Rolling Blackouts and Generator?

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Oct 29, 2008
Dallas, Texas
Not the first time I have read this, but the first time I have seen it on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. For the past 2 years we have had really wild winters. Snow that falls to the ground and stays there. My 57 year old father, That grew up in Dallas, has never seen Schools in Dallas close for a week for Ice and Snow, last Winter they did just that. The electrical grid was maxed out and we had rolling blackouts due to the demand. Then we had this past summer, beating the all time number of 100 degree days. All resources were taken up producing electricity, they even started up some old Natural Gas and Coal Fired facilities due to the emergency (107 degrees outside will kill people, infants and elderly, inside). They were talking about rolling black outs during the height of Summer, during peak hours (3pm-7pm) but they didn't have to start doing that like they did last Winter. Here lies the rub. The EPA has passed new regulations that will permanently close at least 2 of those facilities, coal fired plants are no longer profitable and Jan 1st 2012 will be illegal with their current equipment. We are expected to have a mild winter, but they said that last year also. Then there comes the following summer, the summer of 2012. It's always hot in Texas during the summer. So another season of rolling blackouts? Who knows? So there is my dilemma, I think I'm going to need a generator. I currently have 2 jobs to make ends meet, things are kind of tight, and I'm really thinking about getting a small generator for the house. I'd love to get something that runs off of our natural gas line and flip over the whole house the instant a problem with the electricity coming in from the street is detected, but I don't have that kind of money. In my situation what would you recommend me getting? Please note that in times a generator is needed that gasoline may or may not be readily available. So fuel efficiency is a consideration. Thanks, Dave
an engine under load is more efficient than a larger engine loafing along. inverters are efficient, but costly. you are on a budget. so you need to look at what you need to run and buy the smallest unit that will do the job, with a safety margin (30%) of capacity. 3kw-4kw? those are not too unreasonable if you can handle the noise level. HD usually has something with a robin-subaru engine in the $400-$500 range instant "flip of switch" requires a $200 transfer switch + install. Not sure if that's in your budget. Suggest accepting you won't run more than a window air unit, and having a ready-made extension cord that you can swap fridge and window unit over for summer failures. Winter failures-- a 3k unit will safely run 1 1500 heater and then 1000w of other things. If you have a 120V furnace, a transfer switch can be had under $100 for that single circuit. You can run a fridge off of a 2kw unit, but then are limited if your winter needs include a space heater. So I guess, first step, determine what you need to run. summer = fridge. if you let the house get cold, the winter won't need the fridge so much... keep one room warm and run electric blankets. + factor in how many gallons per hour these things need, and how many gallons you are willing to store. 1 gal of unleaded goes farther and is cheaper than one gallon of LP, btw. M
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First step would be to figure what you plan on running at one time. Remember this will be an emergency so probably not everything will be running at once. So, say a fridge, AC, and maybe a laptop or lights. Use the plates to determine watts and add them up. Or use an online calculator. I think Briggs and Stratton has one. Add 10-15% for safety. One tip for the lights - use CFL's as they use very little power. Once you get the wattages, you can figure on a generator. You can go with a Briggs, Generac, or Chinese clone. For us, it's something we will use infrequently so I got ours at Harbor Freight. It's a Chinese unit but they get good reviews and it's already saved our butts once. For the gas, I got 2x 5 gallon cans, fill them with gas and StaBil. I keep the generator relatively full with gas + Stabil. When I fill the cans I put a sticker with the date on it. 6 months later the gas goes in the car and I fill it back up. Once the genny is dry I'll refill it with brand new gas + Stabil. In an emergency they say the unit will run for 8-10 hours at 1/2 load on a 6 gallon tank. So I figure I'm good for about 20-30 hours. When the power ran out before we didn't run it overnight so I think that's fine. There are plenty of gas stations within a 20-30 mile radius of here so I figure I can always find gas somewhere. I've also got a monthly routine where I fire the generator up, plug in a space heater + 500w halogen light and run it for 20-30 mins while I cut the lawn. This way it runs, gets some gas and oil running through it and I know it will start when I need it. And the neighbors can't complain! smile Maintenance is also key when you have a generator. It needs exorcise as when you need it you probably don't want to be fiddling with it trying to get it to run.
FYI, Gander Mountain has a Champion 3500W Generator for sale, for $299 right now. The RV guys love this particular unit. It's available in many brand names, made in China, a copy of a Honda engine. The RV guys really put these through the ringer. They hold up very well, are quite quiet, are fuel efficient and will run a well pump or other 220V heavy consumer. To run a conventional water heater with that sized generator, a 4500W lower element must be removed, the top one disconnected and a 2000W lower heater element installed. This will make the system work just fine for emergency use. And, some people find that it works just fine in regular use too.
Originally Posted By: itguy08
First step would be to figure what you plan on running at one time. Remember this will be an emergency ...
I won't quote the entire post, but it's one of the better idea's I've seen. If I were to use a portable generator rather than our permanent system that taps into our propane tank, I'd follow the advice in itguy08's post.
They make tri-fuel carb conversions for the "chonda" generators. 6.5 hp/2500/3250 peak watt sets weigh 100 lb and seem to be the best value; 100 lb is about the limit UPS will ship (smash). I know propane != natural gas, but there's this guy at The nice thing about propane and nat'l gas is it doesn't go bad in storage. The listed thing will run off a 20 lb barbecue tank. I may or may not in the next few days be firing up my "all-power" chonda I got after Irene-- traded out of a 30 year old, incredibly loud clunker. Chonda has a very nice muffler; your neighbors won't know about/ want to steal yours. Powering central air is out of its league, but if you get a 5k BTU window unit, it'll do that, and it'll cut the humidity. Draw all your curtains. If you decide on inaction, watch harbor freight for their 2 stroke 900 watt deal to go on sale at $79. I have one of these too and it will start a modern (soft-start, capacitor aided) fridge! You can always sell the thing later, particularly right after a blackout. LOL
You have to try to get an idea about the peak watts you will require, and that is not easy to figure out. Some items draw many times more than there rated load, on start-up. The surge current a microwave oven draws each time it cycles on is HUGE, even a small $35 800 Watt Wall-mart cheap microwave draws a huge surge on start up. Furnace blower motors have a big start-up draw, and so do AC units, refrigerators, and freezers. Some of the fancy furnaces like the pulse ones are very hard to run from a genset, and require a genset with a lot of extra capacity. Then there is the question of inverter vs 3600 RPM units. The 3600 RPM units drink more fuel, and the inverter units are high initial cost. Most 3600 RPM units will burn just about any grade of fuel, but some of the inverter units just about demand high octane. You will require gas jugs to store fuel, and you have to treat it with Sta-Bil, and rotate stock. The cost of the fuel is recovered when you use it in a vehicle, and the real cost to store fuel is the initial purchase of the jugs, fuel funnel to put it in the car, and Sta-Bil. You probably want to cut a second fuel funnel down to a thicker shorter bottom one for the generator. You will require a small funnel for putting oil in the generator. And a couple of tool boxes to keep everything in. You will require a long heavy gauge wire to keep the genset far enough from your house to keep the noise tolerable, and also prevent CO2 poisoning. And you will have to come up with some way to connect to the house, or run cords. You have to stock oil, spark-plugs, spare air cleaner (K&N makes cleanable reusable ones, but they ain't cheap, and you will also require a clean and oil kit, there goes another $10 ), you probably want a thick chain and heavy lock, another $20 (gensets are high theft items during a long outage) and a tarp and ropes and polls for shade and weather protection are a good idea. By the time you purchase everything you will probably pay more for all the extras than the cost of the genset. You should run you genset every few months. The 3600 RPM units can loose residual magnetism and require you to apply a battery to get them to produce power if you do not run them regularly. And there is always the problem of having the carb getting gummed up. The Sta-Bil in the fuel helps fight this, but if you really want to keep it reliable you probably want to add a double dose of Red-Line SL1 when you run it every few months, and then spray some WD-40 down the little hole for idle behind the throttle plate when you are done running it each time. An extra inline fuel filter is a good idea to keep crud out of the carb. Tygan translucent yellow fuel tubing from McMasterCarr is much better than the junk they use now days. Some of the 3600 RPM units are extremely loud,(the phrase “can wake the dead” has been used to describe them). You will require some kind of hearing protection if you get one of these. Truth be told, when you purchase a genset you are opening a whole new can of worms as far as things that have to be paid attention to to use it safely and reliably. There is a lot more to it than just purchasing it, pouring gas into it, and pulling a cord.
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Use a clamp-on amp meter to check the current draw. Most can check peak with hold. I am considering getting a propane conversion kit for my generator which will do away with a good portion of the hassle.
Propane stores well, but if the tank is too small the refrigeration effect of the liquid propane boiling off can cause the pressure to drop too low for the tank to supply propane gas fast enough IF the tank is too small. This is much more likely to be a problem in cold weather.
If you have electric water heating, and it is a 240 volt unit, the power draw will be 1/4 if you run it on 120 volts, because at half the voltage it will draw half the current. 1/2 X 1/2 = 1/4. And this is if you leave both elements working. If you disable one of the elements then the draw would be 1/8. If you ran the upper and lower element in series, and they were 240 volt elements, and you ran them on 120, then the wattage draw would be 1/16. Of course as you drop down the wattage load the recovery time will increase. Or as Cujet posted replace the lower element with a lower wattage one, and rig up some way to disable the upper element. Correction – my chemistry memory must be slipping, should have said CO poisoning.
I guess it depends on where you are. If you're in AZ, FL, TX, LA, etc with the heat and humidity it may be a necessity. Especially if you are older. When the power went out after Irene we could have used it. Even though at night it was cooler there were no fans to turn on to circulate the air. So the house was nice and toasty.
I live in the country 45 miles NW of Chicago. Over 30 years ago we had the house wired to run essentials on a Dayton 7500 watt industrial site generator. Our power went out for 3 days in January and in house temps went into the 40's. We put a manual switch and separate panel to run the kitchen, well pump and furnace and partial AC.When the power goes out I start the generator, throw the switch and it keeps us safe. Uses 20 gals of gas in 24 hours and it has run for up to 5 days straight. All that being said, this year we we went whole house automatic. We are mostly nuke power with some coal and gas but our infrastructure is in need of MAJOR up grade and storms knock out service for days at a time.At 60 I got tired of running home and hauling gas at a moments notice. Get more output than you need. We changed from electric to gas water heat, and cook top. Will do same when dryer [censored] out.
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Originally Posted By: Shannow
Air con is an emergency essential ? Dunno how we got this far really.
Don't judge unless you been through it. Went two weeks without electricity after a hurricane, and frankly it s u c k s. 90+% humidity, 95F temps after the rain, and trying to clean up/repair stuff in those conditions with no running water, or electricity (so much for that well pump)is not something I want to do again, or could do again really.
We beat the number of days over 100 degrees here this summer. At 107 the concrete will blister your feet in seconds. And when you step outside it feels like a blast furnace, the energy reflected off the concrete in a parking lot is more than what you feel from the sun. Is A/C necessary? I don't know, can you sleep when it is 98 degrees out at 2am and that is the low for the week? Although the more I research it the more I am willing to wait and see. Doing this on the cheap doesn't look feasible. Sure I could get a small generator and the necessary equipment to keep it up and running. Then get a small A/C unit to cool 1 room. But those few things alone could put me well over a grand easily. Going to have to really do my research and planning before I drop that much money on this project. That's not money I can spend and do the "Hey honey! Look what I bought!" and get away with. Then again if I do have power, and all my family does not, including parents, in-laws, and siblings, do I really want them to come over and try to spend the night at my place? Lots of planning... lots of planning...
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