Generators can be a real lifesaver. But used improperly,
they can be a killer, too. Carbon monoxide and electrocution hazards are real
dangers if you don't know what you're doing. Here are a few of the most
important things to keep in mind.
Never run a generator inside your home or an enclosed area. It's safest to operate a generator in an open outdoor space with plenty of ventilation.
Tip 1: Never operate
a generator in or too close to your house
Generator manufacturers warn you over and over about the
dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet every year, people die from running
their generators in their garage or too close to their house. The manufacturers
aren't kidding. You can't run your generator in your garage, even with the door
open. And you can't run it under your eaves either. Yes, it's a pain to move it
away from the house and run longer extension cords. And yes, you'll have to stand
in the rain to refill the unit. But it's better than burying your family.
Tip 2: Never
"backfeed" power into your home
The Internet is filled with articles explaining how to
"backfeed" power into your house with a "dual male-ended" extension cord. But
that's horrible advice and you shouldn't follow it. Backfeeding is illegal—and
for good reason. It can (and does) kill family members, neighbors and power
company linemen every year. If you really want to get rid of all those extension
cords, pony up the few hundred bucks for a transfer switch. Then pay an
electrician to install it. That's the only safe alternative to multiple
extension cords. Period.
Tip 3: Let the generator
cool down before refilling
Generator fuel tanks are always on top of the engine so they
can "gravity-feed" gas to the carburetor. But that setup can quickly turn into
a disaster if you spill gas when refueling a hot generator. Think about it—if
you spill fresh gas onto a hot engine and it ignites, you've got about 8 more
gallons of gas sitting right above the fire. Talk about an inferno! It's no
wonder generators (and owners) go up in flames every year from that little
mistake. Spilling is especially easy if you refill at night without a
flashlight. We know you can go without power for a measly 15 minutes, so cool
your heels while the sucker cools down.
Tip 4: Store and pour
Most local residential fire codes limit how much gasoline
you can store in your home or attached garage (usually 10 gallons or less). So
you may be tempted to buy one large gas can to cut down on refill runs. Don't.
Because, at 6 lbs. per gallon, there's no way you can safely hold and pour 60 lbs.
of gas without spilling. Plus, most generator tanks don't hold that much, so
you increase your chances of overfilling. Instead, buy two high-quality
5-gallon cans. While you're at it, consider spending more for a high-quality
steel gas can with a trigger control valve (Justrite No. 7250130 is one
Tip 5: Run it on a
Many small generators have "splash" lubrication systems with
crankshaft "dippers" that scoop up oil and splash it onto moving parts. That
system works well if the unit is on level ground. But if you park the generator
on a slope (usually more than 10 degrees), the dippers can't reach all the oil,
and some engine parts run dry. That's a recipe for catastrophic failure. So
heed the manufacturer's warnings and place your generator on a level surface.
If you don't have a level spot, make one. That advice holds true even if you
have a pressurized lubrication system.
Tip 6: Keep enough
motor oil and filters on hand to get you through an extended outage
Most new generators need their first oil change after just
25 hours. After that, you'll have to dump the old stuff and refill every 50 or
60 hours. During extended outages, you can easily run your generator long
enough to need an oil change. Don't count on finding the right oil filter for
your particular generator after a major storm. Instead, buy extra filters and
oil before the storm hits.
Tip 7: Limit cord
length to prevent appliance damage
Generators are loud, so most users park them as far away
from the house as possible. That's OK as long as you use a heavy-duty, 12-gauge,
outdoor-rated extension cord. But even a 12-gauge cord has its limits. Never
exceed a total length of 100 ft. from the generator to the appliance. The
voltage drop on longer runs can cause premature appliance motor and compressor
Tip 8: Prevent theft
The only thing worse than the rumbling sound of a gasoline
engine outside your bedroom window is the sound of silence after someone steals
your expensive generator. Combine security and electrical safety by digging a
hole and sinking a grounding rod and an eye hook in cement. Encase the whole
thing in 4-in. ABS or PVC drainpipe, with a screw-on cleanout fitting. Then
chain and lock your generator to the anchor. If you don't want to sink a
permanent concrete pier, at least screw in ground anchors to secure the chain.
Ground anchors are available in the hardware department at home centers.
Tip 9: Running out of
gas can cost you
Some low-cost generators with economy voltage regulators will
keep putting out power as the generator runs out of gas. As the generator comes
to a stop, the electrical load in your house can drain the residual magnetic
"field" from the generator coils. Sure, it'll start up once you refill it, but
it won't generate power. You'll have to haul it into a repair shop and pay a pro
to rezap the "field." That will cost you about $40. But good luck getting it
serviced in the aftermath of a big storm. Instead, turn off the electrical load
and shut down the generator before it runs out of fuel. Let it cool. Then
refill it, restart it and connect the load.
Tip 10: Bad fuel can stop
you in your tracks
Stale fuel is the No. 1 cause of starting problems on all
gas-powered small engines. Every generator manufacturer recommends adding fuel
stabilizer to the gas to minimize fuel breakdown and varnish and gum buildup.
But they stressed that it's still no guarantee against future problems. So,
many of the manufacturers and most repair shops recommend emptying the fuel
tank and running the carburetor dry (run the engine until it stalls) once
you're past the storm season. If your unit has a carburetor drain petcock, wait
for the engine to cool and drain it manually. Dump the gas in your vehicle or
take it to a recycling center. Always use fresh stabilized gas in your
— The Editors of The