How to Use a Portable Generator

Power outages are a common occurrence after a severe storm. When your power goes out and you don’t have a standby generator, a portable generator is a handy backup to provide power until electricity is restored. Learn the proper way to use a portable generator.

Using a Portable Generator

Unlike home standby generators, which are permanently installed, portable generators don’t automatically kick in when there’s a power outage.

When it comes to using a generator, preparation is key. It’s best to have a generator long before a storm hits. You should familiarize yourself with the generator’s operation before you need to use it.

Finding the right generator takes a little planning. Make sure you select a generator that adequately suits your power supply needs.

Read our Portable Generator Buying Guide.


Safety is critical when operating a portable generator. Thoroughly read and understand the instructions provided by the manufacturer before turning it on.


Step 1

Make a list of the items you want to power (refrigerator, lights, media devices, etc.). Check the owner’s manuals or data plate attached to each device to determine the running/rated wattage or how much it takes to run the item. For larger items, like a refrigerator, you’ll also need to know the starting/surge wattage or how much it takes to start the item.

Combine the watts needed to start the largest motor and the running wattage of all other items to determine the total wattage you need the generator to supply.

Learn more about estimating power needs.


Make sure the total wattage of the appliances and other devices you need to power doesn’t overload the generator or your extension cords. Not only is this unsafe, but it can lead to permanent or costly damage for items you’re supplying power to.

Step 2

A Craftsman generator on a driveway twenty feet from a brick house.
Place the generator outdoors at least 20 feet away from the house on a flat, stable surface with the exhaust pointing away from open windows and doorways.


Generators emit deadly levels of carbon monoxide (CO), which is a colorless, odorless gas. Never set up a generator indoors or in any other enclosed space (garage, crawlspace, carport, etc.) as you risk exposure to this gas. Also, it’s recommended that you have a CO detector on all floors of your house.

Step 3

Make sure you have appropriate heavy-duty exterior extension cords. Run the cords through a window or door to the unit set up outside. For more on power cord safety, read Power Cord Safety Tips.

If you want to run a hard-wired appliance, such as a furnace, have an electrician install a power transfer switch in advance. It’s a system that allows you to power items on your circuit breaker panel.


Never plug a generator into a wall outlet. Back-feed current can create an extreme hazard for the utility crews working to restore power.


Severe storms can cause gas leaks. If you smell gas, call a professional to repair the lines before you turn anything on.

Step 4

Before starting the generator, make sure there are no cords plugged into the unit and the gas tank is full. Always have fresh fuel on hand for refueling.

Learn more about fueling outdoor power equipment.


Always store fuel away from the generator for safety. Never refuel the generator before the unit has had a chance to cool down.

Step 5

A man turning a Craftsman generator on.
Turn the fuel valve to the ON position, then set the ON/OFF switch to the ON position. Pull the choke handle out to the CHOKE position. Push and hold the start switch in the START position until the generator starts. Gradually push the choke handle in to the RUN position, and let the motor run for a while before plugging anything in.


Your generator may be different from the one shown here, so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Step 6

Three yellow cords plugged into a Craftsman generator.
When you’re ready to plug things in, start with an item that pulls the most power, such as a refrigerator. Connect the item to the extension cord, then plug the extension cord into the generator housing.

Step 7

When you need to add more fuel, turn everything off and allow the generator to run a little longer. Then, turn off the generator, flip the fuel switch off and unplug the extension cords. Allow the unit to cool off before refueling.

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