How to Use a Generator During a Power Outage


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These days a power outage can happen literally anywhere, any time. 

It might be in the middle of a sweltering summer day or on a freezing winter night, just a couple of hours, or several weeks.

If you have a generator at home, you’re covered for the basics. But having a generator around when you have no idea how to actually get it to work is annoying, to say the least. 

Take it from someone who has been down that painful road.

Setting a basic generator up isn’t rocket science, and you can get up to speed pretty quickly. 

You just need to know how to use a generator during a power outage to keep yourself and everyone around you safe.

Safety Comes First

Using your generator correctly is crucial. If it isn’t handled correctly, there is a number of serious risks you face:

  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning can lead to sickness and hospitalization. Severe cases can even result in death. The CDC has reported that improper use of gasoline-powered portable home generators is one of the most common causes of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning after a power outage has occurred. Learning how to use your generator correctly is a must if you want to avoid poisoning yourself and your family.
  • There is a risk of fire if the generator is used incorrectly or is set up in the wrong place. 
  • You could end up giving yourself an electric shock if you don’t handle the generator correctly, or if a plug or cable is not in good condition.
  • Damage to Electronic Appliances can occur if a generator is incorrectly set up and connected. If you don’t go through the standard safety checklist and correct your lines correctly, you could unintentionally cause electrical damage to your house circuit, and whatever appliances are connected to it.
  • You could accidentally electrocute a crew working on the power lines if you connect your generator incorrectly and feed the grid instead of your house. Again, it is imperative that you understand how to set it up the right way.

How to Use a Generator During a Power Outage

There are some general safety guidelines that will apply to any generator anywhere. 

But the best thing to do is to begin by reading your particular generator’s usage and safety manual. 

The guides that come with your generator will contain detailed instructions on how to set it up correctly, as well as basic troubleshooting information. 

They will also explain how and where to connect it to power up your house, and how to perform basic maintenance once you’re done using it.

1. Select a Suitable Location for Your Generator

Suitable Location for a Generator

The first thing to do when you acquire a generator is to place it in a good location. A generator should NEVER be placed inside the house or in a closed garage. 

This heavily increases the risk of a bad fire should something go wrong. It also increases the risk of poisoning house occupants with carbon monoxide.

A generator needs to be set up outside, at least 10 to 15 feet away from the house and any other structures. Check your generator’s manual for specific instructions on this. 

You also need to place the generator in a spot where it will remain dry in case of rainy weather. Some generators come with weather protection, but not all. 

Again, your generator’s instructions manual is the best go-to for information here.

Usually, a generator needs to be placed on a dry surface and placed under an open canopy for protection from the elements. 

A tarp supported on poles can serve well in an emergency situation.

2. Store Generator Fuel Safely

Another thing people often overlook is that a generator will require fuel to run, and is useless if there is none in stock. 

To avoid the unwanted hassle, make sure you have enough fuel to keep your generator powered for at least 48 hours in total. 

Any extra fuel you have should be stored in separate, safety-approved containers. Also, choose your storage location carefully. 

It should be away from any direct flames, and out of reach of children and pets.

3. Use an Outdoor-rated Extension Cord

Outdoor-rated Extension Cord

Since your generator needs to be placed a good distance away from the house and outside, it makes sense to use an extension cord that is rated for outdoor use. (See our recommendation

This will help prevent electric shocks and your generator from burning out if water gets into the cabling.

Also, no matter how good and strong your extension cord, always check it thoroughly for cuts and damage before use. 

Check the plug too, and make sure it has all three prongs firmly in place, especially the one for grounding.

4. Do Regular Maintenance Checks

No matter how much or little you use your generator, basic maintenance will go a long way in extending your generator’s lifespan.

It will also ensure that your generator is ready and functional when you actually need it.

  • Keep your generator’s tank full to avoid unpleasant surprises. If your generator has been in use, let it cool fully before filling up the tank. If the generator has been sitting a while, drain any old fuel from the tank first before adding a new one.
  • Check the oil levels as well, and top up as necessary. Also regularly check the oil filter, and keep a couple of replacements handy so that you don’t get stuck when the time to change comes.
  • Also, check the air filter, and replace it as and when necessary. Your generator should be kept clean and ready to run. If you use your generator very infrequently, it may be a good idea to run it every now and then to keep it in good running condition.

5. Run a Test In Advance

generator a test run

The single best way to make sure that you know exactly what and how to do is to give your generator a test run before you get to an outage situation. 

This way, you won’t be panicking or in a hurry and will have the time to study the manual and really understand what’s what and how.

If there are other adults in the household besides yourself, it helps if they know how to operate the generator too. 

The more the people that know how to set it up, the less the risk that there will be no one around that can do it during an emergency.

6. Never Connect Direct to a Power Socket

Be sure to read your generator’s instruction manual on how to connect it to power once you have it set up and fueled. The switch should be set to off before you turn on the fuel valve.

You should never connect the generator directly into a household socket. Plugging the generator straight into a wall socket will result in back feeding, meaning the generator will feed power into the electricity grid. 

This puts not only yourself but your neighbors and utility crews as well, at risk of electrocution.

7. Teach Your Kids Generator Safety Measures 

It’s a good idea to make sure that all household members, especially kids, understand the risks involved with using a generator. 

They need to know to keep away from it and not touch it without adult supervision. 

8. Don’t Forget to Switch Off!

It may sound silly, but it happens. Make sure to switch your generator off once your power is back on. 

Leaving it running for too long not only wastes fuel, but it can also result in overheating and related damage, including fire. 

How to Use a Generator Safely Without a Transfer Switch

Safety regulation in most cities and neighborhoods legally REQUIRE you to use a transfer switch when using a generator to power up your house. 

These are not the cheapest, with the automatic ones being even more expensive than the manual ones. But they ensure everybody’s safety, including yours and that of utility workers.

The only other safe way to use a generator without a transfer switch is to use an interlock kit like this one

This needs to match the specifications of your generator exactly, so you’ll need to buy one in advance. They’re very budget-friendly but require intermediate electrical skills to set up.

If you go for an interlock kit, you’ll also need to buy a breaker (also matching your generator specs) and some wiring.

Just to emphasize, this is not a beginner project. Please do your research very carefully before you attempt to do something like this or get a professional to help.

Conclusion

Setting up a portable generator correctly takes a bit of effort, but it’s far from an impossible task. 

The best and quickest way to go about it is to invest a couple of hours of your time into reading the generator’s instruction manual.

Giving it a test run will also ensure that you have hands-on experience and don’t panic when an outage and natural disaster hits you. 

Apart from this, it’s really about using your common sense and following basic safety guidelines.

Hopefully, you won’t have to use your generator too often. 

But, follow the instruction manual on safety and maintenance, keep your generator conditioned and maintained, and it will serve you for years to come.