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!


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