Power Play: Picking the Right Apparatus Generator

March 18, 2016
Ed Ballam found that when it comes to the need for AC power, reliability should never be a question.

Electric power is one of those things that when you need it, you need it and there shouldn't be any messing around to get it. When we walk into a room, we hit a light switch and we’ve got lights. Firefighters want and need the same kind of reliability when it comes to AC current on fire scenes.

Experts agree, at a fire scene there should be no compromise when it comes to electric power.

“In the fire industry, you don’t get a second chance, its life or death,” said Paul Newton, vice president of sales and marketing for Harrison Hydra-Gen, in Houston, TX. "If power is needed on a dump truck, or a plane de-icer, or other some sort of non-emergency vehicle, perhaps there’s some room for compromise,” he said, “but not on fire apparatus."

When firefighters think about generators and emergency AC power, there are a number of options for apparatus. Years ago, it was common to have inverters—devices that use DC power to create AC power, primarily for scene lights and small AC devices—on fire apparatus.

Portable generators then became in vogue and still later, on-board generators, built in to the apparatus and often powered by PTO shafts from the apparatus itself made their way to the market.

As demands on firefighters increased, and the number of tools and lights correspondingly increased, apparatus inverters could not keep up with the demand for power. Even good inverters would max out at about 400 to 500 watts of AC current. To put that in perspective, many cheap gasoline generators sold in big box stores today provide 4,000 watts or more.

Internal combustion-powered generators were the answer and they are still very prevalent in the fire service today. Some can provide 10,000-watts of power, if driven by an appropriate engine.

Another very popular and increasingly more common power source is PTO-driven generators, which take power from the apparatus and eliminate the need for another fuel-driven engine dedicated to the generator. Newton said that’s the best way to go when it comes to reliable power.

“When a firefighter wants power, he wants it to come on,” Newton said. “He wants to hit the button at the fire scene and have it right there. He doesn’t want to think about error codes, or if the unit will start. He wants power every time.”

“It’s just like nobody really wants a drill, they want a hole,” Newton said, indicating the drill is just the device to achieve the goal. “Nobody wants a generator, they want electricity.”

There are many ways to get electricity at a scene and it’s up to the firefighter to determine the best solution.

The invention of LED lights, which use substantially less electricity than conventional halogen lights, has cut down, at least some, on the need for generators for lighting. And there are now battery-powered extrication tools and ventilation fans as well as gasoline-powered devices.

But, Newton said, firefighters need to remember those batteries will deplete and need to be recharged and without a generator, that would be impossible while on scene.

Additionally, many apparatus respond to mutual-aid calls and are required to respond to calls and work with other departments’ equipment that might require AC current. And there are still others that are 100 percent independent and will be required to do everything that may occur at an incident scene. AC power could very likely be a requirement.

Generator size dependent on duties

Newton said about 45 percent of all apparatus built today have some type of generator on board and the size depends on the mission of the apparatus. Fire vehicles that operate as air and light apparatus will need to have larger generators than say a brush truck, Newton said.

Firefighters need to think about the kinds of missions they will need to fulfill with the apparatus before deciding the size of the generator. After assessing the mission and the kinds of electric loads that will be placed on the generator, firefighters will need to then start to think about the kind and size of the generator required. It’s kind of like the analogy Newton made with the drill—a hole is needed so an analysis is needed to determine the equipment to achieve the goal.

Newton said that some departments might be perfectly happy with that gasoline-powered generator from the big box store because they’re willing to understand that it might not always work and the risk of it not working is minimal. But, Newton said, firefighters need to understand that not all portable generators are created equal.

“If firefighters think the $2,000 Honda-powered generator is the same as the $700 one from Home Depot, they are dead wrong,” Newton said. It boils down, once again, to quality, he noted.

Even Harrison Hydra Gen sells a self-contained continuous 7,200-watt diesel-powered generator, but it uses the same technology as the on-board equipment

“It’s out of the box and on to the truck,” Newton said, noting that it is built with the same simplistic and reliable designs as its hydraulic on-board equipment. He added that it fills a niche in the fire service.

Next generation generators

About 25 years ago, Norman Rautiola, founder and CEO of SmartPower, a division of Nartron, based in Reed City, MI, was encouraged, and perhaps challenged, to solve a problem he had heard firefighters were having with “dirty” and unreliable electric power they had coming from generators. So, starting with a blank piece of paper, Rautiola and some of his team of more than 90 engineers set out to build a better gen-set.

Using a hydraulic motor, Rautiola took his expertise with electronic controls and tackled the issue head-on.

“Electric power is critical to firefighters,” Rautiola said, noting that he had discussions with local fire chiefs and related fire service businesses before diving into the fire market. Natron is well known and well respected for creating high-tech electronic devices for the automotive industry.

“We’re an electronics business,” Rautiola said, noting that after he became motivated to provide some assistance in the fire service, encouraged by his local fire chief and commissioner, he put his time, talent and resources into the project.

Rautiola said his company used high-tech solutions to create “clean power” that doesn’t interfere with radio communications and is better for electronic equipment.

Temperature differentials were also an issue with generators when SmartPower hit the market and Rautiola worked on solutions to make generators work better on cold starts and in high temperatures. Hydraulic generators work on oil and when the viscosity of that fluid is too thick, because of the cold, the speeds and efficiencies of the generator are affected. Conversely, some generators can cut out at high temperatures, so SmartPower’s system vents hot air upward, through a perforated lid, to dissipate the heat quickly.

“We hold several patents on hydraulic generators,” Rautiola said. “Nartron is a very aggressive high-tech company with lots of sophisticated skills and we brought those to the fire service.”

He said he had one goal in mind when he planted his feet in the fire service and that was to create the best generator on the market for firefighters and emergency responders to use when it matters most. That’s why the company started making a product called the Liberator, a device that combines a generator system with a hydraulic tool power supply.

“With our Liberator, we’ve reduced the extrication time significantly,” Rautiola said. “The power is so enormous, we’ve cut extrication times by one third.”

SmartPower provides electronic control integration, multiplexing systems, event recording and diagnostic capabilities. "We’re electronics people, so we simply put it into our line of SmartPower generators," Rautiola said. 

Sooner or Later

Newton said that too often, money is the driving factor in whether or not apparatus are specified with generators. Apparatus dealers want to sell trucks and an easy way to shave money from a bid is by omitting a generator. And, that’s not always a smart move, Newton said.

Newton commented that a lot of his business has been coming from departments that removed generators at the time of purchase only to realize the error of their way later. They come to Harrison Hydra Gen asking for retrofitting.

“I might not be able to tell you what you’re going to want to put on your apparatus and what you’re going to do with it, but I can tell you what you’re not going to be able to do with it if you don’t put on a generator.”

Multi-purpose generators

A trend these days are multi-purpose generators that not only make electricity, but can power hydraulic tools and water pumps using the same hydraulic power, Newton said.

“We try to integrate power into one package to get rid of combustion engines,” Newton said. “We can drive rescue tools with our pumps.”

Newton said there are generators to fit all budgets these days. Some departments might not need the 15,000-watt or larger generator. There are generators from 5,000-watts to 40,000-watts available. He said Harrison has hit “a sweet spot” with its new Stinger generators that produce up to 6,800-watts of electricity for thousands less than the larger units.

But when it comes right down to it, Newton said generator selection decisions shouldn’t be driven by money.

“If you’ve got a $750,000 apparatus, a $10,000 generator isn’t that much,” Newton said. “If you can’t do your job without it, it’s not that much at all.”


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