Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tri Fuel Generator Conversion - FTW

Lately, there has been a big buzz about emergency preparedness in my area. In the never-ending brilliance of the US Government, they decided a long time ago that they would build the Howard Hansen Dam out of dirt instead of the more expensive concrete mix. Now, it's about ready to fail, and everyone is scrambling to get out of the path of the inevitable. Now, you would think that I'd be completely safe from it. After all, I chose to buy a house on top of a big hill so no flood waters could reach me. However, this time it's not the flood that could get to me - it's the aftermath.

What I'm talking about is the possibility that my electrical service could be interrupted. I've been told, by some folks that work at the HH Dam, that Tacoma receives some of its electrical service (and water) from the HH Dam. So, there is a possibility that I could go without power for an unknown amount of time.

In response to this possibility, I spent some time this summer putting a new head gasket on my little Coleman PowerMate generator. It's not a big generator at all; it comes in at 2.5 KW, 120 VAC. That's not a lot of power, but it is enough to give me heat from my furnace and keep the refrigerator cold. As attractive as some of the larger generators are, mine was a free gift with low hours; you can't beat free.

There is a problem, however, with my generator. It runs on gasoline. Since we are looking at the possibility of a power outage, that means I have to buy and store fuel at my house just in case. The last thing I'd want is to suddenly go without power and realize that the most sought after commodity during any disaster or power outage (gasoline) is in short supply. So, I've purchased and stored up a small supply of fuel, but it won't last long. I could keep buying and storing more gasoline, but then I would run into problems where I'd have to rotate fuel to keep it fresh. Gasoline doesn't last but a year in storage. It will gum up, tarnish, and foul up the carburetor in the generator's little Briggs and Stratton engine. This is not good news for me.

I've been looking into the concept of a propane or natural gas conversion for awhile. Propane or natural gas are far better solutions for long term storage and use of an engine for long duration, but they are not without their problems:

Propane (LPG), like gasoline can only be stored in as many containers as you have on hand. Unlike gasoline, propane will not tarnish or gum up in storage, and is safer to use in modern tanks. I've also noticed steadier prices with propane, so it makes sense to be able to run propane. Additionally, I can pilfer the gas from my BBQ if my supply starts to run low.

Natural Gas, like propane will not tarnish or gum up, as does gasoline. The additional benefit of natural gas is that it is cheaper and there is seemingly and endless supply. Since my house is already piped for natural gas, it wouldn't be hard to get a connection outside with which to run my generator. There is a glaringly obvious problem with natural gas: earthquakes. Now, in the last couple decades, we have had some good shakers, some good quakers, and even some good rollers, but PSE claims that during all those seismic events they have never had to shut off the flow of natural gas over large areas for very long. In fact, one PSE tech told me that unless you smell gas, don't shut it off after an earthquake. Okay, with all that in mind, I still don't trust that natural gas will be available to run my generator right after an earthquake - that is to say, if my house even survives the event in the first place.

So, while cruising the Internet, I found an easy conversion to run my generator on all three fuels: gasoline, propane, and natural gas. This kit is as simple as installing a zero governing demand regulator type of venturi on top of the carburetor. This allows gas to flow at the rate that they air is being drawn into the carburetor. It doesn't require drilling of the carburetor, which means that the kit can be taken off if need be. Since the kit isn't permanent, the generator still enjoys the ability to run on gasoline when there is ample supply, or switch to LPG or natural gas as needed. Other kits require you to drill the carburetor to run the propane/natural gas, rendering it gasoline inoperable.

This is the crux of the problem: long term sustainability. In all but a major earthquake, it could be possible to run my generator indefinitely using natural gas. For shorter intervals, a bank of propane cylinders could provide relief from power outages without worry of the fuel tarnishing in storage. Gasoline would be the last resort fuel in this case, but would still be viable if there was a sufficient supply on hand. Having the advantages of all three fuel types is the kind of redundancy that makes me drool when the conversation goes to emergency preparedness. It's the kind of one-off preparation that sets me apart from other emergency-conscience people. Most importantly, it gives me options and opens me to considerations that don't seem possible to many. Why not run my generator on natural gas? My house is plumbed for it. Why not run my generator on propane? My BBQ uses it. Why not run my generator on gasoline? My cars rely on it. The answer is, in fact, "Why not?"

For those that would ask, however, "Why worry about long term sustainability after an earthquake?" You are right. After a big earthquake, there is a possibility that my house could be condemned. But that doesn't mean the generator, which is portable, can't go with me. It could easily be piped into someone else's house with minimal effort or supplies. Since it could still retain the ability to run on gasoline, one could just fill the tank and I am in business. Or I could just pipe it into a propane tank on someones travel trailer. Bang! Running! When natural gas does eventually come back on, provided it was shut off, then we are talking about an unlimited supply (relatively speaking) of fuel to power whatever needs to be powered.

The point is that you cannot always account for everything, but you can prepare as best you can for as much as you can. For less than $250, I can have a generator that will run on three widely available fuels and allow me to take advantage of each fuel's strengths while alleviating myself from as many of the fuel's weaknesses as possible. It's better to be able to run on three types of fuels rather than just one or two. That, my friend, is being prepared.

-James

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