Archives for : Home

Sump Pump Circuit

I was unhappy with my Basement Watchdog backup sump’s controller, so I built my own simple system to control the pump and keep the battery charged. I took some video of the effort and posted it on YouTube yesterday.

Yes, I know I need a better camera, lighting conditions, and the sound quality leaves much to be desired, but I still thought I should share what I made with you.

May the Lord bless you and keep you running on all cylinders!

Generator Fun: Follow-Up

Kill-A-Watt at 60Hz

The generator needed to be adjusted to provide a correct 60Hz output. Here I’m observing the frequency as the furnace cycles, and only small changes are seen in the a/c frequency.

Early in the week I mentioned that I had some issues running my natural gas-fired furnace using my generator — which has been converted to run on natural gas as well.  Experimentation proved that there was something wrong with the power being provided by the generator.  My family was lucky that the lights came back on on Sunday night, as we’ve heard stories of people without power for up to 48 hours.  This is horrible when temperatures are in the negative teens and windchills are in the neighborhood of -30F (windchill will increase how much heat is lost through the walls of the house–by the same convective mechanism that affects your body).  I also talked with a few people who had power, but were still having issues with frozen pipes.

I thought about my technical problem during the week and considered my actions to determine the exact problem and make a correction.  First of all, I knew we needed more extension cords, so I stopped at a hardware store and picked some up, along with some cheap cord-wrap organizers and some water-tight cord connector covers — which were what we should have used for weather-exposed connections used to power heat lamps for chickens and rabbits. I picked up a heavy-duty 12-gauge cord long enough to reach from the generator to the furnace.

The generator had been left out and plugged into the natural gas line, in case we needed it again. Note that the ball valve before the quick-release was disconnected to avoid any natural gas leakage.  With my sled/shelter protecting it, I wasn’t worried about blowing snow or rain getting into the control unit or the gas metering system.  Because I live on a dead-end street in the boonies, only one (trustworthy) neighbor sees the side of the house where it was parked, so I wasn’t worried about theft.

On Saturday, when I had some time for experimentation, I fired up the generator and plugged my Kill A Watt meter into it.  The voltage was right at 120V, so that was OK.  I looked at the frequency of the alternating current, which should ideally be at 60 Hz.  I found that the output was actually at just over 63 Hz.  On a common, inexpensive, non-inverting generator like mine, the frequency is actually set by the speed that the engine is turning the generator head.

Engine Governor Adjustment

To get the alternating current’s frequency to the ideal 60 Hz, I had to adjust the governor on the engine, as shown here.

To adjust the frequency, I checked the throttle mechanism on the engine and found the governor.  This was easily adjusted with a Phillips head screwdriver.  The tip is to make adjustments while the engine is running.  On my generator’s Honda engine, turning the adjuster clockwise increased engine speed and A/C frequency.  I would expect other brands to be similar.  I slowly turned the adjuster counter-clockwise until the Kill A Watt indicated 60.0 Hz.  Then I observed it for about a minute.  Even unloaded, the frequency will wander +/- 0.5 Hz, and the key is to ensure that that the range centers on 60.0 Hz.  After a little more tweaking, I was ready to try running the furnace on the generator.

After letting my family know what I was doing (and waiting for a load of laundry in the washer to finish its cycle), I shut off all the power to the house using the master switch.  I wasn’t sure that other energy sources weren’t used for the thermostat or any other systems, so I decided to simulate (create) a full blackout.  I ran the cord into the furnace room, unplugged the furnace from the wall, and plugged it into the Kill A Watt meter which was plugged into the cord.  I was in contact with my son via walkie talkie, and asked him to turn up the temperature on the thermostat so that the furnace would kick in.

The furnace started right up with no complaints.  I heard the exhaust motor spool up first, followed by the ignition sequence and the main blower motor.  As the generator was loaded up, the A/C frequency stayed in the 59.5 – 60.5 Hz range.  I expected more fluctuation, and was favorably impressed with the result.  Further cycling showed that voltage was constant.

I’m satisfied that I’m ready for the next winter power outage.  I’d say “bring it on!” except that many others in the area aren’t prepared in this aspect and I’d like to see human suffering minimized.  The lesson I’ve learned is that a system with any level of complexity should be fully ops-checked before it is needed.  That’s obvious, but I hadn’t tried this out, and I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.  Now my Kill A Watt meter will be kept with my generator supplies, in case further adjustments are needed.

-Be smart: Try not to learn things the hard way!

Cold Weather in Indiana: Generator Fun

Negative Teens in Indiana

Here’s a quick shot of the house this morning. I didn’t stay out there for very long!

It was fairly warm, with temperatures in the mid-30s (Fahrenheit) yesterday.  We had heavy snow in Indiana yesterday, with perhaps ten inches of depth.  As the sun went down, the snow continued, but the gusty wind was added as the arctic front came through.  This morning temperatures dropped into the negative teens and we will see a high today of nine below zero.

Hoosiers, for the most part, aren’t equipped or prepared for this kind of weather.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal where I was raised in Minnesota.  Everything is closed today, including the place where I work.

The coming snow and cold was something that everybody in Indiana was well aware of for the past several days.  Grocery stores were good places to avoid for their crowds and cleared shelves.  It wasn’t a scene of panic, but people around here sure rush to the store when a storm is announced.  Milk and bread are the first things to disappear.

Yesterday morning, as a wet, heavy snow was falling, we started noticing that our lights were flickering.  The area I live in is notorious for power outages.  If there is a thunderstorm, we are the first ones to lose power and often the last ones to recover.  This happened quite a few times earlier this year.  My family and I are well-practiced at rolling out the generator and running extension cords to where power is truly needed.

Quick-Release Fitting for Generator

The rubber hose that drops into the snow, here, is connected to a quick-release fitting.  The other end is connected to the generator.

Considering the possibility of long-term blackouts, the relative reliability of the natural gas system used to heat our home and water, and the cost of natural gas versus gasoline on a per-BTU basis, I decided that the generator should run on natural gas.  I purchased a tri-fuel (natural gas, propane, and gasoline) conversion kit for my generator and the necessary plumbing and hose fittings to make it work.  I put a tee and a quick-disconnect just after the meter on my house’s natural gas supply.  Now, as long as I have natural gas I can run my generator.

With winter coming, I saw that I could use the generator to power the controller and blower on my furnace; keeping the house warm.  This meant that heating my house would only require one grid to be functional, rather than two.  My furnace was hard-wired into the house’s power with only a breaker to disconnect it.  This makes powering the furnace difficult without a transfer box (perhaps I’ll get one installed later).  So, I added an outlet and rewired the furnace so that it plugs into it.  Now I can simply unplug it from the wall and plug it into an extension cord from my generator.

Generator With Sled/Shelter

The sled I built for moving the generator into position through the snow was used as a shelter to keep the snow out of the generator.

We had a based snow from a few days ago on the ground, heavy snow was falling, and the lights were flickering.  I started wondering how I’d get the generator through a foot of mushy snow to the location where my generator’s hose can reach the natural gas supply.  I recalled a pallet that my wife had left leaning against the back side of the barn, and thought about fashioning a sled.  I added some 1x4s with a 45 degree angle, some planks, and covered all of the gaps with shower board that I had laying around.  Voila!  I had a generator sled.

In the past, I’ve thought that I should build a shelter for the generator, so that it can be run in heavy rainstorms.  As I was building the sled, I realized that it could be placed inverted on top of the generator, in order to provide some shelter from the snow.  I added some sheets of Solex (leftover from a greenhouse project) to the sides of the shelter which would be exposed to the prevailing wind.

As predicted, the power went out.  Dragging the generator to the back of the house was one heck of a workout, as the sled could use more surface area for flotation; the generator and sled kept sinking in.  At every time I stopped to rest, my first movement as I restarted would basically lift the entire system to get it back on top of the snow, using the ramp I’d built into the front end.  It was a slow process, but it was possible due to the sled.

After dragging it through the snow, I rolled the generator off the sled into position.  I plugged the generator into the natural gas system and fired it up with no issues.  I agree with those who say they actually run better on natural gas than they do on gasoline.  I put the inverted sled on top and held it down with bungies.  Amazingly, it stayed in place, even with last night’s howling winds.  The snow buildup on top probably helped.

We ran extension cords everywhere, and I found out that the furnace wouldn’t fire up.  I experimented with multiple potential causes:

  • Bad ground?  Generators aren’t often grounded.  I thought the furnace was being fussy, so I grounded the system to the house’s ground and it made no difference.
  • Was too much natural gas being used by the generator to fire the furnace?  I shut off the natural gas supply to the generator and switched it over to gasoline, to find that it made no difference.
  • Adequate power?  This generator is rated at 8 kW peak, so I have no doubt that this would power the furnace which pulls a maximum of 12A (1.44 kW).
  • Inadequate extension cord?  I think this is it!

The startup transient must suck a lot of current when the blower starts up.  With the panel removed to troubleshoot the situation, I could see and hear the controller trying to start the blower.  It would blip the motor and stop right away.  The controller must have seen a momentary drop in voltage and reset each time.  I monitored a/c voltage with my multimeter and didn’t see the voltage drop, but it may have been too quick for my multimeter.  I think I need a better gauge of cord for this application, and will certainly ops-check it before we need it next time.

Thankfully, the power came back on at around 8:00 pm, but I know that many Hoosiers are without power with -30F windchill today.  My neighbors and I are OK, but this could be a real emergency for some.  It would have been tough for us, but in the worst case we would have moved to a single room, closed the door, and huddled around a space heater with blankets.  I would have to keep checking pipe temperatures in the basement to ensure that they were OK.

Good: We were well-prepared with stored food, LED flashlights, and candles.  We used our gas stove (lit manually with a handheld lighter) to heat water and vegetables to go with the home-grown chicken that my wife had been cooking in the crock pot all day.  Everybody simply dug in on what needed to be done.

Bad: I had made preparations for a situation like this, but hadn’t ops-checked the power system to see if I could really power the furnace.

Corrections:  We identified several things we need to do:

  • Get a good extension cord for the generator.  Installing a grounding rod would be a good idea, too.  Ops check the whole system.  Drag out my Kill-A-Watt, too, in order to characterize what’s happening.
  • Get more inexpensive extension cords.  Because we were worried about rabbits and chickens in the cold weather, we ran some 150′ of cords back to the barn’s greenhouse and chicken coop to run heat lamps.
  • I need some ski pants or other lower body covering.  Cotton jeans are a terrible idea when slogging through the snow.
  • We need a lantern to light up one room.  (We ordered a Rayovac SE3DLN on Amazon today.)
  • Eventually, we should consider warm weather clothing using open-cell polyurethane foam, based on the Phillips Arctic Living System (PALS).

Stay Warm!


Homeschooling, Computer Upgrades, Front Bushings, & Alignment

It’s been quite awhile since my last post. I’ve had quite a few things going on, and the polyurethane suspension upgrades took much longer than predicted.

My wife and I were discussing the virtual school program my children were enrolled in and decided that (1) they weren’t being challenged enough, and (2) they were not able to move at their own pace. We’ve also been concerned that they were still in a government school and might still get a fair amount of indoctrination into all kinds of things we despise, whether it’s an airhead culture, statism, socialism, or (worst of all) Keynesian economics. So, we made the switch back to true homeschooling.

"Barny the Barncat" my linux machine in the workshop

“Barny the Barncat” one of the most important tools in my workshop. It just got upgraded because my kids are homeschooling. Makes perfect sense, right?  Note blue “cantenna.”

There was a flurry of purchasing activity and I found a way to buy my way into sharing Amazon Prime with some family members, which helped us get some of our stuff pretty quickly. Note that Amazon doesn’t really care if your “houshold” members actually live in the same house! Along with these purchases, my daughter needed a new laptop (amazing machines can be purchased for a mere $350 right now!). There was a shift in computers around the house, and my wife’s old machine wound up sitting in the corner in the basement. Right on cue, the machine I keep in the barn went Tango Uniform. The slightly newer machine came out of the basement, got the Lubuntu (Light Ubuntu) Linux distribution installed, and now gives me access to the Web while I’m working out there. I stream music from Shoutcast and Pandora, listen to podcasts, read online repair manuals, and look up parts and tools I need.  The barn is a few hundred feet from the house, but in the photo you’ll notice a little blue food can under the CPU pointing toward the wall (and the house beyond). This is my cantenna, which is a homemade high-gain WiFi antenna — allowing access to my WiFi when I’m out there.  Here’s the site that taught me how to build one, if you are interested.

In my last post I discussed the process of installing polyurethane bushings in the Suburban’s rear end.  Don’t underestimate the level of effort involved in these things!  The handling was certainly upgraded by these efforts, but it wasn’t a quick, easy job.  Rather than bore you with too much detail, let me share a few tips that might be helpful with replacing bushings in the front end of this and similar front ends:

    Removing torsion rod arms

    Removing torsion rod arms using the c-clamp from a bearing press tool.

  • Get the front end nice and high off the ground and support it securely with some jack stands.  You’ll spend lots of time under there, and it’s nice if you aren’t bruising your forehead too much!  This provides more room to get under there with tools.
  • The very first parts removed should be the torsion rods.  I removed the torsion rod adjustment bolts.  Then, I used my Chinese bearing press tool’s c-clamp to push the cams upwards just enough to remove the little rocker pieces that the bolts screw into.  Then, I carefully released the pressure from the cams, completely unloading the torsion rods.  Stay clear, in case the c-clamp pops off, because these things store lots of energy and could really hurt you.  Then, I pushed the torsion rods forward, through the lower control arms (which drops the cams, so watch your head!), before pulling them out above the torsion rod cross-member.
  • I did the upper control arms first, supporting the lower ball joint with a floor jack and hanger-wiring the knuckle to the upper control arm, so that it wouldn’t pull on the brake hose too much.  I unclipped the ABS wires from the upper control arms, so that I could swing the arms outwards for easy access to press bushings in and out.
  • Heating the rubber bushings with a torch before pressing is highly recommended, as it debonds the rubber from the metal sleeves and shells, while softening the rubber–making them much easier to remove.
  • Check to see which shells and sleeves are included in your bushing set, because you may have to reuse some of the old ones.  Not realizing this, I butchered some of mine in the process, and had to buy some cheap rubber bushings from O’Reilly’s in order to replace some of them.
  • Inner shafts can be unbolted

    Inner shafts can be unbolted to allow the lower control arm pivot bolts to be removed. This is much easier than unbolting the differential assembly (ask how I know)!

  • On the lower control arms, I found out that the rear bolts point directly at the front shaft assemblies.  It might not be a problem with a normal geometry, but my front differential assembly has been lowered 2″ to make room for the diesel engine’s oil pan (which still had to be modified).  These can be unbolted and the inner shaft moved out of the way.
  • In some cases, rather than using the bearing press to push out the bushings I used some 1/2″ threaded rod, some PVC pipe, nuts, and plates with holes drilled in them to push bushings in/out.  If the process is too tough, apply more heat and experiment with other ways to get leverage.
  • Don’t pretend that you’ll be able to put things back in the same position and avoid an alignment.  You will need an alignment when you are through!
Adjusting ride height

Adjusting ride height, using a basic tape measure.  I had to raise this side of the vehicle a fraction of an inch.

Eventually, I got everything back together and did my own alignment.  I did it myself, because I wanted it done right.  I’ve been extremely disappointed with the half-assed job that many alignment shops will do.  With a few tools, some of them homemade, you can do this yourself.

First, one should park the vehicle on a flat, level surface. Bounce the front end up and down to ensure that the suspension is sitting at the right height.  I found out the correct range for the Suburban’s ride height by consulting an online manual, and chose to shoot for 6″.  For this vehicle, this is defined as the difference between the height of the center of the lower control arm’s rear pivot bolt and the lowest corner of the knuckle.  I used a tape measure to check these.  This is adjusted by turning the adjustment bolts on the torsion rods.  When one side is adjusted, bounce the vehicle and check that side again.  Also, check the other side, as an adjustment on once side will likely affect both sides.

For the next step, you may need to put shims under your tires to get the vehicle level left-to-right.  In the last place I lived, I used a length of tubing with water in it attached to jack stands as a type of level (ensure you get any water bubbles out of your column of water).  I compared it to the rim height on both sides and played with shims on the floor to get the car perfectly level in the right-to-left direction.  This is important, because you want accurate camber measurements, next.  In my current workshop, one of the stalls has a near-perfect level floor.

Using the camber gauge

Using the camber gauge to check the wheels’ angle from vertical.

I have a camber gauge that is held up against the outside of the rim at the bead.  This can measure the camber to within 1/8 of a degree.  When adjusting the upper control arms, I only adjust the front or the rear of the upper control arm, choosing the direction that increases caster (and, hence, straight-line stability).  If I’m moving the top of the tire inwards, for instance, I’ll do this by moving the rear upper control arm inwards, which will swing the upper ball joint toward the vehicle’s rear.  If I need to move the top of the tire outwards, I’ll move the forward control arm outwards, for the same effect.  Some might claim that I could wind up with too much caster, but it’s never been as critical as having the right camber angle.

My trammel bar

My trammel bar–used to measure and adjust toe-in.

With ride height and camber set, I then adjust toe-in.  The tool for this job is one I built years ago from a 2×4 with boards nailed to the ends.  The ends should ideally be half the height of your tires.  I use masking tape on the tops of the boards to give me a place to mark measured locations.  I can apply a fresh strip of tape to each for each alignment session–eliminating the possibility of forgetting which marks I’m using.

This process involves pushing the vehicle forward and backwards–something that you won’t and shouldn’t do if your floor isn’t level front-to-rear.  Even if it is, you are dealing with a great deal of mass, and it’s a good idea to put a 2×4 in place as a stop near the entrance to your garage to keep your vehicle from rolling away on you.

Using pins to measure toe-in

Using pins and the trammel bar to measure toe-in.

I start by rolling my vehicle as far to the vehicle’s rear in the workspace as possible with the wheels pointed straight ahead.  I then place the trammel bar behind the front tires.  I push pins into the lugs of each front tire where they meet the trammel bar boards and make markings where they touch (you won’t puncture the tires, if you stick to the lugs).  Then, I push the vehicle forward until the pins are at the front of the tires and compare the distance between the pins with the markings I made earlier.  On this vehicle, I calculated (basic trig) that the front of the tires should be 1/8″ closer than the rear for proper toe-in.  I adjusted the tie rod end sleeves using the OTC 7023 sleeve adjuster tool.  This thing works much better for twisting old, rusted/frozen sleeves than a pair of channel locks! The hooks can grab the sleeve’s gaps from different angles, and the handle slides back and forth — allowing you to gain leverage, even in tight spaces.

OTC 7023

OTC 7023–a must-have tool for adjusting tie rod ends.

Remember, however, that any changes you produce in measurement from the marks while adjusting are doubled. This is because if you are bringing the fronts of the tires closer to each other, you are widening the rears. So, if I measured 1/2″ of toe-in and I want 1/8″, I consider that the half-way point between the front and rear pin locations (the 1/4″ point) would represent zero toe-in. I’ll mark that halfway point, and adjust so that the pins are 1/16″ inside of that halfway point. If the fronts are 1/16″ inside of zero toe, the rears are 1/16″ outward — giving me 1/8″ of toe-in. This is confusing and easy to screw up, so check your work when you think you have it! You wind up rolling the vehicle back and forth a few times, but the results are worth it.

Then, you have to take the vehicle for a ride on a straight road to see how far off the steering wheel center is. If the roads are crowned, I’d recommend using a straight piece of backroad where you can center the vehicle on the crown to take out that bias.  If you use a highway, crown won’t be as pronounced, but check both lanes.  Sometimes the left lane is closer to level.  Then, take the vehicle back to the garage and make incremental adjustments to the sleeves until the wheel is centered on your test-drives. On the Suburban I’ve noted that the outer tie rod ends have right-handed threads. Keeping this in mind if I shorten the linkage on one side 1/4 turn, I make sure to lengthen the other side 1/4 turn — in order to keep my toe-in correct.  When you have the wheel straight, check your toe-in again.

–Yes, you can pay somebody else to do it, but will they care enough to do it right?