I want to share useful generator information so that serious and possibly dangerous pitfalls can be avoided and tactical efficiencies can be realized.
Outside Only: First, there is an important warning– generators MUST be run and exhausted OUTSIDE! Carbon monoxide can and will kill you with no warning. Carbon monoxide has no smell or taste. Of course there are things you can do to run one inside, but that involves technical issues not covered here. Be careful and plan accordingly!
Our emergency implementation: On August 23rd of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck Southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi. Fortunately, I was living in Southwest Louisiana, and I was no longer a Louisiana State Trooper that had to worry about going to New Orleans to help. In the following two weeks, though, all of the people pitched in at churches to send things to help out the disaster victims. Our churches in Lake Charles and the surrounding communities were also taking in some of the refugees (and later other cities outside of Louisiana did the same).
On September 18th, though, things changed; Hurricane Rita formed and was headed our way. In a family meeting on that Wednesday, it was decided that we were evacuating. As a former Louisiana State Trooper, I knew evacuation was going to be as dangerous as staying; the roads would be packed (think TEOTWAWKI), and drivers would be tired and fuel scarce. Within one hour though our entire plan to evacuate changed. My (now) ex-wife’s company– a major gulf coast helicopter provider– had forgotten about ten pilots that had come in for training and now had no way to leave with the airport quickly closed down. Feeling responsible for these people, we offered our home and made preparations to ride out the storm.
Fortunately, I had already located and purchased a 9KW Troy-Bilt generator (13K surge) that someone coming into the area had picked up for me in San Antonio, Texas, on their way into my area. (Southeast Texas was still in the “cone of impact”, and all of Southeast Texas was sold out of generators.) I started gathering fuel cans and filling them, cutting plywood, boarding up windows, and gathering what supplies were available in the area stores, which soon dwindled to nothing after the first day of being “in the cone of impact” for Rita. I then made contact with all of my neighbors to determine what their plans were. I quickly found out we were the only ones staying, but my neighbors gladly donated their refrigerator contents to us. They really didn’t want to deal with the mess post-hurricane after power outages. One neighbor had just purchased a side of Black Angus beef! Most had milk, eggs, and bacon. We ate very well on the Friday of Rita’s landfall! I grilled steaks and fried bass, red fish, and catfish. We boiled shrimp. My refrigerator and extra freezer were full.
To get power to the house from the generator, we rigged up an electrical cord that we ran through the dryer vent and plugged it into the dryer outlet (with that breaker switched off), safely connecting it to the electrical panel. The other end connected to another heavy-duty extension cord and then to our new generator. I had the generator in the back yard, away from the house, to keep the noise level down in the house. I had figured out which breakers needed to be switched off once we went on to generator power and labeled them. IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTICE: Once the power goes out and before you run or engage your generator, you MUST shut off the main breaker, normally at the top of the panel and labeled “main.” This prevents “back feed” to the utility lines that could easily kill an electrical company lineman. (You would certainly not want to be responsible for that!) Once the power went out, we simply had to throw the appropriate breakers– open the main thereby disconnecting the home from the incoming utility line, open all of the non-essential breakers, and then close the dryer outlet breaker allowing the generator to feed the house through the electrical panel. Then we had to start the generator, and we would be set. We had two rooms in the house that had small 110 volt air conditioners that could keep the room cool for sleeping (from Sears).
My step-son and I made one trip out on the town that Friday afternoon around 1 pm. The winds were low at this point, but the clouds in the sky were swirled as the outer band of the hurricane approached. The streets were completely barren. I could have used Interstate 10 east and west for a tank gunnery range! One gas station in our town was open and running. I topped off the truck, filled up two more five-gallon cans, and chatted with the owners as to their plans. They were riding it out and bringing the station on-line after with a generator. My in-laws, at this point, had been on the road evacuating since Thursday morning. They traveled 20 miles in twelve hours! By Friday afternoon they had made it to a friend’s apartment in Monroe, Louisiana after driving 20 hours total! This is normally a three and a half hour trip, at most. At one point in the trip my father-in-law had fallen asleep at the wheel, but since they were all only traveling about 2-3 MPH nothing was hurt other than his pride when he rear-ended the car in front of him. If they had left Friday morning, they could have made the trip easily in the two and half hours it normally takes. You just had to have some place to go though as every hotel in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and east Texas were full. They reported there were no gas stations open, or they did not have gas. When my father-in-law ran out of gas at one point (after only 75 road miles from our community) and pulled to the side of the road, he lucked out because a good friend of his was a few cars behind and gave him two spare, five-gallon cans of gas.
The hurricane force winds started hitting too hard to stay outside around 9pm that Friday evening. The power stayed on until around 11pm. In anticipation of losing the power, I had run the A/C full blast to keep the house cool through the night. Once the power went out, the generator could not run the house A/C units (due to the small size of the generator and heavy starting load of the A/C units). All we would have for A/C would be the two small units in the bedrooms for who knows how long. The waiting began, and everyone tried to settle down and relax, but the noise outside was a persistent roaring noise with the noise level growing by the hour.
I eventually fell asleep in my bedroom, while my (now ex) wife and the children hid in an interior bathroom on a mattress for fear of a building collapse or tornado impact. I’ll never forget the noise at 2 am. When I awoke, one of my neighbor’s little metal storage building went airborne and hit the roof right over my head! It was, you know, the kind you bought at Sears for storing your lawn mower. That impact caused all of the water damage my house suffered as it peeled off a huge patch of both shingles and tar paper. I had quite a few patches on the roof where one, two, or even three shingles flew off, but that did not cause any more than a drip or two. I was now awake and alert. The noise level continued to rise to a peak at around 3:30 or 4:00am. It was incredible. Each burst of wind seemed to intensify as it hit the boarded up windows. My home seemed to be doing very well with its brick veneer. Even though we were on a water well, there was enough pressure in the air bladder tank that we had water for toilets and the sinks though the storm. With the power off, I had multiple electric lanterns in each room, and everyone had a flashlight. It was too warm to even think of using a gas lantern, so I kept them in their cabinets.
Around 7am the next morning (Saturday), the wind was still blowing steadily at around 40mph but low enough to peak out at the neighborhood. It was ugly! One neighbor has lost his entire roof down to the plywood. (It had rained about twelve to fourteen inches by this point.) One neighbor had several tree branches and a couple of 2×4’s sticking out of the windward side of his windows. My next door neighbor’s metal storage building was in my front yard, and I had lost a willow tree in the front yard as well. My wood panel fence was down in the back yard as well as every other neighbor’s, so I now had a great view into many of the yards surrounding mine.
At 9am the wind had died down enough that we could go out and remove the plywood off of the windows to start letting light in. My front door was recessed about five feet and had also been covered to protect the glass panels in it. As we removed this I went back out into the front yard. I immediately noticed an unfamiliar car parked in the middle of the street between the first two homes on our street. (We lived on a dead end street.) I saw two of the occupants get out, and one each go to the first two neighbor’s homes. I ducked back into my front door alcove and had my step-son hand me my lever action .444 rifle. As I came back out of the alcove, the driver saw me and started leaving with his two buddies running hard to catch up. I did not shoot either in the back; I never saw them again. I waited two hours on the side of our main road for a deputy sheriff to drive by. When they did, both deputies stated that the sheriff wanted all looters shot! Our 911 service and most cell service was still down at this point. It was weird. Verizon was out as well as AT&T, but Sprint could get calls in but not out.
The day after impact, I started checking with neighbors to my rear and several streets over. We started hearing about multiple generator thefts. I had already locked mine up with a long cable with swaged (looped) ends and a very large padlock that I had. I locked it to a brick post at my shop in the back yard. We later heard that the thieves would start your lawn mower and leave it running, so you wouldn’t notice the generator shut off. Since there were no fences anymore, we lost a bit of security and privacy. You could easily see three blocks over in most cases.
Maintenance: The generator required three oil changes in the one week (every 100 hours plus the initial break in period) that we had to run it. I had purchased oil filters, 30 SAE oil, and two extra spark plugs that Thursday before the hurricane hit, so oil changes were not a problem. My generator has a 4.5 gallon tank, but that is only good for 7.5 hours of run time at a heavy load. For refueling, you had to shut it off, as you cannot chance any accident during a crisis, and it’s prudent to avoid one at anytime. (The gasoline can instantly ignite if dropped onto a hot exhaust manifold.) I would check the oil, refill the tank, and look over the generator for any faults during refueling. After using 130 gallons of gasoline, I decided on the spot that I would convert my generator to propane. There are good quality kits on the Internet for propane conversions. I went with pure propane instead of tri-fuel and never looked back. The kit was easy to install, and I have not had any problems. The best thing is that I never have to preserve gasoline again. I can never go back to gasoline though, which is a consideration. In this day of food fuel, aka ethanol, most small engines are not designed to burn ethanol. They do not have the correct materials to resist the ethanol. This may not be a short-term problem, but long term (I still have the same generator) you may experience carburetor and fuel line problems. Another concern during our post-hurricane experience was gasoline storage. I had twenty 5-gallon jugs of gasoline in my back yard. Locking the generator up was easy, but I did not have another cable to lock the gas cans up. I did not want to store them in my shop, nor could I just leave them outside. I ended up erecting a lean-to with sections of my downed fence. Propane does not have this problem if you have an in-ground tank. I now have a 500 gallon in-ground tank, and I have plumbed off a line just for my generator. I have had zero starting or storage issues with this setup.
After action review: One act that really helped us out immensely was taking in a boarder. After Hurricane Katrina we took in a friend of my step-daughter from the affected New Orleans area; she had to attend school somewhere for her scholarship eligibility to not falter. We took her in to help her out. After Hurricane Rita hit, her father was able to bring in another 100 gallons of gasoline and a couple of other essential items. Remember how hot it was– 97 degrees in the shade? Cold drinks on ice really were refreshing.
Caring for your generator-post disaster: Rather than run my generator weekly, I have properly stored it. I had previously drained the gas (pre-propane days), then added Marvel Mystery Oil to the tank (just a few ounces), and then run the generator dry. After that, I removed the spark plug and then misted the piston chamber with Marvel Mystery Oil. (I used Mercury outboard storage oil once too with good effect.) I then turned the motor over a couple of cranks to work the oil in, put the spark plug back in, and reconnected it. I purchased and hooked up a trickle charger and plugged that in. Now I run the generator about every three to six months (on propane) and put a load on the generator. This keeps the generator in good order. I then re-mist the piston cylinder. I don’t have to re-do the carb with Marvel as I am using the propane now.
I have since replaced the tires with solid rubber wheels. Unless you have a permanent mount, there are times when it is really convenient to roll your generator around, for example to the shop for repairs. It is much cheaper to bring a generator to someone than have them come to you. I have also used mine for my camper (using a small propane cylinder) and to reach jobs that were too far for an extension cord.
Another tip I learned for security is to paint my generator bright orange and put my name and phone number in several places. I also recorded the serial number. It might not keep it from getting stolen, but it makes it harder to pass on in quasi legitimate transactions. Right after Rita passed, quite a few characters showed up in shopping mall parking lots with generators for sale. Our local police and sheriff department shut them down for moving stolen property. The generators all looked “nearly new”, so were probably stolen from other areas and moved in just for the occasion.
Whole house generators: A friend of mine purchased a whole house generator after Rita. Her mom stayed in her home while my friend went on vacation for a week. Right after my friend left there was a thunderstorm that knocked out some power lines. Her mother thought everything was great as the generator kicked on and was large enough (17 KW) to run the A/C units for four days! When my friend got her propane bill at the end of the month, she almost passed out; it was $1000 for four full days! If you use a whole house generator, the key is to run the generator at night to run ceiling fans and lights, tankless water heater, 110 volt A/C’s, et cetera. This keeps your refrigerator (if you lower its thermostat as well) cold enough to keep your food stored at a safe temperature during the day. Also, mind to keep people from opening the refrigerator door frequently for snacks.
Tactically, generators are a non starter. My generator now has a muffler from Tractor Supply on it. It is still LOUD. In my U.S. Army days the 10 and 40 KW generators were deafening. It will be like a flame for the moths if you are the only one with a generator. Either use a solar power/battery setup or my suggestion in this case is to buy a small one, like a Honda 1000 watt generator, since they are very quiet; they’re not silent but good enough if you live out in the country, like I do. Honda and other brands also have propane-powered generators, so you can keep it on the same fuel. My home has a tankless water heater and a new refrigerator, so a 1000 watt generator can run all night and do the very few things I need it to do. If I need to run an A/C (Louisiana is hot during the summer/fall hurricane season!), then I have to run the larger generator. If you have a regular water heater then now is a good time to go tankless, since the big electric ones use a lot of electricity and pull a heavy amp load to heat water. The tankless propane heaters only use a very tiny amount of electricity to run the igniter (12 VDC). I also do not recommend the combination welder-generators as one friend got one (it was all he could find at that point). His drank even more gas than mine and was even louder.
More safety reminders: Do not run your generator in the garage or in your home! Between Katrina and Rita, several people died from carbon monoxide poisoning. In each case people did not want their generators stolen but got more than they bargained for. I also keep a 40lb fire extinguisher with my generator. When I am using the generator, I place the fire extinguisher near the generator. I can use it for the generator if need be.
Other considerations: Right now heavy extension cords are not cheap, but they are essential and easy to find. Figure out where you will post your generator, and then get at least a 10-gauge cord of the appropriate length to connect to the house. Unless you understand electricity perfectly, you need an electrician to wire up a 220 volt outlet on the outside of your home near where the generator will be placed. Why 220? Well, most large generators can produce 220 volts. Send this to your home electric panel and let your breaker panel decide what is and is not energized. There may be a reason why you need to run your 220 volt dryer. (I have a propane dryer that runs off of 110 volts.) You may have a 220 volt well pump. Whatever, it gives you flexibility. If not, make sure there is a 110 volt outlet near your generator location. Then take an extension cord and cut off the female end and attach a male/pronged end to it. This will allow you to plug one end into the outlet on the outside of your home and one end to the output outlet on your generator. This is the safest method I have seen of hooking a generator to your home in a temporary manner. A whole-house generator permanently wired in with automatic switches is the safest method. Don’t forget to buy heavy locks and cables with swaged (looped) ends for securing your generator. Now they are cheap, but if your generator is stolen your whole game plan must change. Lastly, have fuel cans or propane bottles/an in-ground tank. Get them and fill them on a dollar-cost average basis. Rather than fuel up at once (both propane or gasoline), take the long look and space it out. You can order 25-35 gallons of propane a month as part of a route pricing with your local company. Pretty soon that 500 gallon tank will be full, regardless of the pricing of propane; the same goes with gasoline. Use Pri-G to preserve all of your gasoline and rotate it. I used to put the oldest in my suburban and then refill the empty gas can and re-preserve it. Where I am at now (North Carolina), I do not have the option to buy non-ethanol gasoline (another good reason to convert to propane). Make sure your preservative can handle ethanol gasoline (as well as your generator) or get a preservative that can.
Generator quality: You get what you pay for! Honda, Briggs and Stratton, Koheler, Genset, and Generac are but a few of the quality manufacturers out there. Right now is the time to research and find a quality generator that will fit your needs. On a Field Training Exercise (FTX) I was walking near a 5KW commercial generator that blew the head off as I walked by. It had the gasoline tank mounted across the top of it (so the evidence of what a hunk of junk it was would burn up). Most of the popular brands are or have multi-fuel capabilities. Whatever you buy, make sure you buy the proper consumables: filters (air and fuel), oil, spark plugs, et cetera. Do not forget these items. Also, remember that “one is none and two is one!” If you do not have the repair parts and skill, then once your generator stops you can be in trouble and have to change your whole game plan! Plan accordingly.
Lastly: SAFETY ALWAYS! Hearing protection! Wear it when you are around your generator. They are loud, and your home’s walls reflect the sound which can make it worse. GASOLINE AND PROPANE ARE FLAMMABLE. Act accordingly!
I hope this helps. Get ready now before bad weather or bad events happens to prevent making costly mistakes.