Generators of all shapes and sizes need to be regularly serviced to keep them as efficient as possible for as long as possible. If you neglect its necessary maintenance tasks, your generator will suffer from an endless accumulation of small issues that can eventually create irreparable damage to the engine and its complementary systems.
You can avoid costly generator repairs and make sure your generator is there for you in an emergency by sticking to a maintenance and service routine. Here are some generator upkeep and maintenance tips to help you extend your generator’s lifespan and keep it purring smoothly when you need it most.
Portable Generator Maintenance Overview
Most consumer generators last for somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 hours of use. If you use yours mostly for backup in emergencies, you may have it running for several hundred hours in a busy year, or it may only get a few hours of monthly exercise in a calm year. Depending on how many power outages you see and how long they last, your backup generator can keep going strong for 20 or 30 years if you keep it properly maintained.
Planned maintenance for generators is usually performed on a schedule based on both regular time periods and hours of engine use. The more hours you use your generator, the more quickly various minor and major maintenance tasks will come due.
The ambient conditions of the location where you store your generator can also play a part. If you keep your generator in a severe environment with extreme temperature swings and lots of dust or humidity, you’ll find yourself having to clean and change various pieces more often.
The maintenance schedules from most generator manufacturers, for both gas and diesel models, are remarkably similar. A typical generator maintenance cycle usually includes periodic inspections and service of these important systems:
- Lubrication system
- Coolant system
- Fuel system (with a bit more attention for models that run on diesel)
- Air system
- Ignition system
Your generator is full of moving parts and friction that can lead to high temperatures. To keep everything sliding smoothly in place without burning up, the engine needs to be constantly and thoroughly lubricated with engine oil.
As time passes, your generator oil will slowly lose its viscosity, degraded by the variations in temperature and the sheer unrelenting force of the motor’s moving components. Droplets of water and particles of dust will also get into the lubrication system, gradually contaminating it. If you let your generator run long enough on the same oil, the engine will fail.
Checking and changing the oil and oil filter is one of the most important generator maintenance tasks. Your manual will tell you the specifics of when to change your oil and what kind of oil to use. Many new generators need an oil change after the first 25 hours of use. After that, your oil changing schedule will vary depending on things like:
- How often you run your generator
- Conditions in its storage location
- Its brand and age
Manufacturers generally recommend changing your generator oil every 50 to 200 hours of use.
How To Change the Oil in a Generator
- Turn your generator on, and run it for several minutes. This will warm the old oil and help it flow better. Turn it off before proceeding.
- Use blocks to raise your generator a bit off the ground to make it easier to reach the oil drain plug underneath. This may require a helper.
- Find and unplug the spark plug. Hold the spark plug boot firmly, and twist it either way as you pull backward. Rotating it helps make sure you don’t snap the wire in two. Make sure the loose wire end is secured and can’t touch the spark plug while you work.
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- Find the oil drain plug underneath the generator. Set an empty container directly below the plug to hold the old oil.
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- Use a wrench to remove the oil drain plug. The warm oil will start to spew out into the container.
- If your generator model uses an oil filter, replace it whenever you change the oil. Set a container below it to catch any oil drips, and then loosen it with an oil filter wrench.
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- Dip your fingers gently into the new oil you plan to use, and lubricate the gasket of your new oil filter before screwing it on.
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- Screw in the new filter using your fingers. Once it’s nice and tight, use the oil filter wrench to tighten it an extra half a turn.
- Screw the oil drain plug back in. Start with your fingers, and finish with your wrench.
- Find and remove the generator’s oil fill cap. Refill the oil tank slowly with your new oil, and then close the cap.
- Plug the spark wire back in by pressing the boot to the plug until you feel a slight click.
- Run your generator for a few minutes to get the new oil flowing through the engine.
Most smaller generators have an air-based coolant system, and most larger models use a liquid-based system. Liquid-cooled systems usually involve a radiator at the center of a flow network of tubes that spread the liquid coolant around. Air-cooled systems use a fan.
Inspect your coolant system every six months to make sure there are no rust, blockages, or leaks. Check the fluids, and fill them up if they’re low. Clean your fan or radiator with compressed air or a soft brush that won’t damage the fan blades or radiator fins.
Check your fuel system every six months for dirt and other obstructions as well as cracks and leaks. If your model uses a fuel filter, drain it once a year to keep it free of contaminants and blockages. Refer to your user’s manual to see which of the components of your fuel system need changing at regular intervals.
Most large generator models create power by spinning a rotor with a current around a motionless stator. If too much dust and grime build up in the machine, the current flow and subsequent power generation will be less efficient, and the essential parts will burn out quickly.
Even if you haven’t used your generator, check its air filter every month. Change it if it’s gray or black with debris. If not, your owner’s manual will tell you just how often to replace it. Most air filters last for around 100 hours of generator operation.
Test your battery every month to make sure it has no trouble starting up the generator. You should also clean the terminals monthly using an anti-corrosion cleaning agent. Eyeball the electrolyte level at the same time, and refill the cells with distilled water if they’re below the recommended level.
Inspect the spark plugs once a year. Replace them if they’re damaged. Use a wire brush to clean them if they’re dirty.
If your alternator hasn’t given you any problems, you’ll only need to inspect it visually every six months. High temperatures and dirt or moisture buildup will limit the windings’ efficiency. Dirt will prevent heat transfer and make the windings get too hot. Too much heat will damage the windings’ insulation. Moisture can cause dangerous shorts. Your user manual will tell you how to test and clean your specific kind of windings.
Recommended Proactive Generator Planned Maintenance
Keeping a proactive generator maintenance schedule or checklist will help you remember what tasks you need to perform and when to perform them. Every time you complete a maintenance task, make a note to help you remember when you last checked or cleaned each part, as well as the date and model of any parts you replaced. This will help you stay up-to-date with what you’ve done and what still needs to be done to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
Set aside time every month to complete a thorough visual inspection of your generator, inside and out. If you’ve recently had an extended power outage, you may also want to go through this checklist soon afterward.
- Clean your generator’s exterior, interior, and surroundings. A clean machine and area will help you spot leaks and familiarize you with the parts so you can see when they get damaged.
- Inspect all the hoses, belts, electrical connections, and exhaust systems to make sure they’re in good condition.
- Generators tend to vibrate nonstop when running, which can cause all kinds of components to work loose and eventually disconnect and cause damage. Check and tighten any parts that could loosen with vibration.
- Keep an eye out for leaks of various fluids under and inside your generator.
- Make sure the air filters aren’t too dirty.
- Check that the oil isn’t too grimy and that the levels are correct.
- Make sure the level of coolant in the catch tank is right.
- Inspect the battery for loose wires and clamps, corrosion, terminal damage, and low electrolytes. Clean the terminals, wiping off any dirt and scrubbing off the rust. Refer to your manual for how to make sure the battery charger is running well.
- Finally, The National Fire Protection Agency recommends you test your generator every month for half an hour at around a third to half of its maximum load. This will help keep the interior of the engine lubricated, use up old fuel, prevent the electrical contacts from oxidizing and avoid damage from dust buildup. Listen to the generator to make sure it’s running smoothly with no warnings or alarms.
Every six months, besides the monthly maintenance, perform these additional checks:
- Inspect and clean the radiator and coolant flow network.
- Make sure the accessory drive belts are in good condition with the right tension.
- Eyeball the alternator to ensure the windings are clean and dry.
- Do an extra-thorough inspection of the connectors and hoses in both the lubrication system and the fuel system.
- If you have a diesel generator, check the fuel and water separators to make sure both fuel and water levels are correct.
- Do a thorough inspection of the muffler and exhaust pipe.
- Check the air induction connections and piping.
- Check the AC wiring and related components to make sure nothing is broken or rusted.
- Make sure the DC electrical system isn’t too dusty and that all the buttons and accessories in the control panel work well.
Once a year, add these final tasks to your monthly and semi-annual maintenance checklist:
- Clean or replace your fuel filter.
- Clean out the crankcase breather assembly.
- Inspect the spark plugs. Replace or clean them if they’re damaged or dirty.
- If you have a diesel model, test your stored fuel and recondition it if it’s getting old.
A Few Final Maintenance Tips During or After Use
Some kinds of generators, including many cheaper models, can suffer damage if they run out of fuel while turned on. If the rotation stops while you have active appliances plugged in and drawing electrical power, they’ll drain the generator’s coils of their magnetic field. The next time you fire up your generator, it will spin just fine, but it will no longer generate power.
A generator repair shop will charge you around $40 to re-magnetize the coils. You can avoid this expense by keeping your fuel tank filled and unplugging everything before turning the generator off.
Never refill the tank while your generator is running. The high engine temperature could cause the fuel to ignite while you pour, so let it cool down for 15 minutes before refueling.
Always store your generator in a cool, dry location to avoid environmental wear and tear and extend its lifespan as long as possible.