Delco-Light: More Than Lights

Delco-Light systems had broad application in rural areas.

1850 Flywheel

The flywheel end of Dennis’ 850. 

Photo Courtesy Dennis Vriend

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I was amazed when I found Sam Moore’s piece on Delco-Light 32-volt systems (Farm Collector, January 2013), and doubly amazed to find a complementary piece by Jerry Friesner in the March 2013 issue. These systems were very popular in rural areas in times past, but it seems very few collectors today (even us old codgers) have even heard of them or are interested.

I grew up in the boondocks of western Canada where “real power” did not exist until the late 1950s and into the ’60s. My family was slightly better off than many, so I grew up in the 1940s-’50s on a farm with a 32-volt system while my classmates used kerosene lamps.        

The market leader

While Delco (Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co.) built by far the most popular machine, my family had a Power Chief: a water-cooled, 1,000-watt, 1-cycle unit with 16 glass cells to make a battery of 32 volts (Delco units were mostly air-cooled). I remember the engine/generator unit as being quite problematic and we frequently reverted temporarily to kerosene.

There were many other manufacturers as well, but I’ve read that Delco consistently held 50 percent or more of the market. General Motors bought the company in 1916. Between 1916 and 1947, Delco produced 80-90 different models. The Model 850 was very popular and was produced during the entire period with only minor changes.  

Rebuilt in red

Typically all Delco-Lights were black, but occasionally you might see a dark red one. Red was used when production resumed after World War II in 1946-’47 (all Delco-Light production ceased in 1947). Delco maintained a “factory rebuild” program for some years, and rebuilds in 1946-’47 were also painted red. I have 1917 and 1919 models, each a similar shade of red but a little cleaning soon reveals a black undercoat. The implication is that, despite their age, they were back at the factory during postwar years.

I do not know how long the rebuild program lasted, but a few years ago I met a man who had worked for a Canadian electrical supplier that still sold Delco into the 1960s. He claimed Delco had a western Canadian distributor in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his Edmonton dealership got its product. He also thought this distributor was probably Delco’s last outlet in Canada and the U.S. Both of my red ones had stickers on them from that distributor (EECOL-Electric Equipment Co. Ltd.). These post-1947 models must have been largely rebuilt units or new old stock.

Today I have a collection of four Model 850s (two rebuilt) and what may be a Model 600 (it’s difficult to identify: It is air-cooled with copper fins but seems to have several modifications). In addition, I have several 32-volt appliances: food mixer, clothes iron, vacuum cleaner, toaster, butter churn, coffee grinder, half-inch electric drills, bulbs, many 1/4 and 1/2 hp engines, some 32-volt to 110-volt converters and a 32-volt “buzz box”-type arc welder. I’d still like to find a 32-volt radio, a fan, a hot plate and a shaver.

Appliances like washers, milking machines or well pumps could be ordered with a 32-volt engine for an extra $10. I also have three sets of glass batteries (48 cells) all of which are at least 60 years old and are made to be re-buildable (Delco provides a complete parts list with part numbers). Does anyone know a source of the lead plates or material to cut them from? I would like to try re-building them.

Interestingly, there were also 65-volt systems, and I have a 1/4 hp engine of that voltage. I have been told that they were used extensively in the movie projection/production industries. Does anyone know more? 

Cut-in and cut-out

Most gasoline-driven plants had no voltage or current control, but depended on the charge/discharged condition of the battery (16 cells, 2 volts each in series). The less charge in the battery, the less the load on the generator, hence it would run faster and charge more. A nearly full battery afforded more resistance, which the engine could barely overcome, hence the charging rate nearly stopped.

Many Delcos automatically shut off ignition when the charging rate fell below a certain level. These engines had no throttle control — they ran full bore all the time so they needed a battery “load” to keep them within a speed that wouldn’t blow them up. This is the problem I most remember with my parents’ Power Chief. If the “cut-out” failed to “cut in,” there would be no load on the engine. It would then over-speed, creating many crankshaft/rod/piston problems.

The original battery sets were capable of up to 160 amp hours each, which at 2 volts per cell (32 volts total) would create an output of 5,120 watts for one hour or one 100-watt bulb for 51.2 hours, so in summer our plant would only run once a week — on laundry day, giving the washer more “oomph.” There were lead acid cells, each measuring about 8 inches by 8 inches by 12 inches with a clear glass case so you could see the electrolyte (water) level. While described as 2-volts per cell, they actually were 2.2 volts or more, and the generators really put out about 40 volts to overcome electrical resistance and battery resistance when fully charged.

New use for old technology

A few battery sets were made from nickel-iron batteries. These were usually rated at 1.5 volts per cell; hence they used about 25 cells to a set. These often had metal cases (possibly stainless steel) and were known to have a near endless lifespan. I understand these are being imported into the U.S. again for use with off-grid solar panels.

Some estimates say that Delco produced upward of 1 million units. Sales dropped drastically in the U.S. with the advent of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, but sales continued in Canada for another 20 years. They were also found occasionally in Europe and Australia. Several manufacturers, especially Fairbanks, Morse & Co., produced stand-alone generators with flat-belt pulleys that could be driven by any multipurpose farm engine and unbelted again when the engine was to be used for other purposes.

Delco produced at least one model that had the engine directly coupled to a generator but also had a flat pulley at the opposite end. However, because the generator itself was a full load for the engine, provision was made to disable the generator. The engine could then be used to power other equipment or a line shaft that could run washers and butter churns, especially if the plant was located in the basement.

Possibly as early as 1916, most Delco gas generators adopted a positive crankcase ventilation system to re-circulate engine crankcase fumes back into the air intake (carburetor) thus enabling them to be used in a residence or a basement. The company recommended piping exhaust gas into a fuel/oil drum that had been buried underground to muffle noise. Delco at one point claimed the average life of these units to be 42 years. Batteries could easily last 20. Most of these units were sold to farmers, but rural schools, churches, stores and gas station/service garages also used them. One Canadian company that produced the old glass cylinder visible gas pumps (pumped by hand with a long lever) eventually sold an electric pump update with a choice of 110 volts or 32 volts.

Cells on the rails

Interestingly, both railroads and the fishing industry used 32-volt equipment. I have seen 32-volt winches, lights and hot plates on old fishing vessels. Delco’s parts catalog lists parts for marine models. Railroads (at least in Canada) used 32-volt systems for lights, water and cooking apparatus in passenger, dining and kitchen cars.

These cars had generators driven by the wheels that charged a set of 16 glass cells mounted under the car. If you had to wait at a crossing for a train with passenger cars, you could see these batteries. On trains traveling at night, the lights dimmed noticeably every time the train slowed or approached a stop or station. The generators had slowed to a point that their voltage dropped lower than the battery voltage, which caused the “cut-out” to cut out and the whole load would depend on battery power alone. This lasted on some trains in to the mid- to late-1960s.

The 32-volt systems in many areas were mostly gasoline engines coupled to generators. However there is another whole story to this, and that is the story of wind-driven 32-volt generators, including the widely known Wincharger — a story for another day. FC 

Dennis Vriend lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Have a Power Chief system? He’d like to visit with you about that or any small, hand-powered equipment from the past. Contact him at (780) 955-2851 or via email at ruthvriend@yahoo.com.