The Pitfalls of Quickie Generator Purchases

Generac portable generator / Credit: Lowe'sThe storm we know as Hermine is headed off to sea, leaving households without power in the hundreds of thousands. Among all those households, some people thought to rush out the door and pick up a portable generator—and are setting it up in a hurry, perhaps without even a glance in the owner’s manual. Too often, though, forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed. “Fore-threatened” might be more like it. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to staying out of trouble.

Just That Much Oil
Most of us needn’t be told that a gas-powered machine needs gas in order to run. But since you could be running that generator for several hours, be sure you add as much oil as the manual specifies. Have more on hand, too. An overheated engine will turn a useful generator into a 200-pound piece of garbage.

Don’t Count on Gasoline
If you’re out of power, nearby gas stations might also be. No pumps, in other words. Do yourself a favor and, before a storm hits, fill up a couple of extra gas cans of gasoline to which you’ve added fuel stabilizer. Store it in a well-ventilated place away from heat and electrical circuits.

Electric Start Isn’t Magic
If you just bought a portable generator and got a model with electric start, it might not be available from the get-go. Sometimes the feature’s battery is extra, but even if you have it, it might not even be connected, let alone charged. (It’s a few-minute task to connect it.) So if you needed to buy the generator in a hurry, expect initially to cord-start it. Once the storm has moved on, you can charge up the battery.

Extension Cords as Fire Hazards
A transfer switch, an extra-cost device that an electrician installs, allows one single connection to your house. Your portable generator therefore can also power appliances and fixtures that are hard-wired directly to your home’s electrical system. Generators rated for 5,000 watts or more can connect to one.

With a storm in the vicinity, however, you might not have had time to buy a transfer switch and get it installed, which means you’ll first use extension cords. Be very careful here. For one thing, a cord you’ve been using around the house for years might be too frayed, even within the insulation, to use at all—let along in the rain or snow, with the danger of falling branches and even trees. And if it’s new, it also has to be long enough, or else you’ll be tempted to situate the generator closer to the house than you should. Which brings us to the next concern.

Portable Generators Can Be Deadly
Standby generators, also called stationary models, have casing to guard against the elements. A portable model has no such thing and, to top it off, cannot be left running outdoors in the rain. (You can buy model-specific tents from GenTent.) That reason alone could account for why people run portable generators in an attached garage—a carbon-monoxide risk that has killed entire families. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends you run a portable at least 20 feet from the house and away from open windows and doors.

Any kind of generator can offer years of protection. But that dependability relies on a few things going right early on. You need to properly size it, with an electrician’s help if necessary, for what you want to power during an outage. If you had the foresight to buy a transfer switch, it needs to be installed before you can use it. And you’ll need to maintain the generator. As a storm approaches, you haven’t enough time to think about much of this. At the very least, keep yourself, your family and your property safe.

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3 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Quickie Generator Purchases”

  1. Good practical advice. Thank you.

    Most people don’t need a generator, but rather canned food and a good source of fresh water in case of emergency.

    • Thank you, Bob! Keeping supplies on hand is a good idea, too–part of why runs on supermarkets are common as a bad storm approaches.


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