ElectricalExperts' Corner

Using Your Generator Safely

It’s that time of year again. While the east coast and Gulf coast are generally prepared for power outages during the hurricane season, winter brings on that part of the year wherein the whole country needs to be prepared. Whether it’s snow, ice, or simply heavy storms, the country gets rocked each winter season; sometimes a little more than others. Some folks on the east coast have been noticing a heavier than usual acorn production by the trees and past history shows that might mean a heavier snowfall season. They are preparing accordingly.

Part of that preparation is making sure that your generator is properly maintained, ready to go and used safely.  Here are a few safety tips to think about.

  1. Read the directions. While there’s an old joke about men and directions, failing to read the manual for your generator is not a laughing matter. Read the manual. Reread the parts you need to remember. Say them out loud. We learn in different ways. Do what you need to – short of making mistakes – to prepare, maintain and operate your generator safely.
  2. Run your generator outside (not inside). Generators produce exhaust and it’s no healthier to breath than your car exhaust is. There is simply no good way to run a generator inside your dwelling. If you’re running it in your shed or other enclosure, you need to insure proper ventilation. The generator itself needs fresh air to intake to mix with fuel to run smoothly. Bad things can happen if you put it in the wrong atmosphere (say, one full of carbon monoxide or dioxide) for any period of time.
  3. Know the protocols for connection. You can’t just run a cord from your generator’s output to any outlet in your home, nor can it connect to your main circuit box without proper protocols. In the author’s current house, the previous owner was an electrician and prepared the main breaker panel with a breaker switch. There is a connector outlet on the outside of the garage and a well ventilated enclosure there for a generator. To properly connect the generator the protocol is:
    1. Start the generator but do not connect yet. Let it warm up as you perform the rest of the steps.
    2. Turn off the main switch in the breaker panel and all other breakers.
    3. Plug the generator into the connector outlet.
    4. Turn on the switch in the breaker panel to allow power flow from the generator.
    5. Turn on the selected breakers for the items you want to run.

It’s important to know what items your generator will and won’t run. See reason in #5 below.

  1. Generators don’t like snow, rain or other precipitation / moisture. While your generator may tolerate temperature differences pretty well, having it get wet isn’t a good idea. Sure, light rain may run off, but heavy rain, snow melting on it, ice building up, etc. is all bad. The mandate to have your generator outside means it will be exposed to the weather unless you have a proper shelter or enclosure prepared. This author’s generator is on a 10” high platform outside his garage wall with a full enclosure built around and over it. The enclosure is removable and latches onto the platform when in place. The top is slanted to allow for run off and every side has the requisite ventilation available.
  2. There’s a load limit for a reason. Know what the load capacity is for your generator, per the manual, and don’t exceed it. Exceeding the load limit can cause damage to your generator and to the appliances you’re running off of it. While many people are willing to risk replacing their generator, the risk is just silly and should be avoided. First, if your generator craps out when you need it, chances are that you won’t have much luck finding a replacement. Second, you risk damaging the appliances that you’re running off the generator as well. Replacing all of them can get expensive… so just don’t do it.

The best time to prep and maintain your generator is before you ever need it. This author runs his generator twice a month for about five minutes, just to make sure the gas is fresh in the bowl and everything is working smoothly. When the power is out and you need that electricity isn’t the time to find out you have a problem with your generator.

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