By boat, the nearest town is 55 miles down lake; one phone; by foot, you have your choice of 11-, 12- or 110-mile trails to the nearest highways – not even a logging road. This is Stehekin, Wash., population 80.
The idea of "one phone" and no roads is enough to make an urban teenager cry. Certainly, living in remote mountainous regions is not for everyone; it takes a special kind of person to live in a community almost completely detached from the outside world. You must have the skills to live independently: cut your own wood, handle basic repairs around the home and offer something valuable to the community.
Dick and Adele Bingham wouldn't want it any other way. From Palo Alto and Santa Rosa, Calif. to Spokane, Everett and Seattle, Wash., the Binghams have seen all they need of congested highways and the bustle that typifies American life. This retired couple has escaped the pollution, cramped housing, local petty crime and noise associated with cities. But the power keeps going out.
This slight drawback in an otherwise perfect setting led Dick on a search for portable backup power when Stehekin's combination hydro/diesel power plant goes down. The path that led him to purchase a 250 amp/11,000 watt welding generator is almost as winding as the one that led him to Stehekin.
The Road to Stehekin
Stehekin lies on the shores of Lake Chelan and is considered the "gateway" to the Northern Cascade mountain range. Avid hikers, the Binghams knew of Stehekin as a stop along the Pacific Crest Trail that winds 2,650 miles between America's Mexican and Canadian borders, and as a place where Dick's grandparents had visited and brought back souvenirs. In 1983 they finally visited Stehekin in person.
The barge carrying Dick Bingham's new Bobcat 250 arrives in Stehekin, Wash. after having made the four hour boat ride "up lake."
"As soon as I got off the boat I knew this place was 'home'," says Dick. "I decided to look for a parcel of land and to convince my wife we should buy it. Fortunately, the ride back down the lake (four hours of boat time) gave me sufficient time to convince her to purchase that one parcel that was available. We made arrangements to return the next weekend and as a result of that on-site visit, we bought the one-acre parcel."
Bingham worked for Hewlett Packard for 29 years in research and development and as a manufacturing development engineer. Prior to that he had lived in Washington State and worked for Boeing. In 1999, taking advantage of an early retirement opportunity, the Binghams made Stehekin their year-round home.
Their house, which had been "under construction" steadily since 1984, was sufficiently completed for permanent habitation. The dream of getting away from city life and finding a location where Dick would experience minimal interference from power lines (he's a licensed HAM-radio operator) was finally coming true. But while the escape from such burdens had finally become reality, another problem arose.
Constructing an Adrenaline Rush
Built by the Chelan County public utility department in the 1950s, Stehekin's power plant is a combination hydro/diesel system. The hydro plant produces 200 kW of power for the local community. The demand-driven diesel system produces 75 kW and goes "on-line" when the hydro load reaches 180 kW.
"When the system crashes," explains Bingham, "there are two additional 250 kW diesels that can be put on-line to power the system. During the winter season, most of the water is tied up in snow and ice so the hydro is limited to about 100 kW. Under these conditions, one of the 250 kW units runs parallel with the hydro to power the community."
The power plant supplies electricity to Stehekin's tourist lodge, restaurant, National Park Services (NPS) offices and sewage treatment plant as well as the rest of the community. However, when harsh weather - high winds, snow storms, fires - hit the region and power is cut off, residents are left with two problems. They have no power to run freezers and other appliances critical to daily life and cannot pump water to protect their homes against fires that approach Stehekin. This is a major concern because of the forests that surround the community. Even during Dick's search for portable backup power, a 30,000-acre forest fire burned as close as 30 miles away. This was in addition to a 50,000-acre fire that had approached to within 4 miles of Stehekin the previous year.
"I need to be able to run my water pump when power goes out during forest fires. The NPS does not fight house fires, but they will make an effort to protect buildings with a sufficient 'fire break'. We have created that firebreak around our home, but we still need to keep the house wet."
Consumers have a lot to choose from when it comes to power generation. In Bingham's case, there was the added task of transporting it to Stehekin and owning a generator small enough to move around town.
"We have two food freezers, a refrigerator, clothes washer, 3/4 HP submersible water pump, satellite TV, email systems and house lighting," says Dick. "The priority lies with the water pump and the refrigeration appliances."
Keeping household essentials running generally requires at least 5,000 to 8,000 watts of power. Within this range, numerous portable generators exist that can be purchased through retail outlets and distributors. Combination welder/generators like the Bobcat® 250 from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. provide comparable power and additional tool capabilities that make it a better buy than competitive, stand-alone generators for farmers, homeowners and businesses.
"An engineer I worked with at Hewlett Packard bought a Bobcat welding generator," says Dick. "He uses it for a part-time plant nursery business and he really liked it. I, too, was impressed by the Bobcat's welding capabilities and had planned to get one when it fit in our budget."
Bingham still considered stand-alone generators. One propane-powered unit offered 12,000 watts at a cost of $3,500 compared to the 11,000 watts offered by the Bobcat. But the stand-alone generator didn't have 250 amps of welding power and the Bobcat 250 was listed at about $200 less.
"There have been many times when I needed to weld something or wished to build something out of metal and didn't have a welder," says Bingham. "The chance to 'kill two birds with one stone' decided it for me. The decision between the LP-powered 12,000-watt competitive unit and the LP-powered 11,000-watt Bobcat 250 NT welding generator was easy. The 2000-watt generator power difference didn't affect my water pump starting needs, so the Bobcat was the unit of choice."
The Bobcat 250 NT's multi-process (Stick, MIG, TIG, Flux Cored, etc.) capabilities makes it one of the most versatile welding generators in the industry.
The Purchase – and Another Trek to Stehekin Karl Bruehl, an avid HAM-radio operator from Appleton, Wis., who just happens to be a manufacturing engineer at Miller Electric, helped coordinate the purchase.
"It was an extended HAM-radio chat with Karl Bruehl last year that solidified everything," says Bingham. "I mentioned to Karl that I was looking at the Bobcat 250 to provide backup power for my home here in the 'wilds' of the Northern Cascades. He quickly informed me that he happened to be an engineer for the Bobcat 250 at Miller."
Nearly a year later, with Bruehl's help, Bingham purchased the Bobcat from NORCO, Inc., a welding supply distributor in Wenatchee, Wash. With the help of Tom Courtney, owner and operator of Tom Courtney Tug and Barge Company, the Bobcat 250 was shipped 55 miles up the lake by barge to its new home in Stehekin. The 520-lb. LP unit (available in both gas and LP models) was then hoisted by crane off Tom Courtney's boom-truc k into the back of Bingham's pickup and driven home.
"Several of the guys had to go home and change their shirts – they were drooling all over themselves when they saw the Bobcat," says Bingham. "Tom Courtney and his son Reed gave the Bobcat a thorough examination and Tom looked like he might not remove the hook on his boom-truck and drive away with it."
And apparently Mother Nature was so impressed with the new machine she gave it a special greeting. As it was being unloaded at the dock, with calm skies and not a cloud in the sky, Bingham's truck started rocking from an earthquake.
"When the power goes out, most of the neighbors get their 'prayer rugs' out and have lots of Kerosene lamps and candles close by," ends Bingham. "Now we have a tool that will help when the power goes out and one portable enough that I can make available to help the community."
That's the spirit of Stehekin. Community comes first; help thy neighbor. Like the day portable power arrived for the Binghams. Earthshaking.
For more information on Stehekin, Wash., visit www.stehekinvalley.com. For more information on portable power generation/welding equipment from Miller Electric Mfg. Co., visit www.millerwelds.com/generators.