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Generator Control Panel -
What it is and how it’s used

Controlling our machines
Any complex piece of machinery requires a user interface to enable the user to monitor its operations, check for efficient functioning, and intervene when required. Machines overheat, slow down, speed up or generally vary in their performance based on numerous factors such as fatigue, weather conditions, and the wear and tear of components and parts.

In electrical machines, like generators, these varying changes constitute an electrical signal.  Additional information about generators and their components can also be found in the article, How Generators Work.  These signals can be intelligently processed to control the performance of the machine.  A lot of machines in urban environments (such as signal lights and automatic doors) are completely self-managed due to such controllers. They have sensors that can detect changes in physical attributes like heat and speed and generate signals accordingly. Modern generators also have similar sensors to detect changes in all kinds of various parameters. These can be used to control the generator through a control panel.

The Control Panel – what is it?
Visually, a control panel is a set of displays that indicate the measurement of various parameters like voltage, current and frequency, through gauges and meters. These meters and gauges are set in a metallic body, usually corrosion proof, to protect from the effect of rain or snow. The panel may be set up on the body of the generator itself, which is usually the case with small generators. If they are mounted on the generator, they typically have vibration proof pads that help isolate the control panel from shocks. Control panels for a larger industrial generators can be completely separate from the generator and are typically large enough to stand upon their own. These units may also be shelf-mounted or wall-mounted next to the generator, which is common inside an enclosure or intental application like a data center.

Control panels are usually fitted with buttons or switches that help to operate the generator such as a switch-off button or turn-on key. The switches and gauges are usually grouped on the basis of functionality. This makes the panel friendly and safe for use since it minimizes the possibility of an operator accidentally selecting or executing the wrong control. Imagine trying to shut down a vibrating generator with a spring loaded lever in the middle of the night and you will appreciate why having a simple cut of switch at the control panel makes sense.

How does it work?
The control panel is becoming an increasingly complex piece of electronics with a microprocessor that can manipulate input from sensors to help give feedback to the machine to manage itself. One such feedback could be the temperature, indicating overheating, other examples would be over/under speed and low/high oil pressure. Typically, a heat sensor inside the generator would sense the build up of heat in the generator body and pass this to the microprocessor in the control panel. The microprocessor will then take effective measures to regulate the performance of the machine including shutdowns if, for example, the oil pressure is too low or the coolant temperature is too high, leading to buildup of heat. In industrial situations, this functionality of control panels is becoming increasingly critical. The microprocessor or microcontroller is embedded in the circuitry inside the control panel and is programmed to take in the sensor input and react to that with the programmed control rules. 

Control panels can be combined with an Automatic Transfer Switch (ATS) to maintain the continuity of electrical power. The ATS detects an outage of power when your local grid fails. It signals the control panel to start the generator. Depending on the type of generator being used, the control panel may activate glow plugs (for diesel) for an adjustable length of time. It will then start the generator using an automatic starter, similar to the one you engage when you turn the keys in the ignition of your car in the morning. As soon as the engine of the generator reaches an optimum speed, the starter is disengaged. The ATS then switches to the generator power, and you can go back to business as usual, without having to frantically scramble to figure out what caused power loss. This aspect of a control panel makes it extremely useful in homes during bad weather and in industrial situations for ensuring mission-critical continuity.

Custom Control Panels
Control panel units are usually designed and produced by the manufacturer of your generator. Most generators have integrated control panels that are embedded with the product. 

Some of the common things today’s control panels offer include; continuous digital readouts, large character LCD screens, displays with running time, oil pressure and water temperature sensors, set points and custom message options, wiring harnesses, remote and local start/stop capabilities, and of course shut-down capabilities.

You may have special requirements above and beyond the common feature set included with the standard units, such as gauges and meters, very specific parameters to be monitored, a preference for LCD indicators as opposed to analog meters, automation requirements, and various other factors that are not typically provided by the generator manufacturer’s original control panel. In such a case, you can have a control panel custom designed and then fitted onto the generator, or look into purchasing one that meets your needs from a number of third-party vendors who specialize in control panels. Custom panels are quite popular in both industrial and residential generators. In addition to choosing a control panel the following article contains addtitional tips when buying a generator.  So, the next time you are evaluating a generator for your use, don’t forget to check out all the specifics on the control panel and the features it offers to make certain it will meet all the requirements for your specific needs.

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