Testing a Backup Generator

Testing a Backup Generator

Every once in a while we find it necessary to put our disaster preparations to the test. To properly prepare for a grid-down situation we conduct Off-Grid Night. Some times this may utilize zero electricity and others we may use whatever means we have on hand such as our portable generator.

For many of us stationary generators may not be in our budget. Portable generators can offer a reasonable price as well as diversity. Portability also leaves us the option to use the generator for other purposes such as camping, hunting, or bugging out.

The type of generator that is right for you depends on what you need. In our situation we were not so concerned with running every single appliance. We want to keep our food from spoiling, provide the ability to draw water from the well, and power the fan to our buck stove.

Our power outage plan does not involve going about life as normal. As with any disaster, large or small, there will be disruptions and that’s why we prepare. Simple tasks will be more difficult and that’s okay, because we practice and prepare.

We recently ran our first major outage test with our new 5,000 watt generator. Without running this test we may not have learned some valuable lessons, such as which appliances can be ran simultaneously and which ones we can do without. It is important to take notes while performing these tests.

When using a generator for power backup it is important to create a plan for all parties involved. Every adult in the home should have the knowledge to perform these tasks.

Even if one is not physically able to undergo the process they can at least walk another person through the steps. Children can become scared during a power outage. This is why it is important for everyone to have there own flashlight and become involved in the solution.

If there are children in the home we should develop a plan which keeps them involved. For instance, our daughter’s job is to go from room to room and make sure all light switches are turned off. This helps to occupy the mind and decrease the stress of the situation.

Tests should be run on days when there are chores to be done. For instance we did out recent test on laundry day. Plan on losing power at the most inopportune times.

How do we connect our genny?

No one likes the idea of multiple extension cords ran around the house. I developed my system to connect to the home breaker panel. This allows me to control exactly what is being run from a central location and also provides more safety due to the fact that I do not have extension cords lying about which can get pinched in doorways or chewed on by pets.

I suggest that anyone who wishes to use a direct connection finds an electrician to help. As an electrician myself, I can tell you it is very easy to make a mistake and may even be illegal in some areas. A direct connection will utilize the 2 phase 240 volt twist lock on the generator if available. There is a potential for serous injury or death here so as I said before get an electrician to help and always adhere to all National Electrical Code requirements.

The very first thing we do when preparing to connect the genny is to turn off the main breaker or fuse followed by every other breaker in the panel. We don’t know when the power will come back on and when it does back feeding can occur if this is not done correctly.

Pay close attention to wire size and distance. Wire that is too small can cause a fire hazard.  Also you may need to keep voltage drop in mind if the distance from the genny to the panel is very far. The further electricity has to travel the more resistance it will have causing a drop in the voltage by time it reaches the appliance.

A disconnect should always be utilized to prevent back feeding of electricity from the panel to the generator or visa-versa.

After the proper connections are made you are ready to begin powering up the unit. Remember we are NOT turning on the main breaker. Start by powering on any disconnects between the genny and the panel then switch on the appropriate generator breaker.

This is the breaker where the power from the genny connects to the panel. Now there will be power to the panel and it is “hot”. Using a list of Priority Circuits begin powering up the most essential first. For us this is the refrigerators and freezer followed by the well pump and Buck Stove, though your priorities may differ.

After practicing the start-up process it is time to start experimenting with the generators capabilities. We do this by using the panel to turn on various combinations of circuits, taking notes as to which devices can be ran simultaneously, by them selves, or not at all.

For instance with most portable generators running air conditioning or a cloths dryer will bog down the engine. This is not good for the life of the genny and should be avoided. Also note which circuits turn on lighting you might need and be mindful to keep lighting to a minimum.

Important items we noted with our generator test

  • Just because a circuit is on does not mean it is drawing electricity, only that the potential is there. ie turning on lighting circuits will not necessarily have any effect on the load until a light is actually turned on.
  • While running the fridges and well pump we are not able to exceed 2 burners on the stove.
  • Cannot run dryer or water heater.
  • Washing machine does just fine. We hung our cloths to dry near the buck stove with great results.
  • Be alert of ghost circuits, ie outdoor lighting, security systems, attic fans, and electronics which can draw power even when switched off.
  • Avoid running the well pump if it is not needed. For instance “if it’s yellow let it mellow”. Enough said.
  • I find it quite necessary to carry a small ac non-contact voltage tester or “hot stick”. You can pick these up for about $20. They are excellent for determining energized receptacles quickly and safely.
  • Use sta-bil for fuel storage.
  • Be aware that some generators may not be safe to use with sensitive devices such as plasma TV’s and computers.
  • Give some serious thought to using outdoor security lighting. If we know for a fact the outage is local and short term we may use our security lights, but if there is any potential for the outage to be more than a day or so I would advise anyone to practice operational security by not advertising you have power.
  • Once you reach about 3 days of outage food will have expired and people will be over the “excitement” and may be willing to take things that do not belong to them. I can here it now, “Hey didn’t that guy down the street have his lights on last night?” “Yeah! Lets take his generator!” Just a thought.

Legal stuff: No unqualified persons should ever attempt to use or wire a generator, ever! In other words, I am telling you to not do any unauthorized electrical work. If you do, you are acting at your own risk.