How to Use a Portable Generator Safely During an Emergency
Generators can be lifesavers, but only if they're used correctly.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
On This Page
Life-Saving Tips to Keep in Mind When Using Generators
With bad weather in the forecast, the possibility of a power outage looms large. Always inconvenient, it can be downright dangerous when it happens during a winter storm and the temperatures hit the deep freeze. You don’t want to be without power when you really need the heater working.
Emergency power generators can be real lifesavers. But inexperience and improper usage can also make generators extremely dangerous. Carbon monoxide and electrocution are legitimate, life-threatening hazards if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Never Operate a Generator in or Too Close to Your Home
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 the potentially disastrous alternative.
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.
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 eight more gallons of gas sitting right above the fire. Talk about an inferno!
It’s no wonder generators (and owners) get seriously hurt every year by committing that 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.
Store and Pour Safely
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 pounds per gallon, there’s no way you can safely hold and pour 60 pounds 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.
Run it on a Level Surface
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.
Keep Enough Spare Motor Oil and Filters 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.
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 burnout.
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 clean out 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.
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 repair 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.
Bad Fuel Can Stop You in Your Tracks
Stale fuel is the number one 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 generator.