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Generlink MA23-N Generator Interface

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Electric power is only as reliable as the utility providing it, and considering that electric utilities are increasingly the province of politicians rather than engineers, you could probably get better odds for an IPO to develop transparent rhinoceroses. Especially if you live outside town, dependable power isn’t something you really want to depend on.

Only the arrival of your bill is certain.

Our electricity is backed up by a Generac standby generator, and while these things are convenient and usually pretty trustworthy, they can be a bit time-consuming to get parts for when they do decide to start throwing sprockets around. More to the point, backup generators run on propane, and while they’re technically conventional internal combustion engines, they’re decidedly weird ones. Keeping them running under difficult circumstances is something of an art.

When our lights go away, so does our running water and other sundry essentials. We decided that our backup would benefit from a backup, and in this case, we wanted it to be powered by a conventional gasoline engine that could be repaired with paper clips and profanity if needs be.

Portable gasoline generators capable of powering an entire home are agreeably common – we use a 6000-watt Briggs and Stratton generator that never fails to start on the first pull, will run without complaint for days and has fewer moving parts than the aforementioned politicians have ethics.

The only issue in using a gasoline generator to provide backup electricity for a house is in finding a workable way to connect it to all the devices in the house in question… without the need for an entire pickup truck full of extension cords. In the case of our house, this entailed having the generator power a number of devices that are hard-wired into the panel, such as the well pump, for which extension cords wouldn’t have been an option.

Traditionally, a portable generator would be patched into one’s digs using a mechanical transfer switch – typically a big gray box with a handle on the side that could switch the source of power between a utility feed and a connector suitable for plugging into a generator’s 240-volt outlet. While workable, transfer switches typically only handle a finite number of circuits… and the “finite number” in question would be well short of the whole house.

We tried to persuade several electricians to wire up a generator transfer switch before the breaker panel, but they all turned a peculiar shade of green and suggested that we stock up on flashlight batteries and possibly consider a crank-powered radio.

We happened upon the Generlink MA23 generator interface somewhat by accident, and while it will likely seem like a peculiar path to connecting a generator to your wiring, it will allow you to have a single generator power your entire house without rewiring anything. Aside from being somewhat more convenient than an old-style transfer switch, it will also obviate the need for grabbing a big, rusty handle on the side of a mysterious panel box in total darkness and hoping for no life-threatening sparks every time the lights go out.

A Generlink interface is a cylinder full of technology that fits between a power utility’s meter and your meter base, the metal box it’s mounted on. When your power company’s actually doing what they’re paid to do, the Generlink does nothing of interest. At such time as there’s a disturbance in the force, however, you can plug a suitable power cable into a connector on the underside of the Generlink device, connect the other end of the cable to the 240-volt outlet of a generator and have the lights back on in under five minutes.

Because the Generlink interface substitutes the power from your generator for the power from your electric utility, your house will think it’s still connected to its conventional source of power.

Powerhouse

A Generlink interface and its associated generator will benefit from some serious research before you let your credit card see daylight. To begin with, you’ll want to determine how much power your house requires… or more to the point, how much you’ll need to keep civilization as we know it alive therein until conventional power is restored. As rule, most of us can live without things like dishwashers, saunas, pool heaters, air conditioners and projection TVs during a blackout.

Some devices, such as our aforementioned well pump, are a bit sneaky, in that they don’t draw a disturbing amount of power when they’re running, but they do get really thirsty when they first start up. If you don’t allow for the starting surge of larger motorized technology in your power calculations, you might find that your backup generator keeps tripping its circuit breakers.

A detailed audit of the technology you want to power up during emergencies will assist you in choosing a suitable generator. You’ll need one that’s capable of powering your toys, but not one that’s seriously overindulgent. A generator that’s substantially bigger than it has to be will soak up more fuel than would otherwise be the case, even when it’s not being called upon to provide a lot of power.

A Generlink MS23 interface can handle up to 10 kilowatts of generator power. If your house really needs more than 10 kilowatts of power, you might want to consider a personal nuclear reactor in your yard.

The Generlink web page includes a list of generators that have proven themselves suitable for use with a Generlink interface. While other devices may work with it, it would be a really good idea to choose a generator from their list.

The second consideration in installing a Generlink interface is that doing so will require that your power company’s meter be removed temporarily. Most electric utilities have funny ideas about homeowners tampering with their meters, and you’ll need to contact your power company to have one of their technicians install the Generlink interface. The actual installation entails about five minutes of work, and most power companies seem to be familiar with this device and the details of plugging it in.

In addition to the Generlink interface itself, you’ll need a suitable cable to connect the interface to your generator. The cable is unique to the Generlink devices, with a special connector. It also has the approximate diameter of an elephant’s trunk… that would be a fully-grown African elephant with some impulse-control issues and unfettered access to several fast-food restaurants.

Choose a cable that can reach from your electric meter to a garage or other shelter suitable for keeping your generator out of the rain.

The best Generlink would be one that was installed and subsequently never needed… ours fell somewhat short of this lofty aspiration. In practice, getting your house connected up to a generator through a Generlink interface during a blackout is pretty effortless. Specifically, you’ll need to:

  1. Turn off everything in your house that might be likely to draw significant amounts of power. If you’re uncertain what lurks at the ends of all those power cords, you might want to give serious thought to turning off all your circuit breakers.
  2. Connect the funny cylindrical connector of a Generlink cable to your Generlink interface. The cable connector will emit an almost inaudible click when it’s correctly installed – listen for this, as the interface won’t work until the cable has clicked.
  3. Fire up your generator.
  4. Plug the other end of the Generlink interface cable into the 240-volt outlet of your generator.
  5. Turn on the essential devices in your home.
  6. Be smug.

Fossil Fuels

One of the secondary considerations of gasoline generators is that they like to have gasoline to burn – the name sort of gives this away. The downside to gasoline is that it has a relatively short shelf life – after two or three months in a jerry can, it will have lost a significant amount of power.

In that power outages are somewhat tricky to predict, it’s hard to know how much gasoline to store to run your generator. Having to buy several jerry cans worth of gas and subsequently dispose of it every few months would be annoying.

In the aftermath of pretty much every blackout we experience out here, we encounter someone who discovered that their generator refused to run on gasoline that was only slightly younger than the dinosaurs it was distilled from.

You can extend the shelf life of gasoline considerably with fuel stabilizer. The house favorite is a bright red potion called Sta-Bil. Most automotive stores sell it. It will keep a sealed jerry can full of gasoline alive for about a year.

It’s also worth noting that gasoline that contains ethanol deteriorates substantially sooner than traditional gas.

As a final note about that which gets connected to a Generlink when things go dark, gasoline generators are available at a variety of price points. There are some engagingly inexpensive ones as I write this – if you’re considering a backup generator to defend against the forces of darkness and tyranny, you probably don’t one that was built by the lowest bidder.

While we have had cause to fall back upon our Generlink relatively infrequently thus far, it has proven to be flawlessly reliable and simple enough to get up and running even in the most unfashionable circumstances. It also offers the advantage of portability – unlike a wired-in transfer switch, you can summon your power company’s technicians a second time to remove the device from your meter base and take it with you if you move house.

The Generlink interface is available in several models as I write this – most notably MA23-N and MA23-S The latter version includes a whole-house surge protector, and costs several hundred dollars more. In that most newer homes have wired-in surge protection, the MA23-N will likely be all you’ll need.

Ours cost about a grand.

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