Using a portable generator? What to know before the lights go out
If you've had it with lengthy power outages when a windstorm hits your neighborhood, a portable generator might be your antidote to eating cold soup and living in a Snuggie.
Before you shop for a generator, though, understand your needs so you can buy a machine to match. And once it's out of the box, know that using it safely requires some very important precautions.
Buy the right generator
Don't expect a generator to restore the lifestyle you have with normal power (for that, you'd need a pricey, professionally installed standby generator that runs off your home's natural gas or propane supply). However, a portable generator can give you some must-haves like the ability to plug in the refrigerator, a portable heater, a few lights, an electric frypan and, if you use well water, your pump.
Generators come with different wattage capabilities. To find out how much you need, read the wattage labels on the appliances you want to be able to use at the same time. Add them up and include a buffer. That's because many appliances draw more electricity when they first kick on. You'll see two ratings on generators, "running wattage" and "surge wattage." You don't want to underestimate either one. A refrigerator, for example, may need 800 watts to run, but an extra 1,200 when the compressor kicks in, so you'd plan for a minimum of 2,000 watts. (You can periodically unplug it and use those watts for other things.)
If in doubt, buy bigger. An overloaded generator is a fire hazard, and you don't want to be tempted to plug in "just one more thing" if it's near capacity.
Before you leave the store with your new generator, make sure to pick up a carbon monoxide detector to install in your home.
Use your generator safely
Even if you usually never read owners manuals, you'll want to make an exception for a portable generator. Correct setup is critical to safeguard your home, family, neighbors and utility crews.
Start with six stay-safe tips:
1. Never use a generator in an enclosed space like a garage, carport or porch. That's because they emit deadly carbon monoxide equivalent to six running cars. Keep it at least 10 feet from your house and the neighbors', leave your doors and windows closed and keep the garage door down.
2. Keep the generator dry. Unless it's sunny, build a tarp tent over it to keep the rain off.
3. Use a heavy-duty outdoor extension cord that's rated for the load it will be carrying. We like twist-and-lock cords made specifically for generators that have multiple plug-ins you can use for your appliances. In addition, make sure the extension cords you use to connect your appliances to the generator are intended for outdoor use, rated to handle the wattage needed and long enough that you don't need to plug multiple cords together. If you notice a cord feels hot, stop using it.
4. Never plug the generator into a wall outlet, thinking you'll power that circuit. That causes "backfeed" where electrical current can go back out onto the grid and create an electrocution risk for utility crews and your neighbors. Attach appliances directly to the generator with your extension cords.
If you do want to run an entire circuit, you can hire an electrician to install a transfer switch. That isolates you from the grid and gives you a dedicated outlet to use only for the generator.
5. Never refuel a generator when it's running to avoid the risk of explosion. Allow it to cool and leave at least an inch and a half from the top of the tank so the gas has room to expand when the machine warms up again.
6. Run the generator a few times a year (even if you don't have a power outage) to keep it working properly. Drain the fuel when not in use or add a fuel conditioner so the gas doesn't degrade between uses.
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