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The Ins and Outs of Using a Portable Generator

Looks like your new portable generator just arrived and is sitting in your garage all shiny new. Nice!You run to the gas station and come back with some gasoline so you can give your new genny a test run.The only problem is that you're not sure how to turn it on. Looks like there's a cord you can pull on the side, but there's also a switch that says "Engine On/Off." Your generator also came with a remote but pressing its buttons doesn’t do anything. Do you need to put in motor oil? Here's a metal panel that seems to have a little clip. Dang it! The panel just fell off! How does it go back on?Although using your new portable generator may seem confusing the first time, no need to worry! You don't need an advanced degree in Generatorology in order to use one. Once you know where and what the parts are and how to turn it on, you'll be a pro.In this article, we will talk about:
Image of two inverter generators with a parallel kit connected to a camper
Pictured: etrailer inverter generators connected to a camper using a parallel kit

The Basics of Using a Portable Generator

Before you start your generator, we want to give a few pieces of advice.First of all, take the time to read your generator's manual. We have some great information in this article, but your generator might have extra features and precautions you should be aware of.Secondly, some generators require assembly of parts, like a wheel kit or carrying handles. Follow the generator's manual to properly assemble it before attempting to run it.Lastly, every time you start your generator, don't have anything, including extension cords, plugged in. On startup, generators push out a surge of power that can overload any plugged-in equipment.

Identifying Parts of a Generator

Before you can start a generator, you first need to know what we're looking at. Let's talk about some important parts you should know about that are vital to running your generator.
Illustration of a portable generator with its parts labeled
Pictured: A portable generator with its major parts labeled
Here are some parts to locate on your generator:
  • Motor Oil Inlet:This is where you'll pour motor oil for the generator's motor.Some generators ship with a bottle of motor oil included, but for most generators, you'll need to purchase the appropriate motor oil suggested by the genny's manufacturer.
  • Exhaust Vent:This is the vent where the generator's fuel exhaust escapes.Burning fuel creates carbon monoxide, a toxic gas, so always have your generator positioned outside at least 15 feet away from living spaces and where people will be hanging out. Also, never run a genny inside any building because the exhaust is deadly.
  • Engine Start Switch:The engine start switch turns on and off the power to an electric starter.An electric starter gets the motor cranking until the motor's own movement takes over. With the engine start switch in the "off" position, the starter won't have any electricity to get the motor revving.A start button is pushed until the motor fully starts, and then it's released to the "run" position.
  • Recoil Starter:Some generators have an electric start button, others have a recoil starter, and a few have both.A recoil starter requires you to pull a recoil cord until the motor starts, like on some push lawn mowers and chainsaws. You may have to pull the cord several times before the motor turns over.
  • Fuel Control Valve:The fuel control valve can be turned into an open and closed position to control whether fuel gets to the motor or not.When starting and running the generator, this valve needs to be fully open to supply fuel to the motor.
  • Choke Control:The choke control in the "choke" position restricts air flow to the fuel, allowing the fuel to ignite more quickly. You will have the choke in the "choke" position only when starting the generator.Once the motor is fully running, the choke control is moved to the "run" position to increase air flow to the fuel.

Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Portable Generator

Now that you're familiar with your generator's parts, it's time to get her running.
1) Add motor oil to your generatorGenerators have a motor, which means they need motor oil for lubrication. Near your generator's motor will be an inlet for you to pour in the proper amount of oil. Using a funnel will make this process much easier and cleaner.Most likely, your motor oil inlet cap will have a dipstick that you will use to measure the oil level. On the dipstick you will see a "full" line. Insert the dipstick into the oil inlet, pull it back out, and ensure oil coats the dipstick to the "full" line.The inlet is closed with a cap that has a dipstick for measuring the oil level and oil cleanliness.
Image of generator motor oil inlet and dipstick
2) Add fuel to your generatorIf your genny runs on propane, connect your propane tank and fully open the tank's valve, supplying propane to the motor.For gasoline generators, you will remove the gas cap and pour gasoline into the fuel tank. Some generators have a fuel gauge that indicates when the tank is full. For generators that don't have a fuel gauge, you will have to look into the tank and see where the fuel level is. When you're done, make sure to securely screw on the gas cap.
Image of generator fuel tank opened
3) Place your generator in a well-ventilated, level, and stable areaMost portable generator manufacturers will state in the instruction manual to place the generator at least 15 feet away from any living space or work area. This precaution is to prevent the toxic exhaust from being inhaled by people or pets.We don't even recommend running your generator just inside your garage or a covered car port as the fumes can still collect in those spaces.You can purchase an aftermarket exhaust extension tube to run your generator inside a garage or other semi-open spaces.You also want the generator to be on a level and stable surface. An unlevel generator can negatively affect how well the fuel feeds through the generator.Also, generators create a lot of vibration, so you don't want it on a surface where the vibrations could harm the supporting surface or cause the genny to fall off. In most scenarios, it's best to place your genny on the ground.Lastly, I want to mention that running a generator in any structure is a fire hazard. A quick search on YouTube for "generator fire," and you'll see plenty of videos showing houses burnt to the ground because of a poorly positioned generator.
Image of generator in a level and stable area
4) Place choke in the "choke" positionThis will be a knob, switch, or lever near your genny's carburetor. Make sure the switch is in the "choke" position.
Image of choking the choke valve
5) Open fuel valve all the wayThis valve will be close to the choke or on the control panel. Turn the valve all the way open to allow fuel to freely flow through the line to the motor.
Image of opening the fuel valve
6) Set the Engine On/Off switch to "On" or "Start"Some generators' start switches say "On," and others' switch says "Start." Both mean the same thing; the battery is now sending electricity to the electric starter.
Image of pressing the start button
7) Start the generatorThis step depends on the type of start your generator has: electric start or recoil start.An electric start requires you to hold in the "start" button until the motor starts. You then release the button for it to keep running. Some electric start generators also come with a remote start, for which the directions to set up will be in the manual.A recoil start requires you to pull the recoil cord until the engine starts. You may need to pull the cord multiple times. Depending on the generator, this may be an easy pull, and on other generators, it may be a harder pull.If after several pulls the motor doesn't start, you may need to troubleshoot the startup, which we'll discuss later in this article.And congrats! You have your generator up and running!
Image of pulling the recoil start cord
8) Place choke in the "run" positionGoing back the choke, you now want to open the choke so air can flow and mix with the fuel.Without the choke open in the "run" position, your fuel will not have enough air to ignite, so the motor will stop.
Image of setting choke to run position
9) Plug in devicesNow your generator is running and supplying electricity to the control panel. Plug in your devices one-by-one, starting with the devices with the highest required starting watts.Start each device or appliance one-by-one so you don't accidentally pull too much power from the generator at once. For example, you don't want a refrigerator, AC, and clothes dryer to start and pull power from the generator all at once. That could overload the generator and trip a breaker.You can use a voltmeter to monitor your generator's power output. Some generators have a voltmeter built in.
Image of plugged in generators with a parallel kit

Breaking In Your Portable Generator

When you first get your genny, you'll want to break it in. Breaking in a generator cleans out manufacturing residue, fully lubricates all moving parts, and prepares the genny for running extended periods of time. Your generator will have a longer life if it's properly broken in.The break-in process differs between models, so always follow the manufacturer's instructions for your specific generator. To give you an idea, most break-in processes look something like this: Step 1: Remove the spark plug and add oil conditioner into the spark plug chamber. Pull the starter cord (slowly) about 10 times so that the piston moves in the cylinder. The break-in process differs from generator to generator with some generators claiming they don't need to be broken in at all. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions that came with your generator. Step 2: Add oil to the crank case. Step 3: Add fuel to the max fill line and start the generator. (You may need to pull the cord a few times for this first startup.) Step 4: Run the generator for 1 hour without a load, at the lowest speed setting. Step 5: Change the oil and run the generator for another hour without a load. Step 6: Change the oil again, add additional oil conditioner, then run the generator for a third and final hour. This time you can run it with about a 500W load. And that's it! Your generator is broken in and ready to use. At this point, you can continue using your genny with proper yearly maintenance. The motor oil should be replaced every 50-100 hours of use, but check your generator's manual for its maintenance schedule.

How Long Can You Run a Portable Generator?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions we receive concerning portable generators.There are a couple of ways we can answer this question.Technically speaking, one way we can answer this question is that if you have enough fuel to keep refueling your generator, you can run it until its next maintenance time (about 100 hours for most generators). However, with gasoline, you should turn off your generator for about 5 to 10 minutes for the generator to cool down before refueling. Pouring gasoline into a hot generator can cause a fire if gas spills.The second way to answer this question is that how long a portable generator will run depends on the generator's fuel type, fuel capacity, and the amount of power being pulled from the generator (a.k.a. load).
Graphic comparing a generator's 25% load run time and 50% load run time
Pictured: A table comparing 25% load and 50% load run times for a portable generator
For you to know how long a generator will run on one tank, you'll need to know the run time at 25% or 50% load and how many watts you'll be using in order to run the below calculations. Generator manufacturers will tell you its run time on either a 25% or 50% load, so this number is easy to find.In the example below, we will use a generator that specifies its run time at a 25% load.
1) Calculate your total load Add up the running watts of all the devices that'll be running off the generator's power (A) Example: Load = 1000 running watts (A)
2) Calculate percent loadTake the number of running watts you plan to use (A) and divide it by the total number of generator watts available (B)Example: 1000 watts in use (A)/3500 available (B) = 29% load (C)This number is the percentage of the available wattage you'll be using.
3) Divide percent load used (C) by 25% loadExample: 29%/25% = 1.16 (D)"1.16" (D) represents the ratio of power you're using at a 29% load versus at a 25% load. In this scenario, you're using 1.16 times more power at 29% load than at 25% load.
4) Divide the number of hours at a 25% load (E) by the ratio of power you'll be using (D)Example: 9 hours/1.16 = 7.76 hoursAt this point, you've arrived at the number of hours your generator will run at a 29% load.
If you decide to connect another device to the generator, you'll have to rerun this calculation to get the exact number of running hours you expect to receive on one tank of fuel.

How Do I Quiet a Portable Generator?

Have you ever tried to talk to someone while standing next to a generator? For one, your voice was probably sore afterwards from having to yell the whole time, and you also probably didn't catch most of what the other people said.So, you may be wondering how to keep a generator's noise level down. Well, you have a few options:
1) Place Portable Generator 25+ feet Away from Community SpacesThe easiest thing you can do is to simply set up your genny a good distance from where you'll be hanging out. For safety, a generator should be at least 15 feet away from these spaces; however, if noise level is also a concern, you'll need at least 10 extra feet to notice a drop in volume.You can use extension cords to give yourself that extra distance between your appliances and generator.
Image of portable generator 25 feet from camp
2) Purchase an Inverter GeneratorBefore buying a portable generator, think about if noise level matters to you. If it does, then purchase a portable genny with a built-in inverter. Inverter generators are typically quieter than non-inverter generators.A cool aspect of inverter generators is that their motors only run at the necessary RPMs to meet the current power draw. That means if you only have a 25% load on the generator, the motor will run at a lower RPM. This can greatly cut down on noise (and fuel consumption!)
Product Image of Inverter Generator
Pictured: A-iPower 2,000-Watt Inverter Generator
3) Purchase a Generator Silencer or MufflerSome generator manufacturers design their generators to accept an aftermarket silencer or muffler, but not every manufacturer. As with the note about inverter generators above, if volume is a major concern of yours, research manufacturers and specific generator models that accept a silencer or muffler.
4) Choose a Power Station Over a GeneratorIf you don’t already have a generator, you might consider a portable power station as an alternate power source. These guys don't make any noise or emit fumes, so they're extremely unobtrusive and great for everything from camping to worksite jobs to home power outages. They're not really built to run your AC (too much power drain), but if you get a large enough power station you can run most other appliances. However, these larger power stations can get a bit pricey.
Image of Duracell power station in use
Pictured: Duracell Portable Power Station
5) Build a Sound-Proof (and Ventilated) Generator CompartmentIf none of the above methods are sufficient for you, you can build yourself a cool compartment to house your generator.We should mention a few safety criteria for your compartment:
  • Generators kick out a lot of toxic exhaust, so you need your compartment to still be at least 15 feet away from your camping/worksite/home/etc.
  • Related to the location of the compartment, the compartment's door to the generator should face away from these spaces as well.
  • Also, the compartment needs to be ventilated. This means having the exhaust valve/pipe connected to a hose that vents the exhaust out of the compartment into the outside air.
  • Lastly, generators combust fuel and have many moving parts, all of which create heat. Your compartment should have a fan to cool down the space; otherwise, your generator and compartment will overheat, potentially leading to a fire.
Illustration of proper portable generator housing
Pictured: The proper housing for a portable generator
6) Place Generator on a Noise-Dampening SurfaceSurfaces like concrete and wood amplify the sound of your generator, but dirt, grass, and rubber absorb sound. Placing your genny on a softer surface will cut down on its volume.If you must place your generator on a hard surface, you can invest in rubber boots for your generator to help quiet it.You can also place your generator near a wooded area where the sound will be absorbed by the woods rather than reverberating off harder surfaces like your house or vehicles. It's just not the kindest thing to do to all the woodland creatures.
Image of generator on noise dampening surface

How Do I Monitor My Generator's Power Output?

Quite a few modern generators come with a built-in monitor on the control panel that shows the voltage and hertz being produced.If your genny doesn't have a built-in voltmeter, you can purchase one separately. An accessory voltmeter plugs in to the genny's outlet and then displays the outgoing power. Some voltmeters are Bluetooth enabled and will display the power stats through a phone app.
Image of generator voltmeter

How Do I Store My Portable Generator?

Do you know what happens when you leave something made of steel outside? It rusts. Thanks, H2O!For that reason, you should never store your portable generator outside, exposed to the elements. Maybe you don't have enough room in your house or your garage, but even storing your genny under a covered area is not enough to protect it from moisture long-term.All generators are complex machines of moving metal parts, and if a tiny bit of rust or corrosion develops on those parts, your genny will not run right, will become inoperable, or even catch fire.If your generator must be in the elements for a limited period, for example while camping, then you should purchase a cover to keep direct moisture from getting on your genny. Now, this cover cannot stay on your genny while it's running, unless you're looking for one more way to ruin your generator.You may run a generator in the rain but realize that water and electricity do not mix well, which creates an electrocution hazard. If you think you'll need to run your generator when it's wet out, create a little shelter for it. Moreover, always get your generator 100% dry before storing it in a waterproof area.
Image of portable generator properly stored and covered on a trailer
My Portable Generator Won't StartSo, you have your generator ready to go. You hold down the start switch, but your genny won't run. Generators are mechanical devices with many different parts, so there may be a few culprits for why your generator won't start.But, there's no reason to fret. Most reasons for why a generator won't start are easy to solve. Here are the things to check on your generator:
Generator battery is deadIf your generator has an electric starter, it's possible that your battery is dead thus not able to send power to the starter. It's your battery when your genny won't even sputter when holding down the start switch. You can try recharging or replacing the battery. You can also try manually starting the generator, if your genny has a recoil start too.
Image of checking generator battery
Dead spark plugGenerators use spark plugs to ignite the fuel in the engine, so if your spark plugs are bad, your generator won't run. Luckily, replacement spark plugs are cheap and easy to replace. In fact, you should replace your spark plugs every 100 hours of running time as part of the generator's regular maintenance.You can tell if your spark plugs are going bad if your generator starts misfiring, sounds rough when idling, or starts consuming a lot more fuel than usual.
Image of new spark plug
Not enough oil in the crankcaseSome generators have a low oil sensor, and if the oil level is too low, it won't start the motor. Unscrew the oil cap and use the attached dipstick to see if the oil reaches the full mark on the dipstick. If it's not at the full mark, you need to add more oil.
Image of checking motor oil level
The choke lever is not in the "choke" positionIf the choke is on "run," the fuel will have too much air to ignite. Move the choke to "choke" before trying to start. This limits the amount of air mixed with the fuel so that the fuel will ignite easily.
Image of checking choke position
Generator is in a high-altitude area of over 3,000 feetHigh altitudes have lower air pressure and lower levels of oxygen, which affect the ability of the generator to pump fuel and air as well as decrease the available oxygen for combustion. You can purchase a high altitude jet kit to allow your generator to run at higher altitudes.
Image of campsite in the mountains

How Do I Run a Portable Generator for RV Camping?

Many modern RVs come equipped with a built-in generator, but you might be considering a portable generator if you don't have a built-in model, if yours is broken, or if you just need some additional power. Whatever the reason, you'll need to know how to hook up your generator to your RV and how to run your appliances.To learn more about how to hook up your generator, where to store it, and how to charge your RV's battery, check out our article here.
Portable generator on back of RV cargo tray

How Do I Use a Portable Generator For Home Backup Power?

If you live in an area where your power goes out at least a few times a year, you might prefer to invest in a standby generator setup instead of lugging out a portable genny every time you lose power. One of the most popular uses for a portable generator is to provide home power when grid power goes out.So, how do you actually connect to your appliances? You use an extension cord or generator cord to connect to your appliances. Or, alternatively, you have an electrician install a transfer box at your home.
Generator in front of house
1) Running extension cords from generator to appliancesThe simplest solution is to run extension cords and splitters from the genny to the appliances you want powered. Your standard extension cord plugs in to the generator's 120-volt outlets.Some appliances you'll probably want to keep running are the refrigerator and the AC or heater.However, these are large appliances that sometimes require 240-volt electricity. Before buying a genny for home backup, check the volts and watts these appliances need.We should also note that for safety, your generator needs to be at least 15 feet from your home. As you may now guess, that's a lot of extension cord. That's why you should have a power outage plan for your generator, including plenty of extension cords.
Extension Cord
Pictured: A household extension cord
2) Run a generator cord to appliancesThis solution is like the extension cord solution; however, a generator cord plugs in to the genny's 30-amp, 50-amp, or a 120-volt outlet. Some generator cords have normal 120-volt outlets at the other end that can be used for your household appliances.With a generator cord, you're going to run in to the same hiccups as you would with extension cords, mainly having enough cord to run from the generator to the appliances.
Extension Cord
Pictured: A generator extension cord
3) Install a transfer box between grid power and breaker boxA transfer box allows homeowners to switch between power supplies (for example, switch from grid to generator), but this is not a process you should DIY, unless you're a licensed electrician.Without a transfer box, grid power runs straight to the breaker box. When a transfer box is installed, it acts as a bridge between grid power and the breaker box.This allows a secondary power source to be wired to the transfer box along with grid power. If grid power goes out, all you have to do is get your genny running then switch the transfer box's incoming power from grid to genny with the flip of switch. Then, huzzah! You've got generator power feeding the breaker box now.Some transfer boxes will switch to generator power automatically, but they also cost a bit more than a manual transfer box.

How Do I Run a Portable Generator at High Altitudes?

Most generators straight out of the box are not designed to run at altitudes above 3,000 ft.The reason for this is twofold. First, the air pressure at higher altitudes is lower, which decreases the generator's ability to push fuel through the fuel line.Second, there is less oxygen at higher altitudes, which negatively affects the air-to-fuel mix necessary for continual fuel combustion. Fire needs oxygen to survive. With less available oxygen, the fuel won't be oxygen-rich, leading to poor combustion.To resolve both these issues, you can purchase a high altitude jet kit, which replaces the carburetor's factory jet. These kits are generator model specific, so you'll want to check the kit's compatibility with your genny.The installation of a new jet kit is straightforward. You'll remove the carburetor bowl, unscrew the factory jet, and the screw in the new one.
Image of a driving in the mountains

Get the Power Flowin'

Now that you know the ins and outs of using a portable generator, you should be able to use one with confidence. You may have some hiccups along the way, but as long as you're being safe, you don't need to worry.Go ahead and show your friends how awesome your new generator is. Crank it up and get them oohing and aahing.

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