El 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.
We bet you never heard, while you were first shopping for a portable generator, that you couldn’t safely run the machine in the rain or snow. You wouldn’t splash water at an electrical outlet in your home, would you? But that’s exactly what the sky is doing to your portable generator while you’re running it outdoors unprotected during a storm.
You might be tempted to run the generator in your garage—just barely sheltered, with the exhaust pointed outward. Think again. Remind yourself that carbon monoxide from generators can kill everyone in the home, and there’s a reason experts recommend you keep the machine 20 feet away from your home. Then check out GenTent Safety Canopies, LLC, the only company that makes generator tents, a safe solution for more than 1,500 generators from 145 manufacturers.
Quick reality check: You can buy a cover for a portable generator for as little as $10, rather than $180 for the product we tested. But such covers are for storage alone; a generator that traps heat and emissions while running would quickly seize up. GenTent’s line, ranging in price from about $150 to $200, differs in that its canopies shelter the generator while permitting ample venting. It’s solely intended for portable generators; stationary generators, permanently installed outdoors, have their own weatherproof shielding.
We tested the 2017 version of the GenTent 10k Stormbracer, which adds UV treatment and resistance to cold down to -35o F. (All are flame-resistant and can resist wind up to 70 mph.) Whichever open-frame generator you own, the Stormbracer comes in a specific version for it. GenTent has also begun making tents for many closed-frame inverter generators. A few open-frame models, however, require special workarounds due to their designs. Some, for instance, have square rather than the round tubular frames to the product typically attaches. The company has developed several extra-cost adapter kits for most exceptions.
Installing the GenTent
GenTent matched the 10k Stormbracer we tested to a specific generator, the Generac GP7500E, though this version accommodates the majority of portables. The no-tools installation varies by which generator you own, and you tell the company your model to ensure you get the right canopy. For the Generac, we followed a three-step process outlined in the manual.
First, we attached one fiberglass/nylon clamp plus its rubber sleeve, which some models need, to each of the generator frame’s vertical corners. (The manual specifies how far beneath the generator’s electric panel to situate it.) The clamps’ length locks in place, and a lookup chart in the manual tells you which position is appropriate for your generator’s dimensions. Four fiberglass rods insert in the brackets, and their other ends meet in one fiberglass/nylon “central connector,” which forms the crown of the tent’s frame. The vinyl-coated polyester tent (in tan or gray, with black trim) slips over this frame, and elastic loops (outdoor-grade Gore-Tex) grips the brackets below.
Up to this step, the top of the generator is covered, but the sides are protected only a few inches down. One of two additional pieces included—one short, one long—attaches with Velcro beneath a flap that extends around the tent’s bottom edge. Depending on where the generator’s electrical panel is (and its length), you’ll attach one of the two pieces to cover the panel with enough wraparound on the adjacent sides to protect against rain blowing toward the generator from the side. Nothing covers the vicinity of the exhaust.
Checking or adding fuel is no problem: A hatch in the canopy, also firmly attached with Velcro, gave us ample access. Just remember to shut the generator and let it cool for five minutes before you add fuel.
GenTent versus nor’easter
GenTent invites customers to email them photos of your installed GenTent. For us, the company’s prompt reply suggested using the long rather than short electric-panel flap (for more wraparound) and better positioning of the stretchable loops beneath the canopy. We did not have to wait long for a storm to decisively test the GenTent.
What we got was a bitter nighttime nor’easter with a messy mix of sleet and heavy rain, backed by winds gusting to 50 miles per hour. We wheeled the generator out during the peak of the action, fired it up and had no issues, even given the GenTent’s panel covering, while connecting the unit to the transfer switch. A few drops of rain dampened lower components, but none reached where it could cause trouble, such as the panel or the electric-starter’s battery beneath.
With every major storm, more portable-generator owners learn about GenTent’s products, which protect your family as well as the generator. And since the best time to spring for a protective canopy is when you buy the generator itself, the company has launched the Covered by GenTent program, under which a generator maker will offer model-specific GenTents when you’re first buying the generator. Champion Power Equipment, the first generator manufacturer in the program, offers the product for much of its Storm Shield line. Other manufacturers could follow.
Stellar reviews on Tool to Power don’t come easy. But GenTent launched its product line months before Superstorm Sandy clobbered the northeast, and the company has only grown since. From our hands-on assessment, we can see why.