Knowledge Is Power for Generators, Too

Generator power cord for transfer switch

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, too, 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 when the power blows.

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Ethanol in Your Fuel: Just Say No

Ethanol free fuel
TruFuel ethanol-free fuel at Home Depot

Gasoline with 15 percent ethanol (E15) has been offered for sale in America since mid-2012. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t addressed the question of how to keep the average joe from putting it into lawn mowers, generators and other outdoor power equipment.

It isn’t that the agency didn’t know that gasoline with higher than 10% ethanol was bad for small engines. The Department of Energy studied that very thing in a 2008 report (PDF), with a focus not only on vehicles but also outdoor gear, including pressure washers, leaf blowers, generators and string trimmers. Among problems the researchers found when using E15 or blends with even more ethanol:

  • A Honda generator idled erratically while running fuel with 20 percent ethanol (E20).
  • Three Weed Eater Featherlite leaf blowers running with fuels higher than E10 failed or would not idle.
  • A Stihl FS 90 string trimmer ran at such a high idle on E15 and E20 that its clutch engaged by itself.

With all machines tested, average exhaust temperatures rose proportionately to ethanol content. In other words, the more ethanol the fuel contained, the hotter these products ran.

None of this apparently swayed the EPA, which merely says that E15, by law, cannot be used in any engines other than those in cars model-year 2001 or later, except for those of flex-fuel vehicles. But unless you’re paying attention, richer ethanol blends than E10 are bound to make it into your gear eventually. Consider, for instance, a so-called blender pump—one pump used to deliver everything from E10 to E85, the level used in flex-fuel vehicles. Even if you chose E10 to fill up your gas can, if the customer before you bought E85, what remains in the hose will make it into your can, and ultimately into your mower, string trimmer or chainsaw.

But you don’t have to take it. Two options:

At the Pump
They’re not easy to find, but some gas stations do include ethanol-free fuel (called E0) as an option. Websites such as and Buy Real Gas list stations that sell it. And if you live near any kind of seaport, you’ll find that gas stations serving boat owners tend to offer ethanol-free gas. In all cases, however, call first—and expect this fuel to cost more than you’re used to paying.

On the Shelf
It’s taken a few years, but it’s now hard to walk into a home center or Sears outdoor-gear department and not see multiple brands of canned ethanol-free fuel. Some is for handheld machines that require a 40:1 or 50:1 fuel-to-oil ratio; the gas includes both stabilizer and the right amount of oil for two-stroke engines. And some are for four-cycles engines like those found in mowers, snowblowers, and generators. (These products also include stabilizer.) One great feature: It lasts two years once opened. TruFuel might be the most common brand, though Sears sells it under the Craftsman brand. And most manufacturers now sell E0 in their own brands, such as Echo, Husqvarna and Stihl.

This fuel is even more expensive than marine fuel—a quart can typically costs about $6. But for a little perspective, don’t think about the national average retail price, $2.225 per gallon as of yesterday. Think instead of how much you pay for that wonderful new cold-brew coffee at Starbucks.

At an average $3.60 for a 16-ounce serving, it costs $7.20 per quart—not counting a tip for the barista—which is $1.20 more than the TruFuel. Sure, the coffee is bound to taste much better than a fluid that was never intended for human consumption. But your body can’t tell the difference between Starbucks and Maxwell House. Use only pure gasoline in well-maintained outdoor power gear, and it will thank you for years.

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