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How to Use a Generator During a Power Outage

permanent home generator supplying power to home

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Often, it takes a power outage to make us realize just how dependent on electricity we are. From lighting to refrigeration, modern homes have an extremely difficult time functioning without power. Thankfully, having a generator for power outage periods can take away a lot of stress when the grid goes down.

How does a generator work when the power goes out? It can be a simple process, but there are many factors to consider when attempting to power your home with a generator during a power outage. Here’s what you need to know.

First, A Word About Safety

How do you use a generator during a power outage? The first step is to consider safety. While it is not the most fun consideration, it is paramount that you take safety precautions when using a generator during a power outage. While generators are extremely safe if used properly, they can become dangerous very quickly if you are unaware of the proper procedures. 

Always Separate the Exhaust from the Home

One of the most prevalent dangers of using a generator to power your home is the exhaust. Just like any internal combustion engine, generators produce noxious fumes including carbon monoxide. Although carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible, it can cause health risks and even death if too much is inhaled.

Can you run a generator in the house? No, you should never run a generator inside your home, even for a brief period. Even with windows open, a generator can quickly fill a space with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and risk the health of the inhabitants.

It is also important to make sure that the generator is far enough away from the house. Even when a generator is outside, it can still fill a home with fumes if it is placed too near a window or other opening. While this is not meant to scare anyone, it is always better to place your generator as far from your home as possible. Typically around ten feet is sufficient, however. 

Never Back-Feed Electricity

If you read less scrupulous guides, some sources will indicate that you can create a “cheater cord” and back-feed electricity into your home. This process involves plugging the output of your generator into an outlet of your home, causing the electricity to flow into the outlet from the generator. While this will technically work, it is an extremely dangerous practice. First, the cord itself exposes high-voltage contacts without protection, meaning that electrocution is a very real possibility. Further, most generators cannot support the load of an entire house. By overworking your generator, you risk damaging your generator and your home.

The risk goes beyond your home, however. Back-feeding voltage means that your generator is feeding electricity back into the grid. Thus, any lineman or technician who is working on the power lines near your home may not expect the transmission lines to be energized and can be injured or killed as a result. However, many people desire the convenience of having their home wired directly into their generator. This is possible but requires a device known as a transfer switch.

A transfer switch is an electrical component that must be installed by a certified electrician. In effect, it is simply a giant circuit breaker that disconnects your home from the municipal electrical grid and transfers the connection to the generator. By decoupling your home from the grid, you eliminate the risk of voltage flowing in the wrong direction and damaging your equipment or, worse, hurting someone.

Consider Just Using Cords

Before going through the time and expense of having a transfer switch installed, it is worth considering if you can simply use extension cords. For many people, using a generator during a power outage is simply to keep the basics running, rather than to run the entire house. Thus, if you are only trying to keep the fridge powered and run a few lights, simply running a few extension cords may be the simplest solution. It is important, however, to make sure you use extension cords that are suited for the task. 

Not all extension cords are created equally. Many of the smaller “lamp” extension cords that you may have sitting around your house are only rated for 3-5 amps. In contrast, large appliances or a plethora of lights can draw up to 20 amps. Overloading an extension cord can cause it to overheat, catch fire, or prematurely fail. Thus, if you plan to run any heavy-load electrical devices during a power outage, make sure that you purchase a heavy-gauge extension cord that is rated for a full 20-amps. While they do cost a little more, the expense will help to ensure safe and reliable performance. 

Further, take care when arranging your cords. This may seem like an obvious tip, but it can be extremely easy to be in the mindset of “it will just be there temporarily” and inadvertently create a tripping hazard. The last thing you need during a power outage is to compound the issues by injuring yourself or a loved one. Thus, if you intend to run cords through your house to power a fridge, lights, CPAP, or other devices, take care to make sure the cords are neatly run and will not pose a tripping risk. 

How Many Devices Can You Run?

Many people have unrealistic expectations regarding the capacity of their generators. Running a few devices at a campsite is a very different matter than running an entire house. If you have a small “suitcase” generator, they are typically rated at around 2,000 watts. While these generators are extremely efficient and quiet, their small size will mean that you must prioritize what devices need to be powered. Refrigerators generally have relatively low power-consumption, so you should be able to run at least one fridge off one of these small generators. Further, a few lights may be possible. However, much beyond that and you will be stretching the limits of a small generator.

For those in very warm or very cold climates, air conditioning or heating is often a priority when the power fails. Unfortunately, HVAC systems represent some of the highest power demands in a modern home. Unless your generator is rated for at least 5,000-watts, it is unlikely that you will be able to run even a small air conditioner. The same is true for heat. Any source of electric heat, including space heaters and baseboard heaters, are likely to have an extremely high power draw. Even the smallest space heaters still typically draw close to 2,000-watts. Thus, if you live in an area that experiences power loss frequently, you may need to make alternative plans for heating or air conditioning, rather than relying on your generator.

How Much Fuel Do You Need?

Of course, even the best generator in the world is of little use without fuel. Thus, it is important to make sure you have enough fuel to keep your generator humming along for the duration of a power outage. For a small inverter generator, a gallon of fuel will typically last for about 4-5 hours. However, the fuel demands of a larger unit can be much higher. For a 5,000-watt generator, expect it to burn through a gallon of fuel every 1-2 hours. For a 7,000 or larger model, this number can be even greater. Thus, always err on the side of caution in stocking up with fuel.

When refueling your generator, you should always turn the generator off and let it cool down before adding additional fuel. Generators typically have exposed engine and exhaust components, and any spilled fuel can easily result in a fire or other dangerous situation. While waiting for the generator to cool down before refueling can seem like a hassle, it is a step well worth taking.

Make Sure Your Generator is Maintained and Ready

The most important step in using a generator for backup home power comes before the power ever flickers. Maintaining your generator to make sure it is ready to go when you need it is a crucial practice. Generators often sit for long periods without use, and this can cause seals to fail or other components to become damaged. To prevent this, it is a good practice to routinely start your generator and let it get warmed up. I have simply made a habit of letting my generator run for an hour or so on the first Saturday of every month, but you can of course dictate your own schedule. Make sure to have some sort of appliance or other load drawing power from the generator during this process. Periodically running your generator will keep it in good operating shape and allow you to identify issues before they arise.

While modern generators are typically extremely reliable devices, they still require maintenance to perform their best. Depending on how often you use your generator, a yearly maintenance regime will generally suffice. This involves changing the oil, oil filters, air filter, spark plug(s), and any other service-related items. This is also a great opportunity to clean your generator of the grime it may have accumulated throughout the year. Most manufacturers offer a “maintenance kit” that includes all of the necessary components. These kits are a great convenience because you can be certain you have the right components, and you only have to source one item.

Also, consider using a fuel stabilizer. Modern gasoline degrades significantly more quickly than fuels of the past. Given the long-term storage that a generator typically sees, stale fuel is the number-one cause of generator problems. By splashing some fuel stabilizer into the tank at the end of the season, a lot of headaches can be avoided. After adding the fuel stabilizer to the tank, make sure to run the generator for at least a few minutes to introduce the stabilizer into the carburetor as well.

When the time comes to use your generator during a power outage, take the time to give it a brief once-over. Make sure the oil level is proper, and fill it up with fresh fuel if you have any on hand. If your generator is stored outside, clean any leaves or debris from it before starting it, as you don’t want these to create any potential for smoke or fires. Just a few moments of additional time can go a long way towards keeping your investment reliable.

Consider a Permanent Solution

If you live in an area that experiences frequent power interruptions, or you have a particular reliance on electricity (for health devices or otherwise), you may want to consider investing in a permanent home generator. Home generators have become significantly more affordable and available in recent years, and they can make the inconvenience of losing power a thing of the past. A home generator is a permanently installed generator that is designed to automatically turn on during a power outage. Thus, the process of using the transfer switch and starting the generator is handled automatically by the system. Using a home generator means that, other than a brief flicker of the lights, you may not even notice that the power has gone out.

Even the fuel source can be automated. Unlike gasoline-powered portable units, a permanently installed home generator is generally powered by either diesel, propane, or natural gas. In the case of propane or natural gas, the generator will simply be plumbed into your house’s gas supply, requiring no further intervention on your part. In the case of a diesel generator, they will typically be powered by a large-capacity permanently installed tank that can be filled periodically or by a commercial service.

Permanent home backup generators are typically much larger than portable generators because they are designed without the need for size or weight restrictions. Because of their increased size, a typical home generator like a Generac often has 12,000-watts of capacity or more. Given this output, a permanent home generator is capable of running most or all of the systems in your house, including air conditioning, lights, dryers, and more. A permanent backup generator will cost more than most portable units. However, they represent a huge amount of convenience and can also increase the value of your home.

Conclusion

Using a generator for power outage situations can transform a frustrating experience into a non-issue. Whether you are repurposing your camping generator to run your home, or you opt for a permanently installed option, you will quickly wonder how you ever lived through a power outage without an alternative source of power.

Thankfully, the process of using a generator in these circumstances is straightforward and cost-effective as long as you have the proper preparation, equipment, and plan.

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