I’m a long-time reader of SurvivalBlog, and like so many others I am deeply concerned about the choices our country has made in the last twenty years and the as yet unfelt repercussions. We seem to be living in a season of grace, but the day of reckoning will come, sooner or later. With this thought in mind, my family has been steadily pursuing the ability to care for ourselves (and perhaps some of our neighbors as well).
Like many others have done, I have read and researched many methods of generating enough power to live on. Today, most Americans have more power than we can burn, and we burn it to excess. While it is not necessary to have endless electricity to live, I also don’t want to power only the absolute necessities. If my family and I are going to live through whatever may come, and if we get to choose, we would prefer a decent quality of life over just living. That’s why we prep, right? However, our funds are limited, and a nice $25,000 solar system just was not the answer. A $5,000 stand-alone home generator was a possibility, but just like Alton Brown on “Good Eats”, I don’t like to purchase “Single Purpose Gadgets”.
That’s when the idea hit me. Why not buy a tractor-driven generator that could power my house?
We live in a rural part of Texas, which is part of our preps. A tractor is a necessity here, and diesel fuel is readily available. I’ll wager there is over 1000 gallons stored within two miles of my house. Everyone has at least 200-300 gallons. I have often needed electricity to power a saw while putting up fences, or to run lights behind the barn. A PTO-powered generator can be easily moved about in a steel cradle via the 3-point hitch. Others, which are mounted on a trailer that you pull with the tractor, provide instant power and are 75% less expensive than a stand-alone home generator, because you already own the engine that turns the generator– the tractor!
Step 1: Trim Current Power Requirements
If you don’t consume it, you don’t have to generate it. When our old fridge died three years ago, we bought a new model based on size, power consumption, and features/looks (in that order). When the 100-watt flood lamps over the bathroom counter burned out, I replaced them with 17 watt LED’s. I paid my HVAC contractor to install zone dampers on our system; now we don’t cool large rooms which we are not using (think living and dining areas). Over the last three years, my electricity bill has gone down by almost $50 per month.
Step 2: Do a Load Analysis
This is easy enough by using a watt meter. I used the kill-a-watt, available on eBay, and to my pleasant surprise I discovered that I can “get by” with 5.5 KW. If I really want quality of life (in Texas, that means some refrigerated air conditioning), I’ll need a nominal 8 KW. Remember when checking your usage to check startup loads on items with compressors (fridge, A/C, and so forth). Here is what my analysis looked like (without the air conditioning I will address later):
- 430 watts for Lighting. This covers the kitchen, study, master bedroom, master bath, kids’ bedrooms and bathroom, and the utility room (all using LED lights). I want the ability to power 50% of these at once, so 215 watts is required.
- 905 watts for high-draw (but necessary) appliances. This includes two refrigerators, one deep freeze, and one LP fired hot tankless water heater. I used the worst “starting wattage” of the three compressor driven items (a fridge), plus the other two running normally.
- 1300 watts gets me a clothes washer and dryer, running simultaneously. Yes, I have an LP dryer. Here I saw a surprisingly huge difference in starting watts vs running watts. The washer took 1000 watts to start but only 600 watts to run. The dryer pulled 700 to start but only 250 to run. 600 + 700 = 1300 watts.
- 2800 watts powers some kitchen appliances. In this category you must be choosy. If you turn on the dishwasher while simultaneously running the microwave and the bread maker, you will overload your generating supply. I decided I really wanted the ability to use the microwave, bread maker, coffee pot, and dishwasher, but I would be happy with two out of four at any one time. (The stove and over are LP as well.
- 225 watts are budgeted for either a computer/router (if the Internet is up), a TV (if DTV is broadcasting), or a video game for the kids. Yes, we play cards and board games together, but variety is the spice of life. We’re only talking 225 watts here.
If you have been keeping count, we’re up to 5445 watts. Also remember that I really wanted limited A/C. Commonly, in other countries, people don’t condition large public/common areas like we do. I have visited foreign government buildings where the hallways, elevators, even the bathrooms were not conditioned, but the offices were. Outdoor dining is common place. Go to a resort in Mexico, and you will likely find the lobby and common areas use natural cooling via intelligent air channeling, and they only have A/C in the guest rooms.
Our house was designed on this principal, with a small two ton unit supplying A/C to the Master Suite and the Kids BR only. We heat with LP and firewood. This unit only pulls 2300 watts while running, but the startup is around 5000 watts. Yes, there is another five ton unit that cools the remainder of the house, but the thought here was I don’t really need A/C throughout the house, just in the bedrooms at night. Even a small window unit can cool one bedroom, and you could all bunk together when it’s 85 at night and 105 during the day.
Nonetheless, adding in the small A/C gets me up to 7745 watts running and 10,445 watts when the AC starts up. That’s a really good number, because a very common wattage in electrical systems is 12,000 watts (50 Amps X 240 Volts). Okay, that’s KVa and not exactly wattage, but it’s close enough. Plugs and cables are built for 50 Amps X 240 Volts, like the one on the back of an electric stove or dryer. So, you guessed it. I purchased a 12,000 watt PTO-driven generator, lightly used, for a whopping $1500.
Step 3: Choose A Generator
A quick word on generators. For those of you that might consider doing something similar. They are not all created equal. The price of copper has gone through the roof in recent years. You can easily find beautifully painted up Chinese made generators for about ½ the price of an industrial strength generator. The windings in the generator aren’t pure copper, and they get hot (and fail) sooner. Look for generators built somewhere else, like here in the USA or perhaps from Italy. Oddly enough, the Italians produce good industrial equipment. If you want your generator to run when TSHTF, don’t scrimp.
Look for models that produce a pure sine wave, because cheaper ones use a modified sine wave inverter that will burn up some electronics. Also, don’t plan to run your generator at 100% of capacity forever, because it simply won’t last. Shoot for a nominal load of 50% of rated capacity. Lastly, if your primary purpose is emergency power, spend the additional $200 and get one with Automatic Voltage Regulation. You’ll thank me later.
To summarize this project thus far, I need 5.5 Kw to be available all the time, have a load of 10.5 Kw when the A/C unit starts, and a total running load of 8 Kw. These numbers are maximums, meaning I’m running the A/C while washing, drying, microwaving, dishwashing, and playing Nintendo with 50% of the essential lights on. To supply this power, I have a 12 Kw, pure sine wave generator capable of 13 Kw surge capacity.
Obviously, such a setup isn’t practical for everyone, but for those who already own a tractor with a PTO and maintain a fuel supply for it, a tractor-powered generator makes a lot of sense. The general rule of thumb is you need twice as many horsepower on the tractor as the number of Kw you want to generate, so an 8 Kw nominal load requires only a 16 HP tractor, which is a mighty small tractor. You also need to know your PTO speed. Most are 540 RPM, but some models can do “high speed” and spin at 1080 RPM. The generator must be rated to turn at your PTO’s speed. I don’t have this feature, but it is a good option to consider because the tractor will use less fuel to produce the same power.
Step 4: Wire It In
Now comes the fun part– wiring it in. If you aren’t comfortable here, or if your State doesn’t permit homeowners to do their own wiring, then by all means be safe and legal; hire a licensed electrician. In my mind, there are two methods available here, the “right” way and the “acceptable” way, because you don’t want to do it the “wrong” way. Twelve thousand Watts at 240 Volts is dangerous, if not handled properly. The “right” way (in this case) is with a manual transfer switch that disconnects the house from the grid and connects it to an alternate feed source– the generator. The “acceptable” way is to manually turn off the house via the master breaker and manually turning on the alternate feed source, which you have protected with another breaker. There are pro’s and con’s to both methods, which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, I chose the second method for three reasons: price, flexibility, and utility.
Essentially, I wired in a 50 Amp, 240 Volt range receptacle (a NEMA 14-50) on my covered patio in the back of the house. I used #6 AWG x 4 Romex (that’s shielded electrical wire; for my length #6 is overkill, so #8 would have worked), dropped a conduit run outside the back of the house on our covered patio, and put the receptacle inside a weatherproof box. The #6 wire feeds into a 50 Amp, 240 Volt breaker that I installed in the house breaker panel. Now, when the house is on grid power, I have a 50 Amp, 240 Volt plug on the back patio available to me, which I could use with a Mig Welder. Also, when the power is out, I can back the tractor up to the patio and backfeed the house through that same plug. *AFTER TRIPPING THE MAIN*. Never, ever connect a generator to a house with the main closed. In order to ensure that never happens, I opened the 50 Amp breaker and installed a breaker lock-out on the breaker itself, and painted it bright red. It’s just a fancy memory aid that says, “Don’t close this circuit until you’ve killed the main power”.
Then I built a 15-foot pigtail to connect the generator to the receptacle using #6 x 4 SOOW cable and two 14-50 range plugs. That’s super heavy-duty cable, which costs about $4 a foot! My generator had a standard NEMA 14-50 receptacle, and I installed the same 14-50 receptacle on the patio, and I built the pigtail to go between them. Always use four strand wire when dealing with 240 Volts. You have two “hot” lines, one “neutral”, plus a ground. This is the only part of my project that isn’t exactly up to code, as the pigtail has two male plugs on it– one on each end.
Lastly, and this is important, because I did not use a transfer switch, there is no load balancing between the A side and the B side of the house (the X and Y leads on the 240 Volt feed from the generator). My 12 Kw generator produces 50 Amps at 240 Volts, which in reality is two 120 Volt leads at 50 Amps. If, by chance, the kitchen and utility room are all on the same side of the breaker box (let’s say they are all on side A), then I have two fridges, a deep freeze, microwave, bread maker, dishwasher, washer, dryer, and hot water all pulling off the same side. When I turn on the A/C, I pull off of both sides (because it’s 240 Volt), but if side A is almost maxed out due to other consumers I can overload it, tripping the breaker (or potentially burning up the generator).
The trick here is to balance the load as much as possible. I had to swap the house wiring from two breakers (one from side A and one from B) after checking the load in real time with the generator powering the house, with the goal of keeping the “normal” load to within 10% of each other. Before the swap, Side A was showing 4.5 Amps and side B was showing 9. When I started the A/C the load jumped to 15 Amps and 19.5 Amps, respectively. This is too large a spread for my comfort. After the swap they were 6.5 and 7 Amps, and 17 and 17.5 when the A/C started. I’m also going to install two digital Watt meters on the breaker box itself, with donut current transformers around the two feed lines from the generator. This will let me see in real time what the voltage is and how much current I am drawing on each side. Running the load unbalanced won’t by and of itself hurt the generator, but it will put more stress on the bearings on the heavy load side and contribute to early failure of the armature. Hopefully, you’ll take my advice about buying a generator with an Automatic Voltage Regulator, because if not, you’ll probably need a separate AVR wired into the circuit to keep the voltage from sagging when you place heavy loads on the generator. For instance, when the A/C starts, the tractor bogs down a little and the voltage drops.
I can now power my house for about 33 days for 12 hours a day with my current fuel supply, or I can power it for 50 days for 8 hours a day. Additionally, the power is portable to any place I (or my neighbor) might need it. It’s not a $25,000 long-term solution, but for around $2,000 (including the generator, wiring, receptacle, conduit, and miscellaneous) we have power for the occasional winter ice storm or spring tornado that downs power lines. Downed power lines are fairly common here, so we can sustain our family for two months if needed. I’ll also bet that should push come to shove, our neighbors would trade some diesel fuel for the chance to come over and do their laundry the modern way.