Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo ND, 58105-5655, Tel: 701-231-7881, Fax: 701-231-7044
November 20, 2003
Prevent Emergencies With Your Emergency Generator
Zap! The television screen suddenly went black, the computer went dead and the lights went out. You step outside and see the whole farm is completely dark. This is the darkness your grandparents talked about before rural electricity came along. Now what do you do?
Questions race through your mind as you head for the machine shed to start the standby generator.
The tractor and pickup were plugged in, should I start them before they get cold?
How long before the water pipes freeze?
How long will the house stay warm?
Will the emergency generator start?
"The generator's ability to start, operate safely, and do its job depends on several factors, all of which must be met for the generator to be reliable," according to George Maher, North Dakota State University Extension Service safety specialist.
Most standby generators get their power from a built-in engine or through the pto shaft of a farm tractor. The engine must be kept in a usable condition by having fresh fuel, a strong battery, good electrical connections, clean filters, and good maintenance of the liquid cooling systems. Always follow the manufacturers instructions on engine maintenance, Maher advises.
"Fill the tank with fresh fuel at the start of the standby generator season and add a fuel stabilizer to keep the stored fuel in good condition. Old fuel can be transferred to a pickup or tractor that will use it quickly. Don't put it back in the bulk fuel tank. Prevent frozen fuel lines by keeping the generator fuel tank filled completely during the winter months."
If the self-powered standby generator has a liquid cooling system, it needs seasonal maintenance the same as your vehicles. Before freezing weather starts, check the antifreeze and replace it if it is weak or old. A failed cooling system will result in an over-heated generator during a power failure, which can be extremely expensive.
If the generator is tractor powered, a major concern is whether or not the tractor will start. It is a good idea to dedicate a tractor for the job but it must be one that is easy to start and in top operating condition.
The generator should be readily accessible without having to move other machinery because that machinery may not start or be movable without a lot of work.
"Make sure the correct PTO shaft is available," Maher says. "It is not good planning to use the generator's PTO shaft on other equipment during the year. Leaving it on another machine makes it too easy to lose track of it. The PTO shaft should also be well shielded."
Some safety questions to be answered before the generator is used:
The standby generatorís electrical connections are also a safety concern," Maher says. "The transfer switch that disconnects the farm from the power line and connects the farm to the generator is very important. It must be a double throw transfer switch which isolates the farm's wiring system from the power lines, and prevents the generator from feeding electricity back into the power line. This protects linemen who may be working to restore your service. Without a double throw switch, the generator will be connected to the farm's wiring system and the power lines coming in. This will put a tremendous overload on the generator and could ruin it. Also, be sure that all of the connecting wires are of sufficient capacity. Overloaded wires get hot and cause fires. A farm fire during a power outage could be a disaster."
Keep in mind that the generator has a limited capacity. Many electrical systems and appliances operate with a narrow range of voltage. If the generator cannot provide voltage within 10 percent of what is needed, some loads must be shut off, Maher says.
Increasing the speed of the generator past its rated limit will not necessarily increase the voltage and may damage the unit. It may be worthwhile to consider a second generator to supply electricity to the house.
Consult your electric power supplier if there are questions concerning the safety and suitability of your standby generator and its installation. Power companies are more than willing to help when possible, Maher says.
Additional information about standby generators can be found in the publication "Electric Power Quarterly? No. 129 available on the Web at www.ag.ndsu.nodak/abeng/index.html Click on ?publications? and then scroll to ?Electric Power Quarterly.? The publication is also available county extension agents or by contacting the NDSU Extension Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering department by e-mail at email@example.com or calling (701) 231-7236.