Choosing and using a generator in an off-grid

Choosing and using a generator in an off-grid
Choosing and using a generator in an off-grid
environmentally sensitive household
A generator is a necessity for almost all off-grid homes. This article describes
their limitations and what to look for when buying one for an environmentally
sensitive household.
Keywords: Generator, electric generator, off-grid, off grid, dirty electricity,
noise, fuel, MCS, chemical sensitivity, EHS, electrical
hypersensitivity, environmental illness
A generator makes electricity using an engine that burns either gasoline, diesel or
propane gas. A generator is expensive to run, so it is generally used intermittently.
Solar and wind energy is usually much more cost effective.
In an off-grid home, the generator is typically used when the solar or wind systems
do not provide enough electricity, such as during cloudy or still weather. The
generator may also be used to power some appliances when the solar/wind system
2 Generator
is rather small, or if a 12 volt DC system is used. In these cases, the generator
may power a washing machine, well pump (with storage tank) and perhaps even
charge portable cordless devices.
People with severe environmental sensitivities are often affected by a generator,
but these problems can often be remediated by choice of generator and setup.
Power quality limitations
Most generators produce low-quality electricity, with lots of added frequencies
(harmonics). The electricity is not the usual smooth sine wave we are used to
from grid power. This can be a problem for both appliances and humans (see
following section).
Some washing machines will not run on generator power. This is mostly a
problem with the fancier electronically controlled washers. Some washers are
factory-certified to run on generator power. Some electronics, such as stereos and
computers, may not run on generator power, or may even be damaged by it.
Small generators tend to produce lower quality electricity than larger models.
They also tend to vary the voltage more.
Some manufacturers have built inverters into their generators to improve the
power quality. This removes the low-frequency problems, which are so damaging
to electronics, but it adds higher frequencies, which can be a problem for sensitive
Limitations for environmentally sensitive people
Generators are a problem for environmentally sensitive people. They are noisy,
they produce dirty electricity, they pollute and the fuel is a hazard. Despite all
these problems, several people with severe chemical and electrical
hypersensitivities use generators, but they had to choose the model and their setup
All generators produce dirty electricity, including those with a built-in inverter.
Dirty electricity turns the wires into antennas, radiating the various frequencies.
Some sensitive people get sick if inside a house fed dirty electricity.
The solution is to not connect the generator to the house wiring, or only do so for
short periods of time. A washing machine can be placed in a garage or
outbuilding and fed electricity directly, or the breakers can be left off for the rest
of the house.
A generator also puts out strong low-frequency EMF, but it should be safe with
about 20 ft (7 m) distance. Some people are fine standing next to the generator
during the brief startup, while some may need a remote starter. With push-button
start, it is like starting a car engine.
The generator should not be used inside a house or a garage attached to a house.
This is also the case for healthy people. About a hundred Americans are killed
each year by carbon monoxide from generators. A generator really should only be
used outside, not in any enclosed space.
An off-gridder with a portable 2000 watt Honda EU2000; generator with optional
propane kit.
Economical limitations
Generators are expensive to run. A generator should not be the only source of
electricity for a full-time household — that only makes sense for a weekend cabin
or camping trailer.
It is not realistic to use a generator to run appliances that must be on all the time,
such as a refrigerator.
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It makes economical sense to substitute other energy sources than generator
power. It may make more sense to buy a propane clothes dryer instead of an
electric model, or simply use a clothesline.
An electric water heater can be powered by a generator, but it probably makes a
lot more sense to use a propane heater. These can be hooked up to the small tanks
used for barbecue grills, or to a central tank serving other uses in the house. Gas
can be used safely by sensitive people, if sealed off from the living space, though
this may not be feasible.
Using a generator to run more than one thing at the same time is a more efficient
use of this expensive resource. If the generator is big enough, an off-grid
household may use it to wash clothes, pump water and vacuum the house at the
same time. Putting larger loads on a generator is not free, it consumes more fuel,
just as a car does by going faster. But the wear is about the same, just make sure
not to overload it.
Using the generator in a grid-connected home
There is probably no advantage to using a generator instead of grid power. The
generator’s electricity is of a lower quality (dirty electricity), which is a problem to
some sensitive people. The cost of the electricity is also many times higher.
A generator can be very helpful if the grid is down for many hours, or even days,
as can happen in rural areas.
If using a generator in a grid-connected home, make sure to have a transfer switch
installed, to make sure the house is powered by either the generator or the grid. A
transfer switch can prevent dangerous situations where power is backfed onto the
grid and possibly kill a lineman, and it can prevent damage to the generator when
grid-power is restored.
Choosing the generator
There are many generator models available. Look in various tool catalogs.
The issues to consider include:
fuel type
starter system
weatherized enclosure
noise level
inverter option
The size needed depends on what the generator will power. Look at the nameplate
rating of each appliance and add them together. If the list includes any electrical
motors (such as well pumps and washing machine), triple the number to account
for the starting surge and the power factor, or contact the manufacturer for the
maximum power consumption. Then add a hefty margin. This should give a good
idea how big a generator is needed.
Some generators deliver 120 and 240 volts, with the full power only available at
240 volts. Some have two separate 120 volt outlets, each providing up to half the
rated power.
Most of the small models are started with a pull-cord, while the larger models all
have an electric starter for push-button convenience. Most models with an electric
starter have the option for remote starting, so they can be started from inside the
A generator that is too big will be a waste of money, and also consume more fuel.
Too small a generator will be overloaded and wear out faster.
A small household may do fine with a 2000 watt generator, while a house with a
well and other appliances to run at the same time will likely need a generator in
the 5000-7500 watt range.
There are three fuel types available: gasoline, diesel and propane. Propane is by
far the cleanest burning and it is also the safest to transport. A gasoline or diesel
generator often stinks, even when not running. A propane generator does not. If
your house has a propane tank, it may be possible to feed the generator directly
from it.
The downside to propane is there are fewer generator models available. They are
also a little more temperamental to start, as one has to prime them by opening for
the gas and letting it flow for a few seconds.
The generator is best run outdoors, to avoid exposures to exhaust and other fumes.
Some generators come with a weatherized enclosure, ready to leave outside,
perhaps with a tarp over it. Some generators are small enough that they can be
stored in a garden shed and carried or rolled outside when needed.
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Regarding quality: you get what you pay for. Diesel generators tend to last the
longest, while gasoline models wear out the fastest of the three types. Generators
with a low rpm (typically 1800 rpm) should last longer than those that run at a
faster rpm (typically 3600 rpm).
Generators with enclosures and push-button starters cost a lot more than portable
Engine noise is a big issue for many people with environmental illness. Some
people get actual symptoms from noise. Many generators are very noisy. Noise is
simply not a design criteria in most models.
For low-noise models, look for those with a low rpm. The U.S. National Park
Service has a program to certify generators for use by RV campers in their parks.
These models are much quieter than the regular designs.
Some generators have a built-in inverter that makes the AC sine-wave smoother.
But inverters send out high-frequency EMF that is very disturbing to some
sensitive people. These models are best avoided by people who are electrically
The weight of the generator depends on the wattage. A 2000 watt generator can
be carried by a person, while 5000-10,000 watt generators come with wheels.
Portability is typically not needed for an off-grid household, where a generator can
be stationary. For trailer use, the smaller portable generators are probably the best
The generator can be placed on a concrete pad or just some blocks in the yard.
There needs to be some weather protection if it is not an outdoor model. Some
people build a lean-to or have a wooden box that is placed over the generator
when not in use. A simple tarp can also be used in some cases.
For a permanent installation, the generator should be connected to a breaker panel,
from where power flows to the different needs (well, house, outbuilding, etc.).
This breaker panel should have a ground rod and be the bonding point (neutralground connection). It should be the only bonding point in the electrical system
(i.e. no neutral-ground connections in any other electrical panels). Having only
one bonding point eliminates the problem of some electricity running in the soil
(between multiple ground rods), which causes unbalanced circuits and elevated
magnetic fields.
In temporary setups, such as trailers, heavy-duty extension cords can be used to
power equipment. There is no need for grounding such a generator.
More information
More information about off-grid technologies for environmentally sensitive people
can be found on
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