Power generator ramblings

With all of the power outages in my area lately I thought it might be useful to post some of my learning’s. I’ve had and used the same 4500W Generac generator since 1994, which I bought used for $400.

Mine has an 8hp Honda engine. I’ve found it to be very reliable. After I got it I changed the oil to synthetic and have been using synthetic oil since. Synthetic flows better in extreme low temps and I’ve been able to start it at temps below 0F.

I am not saying you should do this, but when I need to use mine I back-feed my panel through a 20amp 220V twist lock plug connected to my panel that I feed from a double male-ended power cord I made.

If you decide to do this the ABSOLUTE FIRST STEP IS TO TURN OFF THE MAIN BREAKER IN YOUR PANEL. If you don’t do this you will be back-feeding the grid and possibly injuring/killing  some poor lineman trying to restore your power.

Other than being cheaper than a transfer switch, backfeeding also gives me the ability to run power to anything in my house. The downside is that I don’t know when the power comes back on. My process is –

  • Turn off all breakers starting with the main
  • Start generator
  • Turn on breaker for the 220V plug that generator is plugged into
  • Turn on select breakers (well pump, frig, furnace, some lights)

Note: I let my well pump come up to full pressure and shut off before turning on anything else.

The safer (cheaper) method is to run extension cords to things you want to power, but this means you won’t be able to power things that don’t have plugs like your furnace or well pump.

The recommended method of connecting a generator is to get what’s called a transfer switch. This is like a separate breaker panel with a set number of circuits. You decide up front when the switch is installed what circuits can be powered either by the generator or the grid. The switch allows you to send power to a circuit from either source but not both, making it impossible to back-feed the grid from your generator. A 10-circuit switch runs $300 or more plus labor to install it, which may be another $300 or so. As of 11/3/11 Home Depot had this one –

http://www.homedepot.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/Search?keyword=gentran+switch&selectedCatgry=SEARCH+ALL&langId=-1&storeId=10051&catalogId=10053&Ntpc=1&Ntpr=1

In addition to the cost, the downside of the switch is that you can only power a set number of circuits. The upside is that when power is restored you’ll know because everything not connected to the switch will have power.

How big of a generator you need depends on what you want to power. With 4KW (4500W surge) I can run my well pump, furnace, frig, and a few lights. If I want to start up my big old chest freezer though I have to turn everything else off but that until the compressor is up to speed. Motors require a lot more start up power than than they do after they’re up to speed.

If you have an electric hot water heater a generator large enough to get this working is likely not worth it for the few times you’ll likely need it. I have gone years without using my generator, so spending $5K or more for a generator large enough to run an electric hot water heater isn’t worth it, to me anyway.

I am partial to Honda engines and you do not need to get a Honda generator to get a Honda engine. Honda brand generators are relatively expensive. I have heard good things about Suburu (Robins) engines as well, but those, Briggs & Stratton, and Tecumseh engines tend to be fairly noisy. I have a Kohler powered generator in my RV that is both quiet and reliable and am in the process of wiring a plug into that as a replacement for my smaller generator.

For elderly/disabled people, electric start is probably a must have feature that you will of course pay a little extra for. Having a set of wheels/handles on it makes moving it around a lot easier. It also makes it easier to steal, so you should consider investing in a heavy chain/lock. You should of course NEVER run a generator in your basement, garage, or any other enclosed area due to carbon monoxide.

Something to think about when considering a generator is that anything with a gas engine requires a certain amount of maintenance. You will want to start your generator at least a couple times a year even if you don’t need it. This will keep things somewhat lubricated.

When I’m done using my generator I add dry gas and Stabil to the gas. I turn the gas off and run it till it dies. I also have a shut-off at the carburetor and turn that off after I run the gas out of the line. I must be doing something right because it’s lasted me nearly 18 years and I have no idea how old it was when I bought it, hence being partial to Honda engines 🙂

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