I, Generator

We moved up to Boulder Creek in 1992. Both of us, my husband Bob and I, had lived all over the Santa Cruz Mountains for years. So we knew what we were getting in to and were able to reassure our anxious real estate agent that, yes, we knew about bad roads, extended commute times, difficulty getting services, and most importantly, power outages. Now, this house is not really remote by BC standards. The access roads are paved and mostly flat, we have garbage pickup, mail delivery, and (eventually) broadband access. Although I do treasure the AT&T response to my query about DSL: “Oh, we’re never going to have it out there. Why bother?” So when, lo and behold, they did have it and the sales person pestered me, I was able to rip a strip off them. By then I had broadband through Comcast, which is a whole other blog post and probably libelous, never mind.

I had learned, from all those years in La Honda, the first thing to do when the power goes out is take a shower. Because if your landlord has installed a cheap electric hot water heater and the power is out for several days, you want to start clean. After that, you whine at friends or shower at work. So I double-checked that this house had a propane hot water heater. For those of you not living in the mountains in California, we don’t have ‘gas’, or more properly natural gas lines. That goes right along with sewer lines which we don’t have either. Instead we have septic tanks and propane tanks. So the hot water problem was solved.

Under protest, Bob bought a generator. I have no idea why he fought this so hard, unless he had some visionary ideal of candles and wood stoves. You would think he would know better. Anyway, the wood stove in the house promptly disintegrated, a complete non-starter. I was adamant, so he bought a cheap little rebuilt generator. Which we used frequently. It sat in the garage, we ran extension cords through the kitchen door and laced all over the floors, it rattled and pounded, we had to unplug that lamp to plug in that coffee pot. So we sold it and bought a bigger one. And a bigger one. And so on. At one point we were out of power for over two weeks and the damn thing ran from early morning until ten at night. Life with it was so much better than unpowered life without it. And it powered the (propane) furnace electric fan.

About the third generator upgrade, we cleaned out the storage shed behind the house and put the generator in there. We also experimented with wiring the generator directly into the power box and found a tame electrician to help us out. This was, the first time out, amazing. No more extension cords and so much quieter. Also, Bob had made the unpleasant discovery that pull-starting a generator was getting more and more difficult for him, so our next upgrade (and boy did we debate this) was to a key-start unit. Which was again, bigger. By now, we had a pretty good system in place. Power goes out, flip the main switch off, fill the generator with gasoline, start it, and switch over. Problem solved. Sort of.

All of these generators were gasoline-powered. This meant we had a collection of gas cans, most of them five gallons, stored in the garage and the generator shed. Bob was particularly proud of the twenty-gallon tank he had installed in the generator shed, with a gravity feed stopcock. As power outages became fewer, this gasoline would age, so Bob would dump in stabilizer and do this elaborate rotation, ending with pouring the unused gas into the cars. We didn’t need the generator as often but when we needed it, we really needed it.

Until the day the power went out and Bob insisted on starting the generator. He was having difficulty with balance and walking and he didn’t have much strength. But he did get it started and returned to the couch. Suddenly he got up and moved as fast as I had seen him move in years. He made it out the back door to the generator shed and turned the thing off. The carburetor had stuck open and was spewing hot gasoline all over the floor of the shed. Which had at least 30 gallons of gasoline stored in it. Which was ten feet from the house.

So, after much debate, we bought a propane generator. We had to have a gas line dug from the tank to the shed but we did get it all installed and working. We could have gotten a gas/propane unit and on reflection I’m not sure that wasn’t a mistake. But right then I was terrified of all that gasoline and the fire danger. There was no way Bob could lift heavy gas cans anymore and I wasn’t too thrilled about that myself. With a direct propane line, you don’t have to refuel.

The day after Bob died, the power went out. And I couldn’t get the generator started, or rather I could get the generator started but there wasn’t enough power to open the garage door. That’s when I made the unpleasant discovery that no one, repeat no one, services propane generators. Luckily that outage was the last in a while, because it took me three months to call the right person (the propane company) and have a technician check the lines. We had a leak, which lowered the pressure, so the generator wasn’t getting enough fuel. Leak fixed. Bob had insisted on installing his own cut-off valve on the line and that’s where the leak was. Unfortunately when someone is dead it’s hard to yell at them.

Now it is perfectly possible to get an automatic start generator, wired into the house. It’s just not cheap. But if this one dies on me, that’s the way I’d have to go. So far, fingers crossed, it’s been great. It doesn’t get that much use and therein lies a problem.

Because I’m frightened of the thing. It’s a large engine with an explosive propellant. You have to stand next to it to turn it on. Generally, you have to do this in the dark with a flashlight clenched in your teeth. So I tend to ignore it and that’s not good, because it has a battery for the starter and (Bad Mary) the last time I needed it the battery was dead. I’d accidentally disconnected the battery charger. So I swore I’d check the thing every month, no matter what.

Well, and there is a point to this post assuming you’ve read this far, we have a storm coming in tonight and it is supposed to snow. Coastal California is one of the most unprepared-for-snow places in the world, aside from Fiji, and I expect the power to go out. So today I gritted my teeth and marched over to start the generator just in case.

Dead battery. And I had the charger plugged in. I overcame my self-flagellation of incompetence and actually traced the charger wires and checked the circuit was live. I’d simply plugged the charger into the wrong place. So I’d checked the generator before the storm (Good), discovered I’d totally fucked up (Bad), and hopefully fixed the problem (Good?). If the power goes out and the battery doesn’t have enough charge to start it I do know how to use the jumper unit. Which is fully charged.

I want to stay in this house. I love it and I love the area. To stay here I have to be as self-supporting as possible, and if that means checking the bloody generator every month, by god that’s what I will do. I so swear.