Last Updated on May 12, 2023 by Rod Olivares
For many people, a portable generator is a rarely used tool. But when you do need to use it, it’s pretty important that it actually works.
This is certainly true in emergency situations like power loss from extreme weather.
What should you do if your portable generator won’t start in an emergency situation? Read on to find out.
When your generator doesn’t start right up, there is a checklist of things to try. In most cases, this troubleshooting process will solve the problem and your generator will start running.
For several of these steps, you’ll probably need to check with the manual for your particular generator model to find the exact location of the parts in question.
Check the Basics
Before trying any further troubleshooting, make sure that all the basics are present.
- Does the generator have enough gas and oil?
- Is the fuel valve on?
- Is the choke engaged?
It can be easy to forget any of these basics, so make sure they are all in check before trying anything else.
Use Fresh Fuel
One of the most common reasons a generator won’t start is because the gas is old. When fuel sits for a long period of time, it degrades.
If your fuel looks at all cloudy or like there has been some separation, this is your likely culprit for why the generator won’t start.
You’ll want to siphon the gas and fill it up with fresh gas.
You can prevent this issue in the future by making a habit of either running your generator dry after use or always adding some fuel stabilizer.
A good fuel stabilizer is an absolute must to have on hand when you own a portable generator.
Check the Spark Plug
Pull the spark plug to check its condition.
If it looks dirty, use some carb cleaner to clean it up. While the plug is pulled, go ahead and spray some carb cleaner directly into the cylinder.
If your generator still doesn’t start, even after you try several other steps, you may want to try replacing the spark plug.
Spark plugs can just go bad and wear out even if they visibly look fine.
Luckily, they are generally pretty cheap. It’s a good idea to always have a spare spark plug on hand for this kind of situation.
Check the Air Filter
To run, a generator needs some airflow–and a clogged air filter can prevent this.
Pull the air filter and check to make sure it isn’t clogged.
If it doesn’t look too bad, you can try just cleaning it. You can try just giving it a light whack against the floor or a counter-top to try to shake off the dust.
If it’s really clogged up or looks worn, you’ll definitely want to replace it.
Air filters are also luckily pretty affordable so it’s smart to have a spare air filter on hand as well.
Check the Fuel Line and Fuel Filter
If your generator still won’t start, it’s time to check your fuel line to make sure there aren’t any pinches, clogs, cracks, or leaks there.
In some cases, you may be able to repair this damage, but in most cases, you’ll want to just replace the line.
Not all portable generators have fuel filters but this is another to check for those that do.
This is another part that can get clogged up.
Remove the fuel line from where it attaches to the carburetor.
Watch to see if fuel passes through the filter. If no gas drains out through the filter, it’s likely clogged and needs replacing.
Since this is a less common problem, so you don’t necessarily need to have a spare fuel line on hand, but it doesn’t hurt if you want to be prepared for anything.
Clean the Carburetor
Old, degraded gas that gets in the carburetor can cause problems.
You may be able to clean it by just spraying some carb cleaner into the orifices and jets without removing it altogether.
In other cases, you’ll need to remove it. It’s important to keep in mind that carburetors are very sensitive.
As you take it out and clean it, it’s very important that you don’t scratch it.
Be careful and keep track of all the screws. There are small parts involved and you absolutely do not want to lose any of them.
If you’ve never cleaned a carburetor before, watch a video first to walk you through the process:
Special Considerations for Electric Starts
For generators with electric starting systems, you’ll want to make sure the battery isn’t dead.
You can check this with a multimeter. If it is dead, replace the battery.
If the battery is fine, you’ll want to check for blown fuses and replace if necessary.
Finally, check to make sure there is no corrosion on the battery terminals and that the connections are tight.
Even if things look good, you may want to remove the battery terminals and clean them with a wire brush before reattaching.
Practice Regular Maintenance for Prevention
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to make sure your generator starts when you need it is to perform regular preventative maintenance.
Follow the maintenance schedule laid out in the manual to the letter.
Changing the oil after every so many uses is important as is checking the air filter and spark plugs when recommended.
These regular maintenance activities will ensure that the machine is in ideal working condition for when it really counts.
If you only tend to use your generator in emergency situations, that means it is probably sitting around unused for long periods of time.
In this case, it’s best to run it dry so it sits without gas. If you don’t want to do this, it’s absolutely vital that you use a fuel stabilizer.
It’s also a good idea to check on the generator and run it every so often just to make sure it is still working.
When dealing with an emergency, you have a lot going on; the last thing you need is to be figuring out why your generator won’t start.
Don’t let your portable generator just sit around collecting dust.
Take care of it and check on it periodically so you can trust that it will work for you when it really counts.
If your portable generator doesn’t start right away, there’s no reason to panic.
In almost all cases, you’ll be able to get it started again through some basic troubleshooting.
If, after trying all of these tips, your portable generator still won’t start, it’s time to check in with a qualified repair person.
If your generator is still under warranty, it’s critical you take it to a certified brand technician.
I hope this guide to getting a portable generator started again was helpful.
Have you ever had the experience of a generator not starting? What did you do? Is this list missing any important tips?
Let me know in the comments! Do you have any other portable generator questions?
Scott Krager purchased generatorgrid.com in the summer of 2020 and quickly began to buy every generator under the sun! He currently has over a dozen generators and the number is growing quickly. He lives in Portland, OR near his family and friends.
GeneratorGrid.com is an independent review business. I am not affiliated with any manufacturers and do not accept paid reviews. When you buy through my links, I may earn a commission which helps me purchase more generators for testing. - Scott Krager