With so many people spending more time at home due to COVID-19, having reliable and consistent power is more critical than ever. But with winter about to be in full swingâand serious storms already wreaking havoc on parts of the countryâmany of us are thrust into crisis mode to get the juice back on.
If you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to invest in a generator to restore power to your home quickly. But here’s the deal: This is not a device to learn as you go. You need to know how to run it safelyâbefore you push “start,” and long before the lights go out. Because when you’re in crisis mode, it’s much easier to make dangerous mistakes that damage the generator or, worse, potentially put your family at risk.
Whether you’ve run a generator before or just bought one, here are eight things you should avoid.
1. You neglect regular maintenance
Hopefully, you won’t need to fire up your generator that often. But between the times that you do, you shouldn’t just put it in the corner and forget about it.
“Lack of proper maintenance on generators is the largest problem we see,” says Rusty Wise, owner of Mister Sparky in Cherryville, NC.
To ensure your generator is ready to go, Wise says to check the batteries regularly, and examine and clean the oil and air filter. You should also start it up on a regular basis during the colder months.
“Cranking the generator and putting it under a load is recommended at least once a month to help prevent moisture from accumulating in the windings and other electrical components,” says Wise.
2. You don’t use heavy-duty extension cords
It seems like power failures go hand in hand with severe weatherâand pairing sleet, rain, and snow with the wrong extension cords is a recipe for disaster.
Extension cords range from smaller wire 18-gauge to larger wire 10-gauge, says Wise. Wise recommends at least a 14-gauge outdoor grounded extension cord with GFCI protection for generators.
That’s a general reference, as the extension cord length and the amperage of the load affect how much the extension cord can handle, Wise says. Always consult your manual for specific extension cord requirements.
3. You run the generator from the garage
When a storm knocks out power and you have a generator ready to go, it’s tempting to start it up ASAP to restore power.
But beware: It’s not a good idea to start it up while it’s in the garage, even with the door open.
Generators should be operated outside, in a dry area at least 25 feet away from any open windows or doors with at least 5 feet of clearance on all sides, says Austin Heller, product manager of portable generators at Generac Power Systems.
“Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide, a deadly poisonous gas invisible to the naked eye,” says Heller. “Only use generators far away from any openings to your home, and install a carbon monoxide detector indoors to make sure you’re alerted when CO is detected.”
4.Â You don’t follow the correct sequence when starting and stopping
Read the owners manual, but generally speaking, Heller says to turn the generator on before plugging in extension cords, then plug any loads into the extension cord.
When powering off, unplug loads from the extension cord. Then unplug the extension cord from the generator before turning the generator off.
“Following these steps will help to protect yourself from electrical shock, but it will also help minimize unnecessary strain or damage to the generator,” says Heller.
5. You have bad gas
We’re not talking about your digestion issues here. If you only started up the generator once and stored it with the remaining gasoline in the tank, it might go bad from sitting, Wise says.
“If you are going to store your generator, make sure to drain all of the gasoline or run it periodically to keep the gas fresh,” Wise says. “There are also gasoline additives that can help to keep the fuel fresh.”
6.Â You add gasoline while the generator is running
Speaking of gas, the generator sucks down gasoline as the hours go by in a power outage, yet you can’t add more gas at the last minute like you do when your car reaches the empty mark.
“Refueling a generator while it’s running or while the engine is hot could be a quick recipe for disaster,” Heller says. “Spilled gasoline could ignite, and create an explosion. Make sure to turn off your engine and let it cool completely before refueling.”
7.Â You run your generator unprotected from the elements
In the rush to get power restored to the house, you might haul out the generator in the pouring rain without setting up an area that will protect the generator from the elements.
Generators can be fired up and run during a snowstorm or rainfall, but they should be operated in a dry area to avoid electrocution or inverter damage, Heller says. Run it on a dry surface under an open, canopylike structure. Or buy a cover made specifically for generators.
8.Â You connect your generator directly to the service panel
Also known as “back feeding,” this connection is extremely hazardous.
“Connecting a portable generator directly to household wiring (electrical service panel) can be deadly to the homeowner, neighbors, or utility workers,” says Heller. “This is an illegal process, and it poses a major risk of electrical fire to the homeowner and any neighbors serviced by the same transformer.”
To get more power to the home safely, hire a licensed electrician to add a manual transfer switch.
“It can be installed to the home’s electrical panel with a manual switch to power everything a homeowner needs backup for,” says Heller. “A certified dealer can assess the home and suggest the correct size generator, while a licensed electrician can safely install the manual transfer switch to code.”
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