Off the Grid  Retirement at our remote log cabin in Colorado

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Generator Scare

Posted by: Rick

Rick whacking the propane tank with a 2x4. Destin is helping.

Preface: We rely on the sun for our power. We have two sets of solar panels that we use to harvest energy from the sun which we store in a bank of batteries. We can store enough power to last us for about 3 days if we are conservative in our electricity usage. When battery power gets low we rely upon a 14KW propane generator to provide power and charge the batteries. Without it, we are in serious trouble after a few days of cloudy weather.

28 February, around noon: I was about to hop into the shower, but first checked the battery levels suspecting they were low since we'd had several days of cloudy, snowy weather. Sure enough, they were down by about 450 amp-hours, so rather than wait for the generator to kick on automatically, I manually started the generator.

Or, tried to. It did not start. In fact there was a generator start error instead.

So, rather than taking a shower, I went out to inspect the generator. I have to look at the control on the generator itself to see the error code and reset it. It had two error codes: 1) Low oil pressure; and, 2) Rotor lock error. Oh, that sounds bad.

I had a quart of 5W-30 oil for the snow blower, so I added that. It took almost all of it. Note to self: check the oil in the generator more often. 

I tried manually starting the generator again, from the generator control panel. And, again it would not start and threw a rotor lock error. Hmmm. Time to pull out the manual.

Okay, maybe this is not so bad. It just means the generator did not crank within 3 seconds of using the starter. The problem is usually a low battery or bad battery connection. The generator has its own starter battery which is trickle charged from house current. The battery was at 13.4 volts. Not what I'd expect for a fully charged 12 volt battery, but not bad either. Still, I used my emergency jumper battery to give it a boost and tried again. No luck. 

28 February, mid-afternoon: After trying to start the generator a few more times with the same result, I called Collins Controls and Electric in Fort Collins. They work on Kohler generators and I was going to call them for an annual service visit in the Spring. Unfortunately, they can't send anyone up until Monday! That is almost a week! And, even then, unless we get the roads open, I'll probably have to take the Ranger out to bring someone in.

The good news is that the sun was in and out all afternoon. And, while not completely clear and bright, we got enough solar power to run the house and even get some charging on the batteries. By the time we went to bed the batteries were down 350 amp-hours and the voltage was just above 24 volts. The biggest electricity drain overnight is the heater fan, so I turned the heater off. We had built a nice fire in the wood stove and the cabin was pretty toasty warm at about 70°.

1 March, very early morning: I am up early and built a fire in the wood stove. The temperature in the cabin is 59°. Not too bad, and the stove will heat it up in a couple of hours. The batteries are at 23.4 volts, and we are down to -450 amp-hours. About what I'd expect. It is supposed to be a nice sunny day. Windy, but sunny. And, the wind is howling and blowing a lot of snow around, but peeking outside as the sun comes up, it does look clear. If we have a clear day, we will get a nice charge on the batteries.

Meantime, we try to conserve as much as possible. That may mean no shower today.

Destin and Rick standing on top of the propane tank. That's about 3 feet of snow!

1 March, late morning: The propane tank still thinks it is at 80%. That is impossible since the generator has run about 124 hours. It should be more like 45% to 50%. Maybe, just maybe, I'm out of propane? 

I called the propane vendor. Jim, the manager, asked me to try a couple of things. First "whack" the propane tank hard with a 2x4. Second, release a little valve on the top and see if it hisses with released propane.

Two things happened when I whacked the top of the tank with a 6 foot long 2x4. The 2x4 broke, and the capacity valve dropped to show 48%. Hmmm. I opened the release valve and heard a distinct hiss and smelled propane. Okay.

I also had neglected to keep the regulator, which hangs off the tank, out of the snow. It was pretty buried. So, standing on top of the propane tank, which is actually even with the depth of the snow, I carefully dug around the regulator and exposed it to the full sun to warm up. It was likely frozen.

I'm now waiting to see if we have propane in the shed at the refrigerator. I hesitate to start the generator since I've screwed up with the oil I added yesterday. I added a non-synthetic oil on top of a synthetic oil, and mixing the two is apparently a big no-no. 

So, I guess I need to drain all the oil out of the generator and fill it with synthetic oil, hoping for the best. Jeez. That means a trip to town to get oil.

1 March, noon: My neighbor has 5 quarts of appropriate synthetic oil. When I finish lunch, I drive over in the Ranger. We have to use the tracked vehicle because our driveway and Hidden Meadows Lane are clogged up (again). He came back with me and we tried to drain the oil. It was very thick and sluggish and there was no way we were going to get it drained well with cold oil in it.

So, we again tried to get the generator started. It won't. The fridge isn't lighting either, so I think the propane is not getting through the regulator.

1 March, mid-afternoon: Jim called and suggested I wrap a warm towel around the regulator. It has been sitting in the sun all day and should have thawed out (if that is the problem) but I'll try anything at this point. We have a thing filled with buckwheat (or something) that when warmed makes a good treatment for a sore back or neck. I stuck that in the oven that is a part of our wood stove and warmed it up. Just now I wrapped it around the regulator and wrapped a bath towel around that. I'll leave it for 15 minutes and see what happens. I may also pull the fridge in the shed out some, turn off the propane, disconnect it, then barely turn the propane back on to see if there is any flow there. I promise not to test it with a match.

We've had sufficient battery charging from the sun today that Lynne and I each took showers. Woohoo.

The good news is that we have had a sunny (but windy) day. We can't appreciate the wind since we don't have the wind turbine commissioned. But, we sure do like the sun. The batteries got a good, but not quite full, charge.

2 March, early morning: I checked the fridge in the shed more thoroughly. Actually, I put my hand on the coils. And, they were hot. That means the fridge is running and has  never stopped running. I am not sure why I can't see the pilot light through the light tube, but it seems to be running. So, that means the problem is not the regulator on the propane tank. It appears that propane is being supplied. So, the problem is with the generator itself, and the service call scheduled for Monday is very important.

2 March, noon: I cleared all the snow and ice from around the generator. And, I've put a hot pad on the regulator inside the generator. It was covered with snow. The wind has been blowing in odd directions and filling the generator cover with snow. In 20 minutes, I'll try starting it again after its had time to "warm" the regulator. I don't have much confidence in this, but it is another thing to try.

Nope.

3 March, 8:30 in the morning: I called Collins Control and Electric and verified with Tim that John was coming up on Monday. I told him my failed attempts to get the generator running, and that something serious must be wrong. He assured me John would be able to resolve any problems. It is supposed to snow some on Sunday night and Monday morning, so John will call before heading up our way.

3 March, 3:15 PM: We just got back from a trip into town. We took the Ranger because the road is (was) closed in several places. The weather is nice, in the 40s, sunny and not too much wind. Our neighbor had opened the road, so we can now get out with the Suburban, but we still can't get a vehicle to the cabin since Hidden Meadows Ln and our driveway are drifted closed.

Anyway, on a whim I tried to start the generator. It started! Something must have been frozen-up in there. Maybe the propane regulator, maybe something else. I am going to have to work a lot harder keeping the snow and ice away from it, and probably work on ways to block the snow for next year.

So, while the saga is not over, especially since I don't know exactly what went wrong, we are back to having emergency power.

John will still come up and do the 100 hour service (the generator has 124 hours of runtime now and really needs service). That will also flush the non-synthetic oil out of it and set us up for the rest of the Winter and Spring.

4 March, 11:00 AM: The generator self-started just now to run its 20 minute, weekly exercise. It is bright and sunny again, so we are getting a full charge from the sun.

5 March, morning: John called from Fort Collins to tell me he was on his way. I told him to call me from Laramie and I'd drive out to meet him and guide him in.

Lynne and I drove the Suburban all the way out to the mail boxes. We got about 1" of snow overnight and the wind is really howling, but the roads are passible. 

When John called from Laramie, I started driving toward him. He must be a pretty fast driver, because he was well past the state line when I met him. I guided him in. 

He did a normal service: oil and filter change, new spark plugs. We did not replace the air filter because the old was was in great shape, so now I have a spare. I guess we don't really need to run the generator at the time of year when there is a lot of dirt and dust in the air. Based on the condition of the old spark plugs, the generator appears to be running very clean and is in great shape. It is not clear why it was so low on oil. John also cranked up the pressure from the propane tank to get it up closer to ideal.

It runs fine and the whole ordeal is now closed. I just need to keep an eye on the oil level and I think I can do the service myself the next time it is due (in 100 hours or next March).

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