When the Lights Go Out: Importance of Ship’s Emergency Generator

by | Last updated May 9, 2024 | Emergency Preparedness, Equipment, Maritime Safety | 0 comments

Having power and electricity is vital for ships to function at sea. It does not matter if they are small yachts or huge supertankers. They need energy to run and reach their destination safely.

Hence, seafarers perform maintenance schedules for all the machinery and electrical systems on board.

But what if all their power-producing equipment fails and a wide blackout occurs in the middle of the ocean?

Because if you think about it, electrical failures don’t only happen in cities. They also exist on vessels and they can be much more dangerous.

The solution? Activating the ship’s emergency generator.

What is a ship’s emergency generator?

An emergency generator is a precautionary equipment that provides backup power to the vessel in case the main generators fail.

This machinery only activates when your vessel goes into a total blackout.

For that reason, this device is constructed to power essential sensors and alarm systems, crucial instruments, and other important machinery.

They include the following:

  • Navigation systems
  • Vessel’s alarm system
  • Emergency pumps, lighting, and steering motor
  • GMDSS equipment
  • Compressors
The ship's emergency generator painted green with an IMO sticker.
Emergency generator unit. Source: Youtube | Makinistang Layas.

Such components are critical for the vessel to function to a bare minimum.

In other words, an emergency generator powers essential machinery needed for the vessel to maneuver, communicate, start critical pumps, and send distress signals while the crew repairs the main or auxiliary engines.

Where can we find the emergency generator?

Here is what’s going to surprise you.

The vessel’s emergency generator, though a solid equipment for engineers, is not built inside the engine room.

In fact, it is installed on the poop deck or behind the accommodation block, just outside the engine spaces.

The reason for this is accessibility and a bit of diversification of your power generators.

Because if we install that device together with the main and auxiliary engines and a fire breaks out, all of our power-generating machinery won’t be accessible or could be destroyed.

Besides, this machine is designed to be accessible for all of the ship’s crew. 

Starting the emergency generator is also a part of our regular safety drills. Installing them on deck makes it easily reachable.

Are there any requirements?

The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) has specific requirements for emergency generators that every ship must pursue.

From installation to fuel capacity, starting method, and temperature performance, there are strict rules to follow.

First is the starting method. There must be at least two ways to start this crucial machinery- manual and automatic.

The automatic function works when the main electrical power suddenly stops like in cases blackout. There is no intervention from the crew and the important equipment gets electrical power.

In case that does not kick in automatically, we can start the generator manually. The manual function involves battery start, pneumatic start, and hydraulic start.

The ship’s crew, whatever their rank on board is, must be able to perform this operation.

Battery source for starting up the Emergency Generator.
Battery for Emergency Generator – Source: Youtube | Marine Timelapse TV

Fuel and starting requirements

Additionally, emergency generators must have a separate fuel line with enough fuel to last for at least 36 hours on passenger vessels and 18 hours on other merchant ships.

The fuel is normally diesel with a flash point of not less than 43° Celsius (closed-cup test).

Furthermore, emergency generators should be able to start in different conditions, which include 0-degree temperatures.

Lower ambient temperature requires additional measures such as heating and antifreeze agents.

Lastly, this component must have its own switchboard.

What does the switchboard do in emergency generators?

The switchboard is an essential component of emergency generators. They help distribute the electricity to vital machinery onboard. 

This way, they can supply the necessary power for critical functions during a significant electrical failure.

Wild fluctuations may occur in the line, too. Thus, an overvoltage measuring device keeps the power controlled and monitored within the switchboard so it won’t damage the system.

As long as the voltage is controlled, the switchboard distributes enough electricity to a range of equipment such as the following:

  • Navigation system
  • Steering gear
  • Emergency air compressor
  • Fire detection systems
  • Emergency fire pump
  • Alarm systems
  • Communication and radio equipment
  • Emergency lighting
  • Extra emergency services and aid are required by passengers and crew.
Navigational and radio equipment connected inside the bridge.
Much of the ship’s radio and navigational equipment is connected to the emergency generator.

What about maintenance?

Maintenance is crucial for emergency generators to work during blackouts, especially in distress situations. 

After all, they are the last lifeline for crew and passengers before a total blackout occurs. 

Thus, if you are a marine engineer, you must focus on the proper maintenance of this backup generator.

These tasks include the following:

Weekly tests

As we mentioned above, there are two modes for starting generators: automatic function and manual function. 

Even if the automatic mode uses a battery for starting up, you must test it together with the manual mode to confirm that these machines work as intended.

You must run it every week using one of those methods for starting. This ensures that it will automatically function when the need arises.

Aside from that, test the generator using hydraulic and pneumatic starts every month to verify that this mode also works. 

The hydraulic and pneumatic mode is the final failsafes to provide power in case the battery mode fails.

Checking and changing the fluid levels

The two crucial fluids used inside a ship’s emergency generator are engine oil and battery electrolytes. 

On this maintenance, check on their levels and ensure that they are of sufficient amount. For engine oil, you must inspect for contamination of soot and carbon particles.

If it is, you need to flush out all the oil and replace it with a new one. Check also the electrolyte levels in the battery using a dipstick and don’t forget to examine the water level in the tester cap.

Cleaning the air filters

The air filter is a crucial component of the engine inside the generator. Combustion air for the machine is strained through it for efficient operation and cooling.

But with time, dirt may block this filter, leading to insufficient air going inside and heating the engine.

Always clean these filters and replace them if they get worn out. Worn-out filters may allow impurities to enter the generator causing damage.

Moreover, the engine may overheat if dirt blocks the airflow for cooling.

The Emergency Generator Room.
Emergency Generator Room. Source: Youtube | Marine Timelapse TV

Bottom line

Emergency generators are vital equipment on board all types of vessels as they provide power when the primary generators fail. 

They are our failsafe system that distributes electricity to the ship.

Failure of these devices to start can be dangerous, especially during heavy traffic, shallow water transit, or bad weather.

The only hope for the crew and passengers is to wait for help to arrive while stranded.

As per experience, emergency generators seldom malfunction especially if the weekly tests are made diligently.

We have also looked at each of them in great detail, including the emergency switchboard, which is a crucial component. It distributes power to the most important equipment on board.

We hope this article proves insightful to you. Moreover, we hope you learn something about the ship’s emergency generator.

And for passengers out there, you need not worry much when a blackout happens as there are backup powers available onboard.

This article is a guest post.

May the winds be in your favor.



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