(or "You Get What You Pay For")
By: Coyote
25 September 2004

Setting up our off-the-grid homestead, we decided that we wanted to go with a diesel generator feeding a battery bank, adding solar panels and more batteries in the future. Research indicated that a 8KW (or more) diesel gennie running at 1800rpms would provide all the power we could need while lasting at least 10-15 years or longer. This would ensure that we wouldn't need to replace our generator in the foreseeable future, and thus could concentrate on other upgrades.

The components we selected were as follows:
1 Xantrex 4024 SW+ inverter
4 12V 255aH Concorde AGM deep cycle batteries
1 Northern Diamond 12KW 1800 rpm diesel generator

We considered the generator a real steal: at $4500, it was expensive, but significantly less so than comparable gennies from Onan, Kohler, Miller, and so on.

Because we had no previous experience with alternative power systems, we decided to use a local company (henceforth referred to as "The Boys") to do the installation. The inverter was set up and wired into the batteries (which were wired in series and parallel for 24V).

An autostart module (purchased from a third party company, DynaGen) was attached to the generator, but The Boys were unable to get it to work. After consultation with Northern Diamond and the autostart company, they decided a transformer would resolve the issue. In the meantime, we started and stopped the generator manually to fill the battery bank.

This configuration worked well for approximately 24 generator-hours (about a week realtime). Then the stop button on the generator stopped working and all of the panel gauges pegged red. We shut off the gennie using the "jake brake". While looking over the system for possible problems, we set a screwdriver down on the chassis of the generator...resulting in a shower of sparks over the gas tank.

Not good.

We called the The Boys, who came out immediately. Upon removing the face of the control panel on the generator, the problem became obvious: a short had melted and fused a great deal of the wiring inside the control panel. Some of the live wires (being fed from the batteries to signal the autostart) were touching the chassis, which caused the arc.

So not good.

ND agreed to replace the generator, and approximately 2 weeks later we had a second gennie installed. The autostart (with transformer) was installed and this time the system started up no problem. Relieved, we decided the first generator had been a fluke.

At approximately 25 hours of runtime, gennie #2 shorted out in a spectacular shower of sparks. The control gauges (again, pegged to red) darkened to an opaque gray, and smoke began pouring out of the rear of the generator.

The Boys called ND to demand a refund, using a variety of colorful metaphors. (Fortunately, as they were the resellers, we only had to deal with them to get our refund, and they are responsible for dealing with Northern Diamond). In the meantime, we began pricing out solar panels. ;-)

We decided on the following configuration:
- 5 Matrix 135watt solar panels
- 4 additional 12V 255aH deep cycle batteries (for a total of 8)
- 1 C40 charge controller (with the agreement to upgrade if necessary)
- 1 Coleman Powermate 5500watt gasoline generator ($529 @ Costco)

The Boys also suggested a passive solar tracker, but we decided that the cost ($1200) was too great for the potential benefits. For that amount, we could get one or two more panels, which would provide much more power than the tracker would gain us over a static arrangement.

At the time of this writing, the panels & batteries are on backorder. We have 2 1200lb anchors tarped in our driveway, and Northern Diamond is refusing to refund The Boys' money (time for more colorful metaphors). In the meantime, we're using a loaner 2500 watt gasoline generator which The Boys wired into the inverter. While there's no autostart, beggars can't be choosers.

Had we decided to go with a name-brand generator to begin with (or gone straight to solar), we probably could have saved a good $500-$750 in labor and several months of headaches. Once we have the full solar power system installed, I'll update everyone on the results.

Cost Analysis:

Xantrex Trace SW Plus 4024 with GSM & monitor: $2650
4 Concorde 12V 255aH AGM batteries: $ 900 ($225 ea)
1 Battery/Inverter cables: $ 23
1 Fuse & disconnect for Battery: $ 89
1 Diamond Northern 12KW Diesal $4450
1 Coleman 5500W gasoline generator $ 530


Expected future expenses:

1 Remote monitor $ 180
Cabling for monitor $ 45
5 135W solar panels ~$2400
4 Concorde 12V 255aH AGM batteries ~$ 900
1 Trace C40 Charge Controller ~$ 120
20 hours labor @ $75/hour $1500
Miscellaneous expenses $ 163
Return exchange for generator [$4450]


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