doing the generator install

In total our power was out for about three days last year. A squirrel chewed through a line (or so it was reported), a truck backed into a power pole, and the last one I never heard the scoop on but it lasted a while.

These are just generally inconvenient but mid-winter it can be a different bag of potatoes. We could keep from dying I suppose by hopping in one of the cars: even if we couldn’t drive due to snow conditions we could keep the vents and exhaust shoveled out and just sit there in a nice warm cab. But that sounds absolutely horrible so I set out to get something more baller.

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The noisy and heavy part: the generator. 

I opted for the Champion 3800, which is really more like 3500 watts at our altitude. It was $500, has an awesome reputation, and burns either gasoline or propane with the flip of a switch.

Propane is more expensive and harder to come by, but it never goes bad. The tank can get cold, and it produces less power than gasoline, but it starts up easier and it’s pretty hard to spill propane on your hands. The exhaust doesn’t stink that much. We have a 30LB tank hanging around.

Gasoline is cheaper, puts out more power, and is easier to come by. We have about 20 gallons, with fuel stabilizer mixed in. Come summer time the gas goes into the cars, and a new batch is put in the tanks with stabilizer again.

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So ignore the unpatched drywall and focus on the spanking new electronics.

The previous owners had run multiple circuits to single breakers and installed a sub panel (huge hole there) because they ran out of space on the 1975 original panel that came with the house. There were all kinds of blank marker arrows and drawings, the thing was a mess and it drove me nuts. As would be said on the waterfront, it was chickenshit work.

I got a badass QO panel with space to grow, got a whole-house surge protector (white labeled box with little green light there), and wired the generator in with a generator transfer switch.

You could, if you’re a horrible person who likes killing others and setting your own house on fire, plug your generator directly into the outlet where your clothes dryer plugs in. The problem here is you are sending current out into your house and back into the power lines. Chances are if you’re running a generator it’s because the power is out and guess what electrical crews need to work with? That’s right, the electricity you’re sending out even though they think they turned all the power off.

A lineman for SoCal Edison was electrocuted last year by this very thing.

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The generator plugs in here, so no need to have a cable snaking through a door or window.

So instead we use an awesome generator transfer switch. Beyond the safety, it’s wired directly into your main circuit breakers so you pick (in advance) what you want powered. For us it’s the pellet stove (heat), the fridge (food), the hot water heater, the lights in the kitchen and living room, and the television/PS4. Even our broadband gear will work if the outage isn’t impacting some other part of the network.

It was fun to walk around and read the current requirements from the various things we wanted to run at the same time. Interestingly enough, you need to balance the load between the two phases of electricity or some such. I’m not sure of the details but basically (on my unit) you want A+B == E+F, more or less. It shouldn’t be totally lopsided.

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The super awesome generator transfer switch.

We tested it, and everything works great. Normally the circuits we care about are in “line” mode, so they’re powered by the regular power lines. If we flip them to “gen”, the generator will handle them. They can’t be in both, so no worries about sending current back out or having mismatched sine waves (for those super geeks reading this).

Plus, the circuits you’re not running on the generator are just sitting there waiting for normal line power so when the lights come on down the hall you know everything’s up again.

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Cheap and can be used for any 12v battery.

The only other item you may want to consider is a battery charger. I picked up a small unit for $20 and every few months that the generator hasn’t run I toss it onto the generator’s small 12v motorcycle-ish battery. There’s a pull cord to start but those are no fun.

So the next time the power’s out in Mammoth swing on by. We’ll have hot showers, cold drinks, warm air, and Call of Duty multiplayer.