Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Backup Genset, Making Life Easy.

   If you have been reading me for any length of time you will be familiar with the water powered pelton-wheel that provides the power around here, and my preoccupation with keeping it running.
(I heard that collective sigh out there, "Oh no, ...here he goes again.")
As I went on about in a recent post, if it should go down in the Spring or Summer its not too big a deal, but if it happens during cold weather things go bad quickly. Pipes freeze and burst, hot-tub freezes, shop gets cold, and various other calamities that I prefer to do without. That little wood-stove in the main room doesn't reach very far down to the other end of the lodge, and the shop and guest cabin are heated with baseboard heaters as well. Everything but the propane stove is run on power generated off the creek. Although it runs for 99 percent of the time, come Fall time, that other 1 percent possibility takes up most of my available thought process.  
   I've been froze out for about 15 of the 20 years I've been here. If I don't, it is because of an unusually mild Winter. I had the worst freeze back a few years, I wrote about it then, (Dark January, Feb. 2012) It was a major one, I was down that time for 3 weeks. The last 2 Winters it never missed a beat, meaning it never got cold enough for my screens up the mountain in the intake pond to clog up with ice crystals, (frazzle ice) or there hasn't been severe monsoons that blow my screens right off.
I figure one season soon I'm going to get all that back threefold in nasty weather, or plain old rotten luck. A lot of other things can go wrong as well, from the intake pond up the mountain, to the pelton-wheel and generator, to the electronics back in the lodge that manage it all. And you can bet if something goes wrong, it will be when you really don't want it to. There is regular weekly guests in the little cabin, right through the Winter, and I'm enough of a slum-lord already without making the girls huddle over there in the dark with a frozen toilet. 
Some sort of backup power had moved to the top of the list.
  I've had a succession of small gensets around here over the years for construction purposes, but during an outage, are not much more useful than running the fridge and a few lights.  So I started looking for some good deal on a larger unit. I looked until I was sick to death of looking at generators, and of course I'm a bit of a cheap ass too which always hinders the process. I couldn't picture myself buying gasoline for a generator, for very long. I had settled on a diesel unit, but on both counts I hate handling the fuel. I ran across the odd one of these home backup units on propane. I was pretty leery of something on propane, the main reason if one day it doesn't start, now what do you do. I've always been well versed with gas and diesel systems, but never had much experience with engines running on LPG. Back at the Honda shop we used to get in the odd mall floor polisher that had been converted to propane, but I was never converted to the idea of propane myself, and have tried to steer clear of the stuff most of my life.  One day I was standing out front and saw a big propane truck go by, headed for the small village down valley. It hit me then that it was a lot easier to get him to stop in than it was for me to pack fuel all the way from town. 
And that fact alone sold me on the idea of a LPG powered genset.
   I located a 10kw unit way up north, but decided it was too far to go. Shortly after, one came up in the interior in the Kamloops area. A gal over there had used it on her hobby ranch to charge solar batteries for one season back a few years, then stored it away when she moved to a place that was on the grid.  It wasn't a whole lot of money, even by my standards. The big problem was how to get this thing home, it was not a big generator, but it wasn't a small one either. After I entertained several schemes to load this thing in the back of my truck, I finally brought my old motorcycle trailer out of retirement, greasing the wheels, some new tires, and even springing for licence and insurance. I still had to get it on the trailer somehow.
   Back in October I did a day trip out to retrieve it. I hoped. 
Arriving out in the mountains east of Kamloops. I backed up to it and disconnected the trailer, then chained a come-a-long to the tongue, hooked it to the lift holes on the genset and stood the trailer up on its taillight's and started winching. The 400 lbs. genset skidded up there just like it was meant to. 
It all worked out better than planned for a change, and I never had to resort to much swearing at all.   
Hitting the Trans Canada Hwy. for home.

Once home, it went straight into the Hotspringlodge workshop. I can't leave things alone.
I got in there polished it up like new and gave it a full service, not that it really needed it, I did find a couple of tight exhaust valves though, common with LPG engines. There was some wiring for remote controls I had to rewire without frying something.

   So after terrorizing the poor thing for about a week I backed it out and up next to the big LPG tank.
I had plumbed in a dedicated propane regulator, valve and flex-line that hooked right up, and I was pretty proud of myself. If my grade 4 teacher could see me now.!
(*Don't attempt this at home, always consult a qualified gas fitter, ...don't listen to this guy)
   Any feelings I had of self worth hit rock bottom when it came time to hit the start button. My worst fear had been realised...it won't start. Now what do I do? Its not like you can pour gas down the carburetter to get it going, and just about killed a new battery trying. At that point, and for much of the preceding week, I had no idea if it was the propane supply, or something gone wonky with the sensitive digital controls of the genset. Considering the yahoo that was in there with his ham hands and soldiering iron, and hooking into the propane system, the possibility for snafu was considerable. So back in the shop it went. Everything seemed to check out with the engine and controls. Everything pointed to the propane system. Oh lord. Being way out here, its not like you can phone some expert to come out, and you got to try hard to sort stuff out yourself. Like it or not.
   I'm going to save you the whole drawn out story of my education. But eventually, I keep coming back to the inlet pressure the genset needs to run on, measured in 'inches of water'. Eg., how much the pressure can raise a liquid in a tube. Well I stewed over this for awhile, then remembered back in the motorcycle business we used something similar to balance the carbs on mutli-cylinder bikes. 
Although it worked on vacuum, it seemed to me the same principal. After a quick surf on the satellite Internet, there is indeed a similar tool that pipe-fitters use to adjust regulators to the proper setting.
Well it was a pretty fancy looking rig, with brass fittings, a valve and a clear tube filled with liquid.
Where the hell do you find one of those?  They had a fancy name for it too, a 'manometer'. I was going to have to drive quite a ways to put together all the parts for one of those. I thunk myself really hard for as long as I could, which wasn't very long, and in my usual cheap ass style, decided to improvise with materials at hand.
(*Don't attempt this at home, always consult a qualified pipe fitter,...don't listen to this guy.)
     I dumped out several boxes of fittings I had around here, coming up with enough bits and pieces to do the trick, a chunk of brake line and substituted cardboard and motorcycle fuel-line for the gauge, marking it off in inches with a felt tip pen.
My manometer creation. 
I couldn't wait to try out the manometer and see how I measured up.!

   I added kool-aid in the clear line for contrast, something a qualified pipe fitter probably hasn't thought of. My first few attempts at turning on the main LPG valve resulted in the kool-aid being shot out the tube and me standing in a red, sticky rain. Subsequent attempts to set the regulator were not much more successful, and I had to keep re-filling the thing, and all the time you are standing in a cloud of propane because theres a hole drilled in it to replicate the needs of a running generator. 
Or else it didn't do anything. Calling it names didn't help any. I wasn't getting anywhere, and felt buggered all over again. 
   Time for another think. I recalled another regulator kicking around, as a last resort I installed it and turned on the gas. Immediately, the procedure smoothed right out and I adjusted the inches of psi right to the desired setting, holding the kool-aid 6" down the looped tubing and 6" up the other side, that's 12 inches of water. Wouldn't you know it, I had tried a bum regulator first, as if a guy doesn't have enough problems. I re-connected the LPG flex-line to the waiting generator, turned on the valve, crossed my fingers and pushed the start button. If it didn't go now, old Robin was dead in the water as far as anymore smart ideas go, and I was starting to regret not having brought in more firewood this Fall. She turned over a few times and roared to life, much to my relief, and no little amount of surprise.
   To put a 10kw (10,000 watt) generator in perspective for you, that is enough power to run 2 hot tubs, 2 hot water heaters, 100 x 100 watt light bulbs, or say 10 microwave ovens. 
I can burn up 6 or 8kw pretty easy around here just with baseboard heaters going in cold weather, and the hot tub alone demands 4500kw when its heating. I'm depending on the in house digital load controls to shuffle the power around on a priority basis.  
10kw around here is just enough to keep the chill off.
Running at close to full capacity, it will burn almost 2 lbs. of propane an hour, so its not cheap to operate either. That 500 lbs. tank full would run it for 2.5 weeks if it had to. Consider that same tank just hooked up to the gas stove lasted for 8 years! 

Years ago, we had strung a power line all the way down to the campsite, there was about 60 feet left over that I had been saving all this time for just this kind of project. I rolled it out, dragging it under the lodge and shoving it up a hole drilled in the floor and up to the main panel.
(*Don't attempt this at home, always consult a qualified electrician, don't listen to this guy.)
The main panel and the load control center. The brains of the outfit.
 The cable from the genset goes directly into this knife switch I wired in, when I throw this, 240 volt power from the genset energises the main panel.
So, according to plan, some bitterly cold night, if the screens up the hill choke up with ice, the system will shut down, altering me to a power failure by the smoke alarm going off in the hallway, which is un-nerving enough. I need to get out of bed and go over and turn the main valve off and a few things. Then come back and run the cable over to the generator and do the connections there. Turn on the propane, push the start button, then go inside and knock off some non-essential breakers then throw the knife switch for the first time in need.

And if all goes well, this will happen.
I'll let you all know how it goes.


  1. "LPG valve resulted in the kool-aid being shot out the tube and me standing in a red, sticky rain."

    Thanks Mr T for the childhood flashback of the farm and some of the crazy stuff that went on during a few MacGyver moments.

    I still have the handle of a screwdriver "all that was left of it" when my dad tried to pry out a huge blade fuse in the milk house which was live and sent him and me through a wall.

  2. I have a generlink on order that goes behind the electrical meter and it's just a matter of quickly plugging into it to watch Netflix again. Well not to mention the hours spent diagnosing why the generator won't run... all the time wondering why I didn't test flash it last summer!!! Great Job brother Rob.. Rick

  3. Isn't that "Kool-Aid" going to freeze or is it just for setup? Have a merry Christmas and an energized new year. Casey