Homemade Power - A Vegetable Oil Fuelled Generator
This page is all about using a 55 year old Diesel engine running on waste vegetable oil to make electricity
and heat for my suburban home.
On this page I look at assembling the main system components - mainly secondhand, scrap or salvaged.
These events are roughly from February 2005 to April 2006.
First I had to get the main system components together, including collecting the engine from a farm in
Somerset, getting it to run on the trailer/engine chassis and then installing it in my rather old garden shed.
At the same time, on a farm in South Wales, I found a secondhand emergency lighting system, which contains
a 5kW sine wave inverter and a suitable set of 100Ah batteries.
An initial budget of £1250 was set to get the basic system together. As well as Ebay UK, a list of suppliers is
Disclaimer: This project has a high content of DIY
engineering, heavy lifting, oil and grime and potentially
dangerous rotating machinery. If you are not comfortable/at
home with any of these, then perhaps this project is not for you.
There are plenty of other interesting things to buy on ebay!
A couple of years ago, I first read about an old slow speed
diesel engine that was being used to provide a rugged source
of power for off-grid remote locations. Quickly I learned
that the engine was in fact an old British design made by
Lister. A bit of internet research informed me that they had
been built in their thousands between 1930 and 1987, and
that there were plenty still available in the UK, to be bought
cheaply through farm sales and from Ebay.
Shortly afterwards, I came across such an engine for sale in
Somerset of the same kind, a Lister CS diesel engine built in
the 1950s. At last, I had finally managed to secure one, in
near original condition, for £250. So, with the engine
bagged, I set about my intention of building my own
domestic heat and power system, right in the heart of
I knew for many years that diesel engines could be made to
run from bio-diesel and even vegetable oil, and I soon found
out that the very simple fuel injection system on the Lister
was capable of handling a wide variety of fuels including
waste vegetable oil.
Here is my Lister CS engine, a 6hp model
dating from 1950.
This one has been in storage for over 20 years
and still has some of the original paintwork.
In 1900 Rudolph Diesel demonstrated his new engine running on peanut oil; a renewable fuel that could be
produced by farming communities and used to provide them with mechanical power and thus increased
Vegetable oil, made from cold-pressed rapeseed, grown in the UK, is an entirely renewable fuel, with a much
smaller carbon footprint than any of the fossil fuels.
Generating my own power, and utilising the waste heat from the engine will help me reduce my utility bills,
and make a very small contribution to reducing fossil fuel consumption.
Two years ago, I discovered a British made engine, the Lister CS (Cold Start) designed in the 1920s that will
burn vegetable oil directly, and convert the energy into heat and power, enough for a typical suburban house.
The photos below chart the progress of this project, the installation of the engine into the shed, and the
techniques involved to couple up the alternator, the inverter, and utilise the vegetable oil.
On Saturday 22nd April 2006, the engine ran for the first time on vegetable oil and produced 2kWh of
electricity on just one litre of vegetable oil.
As well as renewable electricity, the engine also produces a lot of waste heat which can be captured and used to
heat the house and provide hot water.
Collecting the Engine.
A hired 7 x 4 trailer was
used to collect it from a
farm in Somerset.
Note that it is sitting on a
pallet and is very well
strapped down! These
engines weigh 350 kg and
should be treated with
respect. An engine crane
with at least a 500kg
capacity, is essential for
lifting and safety
The budget was set at £1250 to purchase the larger system components, and consisted of the following key
Lister CS 6/1 6hp engine £250 Ebay UK
Engine spares - valves guides etc £80 Marine Engine Services, Uxbridge. 01895 236 246
3kW Chinese ST Alternator £248 Volvox Engineering Ltd.
Custom Generator frame £150 R. Larkin, Blacksmith, Tandridge. - now superceded by old
Startomatic base - ebay
Inverter/charger/batteries £375 Ebay UK
Toothed Belts and pulleys £83 Beeline Power transmission Milton Keynes 01908 222 999
I envisaged a 5 year pay off for the CHP system, so allowing a total of £1500 for the equipment, it would
have to provide savings of £300 per year for 5 years.
With electricity at 8p per unit, and gas at 3p a unit, I worked out that the Lister could produce all of my
daily electricity requirements, of about 10 kWh per day, throughout the winter months, and also provide
approximately 30% of my winter heating needs.
If I generated 10kWh of electricity per day from waste vegetable oil for 180 days of the year, I would save
£144, and at the same time I would produce about 20kWh of waste heat per day, which could save me £108
over the 180 days. Clearly the engine was providing too much electricity and not enough heat.
I then realised that if the waste vegetable oil was available at a low enough price, it would be worthwhile
burning more oil in the engine, and using the spare electricity to provide heating for the house. As I am
generally confined to my workroom during the day, it would make sense to fit an electric heater in this
room that was run directly from the engine. This would allow me to concentrate the heat in the rooms
where I needed it, and also turn down the heat to the rest of the house.
With this in mind, an oil filled radiator or storage heater of about 2kW output could be used to heat my
workroom during the day, which if running for 10 hours on a 50% duty would consume a further 10kWh
of electricity and produce another 20kWh of waste engine heat. Any spare electricity would be dumped
into a thermal store using a 3kW immersion heater.
Now I was able to run the engine for 10 hours per day, produce all my electricity, 40% of my home
heating and displace a total of £216 of gas per year. Total gas and electricity savings would be £360 in
the 180 days of running the engine.
The engine consumes 1.33 litres of vegetable oil per hour whilst producing a full 3kW of electricity. At a
maximum of 10 hours per day, I would need to burn 13 litres of oil per day.
First Run for 20 Years.
This 1950 Lister CS 5-1 engine serial number CS
82479 was bought last February, in original
condition, from a farm in Somerset for about £250
I have had it in storage for almost a year, but in
mid-January 2006, I decided that it was time to get it
running again, with the light green 6hp engine and
generator going up to Leeds to form the basis of
Andy Mahoney's Homebrew Power System.
The engine lacked compression when turned over,
and I soon realised that the air was leaking out of a
faulty exhaust valve.
I tried grinding the existing valve to match the valve
seat but with no avail. It then became clear that part
of the problem was a worn valve guide that was
preventing the valve from forming an effective seal.
I decided to replace all the valve gear - valves,
springs and valve guides, effectively a complete
overhaul of the cylinder head.
Parts were purchased at Marine Engine Services in
Uxbridge, which was my closest Lister dealer that
held spares for this engine.
The valves were replaced and with a new cylinder
head gasket the compression restored.
I then found that the injection pump was failing to
work the injector, despite appearing to pump fuel.
This was caused by a stuck delivery valve in the
outlet of the injector pump. It was simply fixed by
removing the delivery pipe and top nut of the pump,
and gently tapping the delivery valve downwards
with some WD40 to lubricate it. After a few very
gentle taps the delivery valve was working correctly
and moving up and down with motion of the pump
On Sunday 22nd January, the engine ran again for the
first time in approximately 20 years. It was very
noisy because it does not yet have an exhaust pipe!
This engine is in good original condition, and has not
been repainted. It still shows some of the original
Lister paint and transfers.
Last year I joined my local Stationary Engine
Society (SEAMS) in order to make contact with
other enthusiasts and attend a few engine rallies.
The first outing this year was Sunday 12th February,
and despite no rain for weeks, it was constant rain
I had recently prepared my 1950 Lister 6hp for the
event, and set off into the rain and fog, heading for
Box Hill, a local beauty spot, about 8 miles from
The Lister had only been running a couple of weeks
after I renewed the valves, valve guides and springs.
Although I had it running for short periods, it was
yet to have a proper run.
In view of the poor weather, I chose to use diesel for
starting, but I was aware that there might be some
residual vegetable oil in the tank.
It was a case of "make do and mend" and "rob Peter
to pay Paul" and as the photos show, the light green
tank, water inlet flange and injector were borrowed
from my other 5/1 engine.
Thanks to all the guys from SEAMS who made the
morning worthwhile, and to Chris, Ian and others,
who helped with a supply of water cooling and
general "engine wrangling".
The 1950 Lister CS 5/1 sits on my custom made
trailer. Usually I have a generator attached via a
belt drive, and it would have been better to have a
decent load to run the engine on. This will be
remedied soon when I get around to installing a
new ST 5kW head and belt drive. I can only
describe this as work in progress, I am missing an
air filter on this engine, and the governor is not
working correctly because of a sticking rack or
some related problem.
The cooling tank on this engine is a 5 gallon
propane bottle, which hardly got warm today, even
after 90 minutes of running.
Having repaired the engine in my father in
law's garage we set it onto the trailer and
delivered it to the front of my house. The
500kg engine crane was used to remove the
engine from the trailer and put it down onto a
custom made generator frame. The frame
accepts temporary 200mm diameter castors
to make a useful engine trolley.
This is the new 10 x 16' shed that I use as my garden
office. The mechanical workshop and engine shed
will be immediately behind, so that I can benefit
from the waste heat.
Here is the inverter cabinet. As you can see it is
rather big! 720mm x 720mm x 1800mm tall. It
contains the two 2.5kW inverters, the battery
charging transformer, the control gear and has 2
shelves to take the lead acid batteries. It was bought
as a 2nd hand emergency lighting unit from a farm in
Wales, having previously been used in a Bingo hall
in Port Talbot.
The generator frame holds the engine and the 5kW
Chinese ST alternator. Below is the 6kW dc starter
motor that I am considering using for my inverter
battery charger to cut out the inefficiencies of
going from ac to dc.
A couple of views of the 150Ah lead acid batteries.
9 batteries are used making a dc link voltage of a
nominal 108V. With the batteries float charged to
about 125V, the current draw from the 240V
alternator will be quite modest, even at the full
A couple of views of the 2.5kW Inverter unit. There
are two of these installed in the inverter cabinet.
Above is the inverter control panel with
a meter to show the battery voltage and
state of charge and a series of warning
indicator lamps showing the inverter
Above is some of the control wiring and contactors in
the inverter cabinet. The large transformer on the right
is the battery charger, allowing the batteries to be
recharged from the ac mains supply
This is the 25 litre waste vegetable oil day
tank. It was found as scrap and salvaged from
a steam carpet cleaning machine. It is made
from stainless steel and has two electric
heating elements fitted.
Above is the 5kW Chinese manufactured ST alternator,
designed to bolt down directly onto the generator
frame. It will be fitted with a toothed belt pulley and
driven by a 30mm wide 8mm pitch HTD belt from a
larger pulley on the engine shaft.
This is underside of the proposed waste
vegetable oil tank. It has a motor and pump
on the left, connections to the separate
heating elements driven by a relay
contactor, an audible sounding alarm for
tank overheat and a pair of temperature
controlled switches to maintain constant
The "Engine Shed".
In early March, Paul Compton and his friend
Mark, helped me to manoeuvre the engine
into the shed at the back of my suburban
house, where it is going to become part of
my home heat and power system.
A new engine shed will have to be built to
replace the old one, but until I am
generating power, this old one will have to
The engine shed will have acoustic isolation
and a separate concrete block to mount the
engine in isolation from the concrete shed
floor. As the nearest neighbours are 10m
away - I need to keep it as quiet as possible.
My poor old shed is on it's last legs, it dates
from about 1950 and it has been a useful junk
store for the last 5 years. As you can see from
below, we needed to make a couple of small
changes to the original.
The old shed has a solid 7' x 9' concrete base.
This is going to be extended to 10' x 12' in
order to take a pair of concrete engine
mounts and bases for my machine tools. The
shed roof faces south, so will be fitted with a
solar heating panel and small photovoltaic
array. All hot water will be pumped back to
the house via a pair of insulated PEX pipes.
The engine sits axially on the trolley frame with the
alternator on the right. In this orientation it is only
660mm wide (26") which is narrow enough to pass
down the passage down the side of my house. If
turned the other way it would be 920mm wide, and
not pass through the narrow gate or single
Every Bloke's Dream - A Shed Full of Lister -
to the expense of everything else!
Here is a view of the Lister on its trolley, in
temporary storage in the remains of the old
shed. OK we had to take the side and floor
out of the shed to get it in! The red fire
extinguishers and green refrigerant bottles
will make useful heat exchangers for exhaust
March 28th - a glorious spring morning!
With most of the system components now available it was time to put it all together.
The Lister had to come out of the shed and be transferred onto the more permanent fabricated steel
Startomatic baseplate, recently bought secondhand from a garden nursey in south Humberside. The
trolley makes the engine fairly mobile, but it's still a bit of a handful! The engine crane was set up on a
sheet of 18mm plywood, placed over the grass behind the shed.
Easter Sunday Project Update.
Here is my 6hp 1950 Lister CS engine,
coupled to the 3kW Chinese alternator,
running at 650 rpm and making "real"
mains electricity for the first time!
In February I managed to get hold of an
old Startomatic engine and so I recycled
the baseplate and alternator sliding
mounts so that it accepts the Chinese
alternator. With a bit of dark green paint
over the rust it will look OK.
The engine is coupled to the alternator
using a toothed belt drive. It speeds up
the motion to 1500rpm, which is what is
needed by the 4 pole alternator to make
electricity at 50Hz.
The inspiration for this project has been
the old Lister Startomatic generator sets,
dating from the 1930s with the added
advantage that mine will be running on
renewable fuel in the form of waste
There is still a lot of work to do to get
this into a fully working dependable
system. I need to silence the exhaust,
pre-heat the vegetable oil and make use of
the waste engine heat. A self-starting
using a big dc motor is also under
However, the engine and alternator are
now coupled together and running well,
and if we had a sudden power outage, they
can easily be used to provide back-up - so
stage 1 has been achieved.
The engine and Chinese alternator
produced power for the first time on
Easter Sunday 2006.
The alternator sits axially on the steel
baseplate facing the engine. A 80 tooth
pulley on the engine drives a 32 tooth
pulley on the alternator, making a
speed increase of 2.5:1.
This allows the alternator to turn at
1500 rpm when the engine is doing a
The baseplate and slotted alternator
mounting rails were salvaged from an
old Startomatic that had seen better
An old 2kW electric kettle was used as
a test load.
As can be seen from the steam, it was
The oscilloscope was used to look at
the shape of the ac waveform being
The "eagle-eyed" might just be able to
see a faint red trace towards the
bottom of the LCD screen.
The belt drive to the alternator is
a 20mm wide, 8mm pitch toothed
belt. Belt length is 800mm.
An 80 tooth pulley on the engine
shaft drives a 34 tooth pulley on
the alternator shaft.
With this arrangement, the
alternator spins at 1500rpm,
when the engine is doing
637.5rpm - nearly its rated speed.
Pulleys, belts and taper bushes
were supplied by Beeline of
A wire mesh guard will cover
this arrangement to keep it safe.
Here is the inside of the ST 3
alternator control box.
Whilst the Chinese electrics
are somewhat basic, it does
have an automatic voltage
regulator (AVR) contained in
the silver box.
This varies the field current
and keeps the alternator
generating a constant voltage
output - in theory only!
External control of the field
current can make the ST a very
versatile alternator with
variable output voltage to suit
July 1st Update.
Here is the 6kW dc servo motor
coupled up as a starter
motor/generator via a toothed
belt to the alternator shaft.
This motor will happily turn the
engine over compression, when
supplied with 36V or more, from
my battery bank.
When the engine runs at 650rpm,
the geared drive spins the motor
at 1200rpm and produces about
135V dc. This is used directly for
recharging the battery bank.
The generator set has now become a hybrid system, where it produces 50Hz ac and also 135V dc
for battery charging.
If the speed of the engine should fall as a result of a large load on the alternator, then power will
automatically be suppled from the batteries and motor to keep the alternator turning at a
constant 1500 rpm. The battery bank acts as an energy store and "load leveller". I hope to
experiment with different starter motors, particularly shunt wound dc, that are very easy to
control as dc generators.
The output from the alternator is wired directly to my hot water cylinder immersion heater. On
cloudy days when the solar panel doesn't give enough hot water, I run the Lister for an hour to
help top up the tank temperature. In this way I do not have to fire up the boiler to heat the water,
and so have not used any gas for water heating since early June.
For More Information:
Ken Boak can be contacted by email by anyone wishing further information on this project.
Since starting on this Lister project, several other Lister engine enthusiasts and their CS engines
have come to my notice.
As a result, we have recently started a Lister CS Owners Group, contactable via Yahoo Groups
Some Background to the Project.
Each year I use about 20500 kWh of natural gas for heating and
cooking, and a further 3300 kWh of electricity for running my
home. As I work from home, there is someone at home every
day, and the house has a requirement for a comfortable level of
heating during normal working hours.
With the recent large increase in gas an electricity prices, and
my own energy bills approaching £750 per year, I thought about
the idea of producing my own heat and power in order to offset
the rising prices, and also to offset the burning of fossil fuels
and replace them with renewable fuels that have a near CO2
The plan was to obtain a suitable engine and alternator and
couple them up to provide 240V ac mains power for the house.
If the engine was running, a circuit breaker would disconnect
my house from the utility supply, so that I would be completely
independent of the grid.
As well as the electricity, the engine would supply a useful
amount of waste heat from its cooling jacket and exhaust
manifold, and with suitable home-made heat-exchangers, I
could use this heat to supply heat to my house.