Introduction to “Delco-Light Plants”
This article was written for historical reasons because my grandparents had one in the old farm house at the end of Kephart Lane. I found the subject to be intellectually interesting because of the present interest in off-the-grid living. My son recently purchased a book on the subject: “Off the Grid” by Nick Rosen in which it is mentioned that half a million people are presently living off the grid and that another half a million wish to have that capability. The technology to support this off-grid living was effectively stopped by the Rural Electrification Act and I am wondering what would have happened if it had been left to develop unhindered or unaffected by government action. This is a reoccurring theme of mine and of present interest because it involves steam power. The people who are working on this subject for Central America, Appropriate Technology Collaborative, over in Ann Arbor who are working on nickel-iron batteries. These are too large and heavy for mobile work, but cheap and good for stationary use. They can be welded together on site and this makes them more practical for remote situations. I have no idea why this article was not printed.
December 2, 2003
The other day I was leafing through my January 2004 issue of “Gas Engine Magazine” that usually concerns itself with the collection and restoration of hit and miss engines, a whole another story, and I ran across an excellent article on Delco-Light electricity generating plants for the home and farm. My father had said many times that my grandparents had a Delco plant at the old farmhouse. The old farmhouse was built by my grandfather in 1915 and was a cement block structure. It was torn down a couple of years ago to make room for a modern fancy house. It used to be the last house on Kephart Lane. It was on the left just below the second hill, which represented terraces left by different stages of levels in Lake Michigan during the ice ages, and within sight of the gates of the old gangster estate down at the end of the road.
We are used to having electricity everywhere these days and by 1930 90% of urban Americans had electricity. In 1930 only 10% of rural America had electricity from central generating plants. Therefore in 1916 Charles F. Kettering, founder of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, introduced its Delco-Light line of electric-generating plants. Kettering had wide experience in small-scale DC electric motors and lights and generators having put the first electric starter in Cadillac and thus dooming steam powered cars, another story for another time. The most popular unit was an 850 watt, 32-volt DC unit. This would be about a 2 hp gasoline fired engine. There was a bank of lead-acid storage batteries to go with the generator, and I believe that these were made out of glass. The engine started automatically when the batteries ran low and turned off when they were charged. Delco sold a whole line of light bulbs and small appliances that ran on the 32 volt system. This was not a small business as by 1935 Delco had sold over 350,000 units. There were other manufacturers also, but not quite as famous.
Electric lights were a real safety improvement over kerosene lights and kerosene lights were a real improvement over whale oil lights, or at least the whales thought so as they were nearly hunted to extinction just so people could read in the evening. A lot of houses were burned down from kerosene lights what with open flames and the spilling of petroleum products around the house and kids and dogs running around knocking things over although kids were more well behaved in olden times I am told. And we are not even going to get into interior air quality issues with all these sooty flames burning around.
In the 1930’s Roosevelt introduced the Rural Electrification Agency and this was a government subsidized building of electrical distribution lines throughout rural America. This is taught in school as being a real benefit to the rural populace and the right thing to do and as being one of Roosevelt’s great ideas. When this was done the Delco and similar plants were put out of business.
There are some interesting implications to all of this. Nowadays we are all talking about cogeneration and using electrical generating plants to provide heat for our buildings and all. Also we are looking at local generation for back-up when the lines go down in winter storms. This whole situation would have been significantly different if the government had not subsidized electrical lines because there would have been much refinement and development of this form of making electricity. Of course it would not have been really practical until the development of solid-state sine wave invertors which are now on the market quite reasonably priced due to their development for the computer industry. It is difficult to predict what might have happened because it did not happen.
For one thing with many local generators we would not have had electrical lines running all up and down the roads looking ugly and causing the trees under them to be trimmed and looking ugly. Then again we would not have electrical lines falling down because the trees were not trimmed enough to look ugly. For example, a note in the November 26, 2003 Herald-Palladium on page 2A said that First Energy Corporation in Ohio needed to upgrade its equipment and maintenance because it had contributed to the nation’s worst blackout last fall. To quote: “The task force criticized FirstEnergy for inadequate computer hardware, software and training. It also said the company allowed trees underneath transmission lines to grow too tall, triggering several outages when the lines sagged.” This local line breakage is what started the whole cascading of events that led to the blackout. Personally I do not think that the electrical lines sagged and that this caused the lines to break, which makes me wonder how smart these people are who are doing the analysis. It appears that the tree branches are growing up and then falling on the lines.
If you want to tour a museum full of more than 50 complete Delco-Light plants contact Wayne Sphar at: 4610 Jefferson Avenue, Avella, PA 15312. The name of the museum is Dr. Delco’s Delco-Light Museum. To quote from Mr. Sphar: “There’s so much to be preserved, it all needs to be preserved, and it’s just a monumental task.” The world is a better place because of people like this who go out and collect things before they are junked and because they actually do something about it and save this knowledge for future generations.