The portable generators down the block were all humming that night, after a late-October nor’easter dumped more than a foot of snow and knocked out power for about 3.2 million homes and businesses in 12 states. But a year later, when Hurricane Sandy struck, the same homes were dark—and the generators silent. It wasn’t for want of fuel; a few stations had both power and gasoline. It was from ignoring the second part of owning a generator: the upkeep.
Whether you buy a standby or portable generator, careful thought and close work with your electrician can get you a machine that powers everything you need without concern. A portable generator, however, doesn’t self-diagnose itself the way a standby model will. (Since it’s gas driven and often stored in a garage or shed, you wouldn’t want it to anyhow.) This means you need to periodically look it over yourself. Here’s how:
Show your love. Perhaps the worst feeling for a generator owner comes after you reassure the family, after the lights go out, that there’s nothing to worry about. (“We have a generator!”) And when you go out to fire it up, you learn that you don’t—because you left gas sitting in the fuel tank for the past year. If you want your generator to be there for you, mark your calendar to run the generator once a month. Putting a load on the generator during a test run (through your transfer switch) ensures that the generator can power your home, not just make noise.
Classical gas. Any fuel left in the gas tank will eventually gum up if you seldom run the engine, but with ethanol in most pumped fuel, you can count on further complications. If you leave gasoline in a portable generator’s tank (or in gas cans), be sure you’ve mixed in fuel stabilizer like Sta-Bil 360° Marine, the version with extra protection against ethanol.
Charge the battery. Most generators with electric start have a pull cord as well. You use the latter when the battery powering the electric start goes dead, which is often. But if you try using the electric start whenever you turn on the generator, you’ll know whether the battery needs charging.
Check the lube. A power outage could happen any time of the year, which means there’s no off-season, as with mowers or snowblowers, during which you could change the oil. So you’ll need to decide on when, once a year, you’ll change it—but at least check the level before you run it.
And another thing…. There’s a spark plug as well, and your manual will tell you when to change or at least remove and wire-brush it. But while you have the manual open, check what else the generator wants, and how often. The machine itself might not thank you, but with a working generator you’re far less likely to look like a doofus to your family once the power blows.