Take our 101 class on the moving parts of your home or business’ best friend in a power outage

Key Takeaways:

  • Generator engines and alternators work hand in hand
  • They run on various fuel types, all of which require careful handling
  • Control panels are essential for monitoring generator function
  • Installing and maintaining generators is best done by power professionals

A residential or commercial generator can save you from some literally dark times. Generators keep the lights on and power potentially life-saving systems like HVACs and fans while giving homes around the country (and especially Florida) a breath of cool air.

Most assume their generator will be there to back them up like magic whenever it’s needed. If something went wrong with your generator, would you even know where to start looking for the issue? This guide will examine how generators work to support power needs in a crisis.

Your generator’s engine

A generator can’t rely on electricity to start creating power. Instead, generators use mechanical energy to move electrical charges through wires with differing voltages at their ends and into an external electrical circuit. The engine creates mechanical energy that the alternator transforms into electrical output.

Smaller engines create lower levels of mechanical energy, but the output increases up the size scale. Some engines use an overhead valve, which doesn’t mount the intake and exhaust valves on an engine block. These are usually the quieter and tougher of the two valve types with other benefits including lower emissions.

Enter the alternator

Alternators are a combination of active and static components that move the electrical and magnetic fields that generate an electric charge. The rotor (also called the armature) is an electromagnet composed of copper coiling wires wrapped around metal core poles.

The rotor moves to produce a rotating magnetic field using either an exciter (a small direct current source), induction (an asynchronous alternating current that pulls the rotor and makes it run), or permanent magnets. The stationary part of the generator is called the stator and is an iron core with electrical conductors inside.

The generator battery

This is what kickstarts the engine. Your manufacturer’s manual will probably have a recommended battery type for the unit along with a suggested charge level. Some generators can operate on a single battery while bigger models may use multiples.

You can buy a battery charger for your generator from a wide variety of retailers and some generators have them pre-installed. Speak to your manufacturer or an experienced electrical team before selecting your battery because size matters, as does the battery’s lifespan and the environmental conditions it will face.

Generator fuel

Generators run on many fuels, including gasoline and diesel. Other designs use kerosene, natural gas, propane gas, or liquefied propane. Some models can even be hybrid and run on multiple fuel types. All those fuel sources are highly flammable and potentially toxic, so they should be handled with great care.

Big commercial generators tend to have an external fuel tank connected directly to the engine. Owners of residential generators will find your fuel tank either on the generator’s frame at the top or connected to its skid base (the section that allows the generator to be moved from place to place).

Two lines for supply and return connect the fuel tank to the engine so fuel can go in when needed and be drained if it becomes unusable. Generator fuel can become unusable for a few reasons, such as becoming diluted by contaminants or too much water. Therefore, tanks usually come with filters or water separators. Lastly, there’s the fuel injector, which delivers the atomized liquid fuel into the engine’s combustion chamber.

Generator exhausts

This is the exit point for fumes and heat. Maintaining it is as vital to the health of the user as it is to the unit. Exhausts should always lead away from areas where fumes might impact people. Anyone hurt by generator exhaust may be able to sue the generator’s owner for damages and medical expenses.

Adding an exhaust extension is a good idea. It can make them quieter, help with directing fumes away from vulnerable spaces, and direct heat away from the exhaust and the generator itself. The heat profile of the exhaust alone can measure between 600- and 1000-degrees Fahrenheit!

Control panels

The complexity of a generator’s control panel depends on the model. Panels can be part of the generator itself or a standalone component. Generally speaking, they provide shutdown and startup controls along with some indication of how the generator is performing. This data can include:

  • How long the generator has been running
  • Unit temperature
  • Coolant temperature
  • Oil pressure
  • Frequency and current
  • Voltage and output readouts

Ideally, you want a generator with as much control panel info as possible and that will shut the unit off if any level exceeds acceptable limits. Some control panels work in unison with an Automatic Transfer Switch that can tell the control panel to start the generator in the event of an electrical grid failure.

Cooling generators

Generators can heat up fast. Along with the ventilation lines that go some way to helping with cooling, some models simply use a fan and radiator to keep temperatures optimal. Other designs have a built-in water tank while bigger models have entire cooling towers to serve them. Some generators use demineralized water as a secondary coolant and hydrogen as the primary. Hydrogen draws in the heat and sends it to the water via a heat exchanger to be absorbed.

You can help your generator stay cool by doing two things. First, don’t crowd it — keep at least a few feet clear on all sides. Second, maintain the generator regularly and make sure coolant systems are cleaned and flushed as recommended by the manufacturer or by a qualified service technician.

A generator’s lubrication system is another key player in cooling since well-lubricated parts run slickly and don’t generate extra friction and heat. Lubricating agents should be checked every few hours to see if they need to be topped up because running a generator is thirsty work. Make sure you choose the best oil for the job. Follow the manufacturer’s manual for guidelines or the advice of a qualified technician about changing out oil.

Speak to the experts to stay safe

Professional installation is essential when it comes to generators. The experts can make the whole process transparent even if you don’t know a thing about how they work. Universal Electrical Services are your power pros when it comes to residential and commercial generators. Just get in touch if you need us!