Farm and Livestock


Will Your Standby Generator Stand Up?

Most growers are confident in their generator's ability to run for 30 minutes to an hour without problems, because the generators are typically cycled once a week. But what if they need to run for a week or more?

Severe storms and disasters can cause power outages lasting from two to ten days or more. For growers with chickens, this can mean running on generator power until utility power is restored. Many growers can keep their generators working flawlessly to maintain power during an outage, but others are not so fortunate.

Most standby power failures are caused by fuel shortages, inadequate maintenance, inadequate equipment, or improper installation of equipment. Even the maintenance and preparation for dutifully testrunning generators once a week to ensure that they will run a weekly half-hour will not ensure that they will do what they are intended to do and what the grower paid for–supply power throughout an extended utility outage.

The weekly test run is important and must be maintained, but growers should take the additional steps needed to make sure their generators will stand up to the challenge of a prolonged utility outage.

tube of Kolor Kut water finding paste A product such as Kolor Kut paste can be added to the end of a rod or wooden dowel and submerged into the bottom of the fuel tank to test for water-contaminated diesel fuel. If the rod or dowel changes color, your fuel is contaminated with water, the culprit behind many fuel problems.

Keep Adequate Diesel Fuel

The typical 100-kilowatt generator can burn 3 to 5 gallons of diesel fuel per hour, depending on the load. You need at least enough fuel to run your generator through the first 24 hours of an outage. That would typically require having 72 to 120 gallons on hand. It's probably an even better idea to be able to run the generator through the first 48 hours, which would require 144 to 240 gallons on hand. Check your generator manual or with the manufacturer to find out how much fuel your particular model burns per hour. A fairly large fuel cushion is needed during a utility outage because local fueling stations are also likely to be without power and unable to pump fuel, which means you may have to drive to find available fuel.


An emergency manual override bypass switch can be added to most generators for less than $1,000. This switch allows the generator to be manually started in case the electronic controls malfunction and cause the generator to shut down. Many come with oil pressure and temperature gauges to monitor generator conditions.

Planning for an extended outage should include mapping known fueling stations at different distances from your farm–5 miles, 10 miles, 20 miles, or more. Remember that even if nearby stations get power back before it is restored at your farm, long lines are likely to occur, so actually getting the fuel may take hours instead of minutes. Having a 100-gallon tank on a trailer is handy when you need to transport fuel on short notice. Also keep an adequate supply of fuel for your truck.

Keep Extra Fuel Filters and Other Replacement Parts

Refilling a near empty or empty storage tank stirs any sediment in the bottom of the tank into the new fuel clogging filters and starving the engine of fuel. It is impossible to adequately clean and clear a clogged fuel filter. Keep extra fuel filters in the generator shed, so you can simply replace the filter and restart the generator. When a major catastrophe hits and local automotive stores and poultry equipment shops might not be open, you won't be caught without spare filters. If you have an older fuel storage tank, you may need several replacement fuel filters.

Maintain Quality of Stored Fuel and Tanks

When diesel fuel is allowed to stand in a tank for years without any conditioning or little mixing, sediment forms and settles to the bottom of the tank. This layer of sediment continues to build over the years and remains undisturbed because the tanks are kept full (or close to full) throughout the year. During an outage when a tank is almost completely drained and the owner refills the tank, the addition of fuel to the nearly empty tank disturbs this sediment layer at the bottom and puts it into suspension in the rest of the tank. When this occurs, the sediment is sucked into the fuel filter and stops up the filter. This typically happens to fuel tanks around 8 years old and older; check them for sediment deposits in the bottom of the tank. If significant sediment deposits are found, clean or replace the tank.

dirt dobber nest

If your generator is 5 or more years old and the junction box has never been cleaned or inspected for loose wire connections, insect, or rodent damage, then now is the time to do so. A simple mud dauber nest on a circuit board could prevent your generator from running. Inspect and clean junction boxes once a year.

Another precaution is to install fuel pickup tubes so they are at least 4 to 6 inches from the bottom of the tank. This will prevent pulling sediment into the fuel. To minimize fuel filter clogging, refill the tank before it has reached the half-full level.

Another fuel storage issue is water contamination, usually caused by condensation. Bacteria, particulate matter, and a variety of other fuel problems are caused by water in diesel fuel. Check fuel for water twice a year by using a water-finding paste such as Kolor Kut. Storage tanks must be protected from the weather, especially the rain. Make sure that diesel storage tanks are kept clean by checking for water and sediment in fuel. Fuel conditioners may work on clean fuel but cannot be used to dissolve the sediment in a fouled tank. Consult your generator service technician for help.

Protect Generator and Transfer Switch Electronics

Modern standby power systems use electronic controls to sense power or the loss of power, tell the generator to start, and also to keep running. To ensure smooth operation of the system, the circuit boards and control wires in the generator junction box and the power transfer switch must be kept clean and free from damage. Wasps, yellow jackets, mud (dirt) daubers, and even rats get into this equipment and build their homes on major electronic circuit boards and controls, causing major problems when wires are chewed or circuit boards are damaged.

CAUTION: While regular inspection of this equipment is a good practice, call a service technician if any problems are found. Generator electronic controls are fairly expensive, and most growers don't have the training to service the electronic controls themselves. If you do find a wasp nest, don't spray wasp killer on any electronic controls or circuit boards. This can do serious damage to the electronic circuits. Have a trained professional inspect and test the transfer switch and electronic controls on the generator every year. As always, make sure all power is locked in the off position during work.

Install a Manual Bypass Key Switch

A manual bypass key switch allows you to manually start the generator if the electronic controls malfunction. If your generator does not have a manual bypass key switch, then getting one installed by a licensed electrician or trained generator service professional should be at the top of your list. These switches can be installed and used with almost any standby generator. The cost is well under $1,000, depending on the generator make and model. Most of these switches also come with water temperature and oil pressure gauges that can be wired into the existing equipment. Many growers report that these switches have saved their farms from catastrophe after a storm or other random power failure.

Provide Adequate Ventilation for Your Generator

Generators must be cooled during extended running periods. If not cooled, they will overheat and be shut down by the control system. A totally enclosed generator shed should be ventilated similar to tunnel ventilation. The exhaust air from the radiator must exit the building through an opening one and one-half to two times the size of the radiator and installed directly in front of the radiator. The air inlet for the generator should be twice the size of the exhaust outlet and in line with the generator. Also make sure that the generator exhaust is not directed toward or close to the generator air intake. If necessary, use ducting to direct hot exhaust away from the air intake and out of the building.

Exhaust louvers on generators are subject to failure when damaged or held shut by high winds. Remove these louvers and replace them with 1-inch PVC-coated bird wire or equivalent to ensure sufficient ventilation when the generator runs for an extended time. See the generator service checklist for more information on problems caused by poor ventilation.

Provide Proper and Regular Generator Service

Automatic transfer switches and generators are not intended to be installed and forgotten. This equipment must be serviced, tested, and inspected annually by a technician trained in both mechanics and electronics. A standby generator service is much more than an oil change and fluid check. It requires more attention to detail, for example, than a routine automobile service. See the checklist for a minimum list of things that should be checked by a qualified service technician during the annual service. Growers should also check their service manuals and warranties for additional information on things that need to be done to keep the equipment in top shape. Generators should also be serviced immediately after any extended running time of 48 hours or longer. Make sure that your generator is getting fully serviced by a trained professional who knows what to check for and who fully inspects the system.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that we need to have a thorough annual generator service program in place. Failure to plan is planning to fail. Get to know your generator service person. Be sure his or her name and phone number, as well as those for a backup service person, are written down in the generator shed. When storms hit, your generator technician may have more calls than he or she can handle and might not be able to help you immediately. The cost of an annual generator service is money well spent on what is hard to see as the most important piece of equipment on the farm–until the real test comes.

For more information, go to National Poultry Technology Center, Auburn University

Standby Generator Service Checklist

Generators must be fully serviced once a year. This checklist includes the minimum recommended items to check. For a complete list, contact your local generator manufacturer–recommended service requirements and warranty requirements.

Date: _________________________ Serviced by: _________________________
Location: ______________________ Owner: _____________________________
Make: ________________________ Model: _____________________________
KW: _________ Phase: _________ Volts:__________ Run Hours: ____________

  • Inspected junction box wiring, connections, and circuit boards.
  • Check, changed oil, filters and refilled.
  • Coolant checked, no contamination found, temperature range OK.
  • Inspected all belts and hoses and none are damaged or cracked.
  • Radiator inspected for leaks and dust buildup on inside (fan side).
  • Fans and fan shrouds or guards are in good shape.
  • Block heater is operational and heating.
  • Battery tested, terminals cleaned, charged, and less than 2 years old.
  • Battery charger is operating properly and connected properly.
  • All generator and engine controls are operating properly.
  • Inspect remote start wires.
  • Transfer switch controls and failsafe are operating properly.
  • Air filter changed.
  • Oil filter changed.
  • Fuel filter changed.
  • Engine running temperature ______________ F.
  • Engine oil pressure reading ______________ PSI.
  • Generator voltage ______________ ac.
  • Generator frequency ____________ hz.
  • Diesel fuel level good, checked for water, fuel lines inspected.
  • Generator shed airflow is adequate, louvers not blocked, exhaust is OK.

#1 Generator Service Contact: Name _________________ Phone ________________
#2 Generator Service Contact: Name _________________ Phone ________________

Emergency Manual Power Transfer

If generator does not start or automatic transfer switch is not working, follow these steps:

  1. Before doing anything, turn off the breakers and disconnect switches located in the generator shed—for every house individually.

  2. Determine if the automatic transfer switch (ATS) is in the Normal power position. This means it is expecting power from the utility company. Before opening the ATS enclosure and for safety, disconnect the utility power source. Reconnect utility power before leaving.

  3. If so, leave it there. If not, manually rotate the ATS into the Normal or Neutral position. DO NOT CRANK THE GENERATOR with ATS in the EMERGENCY position!

  4. Attempt to crank the generator using the manual start switch located on its control panel. If this fails, use the bypass key switch, located on the side, to start the generator. Check battery if it does not crank with switch.
  5. Once cranked and running smoothly, if the ATS does not rotate to Emergency power automatically, manually rotate the switch to Emergency or generator power.

  6. If generator continues to run smoothly, individually turn each house back on at the breaker or disconnect you previously used to turn it off.

  7. Once the generator picks up a house and it is running smoothly, turn on the next house. Do this one by one until every house is back on line.

  8. CAUTION! When the generator has to be started or transferred with manual procedures, the automatic controls may have been damaged and the generator’s automatic safety features may not work. Careful observation of the entire system is necessary while in this state. It is important to CONTACT A PROFESSIONAL SERVICE PERSON IMMEDIATELY!

GENERATOR SERVICE PERSON: ___________________________

EMERGENCY CONTACT NUMBER: __________________________

Generator Priority Points

  • Annual service by generator professional.

  • Fuel tank.
    • Protect from moisture.
      • Full tank is best.
      • Check often for moisture.
    • Rotate fuel.
    • Use Bio-Cides, moisture treatment.

  • Fuel filters.
    • Change annually and after extended runs.
    • Keep MULTIPLE spare filters on hand. Recommendation is 4 to 6.

  • Engine oil.
    • Change oil and filter annually.
    • Check oil after 72-hour run.
    • Change oil in well-maintained system only after 500 hours of continuous run (20 days).

  • Air filter.
    • Change annually, no matter appearance.
    • Keep a spare on hand.

  • Battery.
    • Use trickle charger–1.5 to 3.0 amp recommended.
    • Replace battery every two years.

  • Radiator/coolant.
    • Change coolant/clean radiator bi-annually.
    • Check coolant every 72 hours during long run.

  • Exercise runs.
    • Verify ATS transfers houses to generator.
    • Run under load no less than one hour per week.
    • Run for 1 day under full load between flocks.

Generator Service Guide

A proper service cannot be done with birds in house.

  • Oil
    • Change oil annually.
    • Filter annually; mark filter.

  • Fuel
    • Moisture check; drain if needed.
    • Filter change with annual service; mark filter.
    • Add fuel Bio-Cide and moisture dispersant.
    • Hoses, clamps, etc.

  • Air Filter
    • New filter annually.
    • Proper fit required, but not necessarily generator-brand specific.

  • Radiator
    • Test and add coolant and antifreeze annually.
    • Flush and refill coolant every 3 years.
    • Radiator thorough cleaning once a year.

  • Hoses
    • Check annually; replace any with signs of cracking.

  • Belts
    • Check annually; replace any with signs of cracking or wear.

  • Generator Control Panels
    • Clean annually; clean as needed.
    • Clean and torque wire connections annually.

  • Battery
    • Load tested, voltage checked.
    • Any under-voltage, replace battery immediately.
    • Replace batteries at 2- to 3-year intervals regardless.
    • Check voltage output of batter tender; recommendation: 1.5 to 3.0 amp charger.

  • Oil/Block Heater
    • Verify output and proper function.

  • ATS
    • Every electrical connection checked; all lugs torqued.
    • ATS checked for proper automatic switching ability.
    • Verify manual transfer capability to neutral and generator power.
    • Verify generator output during test run.

  • Disconnects/Electrical
    • Check and torque all electrical connections.
    • Check grounding.

Approximate Fuel Consumption Chart

This chart approximates the fuel consumption of a diesel generator based on the size of the generator and the load at which the generator is operating at. Please note that this table is intended to be used as an estimate of how much fuel a generator uses during operation and is not an exact representation due to various factors that can increase or decrease the amount of fuel consumed.

Generator Size (kW) 1/4 Load (gal/hr) 1/2 Load (gal/hr) 3/4 Load (gal/hr) Full Load (gal/hr)

Chart used with permission of Diesel Service and Supply, Brighton, Colorado.

This document is part of a larger publication titled Emergency Handbook: Preparation and Recovery (ACES-2168).

The Emergency Handbook is available digitally as an iBook and on the web. Use the left-hand navigation bar to access all topics and pages. This publication is not available in print. To download or print the pages you need, please look for Printable PDF Download this information.

For more information, contact your county Extension office.