Portable generators provide us electric power on the go, cheaply and conveniently. However, the same electric power poses a safety risk, both to you and your equipment, during rain or snowfall, which may result in malfunction, or in the worst-case, electrocution.
This is a bummer, since the most common reason to use a portable generator is to overcome power shortages. And these happen almost exclusively during storms.
So, can we get around this problem? Is a portable generator essentially useless in bad weather?
In this article, we’ll review some generator safety basics, cover some of the dangers inherent to using a portable generator in bad weather, then talk about enclosures and covers.
For the purposes of this article, I will refresh 2 points, which apply for all generators regardless of brand or design, and which are crucial for your safety. These are recommended by us, most generator manufacturers and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (opens in a new tab).
- Portable generators must never be used wet or when standing in water.
Water is a decent conductor, which allows the electric current to escape its circuitry and travel elsewhere – even through you. This can be deadly.
- Portable generators must never be used indoors.
Portable generators burn fuel, which inevitably leads to the production of CO. Even though the emissions of CO have been cut down to a bare minimum, due to environmental and safety concerns, they can build up over time and reach lethal concentrations.
Neglecting these two rules can, and very often does, lead to death! For further reference, please read our Generator Safety 101 article.
Using Your Generator in Bad Weather
Based on the aforementioned rules, we can easily deduce that we can’t use our generators outside during rain or snowfall, nor can we simply bring them indoors, not even into our shed, or garage! This still leaves one option – to build an outdoor shelter for them.
An ideal generator shelter should follow the three basic requirements of
- Sheltering the generator from water, from all angles
- Allowing airflow
- Fire resistance
When reviewing the internet, you may find that most shelters do not meet at least one of the following requirements stated. However, it is not unreasonable to require all three.
Unless the first condition is met, what’s the point of a shelter? The best shelters cover the generators from all angles, even from below them! If not, the best you can do is to choose a spot where puddles can’t form and cover them from the top and sides.
Without the second condition, airflow, a generator may easily overheat and shut down. It may also use up all oxygen, which will prevent its combustion engine from operating. Lastly, lethal concentrations of CO may build up, leading to the poisoning of anyone, who would come to check out what happened, once any of the above-mentioned issues lead to malfunction.
Fire resistance is the most neglected of all three conditions, since we Americans simply love wood. However, while not seeing the insides of a generator may fool you otherwise, generators are burning up fuel at all times. And if a generator can burn fuel, it can easily burn any wooden shed next to, or around it. Furthermore, any of the electrical outlets may emit sparks, especially in case of older models. Do not underestimate the risk of fire associated with portable generators, even if your peers do so!
I will dedicate a separate article on the topic of enclosures and covers. In the meantime, I will provide a brief summary of how an enclosure for a portable generator should be made.
As I have alluded to above, the most ideal shelter covers the generator from all angles, including from below. Thus, their shape should be boxlike.
Reasonably sized exhaust holes should be included. Always from the sides, not the top, to prevent any rain pouring in. Multiple small holes are preferred over a few larger ones, for the same reason.
Materials used in the construction of a shelter should be both water and fireproof. If wood is used, which is not recommended, precautions must be made to make the interior fireproof. This may be achieved by lining or coating, preferably both.
Such an enclosure, even if fireproof, should be placed a reasonable distance away from your house and any other structures that may be at risk of catching fire. This is not only to prevent fires, but also possible CO emissions reaching your window.
A fun tip: With this in mind, try visiting the Google Images results for “generator shelter”. Roughly 8/10 cases defy any common sense, when it comes to storing a fire hazardous, hot, and high-voltage device. A perfect example of why you should not trust everything just because it’s on the internet.
Our circumstances can often lead us to compromise. This applies double when traveling, RVing, or tailgating. While unsuitable as a permanent solution, you should always have a rain cover when traveling with your generator, unless you are willing to yield on your electrical power during rain.
Covers are, of course, not ideal, since they do not cover the generator perfectly. Especially from below. It is therefore crucial to place your generator on a dry surface which does not allow puddles to form!
Many manufacturers sell various rain covers. These are in general suitable and rather inexpensive. Their advantage is that they will, or at least should, fit your exact model, as they were designed for it.
Third party options are available out there as well, with wildly varying designs and quality. The most popular of these is GenTent (available at gentent.com and amazon.com). The cover is pitched on top of the generator as a tent, hence the name. It has a great reputation and many people even seem to use it as a substitute for a permanent shelter. However, since I’ve been through a few hurricanes myself, I would strongly recommend against using any sort of rain cover during storms.
In the end, there is no way around the fact that a generator must not run in rain or snow without sufficient protection. This protection comes in the form of a shelter, which should shield the entirety of the generator, be water and fire-proof, and allow for sufficient ventilation. Neglecting any of the above may result in malfunction, injury or death. If circumstances call for it, you may substitute a shelter with a rain cover, but never on wet ground or in severe storms.
How do you protect your generator in bad weather? Let us know in the comments below.
* In snow country…. raising pad height to 18-in can reduce or eliminate the worry of snow suffocation and shoveling…. And reduces the roof overhang needed. I suggest a couple rows of hollow 8x8x16 cinder blocks in overlap pattern added to the pad with Lexel adhesive caulk instead of mortar…. This is much stronger than mortar, crackproof, and yet can be pried apart with a crowbar at any time in the next 1000 minutes to 1000 years.
* I wanted to make a snow roof. But only had time to lay right atop the rectangular 15kw B&S genny several sheets of handy 48x32in 3/8in pressure treated plywood. (From full sheets cut at H Depot to 1/3 sheets.) Laid in such a way that a substantial overhang would keep snow away from vents. Counterbalanced and held down by 1-1/2 layers of hollow cinder blocks. (Holes facing sideways to prevent ice damage. Several layers black plastic stapled over the horizontal plywood can greatly delay the relentless rot. Or ideally use aluminum flashing glued with dabs of Lexel. Ribbed metal roof panels might also work with or without the plywood.)
* Incidentally–a freak windstorm caused a tall tree to fall smack atop the genny a few years back. The genny would have been destroyed. Except that the side-facing hollow cinder blocks acted better than a feather mattress to disperse the huge force of the tree. So that except for new cinder blocks–only damage was slightly to dent the housing. Of course, a proper roof with 2×6 rafters might have worked as well. But then I would now be having to rebuild that fancy roof. Old Vermont saying: never do anything today that you can hold off till next decade and you often won’t have to do it. Or re-do it. (Saying invented by me.)
* One of these days…. For ultimate ventilation + theft-resistance + weather-resistance + sound-proofing…. I plan to make a cinder block housing with 2 sides using larger blocks laid in a wide-open honeycomb pattern. Third wall is an iron gate. The blocks of the fourth wall will be tightly together as normal. Resulting in a back wall of two solid cement surfaces and a hollow interior. This facing the neighbors. Who then will no longer be annoyed every time my genny does its weekly test run. Not to mention when it runs all day and night during the occasional serious blackout. And with flexible Lexel–no need for mixing mortar or for a deep footing. Almost as easy as Legos.