Generator maintenance

After the storm: More generator tips

Every week, consumers take their portable generators to local stores hoping for good news.

They swear they’ve been performing the recommended monthly maintenance on the machines so loud, but so valued when the power goes out following a storm. But the tell-tale thick brown sludge in the generator’s carburetor gives them away.

Mechanic Carlos Fernandez tests a generator that was brought in for repair at Blast Off Equipment in West Palm Beach. (Richard Graulich / Post file photo)

Mechanic Carlos Fernandez tests a generator that was brought in for repair at Blast Off Equipment in West Palm Beach. (Richard Graulich / Post file photo)

It’s OK, say local generator store owners. There’s no need to lie — especially now that we’re in the height of the hurricane season.

The important thing, they add, is to bring in that unused generator to be serviced before a storm is on the way. For example, stores saw a flurry of business last month when the first tropical storms of the season popped up in the Atlantic.

And now, with Erika looming, they can expect a little more.

For fees typically ranging from $65 to $125 — depending on the amount of work to be done — local generator “specialists” say they can get that neglected piece of equipment back on track.

“I get a couple of generators a week that come in for maintenance,” says Justin Suggs, general manager at Stuart Lawn & Garden. “They won’t start. People have left gas in them, or they are not doing the monthly run on the engine.”

His standard generator maintenance advice: Once a month, put a half gallon of gas in your generator and run it for at least a half-hour. A month later, do the same thing.

Even a generator that’s out of gas still has vapors that create a blockage in the carburetor, says Suggs, whose also owns and operates Suggs Lawn Equipment in Royal Palm Beach.

There are easily hundreds of portable generators idled in garages and storage sheds that haven’t seen the light of day since Wilma left town four years ago. What’s more, the current recession has moved generator maintenance to the back-burner for many owners.

Still, in one week last month, customers dropped off five generators to be brought up to snuff at Blast Off Equipment Inc. in West Palm Beach, co-owner Felix Finnegan Jr. says.

He said that’s a sign that despite the recession, the storm season is making folks recognize the need for maintenance.

“People have … left gas in them and gummed up their carburetors,” Finnegan says, which can lead to a generator mechanic having to remove the fuel completely and dry out the system with an air compressor.

One area of generator sales that has jumped during the recession is “whole house” or stand-by generators.
Jon Andio, co-owner of 1 Stop Generator Shop in Palm Beach Gardens, said since people can’t sell their homes, they figure they might as well install a generator.

He says while the store sells portable generators, sales of stand-by units — which start at $8,000 — are up 65-70 percent over 2008 and make up the bulk of his business.

But, he warns that the stand-by generators, which operate automatically and start instantly in the case of a power outage, also require maintenance.

“The big ones are car engines,” he says, “And just like a car mechanic tells you to change your oil, you should change the generator’s oil every six months.”

Power station
Generator neglect is common, say mechanics. But there are some basic maintenance tips to avoid a bill that could easily top $100.

  • Always empty fuel from a generator when it is not in use.
  • Put in a half-gallon of fresh gas and run it once a month.
  • Plug in a lamp, drill, or a small appliance to make sure the generator works.
  • If it has an electric start, keep the battery charged.
  • Cover it when not in use to keep out dirt and dust.
  • For specifics, refer to your generator’s manual.Helpful Web sites:
  • Find the right generator for you
  • Honda generators
  • Consumer Reports (Search for “generators”)
  • Running the basics
    Generator size: 5,000 watts
    Price: $1,000 (average)
    What it will run:

  • Refrigerator (1,200 watts)
  • Electric fry pan (1,500 watts)
  • Microwave (1,000 watts)
  • Three lamps (180 watts)
  • Computer and monitor (1,000 watts)
  • Television (300 watts)
  • Neglect vs. proper care
    Cost of generator: $1,000
    Cost of proper do-it-yourself maintenance: a half gallon of gas ($1.50) for 12 months = $18
    Cost of neglect: A dead generator that takes $65-$125 in service. And if it requires parts …

  • New carburetor: $100 (plus labor)
  • New battery: $60.
  • New oil and air filters: $50.

    - Susan Salisbury