The home generator maintenance checklist

Mar 7, 2016

Just about every appliance and piece of power equipment you own requires upkeep to operate at peak efficiency. However, regular maintenance is especially important for standby and portable generators.

When the power goes out, we rely on generators to keep anything that requires electricity up and running. If your generator isn’t working properly, it could pose a serious problem in an emergency.

To begin a maintenance program, read the manual that came with the unit. If you don’t have one, contact the manufacturer to obtain a copy. The manual lists specific requirements and specifications for your generator. Most manuals have a recommended maintenance schedule that is based on hours of operation.

For the most accurate way to stay on top of repairs and maintenance tasks, keep a log whenever you use the generator. Most schedules are based on what the manufacturer considers to be “normal” operation. Units that are used more frequently require maintenance at shorter intervals.

Standby generator maintenance

A standby generator is a permanent unit that is installed near the house. It is wired to the home’s electrical box through a transfer switch. When the utility power goes out, the transfer switch automatically severs the connection with the power line and fires up the generator, which provides electricity to the house. The switch also shuts down the generator and reconnects the house to the utility line once power is restored.

While there is some generator upkeep you can perform yourself, it’s a good idea to set up a regular maintenance program with a qualified technician. The electrician who installed your generator is a good place to start. If that does not work for you, you can search for a nearby technician online. Here are some of the easier tasks you can do to keep the generator running smoothly.

  • Keep the area around the generator clear. Newer models are air-cooled, and it is important to keep the air vents clear and free of leaves and grass. Check the coolant level on liquid-cooled models. Give the unit a visual inspection to make sure there are no visible leaks. Look for signs of rodents and small animals taking up residence inside the cabinet.
  • Check the oil level on a regular basis, usually monthly. If the generator has run for an extended period of time, such as 24 hours, check the oil once the unit shuts down. Never check the oil level while the unit is running. Consult your manual for instructions on how to completely shut down the unit so that it cannot start up again while you are checking it.
  • Change the oil and the oil filter. This can be performed annually, every two years or after about 200 hours of operation. Consult your manual for the appropriate timing for your generator. Be sure to shut down the unit before working on it. Then, drain the oil and spin-off the oil filter. Generator manufacturers often sell maintenance kits that include the right oil and filters for your system.
  • Change the air filter. This is usually done annually. Consult your manual for the location of the filter, and only use filters approved by your generator’s manufacturer.
  • Exercise the unit. “Exercising” a generator means the unit switches on without producing electrical power and runs that way for 10 to 15 minutes every seven days. This is an automatic function on many newer units. Exercising your generator clears the fuel lines, lubricates the motor’s parts and allows the system to run diagnostics.
  • Ask a pro. A trained technician can take care of other items that require regular upkeep, including changing the spark plugs, checking valve clearance and other engine components, checking the battery and making sure the transfer switch is functioning properly.

Portable generator maintenance

These units supply electricity to selected appliances and lights when there is a power outage, and, as their name suggests, are not permanently installed in your home. It is important to know the limitations of the unit so that you don’t overload it during an emergency. They also need regular attention to run properly.

  • Store your generator in a clean, dry place. But when it is time to use the generator, take it outside. Caution: Never run a portable generator inside. Generators have combustion engines that produce carbon monoxide, which can be fatal if not vented properly.
  • Keep your generator clean. Use a cloth or a soft bristle brush to keep dirt off of the unit. Don’t use a hose to clean the unit—the water can damage the engine.
  • Check the oil and fuel levels before each use. Make sure the unit is shut off completely when checking the oil.
  • Perform maintenance tasks regularly. These are similar to those needed for standby generators and include changing the oil, spark plugs and air filter. However, they are usually required more often and at shorter intervals. Never work on the generator while it is running.
  • Exercise the unit. Run the unit for the time specified in the product manual every seven days. If that isn’t possible, you may have to put the unit in long-term storage. Before storing a portable generator, drain the gas out of the fuel tank. Because of the way gasoline is formulated, fuel that sits in a tank can gum up fuel lines and the carburetor. Also, any gasoline that includes blends like ethanol will attract moisture, potentially damaging the generator’s engine. Follow the directions in your manual to completely drain your fuel tank.
  • Never back feed your home’s electrical system. Backfeeding is the process of connecting a portable generator directly to your home’s electrical system without a transfer switch. It’s dangerous, it violates the electrical code, and you could hurt yourself or a utility worker working to fix a line during a power outage.

Making sure your generator is in top shape will keep you prepared in the event of an emergency. It also helps prevent damage, so your unit lasts longer and needs fewer repairs. Consult your generator’s manual to begin a maintenance program today.