Sunday, February 17, 2013

New generator

Regular readers will know that I've been worried about our aging home back-up generator since the most recent power cut. This happened during the last-but-one snow storm, not a particularly big storm by Maine standards.

The power was out for nearly eight hours, and although I'd slept through most of it while sick with the flu, Aimee had been at work, and I wanted her to come home to a hot shower and a warm, well-lit house. But the tired old generator only ran for forty minutes, then cut out. The reason was most likely overheating due to a worn engine, and indeed the next time I tried to start the genny, I got blue smoke, not a good sign.

We need a working genny around here, not just for our own comfort, but to pump water for our livestock in a power cut.

I had been prevaricating between getting a new unit or rebuilding the old, or some combination, most likely buying a new one, rebuilding the old one, then selling it on.

After some thought, I resolved to partially rebuild the engine, and sent away for the piston rings I needed to do so. I was sort of looking forward to puttering on this all weekend, but by the time the rings came Friday, another storm was forecast for late Saturday, and it made no sense to strip down the generator just at the moment when we could easily need it, even if it was running poorly. I'd also received notation of our tax rebate from the IRS "Where's my rebate" site, and so had the money for a new one.

I decided to just go get one. It required a little work to talk Aimee into it. She wasn't happy about the expense, but I think this winter's various adventures have shown the need.

But which one to buy? I wanted a generator with a propane engine because propane engines typically run quieter and cleaner than gas or diesel. We also have a lot of problems with gas spoilage in carburetor engines around here. We have a lot of farm and yard equipment that only needs to run a few times a year and the gas spoils, or the fuel hoses decay on the smaller carburetors. You want an emergency generator to work when you need it.

Propane keeps for years. We've had the same propane tanks on the current generator for four or five years. It always starts, and never needs a carburetor strip-and-clean job. Most of our other motors require this at least once a year, usually due to resin in the gas that gums up orifices and jets. But the con is, the propane generator itself is more expensive.

I almost bought a gas genny. I'd been shopping online ever since I saw the blue smoke. I knew I could get a mid-size propane generator from Home Depot for about $900, which seemed a lot, while a gas-fueled unit of the same wattage output would only be about $600. But then I noticed a Generac 3,250 W propane generator at the Waterville Home Depot for $609.

The only difficulty was that it was pull-start. When we're away from the farm, we get a farm-sitter, often a student, often female, and even the most self-reliant student might have trouble with a pull-start engine.

But, as we discovered this year, if we're away and there's a power cut, usually other bad things begin to cascade. Most recently it was the oil furnace, and we had to return home early in any case. And our old generator had to be wired directly to the breaker panel each time it was needed to power the house, so it wasn't exactly user-friendly. I decided I could live with a pull-start, as long as it had 220 volts and so could power both sides of our breaker panel.

I'd use the savings to buy and set up a proper 220 volt generator socket, and make it a lot easier for someone other than myself to connect the generator to the house. The new model at 3,250 W would have almost the same wattage output as our old one at 3,500 W, so we'd have to turn off some devices in the house while we used it, but through the new connection it could deliver more of that power, and run all our farm food freezers and the main fridge at the same time and handle the water pump too.

I'd been able to get a lot of use out of the old Generac unit, which had the same GN 220 engine as the new, and so I was also brand-loyal.

Here's the new genny after assembly, which took about half an hour. It's easy to move around.

As you can see, it's a lot easier to move around than our old one. The old one was supposed to be permanently installed outside, and we certainly did that at the Bale House, but it would get covered in snow and rained on and dirty, and so here at the farm where we didn't need it to run off-grid systems on a fairly frequent basis, I always kept it indoors and just manhandled it outside when I needed to. It's heavy, and so this wasn't very efficient, and would have been another barrier to having Aimee or a house-sitter operate the unit in an emergency.

The big white box on the top of the old unit contained the receptacles. You'd take a 110V plug, plug it into one of the receptacles, and wire that directly to a breaker on the breaker panel (having first turned off the main breaker). Not that easy to do, especially in the dark with just a flashlight, and the most you could get was 10 amps because there were 10 amp GFCI breakers fitted to the receptacles on the receptacle box. That meant that you couldn't run a fridge or freezer and the water pump at the same time.

Here's the new disconnect socket I wired in yesterday. Much better, and it can take up to 30 amps. This is not easy home wiring, because it uses large gauge cable that is hard to manipulate, but if you persevere, you can get it done.

The new genny started a little hard, but that's normal for a new pull-start engine. I expect it will settle in, and I'll figure out what the particular "knack" is too. I didn't much like the way it scooted along on its wheels while I was pulling on the starter, but I think I can figure that out too. The only remaining problem is to pick up a new two-gang breaker for the genny. The old one I had on the shelf turned out to be a dud. I also need a different plug. The Home Depot "Associate" inadvertently sold me the wrong one, although he swore blind it was the standard item for a generator's 220 V outlet.

I'm not sure what Home Depot "Associates" are "associated" with. Although some of them are knowledgeable, others of them clearly need to be re-associated with some trade-training programs and a few good textbooks in mechanics and construction.

Another sign of the decline of western civilization. And the durn generator itself, although a major American brand and probably American-designed, is actually made in China. But what can you do?

When Margaret Thatcher and to a lesser extent Ronald Reagan's economic reforms reduced funding for the kind of "socialist" trade training and engineering educations available at places like the UK's then-magnificent RAF Halton, and similar vo-tech colleges all around the USA, I'm not sure they realized just how delinquent we'd become in terms of the engineering literacy of the average person in such a short space of time.

When I was a kid in Sheffield, almost every other kid's dad I knew had some kind of solid trade.

Now we're all occupying cubicles in call centers, shifting each other's bad credit around, and knowledgeable hardware store "Associates" are few and far between.

Next time I'll take my durn jackknife and cut the durn plug out of the stupid blister pack right there in the store, and try it on the display model generator, just to be sure. And I won't listen to no so-called Associate if he or she tells me otherwise.

But I think all will be well enough with the new genny. It's a compromise, with the pull-start and the Chinese manufacture, but it's backed by an American warranty and a good brand name that has worked well for us before.

So, if today's so-called "Blizzard Warning" doesn't turn out to be a storm in a teacup, as it currently seems to be, and if we do sooner or later get a down tree on our spur line again, we ought to be a good deal happier and less worried than we have been the last few times.

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