A generator is a bad investment

by Teodor Costăchioiu

I watched this news story about Romanians emptying the shelves with generators for fear of a blackout. I can understand those from Ukraine and Moldova; there are problems there. I appreciate those who buy generators and send them to Ukraine, where they are also badly needed.

On the other hand, if you bought your generator because of an increased risk of a blackout, you made a bad investment. I know this from my own experience because I have had a generator for many years since I moved to my house in the suburbs of Bucharest, Romania. That’s why I’ll tell anyone who wants to buy a generator to think twice before doing so.

A generator is a bad investment

In the first years of living in our house, we had problems with electricity – every time it rained a little harder, the power went out all over the village. It was super unpleasant, especially at night. The neighborhood wasn’t as populated as it is now, and it was eerie in the dark. We’ve also been through a couple of massive power outages in winter. After 10-12 hours without power, the house would get cold.

So I got myself an expensive generator with inverter technology and over 3kW of power, calculated to run the water pump, the furnace, the fridge, and other absolutely essential household appliances.

Since then 16 years have passed in which my generator has accumulated 120 hours of operation, extremely little for its capabilities. These 120 hours have been added up at a time when, about five years ago, Electrica thought of rebuilding the medium- and low-voltage power lines. They removed the medium-voltage lines from poles, moved the cables underground, and installed new transformer stations. This involved a large investment and a lot of money and work. The whole thing took most of the summer, with power outages from morning to night, and the generator was used to keep the fridge and water pump running.

At the end of the work, things changed for the better. Now, I have an occasional power outage every three to four months, and it usually lasts two to three hours, especially when they do schedule work and don’t announce it. Otherwise, there were no major problems.

That’s why I say the generator is a bad investment. For an average of less than ten hours of operation per year, it is not worth the investment. Indeed, it provides comfort and warmth when the power goes out. I don’t get food spoiling in my fridge. But on the other hand the generator is a continuous source of expenditure, even when not in use.

The generator requires regular maintenance

Gasoline additives have a limited shelf life. After that petrol changes its octane number and problems occur. Either deposits build up in the carburetor, and the generator won’t start, or it won’t maintain a constant rpm. In order to keep the petrol in the generator, it is mandatory to put petrol stabiliser. I use an additive from Liqui Moly, I buy it from Emag. With stabilizer, the petrol retains its qualities for 8-9 months. If I haven’t used it by then I take the fuel out of the generator tank and use it on the lawnmower, which is much less fussy.

My generator’s petrol tank holds enough fuel for 16 hours of operation. I still have a 10l canister, which gives me another eight hours of run time. Also, with added stabilizer. I pour it into the car’s tank every three months and buy a fresh one. Another source of headaches.

The same goes for oil. Engines that power generators do not have oil filters. Under these conditions, a special oil, i.e. detergent oil, is used, which also cleans the engine. These oils are chemically unstable. A yearly oil change is recommended even if the generator has not been used or has been used very little.

My generator has an electric starter. Here other problems arise. If the battery is not used for a long time, it becomes sulfated and needs to be replaced. So far we have changed three batteries. More money, less fun.

Costs associated with electrical installation

One problem I had to solve was the electrical circuit for the generator. My generator sits somewhere in a shed. I have buried the cable up to the house, where I have a group of sockets in the technical room. From there, I go with extension cords all over the house to the absolutely essential household equipment.

All the work was done by a certified electrician. We made a separate earth connection for the generator, with a separate electrical panel between the generator and the house, RCCB, and separate fuses. The working ground was connected to the protection ground in the panel so that the furnace worked well.

I didn’t install a fully automated switching panel to power the whole house because I have the following problem: my generator is single-phase, and my house is wired on three-phase. It was a huge, huge hassle to install a switching panel in my case. The best way was to separate one phase and connect it to the generator; then, all the absolutely essential consumers had to be moved to that phase. Junction boxes would have to be opened, and connections changed, but the house was already built, and the interior was completed. I said no.

The generator and the furnace

It’s not so fun here. The newer the furnace and the more complicated its electronics, the more fussy it is about feeding from the generator. Almost all modern gas-powered systems need to be grounded. Otherwise, the flame detector will not work, and the system will stop with an error code. I solved the problem by connecting the generator’s working ground to the protection ground, i.e. the generator’s dedicated earth socket – it’s the TNS connection diagram described in this article.

On the other hand, the forums are full of stories of those who have damaged the electronic boards in their furnaces, or burned out their pumps, all sorts of nasty surprises.

If you’re thinking of getting a generator, my advice is to take a good look at what other owners of the same model have experienced when trying to power the heating from a generator. There is the Internet, forums, and Facebook groups. Search for the furnace model plus generator and see what others say. You may find that it’s not easy to power your heating system from the generator.

Again, as I have learned from my own experience, the cheaper the generator, the greater the chance of problems with the heating.

Avoid two-stroke generators, which run on petrol with oil mix, like Trabant. They are neither voltage nor frequency-stable. The chances of burning out the electronics in the heating system are high with such generators.

AVR generators are a bit better, but there are problems there, too: frequency variations, harmonics, and voltage spikes when disconnecting large consumers such as the water pump.

Inverter generators perform best, but they are expensive. My favorite is the Honda EU22i, but there are clones that perform decently.

One more thing I saw at someone’s house: the man got a cheap 2.4kW generator and a simple electric heater. When his power goes out, he uses the generator to power the heater and only heats the room he’s in. He came out better off financially than if he had chosen an expensive generator to run his furnace. But the man lives in the country and doesn’t bother anyone with the noise of the generator.

Finally, we come to the last point to consider: generators, even soundproof ones, are noisy. This can be disturbing for you and your neighbors. You can’t keep a generator running on the balcony of your apartment building.

Photo by Dima Solomin on Unsplash

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