Follow this expert advice on how to buy, operate and maintain a gas powered electrical generator so that it's safe and ready to go when the power goes out.
Ignore the higher rating and select a generator based on its “rated,” “running” or “continuous” watts.
Every generator lists two capacity ratings. The first is “rated” or “continuous” watts. That's the maximum power the generator will put out on an extended basis. And it's the only rating you should rely on when buying a generator. The higher “maximum” or “starting” rating refers to how much extra power the generator can put out for a few seconds when an electric motor—like the one in your fridge or furnace—starts up. If you buy a generator based on the higher rating and think you can run it at that level, think again. It will work for a little while. But by the end of the day, your new generator will be a molten mass of yard art, and you'll be out shopping for a replacement.
Pumping out watts is hard on engine oil, and oil-change intervals are short. Store up enough oil and filters to get you through a long power outage.
Most new generators need their first oil change after just 25 hours. Beyond that, you'll have to dump the old stuff and refill every 50 or 60 hours. So you need to store up enough oil and factory filters to last a few days (at least!). Running around town searching for the right oil and filter is the last thing you want to be doing right after a big storm.
After the engine cools, strap on an LED head lamp so you can actually see what you're doing. Pour slowly and avoid filling the tank to the brim.
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—spilled gas on a hot engine, and you're standing there holding a gas can. Talk about an inferno! It's no wonder generators (and owners) go up in flames every year from that mistake. You can survive without power for a measly 15 minutes, so let the engine cool before you pour. Spilling is especially likely if you refill at night without a flashlight.
Some generators, especially low-cost models, can be damaged by running out of gas. They keep putting out power while coming to a stop, and the electrical load in your house drains the magnetic field from the generator coils. When you restart, the generator will run fine, but it won't generate power. You'll have to haul it into a repair shop, where you'll pay about $40 to reenergize the generator coils. So keep the tank filled and always remove the electrical load before you shut down.
Empty the tank with a hand pump before running the carburetor dry. Reload with fresh gas next time you run the generator.
Stale fuel is the No. 1 cause of generator starting problems. Manufacturers advise adding fuel stabilizer to the gas to minimize fuel breakdown, varnish and gum buildup. But it's no guarantee against problems. Repair shops recommend emptying the fuel tank and the carburetor once you're past storm season. If your carburetor has a drain, wait for the engine to cool before draining. If not, empty the tank and then run the generator until it's out of gas. Always use fresh, stabilized gas in your generator.
Forget about using a double-ended cord to run power backward into a receptacle. Instead, run separate extension cords or install a transfer switch.
The Internet is full of articles explaining how to “backfeed” power into your home's wiring system with a “dual male-ended” extension cord. Some of our Field Editors have even admitted trying it (we'll reprimand them). But backfeeding is illegal—and for good reason. It can (and does) kill family members, neighbors and power company linemen every year. In other words, it's a terrible idea. If you really want to avoid running extension cords around your house, pony up for a transfer switch ($300). Then pay an electrician about $1,000 to install it. That's the only safe alternative to multiple extension cords. Period.
The trigger valve on this gas can gives you total control over the fill. There's a separate refill opening so you never have to remove the spout.
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. There's no way you can 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; through our affiliation with amazon.com).
Protect yourself from accidental electrocution by connecting the generator to a grounding rod. Then secure the unit to the eyebolt with a hardened steel chain and heavy-duty padlock.
Connect the ground wire to the grounding rod for safety and the chain to the eyebolt for security.
The only thing worse than the rumbling sound of an 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 bolt in concrete. Encase the whole thing in 4-in. ABS or PVC drainpipe, with a screw-on cleanout fitting. Spray-paint the lid green so it blends in with your lawn. If you don't want to sink a permanent concrete pier, at least screw in ground anchors (four anchors; No. WI652775; from globalindustrial.com) to secure the chain.
Invest in some long extension cords to put some distance between you and the noisy generator. But don't exceed 100 ft. between the generator and appliances.
Generators are loud, so most people park them as far away from the house as possible. (Be considerate of your neighbors, though.) That's OK as long as you use heavy-duty 12-gauge cords and limit the run to 100 ft. Lighter cords or longer runs mean more voltage drop. And decreased voltage can cause premature appliance motor burnout.
More information available on our site:
Exercise your generator
“I start my generator up every three months as recommended by the manufacturer and let it run for about 20 minutes to charge the battery for my electric starter.”
Build a generator garage
“For a portable generator, we poured a small concrete pad and basically built a doghouse over the unit that is hinged to the pad. It worked better than a blue tarp.”
A door for cords
“Most people run extension cords into the house through an open window or door. But our fireplace has a small cleanout door on the outside, so I run extension cords through it.”
Unplug the freezer
“Freezers and fridges are power hogs. But you can disconnect them from your generator and free up power for other stuff. First, turn the temperature settings way down. When they reach the lower temperature, unplug them and don't open their doors unless you have to. They'll act like coolers and stay cold for a long time. Freezers usually will keep food frozen about 24 hours. During that time, the generator is free to power tools or your big-screen TV.”
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.