So you need a generator because your water is off during power outages...

Power outages from utilities trying to reduce fire risk are becoming more common. As a result many people have no water because their water relies on utility power. Many people are purchasing and installing generators to ensure electricity is available during these power outages. There are several very important aspects to consider BEFORE buying a generator to power your water system.

What size generator is needed?

Don’t make assumptions. If you have a 1 HP pump (746 watts) a 1000 watt generator is NOT large enough to run your pump. Electric motors require more power to start than to operate once they have started. In the case of a 1 HP standard submersible well pump; a 4-5 KW generator is required for the well pump even though 1 KW is the amount of power the pump uses when it is running. Some pump controllers, specifically constant pressure controllers or VFD’s, also have significant requirements when running from a generator, so it is important to throughly investigate what you need before purchasing a generator.

Pump manufacturers have provided information available to help you select the correct size generator for your well pump. First check out this video from Franklin Electric on the use of generators for your well pump system. After the basic overview, please refer to this reference chart for sizing a generator to your well pump or refer to this Franklin Subdrive reference chart as a guideline for sizing a generator if your well pump uses a variable frequency drive or constant pressure controller. If your pump controller is of a different manufacturer, please verify the manufacturer specific requirements for operation using a generator.

Keep in mind that many well water systems may have more than one pump that are used to provide water. Often a well pump is used to pump water into a storage tank and then a booster pump is used to pump water from the storage tank and pressurize it for irrigation and household needs. Many people choose only to use generator power for the booster pump that supplies water from the storage tank, but in some cases with large water demands, it is necessary to size the generator to run both the well and booster pumps at the same time.

In addition to the demands of your well pump, there are the demands for lighting and appliances you want to run during power outages. Make sure to include these demands as you calculate what size generator is adequate for your needs and consult with a qualified electrician.

In addition to considering how much power is needed, consider they type of power your well pump equipment requires. Most residential pumping equipment is single phase 230 volts, however, some small pumps may use 120 volts single phase. Larger pumping installations may require 208, 230 volt or 480 volt 3 phase power. Small generators under ~2000 watts usually only provide single phase 120 volt power while most medium size generators will provide 120/230 volt single phase power.

Make sure you have a suitable location for the generator

Generators can be loud, emit dangerous gases and pose fire hazards. Generators should be placed so that: a) noise is minimized for both you AND your neighbors b) it is never located in a room connected to your house c) it is located in a building without proper ventilation for cooling and provision for dangerous exhaust fumes. If you plan to install a generator outside; wood, brush, plastic and any fuel containers should be cleared to a safe distance from the generator site. Bare, clean dirt and cement are best. The generator should have a properly installed spark arrestor on the exhaust and care should be taken that the generator won’t tip over or vibrate in one direction or another. A fire extinguisher should be kept close at hand and fuel stored a safe distance from the generator. Portable generators should not be left running unsupervised. Keep in mind that if your generator starts a fire, you can be held liable for the damages!

Plan your generator electrical connection strategy

This aspect is of serious concern as it is a matter of safety, not just for you, but for others referenced in the video above. Improperly connected generators can back feed the power grid, electrocuting utility workers and causing other issues that you will be held responsible for. Properly connected generators come in two forms:

1) Installation of a transfer switch. A transfer switch allows the electrical load to be connected either to the generator or to the utility power source and, if installed properly, will never allow the generator to be connected to the utility grid. Some people try to install their generator using a separate circuit breaker in their electrical panel. With this setup they turn the utility circuit breaker off and then turn the generator circuit breaker on. This is considered unsafe practice as it is possible, through human error, to have both the generator and utility circuit breaker on at the same time. Some areas allow for installation of a breaker interlock in your breaker panel, but this needs to be confirmed with your local building code. Utility workers will frequently check sites that have generators running to see if the generator is safely connected before starting their repair work.. If they see a potential hazard, they will “pull” your electrical meter and your system will need to be inspected before they will reinstall it and restore utility power.

2)Plug items that need power directly into outlets provided on the generator. This is quite simple and much less expensive than installing a transfer switch. There are some drawbacks with this method. It means running extension cords and only being able to power a few key items that are plugged into the generator. It then means putting all the extension cords away and plugging everything back into the house when you are done. Some people will have electrician install 220 volt plugs/receptacle on the well pump equipment that can be unplugged from the utility power and plugged into the generator to ensure that water is available during a power outage, but this is seldom the preferred method. Make sure you are using suitable, grounded extension cords that have wire size large enough for the electrical loads. Make sure that the extension cords are not going to be a trip or safety hazard and that they are in good condition without cuts, scrapes or damage or loose cord ends.

Consider other methods of supplying your temporary water needs instead of a generator

Unless you are willing to spend a large amount installing an automatic backup generator with an automatic transfer switch, you should expect some hassle when using a portable generator. When the power goes out you get to drag the generator out, make the connections and fiddle around with starting it. It may have been years since the generator was last used and the battery for the starter is dead or the gas is old and has fouled the carburetor or fuel system. When you get the generator running you get to check the fuel and oil every few hours. If it’s time to run and pick the kids up from school, don’t forget to shut the generator off before you leave and fill the empty gas container! When the power comes back on, don’t forget switch everything back over and put the generator away and extension cords away!

“Isn’t there a better way?” you may be asking. In some cases, yes, there are other, potentially better ways to ensure water without resorting to the purchase of a generator. The potential solution really depends on your situation, budget and the amount of water needed during power outages.

If you are after enough water for a few toilet flushes, a quick shower and doing a few dishes in the sink; there are a few options:

1) If one of your neighbors has water that is not affected by utility outages it may be possible, with their permission, to run a garden hose from one of their hose bibs to one of yours and connect it using a double hose connector from your local hardware store. Keep your usage usage down and offer your neighbor a few bucks or take them out to dinner to show your appreciation!

2) Installing additional pressure tanks or a larger pressure tank on your well pump or booster pump system will increase the amount of pressurized water available during a power outage. Many systems have small pressure tanks that hold only a few gallons. This means after washing hands or a single toilet flush, the stored reservoir of pressurized water is gone. If you have room to install a larger pressure tank, you can increase this reserve to as much as 30 or 35 gallons per pressure tank. Keep in mind that pressure tank size and drawdown capacity are different. An 80 gallon pressure tank may displace a physical volume of 80 gallons, but may only have a water storage capacity of 30 gallons when the air charge needed to provide pressure is accounted for. If you have any water leaks, this type of solution won’t be of any help until those leaks are identified and repaired. Check out this link for more information on pressure tanks, how they work and the sizes available.

3) Some people choose to install a small storage tank near the house that they can fill with a hose and put a capful of bleach in to ensure the water stays clean. This small storage tank serves as a point that they can go to fill buckets to use for toilet flushing, washing dishes and watering plants if needed.

There are some solutions if you need more water, but they really depend on existing site conditions:

1)If you have elevation on your property in the form of a hill or a sturdy elevated platform, gravity will be your friend! It may be time to install a storage tank that can fill when the electricity is on and then water can flow by gravity to your house when needed.

2) If you have already installed solar panels on your house and have solar power available, you can upgrade this system with a battery bank to ensure power in the event of power outages. This can be quite expensive and may also require more than just installing a battery bank. Some systems may require changing the type and location of the inverter(s) and the installation of charge controllers. Please contact your solar installer for more information on converting your grid tied solar system to a grid tied solar with battery backup.

3) Some properties in the mountains have untapped or undeveloped springs that could be setup to supply water.

4) Some of our customers have had OPS install a Simple Pump in their well to ensure they are prepared for power outages. It is important to check if this type of setup will work in your well before purchasing.

Oakville Pump Service has been helping our customers ensure reliable and available water for our clients for over 35 years! Please call us at (707)944-2471 if we can help you ensure your water needs are met.