Portable Generators: Noisy yet Necessary

Portable Generators: Gas Powered Peace of Mind

By Mark R. Folse

Shortly after the April 27th storms last year, my wife and I began to hear the steady rumble of a portable generator somewhere in our neighborhood.  It was not long until we acquired one ourselves.  Within two days after the deadliest storm system in recent memory devastated the state of Alabama, generators could be heard from every house on our block.  Two days is also how long it took for area stores like Lowes and Home Depot to run out of generators.  The Lowes in Bessemer, Alabama ran out in two days.  The one in Trussville ran out in less than a week.  The extent of the damage meant that people would be without power for a week or more.  Once they realized this, thousands of people rushed to buy generators.  As a result, many Alabamians learned a few lessons about portable generators, when to get them, their uses, and their limits. Disaster Prepardedness

For people interested in being prepared,portable generators are a necessity.  Think of them as a form of insurance: an investment that can help you in the future if something goes wrong.  Acquiring one before a natural disaster occurs can give owners peace of mind which is well worth the cost.  Along with the generator, a few containers of gasoline squirreled away somewhere and as many extension cords as you need will prepare your residence for when the lights go out.  However, when hurricane Katrina slammed into Gulf Coast, people that had generators lost them in the storm.  This scenario happened to Lee Klein, a retired Hancock County Judge who resides in Waveland Mississippi. Shortly after evacuating, the Gulf of Mexico swallowed his home, his generator, and all of his other possessions.  Like the many people caught unprepared after the Alabama tornadoes, Klein had to acquire another generator after the fact.  As Robert Burns aptly said “The best laid schemes of mice and men, go often awry.”

Portable generators cannot power your entire residence.  When the lights go out for while, people fortunate enough to have a generator have to decide what is absolutely necessary to power up.  “Use it for the most obvious and most important things,” advises Klein.  One of these items should be the refrigerator to keep food from spoiling.  A useful trick to know is that the deep freezer only needs to be powered for two or three hours at a time.  They can then be left unpowered for six hours or so since it would take a while for them to thaw out.  This tactic will free up some of the limited wattage from your generator so other things can be powered.  Some lights in the house could be powered as well as cell phones.  If the weather is hot and an air conditioner is available, then power that as well.  Also, think about powering the television or computer every so often to check the news.  These ideas are just some suggestions. Ultimately the decision about what needs to be powered is up to the people in each residence.

A common mistake that portable generator owners make is to forget to check the engine oil.  The oil in the generator, just like in your car, needs to checked, and changed when necessary.  If you do not check the oil, the engine could seize up which may cause irreparable damage to the generator.  Oil levels should be checked twice daily on smaller engines and oil should be changed weekly during times of heavy usage.

Keep certain safety issues in mind while using portable gasoline powered generators.  Like all gas engines, generators produce carbon monoxide.  Keep them outside the house while they are running to avoid air contamination.  Good places to set them up are areas that are outside but are under cover.  These areas should be well ventilated and protected from the elements like under a car port, or on the back porch.

Keep it out of the house but put it somewhere close enough where you can observe it and reach it quickly in case of any problems.  Keep an eye on the generator and realize that it is conspicuous while running.  Consider portable generators fair game for looters and thieves looking for an opportunity in the disorder that follows natural disasters. Sadly, after natural disasters occur, looting typically becomes a problem.  People looted in New Orleans after Katrina and the Tuscaloosa News reported that 22 people were charged with looting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama after the tornado last year.  I am not trying to be an alarmist here.  But realize that portable generators can attract attention.

Here is a brief summation of things to keep in mind before and after you purchase a generator:

  • Keep the Generator in a well ventilated area while in use.
  • Keep it dry, away from puddles and out of the rain.
  • Have oil, gasoline, and extension cords on hand.
  • Check the oil often and change it out if necessary.
  • If left in storage for a while, treat the gasoline with a gas stabilizer such as Sta-bil or Fuel Guard.
  • Keep the generator in a secure location.
  • Consult a professional electrician if you decide to wire it to your house.
  • For those of you who receive water via electrical well pumps on your property, consult an experienced electrician to see what your options are regarding hooking the generator to it.
  • Natural Disaster Clouds

The best advice concerning generators is to get one before you need it.  And remember they are gasoline engines so treat them as such.  Have gasoline and motor oil on hand to keep the engine running and only use it in well ventilated areas.  At night, if you do not need any electricity while you sleep, turn it off, save the gas, and bring it inside or in some other secure location.  You will not be able to power your whole house with a portable unit, so power only the necessary appliances. During natural disasters it pays to be smart and be prepared; having a working generator is a sign of both.

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