Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lights out!

As most of you know, we are an off-grid family, meaning that we don't have grid power - we make our own.  Being off the grid can be wonderful (when everything is working well and you are smugly going about your normal life while the rest of the neighbors are struggling with the inconveniences of a power outage) or it can be a test in sheer grit (when the laundry is piled high, the stock tanks are empty, every dish in the house is dirty and the generator gives up the ghost - leaving you without water, lights or refrigeration).

Last night was just such a night.  Not the smug, wonderful part of being off the grid, but the sheer grit part.  We had had a busy day full of electricity using endeavours.  Maid Elizabeth had been transferring information from one computer to another, so we had two big computers on all day.  We had vacuumed (a huge electricity user), run the microwave, the Hobbes electric tea kettle (twice) and had had no sun for a couple of days.  Normally, I do laundry at least every day or two, so that will keep us in any power we may need when the sun is not shining, but we had been visiting friends over the weekend and Monday was full of business other than keeping house.

When the evening rolled around, we decided to settle in and watch a movie before bed.  Apparently, that was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back.   After the movie was finished and children were getting ready for bed, I happened to look up and notice that our fan (24 volt DC) was slowing to a stop.  This is a VERY bad sign!  Our battery bank has to be extremely low to affect our 24 volt fan.  I made a run to the kitchen to check out the Tri-Metric meter (it tells us how our batteries are doing - how many amps we are using, how many volts our batteries are running on, etc.) and the news wasn't good.  Our 24 volt system was running on 18 volts!  We had minutes before the inverter shut down due to low voltage.

Sir Knight made a run to the shed to fire up the generator while Maid Elizabeth and I ran around turning off everything electric.  Our trusty Onan generator started......and then died. Sir Knight pulled the pull start.  Sputter, sputter, sputter - nothing.  Not to worry, we have a back-up generator.  It was out of fuel, but we have extra gas, so
Sir Knight put some gas into it and pulled the rope.  Nothing.  No, really - it wouldn't start.  It always starts, but not tonight.  Remembering that the back-up generator is a little fussy on the fuel pick-up line, Sir Knight shimmed up the front of the generator.  He pulled the rope, and Eureka! it started!  And then it died.  Back to the main generator.  Pull, pull, pull.  Nothing.  Sir Knight drove our truck down near the shed, so that he could jump start the generator (his arm was about ready to fall off from pulling the starter on two generators).  He hooked up the jumper cables and sputter, sputter, sputter.  Nothing.  Back to the back-up.  Nothing.  After about 45 minutes of this craziness, he decided that we would have a lovely, romantic, truly non-electric night.

By the time Sir Knight and I returned to the house, Maid Elizabeth had turned the inverter off, lit candles and ushered children off to bed.  We spent the evening reminiscing about the "good ol' days", back when we had no electricity at all.  We remembered how romantic our shouse had always looked by candlelight.  We enjoyed the absolute quiet of a house with no electricity.  No inverter humming, no electric refrigerator cycling off and on, no computer buzzing - just silence.  It was wonderful.

This morning we were back to business as usual.  Sir Knight headed off to work and I headed to the shed to do battle with the generators.  Our trusty old Onan still refused to start (Sir Knight is going to replace the carburetor) and the back-up took a little sweet talking, but in the end sheer grit paid off.  I got the piles of laundry washed, the dishes done and the batteries charged.  The refrigerator is now cycling off and on, the computer is buzzing and the inverter is humming.  And the shouse doesn't look nearly so romantic in the harsh light of compact fluorescents.

It is nice to have electricity (even if we make our own).  But if the lights all went out tomorrow - that would be O.K. too.


  1. I learned a few tricks when I was in the military about "preventive maintence" so I run my generator every two weeks for about 20 minutes and keep fuel stabilizer in it. I evan keep the dates on the fuel so I dont run 'old fuel" in it or any other equipment I own. I live in an 'on the grid house" so I use surge protectors on household euipement that always stays on in a "standby mode" like the computer, TV, microwave and I hit the switch on the surge protector and shut off the remaining voltage going to the equipment that is supposed to remain 'off". I do this to keep my electric bill resonable. One blog and website I highly recommend is "thefieldlab.org, and fieldlab.blogspot. The owner of the field lab built a 'bicycle powered washing machine". I am tired of the garbage and anti-american socailism coming from the entertainment industry so I just stay home and read books from the light of a 13 watt flourescent bulb.

  2. Enola, when newbies ask you, "How do we get started in alternative energy and living off the grid when we know absolutely nothing at all about it?", what do you suggest? Thanks!

  3. Last fall when the "November Nor'easter" hit us hard here in Virginia, only two of the folks on my street could get our generators started. Mine was one of the working ones, but only because I had tried to start it in June for the beginning of hurricane season and it flat out would not start. I ended up replacing the carburetor ($70 on eBay), and it then started on the FIRST PULL. Now I completely drain the fuel tank, fuel filter and lines, and float bowl of the carburetor (and blow them dry with compressed air) after each test run. So my generator worked fine when it was needed.

    The big problem, as I unfortunately (and financially) discovered, is that the ethanol in our gasoline really messes up small carburetor-fed engines. And this included my reasonably new and very expensive Yamaha outboard motor (I now have the fuel-injected version instead). Using the marine-grade Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer helps out somewhat, and I do use it, but it does NOT resolve the issue.

    So I recommend that you never store fuel in the tank of your gasoline backup generator for more than a few days (while it's being used), and that after each use you completely drain the tank and fuel system as I described above. I am also planning to go ahead and purchase a backup carburetor for my backup generator. Seventy bucks isn't really cheap, but it's not a major expense either, and when I really (really!) need my generator to work I think I'll be glad I spent the money.

  4. Well, this is an excellent example of what could happen during a crisis. It is vital
    to have a backup for the backup. Remember: when it comes to prepping, 1 is none, 2 is one, 3 is two. Always have at least 3 ways of heating, cooking, lighting, water provisioning, etc. Enola Gay and family certainly have the Rule of 3 down pat. Thumbs up!

    NoCal Gal

  5. always use premium, ethanol free, gasoline for small engines.

  6. I would love to take Anonymous' advice on only using premium ethanol-free gas, but where can I buy it? Not a single gas station or even marina sells gasoline without ethanol anywhere that I've seen in the Southeast U.S. for at least three years now. I would gladly make periodic road trips if I knew of a good source. I know airports still sell 100-octane leaded (ethanol-free) gasoline, but I don't think it's legal to just stroll up and buy some.

    And I know diesels have their own issues, but I'm starting to think I might need to look into them a little more carefully. My dad had an old Onan diesel generator in his sailboat years ago, and that thing just ran and ran and ran.

  7. Reliability is a good reason to choose a diesel genset. I like my quiet, easy to transport pair of Honda EU200i generators a lot. But I would not ever want to be without a diesel. Diesel stores so much better and if you get a permanent magnet generator head they are totally emp proof. Less than $1800 will get you a good diesel genset if you are willing to put the pieces together yourself. Check out utterpower.com for info on durable generators.

  8. I have to agree with what my other Anonymous friend said regarding ethanol-free gasoline. In my very small town, there are at least three gas stations that sell no ethanol gasoline, and I am aware of several surrounding towns in my area of Tennessee with no ethanol gasoline. No ethanol is a growing trend. I use nothing but no ethanol in my vehicles and other equipment. It stores much better when stabilized and does not gum up your injectors and carburetors.

  9. What you really need, is to convert your generators to run on propane. I lived without grid-power for 6 years (not by choice, there was no power lines up here at the time) and had to relie on my generator for all my power. I ran it 16 hours a day. My generators usually lasted 2 years at this rate of usage which is really amazing. After they would give-up the ghost, I would tear them down to find out which part gave out. Usually it was metal fatigue in the heads (the valves would literally push in the aluminium). The rest of the engine would be pristine. In fact you could still see the cross-hatch pattern on the cylinder walls. This was all due to using propane and yes synthetic oil. I still keep a back-up generator, and it starts up everytime I need it, which around here is about 3 times a year.
    So to sum it up, Convert you Sinners, LOL !!
    Mountain man in Washington

  10. Context and focus are great for perspective.

    Half the population on earth have no: water, schools, medical services, electricity, a roof, food, shoes and so forth.

    Therefore, there should be no complains at all,
    in my humble critical opinion.

  11. Several places around here sell ethanol free gasoline, but I just heard yesterday, come the end of the month, it won't be available to them anymore.

  12. Propane, and propane appliances...My main generator is propane, with several gas back-ups. Humphries lamps are in every room (propane). Propane lasts forever. The generator is hooked up to a dedicated 500 gallon tank. I have another 500 that runs the "house" and 2 500's with liquid lines attached to fill smaller bottles (5-23Gal)just sitting there. Why mess around with gas...just not worth the hassle. Diesel is nasty if it spills. Yes I do keep a couple of hundred gallons of stabilized gas on hand, that I cycle through regularly, but Propane is a Gas!
    I watch my batteries like a hawk. I run a 12V system, and I NEVER allow them to drop below 12.4V. "Deep" cycling deep cycle batteries will dramatically shorten their life, and as expensive as they are, I want maximum life out of them. Maintaining proper charge cycles enables me to have at least one more day of power if something goes south and my pile is at 12.4, and the back up to the back up is uncooperative.
    Vigilance is of paramount importance! Spare parts though important are secondary!

  13. ethanol-just another government plot to keep the common man from depending on himself.

  14. Thank you for an informative blog. The other posters also added to my knowledge. Knowledge shared is knowledge learned!