GEARHEAD DIARY: A game of generators

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN Clockwise from top, Yellowjacket, Little Green, Blackie. Fine machines, all.

by Matt Bartmann

“You lose at Generators this week,” a longtime, respected friend sternly (but jokingly) told me a couple weeks ago.

“I know,” was all I could say. I couldn’t deny it.

I’m as competitive as the next guy, but “Generators” is not my favorite game. You always have to play in the worst of conditions, when you really need to win.

Most folks who live off-grid have a back-up generator. We’d rather let the sun or wind take care of charging the battery bank from which we draw electricity to power lightbulbs, TV, and the rest of our household needs. But sometimes the sun isn’t shining, and sometimes the wind isn’t blowing.

Most off-grid folks have big generators. Some even start automatically when needed. We do not have a big one. We only need it a few hours per week, and we don’t need anything fancy. Just something that runs so we can work online or watch a bit of TV. Else, it might be nights of Scrabble games by candlelight. Competitive? You bet!

Our inverter, which turns our 24-volt battery power into normal 120v AC house current, has a built-in battery charger that plugs into a generator to charge our 24-volt battery bank. Ah, but which generator? Let the games begin.

These are my team members and my playbook for the Generators game a couple of weeks ago:

Little Green. Little Green is just that. Little and green. An older generator that was given to us a couple of years back when it stopped working for its owner. I got it running well, and it has served us since. Until a couple of weeks ago. It got finicky again. I could only get it to run for 10 or 20 minutes. I will fix it. Later.

Blackie. Blackie is a small (black) engine that spins an alternator with a belt. Just like your car, except that the alternator is 24 volt to match our 24-volt batteries. This is probably the most fuel efficient option, as it charges the batteries directly. No charger. The engine runs fine. But the alternator got wet in storage, damaging the innards. It worked great for about 20 minutes. Then the alternator overheated, seized, and the belt came off. I will fix it. Later.

Yellowjacket. After several hours of messing with Little Green and Blackie over a couple of cold, snowy days, I was frustrated. Wife Sally and I agreed it would be a good idea to get a new generator. We got online and found a good-sized unit at a bargain price. It’s yellow and black. But it wouldn’t arrive for a week. And our batteries were still low.

Big Red. Big Red is a wonderful machine. Got him in trade for a sousaphone a few years back. Big Red is a 1950s vintage 10kw generator with a thirsty 2-cylinder crank-start Wisconsin engine. He’s big and he’s red. He ran well for us for a year, but was semi-retired when something more fuel efficient (Little Green) came along. Also, Big Red doesn’t like cold weather. Very hard to start below 10°F. The week waiting for Yellowjacket to show up was pretty warm, so after a check-up and a new fuel line, I got Big Red running, and he saved us, working great at the expense of fuel.


PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN Big Red, resting and patiently waiting until his services are again needed.

Yellowjacket arrived. It fired right up and runs perfectly. If something happens to it, we have Big Red. And I’ll take my time sorting the other guys out.

My friend, I didn’t lose at generators that week. I admit, though, I didn’t exactly win, either.

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