesn’t get hot enough to get to its sweet spot and dies a slow carbon choked death. So if you are running an L-head engine make her work, run a space heater your refrigerator get your place warm and your refer cold then shut her down, but don’t ask her to wait for you to give her an load to carry, she don’t like it.
The overhead valve engine solves this issue as well as being more efficient. If it’s in your budget go for the overhead valve engine. Usually you will see OHV spelled out on the engine somewhere, these are much better engines and manufactures tend to tout this. All modern cars have overhead valve engines, they are significantly more complex but worth every penny in terms of reliably and versatility. OHV engines can loaf along for hours without near the carbon built up as L heads. That said they still need some serious exercise occasionally as we all do.
By far and away the biggest killer of generators is bad gas. Gasoline has a limited shelf life. We never have to confront this limited life with our cars as we fill up every week or two and that’s that. By my estimation gas is good for about 6 months before it starts getting sour. When it does it has a smell to it I wish I could describe. Gas treated with preserving additives help for at least a year maybe 18 months but that is pushing it. A tightly sealed gas can in a cool place helps. Fuel stored above about 70 degrades much more quickly. Problem is particularly on the units with big fuel tanks is once you fill it up there is no simple way to empty it. A typical scenario is the lights go out but you have your stuff together and run you generator for a few hours. Crisis passes you did well and the generator, still half full of gas gets tucked in a corner.
One year later another situation arises and your generator will not start….bad gas. To add insult to injury that nasty old gas has gummed up your delicate carburetor and fresh gas may or may not solve this problem. Most generators have a fuel shut off valve, at the very least when you’re ready to put it to bed fire it up, shut off the fuel valve and let it run till it dies. Contrary to popular belief you are not running the carburetor dry you are just getting some of the gas out to the point where the carburetor can’t supply the right air fuel mix and the engine dies. Some units have a way to unscrew the carburetor float bowl and dump all the fuel but that’s getting rare. Best thing is to always treat your fuel with a stabilizing additive so the fuel left in the carburetor is treated and hope for the best.
Getting the fuel out of the tank is another subject, I always put a valve it the fuel line so I can drain the tank. As a rule I don’t leave gas in my generators, they are dry until I need them then I use the freshest gas I have. As a side note I only buy premium gas for my mowers, weed eaters, chainsaws and generators, by experience it seems to last a couple months longer than regular gas, can’t prove it though. I always have gas that’s getting long in the tooth by the start of winter. I just wait until one of my rigs is about half full and dump the old gas in there so it mixes with newer gas. Never seems to hurt anything then I fill up all my cans with fresh treated premium gas.
Several things need to come together to get a generator going. We are going to assume you have good fuel and the physical strength. One thing is to fire your unit up on an 80 degree day after a couple pulls. Getting it to light at 20 degrees is another subject. Easy on the choke, set the choke and give it a few purposeful pulls. You need to pull hard and fast. If the engine coughs a bit switch to half choke and give it a good pull. Once it fires let it run on half choke a bit and take the choke off. If it started on full choke let it run a few seconds and go to half choke. Don’t be afraid of running the choke between half and full to get keep it running. If it doesn’t cough on full choke go to half choke and repeat. The key here is don’t pull on the poor beast forever on full choke If it doesn’t fire.
After five or six good pulls on full choke you are probably flooding the engine. So take the choke completely off and pull hard a few times. It may cough a bit which is a great sign. Go to half choke and give her the business. If all else fails you have a couple options. My fall back plan is starter fluid you buy in a spray can at any auto parts store. You need to get it into the carburetor intake which means removing the air filter cover which usually requires no to basic tools. Shoot the starting fluid right into the carburetor for a second or two, it vaporizes fast so try starting it a quick as you can after spraying it. Once started put the air filter cover back on immediately. All generator manufacturers discourage you from using starting fluid, voids the warranty they say, I’m just telling you what works for me.
Last ditch effort is to pull the spark plug and heat electrode with a propane torch until it glows bright yellow for a few seconds let it cool a bit put it back in and start over with less choke this time. This is a trick you won’t find in the books but it works. Let the generator warm up for a minute or two before you connect it to anything and when it’s time to shut it down disconnect it and let it run a bit to cool down. Another little trick is to shut the fuel valve off rather than killing it with the switch. If seen more than one float valve stick and over flow gas out of the carburetor vent, lost a full tank of gas one time because of this. By turning off the fuel valve the carburetor cannot over flow.
Something you never want to do.
Never ever play with the throttle to speed up the engine or to get it to run better when you have it powering anything. On most generators the voltage is a function of the engine speed. So revving the throttle might take the voltage from the normal 120 volts to 200 volts in a hurry and many electric gadgets take a real offence to this and decide to quit working.
PS: The power came on 12 hours later