Sunday, February 8, 2009

A small victory

Yesterday was a good day. We got our generator back. Score one for rationality and old-fashioned workmanship.

The short version of this very long story is, Aimee and I own another house, a straw-bale house which we built ourselves and lived in for three years before we came to the Great Farm.

For the last few years it's been on loan "temporarily" to another family who needed a place to stay. But this arrangement, which costs us money and denies us the use of the house for guests and friends who might come to visit, has become tedious. The folks who live there were in fairly dire straits when they moved in, but things have gotten worse for them, not better, meaning they believe themselves unable to help with expenses like taxes, ground rent, house insurance. I say believe themselves unable, since they do own a property someplace else and so presumably have some resources. But for right now they tell us there's nothing they can do, they have to keep living there and they have no money to help. And of course it's not an option not to pay taxes, insurance, or ground rent. So, like the fools we are, we pay, in the hopes that we will one day have our property back for our own use.

We could just ask them to leave, and if they didn't leave, have them evicted, but there's a kid involved, and we can't bring ourselves to do it. We're not so much mad at them, just upset that we lose so much money, and sad that they can't do any better, worried for the kid, and unable to help anymore than we currently do.

It's one of those bad situations that would probably be made yet worse for all concerned if you tried to do anything to fix it. Especially in winter.

But, in the way of all things, there are occasional glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. Getting the genny back was one.

This is a fairly substantial, good brand name, residential standby generator, and represented a major investment for Aimee and I when we bought it to outfit the Bale House, which runs on solar power, but needs a generator for when the sun doesn't shine, or you want to use a power tool or other heavy load.

We not only spent a lot of money on it at a time when we had only one income (and two sets of PhD-scale student loans), but we agonized over the choice and cost in the way we do, in the way all careful families do, and just recently were agonizing again over buying a new one when it became clear that Maine power cuts make it hard to water our animals.

This was especially painful to contemplate since we knew we already owned a generator. Aimee's car cost less than this generator did.

Like most expensive machinery, this generator is complicated, and requires careful maintenance of the professional sort where you actually follow the instruction book. No problem for an ex-sumpy. Just the kind of jig-saw puzzle I might actually enjoy, once I got the heavy beast into my nice clean dry warm shop where I could approach the problem with lots of time and rationality.

But it was more or less guaranteed that it would quit working for anyone who wasn't willing to put in, or couldn't afford, the time to maintain it properly. When it did, I hoped I could get it back, and that the damage wouldn't be so great that it couldn't be repaired.

So this was the case when I unloaded the truck yesterday.

First we cleaned off the snow and accumulated grunge. Then we took off the engine cover panels and began the standard one-by-one small engine diagnosis.

1) Is there battery power to start? No. Put battery on charge.
2) Does starter still work? Use power supply to test. Starter works but engine is hydraulic-ing. (Meeting resistance caused by some liquid in cylinder.) Why?
3) Remove spark plug, run starter, blow out cylinder. Engine now turns over.
4) Might as well check for a spark while spark plug is out. Good spark. Things are looking up.
5) Replace spark plug. Engine still won't start. Why?
6) Is there fuel? We have one gas cylinder part full, one empty. Check to see if engine would start if it had fuel by removing spark plug and dripping a little gasoline into cylinder. Replace plug, try starter. Engine fires and catches a little. No fuel supply.
7) Why no fuel supply? Battery panel on rear has been removed and lost. Fuel regulator is exposed. Check ambient air pressure holes on regulator. They are filled with snow. Take gas torch lightly to regulator, melt snow. Try starter. Engine now starts and runs, but cuts out after five seconds.
8) Why does engine cut out? Try again, notice LED code is flashing on control panel. Four flashes. Go consult manual online. Four flashes is low oil pressure. Why no oil pressure? I already checked the oil, but remember that the oil dipstick on this machine doesn't accurately reflect the oil contents, especially when it's cold.
9) Is there oil? Undo drain plug to find out. No bloody oil. (This makes me a little mad, but I need my rationality back, so I suppress the thoughts I'm having.)
10) Having checked the correct oil quantity in the manual, add oil. Run starter to suck oils from remote filler into machine. This is probably why there's no oil. You have to turn this engine over to get the oil pump to actually draw the oil into the crankcase from the filler through the filler tube, especially in winter when oil is thicker. Anyone who didn't know this would not be able to get oil into the machine, but might think they had. They probably spilled it all instead.
11) Engine now starts and runs.
12) Is there power at the power take off? Yes.
13) Now we're into routine POL and service. Charge battery, add fuel, connect power receptacle to replace the one I left at the Bale House, all done.

We now have a functioning standby generator. Amen to that.

We're not taking it back to our guests. They have their own, and although it's a good deal less suitable than the one we have, it's at least theirs and so they are wearing out one thing that belongs to them, not to us.

And I walk around the rest of the day quite pleased about all this. The good feeling doesn't leave until the morning, when I discover there's a thaw, the temperature is 40 degrees F (yippee!) and we have an ice dam on our porch roof leaking water into the building.

Another problem to fix. But it will keep me happy for at least the morning.

Then we get to watch the Six Nations rugby, England vs, Italy, Wales vs. Scotland, albeit delayed on Setanta.

Please don't tell me what the score was!


  1. Your straw-bale house situation - it seems that's how a lot of these things end up, isn't it? Been there too ... and now, we're in a situation where we can easily help someone again ... but we probably won't :( Someone I know actually may get sued by his non-paying "tenant" for the injury this tenant received on the property (100% his own fault). The case is not even in the court yet and may never be there but the landowner lost his insurance and can't get another one because of that.

    P.S. I wish you wrote the troubleshooting section of my generator's manual instead of the people who did. May be you should publish some flowcharts on fixing things? :)

  2. Yes, tedious business, 'nuf said.

    I always thought I'd finish up writing tech manuals and other practical how-to books, but went and got a PhD instead and now keep pretty busy teaching stuff from other people's books. I tend to concentrate on the student in front of me right now a bit too much, rather than postpone teaching "until I get my book written," which is what a lot of academics spend their time doing.

    Unfortunately for them, have you seen how many books there are these days? I generally think I make more headway with students. And I wonder too, what academic uses we can put blogging and other Internet "cloud" activities to. In my actual problem-solving research work, which is in wind power right now, I have to say I use more web pages than books.

    Thanks for the note. Take care.


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