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Generator safety

An increasing number of households have turned to emergency power generators to keep appliances running in the event that a storm knocks out the regular power supply. We understand that the average person does not want to give up his or her daily comforts if it can be avoided.

However, failure to observe certain basic safety rules can leave the operator badly injured or the family without a home. So here are some tips to employ if you operate a portable power generator.

Tip 1: Don’t get burned by wattage ratings:

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 — 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.

Tip 2: Stock up on oil and filters:

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.

Tip 3: Chill out before you refill:

After the engine cools, and if it is dark, use a searchlight 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 refuelling 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.

Tip 4: Running out of gas can cost you:

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 have to pay to re-energize the generator coils. So keep the tank filled and always remove the electrical load before you shut down.

Tip 5: Old fuel is your worst enemy:

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 minimise 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, stabilised gas in your generator.

Tip 6: Backfeeding kills:

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. But backfeeding is illegal — and for good reason. It can (and does) kill family members, neighbours 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. Then pay an electrician to install it. That’s the only safe alternative to multiple extension cords. Period.

Tip 7: Store gasoline safely:

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 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 five-gallon cans. While you’re at it, consider spending more for a high-quality steel gas can with a trigger control valve.

Tip 8: Lock it down and prevent shocks:

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.

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.

Tip 9: Use a heavy-duty cord:

Invest in some long extension cords to put some distance between you and the noisy generator. But don’t exceed 100 feet 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 neighbours, though.) That’s okay as long as you use heavy-duty 12-gauge cords and limit the run to 100 feet Lighter cords or longer runs mean more voltage drop. And decreased voltage can cause premature appliance motor burnout.


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