My DIY Generator
I never know whether to blog about my DIY projects, but this one got a big reaction when I mentioned it online, so here goes.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have a lot of power outages in Texas which, between ice, heat, hurricanes, and the buried utilities in my neighborhood, are inconveniently long and frequent. So….more and more folks ’round these parts are getting backup generators, but I don’t want to pay the cost of a new car for a whole-house natural gas backup system I don’t really need, hope never to use, and will need a maintenance contract to keep ready in case I do. I really only need enough juice to keep one room habitable, the food cold, and the wifi running. A simple portable generator can do that, and for a WHOLE lot less money, I just need it set up and standing by when I need it–no dragging it out to the yard, erecting a rain shield, and trying to feed heavy gauge power cords in through the windows.
Whole house generators are usually connected to a home’s mains wiring through an automatic cutoff switch. I didn’t do that because it’s expensive, requires a licensed professional, and is not very practical for a generator barely powerful enough to power one of the twenty circuits in the house. Instead, I wired up a completely separate emergency power system with outlets behind the frig, in the living room, in the office, and in the bedroom where the wifi lives. It’s much easier for the family to understand that the generator can run one portable AC or heater, the frig, and a few lights and computers, when plugged into the emergency outlets.
I documented the electrical work here. This post is about the generator.
- I bought a small open-cage inverter generator capable of providing clean enough power to spare the electronics–which these days is everything including the frig.
- I bought a good quality plastic garbage can encloser and modified it to enclose the generator, both to protect it from the elements and control noise during operation.
- A simple foundation of concrete blocks and pressure-treated wood should keep it stable and dry, but can be relocated if need be. This is all inside the old dog run, which had the added benefit of extra security.
- Concrete pavers and a bed of river rock protect from shock in the event of a ground fault during a rain event when the ground is saturated. Also, weeds suck.
- Concrete board (Hardi panel, what you might use behind tile in a shower) provides a solid, weather-resistant, heat-resistant base and is attached to the foundation with lag screws through the plastic enclosure.
- The generator is secured by woodworking clamps and bolts extending up through the bottom of the enclosure. The bolts are epoxied and the clamps can be removed without tools to move the generator for service.
- Cement board protects the corner where the exhaust exits from heat. Rigid insulation panels glued inside the enclosure with gutter adhesive absorb noise and insulate the plastic to some extent from heat.
- An attic fan with automatic louvers is plugged into the 120V outlet on the generator to automatically draw air in through an equal-size weatherproof vent to the left and over the generator when running.
- A three-inch blast gate (black plastic on wall to right of generator) can be opened to feed in the RV-style plug to connect the generator to the house during us.
- An ordinary wire shelf provided storage for (empty) gas cans, fire extinguisher, the RV hookup cable, exhaust stack components, and a siphon (big blue zip-lock bag) for draining the gas tank before storage.
- A cable and turnbuckles stabilize the enclosure and keep the outer walls from sagging open when the top is up and the doors are open.
- A can of Damp-Rid keeps humidity under control during storage.
- A battery-operated remote thermometer lets me monitor the temperature and humidity inside the enclosure during operation.
- Unfortunately, the exhaust for this generator exits the back, not the side which would have worked better, but I was able to leave an inch of open air all around and wrapped the exhaust piping with fiberglass exhaust tape, used to protect motorcyclists from burns.
- The exhaust was the hardest part.
- Parts from online let me adapt the exhaust outlet to standard threaded 3/4″ water pipe which exits to the left into a right-angle bend and up into the exhaust riser.
- I leached the zinc plating off the pipes, painted with high-temperature exhaust paint, and fitted together with exhaust sealant.
- That means that while the generator can be removed for servicing, part of the exhaust much be decoupled to do it. Not a bit deal, I just had to account for that in the design.
- After exiting the enclosure, the exhaust pipe turns skyward and enters an exhaust stack made for RVs and bought secondhand on eBay. The stack is just there to keep exhaust gases from building up in the dog-run area during operation.
- The insulated pipe exits the enclosure through a cut down metal roof collar modified with an inner scoop of sheet aluminum to keep water out.
- The whole right-angle elbow up into the exhaust stack is collared with 1/4″ machine cloth to keep rats and wasps out.
- The exhaust rise faces the sky, so will need to be capped when not in use.
To put it into service, I just:
- Open the enclosure top and doors.
- Remove all stored items and secure outside the enclosure, keeping fire extinguisher handy between enclosure and house.
- Remove cover from exhaust stack and drop upper section of stack into place.
- Open blast gate, connect RV connector to house, feed plug end through blast gate and plug into generator.
- Turn generator fuel valve (to left, rear) to “open” position if closed. Can anyone tell me if there’s actually any reason to even close it, since the generator will always be run dry for storage?
- Fill generator gas tank.
- Turn on ignition, pull choke, and pull cord to start.
- Once started, close choke.
- Close doors and top.
- Go inside and plug refrigerator, wifi UPS, and office UPS into red “Emergency” outlets.
- If needed, connect up to one portable AC, one heater or electric appliance, and a few hundred watts of chargers, lights, fans to any emergency outlet.
To put it into storage (after everything’s been plugged back into mains power and danger of power loss is past):
- Disconnect power cable from house and generator and return to storage shelf.
- Syphon generator gas tank into gas can.
- Dispose of all stored gasoline by pouring into cars. (Do not return gas cans or siphon to enclosure until empty and thoroughly vented and dry).
- Return exhaust stack upper and fire extinguisher to storage.
- Close blast gate and restore cover to exhaust stack.
- Close enclosure doors and top.