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WHAT IS A GENERATOR?
When your 3-year-old asks ‘Mom, what’s a generator?’ – here is one very basic definition. That I wish I had known when she asked me.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a generator is “a machine by which mechanical energy is changed into electrical energy.” Simple, right?
HOW YOUR GENERATOR POWERS YOUR HOME
In a typical scenario, electricity gets generated at power plants and distributed to users on the electricity grid – a network of electrical substations, transformers and power lines. Yet when you live “off the grid,” your home isn’t connected to that network.
Instead, your energy comes from an alternative energy source like wind, or in our case, solar and a generator. Yet in each of these cases, it’s coming in a form called DC- direct current. And our household appliances use AC -alternating current.
That’s why when you use a generator to power your home, you’ll need an inverter. An inverter is an electrical device that converts/inverts DC voltage to standard household AC voltage. This allows it to run common household appliances.
GENERATORS FOR HOME: FUN FACTS
A generator works by moving electrical conductors through a magnetic field. If your generator doesn’t have magnets, it won’t produce electricity. The magnetic field is created by taking some of the generator output voltage, converting it to DC, and feeding it to a coil to make an electromagnet.
Generators need fuel to run, such as diesel, biodiesel, gasoline or propane, the same way you need gasoline in your vehicle. And they can be small and portable, the kind used by contractors. Or they can be large and fixed, like the diesel generators found in some remote northern communities. And like the two generators in our generator shed.
Generators for home use are usually either emergency/occasional use generators for use during power outages, or generators to use as a regular backup for properties off the grid.
If you’re researching generators for beginners, you’ll likely find a few brand names popping up over and over. Here are several popular residential and off-grid generator brands including:
WHICH GENERATOR IS RIGHT FOR MY SETUP?
Before investing in one, read the online reviews, talk to others, and consider how it might fit in with your own alternative energy system.
Take special note of whether the manufacturer states they’re for occasional, emergency use, or for an off-grid home. This is important because occasional use generators aren’t built to withstand the heavier use of an off the grid system. And it could impact whether the manufacturer honors the warranty.
WHY DO I NEED A GENERATOR TO LIVE OFF THE GRID?
You don’t. After all, the pioneers didn’t have generators. And you may feel that you’re perfectly fine with your solar panels or wind turbine. Yet if you prefer a few of the modern comforts, a generator – even just a standby model, makes living off the grid a lot easier for these three reasons. Yet in all the information I found on generators for beginners, I had a tough time find a simple explanation of why I need one. But thinking about it and talking it over with Dan, here’s what we came up with.
1. It supplies backup power. If you’re off the grid you’re likely going to depend on an alternative energy source such as wind or solar power. A generator supplements or replaces your solar or wind power when needed. Because the sunny and windy days aren’t guaranteed.
We use solar panels to charge the batteries that power our off the grid home. But when we don’t get enough sunlight, we use our generator to charge our batteries.
We live at about 62 degrees North, about 300 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, so we only get about four hours of daylight in November through January. So through the winter, on cloudy days, at night, or when we’re doing a power-hungry project like pumping up water from the lake, we run the genny.
2. It equalizes our batteries. Never heard of equalizing batteries? If you’re considering living off the grid using batteries to run your home, you need to know this.
Your off-grid home may have a battery bank of lead-acid batteries, as ours does. Your batteries stores the energy from your solar panels (or generator). And after some time, you’ll find that they just don’t hold their charge as well or as long as they used to. So you have to equalize them by overcharging them, which takes a lot of power. Often it needs far more than our solar panels can provide. So we use our generator.
3. It lets us run appliances and tools that would otherwise overload our batteries. Some of our favorite electric equipment and tools are just power hogs. Like our lake pump.
This permanently installed submersible electric pump sits 14 feet underwater in our bay. When it’s time to refill our 1250 gallon water tank that’s part of our off-grid water system, we usually run a generator to do so.
We’ll also run the generator when we’re using multiple saws, drills, or anything else that will quickly drain our power.
WHERE SHOULD YOU KEEP A GENERATOR FOR OFF-GRID USE?
Your generator should stay outside of your home. In a well-ventilated shed. Never use your generator indoors or in an enclosed area. Generators produce carbon monoxide, which can be fatal.
Our generator shed is a standalone building about 50 feet from our house. It currently houses our two 10kw Lombardini diesel generators. The fuel gets piped into the shed from the diesel storage tank just outside the shed.
When we run one of the generators, we always prop the generator shed door open using state of the art technology such as a chunk of firewood and a big rock.
During the winter, keeping the shed warm enough to start the generator can be tricky, especially when it gets down to -40 degrees (or colder). Each generator has a preheat function, (glow plugs) which means we have to hold a button down for about 30 seconds before starting it.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU RUN YOUR GENERATOR?
There’s no easy answer to this question as it depends on a whole lot of things. Your family size and how often you and your family use energy-hungry tools or appliances. How much wind or solar power you get. And also the season.
In our case, it really depends on the season, and how many visitors we have. We’re usually a family of four – two parents and two kids still at home (five grown and flown). However, in the summer months, that number can easily swell to eight or ten people in our household.
Our heaviest energy-consuming appliance is our electric fridge, which we hope to replace soon with a propane model. We also have an electric washing machine, which we use year-round, and a propane dryer, which we only use in the winter.
Our propane-fired boiler also uses a fair amount of energy -we can hear the inverter strain and buzz when it kicks on.
We usually turn the boiler on in mid-October and run it through mid-April. Unfortunately, these months include the pretty-dark-months of November through January, when our solar panels pull in minimal sunlight.
So in the winter, we usually run the generator for two hours in the morning, and two at night. This charges the batteries enough to power our household — unless we want to watch a movie!
In the summer, when we get close to 24 hours of sunlight and don’t run the boiler, we can go for as long as three days without the generator.
These are just a few points to think about when it comes to using a generator and living off the grid. In September I’ll be writing about what to do when you’re generator won’t start. Something we’ve experienced a few times, usually when it’s -30 degrees Celsius or colder out.
And remember, if you just can’t wrap your brain around generator basics, do what I did. Buy your kid an introductory circuit board kit. Then help them work through 100 basic exercises. If you still don’t grasp electrical basics after that, don’t worry. Your kid will be way ahead of you.