Monday, February 16, 2015

Fun Evening…NOT!

After a lovely trip to the dentist, we come home to find that the off-grid power system of Secret Hidden Bunker II was flailing and, 10 minutes after we got home, the whole damn thing shut down. It's very dark when the power goes away. We turned on the aux heat, pushed the buttons on the Streamlight Sieges, then tried to figure out WHAT THE BLOODY HECK was going on!

We turned the genie on manually, but the batteries stayed at a low voltage (the charge controller/inverter shut them off to protect the batteries). WTF??? Generators aren't high tech…it's a engine and a gen head, which we'd had completely checked, tested, oil changed, tuned up, etc. 2 weeks ago. Gen had been running for 3 1/2 hours, like propane grows on trees or something. Batteries had not moved up even a tenth of a volt.

We tried all the diagnostics on the brand spanking new remote unit designed to control all the various aspects of the system, but nada. When went through menu after menu looking for anything to explain why the gen wasn't genning and the inverter wasn't inverting. Somewhere in the veeeeeeerrrrrrrryyyyyy back of the manual was a little note that described something called "Generator Standby," an incredibly stupid function where the generator turns on, but doesn't, you know, charge the batteries. What a handy function! Somehow, the new remote panel had locked onto Generator Standby, no doubt programmed by some Pop-Tart eating brain dead Korean salaryman for some unknown reason, and there was no way to turn it off. We performed the "Emergency Reset," a last resort option that involved unplugging the remote from the system, then plugging it back in. Zip. Little flashing lights that mean "Generator Standby."

Luckily, my Sweetie kept the old remote head, which had its problems but did, you know, work. I unplugged the shiny new remote (which I considered throwing, but didn't), fished out the old remote (designed for a Winnebago in, say , 2008), plugged it in and, low and behold, the lights came on, and when I went outside and manually launched the generator, the batteries immediately begin charging like gangbusters.

So is the system working? Maybe?

What's the solution?

1) Accept that there are no such things as "experts." Every single person we've paid money, occasionally big money, to build/work on this system have basically been reading from the manual. No matter how much "experience" experts claim to have, in the end you'll find their only off-grid experience consists of 1 solar panel and a battery from a golf cart used to power their rock tumbler in their mom's basement.

2) No matter how many guarantees your supplier give you, when you need them, they won't be there. Unlike tradition power systems, who understand that when it's zero degrees and the heart's off it's an honest to goodness emergency, alternative power "experts" sleep in, have answering services, don't answer emails, text or carrier pigeons and are puzzled that you don't just climb into your sleeping bag and wait for spring.

3) Nothing works as described in the pages of Home Power Magazine. It's sort of the difference between you buying pastel-colored duct tape and festive striped rope at Home Depot and "50 Shades of Gray." No matter how wonderful the specs for the charge controller of your dreams are, divide them by 2, subtract a little more, and consider getting back-up.

4) Even after you've stripped your lifestyle of energy hogs, embraced power strips, spent the equivalent of a year's salary when you were 22 years old on LED light bulbs, bought appliances made exclusively for use in Uganda, something will come back and bite you in the ass. I don't know what it will be, but  trust me, it's there waiting for you.

5) Yes, it's worth it…if you can get through the experience without strangling some one…

Lights are still on…fingers crossed!


Scar Stigr said...

I'm telling you the pigeon didn't arrive.

nj larry said...

I have many stories of customers of mine back in the day who thought backups/ups/generators were all going to work just fine. Like the the oil fired rooftop gen that caught on fire when it kicked in...hilarious good fun !

BTW...get ready. When you find yourself in the nursing home you will see that all your comments apply to the medical field :)

Anonymous said...

Living off grid is an adventure! Spot on about relying on others to know how this is all supposed to work. I would figure it would be easier there than here in Montana to find someone though.

I keep a spare genny as well (two actually). The main one has lost 3 or 4 controllers, caught fire when a bit of the brushes broke off and lodged between the poles (I rewired it), several alternators, and a governor gear. Then we could get into the programming for the inverter/charge controller. Of course this is a 1998 vintage controller, so I don't have those fancy controls for generator standby.. :D

Actually Propane is not bad right now... this time last year it was $5+, if you could get it.

Enjoy Michael...


Anonymous said...

There ARE a few actual experts out there, but they are hard to find. "nj" is right too. The majority of so-called experts in any field are actually unqualified. I don't care if it's in the "Off-Grid" field, medicine, car mechanics, GUNS, etc., the majority of them are in the end, not competent.

When you get into new fields such as the "Green" industry, it seems like all of them are "off-the-grid". Most providers aren't around long enough to back a warranty either and components evolve so quickly, the minute you need a new part, you find that your stuff is no longer available and you have to start all over again.

The solution? Find an industrial controls guy and set your system up to use off-the-shelf industrial controls components. (They'll actually cost less too!) This technology has been around for a long time and will remain for a longer time. What the controls are supposed to "control" is what your system was defined to do in the first place, so adapting is easy. I know, because I am an engineer and have spent a significant part of my career there. I married mechanical and controls technologies together, but I liked to keep it simple. You're too far away for me to make a house call, but there are more guys like me out there. Look for someone who has serviced the power generating side of the business, like powerhouses in big facilities. You can also look at energy management controls companies. These businesses have been around for decades. They use battery back-up systems for their power distribution systems just like yours. You have to get away from the "science project" set.

Good Luck.

Life Member

Eric said...

Expert: "x" is the unknown, and a spurt is a drip under pressure.

Anonymous said...

By the way, a very good generator choice would be a Lincoln, Miller, or Hobart (available at Tractor Supply) welder/generator. The 10kw-sized, 120/230v units deliver excellent "ac" power (= good sine-wave and 60hz frequency) AND you can use it to weld if you ever need it for that. The price is comparable to some of the newer generators out there of equal size.

These units are also available to run gasoline, diesel, or gaseous propane. The latter is propane like that used in hi-lo's.

They are also enclosed in "NEMA" drip-proof enclosures, meaning that they can be used when just sitting out in the weather. They can also be trailer mounted for portability, or mounted stationary.

Life Member

_DonWorsham_ said...

...something called "Generator Standby,"...

I blame Newt or the parrot.

Michael Bane said...

Something i didn't mention is that the manuals are of the "All Your Bases Are Belong To Us!" variety…I think because the alternative energy is trying to cast itself as "licensed professionals" — kids don't try this at home! — and the manuals are aimed very specifically at installers. I was original trained as an engineer, have been a ham radio operator since I was 12 years old and for a while built robots…electricity, electronics, programmed chips…this stuff doesn't scare me. Yet I can't seem to get a handle on this crap…this morning, my Sweetie, who is one of the smartest people I know and who overhauled this system and got it up when it crashed the first time in November, has been reading me passages from the 100 page remote — the remote! forget the controller itself! — manual and we've been trying to figure out WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT!

I'm moving the second genie up in priority and it will be, as Anon-3 noted, something very boring and manual.

Anonymous said...


I also checked-out that Lister low-speed generator that you talked about in a past session. It looks good, but I'd be careful to only apply it to usage where frequency a.k.a.: 60Hz/cycles IS NOT a concern. That would be for use with resistive loads such as lighting and battery charging. Using it for motors, or sensitive electronics may be a stretch because the inherent speed error in a governed engine is multiplied by the drive ratio of the generator; in this case over-driven. Otherwise, I think that it is a great candidate for battery charging, as long as you're not using complicated electronics to do it.

What is the make & model, of your "remote", charger, controls, etc.? I'll check it out on the 'net and maybe I can be of some help.

Life Member

DamDoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DamDoc said...

6) Maintain the grid connection!

Vince Warde said...

You have my sympathies - I have set up my motor home for "dry camping" without hookups. That has been hard enough. One would think that when the generator fires up, it would actually charge the battery (a huge deep cycle three times the size of the battery in my truck!) at something resembling a reasonable rate. Nope. It charges at 2 amps.

So, I set up another charger that can charge at 2, 10, or 50 amps. So, just plug that in, hook it up to the battery and turn it on right? Wrong. The on-board 110v AC to 12v DC converter boosts the voltage so the charger thinks the battery is charged, even when it isn't.

So, I had to wire the charger up so when I cut the connection from the generator to the coach 110v system (thankfully, just a couple of breakers) the charger will still run. Thankfully, there is one - and only one - outlet in the generator compartment that I could use.

One would think that a generator in a motor home would put out a significant amount of 12v power, but no. If we do a lot of "dry camping" I think I will build a dedicated 12v generator. I am amazed no one makes one......

Anonymous said...

Note from alternative energy company, Pigeons were delicious, please send more

Overload in Colorado said...

I believe you misread a manual somewhere. The pigeon was for communication, but you did it wrong. You needed to sacrifice it.