Backup Generator Maintenance and Operation

The good news is that NOAA now expects a near- to below-normal Atlantic hurricane season. The bad news is that around here “normal” is just a setting on the washing machine. With that in mind, I’d like to make a few suggestions about maintaining and using your portable generator.

A clogged, dirty generator can overheat. If your equipment needs a touch-up, use a brush, shop vacuum or low-pressure air to do the job. Never use a hose – you could force water into the fuel system.
Run the generator once every few months to make sure everything is working properly. Each time you run it, check the engine oil level and air filter. Change the oil, air filter, fuel filter, and spark plug according to the owner’s manual.

Gasoline that sits in an engine for more than 30 days can gum up the system. Adding a fuel stabilizer keeps things running smoothly. After adding the stabilizer, be sure to run the engine for several minutes to circulate it through the fuel system. Stabilized fuel will store safely for up to a year. If you are an optimist (or fortune teller) and plan on going more than a year without a power outage, drain the fuel tank completely to prevent clogging.

The main hazards to watch for with generator usage are electric shock, fire and carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Being mindful of power loads, electric cords, refueling and generator placement will keep the situation as safe as possible.

Portable generators supply only a limited amount of power, so planning ahead is important to avoid overloading the system. Make a list of appliances that you intend to operate with the generator during an outage. Estimate the wattage needed to power these appliances by using an online chart like the one supplied by the Department of Energy (click here). Both the generator and any extension cords you use should be sized to handle the wattage load. Electrical cords are rated in either amps or watts – the information is usually stamped on the cord itself. Remember, extension cords do not have fuses or breakers – if the cord becomes overloaded it will become extremely hot, posing a risk of fire or electrocution. Although it is a good idea to keep the extension cords as out of the way as possible, coiling them up will create areas of concentrated heat. Always uncoil cords and lay them in flat open locations. Make sure that the cord insulation is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has a grounding pin.

An alternative to using extension cords is having a transfer switch installed. This equipment creates a permanent patch between the generator and your home’s electrical system. Transfer switches are the only safe way to power hardwired appliances such as ceiling fans or the HVAC system. Transfer switches must be installed by an electrician.

A generator should always be allowed to cool for at least 10 minutes before refueling. Gasoline vapors are extremely flammable and any spillage onto a hot engine could ignite quickly. Make sure the generator has at least 3 feet of clearance on all sides when running for adequate cooling and access to controls.

Generator engines produce high levels of carbon monoxide very quickly. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible – the only reliable way to monitor it is with a CO detector. Because of this, a generator should NEVER be located in an enclosed or partially-enclosed area, even those with large amounts of ventilation. Examples include homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces or sheds. Fans, open doors and windows are not adequate for “airing out” carbon monoxide. Always operate the generator outdoors at least 15 feet from the house, away from doors, windows and vents. A battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm is recommended .

Last, but not least, always keep a couple of quarts of oil on hand along with a spare air filter, fuel filter and spark plug. A little bit of preparation and a good measure of care will make your power woes one less thing to worry about during the next outage.

This blog was written for Paul LaGrange’s BuildWrite website and was originally posted on August 14, 2009.

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