One very important element of any renewable energy installation is the backup generator. Regardless of how much you loath the idea of burning fossil fuels for generating electricity, all off grid homes should have some kind of a generator for those days when mother nature is being stingy and just won’t share any energy with us.
Properly maintaining your generator is crucial if you want to know that it will start every time you need it. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing some tips about maintaining a generator. As a bonus, at the end of this post, I’ll provide a downloadable portable generator maintenance checklist for you to print out and use.
Changing The Oil Frequently Is The Most Important Thing You Can Do
Regardless of what generator you use, there are some simple things that you can do to dramatically extend its lifespan. The first seems simple enough but most people really blow this one. The most important thing you can do is CHANGE THE OIL FREQUENTLY! We are so accustomed to changing the oil in our vehicles every three thousand miles that most of us overestimate the length of time that we can go in between oil changes in our generators.
One thing that you should know about generator maintenance is that since they don’t have odometers like your car has, the maintenance schedules are based on the number of hours that the generator has run since it’s last service date. Some generators have hour meters on them and on others hour meters can be added without to much effort.
The generator we use doesn’t have an hour meter and we couldn’t figure out how to add one so we have an hour log hanging on a clipboard that is next to our generator. Whoever starts the generator is responsible for writing the date and time that they started it. Whoever turns it off is responsible for writing the time that it was turned off and writing the total number of hours that the generator ran during that cycle on the chart.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll just keep track of how many hours your genset has run and that you’ll just know when it’s time to perform the required maintenance. Trust me, no matter how hard you try to keep track of this in your head, you’ll forget and you’ll nearly always end up going past the recommended service interval.
Remember that most portable generators have low oil capacities, no oil filters, and non-magnetic drain plugs. Since the oil capacity is so low, it’s inexpensive to change the oil and it only takes a few minutes. If you will be diligent in changing your oil at the manufacturer’s recommended time intervals, your generator will love you for it.
Magnetic drain plugs are cheap and they are a life saver. Should any metal shavings begin to accumulate in the oil (this is very common by the way), the tiny shards of metal will stick to the plug and prevent future damage to your generator. If you can, I highly recommend replacing the drain plug that your generator has with one that is magnetic. Having a magnetic drain plug also gives you some valuable data when it comes time to change the oil.
If you’re used to only seeing a few shiny flakes of metal that stick to your plug and you change the oil and you suddenly start seeing quite a few metal shavings, you know that something is wrong that will require more extensive maintenance or even repair by a qualified technician. This could help you identify a problem early on and instead of an expensive bill to replace a generator, you only have to spend a little money to have the problem fixed.
If your generator has a replaceable oil filter, make sure that you replace it when the manufacturer recommends doing so. This is typically a feature that you’ll only find on high end generators but it’s worth knowing for sure whether your generator has one or not. Don’t just assume that it doesn’t.
Here’s a Great Tip About Wintertime Oil Changes
Oil has a tendency to be much thicker during the cold winter months. When it get’s cold, it becomes thick. This can make starting your generator’s engine in the winter very difficult; especially if your genset doesn’t have an electric starter.
Our main genset is a Honda eu2000i and we love it because it’s quiet and fuel efficient but it can be a real bugger to start if the temperatures are below freezing. The reason cold morning starts are a problem is because it has an internal low oil shut down switch. The total oil capacity of the generator is about a half of a quart. When you try and start the generator on really cold days, the oil is thick and isn’t flowing well yet so the generator will run for a few seconds and then the low oil shut off sensor will think that there isn’t enough oil in the crankcase and shut the unit down. When this happens, we have to wait until the low oil light goes out before we can try and start it again. Sometimes it takes as many as ten of these cycles before the oil warms up enough that the unit doesn’t shut itself down.
We found that if we change to a lighter weight oil in the winter time, cold morning starts are much less of a hassle. Another benefit of switching to a lower viscosity oil in the cold months is that the oil will start lubricating the moving parts on cold mornings sooner because it is thinner and it flows better at lower temperatures than thicker oil. One other thing; Don’t just pick the viscosity of oil that you use at random. Consult your owners manual for the recommended winter time oil to make sure that you don’t void the warranty.
How To Properly Store A Generator
If I am going to store my generator for a prolonged period of time, I like to put some fuel stabilizer in my tank and run the generator out of gas. Gasoline that has been left in the tank and carburetor for a long time will go stale and start to varnish. This means that it will form a sticky sludge in your tank, fuel lines, and carburetor. If you let this happen to your gas, you’ll be really frustrated when you go to start your generator and find that it’s out of commission.
If I decide to store my generator with fuel in it, I like to keep the gas tank completely topped off. A partially filled tank is more likely to collect water condensation and this water will settle in the bottom of your tank making it difficult if not impossible to start your engine when you need it.
There is a fuel additive that you can add to your gas periodically that some people say will help dissolve any varnish that has already accumulated. It’s called Seafoam. You can get it at most auto parts stores. Follow the manufacturers directions when using it but I would not add it to the oil like the can says to do. I did this and now my engine has started to burn oil.
Don’t Forget To Change The Fuel Filter
Not all generators have fuel filters on them but some do. I should also point out that it’s not very difficult to install an inline paper fuel filter on most generators and doing so is probably a good idea. We like the clear plastic fuel filters so we can easily see if there is crud in them. You can also often see if water has gotten into the gas by looking at these see through filters. If you do install one, just make sure it’s big enough that it won’t restrict the flow of fuel into your carburetor and starve the engine of the fuel it needs. This could cause your engine to run lean.
Hard To Start Generators May Need A New Spark Plug
Of course, you should change the spark plug at the recommended time intervals that are provided in your owners manual but if you notice that it is becoming more and more difficult to start the engine, you could have what is called a “fouled spark plug”. The longer a spark plug is used, the more carbon and sludge can accumulate on the electrode. When this happens, the plug is no longer able to deliver a hot enough spark to ignite the gas in your engine and it either won’t start, it will be hard to start, or it will run really poorly.
I’ve tried cleaning spark plugs when they start looking bad but I’ve never really had much luck doing this. Spark plugs are cheap and I highly recommend keeping a few on hand so you always have one when you need it. By the way, if you notice that the plugs in your engine are fouling sooner than they should be, this is a sign that it’s time for a tune up.
Maintaining The Starting System On Your Genset
If you don’t give the starting system the attention that it needs, it’s bound to fail you when you need it most. We’ve learned this the hard way on two occasions now. If your unit has an electric starter, you don’t want to let the battery sit for very long without being recharged. If you use your generator everyday, this isn’t going to be a problem because your engine will constantly be keeping the battery charged up. If, however, you only use this backup power source occasionally, it’s a good idea to put a trickle charger on the battery and top it off at least once a month. Otherwise your battery will self discharge from sitting too long.
The other thing to keep in mind is that unless your battery is a sealed “no maintenance” battery, you’ll need to check the electrolyte level to make sure it doesn’t get low. Not keeping up on this is one of the main causes for premature battery failure.
Next, you’ll want to inspect the pull cord to make sure it’s in good shape. My husband has a tendency to pull the cord on our generator at a weird angle and when he does this, it causes the cord to rub and fray. Twice now, we’ve gone out and the pull cord has broken on us when we gave it a yank. As I’m sure you can imagine, this never happens at a convenient time. If you notice that the pull cord on your recoil starter is starting to fray, keep a close eye on it and have it changed before it breaks.
Keep Your Engine Breathing Well
If you neglect the air filter on your generator’s engine, it will eventually become clogged. When this happens, less air is able to make its way into the engine which alters the fuel to air ratio. A dirty air filter makes engines run rich which is often the main culprit behind a fouled spark plug. Some air filters, like ours, are designed to be cleaned and others are designed to be replaced.
We like to keep our little Honda eu2000i as clean a possible. Keeping the unit clean will help you notice problems that come up. If you are in the habit of making a big mess when you change the oil, there’s a really good chance that you won’t notice things like bad seals or gaskets that are leaking oil. If you don’t notice that your system is leaking oil, enough could leak out that as you continue to run the engine, you’ll damage or destroy it.
Download Our Handy Generator Maintenance Checklist Here
Follow these simple instructions and your generator will live longer and perform more reliably for you. Here’s a link that you can use to download a handy checklist that I made up. Feel free to download it and print it out so you can use it the next time it’s time to service your generator.
Always Follow The Recommendations In Your Owners Manual
I hope this article has given you a good idea about what is involved in maintaining generators but I feel that I’d better add this disclaimer to the article. Be sure and follow the recommendations that are provided in your owner’s manual. If anything in the manual is contrary to what I’ve published in this article, always go with what is written in the manual over what I have written.