Whether you use a portable generator or you’ve installed a whole house generator, you expect it to provide power to your home when an outage occurs. However, the circuit breakers in the generator that protect you, your family, and your home can trip when it starts. There are 2 different types of circuit breakers that can trip for different reasons.
All generators have a standard circuit breaker, with some having a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI).
When a standard circuit breaker trips, it means the circuit is overloaded. When a GFCI trips, it indicates power leaks outside of the grounding circuit.
Read on to learn what causes your generator to trip circuit breakers and how to restart it. I’ll also explain how to fix the problem and how to prevent it from recurring.
Reasons a Generator Trips Its Circuit Breakers
All generators have a standard circuit breaker. Some also have a GFC (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter).
Each of these circuit breakers detects a different problem with the electricity provided by the generator.
Why Does the Standard Circuit Breaker Trip?
Like your circuit breaker or fuse box, your generator’s standard circuit breaker monitors the amount of electricity or amps needed for the household circuits connected to your generator.
Generators have different capacities when it comes to the amount of power they can supply.
The generator’s standard circuit breaker detects when the demand for power overloads the generator’s capacity and, therefore, breaks the circuit causing the overload. For instance, appliances plugged into household circuits connected to a generator may need more energy than the generator can supply.
Why Does the GFCI Breaker Trip?
When the GFCI breaker detects a sudden flow of electricity through the grounding wire connected to a household circuit, it breaks that circuit. It prevents electricity from flowing through a dangerous, unintended connection.
Not all generators have a GFCI breaker. If you don’t know whether or not your generator has this circuit breaker, look for the reset button next to the electrical outlets — GFCI-protected outlets have reset buttons.
The GFCI monitors the amount of electricity flowing through the grounding wires of the circuits that you’ve connected to your generator.
The National Electrical Code requires the grounding wire protection provided by GFCI breakers for specific household electrical circuits. These circuits feed power to outdoor areas, garages, unfinished basements, kitchens, and bathrooms.
When the circuits operate properly, no electricity flows through the grounding wire. That wire connects to the earth.
The grounding wire provides a safe route for electrical leaks, the sudden excessive flow of electricity that occurs during a short circuit.
For example, short circuits occur when the “hot wire” that carries the electrical current comes into direct contact with the neutral wire in an electrical circuit.
The grounding wire also absorbs excessive current when a person or animal accidentally completes the circuit between the hot and neutral wires. In this case, it acts to prevent accidental electrocution.
How To Restart the Generator
If your generator has both a GFCI breaker and a standard breaker, you’ll need to determine which one or if both tripped. If the GFCI has tripped, you’ll need to test the generator’s outlets to determine whether a leak in a household circuit caused the generator to trip or whether it was a leak in the outlet itself.
How To Determine Which Breaker Has Tripped
Follow these steps to determine if your GFCI or standard breaker has tripped:
- Check your generator’s reset button. If it has popped out, it means the GFCI breaker has tripped.
- Check your home’s fuse box or electric panel to determine if the standard breaker has tripped.
- Look for blown fuses. They typically have a metallic or dark smudge on the tube surrounding the fuse’s circuit or a break in the circuit wire.
- Check for tripped electric panel switches, which will be flipped toward the off position.
How To Test the GFCI Outlets
Here are the steps to test if the GFCI breaker trips in your GFCI outlet:
- Turn off the generator.
- Disconnect the generator from all household circuits.
- Unplug all non-essential items from your household outlets.
- Turn on the generator.
- Depress the reset button.
- Wait to see if the button remains depressed and the generator continues to run.
- Plug a lamp with a single bulb directly into one of the GFCI outlets.
- Replace the lamp and plug in an item with a different small load if the generator continues to run for at least 15 seconds.
- If the generator continues to run, repeat step 8 a few more times.
- If the generator continues to run, then the GFCI breaker was most likely tripped by a leak.
How To Check for Electrical Leaks in Cords
When your power is off, it’s understandable that all you want to do is get your generator running and restore power to your house. However, hidden electrical leaks can start fires, create shock hazards, and even electrocute people and pets. It’s essential to find them and avoid sending power through the circuit causing the problem.
To find the leak:
- Collect the extension cords, power cords, power strips, and surge protection strips that were in use when the generator tripped.
- Plug each one into one of the generator’s GFCI outlets one at a time.
- Discard any of these cords that cause the generator to trip.
How To Reconnect the GFCI and Standard Breaker
If your GFCI breaker tripped and you haven’t found the source with the tests above, it must be either in a household appliance, the household mechanicals such as your furnace or water heater, or the household wiring.
If your GFCI breaker and standard breaker both tripped, you’ll have to search for the source of the leak and the source of the overload at the same time. It’s time to reconnect your generator to your household circuits.
Follow the steps below:
- Turn off or unplug everything in the part of your house that lost power when your generator tripped.
- Reduce the load on the generator by turning off or unplugging any nonessential appliances and items in the rest of the house.
- Turn off the main switch and turn off all of the sub-switches on the board If you have an electrical panel.
- Turn on the generator and let it run for a few minutes.
- Plug in the power cord that connects your generator and your house.
- Replace the burnt-out fuses one by one if you have a fuse box, waiting to see if a fuse burns out or if the generator trips.
- Turn the main switch on if you have an electrical panel. Wait a few minutes before flipping the sub-switches on one at a time and then about five seconds before flipping the next sub-switch.
- Check if a fuse blows or a switch on the electric panel trips back off. If it does, that means you’ve found the source of an overload. Check to see what items are using that circuit. Either remove them or switch them to a different circuit to reduce the load. Replace the fuse or flip the switch back on.
- Check if the GFCI breaker trips. If it does, it means you’ve found the circuit where the leak is occurring. Check to see what items are using that circuit and disconnect them until you or an electrician can check them for electrical leaks.
- Plug in or turn on any essential items or appliances one at a time, and wait to see if either the standard breaker or the GFCI breaker trips. If the standard breaker trips and the item is necessary, try moving it to an outlet on a different circuit. If the GFCI breaker trips, you’ve identified the source of a leak. Turn it off, unplug it, and don’t use it until it’s repaired.
How To Keep the Generator Running After a Restart
Here are some tips you can use to keep your generator running after a restart:
- Caterpillar provides a calculator that you can use to determine how much load you’re putting on your generator. Reduce the burden until it’s about 80% of your generator’s capacity.
- Try switching items from household circuits with power-hungry appliances to ones that are drawing smaller loads.
- If you’re using an appliance that draws a lot of power or running your air conditioner, reduce the number of other items running simultaneously.
- Plug items directly into outlets. Avoid using large numbers of extension cords.
- Don’t plug multiple extension cords, power strips, or surge protection strips into each other.
- Ensure that all of the connections you’ve plugged in are dry, including those to your generator.
- Avoid running your generator in the rain or if it’s standing in water. Also, don’t run it in your basement or an attached garage.
- If you have a screened-in patio or patio with an open-sided cover next to your home that would provide shelter for your generator, you could place the generator away from flammable chemicals and materials and run it from there.
- Don’t plug in any item that you’ve identified as a source of an electrical leak. Check the item for exposed or broken wires, frayed insulation on the cord, and a broken plug. However, you may need a professional electrician or the manufacturer’s certified repair site to identify and repair the problem.
How To Prevent Breakers From Tripping
Follow the guidelines above when you’re operating your generator. Test your generator’s GFCI outlets regularly to make sure that they are operating correctly. Also, have your home’s wiring, electrical panel, and GFCI circuits inspected regularly.
Older appliances are less energy-efficient than newer models. They require more power to operate. So, begin replacing older models with newer ones to place less demand on your generator.
Use the Caterpillar calculator to determine the size of the generator you need to provide electricity to everything you want to power during an outage.
If your generator lacks the capacity you need, replace it with a larger portable generator or a whole house generator.
This portable generator available on Amazon is approved for use in all 50 states, including California. It produces 8,000 watts of power during regular operation. But at startup and for temporary surges in demand, it produces 10,000 watts.
Designed as a home backup generator or to power an RV, the Durostar Dual Fuel Portable offers a choice of using gasoline or propane for fuel. The power panel provides a 240V 30A outlet, a 240V 50A outlet, two120V GFCI household outlets, and a 120V 30A twist-lock outlet.
It also includes a voltmeter and 12V DC charging posts that you can use to charge dead or dying batteries. You can operate the 240V and 120V outlets simultaneously or provide full power to the 120V GFCI household outlets.
Remember that your generator is also a motor, just like the motor in your car. It has spark plugs that need to be kept clean and replaced. It also needs its oil and fuel levels kept up and has a carburetor that may need adjusting.
Any service that your car needs, your generator will also need. Lack of service to your generator’s motor may not cause tripped circuit breakers. But it can and will stop your generator from running.
When setting up and troubleshooting your generator’s operation, remember that you’re working with electricity. You should take precautions to protect yourself, such as using insulated tools and wearing rubber gloves.
SafetyRisk provides a list of 15 precautions for homeowners and electricians. They also suggest how to discharge low-voltage capacitors with a pair of insulated screwdrivers and high-voltage capacitors with a lightbulb.
One poignant tip is to remember to leave a note by the electrical box that you’re working on an electrical circuit so that no one turns the main switch on again while you’re working.
Generator photo courtesy of Petr.adamek [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
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