Generator Monitor Gives the Phone Company the Boot

Part of the problem with having an alarm system is its reliance on land line telephone service. Some of them are getting away from this practice, but there are still many legacy systems out there that require a check to be sent in to Ma Bell every month in addition to the alarm system fees. Like these antiquated systems, [jgyates] was having a similar problem with the generator at his home which could only be monitored with a link to a cell network. Now that there’s a Raspberry Pi in every house, however, [jgyates] has a generator monitor that isn’t beholden to the phone company.

The hardware setup is little more than connecting the communications lines from the generator’s controller (in this case, a Generac Evolution controller) to the serial communications pins on a Raspberry Pi 3. [jgyates] did most of the work in Python, and his code is able to monitor almost every aspect of this generator and report it over WiFi or Ethernet, as well as control the generator settings from anywhere that has an Internet connection.

Even if you don’t have a generator with this particular controller, it will be a good guide for converting a monitor of any type into one that doesn’t require a land line or cell network connection. To that end, there have been lots of projects that convert even simple, old, analog household devices to report data over the LAN.

23 thoughts on “Generator Monitor Gives the Phone Company the Boot

  1. I think the reason for using a cell modem is that the cell system stays up when the wired systems go down in storm, earthquake, flood, etc. I don’t see how connecting to the serial port of a Pi does anything magical.

    1. Using the Pi rids the user of having to pay for cell service (apparently) when they can use the internet access they already have. It also gives them logging ability and a pretty interface.

      I say “apparently” since I didn’t see in the links where the generator had external connectivity to begin with, cellular or otherwise. If that’s truly the case, although not “magical”, it’s a pretty sweet thing to add so cheaply.

      1. I was working for a IoT company that made a device for monitoring power and the cell carriers have very low data plans for stuff like this for only a few bucks a month. I think you get something like 5 megs a month which for something like this is more than enough. I cant remember the plan provider that we used but they used the sprint/verizon network.

    2. “…the cell system stays up when the wired systems go down in storm, earthquake, flood, etc.”

      Your faith in the cellular infrastructure is touching.

      Just how do you think your cell call from where you are to where you want to call GETS there? That’s right, in most cases, over land lines.

      And do you know how cell sites stay up when the power goes out? Generators. Which have about 3-5 days worth of fuel on-site. After that…no more cell service from that site, until someone gets out there with fuel. Some sites don’t even have a generator…their plan is to run off batteries until someone drives a generator out and plugs it into the port on the outside of the equipment enclosure.

        1. Very true. Though SMS and potentially data service might stand a better chance of getting through than a voice call.

          I speak from experience in the Northeast. We don’t have weeklong outages often, but, when we do, they’re good ones :-)

          Verizon delivered an ultimatum to me last Spring: convert to fiber or we disconnect your copper. Not happy to see that go, but it seems to be the (shortsighted) wave of the future. I can’t really blame them — the future is broadband, and fiber is a much better pipe for that than copper. And you can’t really expect them to maintain two parallel plants.

          I still have my ham radio gear, and thinking of setting up a solar panel or two, just so I can charge.

      1. You are correct. Most, if not all, cell sites run through a local telco Central Office. After the power feeding the site is interrupted the fiber or copper circuits feeding them are the weak point.

        I have it on good authority that the batteries and generators,if they even have a generator, at many cell sites are not maintained very well. The 48-72 hour standby power is often reduced to nothing when an attempt to switch over to backup power is made.

        In my office, I work for an RBOC aka Ma Bell, We have 72 hours of diesel fuel and a couple hours on battery which are both dependent on current load. in extreme circumstances we can enter a load shedding profile which will keep the communication equipment going for a lot longer if necessary. The batteries are mostly a giant UPS that keeps everything up till the generators come online which usually only takes a few seconds.

        In an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, I am pretty confident in the Ma Bell infrastructure. Provided of course that the Central Office is still standing, not flooded, and local access lines haven’t been cut feeding out to the field… blaa blaa end of the world blaa

        Still – Shit happens. If the device you’re communicating with is part of a critical system don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

        1. The point is, a wire can be cut in one place by one event – one tree down, some recreational blasting, an angry SUV hits a local wire thing. You are stuck until it is spliced. You don’t need a region-wide catastrophe in order to be cut off. Recall the Loma Prieta earthquake. Damage was in a few particular places. In Palo Alto the power never failed.

          (Also, people in other areas with natural gas generators had no power. The earthquake valves had shut them all off. Those with propane were peachy.)

      2. It really depends on what sort of disruption you are worried about:
        If you live in a wooded area that gets storms, say, having your power and copper cut by a downed tree isn’t all that exotic. Possibly not an annual event; but well below the level of ‘disaster’; and usually leaves your RF paths unscathed.

        If you have buried lines; or no trees, that likely isn’t an issue; but the tendency of the cellular system to fall over if everyone panics and tries to use it at once potentially will be.

        (There’s also the ugly fact that a lot of ‘POTS’ is, more or less without any notice or way for you to request this information, basically VOIP until shortly before it hits your house; and the little legacy converter box is very, very, unlikely to have anything like the giant-bank-o’-backup-batteries that old school POTS did. It is true that contemporary infrastructure is more likely to be built for ‘cheap’ than for ‘bulletproof’; but this, often invisibly, includes older infrastructure that has been updated behind the scenes.)

    1. Given their (alleged) focus on ‘security’ you might not find a handy serial port on an alarm console(the ones designed for integration into larger systems obviously will have communications ports; but those aren’t necessarily the ones sold for home use; and you may not actually get specs or credentials out of the vendor without either being the reseller or twisting some arms); but that seems otherwise doable. (Worst case, a webcam watching the alarm panel is a brute-force-and-ignorance solution to remotely observing its status).

      My main concern would be that the company concerned would use any 3rd party attachments, no matter how benign or well engineered, to weasel out of honoring any guarantees they offered should something that actually requires the alarm system happen(and, if not them, a home insurer who is basing their rate on the presence of a security system would be likely to take a similar approach).

      People in the business of selling check-box security often prefer to punish noncompliance than to work with you(unless you are a rather large customer; and sometimes even then). I don’t doubt that you could do it; but it might not help you much if all other parties involved decide that whatever change you made invalidate any responsibilities they took on.

  2. “[…]control the generator settings from anywhere that has an Internet connection.[…]” This sounds like a great idea! More stuff that can cause serious hazards in the phyisical world cobbled on the internet. This HAS to be a good idea since everyone is doing it these days. AMIRITE?

    1. Congratulations, your reflexes are fine. That was a wonderful knee jerk reaction.

      I didn’t see the work internet on the had.io page OR the GitHub readme. Have you never heard of a LAN?

  3. I don’t know why I see the paradox in this.If the generator is running,wouldnt that mean that there is a power outage.But would you even have access to any wifi in that case?

    1. If the generator is running, why wouldn’t you have WiFi? I lose power at my house very occasionally, but just having a UPS on my cable modem and router has always kept my internet access working.

  4. The main reason for writing this project, for me, was that the solution provide by the generator company was not working that well. My home LAN is on a UPS and my DSL has never gone down when we lose power (not to say that it would never, it is just not typical for me). The problem I had with the cell solution is the unpredictable massive delays (multiple hours at times) in notifications of generator events. I have also spoken to a few folks in Canada that are unable to use cellular since CDMA is no more in Canada (so I am told) and the monitoring systems to not use LTE.

  5. jam the gsm signal with a simple touch of a button on a cheap chinese ebay jammer. buglers come in.
    very inviting. way easier to find the landline, sneaky dig or climb to get to the cable, cut it, all in sight of everyone around.

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