How to Safely Get a Generator Up and Running in a Hurry

5 ways to restore power when you need it most

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.

generator illustration iStock-530727251

When a big or unpredictable storm is bearing down and you don't have a generator, you may not have time to take all the safety precautions that Consumer Reports recommends, such as hiring a pro to install a transfer switch and stocking up on gas.

More on generators

But even without those precautions, there are ways to safely get a new generator up and running until you can find an electrician to install the appropriate safeguards.

"What you want to avoid is connecting the generator to your breaker panel yourself, without an interlock device or transfer switch, which can result in damaging your electronics or appliances and potentially injuring a utility worker once the power comes back on," says Dave Trezza, who oversees generator testing for CR.

Follow these five recommendations to get the power back on safely in no time.

1. Look for Removable Consoles

Portable generators have outlets that let you power appliances directly rather than through your home’s wiring. The problem? You then need extension cords to get power into your home, an arrangement that CR strongly advises against because of the risks they pose—creating the potential to become overloaded and arc, or to be punctured if they’re run through open windows or doorways.

Some newer generators in our ratings, such as the Troy-Bilt XP7000 30477A, $800, have the outlets on a removable console, tethered to one long, heavy-gauge power cord, which is less prone to pinching and is designed to carry the entire electrical load that the generator can power. That allows you to take the console indoors to plug in your appliances while operating the generator outdoors.

2. If You Must Use Extension Cords, Buy the Right Ones

Extension cords pose hazards, particularly if they’re used outdoors or to carry the load of high-wattage appliances. But if you have no choice—either because you don't have a generator with a removable console or because the console won’t reach all of the appliances you need to plug in—check the owner’s manual to see what gauge of cord it recommends. Make sure that the cords are rated for indoor and outdoor use.

Don’t run the extension cords under rugs or allow them to become pinched in windows or doors. Use a rubber doorstop to prevent doors from closing all the way and crimping the cords. You’ll need a separate cord for each outlet on the generator you intend to use. Using a splitter or surge protector to plug multiple devices into a single extension cord can cause the cord to overheat and arc. Check the cord label for the maximum wattage it’s safely rated to carry, then use our generator interactive to make sure whatever device you plan on connecting doesn’t exceed that rating.

3. Calculate Your Power Needs

If you're just buying a generator, plan on getting one rated to produce enough power for every device you want to plug in. Our generator interactive can quickly help with that task. But keep in mind that using a portable generator’s built-in outlets or power console means you can power only electronics with standard, 110-volt plugs. Hardwired appliances such as a furnace, central air conditioner, or well pump won’t work, nor will those that run on 220 volts, such as electric ranges or dryers.

It may still be worth buying a generator rated to power all of those appliances, because if and when you have an electrician connect the generator to your breaker panel with a transfer switch, you’ll want to know that the model you chose will be able to power your list of essentials.

4. Select a Safe Spot

Generators produce carbon monoxide and can be fatal if used indoors or too close to your home. That includes the garage, even if you leave the door open. And don’t even think about putting a generator in the attic or basement. The only safe spot to operate a generator is outdoors, at a minimum of 20 feet from your house—with the engine exhaust directed away from windows and doors.

Driveways, stone patios, or level patches of grass are all good places to put your generator. And if it’s raining or snowing, you’ll need to shield the generator with a generator tent or cover. You can find model-specific covers online, but it’s fine to grab a generic generator tent at a home center, too.

5. Don’t Forget Fuel

Portable generators run on gasoline, and most can hold a maximum of about 8 gallons. Depending on the power load, that may last only several hours. Stock up on gasoline and store it in ANSI-approved containers, which have special pressure-relieving mechanisms. Mix the gas with fuel stabilizer and store it outside the house.

If you’re shopping for a portable generator, consider a model that can be converted to run continuously on propane or natural gas. You'll need a conversion kit and perhaps the help of a pro to install it, but the next time you need it, either fuel will provide a more continuous source of power than a few gallons of gas.

New Portable Generator Safety Features

From 2005 to 2017 more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning while using portable generators, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

To reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, some new generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if CO builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space, and some also have engines that emit less CO in the first place. Recent test data from CR shows that these safety features are likely to save lives.

Consumer Reports now only recommends portable generators that pass our new CO Safety Technology test.

But our findings also reveal potentially life-threatening gaps that the automatic shutoff fails to address, reinforcing why it’s critical for consumers to follow safety guidelines. Never operate a generator indoors. Position a portable generator at least 20 feet from your home with the exhaust directed away from it, as well as any windows, doors, A/C units, or other structures.

3 Top Portable Generators from CR's Tests

All three of these models have potentially lifesaving safety features

Generator Tips

Damaging storms can happen at any time. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico learns from Consumer Reports’ expert Paul Hope how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage.

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.