Friday, August 13, 2010

My love/hate relationship with generators

I love our generator.  I hate our generator.  No, I am not bi-polar, I just have a love/hate relationship with these mechanical beasts.

Years ago, when we jumped off the cliff and went off-grid, we had a 5kw generator that we had bought at Costco prior to Y2K.  It didn't even live through the construction of our shouse.  Luckily, it was still under warranty so we took it back and were refunded our money.  We decided to buy what we thought would be a workhorse - literally.  It was a Workhorse China Diesel 10kw.  Our thoughts were that it was big enough to run our whole house plus charge our forklift batteries.  It was an interesting adventure right off the bat.  It didn't come with much of a manual and the booklet that did come with it had been translated (poorly) from Chinese - word for word.  After Sir Knight and my Dad filled all of the fluids, checked the belts and hoses and fired it up, it ran great - until they decided to shut it down.  Nowhere were there directions on shutting it off!  Nothing!  Both my husband and my father are mechanically inclined and neither one of them could figure it out.  Finally, after exhausting all other avenues, they unhooked the fuel lines and let it run out of diesel.  That, of course, wasn't the best option, because diesels don't like to be run dry, but, it was the only option at the time.

Eventually, after much fiddling, we had the china diesel up and running.  It had a Murphy Switch that was supposed to shut the generator down in case of low oil or high temperature, but it didn't work, so we just kept a close eye on the gages.

The china diesel kept us running for about two years.  It ran our well pump, our washing machine, our few lights and charged our batteries.  It leaked like a sieve and was fussy, at best, but it kept us chugging along.  After two years, it developed an oil leak in the main seal.  China diesels are designed to be worked on, but apparently not by Americans.  The access points are inaccessible, the components nearly impossible to find and if you do find a part and replace it, it will NEVER work correctly again.  The electrical panel shook so hard that it broke soldered wires off.  Sir Knight removed it, rewired it and mounted it to a wall.  He was never able to completely fix the leak in the main seal so for six months we put oil in it every time we started it.  Finally, one oil leak too many, and it threw a rod.  I think I was actually thankful.  No more putting up with that leaky, noisy, fussy contraption!

Our next generator adventure came in the form of a 1969 10kw Hercules Military Diesel.  It was military - it should hold up to anything, right?  We bought it from a dealer in Montana, and right away, Sir Knight had his suspicions.  He changed the oil before we cranked it up and noticed little silver specs.  We called the dealer that we had bought it from and he said to run it and see how it did.  It lasted about 3 months.  The silver specs in oil meant that the engine was shot.  It threw a rod.  I was doing laundry and heard it go.  I thought "no woman should know what an engine sounds like when it throws a rod", but I did.  When Sir Knight got home that evening, I delivered the cheery news.  We called the dealer and he arranged to send us another one and pick the dead one up.

On a cold, rainy, swampy day in late fall, our second 10kw Hercules generator rolled up our driveway on a delivery truck.  I was so excited.  We had been without power for almost two months and I had been hauling water and doing laundry by hand.  We had reverted back to Coleman lanterns and I was feeling positively pioneerish.  As the delivery driver was loading the new generator on his pallet jack we were chatting about how wonderful the new generator was going to be.  He slid the pallet with the generator onto the jack, mentioned that he hated that jack because it didn't have any brakes, and proceeded to drop the generator, jack and all, off the back of his truck.  I almost cried.  My beautiful new generator, was in a million pieces on the cold, wet ground.

Another call to the dealer yielded yet one more machine (he must have bought a lot of them at an auction).  This one was delivered with no mishaps and at least didn't have metal in the oil.  Sir Knight got it up and running and we were in business.  This generator even had a cold weather kit, so it started much easier in the cold weather.   The generator ran well, most of the time, but like any mechanical tool, it had it's moments.  It was with this third military generator that I became a diesel mechanic.  Not really, of course, but I can trouble shoot a diesel engine or an alternator with the best of them!  Finally, this generator too, succumbed to the fate of all generators that call this place home.  It died.  I was a little gleeful at it's funeral.  In fact, I even asked Sir Knight if I could put a couple of rounds through it with my shotgun.  He wouldn't let me.

We were once again generator-less, which meant power-less.  This time, my folks came to our rescue.  They loaned us their little Honda 5kw generator.  I loved that generator.  No, really.  It always ran.  Always.  It wasn't enough to power everything, but it worked it's little heart out.  I couldn't do laundry and run the industrial power charger at the same time, but I didn't care.  At least it ran.

We ran it to death.  Really, we did.  It lost it's muffler.  Sir Knight bolted it back on.  It fell off again.  We propped it up.  Finally we used a come-along to hold the muffler onto the engine.  Poor thing looked like a redneck generator.  Well, I guess it was.  It was the little generator that could.  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.  It always did.  And then, it gave up the ghost.  It was quiet about dying - no loud moaning or throwing rods through it's engine.  One day, it just wouldn't start.  I know I can't, I know I can't, I know I can't.  Mom and Dad didn't want it back.  Go figure.

An Onan Emerald caught our eye.  By this time, we had 2150 watts of solar, so we weren't quite so dependant on our generator.  The little Onan was a 5kw, but it had a huge generator head.  We thought we would give it a try.  It started right up, after not having been run in over two years, but it had a few pops and hiccups here and there.  We ran it for a while, loved the power that it generated and decided this might be the one.  Then it died.  Not really, it was just old and needed a little TLC.  In the meantime, our dear friends let us use their Honda 5kw.  I know, probably not a good idea, since they know what happened to the one my folks "loaned" us.  But they love us, and let us use it anyway.  It has been a good little beast, a little fussy, but dependable.

Sir Knight has been working on "Emerald".  He adjusted her points (she was way out of wack) and cleaned her carburetor and she is purring like a kitten.  He wants to give her all new fuel lines and a new battery - I think he's in love.

This weekend, we are going to see "Emerald's" competition.  It is another Onan Emerald, but it is a stationary unit rather than a portable.  Our goals is to have a stationary and a back-up.  The rule of threes.  Solar panels, generator and back-up generator.  We'll see how the new emerald looks.

I have a love/hate relationship with generators.  I love them when they work. I hate them when it is 10 below zero with a 15 mile an hour wind and I am trying to beat the starter into the right spot so it will start. I love them when the whole area is out of power and we don't even know it. I hate them when they force me to be a diesel mechanic just so I can have a glass of water or flush the toilet. I love them when they purr. 

Ah, it's just livin' the dream!


  1. Ok, I'm having an emotional day. But your post just made me cry... NOONE will understand what you just posted except the ones who have actually experienced it. You are my hero. Sometimes I wonder if it is a bad dream to live. We are only two 1/2 years into it so reading your blog gives me hope!! Thanks for the encouragement:):). Maybe you didn't know that's what it was:).

  2. i don't have a generator. nor do i have solar anything unless you count the sun warming up the tub of water on the deck. and i am on the grid as long as the grid holds up...sometimes it does'nt. but that does not mean that i am not ready for anything that might happen. i learned a long time ago how to live well on little and how to survive bad times and hard times. my motto is to prepare for all things an when something happens i am ready and because i am ready to meet whatever it might is never as bad as it coulda been.

  3. Enola, the part about wanting to put a couple of rounds in it...well, let's just say I needed a good laugh. Been there and done that. I really think Sir Knight should have let you go at it, though! :)

  4. Enola, I find it quite funny that our rolls would have been reversed in our household. My wife would have been giving me a very strong "look" as I loaded the 12 gauge with something appropriate for the task at hand. At which point I would come to my senses.

    Besides, Sir Knight really didn't want to clean up the after mess.

  5. Save the Canning JarsAugust 14, 2010 at 8:23 PM

    You know more about the lineage of your generators than most people know about their ancestors! Living rural is hard.

    I was working in the kitchen today for 6 hours, blanching, peeling, and pitting peaches and only produced 2 desserts. I told my husband that I read that only 2% of the population grows food for the other 98%. If we lost electricity forever (or for years), Americans would spend most of their waking hours acquiring, cooking, or preserving food. Most people would starve. It's hard work without electricity. It was hard today WITH electricity. So I'm back to the kitchen tomorrow to deal with the remaining 150 peaches.

    Keep doing what you're doing. It's encouraging all of us to get tough!

  6. on a more practical note, if you want an engine that will literally run for a lifetime, look into Lister Cold Start Diesel engines. Lister is still in business, but they have stopped making the Cold Start diesel that made their reputation. However, there are a number of makers in India that produce copies, known as Listeroids. Our EPA, in it's 'wisdom', now forbids import of these efficient and reliable motors, but used ones are available. Some of the original Listers built in the 1930s are still in use today, running generators and pumping water all over rural India.

    This is strictly a DIY operation, but may be worth the time. Good luck!