Extreme Cold Weather Generator Repair and Maintenance

Reader Contribution by Chris Downs
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Living off grid, we rely upon our solar panels, batteries and generator to provide power and heat. As we are still building our farm, we leased the 40-acre farm next to us that has a house.

The challenge during cold weather is the house only has forced air heating. The owners’ insurance does not allow for wood heat, other than a pellet stove. That would be PL, IF the pellet stove did not use more electricity than the furnace.

Photo by Adobestock/Yakov

When the sun does not shine, we must use the generator to supplement our power storage to the batteries. No sun, no electricity, unless you use the generator.

We have had some extreme cold weather this last week.  We are prepared for it with our generator, or at least I thought I had taken all of the precautions I needed to:

  • Drained the fuel/water separator.

  • Checked the fuel filters for being clean.

  • Fuel tank fill strainer clean.

  • Added extra anti-gel to the fuel tank.

  • Tested and ran the generator when it first got below zero.

I Was Prepared!

At least I thought I was.

The first day of temperatures below 30, I woke up and found our outside thermometer was pegged to the negative side. It goes to minus 21 degrees. Our neighbor, who lives four miles north of us is usually about 4 to 5 degrees warmer than our house due to the wind and landscape here. He had 28 degrees below zero.

We were not cold in the house yet, but my family had not gotten out of bed yet. The temperature in the house was toasty 52 degrees! Not the warmest for most people, but a lot warmer that being outside. I turned the heat up to 60 degrees.  

Starting the Generator

I waited until it was 20 below zero outside to start the generator. We have a diesel generator and we add an anti-gel additive to the fuel to keep it from freezing in severe weather. At least that was the theory. I had added two times the amount recommended for temperatures below zero degrees.

The generator started and for 40 minutes ran great! At the 40-minute mark, the generator started running rough. I quickly got dressed for the cold weather and shut down the generator. The temperature was already up to 15 below zero. I checked the batteries and they were charged, so we had power for the day. The guel filters had less than 10 hours of use on them, so they should be fine.

Generator Troubleshooting

  • I had recently placed a new exhaust pipe on the generator to keep the exhaust outside of the generator shed.

  • I removed the exhaust to make sure it was not blocked due to moisture freezing in the pipe.

  • I checked the air filter, also new about 10 hours ago. It was very dirty. Probably from the shorter exhaust pipe we had previously had for the generator.

  • I removed one fuel filter and found some gelled fuel in the canister.

I went to town, purchased a new air filter as well as some more fuel conditioners. The 9-1-1 additive was highly recommended for these extreme cold temperature.

After getting back home about three hours later, we cleaned the fuel filters, fuel/water separator and replaced them after adding 25-percent 9-1-1 per volume in each fuel filter canister and the fuel/water separator, then poured the rest into the fuel tank. It was getting dark and the temperature was close to 15 below zero. What was left from the 9-1-1, I placed in the fuel tank.

It was now 20 below. We fired up a propane heater in the generator shed. If it had been a gas generator, I probably would not have used it, but hooray for propane space heaters!

Generator starting process

  • Prime the fuel system.

  • Glow plugs on for 60 seconds.

  • Turn the switch to Start.

The generator started, but it was coughing and running a bit rough. Dale, our neighbor who was helping me, recommended letting it run, and within two minutes, it started running smooth and clean.

Success and the Lessons Learned 

So the generator was running great. We had succeeded in getting the power we needed to heat the house. What we discovered is that even though we had more than enough additive in the fuel, we will need to remove the tank and check it also. The goop we removed we believe came from the tank, and after so many cold days in a row it was able to break loose.

The lesson learned is that in extreme cold weather, change out the fuel filters and drain water/fuel separators more often. We will be more alert to the cold temperatures as well as removing the fuel tank yearly to check for contaminants.

We will also build a rocket stove with lots of thermal storage for our home as we build, right after the greenhouse is producing our food!

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