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Mechanics Corner: Using your tractor as an electrical generator

Allen Schaeffer Published on 27 March 2015

Power packs offer new options for farmers. After weathering a nasty winter with ice storms, Siberian Express cold fronts and damaging snow levels in many parts of the country, the value of keeping the electricity flowing has taken on special meaning.

Continuous electrical power is an expectation these days for everyone, farmers included. For warmth and keeping connected online to commodity market reports and regional weather, it isn’t just a convenience but is essential to a well-running and profitable operation. And all this requires electricity.

But sometimes the grid power goes out. And as with many things, the farming way of life demands a certain level of independence and responsibility that requires you to take matters into your own hands. And that goes for ensuring power beyond your electric cooperative or grid provider.

With a herd of Holsteins heading into the milking parlor, an untimely power outage is not just a pain in the neck but can shut down milking machines, pasteurizing units and refrigeration systems.

It’s not just miserable dealing with the ensuing havoc from a power loss; the economics of having to dump a valuable product and service the herd manually are bigger problems. Or maybe it’s a poultry or hog operation where temperature control and fans are vital, and untimely outages could be life-threatening. In any case, electricity is essential.

To keep the juice flowing (and for peace of mind), stationary generators are one of the most familiar options. They are a substantial capital investment and have a variety of associated installation and maintenance costs (sometimes requiring permitting) and fuel storage and supply considerations.

For larger integrated operations, having that standby automatic-on generator is a true peace of mind, but it does have limitations.

While not every farming operation can invest in an installed and automatically switched stationary back-up generator, continuous electrical power is just as important.

Here’s where the tractor comes in. All farms have some form of tractor. Typically with a diesel engine and power takeoff points in front or rear, tractors can run a vast array of implements and attachments at a moment’s notice.

And one of those attachments is an electrical generator, or a power pack, as they are often called.

Power packs are essentially an external alternator connected to a gearbox, which is connected to the PTO of the tractor engine to create electricity when you need it and where you need it. They will run off of most compact tractors and virtually all the larger models, but sizing and compatibility are still important since one size does not fit all.

For large and small farms alike, portable power packs offer many advantages over stationary electrical generators: lower or competitive investment cost up-front, no additional internal combustion engines to maintain, a manageable size and weight giving them maximum portability, and near-seamless integration with most tractor PTOs.

Many of these advantages also come to light when comparing power packs with standard mobile generators. Tractors typically have a larger fuel tank, so the hassle of lugging fuel back and forth is a consideration. With a power pack, just drive the tractor to the tank and fill up as usual, and you’ve also just fueled your generator.

There are a number of manufacturers of these units, with ranges from about 8 kW to about 50 kW and costs anywhere from $1,500 on up to $7,500 with various options, including automatic voltage regulators and three-phase systems. The units typically ride on the three-point hitch, and once the PTO is engaged, the electricity is flowing.

Expect to see familiar control settings and monitors of conventional mobile or stationary generators on the power pack including hertz, voltage and amperage outputs along with electrical breakers and standard 120V and 240V plug receptacles.

If you’ve had an implement breakdown and need to weld a part on while still in the field far from the tractor shed, the power pack really shines. Drive your tractor and portable welder right to the job site.

If you’re building a loafing shed or laying pipe or putting up fencing, power tools are a necessity, as is access to electricity. Or perhaps a remote well needs to be serviced; the power pack offers a simple solution there as well.

Like all other considerations when looking at backup power sources, the same process applies: Know your load demands – which tools, appliances, systems or units you need to support with that power pack – and make sure to select a unit that not only exceeds those needs, but fits your budget and the tractor you plan to use it on.

Finally, as with all projects, safety first. Know what you’re doing when dealing with electricity; it is very unforgiving.  FG

Allen Schaeffer is Executive Director of Diesel Technology Forum.