Generator Madness

Do not go gently into that good night…

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

Pride goeth before a fall.

– Proverbs 16:18 (basically)

It’s often very hard to know the precise moment when a manageable situation turns into a complete boondoggle — when the McGyver movie you thought you were starring in turns into a comic caper flick starring Seth Rogan, minus the comedy and (sadly) Seth Rogan.

Such has been the past four days “prepping” for the storm-o-pocalypse, Sandy. After reading the scary weather reports Thursday night just before bed, I tossed and turned and whirled in my sleep like a tropical disturbance. Woke up Friday morning with the conviction that for once in my life, I was going to be prepared for the worst, not hoping for the best.

Here are a few things you should know about our sitch:

1) We always lose power. We live in leafy, green Takoma Park, where the power lines are strung up among the branches. Both trees and the lovely treehuggers who protect them are numerous. Since moving here, we have lost power 6 times in under 2 years, mostly for a few days at least.

2) We have a freezer full of line-caught salmon from a buying club (yum) and organic fruits and veggies. When we lose everything, it’s real money.

3) Due to this exorbitant pricetag for freezer hiccups, the last time we lost power, over the summer, we attempted an escape to my folks’ house in Virginia with a packed cooler. This was a disaster — flooded roads, downed power lines and trees, and then, when we were halfway there, the discovery that they, too, had lost power. We had to turn around and find our way back to our dark house, which took hours. Despite our raid on the one grocery store still with ice, everything eventually melted.

4) We are not Mechanically Inclined. At all. It took us months to figure out where, for just one example, the water main was in our house. Our toolbox consists of a few screwdrivers and a hammer, and a lot of nifty options for hanging pictures.

5) When I was a kid, I read all kinds of book like Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, and actually memorized techniques for surviving a shipwreck on a desert island. So I have that store of useful knowledge in reserve, in case we need to make a barn from the roots of a baobab tree, or something.

OK, so you can see the acute tensions here between the possible and the likely. Thursday night I spent researching our options, which seemed to be, basically, a portable generator. None of the Internet shipping possibilities would get any one of them to our house before Tuesday morning, however, when Sandy would be over our heads, and so on-line options were useless.

Friday morning after a restless night I hightailed it to Home Depot at 7 a.m., and found two generators left among all the contractors poring over their checklists. Storm prep paranoia had clearly not yet infected area consumers. Oddly enough, I was early! I snagged D batteries, a couple lantern style flashlights, and a 5,700 watt generator and some associated thick cords for an additional $60 bucks.

Based on charts up on the Amazon Web site about typical appliance wattages, I knew this would be enough for the fridge (2,200 watts to start, 600 to maintain), furnace blower (1,200), and Internet router, as well as a few lights. How hard can this be, I thought? Why doesn’t everyone just get a generator?

I’ll say this: Home Depot at 7 a.m. is an even more masculine environment than it’s normally testosterone-laden shelving would support. I was the only one in a dress for miles, or so it felt. The same Amazon resource on generators, I dimly recalled in my self-consciousness, had also said something about needing a “transfer plate,” or “transfer switch” or something. I duly questioned a fella in the electronics section about this. He gave me a blank stare, and pointed me to something that was clearly not It.

It was at that moment that I realized that I really needed an electrician to come and set this all up at our house, and that the cost of the generator (which wasn’t cheap at $700) was just the beginning of our capital incursions. Upon hearing my cross-examination of the Home Depot fella, at just that moment, an electrician piped up to say that no, a transfer switch was not needed with a portable generator. I knew that wasn’t the case based on what Amazon said, but I nonetheless immediately made nice with him, and eventually inveigled him into promising to come install things at my house and even drop off the massive generator, which would have never fit into my Altima.

Home Depot was out of the gas cans we would need for fuel, so I called around and found 2 at another local hardware, Ace. They would hold them in my name for a few hours.

So far, so good. I got Maya to preschool, co-oped with her, and went to get the 6-gallon gas cans. They had been put back out on the shelf but were still sitting there, so I picked them up as well as two 5-gallon blue kerosene containers. All together, these would hold only 22 gallons of gas, and the box for the generator indicated it would use 6 gallons every 11 hours, running at half the load. So we would still need to refuel even with all those canisters, even after just a few days without power. I envisioned non-functioning pumps and gas lines. This will be fun, I thought.

The electrician eventually showed up Saturday to do the job, and after several more trips to the store for the right equipment, he installed a power line to the main switchboard and disconnects both inside and out. It did require a hole in the foundation to the outside and a small chuck of drywall out of our ceiling, as well as another $750 dineros. Ouch.

Then, we got the wheels on the generator dolly, muscled it outside and down around the underside of our ramshackle back porch, where it would stay (we hoped) basically dry under a couple of heavy tarps. We also tidied up the yard and cleared what we could of the gutters.

Next, I went for gasoline, which turned out, for a non-toxics person, to be a form of torture. I had to stand above the gas tank, watching for spills, and whiffing the fumes. The gas came to $70. Then, like a moron, I evidently FUBAR‘d the kerosene tanks’ closures, and a small amount spilled in my car (the trunk was full of toddler gear, and I stupidly thought I could make it the few blocks home without incident).

The cloth upholstery stank like an Exxon. And I likely ruined one of Maya’s little jackets. Grr. Perhaps this is the moment when Seth Rogan enters the scene?

At any rate, on Sunday afternoon we sat down to actually read the full owner’s manual on our big new hulking machine. Words like “carbon monoxide poisoning” and “electrocution” really jumped out at us. As it turned out, we needed a ground wire for the machine itself, not just for the electrical wiring as the electrician had installed. I consulted my dad, and headed out for the store again.

When I got to Ace Hardware, we dropped another $90. They sold me a long copper rod (it was originally 8 feet, but I couldn’t even reach the top to pound it in, so they cut it off to 5 feet — and we hope that is good enough), a thick, wide hammer, some feet of number 8 wire, and a clamp to make a positive connection with the wire and the rod.

Seeing how overwhelmed I was as I balanced the bags of stuff while Maya pulled trinkets off every low-hanging shelf, the nice store manager at Ace actually said to me, “You know, you should really read the generator manual. I don’t want to read about you guys in the papers.” I reassured him that we had, and that it all looked very complicated to us. He did not look particularly reassured.

I also picked up a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor and batteries, to put inside in the downstairs window closest to the generator. And some rubber gloves, to try to break any connection when turning it on (I also will wear rubber shoes). We’re better safe than sorry on this kind of thing, and it’s almost guaranteed to still be wet whenever we’ll need to flip the switch.

Last, I took a trip by the car store, to pick up some completely toxic upholstery cleaner. I gave it a good spray with the chemical foam, and the chokingly intense gas smell abated a bit, but of course my car now just smells like the awful cleaner instead. Needless to say, every eco-principle I have bit the dust with this one. I tossed Maya’s jacket in the washer by itself with the strongest detergent we have, but it may be a goner.

When I got home late Sunday, it had started to drizzle. I picked a spot near the generator and started to pound in the rod. We’ll just say that my upper body strength is not very well developed. (My hubs offered to do this, but I was determined to follow through on my bright idea from a few days back.) I scraped my hand a little on one blow, still not sure how, and this was the end result of another near-miss, one day later:

In the end, the stupid rod went into the ground, except for a few inches, and we attached the clamp to the rod.

Now, we’ll just have to figure out where the ground wire goes on the frame, attach the electrical cord, flip the main circuit breaker off and the switch on at two locations, follow the reasonably elaborate starting instructions, and pull the cord.

And hope we don’t get electrocuted or die of carbon monoxide poisoning. And that our bank account will someday recover from my Friday morning panic, though we may need to also someday build a specific shed for the generator out in our tiny yard, to keep it even further from the house. So that’s another “cha-ching!” Yay.

At this point, a melting freezer doesn’t look too awful. Of course, IF it works AND we don’t die, it will be nice to be able to run the furnace blower and keep our food around a bit.

I’ll write after the storm, with luck, and let you know that we made it. I have faith, even if my finger hurts a bit, and even if I currently feel more fool than crafty survivor as Sandy comes roaring in.

Update:

Irony of ironies, we never lost power. This time. At least we’re set for the next incident.

Also, my finger is no longer painful. So there’s that. We’ll stick the gas in our car, and will add a storage and ventilated area for the gas and generator when we renovate the porch, which needs doing anyway.

We really didn’t get hit hard here by the storm. But I’ll note that the few area casualties from Sandy included three reports of carbon monoxide poisioning from generators, though all ultimately recovered. If you’re going to invest in a generator, please also drop the $25 bucks on a carbon monoxide monitor for your house! Seems to me that they should be sold together, always.

###

Generator Tips

When my dad went to the hardware store on Sunday, he saw many families with large generators in their carts. Despite the buying spree, I’d be willing to warrant that many of these stay in the box, or get returned. Setting up a generator is more complicated than I knew at least, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who thought of it, wrongly, as an easy fix.

Please take advantage of our lessons learned if you are considering buying a generator.

Here’s what you’ll really need to do the job right:

1) A truck, or better, someone with a truck and dolly, to get it home: The larger machines (4,000 watts+) are very heavy and big. You’ll need several strong people to lift/move it and a large enough vehicle for transport, or to pay the store to do it.

2) The right electrical cords and connections: Be sure to check the length, plug type, wattage AND amperage on the cords. Home Depot sold us the wrong stuff twice.

3) Electrical know-how and a transfer switch: For smaller generators, if you know what you are doing, you can switch off the main power, and run extension cords from the particular appliances you’ll need to a multi-plug cord designed for that purpose. Of course, you’ll need all those extension cords, and this arrangement won’t power the furnace blower or anything that can’t be connected by cord (i.e., lights). Use extreme caution in wet conditions if hooking up extension cords — puddles, obviously, can conduct electricity. So hook up everything before you power up.

For larger generators, the whole point is to run more stuff. (For a link to typical appliances and their wattage needs, see this Amazon resource.) So you will likely need an electrician, as we did, to install a transfer switch and run a cable from the main power box through the house and outside. The clear advantage of doing it this way also that this avoids multiple extension cords, which have to get outside somehow. Keeping a window open with a larger generator may draw deadly carbon monoxide back into the house.

Either way, unlike what everyone initially told me, you DO need a transfer switch. This critical piece of equipment insures that the main power line into the house is off if the generator is on — otherwise, if you were running the generator and the power for the main house was active, you could send electricity along the line out from your house, just as some hardworking soul from the electric company is out there in hellish conditions trying to fix the power, and you could injure or kill that person.

All the same, Home Depot did not stock this essential item, and even the electrical supply stores had scant supplies, especially for generators the size of the one we purchased. You can get the transfer switches on Amazon, but you’d obviously have to have the time available to order ahead, which is reason #50 that generators are more work than you might think.

4) A place to put it: This is the trickiest part. First, it MUST be run outside. Carbon monoxide fumes can kill you in minutes. Also be sure that windows are closed if there is a risk of introducing fumes. Here’s the CDC’s guidelines, including specific instructions for generators.

Second, the instructions indicate that it must be a meter or more from the house, and yet also under a shelter from the weather. In addition, they ask for 3 feet of clearance on all sides, including above. Given that the machine itself is a good 3 feet long by 2 feet wide by 3 feet high, that means a shed that is approximately 6 feet high, 8 feet wide and 9 feet long.

How many homes have an enormous, basically empty shed a meter (approx. five feet) or so outside their house? I would guess very few.

Even in our yard, it was a close call. Our spot barely works, given that much of our yard is drainage that becomes a virtual stream with this much rain. Our porch happens to provide decent clearance on all but the top, and we can get the generator a meter away from the house and still have it under the porch. We added tarps on top of the generator itself (which must be removed when we run it) and also plastic sheeting above on the porch, to try to keep the water off and keep puddles from forming nearby. So factor in tarps, covers and any other weather protection needs to your shopping list.

We also looked at the insta-shed plastic options, which run about $200, and even so, none had the right clearances, ventilation or space. If you ran it with the doors open on these smaller sheds, the water would get right in. So it wouldn’t be easy to come up with a decent place for the machine, if you don’t have one available already.

5) Ground rod, clamp, wire and determination: While few people actually bother with this, the instruction booklet is very clear that the generator itself — particularly models on wheels with rubber tires — must be grounded. This is so that when you touch the machine, you don’t create that ground and draw the electrical current. You’ll need a long copper grounding rod (about $26), a copper clamp designed to make a connection, and several feet of thick wire (our model called for number 8). Pound in the rod (at least our soil was soft and clay-like — you may want to consider the work involved here); strip a few inches of rubber off both ends of the wire; attach one end with the clamp to the rod and the other to the machine where indicated in the instructions. Note that moving the machine will require enough wire to allow that movement and keep the ground connection intact.

6) Gas containers: You’ll want to have several gas containers on hand full of gas, and a safe place to put them, as well as a place to refuel for extended outages. Our 5,700 watt generator runs for 11 hours on 6 gallons at half-load, for a measure of how many containers and how much gas you’d need.

7) Safety equipment: You’ll want thick-soled shoes (rubber is best) to wear when turning it on and a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor with batteries. Put the monitor inside the house near where gas could enter the house from the machine, and do check to make sure the monitor and batteries are working.

Hope that this list is helpful to you! Please let me know if you have tips in addition to these.

2 thoughts on “Generator Madness

  1. Pingback: Claudia S. Miller » Blog Archive » Are You a Modern Canary?

  2. LOL – very much enjoyed your entry. I am also a clueless white collar person in suburban CT. I have owned one of these portable beasts for 8 years – only have had to use it twice including Sandy for 20 hours. Have had all the struggles you outlined. Still have not answered the question of ideal location and how to cover. Best solution I can come up with for cover is store in garage which I hate doing, but if under back porch will pick up a lot of moisture no matter what you do. Also not sure if you want to cover with tarp and kind of seal in gas vapors. Then keep a piece of plywood somewhere and either plop it on top during storms or buy some horses and use those to hold up the plywood. I have the room to keep all this crap out of the way and sight during non-use. Others have suggested card table over the generator which I tried during sandy and would have helped if we had really caught any rain.

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