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Tips for Starting and Running an Industrial Diesel Generator in the Cold

Cummins-(1).JPGHere in Colorado it was -5 degrees F the past few mornings; a typical temperature in these parts during this time of year when severe cold fronts and winter storms roll into town.  For much of the U.S. and Canada, similar conditions will occur. It’s good to understand how to be prepared and deal with the different aspects of successfully starting and running large commercial standby diesel generators in extreme environments.

When it gets cold, diesel engines can struggle to start for a variety of reasons. First, the battery will typically slug and slow down by roughly 46% at 0 degrees F. Thicker oil and slower moving internal parts can also strain the engine from starting. It is best to have your batteries checked prior to the change in weather.  

A great way to make sure your generator will work properly when the thermostat drops is to test the machinery. Regular maintenance and inspection is a good place to start when more favorable weather is around. Consider doing an inspection and testing during colder conditions to more properly emulate the environment you will likely end up in. Standby diesel generators can often take a back seat to other equipment.  

Key items to be aware of and tips for successful cold weather generator operation: 

Check the Engine Block Heater: Always make sure the block heater is plugged into shore power and functional. Without this important heat source, you will usually have immediate problems. If your generator does not have a block heater and you are in a susceptible area for colder weather then you should look into adding one. If you are in a remote location where you are unable to have grid power, consider also getting a small reliable gas generator to simulate the shore and let the block heater run for a few hours before attempting to start the generator up.

Engine-Block-Heater1-(3).JPGCheck Battery Charger: Make sure the battery charger is also plugged into the main/shore power and functioning. If the battery is dead, you will be going nowhere fast. This is still a leading cause for generator service calls.

Utilize the Manual: The manual will spell out the unique qualities of the generator that fit your application. It should also have a section outlining the service and winter maintenance schedule of your generator.  Also note your genset make, model and know where the local dealer is in case of an emergency or to contact for parts and maintenance.

Inspect the Generator: Do a visual walk around and make sure debris is not collecting around the generator. Check for leaks, stains, and puddles. Check for other visual clues that may need to be addressed. 

Perform Basic Maintenance: Have the engine oil changed, spark plugs checked, air filter periodically changed, check the radiator coolant mixture, and as mentioned above always make sure the battery is charged and tested. 

Test Your Digital Control Panel when Severe Cold Hits: Be aware that certain models sometimes have issues when it gets really cold (sub-zeros temps). Some of these will simply not even turn on and light up and/or you won’t be able to read the gauges. More recent model years do not have this issue but it is something we have seen happen on occasion.  

Check Exhaust and Ventilation Plan: Make sure proper attachments and visual inspection is done periodically. You can consider adding and/or getting a generator with a snow hood to reduce the amount of snow entry. Understand that louvers/shutters can also affect how cold air enters the system during startup. Hydryolic ones are often best for colder climiates so you don't in advertently shock the system with a bunch of freezing air during start up.

Check the Fuel: Make sure the fuel in your tank is treated with anti-gel and anti-microbial additives. Gelling from cold temps is not quite as big of a concern as it was in the past, but still something to be warry of. Many fuel providers treat their diesel fuel with some form of anti-gelling component but if you are unsure it will not hurt to add it and be safe.

Consider Cold or Winterizing Packs/Kits: Many local generator service companies now offer something along these lines that involves specific fluids and add-on componets to protect your generator in colder climates. These help to ensure your odds of starting without a long warm up time and help to reduce overall failure rates from cold weather considtions.

By understanding all the key variables above, and doing some basic planning, you can easily increase your chances of successfully running and starting your generator next time the ice man drops in.

These tips are provided to help give you general ideas and guidance based on some of our experiences in Colorado with large industrial generators over the years. To get specific insight for your generator set application and environment we always suggest you talk to a certified commercial electrician, electrical contractor or meet with an experienced power generation technician.

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