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Established June 2, 1997
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Emergency Electrical Generation

(First posted November, 1999)
After our recent 27 hour power outage, several people have asked me how we have our emergency generator hooked up that allows us to have heat, lights and hot water and keep this web site on-line through long periods without PECO supplied electricity. (The web site is no longer served from our home.) I have put together a two page "how to" on what we did for those who might like to do something similar. Page 2 is linked below or click here.
Background
I lived for many years in an old farmhouse on Merlin Road that had a basement susceptible to flooding. We had a sump pump, but it seemed that frequently the problems of heavy rain or melting snow coincided with power outages, and the sump pump was useless. I purchased a small gasoline engine powered 120v electric generator and with extension cords used it to provide power to the sump pump in such emergencies. If the outage was long enough, I'd also plug in the refrigerator. It did not have the capacity to power anything more than those two items and a light or two. It would have taken a great deal more to heat the home in those days since the house was heated by electricity which requires a very large generator to operate.
About five years ago we hooked up an electric generator in my wife's parent's home in Kimberton due to their age and infirmities which required the regular use of an oxygen generator by my mother-in-law. That led us to evaluate our own situation.
Today we are in a more contemporary home than the old farmhouse. Fortunately, we do not have all-electric heat and even our water heater is fueled by our oil burner. However, we are older now and less tolerant of outages. Basement water problems here are less severe, but still exist, and we worry about food spoiling, pipes freezing and bursting, no water, visiting grandchildren getting cold and sick, and so on. Our 27 hour outage Nov. 2-3 would have been much worse if we had freezing temperatures and ice or snow to contend with. In addition, this and other web sites as well as email are served from computers in our house that are supposed to be "up" 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week. (Again, these are no longer served from our home.)
What We Did
Our solution was to purchase a larger generator, and instead of running extension cords around the house to power specific devices, we have it wired through a switch that lets us easily switch from PECO's line to the generator for the entire house. While we cannot run every conceivable electrical device at the same time, we do have our well water, heat, hot water, refrigeration, lights, a tv and the computers operating easily from the generator. It's just a few steps to switch over to the generator once we decide that the outage is likely to be longer than a few minutes. We are using a 6,500 watt (peak) Honda generator with electric start, and we keep an inexpensive "battery monitor" on it when not in use so we an be sure it will start when needed.
How Complicated Is It?
The actual switch-over from the "dead" PECO line to the generator is a few simple steps. Assuming you keep the generator's fuel tank full, oil level topped up, etc., then when you decide to switch over, you do the following -
  1. Turn off any heavy electricity devices that may have been on when the power went out. Typically this would be an electric oven, air conditioners or electric heat devices.
     
  2. Plug the power cord (that you have had installed) into the generator's 240 volt outlet.
     
  3. Start the generator. The larger units have electric starters with rope-pull for backup. Let it warm up for a couple of minutes.
     
  4. Go to your new switch which is probably next to your circuit breaker cabinet and "throw" the switch. That's it. Your lights come on instantly as well as anything else that was left turned on after the power failed. All you have to do after that is refill the generator's gas tank periodically.
As you'll see in the diagrams, we have also installed an outlet on the PECO side of our main switch so that we can plug in an "indicator" device to let us know when PECO has restored power. You can plug in a radio (tuned to a station and the volume turned up) or a lamp, neither of which will "work" until PECO restores power. The radio works well as you don't have to go check it as you do a lamp, to see if the power is back.
How Is It Wired?
Click here for a schematic of our hookup and more explanation of its operation.
It's Not Perfect
As great as this setup is, it's not perfect.
  • It's not cheap. I guess a cost-benefit analysis all depends on your tolerance for being without power for extended periods of time and being able to deal with the problems caused by that situation. Extended power outage during severe cold weather is the worst case scenario, and that has happened enough in our lives that we felt we had to do something if we were going to continue to live where we are.
     
  • It's not automatic. Somebody has to be home to connect the generator and throw the switch. If you're away on a trip and you worry about pipes freezing, food spoiling or water in the basement, then you need to have someone "trained" as to how to hook up the generator in your absence.
     
  • You have to keep gas on hand and maybe make a few trips to the gas station to keep the generator running. Ours has a 4.5 gallon gas tank and will run from 4 to 8 hours before refilling, depending on what electrical devices are running.
     
  • You should start up your generator periodically when it is not being used for long periods to make sure it runs and will start. Actually, we have a "trickler" battery charger hooked up to our generator's battery all the time it is stored, so we are sure the electric starter will work when needed.
     
  • It's not quite the same as having PECO power. When our heater turns on or the load on the generator changes for some other reason, the lights flicker for a second. The micro-wave oven sounds a little quieter, but still works. Also, while the generator engine is well muffled, you can still hear it running.

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