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Standby Power Generators: How Can We Be Sure They're Ready to Go?


Standby Power Generators: How Can We Be Sure They’re Ready to Go?

Standby generators form part of the Emergency Power Supply System (EPPS) defined in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Code Standard 110, Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems. While many structures (hospitals) and some building systems (emergency lighting) require Level 1 systems, not all organizations need standby generators or Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) of that caliber.

Level 2 systems in applications less critical to human life and safety are often installed for buildings like restaurants, jewelry stores, data centers and other vital (but not lifesaving) enterprises. Keeping those standby generators (and their smaller cousins, portable generators) in optimum condition assures building occupants of a safe, smooth transition from the power grid to emergency power.

Plenty of Backup for the Backup

Any maintenance crew or facilities manager attempting to perform or oversee maintenance on a standby power supply needs accurate, specific guidance. Fortunately, plenty of organizations already provide recommendations for standby generator maintenance.

These are specific guidelines to keep emergency power systems ready for action, so business owners using Level 2 systems can relax, even if they are unfamiliar with some of the maintenance demands.

Organizations needing Level 1 systems usually expect highly trained personnel to perform these regular maintenance tasks, so they can trust their equipment in real emergencies where lives are at stake.


The International Electrical Testing Association (NETA) outlines its inspection and testing procedures for standby generators, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and Automatic Transfer Switches in Chapter 7 of its Standards for Maintenance Testing Specifications for Electrical Power Equipment & Systems.

In addition to six pages of descriptive maintenance routines, the Standards also indicate the frequency of inspection, mechanical testing, and electrical testing required for these systems:

  • Engine generator systems should be visually checked every month, visually and mechanically checked every two months, and fully tested (electrical, mechanical and visual) every year. Functional testing should be done every two months. (UPS and ATS should follow a 1-12-12 inspection regimen, but also be functionally tested every two months.)
  • Visual inspection means inspecting the physical and mechanical condition of the generator, inspecting its anchorage, alignment, and electrical grounding, and cleaning. In addition, you should perform “as-found” tests and, later, “as-left” tests to ensure the generator is responsive.
  • Mechanical and electrical testing to NETA means all this:
    • An insulation-resistance test on the generator winding-to-ground
    • Calculating the polarization index
    • Testing protective relay devices
    • Functionally testing the engine shutdown for low oil pressure, over-temperature, and over speed
    • A vibration test for each main bearing cap
    • A performance test
    • Verifying correct functioning of the unit’s governor and regulator

This is far more than just “give it a kick and check the oil,” so a checklist that requires sign-off by the maintenance crew is recommended.

The NETA recommendations suggest a high level of training and knowledge; a rigorous course in emergency power systems maintenance can provide that practical knowledge.

Generator Junior

The large standby generators required of Level 1 systems are not the only methods businesses use to provide emergency power. Even a humble Mom-n-Pop operation knows the value of having a portable generator ready to go when the main power grid fails. With increasingly frequent weather emergencies, the corner grocery store needs a way to keep freezers freezing and refrigerators chilling.

For these smaller, portable generators, regular inspection and maintenance is just as important. Though not as rigorous as the work needed for their big brothers, these junior generator maintenance programs can ensure even the smallest store can stay powered and helping its customers.

Generac recommends a three-pronged approach specific to cold weather:

  1. Provide enough clearance — Keep your portable generator, when in use, well away from your structure, and visually inspect it during operation to keep leaves, snow or ice away for a five-foot radius, to avoid overheating
  2. Use the right oil — New units may require SAE 30 conventional oil during the generator’s break-in period, but switch to 5W-30 synthetic oil for cold weather applications after the unit’s break-in period
  3. Cold-weather kit — If your area has below-freezing temperatures, a thermostatically controlled battery pad warmer and oil crankcase heater can keep your generator running through the worst winter weather

Advisors at Today’s Homeowner also recommend these steps for any generator, in any season:

  • Check and change the oil as recommended by the manufacturer
  • Clean the spark arrestor screen
  • Replace the air filter
  • Replace the spark plug
  • Wipe down the entire unit with a damp cloth
  • Avoid hosing down the generator, which invites rust
  • Run the generator for around 20 minutes every month to ensure smooth startup and continuous operation
  • If unable to operate the unit every month, use fuel stabilizer or drain the fuel tank

To receive the best training and instruction in maintaining standby generators, attend NTT Training’s seminar on NFPA 110, Standby Power Generation. Connect with NTT today for more information on this life-saving seminar.

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