Sunday, October 2, 2022


Do you really need or want a generator?

We took our generator with us this summer on a 3-month trip through the Midwest up to Minnesota and back. I'm not sure why we brought it, because we only used it once and that was to cool down the camper while we were shopping in Walmart.

We bought the generator years ago when we had Ginger, our Greyhound dog. We were concerned we would be in a situation where we had to leave her in the camper for an hour or more in the heat, and the generator would power the air conditioner to keep her cool. And we did use it for that purpose. But overall we maybe put a few dozen hours on the generator before Ginger passed on.

Since then, we've hardly used the generator.  And every time there's a hurricane or major storm, you hear terrible stories about people who buy generators and then run them in their garage or other part of their house and end up killing their whole family with carbon monoxide. It is very sad.

And what do they need the generator for? In most cases, the generator won't run the air conditioning or other major systems of the house. Rather, they're trying to keep some lights on or maybe the television or possibly the refrigerator to preserve less than $100 worth of food.  Here's a hint:  If you don't open the refrigerator door, it may keep food cold for hours - until the power comes back on.

Some folks go all out and buy a whole house generator. These can cause cost thousands of dollars and generally rest upon a pedestal and are connected into the main electrical system of the house such that when the power goes off, the generator automatically starts and powers most, if not all, of the systems of the house - depending on how powerful a generator you bought.

In areas where power outages are frequent, this might make some sense. However, many home improvement stores are selling generator sets like this from Generac, which in my experience has been less than reliable. We had a Generac generator set in our class C motorhome, and it was little more than a lawn mower engine attached to an alternator. It died a quick death.  Some wags say that "Generac" stands for "Generate a Racket!" and that is apt.  We replaced the broken Generac in the Class C with a Honda RV genset (they since have left that business) and it was much quieter.

You will see these cheap generators for sale at big box stores and Tractor Supply and Harbor Freight and they seem appealing. For less than half the cost of a Honda generator, you can buy some Brand X model that comes in a cage and as loud as hell.  But in my mind, it is a false economy.

There are basically two kinds of generators, the alternator type and the frequency inverter type. Alternator type generators are basically an internal combustion engine hooked up to an alternator which generates an AC waveform.  To maintain 60 hertz frequency, the generator runs at a constant, wide open speed which makes them very loud. But they are also very cheap to build and that makes them appealing to people who think they can have a generator on a budget.

Inverter generators, as the name implies, use a DC generator with a frequency inverter to generate an AC sine wave regardless of engine speed. Thus, if the load level is low, the generator will throttle down and still provide the correct frequency and amperage needed. When the load increases, the internal combustion engine will throttle up accordingly. As a result, such generators are far quieter and more fuel efficient than the alternator type. However, is sufficiency and quietness comes of the cost. They are often twice as expensive as the inexpensive alternator type generators.

The temptation with generators is to be the person on the block who has all his lights on when the power is off. People don't like to feel helpless when situations are out of their control. Having a generator is a way of exerting control over your environment, albeit in a limited way.

What brought this to a head was a friend of mine bought an alternator type generator and installed it in their storage shed on their property, with a very elaborate system of fans and vents to keep it dry, but well-ventilated.  When the storm hit, the power went off for 12 hours because Georgia Power couldn't put up the snorkel trucks in the high winds.

Rather than run the generator for a few hours to keep the fridge and freezer cold - and then turn it off - they left it on all night.  Something happened - the generator caught fire, and since it was plumbed to a large propane tank, the fire quickly spread, particularly once the propane line melted.   It took two hours for the fire department to extinguish the blaze - and the shed and accompanying studio were reduced to ruins.

Was it worth it?  The idea was that with a generator, you would "ride out the storm" - but as we saw on Ft. Myers Beach, ten feet of water with waves of four feet or more, will push a house right off its foundations and then reduce it to scraps, in a matter of minutes.

Maybe a generator is not such a great idea.   Even the "whole house" generators are problematic.   Since most are rarely used, they don't need to be all that reliable.  They are like a parachute that is never used by skydivers but only for "emergencies" - you could sell one that is nothing more than shredded newspaper inside and who will ever find out?   The unlucky bastard who actually uses it won't be around to complain.

Generators, by their nature, tend to sit for long periods of time between uses and this is problematic.  Fuel can go stale - gasoline will turn to varnish and clog filters and carburetors.  Diesel fuel will actually grow algae and turn to gel.  Spark plugs foul, components corrode.  Machinery does not like to sit idle, which is why motorhomes or boats, used intermittently, usually break down the first sunny weekend the owner decides to use them.  Generators break down at the worst time - when you need them most.

This is not to say that no one needs a generator, ever, only that a lot of folks waste money on generators and never use them, and they are not usable when you do need them.  Worse yet, people spend money on generators and then fabricate a need for them and thus run them all the time, even when not needed.

When camping, we see folks running generators during "generator hours" - starting a loud, cheap generator at 9:01AM and not shutting it down until 4:59PM.   They don't really need it, but claim to be "charging their battery" which shouldn't be running down so quickly (they need a new battery!) running some LED lights in their camper.  Worse yet, people will run the generator to make microwave popcorn while camping.   A viable alternative is to lean to do without or use alternatives, when camping.   You can make popcorn on the stove, for example - I know it sounds weird!  But our ancestors apparently did this, before microwaves were invented.

For most of us, a generator is just another expense - a $1000 purchase that will never (or rarely) be used, and when it is needed, likely won't work.  A better and much cheaper approach is to think about how to live without electricity - or simply leave the area if a storm is approaching.

The risk of death from carbon dioxide or the risk of fire make the whole proposition even worse.

Think long and hard before buying a generator.  Do you really need one?  Or do you just want to be "that guy" who has all his lights on, while the neighbors all live in the dark?

Yea, status - it rears its ugly head once again!