Generator Install

After fixing the generator last year (this project) I needed to install it permanently. I pulled the permit last year and it expires soon, so lately I’ve put more work into this to get it done. After a year of on-and-off work it’s finally ready for inspection. Permanent installation consists of 3 main parts: mounting the generator, installing an interlock, and running cable from the generator to the house electrical panel.

#1 – Mounting the generator was relatively easy – I dug out a flat area, made a form, added rebar, and poured concrete. The only tricky part here was keeping the threaded bolts positioned correctly so that they’d line up with the generator mounting holes. After the concrete cured I moved the generator in place and bolted it down, using hockey pucks as vibration dampers. I turned down the upper hockey pucks on the lathe and machined a step into them so that it keeps the generator centered on the mounting bolts.

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#2 – The interlock requirement is the most important part of any generator installation since it prevents energy from the generator back-feeding into the utility, which would create a dangerous situation for the linemen that are working to restore power. There are several ways to accomplish the interlock:

– Automatic Transfer Switch: This switch is placed inline between the meter and main panel, during an outage it automatically disconnects the house from the utility, connects to the generator, and sends a signal to start the generator. This capability would be nice but there’s a lot of complexity, expense, and extra work involved.

– Manual Transfer Switch: This switch is placed inline between the meter and main panel and you can manually select which power source the house is using. This is much simpler than the automatic switch, but still requires an additional small panel for the switch.

– Main Breaker Interlock: This is a sliding plate that mounts inside the existing main panel and it prevents the main breaker from being ON at the same time as another nearby breaker (and vice versa). The generator powers the main panel through the nearby breaker.

I opted for the Main Breaker Interlock since it’s allowed where I live and it’s the simplest way.

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#3 – Running cable was the toughest part. Since the generator isn’t a residential unit that’s fire-rated to be directly next to the house (it probably would perform better than a residential unit, but the military doesn’t do the residential testing) it had to be at least 2ft away. 2ft away would have made for an awkward placement and it would have been in the way a lot, so instead I took it much farther out near the tree-line; leading to a ~60ft long trench. Code requires either 18″ of cover or 24″ of cover depending upon whether or not conduit is used. I opted to use conduit since the shallower trench saved digging effort and also reduced the chance of encountering any other utilities in the process. Most of the digging was through very dense/hard clay and it was slow-going with a trenching shovel. I welded the shovel back together at least a few times. I also experimented digging with the pressure washer, which mostly made a mess. The last 2ft near the house were through concrete; the technique I used for this was to turn the area into Swiss cheese with a hammer drill, break it out with a small air chisel, and then progress down to the next layer. I had been on and off of this effort over the past year and finally finished this weekend.

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(#4) Misc things. Since the generator wasn’t originally intended for residential installation there were a few extra things I did to convert it:

– I added cabinet locks to all of the access doors. This isn’t for security so much as it is to prevent anyone that shouldn’t be in there from getting into danger, especially the front door that has the output terminals directly behind it.

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– One of the code requirements is that there must be a way to disconnect the generator outdoors. The generator itself sort-of/kind-of meets this requirement since it has a switch on the operator panel that will open the relay that connects the output power. Since this switch isn’t directly a disconnect though and since there’s a lock on the operator panel that could restrict access I also added a ‘real’ disconnect on the exterior of the house. I used the CNC router to make an engraved sign to mark it.

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– Since the interlock completely disconnects the house from the utility it can be tough to know when power is restored. Electrically it would be possible to have a light/buzzer on the utility connections before the main, but since this wouldn’t have a breaker it wouldn’t be safe or code compliant. I found a device that’s made exactly for this problem and installed it. It has it’s own power via a 9V battery and has an antenna that wraps around the line from the utility to monitor power status. The alarm is armed manually when on generator power and as soon as utility power returns its siren sounds.

– I made a step-by-step instruction list with photos so anyone that’s home at the time of a power outage can start the generator and operate the interlock. This list and the key to the generator are held inside the main panel with magnets.

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Next step is to get it inspected and then I can backfill the trench and clean the mud off of everything one last time.

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Exterior Projects & ‘Custom’ Molding

This weekend I finally got around to a few exterior projects at the house:

– One of the gable sides had flaking trim paint on its vent / rake boards and needed fresh paint on the siding. I sanded and repainted the trim and then put several coats of new paint on the siding. This gable end is the only original Masonite siding on the house that’s exposed (the entire back was replaced with LP Smartside by the previous owner, the dormer siding I’ll be replacing soon, and the rest of it is either under the porch or deep eaves where it never gets wet). Anywhere Masonite siding can get wet it’s critically important to keep good paint on it to avoid swelling; I think I caught this just in time. Getting access to the area took a little creativity and involved a few roof brackets, planks, and making a platform/box from 2×10’s; it was very rigid once all the parts were secured together though.

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– Installed gutter guards. Leaves should start falling soon and I’ll see how it goes, anything will be an improvement.

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– The gable side on the back of the house had a rotted rake board and molding. Replacing the rake board was no problem; I just needed to rip a 1×6 to the exact width and put a slight roundover on the bottom edges to match the existing rake boards.

(I didn’t get a before shot, but this shows the new board and missing molding. The dark area of the old board was covered by bad molding, but is still good. It will get primed before installing the molding, and this way the seams are staggered for stability)

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Unfortunately the molding that’s between the rake board and shingles (conveniently called ‘shingle molding’) is not readily available. Replacing the molding leaves several options:

#1 – A millwork shop may have it in stock, but this would take a lot of driving around to find. Usually those places have 8-5 M-F hours and sometimes won’t talk about such a small order.

#2 – I could probably find it online, but it wouldn’t ship in one piece plus there would be a delay time, added shipping costs, etc.

#3 – Sometimes it’s possible to find the same profile on a larger piece (i.e. base molding) and rip it to width. I checked this as an option when looking for for the molding originally, but this also wasn’t available.

#4 – If I found the correct profile router bit I could make the molding with the router table. This can be pricy though, plus it adds delay time and it takes a lot of setup/finishing to get a good output.

#5 – I was able to find a matching profile on a piece that was too narrow. Since the ‘missing’ part is rectangular it’s possible to just make the missing strip and glue it on.

I’ve used #4 for matching other weird trim on the house, but for this scenario #5 made the most sense. To get a good glue joint I first ripped a bit off of the pre-primed molding to expose the wood. Next I ripped a 12ft scrap of 1x{something} to the right width. Dry fitting the two pieces next to each other showed that the 1x piece was just a bit thicker than the molding. I feed this strip through the planer until it was an exact match and then tightly taped the back sides of the two pieces together, forming a hinge. The tape ‘hinge’ was opened to apply glue and then tightly taped back together. Once the glue dries overnight it will be scrapped, fed through the planer, and then sanded, primed, and installed.

 

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Saw Milling Test

Last fall prior to Hurricane Florence I took down some good-sized white and red oaks. These were great trees but both had large limbs overhanging/threatening the garage, so they had to go. Rather than cut them up for firewood as usual I let them stay where they fell through the winter. Today was unseasonably warm and I took a stab at milling one of the logs. Drying takes a long time, so the point of this was to get at least something started – this way if I don’t finish milling the rest of it for a while I’ll at least have something in the queue.

To make the milling cuts I just free-handed with the chainsaw and there’s a good bit of variance in thickness as a result; to get straight boards I’ll have to deal with this variation at the joining/planing stage. For the next attempt I plan to build a metal guide frame over the saw to allow it to rest level on top of either a ladder laid on the log (first cut) or the level surface made by previous cuts. Also, my saw is a middle/low power model (3HP) and bogged down occasionally. Normal chainsaw chain is meant for cross-cutting and takes too big of a bite for ripping, for the next attempt I plan to modify an old chain into a ripping chain by grinding back some of the teeth – these converted teeth will help clear chips out of the cut rather then cutting themselves and it should mean less bogging down.

Once milled, the log was reassembled with some ‘sticker’ pieces I cut from scrap 2×4’s to create airflow gaps. It’s under an overhang that should provide enough rain protection. The drying happens from the inside out over a long period of time, getting wet from rain only temporarily increases the moisture level on the outside; this dissipates quickly and doesn’t hurt the overall dry time. Drying should take about a year per inch, the slabs are about an inch and a half on average so I may be able to use these as soon as next summer.

We have some ideas for the wood but no immediate plans; this is just a long-term thinking/prep. The white oak is good outdoors and may become some much-needed patio furniture. The red oak may be used to upgrade the fireplace mantel and be used for a headboard and side tables.

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Dust Collection

This weekend I installed the shop dust collection system. The system consists of several parts:

Fan/Motor: I repurposed a portable dust collector fan I’ve had for a while that’s been underutilized (collecting dust, but not as intended). Space is limited in the mechanical room so since the fan won’t need easy access I mounted it high up above the air compressor near where the dust collector pipe enters the mechanical room.
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Pipes: 4″ PVC DWV pipes; there are a few branches leading to the different tools. I tried to keep the overall length as short as possible and the bend radius’s large.

Blast Gates: The blast gates control the air flow though the system by blocking off unused branches. I made these with 1/2″ plywood and 1/4″ hardboard. Circle cutouts were made on the lathe to match the pipe outside diameter exactly.
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Filter and Collection Bin: The portable dust collector came with a light canvas bag that restricted the air flow massively while still allowing fine particles to escape. To improve this I replaced the bag with a semi truck air filter mounted to a trash can. The theory is that air will exit the filter and larger dust/chips should fall into the trash can below. There are purpose-built dust collection filters available, but the costs are much higher for these and the semi truck filter has the same specs; different economies of scale. To mount the filter to the bin I made a plywood ring, for now they’re just taped together but I may add latches at some point. The design may need some tweaking; I’ll know more after it gets further use, but for now the airflow is excellent.
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Return Vent:  Having the collection bin in the mechanical room created a problem; the mechanical room is well sealed for noise reduction, so there was nowhere for the air exhausted from the filter to go. For heat/air to be retained in the shop, the exhaust air needed to return to the shop via a vent. Since I also wanted to keep the mechanical room noise level as low as possible this meant the vent needed to be sound proof. I built a sound proof vent by creating a 3ft long box and offsetting baffle plates inside of it. The sound has to reflect a dozen or more times off of the baffle plates; at each reflection it gets absorbed some by a fiberglass lining. The air, however, is able to snake around the baffles and find its way out. The inlet to this vent also points directly at the floor away from the sound sources. Somehow after adding this vent the mechanical room noise is actually noticeably quieter than when it was completely sealed. I think this may have had to do with the air pressure changes resonating in the previously sealed room, whereas now any fluctuations are equalized through the vent.
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Control: For now control of the system is via a remote control outlet (repurposed from controlling the vacuum at the old shop), at some point I may integrate some low voltage switches with the blast gates so the motor will turn on as soon as any gate is opened.

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Cabinet Handles

Over the last few nights I’ve been working on handles for the cabinets. The handles are 4″ sections cut from 1.5″ aluminum angle. Before cutting to length I ripped ~1/2″ off of one side of the aluminum so the handles weren’t too wide. This was my first time cutting aluminum on the table saw, it was very quick and effective but also shot scalding hot aluminum chips in every direction and sounded like a Pterodactyl being fed through a wood chipper.

Since I may add/change cabinets in the future I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t locked into a particular brand/model of handle that could be discontinued, by making my own with standard materials this isn’t a problem and the cost was also kept to a bare minimum.

Once all the sections were cut to length I sanded the rough edges and drilled/countersunk holes on the drill press. I made a quick fixture with clamps and wood blocks to get the holes consistently located. To attach the handles to the cabinets I chiseled out a 1/8″ recess and then attached the handles flush with the door edges.

I’m undecided on whether these will keep their current ‘brushed’ looking finish or whether I’ll polish or paint them. I’ll decide that when the time comes to finish/paint the cabinets.

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Shop Cabinets

This weekend I resumed work on the shop and made major progress on the cabinets:

– Upper cabinet built

– Another cabinet built for small parts storage

– Doors for existing base cabinets built

The doors are ‘shaker’ style for simplicity; building these is as easy as cutting a piece of 1/2″ plywood to the right size and then wrapping it in the same 1×2 poplar used for the cabinet face frames. All the door frame pieces got a 1/2″ dado to fit around the plywood edge and then the top/bottom frame pieces had 1/8″ removed from either side of their face on the ends to make a tenon. I found that the majority of the build time is in changing between the various setups needed (cut to length vs dado cutting vs tenon cutting vs cutting plywood, etc) so after the first test door I tried to build as many doors at a time in parallel as possible.

I went with ‘inset’ mounting of the doors because i like the clean/simple look. This gives a lot less room for error compared to overlay mounting since the gap is visible and it and needs to be small and consistent. It’s critical that cuts are within 1/16″ and that everything stays perfectly square or things go downhill fast. For the dados I used an old ‘wobble’ style dado blade (these are so sketchy they’ve been banned in europe); the geometry of this contraption is such that it can’t leave a perfectly square bottom. It’s not really a problem since the dado bottom is internal/unseen, but it made measuring and setting the correct dado depth difficult.

I definitely had a few mistakes to correct along the way, but overall I think it was just enough of a challenge to help improve my woodworking. Next steps are to make handles, make/install drawers for the last open base cabinet, and (eventually) do the finish work of filling/sanding/painting.

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Generator Rebuild

Hurricane Michael hit our area hard and took out power for almost 5 days. Luckily the small generator we already had was enough to keep the fridge running and some lights on, but not much else. The small generator is 120V only, so it also was not able to power the 240V well pump; 4 nights without running water was not fun. It’s not likely we’ll have another outage that’s this long for a while, but we have had a number of shorter outages that seem to indicate that this will be an ongoing problem – a bigger generator would be nice.

With that in mind we started looking at options; there are a number of ‘off the shelf’ options out there for whole-house standby power, but most of them are very pricey both to install and to run (propane particularly) and we couldn’t justify the cost for something that gets used so infrequently. What did seem to make some sense though was rolling the dice a surplus military generator; the prices are very low (when the condition is unknown), they’re way over-built, and are made to be repaired easily.

I bid on and won an online surplus auction for a diesel generator and picked it up outside our friendly neighborhood military base. It was a fairly easy move at ~1200lb; at pickup I just dragged it onto the trailer with a winch and to offload I tilted the trailer and winched it back down with iron pipes underneath as rollers.

To get it running I first put in new batteries (2x 12v car batteries) and troubleshot some miscellaneous electrical issues (broken connections, dirty switch contacts, etc.). From there it would crank but not run; bleeding the air out out the fuel lines fixed this and it started OK. Once running there was an erratic low frequency rattle that I traced to a bad rotor bearing on the generator head. With this bearing replaced it then ran smooth/quiet. The last issue was twitchy voltage regulation that I traced back to a dirty potentiometer; with this cleaned it held a stable 240V @ 60hz under a variety of loads. Along the way it also got an oil/filter change and a coolant flush/fill.

Altogether this was a very quick project, just a few hours to get everything sorted out. Up next will be setting aside some space for it (probably combined with a new area for trashcans and firewood) and getting it wired in with a manual transfer switch. It’s a “10KW” generator but that rating is on the very conservative side; in reality it’s closer to a 15KW or more consumer unit whose ratings are on the optimistic side. This should be enough to run the lights, TV, well, microwave, and at least one zone of HVAC.

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Small Parts Organization

Background:

The new shop has given me the opportunity to rethink storage of the miscellaneous small parts I have laying around: nails, screws, nuts, bolts, brackets, cable ties, electrical connectors, fittings, etc. The previous system I had was to sort by type (i.e. nails) into individual plastic shelf bins (the common Blue/Red/Yellow type). This was better than nothing, but the downside was that every time I needed something I had to dump the whole bin into a sorting tray and search.

The new method uses a rack of portable parts storage cases.  These cases give the ability to sort by main type (i.e. nails all in one case) but also by individual size (i.e. 1″ finish nails). The cases also have removable bins inside of various sizes; by swapping these around I’ll be able to optimize storage – swap bins between the cases that have more big parts vs those that have more small parts.

I considered the individual drawer style of parts organizers also; when I’ve had these in the past it seemed like I was constantly opening and closing the tiny drawers to look at parts from above; the drawers also easily jammed closed when full. The parts storage cases should prevent both of these problems.

(There are lots of similar projects online that sparked the idea, so this definitely isn’t something I can take credit for coming up with.)

Construction:

Last weekend I built a cabinet to house the ‘machinist’ toolbox used for the mill and lathe tools; the cabinet also supports the lathe itself. For the countertop I’m again using the “Norm Abrams” design – plywood topped with a varnished hardboard layer that’s cheap/easy to replace when it gets too beat up; I had these at the last shop and they worked really well. I left room in the cabinet for this parts organizer idea, so today I just needed to outfit it with shelves to support the parts cases. The rack consists of the shelves themselves as well as spacer blocks that help support the shelves and make it easy to get the correct spacing. The process for making the shelves was as follows:

  • Rough cut each shelf from the plywood panel with a circular saw.
  • Square and cut the shelf to final dimensions on the table saw.
  • (For the first shelf) Drill holes at the corner of the handle area and finish cutting it out with the bandsaw.
  • (For all other shelves) Clamp the shelf to the first shelf and trim out the handle area area with the flush cut router bit.
  • Run the router over both front edges with a 1/4″ round-over bit.

There’s now an empty space in the cabinet behind the cases that I may eventually tap into and repeat the same idea using the smaller version of the cases; this would be accessed from the side of the cabinet, but for now it’s not needed.

I intentionally got a couple extra cases. This allows more options for swapping around internal bins, but primarily it’s so I have backups in case a case ever gets broken and exact replacements are no longer available.

All that’s left is to add an inset door (the cases are offset to the left to allow room for a door and hinges on the right), a slide-out platform at the top, and then finish trimming/sanding/painting everything.

(I also finished and painted the walls/trim then ground and epoxied the floor over the last several weekends, but I forgot to get in-progress pictures.)

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Sliding Doors

The shop floor plan allows for a large opening between the ‘far’ end of the shop and the auto repair/bus area. This will allow tools to be easily shared between both spaces; during a big auto project the repair bay can become an extension of the workshop. The opening is also big enough to bring in the front or rear of a vehicle if ever needed. When auto projects aren’t underway though I’d like to have doors cover this opening to prevent dust/mess from wood/metal project leaving the shop area and to save on shop heating/cooling costs.

The size of the opening presents a problem – swinging doors would have to swing ‘out’ of the shop to avoid hitting cabinets, and the large sweep would require moving anything parked on the garage side out of the way temporarily, kind of a hassle. To avoid this problem, sliding doors made the most sense.

The shop build project is being run with the materials cost set to minimum and the end-product quality set as high as is practical. This sounds unrealistic but is actually possible with the trade-off being time; it’s not a problem though since I count this as hobby time and there’s no particular deadline. The sliding doors are a great example of this – sliding doors and hardware are outrageously expensive compared to the raw materials cost. Building my own also gives me full control, in this case I wanted to avoid the farmhouse/barndoor/rustic look in favor of cleaner traditional/modern look. Over the last few weekends I’ve built the doors and tracks below, key points:

  • Door frames from 2×6’s, planed down to standard 1 3/8″ door thickness
  • Mortise and tenon joints connect frame pieces (tenons via table saw dado stack, mortises via router and chisel)
  • Slide rail is two 3/16″ x 3″ x 10′ flat bar sections welded in the middle.
  • Door bracket pins turned and threaded on lathe then welded to brackets.
  • Aluminum rollers turned on the lathe, held to the brackets using standard 608 skate bearings.
  • Brackets recessed into door frame and secured to the doors with studs welded to back side for a completely smooth front.
  • 1/4″ Tempered glass sourced from local glass shop.
  • Groove along bottom of door and small bottom bracket keep door located against the wall and limit inward overtravel.
  • Roller to door top spacing and roller flange width prevent door from lifting/falling off rail.

There’s a good bit of finishing work still left, but I’m happy with the results so far.

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Shop Insulation

The shop is coming along well and this weekend the bulk of the insulation was installed. Friday night we picked up R15 Roxul batts for the walls and installed in just few hours. The attic was another story though and all of Saturday and Sunday AM were spent crab walking over attic joists installing baffles. The baffles are needed to keep the blow-in insulation from falling out of the attic area and into the soffits. The roof over the garage has a shallower pitch towards the edges (if you visualize a pizza hut roof you’re not far off) which made it especially tricky to get access.

Once the baffles were up we picked up the blow-in insulation Sunday mid-day and had it all blown in in couple hours. The high pallet of insulation looked really odd on the trailer, but was secured well. Even compressed it’s not very dense, this was ~900lbs maybe ~1100lbs with the machine.

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