By Louis Martin, RCAC staff writer

Utilities in Lake County, California, have proven resilient in the face of adversity during the past several years. Wildfires have consistently posed the largest, but not the sole, threat. The summer of 2019 marked the first Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), creating a new set of challenges for small water systems.

A group of seasoned Lake County water operators meets regularly to discuss readiness and emergency response plans for their systems. The State Water Resources Control Board facilitates the meetings with the group. John Hamner, a Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) environmental specialist and the Callayomi Water District General Manager, attends these meetings. Hamner’s utility was severely damaged in the 2015 Valley Fire and this experience makes him a veteran voice in the group.

“We thought we were only going to talk about wildfires for the rest of our lives. Now we have to deal with PSPS,” Hamner said.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs

Hamner described the planned outages as a third world solution to a first world problem. As the Lake County utilities came to terms with what may be a new normal during California summers, they have increasingly discussed the value of backup generators. Generators are often the only solution for keeping power on during outages. During these times, a working generator may become the single most valuable item in town; those available at hardware or supply stores are often claimed quickly at inflated prices. For those utilities that own generators, infrequent use can lead to operational or mechanical problems. Lake County utilities met in December to discuss the lessons learned from this year’s PSPS — procurement and care of generators was the dominant subject. The group came away making several key recommendations for any utility that relies on generators for backup power.

Generators need to rest

Generators are not designed to run for days on end and you should be familiar with your brand and its recommendations. Regardless of what a manufacturer says, powering your water system for more than a couple of days will stress a generator. This will often come from heat. Certain generators are known to “run hot” and need to be shut down to cool, especially propane powered generators. You should take time to check the oil and inspect other components in your generator well before you need to use it. Just like a vehicle, oil keeps the engine lubricated and running smoothly. Some generators come with an oil reservoir that needs to be kept full and a “Murphy Switch” that will keep the engine oil topped off during long periods of use. Also, if your generator is running during extreme heat, you may need to shut it down more often than the manufacturer recommends.

Secondary generators help fill gap

Of course, if you are shutting down a generator for a rest period, you’ll want a second one in place to run in the interim if available. You also need to consider the scenario where your primary generator has mechanical problems, lacks vital connectors or runs out of fuel. If your generator is old, it may not perform well or be reliable.

When purchasing a secondary generator, think about some of the reasons the primary might fail. It may be a good idea to use a different brand or a generator that uses different fuel or connectors. This may mean more factors to keep track of during an outage like multiple fuel sources, but it reduces the likelihood of one problem affecting both generators. Planning for a generator purchase starts with the budget, make sure to increase this line item if necessary.

Prepare ahead of time

For many water systems, owning or leasing a dedicated backup generator is out of reach. Under normal circumstances, obtaining a generator seems straightforward. Local hardware stores will have smaller generators for purchase, usually in the $500 to $1,500 range. Contractors and other vendors are likely to have several that you can buy for powering larger systems.

But during a PSPS or wildfire, you need to consider that you may be one of hundreds of locals without power. While your water system should logically take precedent, generators will likely go to the first in line.

If you cannot own or lease a generator, consider establishing a contract or memorandum of understanding with a local supplier. Often, you can pay a modest monthly fee in exchange for a guarantee that you are supplied with a fully fueled generator in good working order when you need it. If you decide to go this route, take transportation into account. You want your supplier to be nearby and easily able to reach you in an emergency.

Make sure you have enough fuel

Diesel fuel has been the standard for backup power systems for decades. But modern generators may use natural gas or propane. Natural gas is popular because it is supplied by a utility and refueling will not, in theory, be necessary. In reality, you should always consider the possibility that the same disaster that requires a generator in the first place may affect a utilities’ ability to supply natural gas. In some cases, utilities have a curtailment policy in place for natural disasters.

Propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas or LP gas, is also common for generators. Propane can be stored on site in tanks that come in many different sizes. Propane is a popular fuel because of its long shelf life.

If you own or lease your generator, remember that fuel will be in just as high demand as generators during an outage. Fuel costs may escalate or a nearby gas station that supplies your diesel may not pump during an outage, and propane supply may be limited. Most counties provide a list of fuel providers that have generators themselves and can provide fuel to the public. Keep in mind how long your fuel supply will run your generator. Think about it in terms of days, not hours. The recent PSPS in Northern California lasted four to five days.

Learn to operate the generator properly

Don’t underestimate the actual setup and operation of your generator. Having backup power is useless if your staff doesn’t have proper training to operate it. Generators and fuel can sit in a storage shed, unused for years. Performing “dry runs” and trainings with your staff is vital so that multiple people can set up and operate a generator. Avoid having a single “point person” who may not be available during an emergency. Make sure that, in addition to starting the generator periodically, it works “under load” and will run your well or treatment plant. Discovering that it will not work under load during an emergency could be a major problem. During the training, you should verify that you have the connectors, fresh fuel and oil to run your generator. Going through the motions may bring to light and help resolve unforeseen issues.

Think about weather scenarios

Most generators need to operate outdoors because they emit noxious gas. Think about likely weather scenarios and how they could impact your backup power. Freezing or near freezing temperatures may not affect your fuel, but they can affect other equipment such as propane tanks or connectors. You may need to have ways to heat your equipment. On the other end of the spectrum, operating in high heat can cause generators to overheat much faster. It can also be a hazard to your fuel sources, which will need to be secured by a secondary containment.

Attend trainings

RCAC holds free trainings for water operators year-round to provide insights like these. Training workshops cover topics like emergency disaster response planning and funding sources that small utilities can take advantage of to defer generator costs. These trainings are offered in-person or online, and you will have opportunities confer with other water operators in and out of your region.

For a listing of all RCAC’s upcoming water trainings, you can visit: