Easy Winter? No Excuse to Diss the Generator

Champion generator / Credit: WalmartEl Niño technically means unpredictable weather, but in some parts of the country, it has meant a welcome two-winter respite from the layer upon layer of snow we get some years. But if you haven’t checked on your portable generator in ages and now think you’re in the clear, don’t relax too much. Late winter and early spring, with hard rains and the lingering potential of a crippling glaze of sleet, still can pack a punch to the utility power we so take for granted.

Take a few minutes, then, to fill up a thermos with coffee or hot chocolate, and head out to wherever you keep that generator. Your objective: to ensure it will start when you need it. How difficult that’ll be depends on how much attention you’ve been giving the machine, represented below by two alternate states of readiness:

You do regular startups
In this scenario, you know your generator will start up without trying because you’ve powered it up every month or so on a schedule. You wheel it out far away from the house, check the oil, turn off any fuel shutoff, set the choke, and then on press the “on” switch. If you have electric start and have kept that function’s battery charged, you’re good to go. The generator fires right up. If your generator doesn’t have e-start, you give the recoil a few pulls. Same results.

You haven’t run it in months
Here, your mission is more complicated. You do everything as with above, but your e-start battery needs charging, which means you’re pulling the cord. Which doesn’t necessary improve matters. Ask yourself at this point when you last added fresh, stabilized gas. If you hadn’t started the generator since last winter, whatever fuel remains in the tank isn’t doing a thing for you.

Have a standby generator?
These are professionally installed outdoors, have weatherproof casing and run on natural gas or propane. They turn themselves on when your power blows but also switch on to diagnose themselves—and flash any service messages on a visible panel. This keeps you from having to remember when you last changed or added oil, as with a portable, but you do typically need to check the panel.

At this point, siphon out everything you can (here’s one way) and add fresh gas, but not before mixing in fuel stabilizer to help your odds. Check the oil and spark plug, too. If repeated cord pulls don’t bring your generator to life, you still have time to call your local repair shop. Many will pick up your generator, clean out (or rebuild) the carburetor and bring it back to readiness.

The first alternative, of course, is the one that works for you and your family. Keep the generator fueled with stabilized gas, start it up regularly and check the oil each time (and change it annually). That way, you should be ready when the power goes. Since power outages often strike during periods of rain or snow—when you can’t safely run the machine—consider also a weather-resistant canopy like the one we’ve just reviewed.

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When Bad Things Happen to Good Snowblowers

Belts on snowblowers / Credit: SearsWhen at their best, snowblowers can be impressive beasts. Yours can save you hours of backbreaking work and, if you’re out of shape, could keep you out of the emergency room. But sometimes things go wrong. Even for a well-maintained machine that starts up fine, parts wear out and weather takes its toll. Here are five problems you might face, with often quick fixes:

Auger doesn’t turn at all
On any snowblower, the auger is the spinning assembly up front that draws in the snow. After you’ve started the engine, the auger isn’t supposed to turn right away. It’s a safety feature that you need to press the auger control, at the other end of the machine, for that. But what if the auger doesn’t spin when you press the lever? You have one of two problems—one of which takes minutes to fix.

First, check the cable that leads downward from the control lever. If it’s loose, it needs retightening; your owner’s manual will tell you how if it isn’t obvious. But if there’s no slack whatsoever in this cable, your auger belt has likely snapped or slipped off. That same manual should list the part number for the belt if it needs replacing. (A video below shows how to change this and the drive belt.) If the belt didn’t break but slipped off, consider having a service shop check the pulleys’ alignment.

Auger turns on just one side
Two-stage snowblowers differ from single-stage machines in that they add a fan-like impeller for greater throwing distance of the snow the auger scoops up. Snowblowers shear pins / Credit: Lowe'sThese larger machines, though, can work so hard that their transmissions can burn out. To protect against this, these models’ augers have little bolt-like pins in the axle. They’re brittle and designed to break when overtaxed. And when they do, one side of the auger tends to stop turning. Trust us—you’ll know when it does.

Shear pins are specific to a model or at least a brand, and with some foresight you bought some extras in advance. (Avoid the temptation to substitute any other bolts you have lying around.) You’ll need to shut down the snowblower and disconnect the spark-plug cap for safety. A few minutes with a hammer, pliers and perhaps a wrench, and you’ll be back in business.

No response to drive control
On a running two-stage snowblower, pressing the drive lever engages the transmission for turning the wheels forward or back. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. If it doesn’t, check the cable leading downward from the lever; again, it should have no slack. When the cable is tight but pressing the drive lever still doesn’t have any effect, your drive belt has probably snapped or slipped off.

Below is a video on how to change it and also the auger belt. The process should be similar for Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, Yard Machines and Craftsman machines, all of which have the same manufacturer, but check your owner’s manual for more precise instructions.

Snowblower is harder to push
Being fairly lightweight, single-stage snowblowers are easy to push around. Their auger’s action, closer to the surface than that of two-stage models, also helps to propel these machines a bit. But two-stage models are another story. Since they have transmissions, they should do most of the work. Still, if the machine seems to have little traction, veers to one side or leaves a line of uncleared snow on one side, check the tire pressure the same way you would on your car. The owner’s manual, again, should specify the right pounds per square inch, or psi.

A two-stager becomes single-speed
Snowblowers speed controlTwo-stage snowblowers have multiple speeds forward plus at least one reverse speed. But if you notice no change in speed no matter how you set the speed control, one more quick cable check will quickly fix the problem. The photo (right) shows where the speed-control cable connects on one common model. The usual fix is to loosen a bolt you’ll see, pull the cable taut and retighten the bolt.

Having another annoying problem with your snowblower? If your manual provides no answers, an online search might tell you that your model has a specific malady, perhaps one that prompted a recall.

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