Letter Re: Lister Low RPM Engines Still Made in India!

Mr. Rawles:
I stumbled across a very cool generation option for very long-term power generation: the Listeroid [“Lister”] generator. Its based on a design that has been in production since about 1930 and as such is dirt simple. Its about as uncomplicated as a diesel engine can be. They run at very low RPM (650-800, no I didn’t forget a zero), are built to be field-serviceable, and have massive flywheels to keep them running smoothly. They’re extremely low-tech and all the bugs have been worked out dozens of years ago. The original Lister company no longer makes them, but various Indian and Chinese firms have picked up the casting and are happy to sell to American buyers. The very best thing about these is that when they say 100% duty cycle, they mean it. Listeroid engines when properly set up have been running non-stop for a decade in rural Alaska, and most likely around the world as well. They are also very efficient, pushing 2500 watts runs an average of 0.125 gallons of diesel per kW/hr. The per-kilowatt cost of the hardware is low too, the engine itself runs around $800 for a 6 hp one-cylinder which should generate 3kW.
There are (as always) a few downsides.
1) Weight. These things are huge. The engine alone runs in the 750-lb range, and a proper installation requires a good cooling system (radiator), generator head and a solid concrete block for anchoring. You’re not likely to throw one in the trunk for a Bug Out.
2) Do It Yourself. Because these are actually just engines not complete generator sets, assembling a properly functioning one takes some know-how. I don’t really consider this a downside, but if you need power up and running yesterday, this isn’t for you. If you have the time (and power) to take your time getting your setup just right for its environment then you’ll probably be happy with a Listeroid. On the other hand, the need for actually getting your hands dirty means you are guaranteed to know how to fix the thing when it breaks.
3) Quality Control. These engines are all made in either India or China. Some brilliantly executed stuff comes out of both countries, alongside some of the most irredeemable trash known to man. The notion of consistency does not seem to exist in the firms making these. This can have a silver lining if you are mechanically savvy and have some tools you can save a load of money by buying a lower-quality engine and replacing the stuff that is broken yourself. This is usually things like leftover sand from the casting inside the engine, bad seals, cheap plumbing for the fuel and oil lines, etc. Nothing anyone who can change the oil in his/her car shouldn’t be able to manage. Its not like the parts are small. On the other hand, if you want a bit more of a turn-key solution, the manufacturers are reportedly more than open to requests for a specific level of quality. If you take the time to talk directly with the manufacturer and make it clear to them what level of quality you are expecting, you will probably get it. These firms seem to be eager to get good American Testimonials so will go the extra mile in many cases.
4) Shipping. The engine is assembled in India or China. You (probably) live somewhere in the U.S. About half the planet is between you and your engine. There are two options: Pay an importer to do it for you or negotiate the shipping yourself. The consensus seems to be that doing it yourself is a good way to get ripped off, but if you know a guy you might be able to get a good deal here. This Guy seems to import them and most of the testimonials on the web refer to him in on way or another.
Further links can be had here, where I originally discovered them. Also, Googling for Listeroid is informative.
If you’re planning on using something like this to actually run your house, i.e. an off-grid setup, you should really consider setting up a proper power regulation system. Because diesel generators are most efficient at a certain load, you don’t want them to be throttling like a car engine. A way to avoid this is to essentially set up a big battery bank that runs high voltage DC and charge that with the generator as well as any other power sources (solar, wind, micro-hydro, your Prius, et cetera) and convert to AC for household use with a beefy alternator. This does have more bits to break in an emergency but for real 24×7 use you will probably appreciate the efficiency gains.
I would like to see someone rig up an automatic hydraulic or mechanical starting system just for the niftyness factor. If anyone has any real-world experience with that Startwell gizmo I’m sure many would like to hear about it. It sounds like a great backup starter for a diesel truck that would require no electricity without plumbing your pickup for hydraulic start.
I should disclaim that I do not own one of these. Finding a place for it in my shoe box apartment would be entertaining. – P.H.

JWR Replies: You probably missed it, but I posted a brief piece on Lister and other stationary engines back on October 5th, 2005.  (See the SurvivalBlog Archives.) The tolerances and quality control seems to be better on the Listers that are made in India, since they inherited a couple of sets of tooling that probably date back to the British Raj.  (The Chinese engines, in contrast, were reverse-engineered, and some of the parts appear to be from the “file to fit” school of assembly.)