Our family lives off the grid which simply means that the power company doesn’t supply the power to our home. We make our own!
Over the years, we have accumulated a lot of experience with portable generators. This article will explain the process that we went through in selecting the perfect generator for our needs.
This article is not intended to be a tell all about all types of generators. It is, however, a good bit of helpful information should you ever find yourself shopping for a portable generator.
Eight years ago our family decided to make a major lifestyle change. We left the hustle and bustle of life in the suburbs to live in a place called Bly Mountain which is in beautiful Southern Oregon and we’ve been living off the grid for eight years now. In the beginning, we bought some solar panels with the hope of generating enough power for our needs from good ‘ol Mother Nature.
Unfortunately, our lack of experience hurt us on that decision. We live in a heavily forested area and we just don’t get enough daily sunlight on the panels to generate much power. For us, cutting the trees was not an option. After all, why move into the forest and then cut down all your trees?
The tall trees also negated wind power since the tower must be taller than the surrounding trees. How on earth does the average Joe build a tower over 100 feet high? It certainly wasn’t feasible for us!
Our electrical needs were fairly light. We went into this venture with the philosophy that the best way to be successful really was to conserve energy. Our main loads were a television, a satellite receiver, some lights, and a computer. At the time we chilled our food with a propane refrigerator in a 5th wheel that we had parked in next to the house and we cooked and heated our water with propane.
The Solution To Our Off Grid Power Requirements
The solution for us was to run a portable generator. We use the generator for our basic electrical needs during the day and while it’s running, it’s also charging a bank of batteries for use when the generator is off. This is very similar to the way you would charge a motorhome’s batteries when you are connected to power at your home or an RV campground. When you are camping in a motorhome, you can use the batteries to run your lights and other light electrical needs.
We made some mistakes along the way in terms of which generator would be the right choice for our particular needs. Hopefully our experience might help some of you make better decisions than we did and save you some money and hassles.
Our First Generator
The first generator that we purchased was a 6000 watt gasoline genset. Our thoughts were that it would be big enough to power our largest electrical loads; that way we would only need one generator. Shortly after purchasing this unit, we found out that we had made a big mistake. There were many reasons that this was the wrong decision for our needs. The first was fuel consumption. This thing was a gas hog. It actually used over a half gallon of gas an hour! If we weren’t careful, we could easily run through five gallons of gas before we even realized it. Can you imagine running this generator full time when gas was over $4.00 a gallon. That’s at least $20 a day or $600 a month. Yikes!
The second problem with the generator was that it was so dang loud. Listening to this generator roar was miserable! Why anyone would want to live in the serenity of the mountains to be constantly deafened by a noisy generator is beyond me.
The third problem was that it broke down within a couple of months of use. It simply wasn’t made for continual use that we were putting it through. Most low end portable gasoline generators are only designed for occasional use. You can certainly buy large gasoline generators that are designed to last longer but you still have to deal with their glutenous fuel appetite and the horrendously loud noise.
When this generator broke, the store exchanged it for a new 5500 watt model. We haven’t used it much but we decided to keep it for situations when we need a lot of power for short intervals like when running power tools and it has worked out great for this purpose.
The verdict on the large generators is that they simply aren’t very practical for off grid use. The exception would be, if you had a very large battery bank and a very high amperage battery charger. In this case, you would get more bang for your buck while the generator was running. You could run it for shorter time periods and still push a significant amount of juice into your batteries. Of course you still have the noise and relatively short life span to deal with. Can you see why in general, this option isn’t a good one?
Our Second Generator
Since the big generator wasn’t really working out for us, the next logical step would be to use a smaller, more fuel efficient generator. We shopped around and found a small two stroke generator at our local farm supply store. My experience with two stroke engines was that they are notoriously loud; not to mention, you have to add oil to the gas every time you fill it up which adds to the operational costs and overall hassle.
To ease our concerns about the 2 stroke noise, the store clerk started a demo model and we were pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was in comparison to the larger generators that we had owned. A bonus was that it was dirt cheap. I think we only paid around $140 for it. Excited, we loaded it into the cart and stocked up on some two stroke engine oil. This type of engine does not have an oil reservoir like your car so adding a pre-measured amount of oil to the gasoline provides the necessary lubrication for the engine.
When we arrived home we promptly fired it up and it was a pleasant change to nice to hear it purring instead of roaring like our previous generators had. I have to admit that the chore of adding oil wasn’t too awfully inconvenient. It came with a handy measuring cup and all we had to do was fill up the measuring cup and pour it into a one gallon gas can.
While running this little genset we dialed our battery charger down to the lower 10 amp setting to avoid overloading it. To our delight, it purred along for about 5 hours before its one gallon belly was hungry for more gas.
We were quite happy with the performance of our new smaller generator! This meant that we could run it for 10 hours a day and only use 2 gallons of gas which was much easier on the old pocket book. We ran that generator for about 3 or 4 months before it suffered a horrible clanking and banging death.
We enjoyed the fuel economy of our little blue generator but we were disappointed that it didn’t last longer. We bought it with the understanding that it wouldn’t last forever because it was so inexpensive but we were still hoping for a bit longer lifespan.
I should point out that when we needed more power, we ran the big generator but for the most part, all we needed was the small one. This was the right strategy for our family but we still didn’t have the right generator.
Finally, The Right Generator
During the first three years that we lived off the grid, we had our eye on a very special generator. It was the Honda eu2000i portable gasoline generator. This little red beauty was the “holy grail” in terms of fuel efficiency and low noise level. Unfortunately, our dreams and our pocket book never seemed to agree with each other. Buying one of these generators will set you back about $1,050 smackers! In retrospect, we wasted at least that much on buying inferior units in the past.
We eventually found ourselves with a bit of extra money and decided to fork over the dough for a shiny new EU2000i. It was a decision that we never regretted; even for a minute. These little generators are SUPER quiet and they only sip away at the gas instead of guzzling it like a college frat boy drinking beer though a funnel.
In actual use, we get about 10 hours on 1 (that’s one!) gallon of gas. These generators have a really cool feature called an “eco-throttle”. Allow me to explain; most generators run at a constant 3,600 rpms whether you’re powering a light bulb or a welder. With the eco-throttle turned on, the engine slows way down when you don’t need much power and speeds up when you need more. It’s awesome!
The generator comes with a three year warranty and the reason Honda is willing to offer such a great warranty is because these little babies seem to run forever! Our first Honda EU2000i lasted for over two years of hard running. We figure that we got a bit over 10,000 hours of use from it which is virtually unheard of for portable generators. If you figure we paid $1,050 for it and it lasted us about 850 days, it works out that the cost of the generator equaled about $1.25 per day. That’s not counting the gas that we used each day but it’s still pretty economical. Keep in mind that we ran that generator every single day for about 12 hours a day.
During the course of its life we had to do a couple of minor things to it. The pull cord broke twice which my husband was able to fix. Oh, and you need to change the oil frequently if you want it to last. It only uses a half of a quart of oil so that’s not anything significant and it’s really easy to change and add oil to the unit.
When the generator finally gave up the ghost, I think it was actually my husband’s fault. He thought he would tune it up so he added some kind of a treatment to the oil that was supposed to remove sludge from the engine. What actually happened was the generator started burning oil like crazy after the treatment and soon after that something in the engine broke.
When it finally stopped working, we happily bought another and it has been running about as long as the first one did. This time, however, my husband did a much better job of maintaining the engine so I think it will last even longer than the first one did. If you would like to learn some tips that we picked up about maintaining a portable generator, you might want to read my article that is called A Handy Free Portable Generator Maintenance Checklist Download when you have the time.