You have the perfect backup plan in place. You bought a portable generator to keep you in power when calamity happens. The blackout, trees down on power lines, severe weather, or whatever may happen to put you in a situation where you have no power.

You absolutely need power to keep the lights, heat blower, cooking, and entertainment going in an emergency.

That time comes and you push the button or pull the starter cord and …..NOTHING. You expected the motor to purr to life and keep you in power.

Now what do you do?

This is an unfortunate and common problem many have with a portable generator. The fact is you bought it for peace of mind and it sits, day in-day out, month in-month out, waiting to be used. This is where the problems come in.

Even if your generator is brand new in the box, you can experience a failure to start on the first try.

There are ways to prevent this from happening; but, you are past that point now. Let’s see what we can do to get it started where you are at now and later we’ll discuss how to prevent it from happening.

All small portable, and even larger semi-portable generators, are run by a gasoline motor. Like all gasoline motors, there are certain things it has to have to run.

Fuel, Air, and Spark are required to make the engine work.

If you are familiar with getting a lawn mower to start, this is not much different. The engines used are very similar to how they work and the parts they use are pretty much the same.

Some Quick Checks

The following are “quick checks” and if you don’t see a problem immediately, go to the next one. Troubleshooting is a process of elimination; each step will eliminate one possible problem at a time. You will need some simple hand tools also.

These quick checks will get a generator running again; but, a more thorough repair is need to keep it running at your first opportunity. Please read through until the end to get and idea of what to do BEFORE starting to troubleshoot.

You may have an “OH CRAP!” moment and remember something you didn’t do.

Option 1: If you have some starting fluid, spray some into the air filter and try to start the engine. Sometimes it is just this simple. If the engine starts and then dies quickly, you need to continue troubleshooting.

Option 2: If it is an electric start and it won’t do anything – you may need to jump the battery like you would with a car. You would use the same jumper cables and put red to red ( + ) and black to black ( – ) and try to start it again. The battery is only needed to start the engine and is not required once it is running.

If these don’t work, then continue with troubleshooting.

Fuel Problem

This may sound dumb, but is there fuel in the gas tank of the generator? It is all too common to think we did a simple thing and put fuel in the gas tank. We may have used it previously and forgot to refill the tank.

If there is fuel in the tank, it the fuel turned on? There is a valve to shut off the fuel to the carburetor and it is usually near the carburetor or under the fuel tank. Make sure it is turned on.

If there is fuel in the tank and the valve is turned on, the fuel may be bad. Shine a flashlight in the tank and see if you see “globs” floating around inside the fuel. If you do, this means there was condensation in the tank and the fuel is contaminated.

There are 2 ways to fix this problem:

  1. Remove the old fuel and replace with fresh fuel.
  2. Pour a “dry gas” into the fuel

Another problem is if the generator wasn’t run until it was out of gas by shutting off the valve until it stopped. If you just flipped the kill switch there will be fuel left in the carburetor and with time will gum it up. It will clog the needle valve and float in the carburetor and prevent it from starting.

If you know the fuel valve was open and the generator was shut off by the switch, this may be the case.

To really fix this may require a carburetor tear down and more mechanical ability than you have, so here is an easy solution.

Take the hose from the carburetor side of the fuel valve and spray a carburetor cleaner into the hose which goes into the carburetor. Put the hose back on and make sure the cap is back on the tank.

Make sure the fuel is good and try to start the generator again.

Lack of Air

The engine needs air for the combustion of the fuel. This is accomplished by an air filter and choke on the engine. Make sure the choke is in the proper position for starting the motor. Not having the choke in the proper position can prevent the engine from starting in colder weather.

Find the air cleaner on the engine. It is usually a metal or plastic can attached to the carburetor with holes on the bottom (or sides) and a single screw (or latch) to hold it on. It will either have a foam or paper filter.

Remove the air filter and try to start the generator again to eliminate a lack of air. Make sure the choke is in the proper position also.

If the filter is dirty, try cleaning it out with some carburetor cleaner. Try starting the engine again.

Is There a Spark

First, make sure the wire is securely fastened to the spark plug. These will sometimes get knocked loose while transporting the generator accidentally. This is the easy fix. If this is OK, then remove the spark plug and examine the tip. If it is dirty or has deposits on it; clean it with a wire brush or replace it with a new one.

If the spark plug electrode (the tip in the engine) is covered in oil, there may be more serious issues. Try cleaning it off or replacing it and try starting the generator again.

This next one is a bit tricky. WARNING: You may get an electric shock attempting this. If you have anything where your health and safety are compromised by an electric shock – DO NOT ATTEMPT.

This is easier with 2 people, but one can do it in a pinch. Put on a heavy glove and with the spark plug attached to the wire and the spark plug itself held tightly against the metal of the motor; try to start the engine. You should see a spark on the electrode.

When you try to start it without the spark plug, you should also hear air escaping the hole it was in. If you put your finger over the spark plug hole you should feel a suction and then pushing as the motor turns.

If there is no spark, it may be the spark plug or an ignition system problem. This may be beyond what you can fix quickly. If you hear (or feel) no suction or air, this is also a more major problem.

If you have the proper tools, check the spark plug gap for being proper. Put the spark plug back into the engine and reconnect the wire securely.

Try to start the engine again.

In most cases, this simple test will get a generator started and working. Most of the time it is a fuel problem.

Other Weird Problems

Check the wiring very carefully. I have encountered situations where a rodent has chewed through some wires and caused the generator not to start. If you see this, strip a bit from the end of the two wires and twist them together. You can do a better repair later after the emergency situation has passed.

Not only check the wiring, but the hoses as well.

This can also cause no power from coming out of the outlets when the engine is running.

Another simple thing is to check the engine oil. If you have never used the generator previously and it is new, there may not be any oil in it.

Preventative Maintenance

To end this troubleshooting article, I will share my own generator preventative maintenance routine.

  • ALWAYS shut off the gas and let the engine die on its own. This prevents the gas from going bad in the carburetor.
  • ALWAYS have a fresh supply of gas and a new spark plug with the generator along with the proper tools if you need to repair the generator. A cheap small toolbox is all you need.
  • ALWAYS test run the generator and test the electric EVERY month.
  • ALWAYS use a fuel stabilizer in the tank AND the spare gas can. They can both sit for months without being used and go bad.
  • ALWAYS have a can of starting fluid, carburetor cleaner, and dry gas handy.
  • ALWAYS have a spare air filter or manufactures recommended cleaning chemicals for the air filter.
  • ALWAYS have the generator professionally serviced and checked once a year and have the oil changed.

This may seem like a lot but remember; this unit can save your life in an emergency situation. Why not take care of it properly?


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