A Task Worth Doing

Saving a Georgian Fairbanks-Morse power station


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This power station was built in the early 1930s to power the offshore Georgia island estate of a tobacco magnate. It was used until sometime in the 1960s when commercial power became available. For at least a few years after that, the station was more or less cared for; but for about the last 30 years it has been allowed to deteriorate.

The property was recently transferred to the University of Georgia as a wetlands conservation and research facility. The power station building has been slated to be remodeled into a lunchroom for students and staff. The University was in the position of having to scrap and remove the generators and auxiliary equipment at considerable expense.

Enter the old iron guys. At the time I got involved, I had been advertising on the Internet for an old Fairbanks-Morse diesel generator to be used as a backup generator at the farm of a friend and fellow enthusiast, Frank (who asked that his last name not be mentioned). In the summer of 2006, one of the people at the University responsible for clearing out the building happened to see my advertisement, e-mailed me with photos of the machinery and asked if I would be interested in helping preserve it. We corresponded and I got Frank involved, who, in the meantime, had second thoughts about having such a large standby generator and we agreed to try to find suitable homes for this cast-off cast iron.

The good news was that everything was virtually untouched since the plant was shut down. The bad news was the location. Since the power station was on an island in the tidal flats, the machinery had to be moved by barge to the mainland where the engines could be trucked away to their new homes. A crane had to be available to lift the heavy iron from the building where it resided to the barge. We had to organize an experienced volunteer crew as well as moving gear to get the job done.

The agreement with the University required the recipients of the machinery qualify as bona fide non-profit organizations (museums, etc.), so the hunt was on.

The machinery

There were two of three original Fairbanks-Morse Model 32 E 12, 2-cylinder, 2-cycle diesels remaining, each rated at 88 KVA at 80 percent power factor, giving an actual 70 kilowatts at 2,200 volts, 60-cycle, 3-phase. They run at 360 RPM.

A 5-cylinder Model 38 300 HP Fairbanks-Morse was the third engine and is probably one of the smallest opposed-piston engines Fairbanks made. The model was manufactured in various sizes for a long time and the engines are considered to be very reliable. They have two crankshafts: One is located in the usual position in-line with the alternator; the other is located on top of the cylinders. There are 10 pistons, two per cylinder. The top crankshaft is driven from the bottom crankshaft by a silent chain. Scavenging is done by a Rootes supercharger driven from the end of the top crankshaft. You can see the supercharger and the four air cleaners just above the alternator.

The crankshafts are driven slightly out of phase so the top set of pistons uncover the exhaust ports a little before the bottom set of pistons uncover the inlet ports. Doing this gives better scavenging of the combustion gases because it allows the exhaust overpressure to be relieved before scavenging air enters the cylinders. Due to the timing difference, a majority of the engine power is developed in the lower crankshaft.

As a side note, in addition to generating duties these engines are used in railroad locomotives, submarines and surface ships.

On the control panels, the left-hand panel is the synchronizing panel used to bring an additional generator into synchronization with the others before being cut into the load.

The second and third panels are for the old 2-cylinder generator sets, and have a main switch for applying them to the load as well as exciter volt meters and ammeters, an alternator voltmeter and rheostats for controlling the output voltage.

The fourth panel from the left is the control panel for the 5-cylinder opposed-piston generator set. On the right is the main load metering and disconnect panel.

Moving time

Because we were working with a public institution, we understood we had to be extremely careful to abide by the rules for the transfer of state property to non-profit organizations. First of all, Frank made sure the relationship between he and the University was truly advantageous to them. Their cost of removal was very minimal. Having volunteer workers do the actual work, plus paying for the barge and crane time saved the University a substantial amount of money.

Frank and the University arranged accommodations on the island for the crew. Dormitory style rooms were provided as well as a kitchen, but no cook, so groceries were carried to the island and everyone pitched-in doing the chow hall work.

In November 2006, Frank had a plan and crews lined up from the Coolspring Power Museum (taking the opposed-piston generator set), the Ashtabula County (Ohio) Antique Engine Club (taking one 2-cylinder engine) and the East Tennessee Antique Engine Assn. (taking the other 2-cylinder) to meet on the island Dec. 1 for dismantling/moving. By that time, the necessary paperwork for the transfer of the generator set was being completed. We tried to save everything remotely useable, including the control panels, pumps, compressors, etc. Unfortunately, some of the transformers, capacitors and contactors contain PCB oil, considered to be hazardous waste, which had to be properly disposed of.

The first order of business was to get the opposed-piston unit ready to move. Exhaust, fuel and electricity were disconnected and the engine was unbolted from the floor and lifted in preparation for moving.

In January and February, the crews met at the island to do some more dismantling and prepping, and in March, they assembled again to finally get the machinery out of the building, across the island and to the mainland. I'd like to thank Jon Garbisch for taking the photos of the work that occurred on March 17. Jon says they started about 9 a.m. and finished about 7 p.m.

Advice for others

From our experience, we've learned something about how to preserve large old iron. First and foremost, be nice! Cooperate. Most owners of this kind of machinery simply want to be rid of it at minimal expense and as soon as possible. If you expect them to wait for months or years for you to get around to removing it, they will simply carry-on with their original plan and the machinery will be broken and sent to China.

Second, you cannot expect them to subsidize your effort. Especially above what it would cost them to scrap the machinery. You've got to be able to gather crew and transportation to get the job done, even if it means shelling out some money. You can't blame the owners for not wanting unnecessary complications and expense. Their job is not preserving the machinery; their job is getting on with whatever it is they want to do with the property they're clearing.

Remember, no matter how hard we work at it, this kind of machinery is disappearing fast. In the process, some good old heavy iron is going to be scrapped. All we can hope for is that some of the good examples will be saved for future generations to see and enjoy. Boy - this is fun!

Contact Elden DuRand at: edurand@mchsi.com

For more information on this project, photos and updates, visit Elden's website at: www.oldengine.org/members/durand/F-M Power Station/F-M Power Station.html (Be sure to leave spaces.)