My Great Generator Adventure

In October of 2013 I purchased my RV Charlene with the thought I’d perform some interior mods, add an inverter, backup camera and do a few other things in preparation for an extended trip around the USA. Now nearing the end of March, 2014, I’ve taken but one trip since then, a two day sojourn to a lovely spot not too far away, but despite the fact I’ve yet to finish the mods I want to make, and to leave on my big trip, I’ve had no shortage of great RV adventures… before ever hitting the open road, that is. Here’s one of them:

Recently when checking the oil level of the Onan generator built into my coach–I’ve been using it to power my electric drill when making mods–I noticed that portions of the exterior of the generator were coated with oil. This is never a good sign. Oil belongs inside the generator, not on the outside. I was worried about a leak, but also realized that gasoline engines can sometimes seep oil over time without there being any problem of real concern.

Choosing the cautious route I decided to have a qualified technician look at the generator. A quick Google found only a couple places within a reasonable radius where I could get service for the generator and one of them was an Onan factory service center. I phoned Onan and was told it would be $157 for them to pour some oil dye into the generator, run it for an hour, then check for leaks. It would cost more if they had to first clean the existing oil off the outside of the generator. I decided $157 seemed like a lot of money to essentially do nothing for most of an hour except to let the generator run before checking for leaks. I also thought that I could probably do a pretty good job cleaning the oil off the generator myself.

Air filter cover and other parts covered with oil
Air filter cover and other parts covered with oil

Air filter cover and other parts after cleaning
Air filter cover and other parts after cleaning

A little more Googling and I discovered what oil dye is all about. Apparently it fluoresces under UV (ultraviolet or black light). It’s added to the oil of an engine, the engine is run for a while, then the black light is shined on the engine looking for the yellow glow of dye that has leaked out. I also leaned I could buy a small bottle of the stuff (Dye-Lite) at the local auto parts store for under $6.

I called Onan to say I’d clean the generator and add the dye myself, run the generator for an hour or two then bring the RV into their place to have them look for leaks with the ultraviolet light. I explained that $157 was a lot for me to spend for essentially letting my generator run for an hour. So, after about an hour of cleaning the generator with paper towels, kerosene and an assortment of objects I could wrap a paper towel around in order to get into nooks and crannies I could not otherwise reach, I had a fairly clean generator with the exception of a few places I just could not get to.

Next I poured in a little oil dye and ran the generator for about an hour. I couldn’t see any signs of leaking oil, so the next day when I took the RV to Onan I ran the generator for about another 45 minutes during the drive. Arriving at Onan there were still no visible signs of leaks, not to the naked eye, anyway. It was a disappointment to learn that Onan didn’t have a functioning ultraviolet light after I’d driven 45 minutes to get there, preceded by a 30 minute drive to get to the storage facility where I keep my RV, and knowing I’d have to drive the reverse route to get home. After spending about 5 minutes with me looking at and talking about the generator, and another 15 minutes looking for a functioning ultraviolet light, Onan’s technician seemed to think that the most likely explanation for the oil mess I had was oil from the breather hose. I think that’s a method of ventilating gasses from the crankcase as pressure inside the engine increases from the buildup of heat. That system can carry a little oil with it which over time can spread over parts of the generator’s exterior. While relieved that there was no obvious reason to have the generator serviced and that for the time being it seemed OK to keep an eye on it for leaks and judiciously watch the oil level, there exists a degree of uncertainty that everything is really OK. Also on the plus side is that Onan didn’t charge me anything.

When I arrived back at the RV storage yard I bumped into a gent I see there with some frequency and I told him my tale. He told me he had a black light. I said “What? Here? You’re kidding, right?” He wasn’t kidding. In a couple minutes he returned to my RV, black light in hand. We started up my generator to supply the AC power needed to run the light, but there was none. We checked the GFI outlet. No power there. We checked the circuit breakers for the GFI circuit flipping them off then back on. Nope. I called Onan and left a voice mail for the service writer asking if they’d possibly done something to shut off the current from the generator. Then I called Coachnet (I’m a subscriber to their services) to talk to a technician to see if they had any ideas. Their technicians were busy with other callers and I was promised a return call. Just after hanging up with Coachnet I got a call back from the service writer at Onan who told me there was a circuit breaker on the generator itself and he instructed me where to find it. Sure enough, it was in the off position. Apparently the Onan tech had flipped it while looking at my generator and he didn’t turn it back on. I dragged my neighbor with the black light to my RV one more time and we turned on his light only to find, drumroll… nothing. We decided it wasn’t bright enough, or that it was too bright outside for it to be useful. Previously, when I poured the oil dye into the generator I’d spilled a little which I couldn’t effectively wipe up so my thinking was we should see that dye fluoresce whether or not there was any leaking elsewhere. We did not. I’m uncertain if it needs to be mixed with oil in order to fluoresce, if the light wasn’t the right wavelength, if it was not bright enough or too bright outside, or what. In the end I felt a certain amount of reassurance that the generator was OK, but a certain amount of doubt about that. I’d say the 80/20 rule applies here: 80% reassured, 20% doubtful. I learned about the circuit breaker on the generator and I saved about $150-$200 cleaning the generator and adding the oil dye myself. And so ends (or has it?) another great RV adventure, before ever hitting the open road.

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One thought on “My Great Generator Adventure”

  1. COOL RUSS! The adventure begins and seems to never end, just like these highways! Be well my friend! James

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