What's New: Portable generators

Portable generators can give you the power and versatility you need to accomplish many common and unusual tasks related to grounds maintenance. For many years, grounds professionals have relied on portable generators to supply electric power not only for emergency situations but for performing daily routine tasks. These generators provide a range of power output for various applications in some of the most far-removed and remote areas.

"Portable is the key word," says John Zimmers, golf course superintendent of the new Sandridge Golf Club (Chardon, Ohio). "We are in the middle of a combination golf-course construction project/grow-in situation here at Sandridge. We have about eight holes completed and [are] in the grow-in stage, with the remainder of the course still under construction. The only means that we have of supplying power to our irrigation-system controllers is by portable generators....These portable power units have been an important key to our success to this point. I will definitely be purchasing more units for future use here at Sandridge."

Kevin Browning, manager of irrigation at Churchill Downs Racetrack (Louisville, Ky.), adds, "There's not a week that goes by during racing season that we're not using portable generators. Whether for grounds maintenance, irrigation-system operation or track repair, our portable generators are extremely valuable to our track operation here at Churchill Downs."

Sizing of portable generators Typically, generator use has been based on power needs and demands along with the unit's physical size and weight. Size is, of course, a major factor. It determines how easily you can transport a unit. For example, you can easily carry small, lightweight generators to a work site. These small units can provide a power source (ranging from around 300 to 1,500 watts) to operate light-weight power tools--particularly electric hedge and spin trimmers--and small appliances and radios. You also can use them to provide temporary lighting, such as in emergency, late-night situations or in situations with dense foliage and shade.

With medium-sized, heavy-duty units, you either can carry your generator or mount it on caddy wheels and roll it into position. These units have power ranges from around 1,500 watts to more than 5,000 watts. Of course, increased weight and bulkiness typically accompany increased power supplies. With greater output potential, these units are ideal for industrial/commercial use to operate multiple heavy-duty power tools and equipment.

As for heavy-duty portable generators, you'll typically haul these units on trucks or mount them on wheels and pull them behind your truck or van. These units commonly provide a power output of more than 5,000 watts. You typically use heavy duty generators for supplying temporary power for large-scale electrical use during emergencies, construction projects or special events.

Features to consider when shopping Obviously, when shopping for a portable generator, you want to consider power output, size, weight and cost as major factors. As discussed previously, the power output of portable generators comes in a range of output levels. When choosing the appropriate piece of equipment for your situation, you must not only consider wattage but also the amount of amps the particular unit can supply. Before purchase, research and decide what tasks for which you will use the generator. After all, the equipment you're using greatly affects the power draw or load, which affects your generator's performance. There's nothing more frustrating than to be underpowered.

Generator construction is another important factor to consider. The use of a high-quality reliable engine to turn the generating unit, for example, is a must. For the most part, this is a common aspect on most units offered in today's marketplace. Today's heavy duty, easy-starting engines--either pull-start or electric-start--provide greater efficiency and are more user-friendly than units in the past. These smooth-running engines also typically require less maintenance, which means greater use and less downtime.

The use of an automatic idle switch is a good feature. It automatically reduces engine speed to idle when the unit is not under a demand for power. This built-in device helps cut down on generator wear and drastically reduces fuel use. Speaking of which, a large-capacity fuel tank also is beneficial for reducing the potential for power interruption.

Another factor to consider relating to generator construction is the use of an anti-roll-over frame. This feature allows for a safe and continuous power supply, even if the unit gets bumped.

Noise levels during operation should always be a concern for both operators and others working nearby. Depending on your generator's intended use, you may want to give extra consideration to quiet muffler systems and sound-deadening features, especially if you often work around quiet-zone areas.

Other features that are generally offered include: *Fuel-control systems with automatic shut-off in case the generator tips over *Automatic shut-off or a no-start switch when engine oil is low *Optional voltage selector, which allows you the choice of either 120-v or 240-v use *A ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), which helps protect an equipment operator using a tool with faulty insulation *AC/DC versatility, which gives you the option of using household AC voltage or switching to DC for charging batteries or welding capabilities.

Although this is not a complete listing of features commonly available, it gives you a good start for researching information and comparing products.

Operation and safety The safe and proper operation of any type of power equipment should always be a priority. Before you begin operation, read the owner/operator safety manual. Become familiar with all aspects and features of the generator including start and shut-off switches, fuel shut-off valves, and exposed moving parts or danger points. Be sure to observe warning signs mounted on the generator such as danger/hot signs around the exhaust area.

Because internal-combustion engines provide the power to portable generators, it is important to operate these units in an open, well-ventilated area. Never operate the generator in a closed, confined area such as a vehicle or building. If you must work in close quarters, direct the generator's exhaust port away from the work area. Doing so helps operators and others avoid inhaling dangerous fumes.

Never place the generator on an unstable object to operate it. Make sure the unit sits on a firm, level surface. Operating on an incline or unstable surface can cause premature wear or damage to the engine.

Always operate your generator under dry conditions. Operation in wet weather or under potentially wet conditions can cause severe electrical shock or electrocution. Avoid contact with the generator if you are wet or standing in water. In addition, be careful with generator use around irrigation areas.

If you operate your generator as a backup power source, for the protection of all parties, make sure you have a properly installed power-transfer switch. If you lose electric service from the utility company, the transfer unit creates a separation of the circuit systems from the business or home and the power company. This allows the portable-generator-backup system to operate safely and avoid overloads and the possibility of fire.

Finally, manufacturers of today's generation of portable generators have designed the units for maximum power and efficiency. Don't try to tamper with or modify your generating unit to produce more power. Doing so only damages the generator and creates a potentially dangerous situation. If the unit isn't operating properly, consult your operator's manual or take the unit to an approved service technician for inspection. And, of course, remember to read the operator's manual before use!

David Willoughby is assistant professor/coordinator for the Turfgrass Management Program at the Agricultural Technical Institute (Wooster, Ohio).

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