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Mechanics Corner: Keeping the lights on: Back-up power on the farm

Allen Schaeffer Published on 10 October 2013
“In my day, we didn’t even have electricity on the farm.” That sentiment used to be only heard from a grandparent at the supper table. Given the nature of our nation’s failing electrical grid, today you’re more likely to hear, “Just yesterday, we didn’t have electricity on the farm.”

Access to reliable electricity forever changed everything about America, especially rural America. And today, we’re more dependent on electricity than ever before. Here’s where the problem begins.

Twenty-first century electricity demands are being met by networks a half-century or more old, consisting of poles, wires and transformers.

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Not only are they old, but they are still vulnerable to outages from the occasional car-knocks-down-utility-pole accident to increasing weather-related events and service interruptions, sometimes miles and miles away.

In August 2003, grid power went out to the New York region, leaving 50 million people without power over a 30-hour period and costing between $7 and $10 billion.

Last year, Superstorm Sandy shredded the electrical grid up and down the East Coast, forcing the extended use of thousands of generators, from portable units to tractor-trailer-sized megawatt diesel-powered units to bring power back to apartment buildings.

Outside the basic home issues of keeping food safe and people warm, with refrigeration and automated milking machines, heaters and computers, power outages on the farm are not only inconvenient but can also pose serious economic consequences.

So with an electrical grid that is less reliable, for peace of mind and to minimize economic losses, many homeowners and farmers are turning to having their own electrical generators on-site. So what are the options?

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When considering a generator, the basic questions are the same: What are your critical circuits that you want to make sure can keep operating no matter what happens to the grid? What are the power demands of each of those circuits or appliances?

These two questions will determine the size of unit you should consider and the installation, fuel choices and costs associated with each. Another key consideration is whether you want those circuits on an automated system, one that keeps the power on even if you’re not around when the power goes off.

Farmers do have some unique choices in generator units made to run off a tractor’s engine and PTO. These come in several sizes and deliver typically 30 to 50 kW of power – enough to support a couple of plugs’ worth, or typical household use, and perhaps one or two 220-watt plugs.

These units are mobile on the tractor and will run as long as you keep the fuel tank filled. A good investment in properly sized extension cords to make this work is necessary, since these units directly connect to the appliance rather than the house electric boxes.

Portable generators like those available through home-supply stores that run anywhere from $800 and up are the same way. They will power a refrigerator, freezer and some lights, but not much more.

Major drawbacks for these portable options include limited power availability and need for operator involvement – to manually run long extension cords, plug in appliances, safely locate and refuel the generator every few hours for as long as the electricity is off.

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Adverse weather conditions typical in power outages make this even less appealing.

And if you’re one county away tilling 500 acres or a couple hours away at the livestock yard, you may not know the power went off, and it would take you a long time to get back home, set up, start your generator and plug in.

There are a few solar-powered and battery-storage options, but these also have limited run times and depend upon being properly charged and maintained. However, most homes, businesses and farm operations install automated and hard-wired generator systems for greatest piece of mind.

These permanent installations involve having an electrician wire designated circuits to automated switchgear and the generator.

When a power outage hits, the switchgear will activate the generator in a short time, typically 10 seconds to a minute or two, and switch to back-up generator power.

When the outage is over and grid power comes back on, the unit senses that as well and automatically disconnects the generator from the circuit, shuts down safely and gets ready for the next outage.

These units can be fueled by diesel, propane or natural gas (pipeline), some or all of which are already on most farms today.

Like all engines, these require routine maintenance (oil and filter changes, etc.) and are typically exercised on a periodic basis (monthly or weekly); they automatically start and run for a few minutes to assure readiness.

Costs typically begin in the $4,000 to $10,000 range, including the installation of the switchgear, pad, wiring and the unit itself, depending on the fuel type and desired kW output.

There are basic safety concerns for all generator operation. If using a portable unit, it must be placed well away from occupied structures so the exhaust is not entering your home or a livestock barn.

Don’t overload the unit’s capacity, and use with care in wet weather. Whatever option you choose, your neighbors will be envious when yours is the only farm with lights for as far as the eye can see. PD

Schaeffer is the executive director at the Diesel Technology Forum. Contact him by email .

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Allen Schaeffer
Executive Director
Diesel Technology Forum

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