When I was a kid, power outages weren’t uncommon. Heavy snow or a summer thunderstorm could easily cause trees to come crashing down on power lines. And when that happened, everything went not just dark, but quiet. We’d find our flashlights and light our candles and enjoy the tranquility the lack of electricity created. I was always pleasantly surprised to rediscover how quiet the world was when we turned everything off.
In more recent years, power outages still happened in Arlington with alarming frequency. And when they did, it wasn’t peace and tranquility I noticed, but the roar of the many neighborhood generators. Diesel engines destroyed whatever peace there could have been. And I understood — you don’t want food to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer and summer heat can become unbearable or even deadly without air conditioning. Nevertheless, I missed the quiet stillness a power outage enabled.
So when we moved out to the country, I had mixed feelings about the whole-house generator that was already in place. It turns out, the generator — like so much with this place — is more complicated than it first appears.
Our property currently has four buildings on it: our house, the garage/shop, the yard barn, and the generator shelter.
What, you might ask, is a generator shelter? Oh silly you. It’s just what it sounds like: a small cement-block building that houses our whole-house generator. And by whole-house generator, I really mean “a generator that could probably power a couple of neighborhoods.” For this isn’t your standard Generac home generator. No, this thing looks like it came from a locomotive. Painted bright yellow, it stretches close to five feet long and stands three feet tall. I call it The Beast.
The shelter doesn’t just house the generator. An array of electrical equipment and panels line the wall. One large box is the automatic transfer switch and it looks like it would have been truly state of the art in the 1960s. Over the door is a piston and in front of the generator is a set of louvres.
On the outside, a large wooden box sits next to the shed. It holds a 150-gallon stainless steel tank filled to the brim with diesel fuel. An underground pipe connects it to The Beast.
It’s a heck of a setup. Unfortunately, when we moved in, I couldn’t get it to work. I’d connect the generator to the car battery it needed to start up, the generator’s panel lights will flash on, I’d flip the switch and all I’d hear was a series of clicks. It simply refused to start.
Not knowing how to fix it myself, I called several generator companies and all refused to help. When I told them what I was dealing with, they said it was too old and too different for them to work on.
Eventually I found paperwork from the previous owner that included notes from a previous technician. I called him and he remembered the system.
“Yeah, that’s quite a thing you got there,” he said.
“Could you come help me get it running?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose I could come take a look. But I live about two hours away from there. So for me to come out would be a full day rate. And there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to fix it. Especially if it needs parts.”
“And what would your day rate be?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re looking at $800 at least.”
Eventually I found someone who came out and diagnosed the problem as a faulty circuit board. He figured it would be easy to swap out the board; the challenge would be finding a replacement. The board had to be at least 30, if not 40 years old.
I tried reaching out to vendors and performing Internet searches to find a suitable replacement. Nothing worked until I turned to eBay. Thank God for eBay. The same exact board was on sale for $75. I snapped it up.
It arrived a few days later. I removed the old board, marked all of the wires, took “before” photographs, swapped some components and installed the replacement board. Then I hooked up the battery, stood back and flipped the switch.
It’s a beast, that’s for sure. But it’s also an island. I don’t know how to actually make it power the house. And though it’s designed to automatically turn on when the power goes out, that functionality isn’t in place yet, even through the equipment is.
The guy I found who helped me get it running explained what needed to happen.
“See, the idea is that when the power goes out, this box — and I’ve only ever seen this kind of box in a commercial apartment building — tells the generator to start up. When it does, this here circuit,” he pointed to another box and set of wires, “will energize and that will cause this piston to open the door. The louvres will also open, which you need to give the engine air flow.”
“It’s actually a pretty cool design,” he said admiringly. “I mean, I live for this. You also need to have switches on the door so you can open it, because once everything is connected,” he said pointing at the piston, “you won’t be able to just open and close it.”
He wasn’t able to do the work when he came out. I’m still waiting to schedule a time. And truth be told, we’ve experience only two power outages in the last year, and neither lasted more than a couple of hours. When they happened, I enjoyed the solitude much like the power outages I experienced as a kid. But, since electricity is our only power source — and since our well water pump can’t run without power — if we were left without power for very long, it would be a problem, so I do want to get the generator completely hooked up sooner rather than later.