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Running household services off a generator

Post in 'DIY and General non-hearth advice' started by mayhem, Dec 12, 2008.

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  1. mayhem

    mayhem Minister of Fire

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    Well the power is out due to the big ice storm, so now we're wihtout some of the basic services we're so used to. heat is fine since its relatively mild out and the woodstove is cranking away...along with that we've got the top to cook on and the gas grill is there as well. Problem is we've got no water since its an electric pump, so we can't flush the toilet, can't make hot water for a shower (whihc we can't take wihtout pressure anyways) and no fridge either. I can always put the food in a cooler outside if I have to but what about water? Guess I could always put a huge bucket outside and let it collect whatever water it can from the rain and snow and use that to dump water into the toilet. Showers will have to wait.

    I don't have a generator...frankly while I've thought about buying one before we've never lost power for more than an hour or so over the last few years. If I were to purchase one I know I can plug things into the 100 outlets and run them, so the fridge can get taken care of, but is there any way to work with the water pump since its tied into the breaker panel? I beleive its a 20 amp breaker (though I'm not sure what it actually draws). It doesn't amke sense that I could use a male to male extension cord and just plug into the house and backfeed through the breaker panel...in fact that seems like it might be dangerous to some extent...but I really don't know.

    My well is 440 feet deep so some kind of hand pump is probably out of the question.

    Any thoughts? I think I'm just SOL and the time to think about this is when the sun is shining and the power is on and not when the outage actually happens...but thats just the way it is. My chief concern is that we may be looking at an extended outage.

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  2. Brian VT

    Brian VT Minister of Fire

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    DO NOT backfeed power. The guys working on the power lines could get hit with your juice.

    You could get a proper switch box installed so you can plug a gas generator into your service panel.
    Me, I would get a propane-fired backup generator that takes over automatically.

    When a storm is coming (wind or ice) I fill a bathtub with water and use that for flushing if we loose power.
    I fill a few large pots of water that can be heated for washing. I have quite a bit of drinking water stored also.
  3. mayhem

    mayhem Minister of Fire

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    Kind of what I thought...even if I kill the main breaker its still risky to someone...if not the pole worker it'll be me that gets nailed.

    So to be clear. Without the proper switchbox installed there is no good way to operate a hardwired well pump off a generator, correct?

    I have an offer on a monster of a propane generator from work. Its a commercial grade Kohler unit. But its going to be an awful lot of work to get it home...like maybe rent a crane or somethign to lift it onto a trailer.

    I've pasted a photo below, wish I had it now. Scale-wise its about 3 feet tall, output is actually unknown. The place had it installed for Y2k, ran t in test a few times and basically never used it. My facilities manager told me I could have it, but I have to get it out of there.

    Bummer.

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  4. smokinj

    smokinj Minister of Fire

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    the way people back feed is through a 220 out let and then take out the main breaker so there is no problems when the power comes back on (risky move but works)
  5. Highbeam

    Highbeam Minister of Fire

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    Great deal on that Kohler.

    I recently swapped my electrical panel with a generator interlock panel but you can retrofit your panel to be used the same way. Basicly there is a sliding metal tab that only allows you to turn on a "generator" breaker IF the main breaker is flipped to the off position. The generator breaker is wired to a male plug on the outside of the house or directly into that Kohler. Power goes out, flip the main off, slide the interlock, start the genset, turn the generator breaker on and go about your life. Two drawbacks: You won't know when the power comes back on, and you need to be sure that you don't overload the genset by managing your power demands or by turning various circuit breakers off. The interlock device attaches to the panel cover. For all of you observant folks, this is essentially the exact same thing as backfeeding your 220 volt dryer plug and just remembering to flip the main off. However, this is Ul approved and the NEC approves it. Mine was inspected and bought off by the state inspector. I challenge anyone to find a simpler and cheaper whole house solution that is legal.

    I only use a 3000 watt genset to feed a 30 amp generator circuit.

    Oh and if the only concern is your well pump then you can simply find a nice place on the well pump circuit to cut it, add a female and male plug pair. Then you can simply unplug the well from the house and plug it into the genset. All of this must be upstream of the controls of course and not out in the yard. I've seen this done with furnaces too.
  6. Jags

    Jags Moderate Moderator Staff Member

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    If someone told me that I could have that genset, just get it out of here. They would be talking to themselves by the end of the sentence.

    It would sooooo be in my yard and hooked in with the proper switch.
  7. mayhem

    mayhem Minister of Fire

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    Just found out the generator went away 2 months ago. We bartered it for ALOT of work. Thing turned over and the meter read 8 hours. Yes, thats right. I let an essentially brand new, free 200 amp output propane Kohler generator slip away becasue I didn't make the time to go get it. Had a gyu with a trailer and a built in winch that I could have used to get it too. I am an idiot. You can bet that sort of scenaio won't play out again. It actually fairly likely that it will eventually happen too...we're a bank and in a major expansion phase rihgt now so we're snapping up branches here and there as the opportunities arise. If we got one with a y2k genset you can bet there will be another eventually.

    On the plus side of things though, the juice is back on at the house. I'm taking some 5 gallon spring water jugs home just in case it goes out again...I'll fill the tubs with cold water too so we cna flush if we have to.

    Thanks for the input guys. Much appreciated.

    Guess I'll get my bypass system installed so i cna plug a genset in as necessary, then I'm all set and could even rent one if I really had to.
  8. pdboilermaker

    pdboilermaker New Member

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    I run my entire house on with a 5500 watt portable generator. I pump my own water as well, so I understand where you are coming from about those problems. The only thing I cant do is run my cloths dryer. Heres how it works:

    1. Power goes out
    2. Flip main to OFF position
    3. Run cord from generator through the dryer exhaust vent
    4. Plug cord into dryer outlet
    5. Start generator
    6. Power through whole house
    7. Wait for neighbors power to come back on
    8. Kill generator
    9. Flip main to ON position
    10. Complain about how much gas it costs to make power for house
    11. Repeat as needed

    The KEY is to kill htat main, no power out of your house no power to your house, it makes you be sel sufficiant
  9. smokinj

    smokinj Minister of Fire

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    dont know how true it is but i have heard with the main still in it can ark across the main even when off(again not sure how true it is. i do the same as you but pull the main)
  10. Highbeam

    Highbeam Minister of Fire

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    FALSE. The NEC allows the simple turning off of the main breaker before backfeeding the panel with portable equipment (genset). Of course, you need the interlock to eliminate the chance of the user forgetting to turn off the main.
  11. Brian VT

    Brian VT Minister of Fire

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    Good info. guys.
    Sorry for jumping in with "DON'T" so quickly. I just wanted to be on the safe side when he mentioned "it might be dangerous ?"
  12. smokinj

    smokinj Minister of Fire

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    makes sence!
  13. John_M

    John_M Minister of Fire

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    Here we go! Safety for yourself and others has to be your primary concern when working with electricity. Your secondary concern has to be not to cause property damage (fire, appliance damage from electrcal surges and appliance damage from too little voltage) to your property and that of others. The word appliance in this case refers to any device run by electricity. Your tertiary concern is how to get electricity safely to the various appliances in your house so you can enjoy the comforts of life during a power outage. If you do not know exactly what you are doing and the probable consequences of your actions please do not "experiment" to see what happens. You could and probably will be "shocked" at the consequences of your screw up. You are working with 100 to 200 amps of current. When misused, this can be very destructive to property and fatal. If you do screw up be prepared for a civil case of financial liability and the possibility that your insurance company might deny your claim.

    Do not, under any circumstances make up an extension cord with a male connector on each end. This is inviting big trouble. The only safe and legal way to connect a generator to your main panel is through a properly connected Transfer Switch listed by Underwriter's Labratory (UL) and installed according to the National Electrical Code (NEC). I am not a licensed electrician but I have done lots of wiring over the years and have installed at least two transfer switches and inlet boxes. This work is not difficult but you must know what you are doing and it must be done right. The consequences of screwing up are just too severe.

    If you have a 400' deep well pump you will probably need at least 20 amps@ 240 volts to start/run the pump. Then include the TV, computer, refrigerator, furnace, lights in the bathrooms, a kitchen outlet for coffee, kitchen lights, a bedroom light, etc. You can probably get by with a 5,000 watt generator; 6500 watts is better. Be certain you tell the dealer from whom you are buying the generator that it will be used for home backup power. Some generators must have a neutral/ground bond to meet OSHA requirements for job site electrical safety. That neutral/ground bond might have to be broken/disconnected for home backup power. Be certain to look into this feature on the generator you use.

    Go to the Gen-Tran web site for lots of wiring diagrams and info. Many public utility web sites also have wiring diagrams which conform to NEC and your local code requirements.

    Sorry about the lecture (it was intended to help and not offend) and the long post. I hope this information provides some help and direction about using a generator for home backup power.

    Best wishes and good health.
  14. stee6043

    stee6043 Minister of Fire

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    I can attest that the backfeeding idea, while it will power some small items, will not kick your well pump over. I have a 5500 watt generator and a house that is wired with a separate gen panel with an external plug. This spring instead of dropping the $70 on making my own ten foot long 30 amp cord to connect the 30 amp plug from the generator to my breaker I tried to do the male-to-male plug idea to get my well pump running just long enough to take a shower. Did not work. You just can't get enough juice through a standard extension cord to support a typical well pump. That hog draws some juice.

    The next day I built my cord to do it right and life is good (I'll spare you the story of the five stores I had to visit to find two twist log plug-ends). So these days when the power goes out I throw the main, throw the interlocking breaker, plug the generator in outside and fire it up. All of the essentials run fine....and the kegerator keeps cool too....
  15. mayhem

    mayhem Minister of Fire

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    Guys;

    Thanks for al the great advice. This is exactly why I posted here instead of trying to rig somethign up half assed (or in this, using pretty much my whole ass)...find out from people who know better than I whats wrong with a seemingly good idea.

    Our power came on yesterday afternoon around 1:30, so at about 13-14 hours this was by a very wide margin the longest power outage we've experienced since we biult the house in 2002/3. There are many, many others in our area that still don't have power and may not for another day or so...for our area this is really severe. I'm checking in withour friends and neighbors around town today to make sure everyone is ok and if they need it I'll schlep em over my place for a hot meal and a shower.

    This summer I'll invest the time and money to install a proper bypass system to run my essentials. I may never need it again, or I may need twice a year every year. Best to spend a couple undred to properly prepare for a severe problem and never need it than to not be prepared at all and suffer the consequences down the road.

    Still kicking myself on that big Kohler genset...could have run half the neigborhood on that thing.

    Thanks once again.
  16. jdemaris

    jdemaris New Member

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    We have no power here in central New York and it may be 3-4 days before it's fixed. But. . . I've got many backup systems. Solar-electric with a large battery bank, diesel tractor, PTO generator, and 1000 gallos of diesel fuel, wood heat, etc.

    I would like to dispel a few, what I regard, as BS myths. I hesitate to comment since this subject seems to create a lot of anger (as least my comments do). I am a former lineman for a large utility company although that was almost 40 years ago. If your power is out, and you did something really stupid - like backfeeding a small generator into the grid lines - what will happen? First of all, now-a-days, most if not all power companies insist that all lines are treated as "live" and when working on them a ground-clamp is attached to the wirre for safety reasons. Just that prevents you from frying a lineman. Also, a puny little, let's say 5000 watt generator - hooked to a grid line with a huge demand waiting on the other end? It would fry your generator in a second (or at least pop the breaker).

    Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting it's a good thing to do - but come on! When I was a lineman, we had to work those lines live up to 13,000 volts. Now adays, they often get shut off first. I'll also add that the only two deaths we had, while I was a lineman - were both from low-voltage 120 VAC house-current -not high voltage. 120 VAC is often a killer for two reasons. Being relatively low - people used to working with power lines often don't fear it as much as something 13,000 volts or higher. Also, the 120 VAC has Hertz cycles and peaks and valleys at 170 volts. Those cycles can quickly throw your heart-beat out of rhythm. So, in brief, low voltage screws up your body's electrical system.

    Now, if you were to attempt backfeeding -you can do so with a large outlet at your home. An electric stove or welder - 30 amp or 50 amp outlet works well - IF - your generator has the same. Then a heavy extension cord with dual male ends - one plugged into the generator and one plugged into an outlet will power your household. To do this, you MUST shut off the main breaker, and also shut off most circuits in the house. You just leave the minimum - frig, water pump, furnace, etc. IF you generator is big enough to run them. This is NOT the safest or "right" way to do it. I'm just mentioning that it can be done.

    Installing a disconnect "failsafe" changeover switch is much safer. It eliminates most human error if installed properly. It is an "either/or" type switch that you plug your generator into. It eliminates the chance of you backfeeding to the grid.

    In regard to your well - your depth means nothing - only the water "head" is an issue. Many 400 foot wells have water that is 10-30 feet below ground level. I will also add that there are hand pumps available that can pump from over 200 feet down. Some even deeper. A "pitcher" type pump does the actual pumping from the top of the pump so physics limits it to a max of 30 feet draw. But, deep-well hand-pumps have the handle on top, but the little piston pump itself gets sunk down deep into the well - and all is hooked together with long-linkage.
  17. jdemaris

    jdemaris New Member

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    I don't know your pump-motor details, but I'll say this. Years ago, before I had a big PTO generator and solar - I did the following and it worked just fine. Cheap Homelite 4000 watt generator with an 8 horse Briggs and a single, 240 volt, 20 amp outlet. I made an extension cord with the 20 amp/240 volt male-plug on one end, and a 50 amp/240 male plug on the other. When power was out - I backfed it into an electric stove outlet - along with turing off the main breaker, and also all the other breakers except my well pump. Well is 3/4 horsepower, 240 volts. Worked just fine. Did this many times over the years when power was out. Got my well-water pumped up- then shut off that breaker, turning on the furnace breaker and let the oil hot-air furnace run a while. Then, shut off that breaker and let the fridge and lights run. Worked out 100% fine, just required a lot of running down the basement and playing with breakers. And that was with a cheap 8 horse, $375 generator - rated 4400 watts surge, and 4000 watts full time. Has dual 15 amp 120 VAC outlets and one 20 amp 240 volt outlet.

    I'll add that saying you "can't get the juice" though an extension cord is incorrect. You just have to use the correct size wire -regardless if it's in the wall, in the ground, or used as a portable cord.
  18. velvetfoot

    velvetfoot Minister of Fire

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    I'm here burning battery power on the laptop but I'll quickly add this:
    I did this earlier in the year, and maybe Highbeam and I were in synch on this, I'm not sure, 'cause I too have one of those SquareD interlocks-nice.
    Anyway, I have a well down to 450' (they say).
    Earlier in the summer, I tried to power it with a 5kw generator, just for 'laughs'.
    It choked. Kinda scary, 'cause I can't imagine it did the pump any good. It tripped out. Still works, thank God.
    I measured the amps. 39 amps on startup!
    The 7500w generator takes care of it.
    Later
  19. tkrock

    tkrock New Member

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    I do the the same thing......BUT i would add step 8.5, Unplug from generator from the house before the main goes back on!!!! You could damage your generator.
  20. jdemaris

    jdemaris New Member

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    You were reading 39 amps on each line of a 240 volt circuit? What size breakers is it hooked to in your service panel?

    I've been on battery power for 24 hours now, but the sun in finally coming back out and my battery bank ought to charge up soon via the solar. Power company says it might be 3-4 days before all power is back on. My 48 volt bank is reading 44.6 volts right now which is getting a little low. I think the inverters will shut down at 42-43 volts.
    I AM having issues with my HughesNet satellite-uplink/downlink for the Internet and I'm not sure why since the sky appears to be clear.

    There are many variables with running a well pump. My in-laws in northern Michigan have a 500 foot well - yet it's artesian and overflows all the time. These deep wells are sometimes done due to health department well-casing regs, or to get more gallonage, etc.

    In my area of New York, the average well depth is 180 feet, and the average water-head is 10-20 feet below ground. Subsequently, the average well pump is 1/2 horse, 240 volts for homes, and dairy farms often install 3/4 or 1 horse pumps.

    1 horsepower = 746 watts, but in reality it takes 1000 watts of electricity to make one horse with the average electric motor. Can be 2, 3, or 4 times that to get the motor started. Not all motors are the same. One brand 1/2 horse motor can be an under-used 2 horse motor, while another brand might only be half of that. Subsequently, every situation and every well can be different. In my case, with a Gould 240 volt pump called "3/4" horse - my Homelite 4000 watt generator runs it just fine via the 20 amp, 240 volt recepticle. Close to a 200 foot well but the water is only 10-15 feet down when the pump starts. I have a barn at at different location with a Burks 3/4 horse in a 220 foot well with water-head 30 feet down. It too works fine off my generator. I don't even have any grid-power hooked up there - it's generator power only. Same for a neighbor of mine that is off-grid solar powered. He only has a 120 VAC inverter system and does not want to buy a step-up, 120 to 240 transformer just to run his deep well pump. He installed a large water tank high in his house that gravity feeds water to feed the plumbing. He fills it every few days with a 5000 watt generator hooked to his well-pump. I don't know what size pump he has or how deep. I don't think he knows either.

    I went out on a service call awhile back when someone's water-line froze and their well pump was energized in "lock" full-draw mode for two days straight. Sears 1/2 horse 240 volt, three-wire pump on dual 15 amp breakers and they did not trip - which is pretty amazing. Also amazing that the pump is undamaged. Guess it couldn't overheat sitting in all that cold water.
    They bought a new pump anyway and I got the old one.
  21. peakbagger

    peakbagger Minister of Fire

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    I havent verified thison a well pump but a lot of new well pump installations use a Variable Speed AC drive to run the pump versus an across the line starter. In industrial applications, variable speed drives have the handy feature that they ramp up the motor slowly causing little or no motor starting surge unlike an fixed speed pump which can draw 3 times the rated amperage on startup. Might be worth considering going to a variable speed on the next pump install if you are concerned with backup power.

    Completely aside from the starting amperage, a VS drive is going to extend the life of the pump, reduce if not eliminate the pressure tank and supply the house steady pressure with some slight power savings.
  22. jdemaris

    jdemaris New Member

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    They're common in off-grid homes that run off of solar and battery banks. These "slow start" well pumps work great - but cost about double, sometimes more.

    One example is the 120 VAC waterpump made by Grundflo. Rated to 180 feet deep and will run on a 1700 watt generator or a 1200 watt inverter. The 1/2 horse pump can make 5 GPM at 180 feet. Costs $700.
  23. colebrookman

    colebrookman Minister of Fire

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    You could probably just unhook from the main panel and just put a plug in the end with the other end going outside to your generator. Just be careful because you may eliminate the pressure circuit that controls the off and on. But for very infrequent use that may work. Check with an electrician to be safe, or just spend big bucks for a whole house unit.
    Ed
  24. brad068

    brad068 Feeling the Heat

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    Hey guys,

    I bought two of the 13hp 6500watt gen sets from Aldi's last year ($400/ea.). They have been working great when I need them. I was thinking of making up a power cord to hook both in parallel. That way I'll have plenty of power to carry on.

    My question is can the two be hooked together by just matching up hots, neutral, and ground?

    I thought someone told me that they need to be matched on the correct freq. or maybe that was a 3 phase generator.

    Anyway, for $400 each with a wheel kit I couldn't pas it up.
  25. velvetfoot

    velvetfoot Minister of Fire

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    JD, I think the breaker 30 amps, 240 volts. The 39 amps is max at startup. We used it today again for showers. You really can notice on the 7500 watt generator when the well pump comes on!

    Time Warner won't run cable out to where we are and we had looked into satellite, like HughesNet. Turns out there is a Sprint tower very near us and the wireless broadband is great!
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