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How to Use A Portable Generator Safely to Power Everything You Need

8 June 2011 7,904 views No Comment

Portable generators are very easy to use but there are a few maintenance issues and safety precautions you need to be aware of to make sure yours operates successfully.


Most of the portable generators on the market today are very easy to start up and use. My wife knows her way around the garage but she’s not what you’d call a super handy woman and she can easily operate and maintain a portable generator. You just put in the right fuel type, gasoline, propane, diesel, etc, and start the motor using a pull cord or a push button electric starter, depending on the type of model you have. Then you simply plug in whatever appliances you want to power up when you’re out camping or during a blackout at home. If you have a transfer switch installed, it’s even easier, just plug the generator into the transfer switch. However, as with any machine that uses an engine you need to understand a bit about maintenance and safety.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The biggest concern with portable generators is carbon monoxide poisoning. You can’t smell it or see it and it can hit you hard and fast with very little warning. You hear stories in the news every year about whole families dying in the night from carbon monoxide poisoning. With portable generators though, this danger is entirely preventable.

Never, and I mean never, run a generator indoors, even in a well ventilated garage or basement. Most experts recommend keeping the generator at least 15 feet from your house outside, and make sure the exhaust is pointing away from the house. According to the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association a 10 horsepower generator engine produces carbon monoxide (CO) at a rate 450-1000 times greater than an idling car engine. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that a generator running in the basement can kill someone in the basement in just 40 minutes as a result of CO poisoning.

I like to be extra cautious and keep battery powered carbon monoxide detectors in my home. There can be other sources of CO in your home that you may not know about and detectors are the best way to find them.

This video from Consumer Reports talks about carbon monoxide and gives a few safety tips about using your portable generator.

Using A Transfer Switch

If you want to connect a generator directly to your home wiring system to run things hard wired, like central air conditioning or a furnace fan, then you’ll need a transfer switch. Never try to connect a portable generator directly to your home electrical grid without one. Transfer switches are connected directly to your home’s main circuit breaker, powering devices inside your home and preventing back feed from the generator to the electrical grid outside. Back feed can be very dangerous for utility crews working on downed power lines so you want your transfer switch properly installed to prevent any problems.

I recommend having a certified electrician come out and install the transfer switch to make sure everything is set up correctly, even for you do-it-yourselfers. It’s too easy to make a potentially very dangerous mistake and it’s not that expensive (a couple hundred dollars) to pay an electrician to do it right. Many localities will also require an inspection too.

The big advantage of a transfer switch is that you just need to run one extension cord from the generator to the transfer switch. You don’t have to worry about 5 or 6 extension cords going from the generator to each appliance in your house that you want to use. You’ll be able to use any items you want in your house, that are within the wattage capacity of the generator, by just plugging them into the electrical sockets just as you would normally do.

Routine Maintenance Helps to Ensure That Your Generator is Ready When You Need It

The last thing you want is for the power to go out and when you step out to turn on your generator nothing happens. It won’t turn on. So to be prepared you need to conduct some basic maintenance. One of the easiest things you can do is simply clean the unit. Make sure there are no leaves, dirt or other debris on the engine parts and clean all of the surfaces with a stiff brush. Don’t use a water hose because water could get down into the fuel system and cause problems. You can also use a hand vacuum to get down in the hard to reach places. I like to clean my equipment three or four times a year, usually during the change of seasons.

Many portable generators also come with a cover and using this will go a long way in keeping your unit clean and safe. You should also store your generator in a protected area like a shed or detached garage that is away from your home. You want to make sure the storage location gets good ventilation and is far from any spark or fire source.

You should also make sure the generator is clear on all sides so that it can get proper ventilation for cooling. This will also help you get to the controls easily. 3 feet or so on all sides should be good.

Keep the Oil Levels Up and Stay on Top of Oil Changes

Just as you do with your car engine or lawnmower, you’ll need to check the oil on your portable generator. You should check the oil levels every time you add gas. If your generator uses natural gas or propane just go by what the owner’s manual recommends for oil changes and adding oil. If the oil gets too low, most generators will automatically shut off so that the engine won’t get damaged. You should keep some oil around in case you need a refill right away. The owner’s manual will also tell you when you should change the fuel and air filters, oil, and spark plugs.

Start ‘Er Up Every So Often

If you’ve ever tried to start your lawn mower for the first grass cutting of the season after it’s been sitting the shed or garage all winter, you know how hard it can be. I know mine takes several pulls of the cord before it fires up. Your portable generator can be the same way, especially if you have a pull cord model. You don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark after a blackout trying to get it started. Nor do you want to be out camping or at a tailgate and having to struggle to get your generator going. To keep your generator fresh you should start and run it for a few minutes every couple of months.

You can also give your generator a full test run. That means setting it up outside where you plan on using it, running extension cords, and plugging in any appliances you plan on using. This sort of dry run helps to ensure that your machine will be good to go when you need it.

Storing Fuel Safely

It’s highly likely that during an emergency situation or blackout that the pumps at your local gas station won’t be working. That means you’ll need to keep some fuel on site to power your generator when you need it. About 20 gallons should be sufficient to last you for a couple of days with most gas powered generators. You can store gasoline safely on your property and have it ready to use in your generator if you take a few simple precautions. Make sure you store it in an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) approved container and keep it in away from any heat or spark sources and away from your house.

For portable generators that use fuel sources other than gasoline, storage requirements are a bit easier. Propane and diesel are not as flammable as gasoline, but you still need to take the necessary precautions there as well, like storing them in an approved container, in a cool area, away from the house and any spark or heat sources. Many fuel sources like natural gas and propane can be delivered to your home and put into a tank on the side or behind your house or even underground in some cases. Also you may already have natural gas lines running to your home and can get this source connected to your generator. In this case you wouldn’t need to store any fuel at all.

Never add gas or refuel your gas powered portable generator while it’s running because this can cause an explosion. When it’s time to refuel, turn the machine off and let it cool down for a couple of minutes. Try not to spill any gas on the hot parts of the generator and don’t have any flames or cigarettes nearby.

Add Some Engine Fuel Stabilizer

If you expect to use your generator more than once per year you can keep some gas in the tank so it’ll be ready to go. You’ll need to add stabilizer, which costs about $5 for 25 gallons, to prevent the fuel system from gumming up over time and the fuel from chemically deteriorating. After you add the stabilizer, you’ll need to run the engine for a couple of minutes to get it circulating through the entire engine system. Gasoline that has not been treated can go bad and not work after just a couple of months, but stabilizer can lengthen its shelf life for up to a year. If you don’t plan on using the generator for more than a year, don’t store fuel in the tank.

For any gasoline that you are storing in a separate container you can treat it with fuel stabilizer as well so that you can preserve it for at least a year.

Taking Precautions to Prevent Electrocution

Other than carbon monoxide poisoning the big safety issue with portable generators is the risk of electrocution. You need to make sure your generator is properly grounded which means there is an electrical connection from the generator to the actual ground or earth. Usually this is as simple as sitting the generator on the ground. Your owner’s manual can give you more detail on properly grounding the unit.

Never plug the generator directly into your home power wall outlets. This can be very dangerous and cause back feed which can create a shock risk for your neighbors and any crews working on downed power lines. You should always use extension cords if you don’t have your generator hooked up to a transfer switch.

You also need to be cautious when using extension cords. Always use heavy duty cords rated for the wattage that they will be conducting. Also make sure they are grounded which means they have three prongs. Be extra cautious around wet electrical cords, which can be common if you’re using your generator after a major storm has knocked the power out. You should also look at using a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) device with the extension cords because it can prevent potential shocks when the area is wet or damp.

When placing extension cords around your house use common sense and put them in places where you won’t trip over them. Don’t put them under carpets because they can get hot under there and potentially create a fire hazard.

Always keep your generator dry and don’t use it when it’s raining unless you have it covered in a way that keeps it dry. Don’t touch the generator or try to start it if you’re standing in water or if you’re wet.

To prevent overloading your generator you should plug in the largest, most energy hungry appliance first. This should be the one item that you consider most crucial. Then add others one at a time until you get everything you need up and running based on the wattage of the generator and the total wattage of all of the appliances.

You should keep a fire extinguisher in your home or garage, close at hand to the generator. Make sure it’s fully charged, approved, and ready to go. You can never be too cautious.

Other Sources of Information

If you’d like to learn more, here are some good sources to check out. The American Red Cross has some excellent information on using a generator safely. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also publishes a guide titled “Using Portable Generators Safely” and is well worth a read. I also found an interesting PowerPoint report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that talks about the hazards of CO emissions and how various government agencies and manufacturers are trying to improve portable generators and make them even safer to use.

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