It’s been snowing for three days straight, and it is impossible to keep my solar panels clear. Without my solar panels, I have no electricity. As you might expect, that’s a huge problem!
For those living in houses connected to the grid, power is rarely an issue. However, there are countless people living off-grid and, like me, must rely on greener electricity that can be harvested from the sun, wind, or water.
When a natural disaster strikes, grid power can easily be interrupted. Heavy storms, tornadoes, and earthquakes all pose problems when it comes to supplying electricity.
The simple solution for those who need to fill that power generation gap – and for those that need that extra power for running high-energy equipment – is to use a generator.
I have a gas-powered generator, which has a huge sticker on the top that tells me it cannot be used in wet conditions. Does this mean that I am unable to use the generator at a time when I need it the most?
Generators cannot be run in the rain, snow, during high winds, or thunder and lightning storms. They must not meet any form of moisture.
Most generators have a label on them warning users that using them incorrectly can cause serious injury or even death.
Solar and wind power are most likely to fail in bad weather or times of natural disasters. Consequently, when it rains, snows heavily, or during high winds, these are times when we are most likely to need a generator.
That’s an ironic and seriously unfortunate limitation of using generators that is incredibly frustrating to deal with.
Fortunately you can still use a generator in inclement weather – even if it’s raining or snowing.
How Water May Affect a Generator
First, let’s take a look at why it’s so dangerous to use your generator in wet conditions. There are a few main reasons why you should avoid doing this.
The first issue has to do with spark plugs. A generator whirs to life when a spark ignites a fuel-air mixture to move a piston. The movement of the piston creates mechanical energy.
Any kind of moisture on the spark plug or the cable that supplies power to the spark plug will prevent it from functioning. Moisture even has the potential to break the spark plug and ultimately, to prevent the generator from working.
The air inlet draws air into the combustion chamber, where it is mixed with the fuel, and ignited. The air inlet is normally covered by a filter that is made from cardboard or even foam.
Water can easily pass through this filter, and enter the engine. If water mixes with the air and fuel, it will prevent it from igniting. As a result, the engine will stop.
The exhaust carries the spent gases away from the engine. To allow this to happen, the exhaust pipe must be open.
Any water entering this pipe could potentially find its way into the combustion chamber. As we have said, water with air and fuel will not combust. Of course, this then means that the engine will not run.
Water or moisture that contacts a generator can create a far more serious problem. Since electricity flows very easily through water, it can allow the electrical current to spread to the machine or even the ground.
The result of this could be that simply touching the frame of the machine, or standing in a puddle could result in your body being exposed to electricity. As you know, this electric shock has the potential to kill.
Put the Generator in the House or Garage – an Easy Fix?
If running a generator in rain or snow or high winds is a problem, surely all we need to do is put the generator inside the house or even in a garage to protect it from bad weather conditions, right?
Wrong! This may sound like an easy fix, but running a generator inside is a huge mistake.
Manufacturers always supply important operating instructions on the machine, typically in a detailed guide that highlights important information. These instructions will normally state that this equipment should not be used indoors.
There are several reasons why avoiding this is so important.
Whatever the generator uses as a fuel, be it gas, diesel, or propane, the exhaust fumes will all have high levels of carbon monoxide. Without monitoring the equipment, carbon dioxide is virtually impossible to detect.
Worst of all, exposure to significant levels of carbon monoxide can be lethal, often without you even realizing that you are being poisoned.
It is also not an option to run this type of equipment in a garage with the door open for ventilation.
Fumes travel unpredictably, with airflow and high wind speeds easily causing them to enter the house. Anyone inside could find themselves exposed to these dangerous substances.
Generators often have a noise rating. This rating shows the noise that a running generator will make.
Although the development of this type of equipment has made generators significantly quieter than they once were, the noise would still be annoying, and possibly damaging to the ears.
How to Run a Generator in the Rain and Snow – Safely!
We have said that a generator cannot be run in a house or even a garage. However, it is possible to run a generator in the rain and snow – and almost all bad weather conditions – if we take some extra steps to stay safe.
Providing some sort of enclosure besides the house or garage is one option. Of course, the enclosure will require specific characteristics in order to be safe.
Building a permanent enclosure has many benefits:
- Weather: Protection against the elements is vital. Snow, rain, freezing temperatures, and high winds can all prevent a generator from running correctly and safely.
- Noise: Although modern generators produce far less noise than older models, they still produce a level of noise that can be highly irritating. An enclosure will help to reduce the level of noise to prevent it from annoying neighbors or yourself.
- Wildlife: Rats, squirrels, nesting birds, wasps, and other rodents are all happy to invade any space where you don’t particularly want them. They will happily to chew through any exposed wires or build a nest that could create a potential fire hazard. An enclosure will allow you to protect your generator from the elements as well as from these unwanted forms of wildlife.
- Security: Enclosing your generator will protect it from being stolen, and also prevent others such as children from easily accessing it and potentially getting hurt. Injury is surprisingly common when it comes to using generators, typically caused by getting too close to it while it’s running.
- Storage: Without a dedicated enclosure, many will store a generator in a garage or another outside storage area. There tends to never be enough space in these areas. Storing something that requires moving in and out could prove to be annoying and inconvenient – a problem that an enclosure can solve.
Before considering any type of generator enclosure, it is important to consider where it should be located.
The surface where an enclosure is to be positioned should be firm, level, and watertight. Where the ground is firm and level, a simple gravel area will provide a good base.
However, the use of a slab of concrete reinforced with steel rebar is a more stable choice that will offer more long-lasting benefits.
It is important to note, however, that hard surfaces such as concrete will amplify the sound created by the generator. Soft surfaces such as gravel can help to eliminate much of the sound.
Remember, the enclosure is to protect it from the elements, especially the wind and rain. Most properties have a prevailing wind direction. This wind direction will affect the direction that rain and snow will fall.
Ensure that the location is sheltered from this effect as much as possible. Check your prevailing wind direction, and build and position your enclosure accordingly.
As a generator creates toxic fumes and noise, ensure that it is located away from any house windows or doors. It should also be away from any outdoor areas that are used for seating.
Should I Build an Enclosure For My Generator?
After determining the best location for your enclosure, you need to figure out a few more things before you build it.
Brick / Concrete Enclosure
This is what I have, and it doubles as a woodshed. You can see it just below:
One of the best options if you want to supply an enclosure for a generator is to use a purpose-built option that is made from steel.
A purpose-built enclosure will be strong, and provide the necessary ventilation areas without you having to do much else. Adequate ventilation, as you know, is essential to allow the generator to function correctly, and prevent it from overheating.
The generator is an engine that needs to draw air into it. It also needs to have a method of allowing the exhaust fumes to exit the enclosure in a manner that won’t allow them to mix with the air being drawn into the engine.
Significant amounts of heat are created when a generator is running. A steel enclosure will be fire-resistant and also offer protection from the heat.
Purpose-built wood enclosures for generators are not very common due to the inherent fire hazard they present. However, a wooden shed can be used in a pinch – if it’s large enough to hold the generator while, at the same time, allowing plenty of space to protect it.
It would just require some adaptation to ensure that adequate ventilation is provided. You could install louvres or other cut-in ventilation systems to achieve this effect, depending on how, exactly, your enclosure is built.
A plastic shed is an economical choice for housing a generator. However, care is needed to ensure that there is enough space between it and the shed.
Space is necessary because it will prevent the heat produced by the generator from melting the plastic. As with a wooden shed, some modifications are necessary to ensure that a plastic shed has suitable ventilation.
Purpose-built, pop-up canopies are also available. These are based on a tent structure that can be used to cover a generator.
These canopies allow a generator to be used in the rain or snow. They are normally made from waterproof materials and will have a panel that covers the sensitive electrical components.
This type of covering is perhaps most suitable for areas that experience very little rain or snow but still need protection just in case these weather conditions occur.
They will supply adequate protection from light snow or rain – however, they may not be suitable for heavy rain or snow or for areas that experience high winds.
Building a DIY Generator Enclosure
Countless people prefer not to buy purpose-built items, especially those who are skilled in making things. Building a DIY generator enclosure can be less expensive if you have the right skills and materials on hand.
Several factors should be considered before deciding how and where to build an enclosure.
The choice of what materials to use for building a generator enclosure is important. Rain and snow can cause serious problems for some materials.
Over time, moisture can soak into some materials, like wood, and cause them to rot. Metal tends to be the more durable choice, especially when you consider ventilation and fire risks, but it is more expensive and difficult to work with. Of course, metal can also rust.
Sheet metal or powder-coated aluminum will make a firm, sturdy enclosure that is relatively easy to form into the required structure. This type of material does not normally suffer from corrosion or rust, although care does need to be taken to seal any joints correctly.
Concrete blocks will also create a sturdy enclosure that offers good protection against rain and snow. This is a simple form of building material that can be made a little bigger and used to store other items.
Lumber is a possibility, too. However, it is best to use wood that has been treated to protect it from moisture, as well as from the heat and fumes that are created by the generator.
A common pitfall that many people fall into is thinking that they can simply cover up the enclosure with a tarp or something similar. That way, the logic goes, it won’t rot or rust. However, this isn’t a great idea.
It’s okay to use a tarp or another covering temporarily or on a one-off basis. That said, sufficient space is necessary for adequate ventilation.
This solution is not ideal for the long term since the heat could damage the covering and cause a fire. Rain and snow are also heavy, and could cause the covering to collapse, creating bigger problems for you to deal with. High wind levels could also affect this type of cover.
The height should also give room for ventilation to prevent the exhaust fumes from collecting under the covering. A build-up of carbon monoxide is dangerous, as we have mentioned, and has the potential to kill.
Generators require regular maintenance to ensure that they are functioning safely and efectively.
Any enclosure should have enough space to allow all areas of the generator to be accessed. That way, it will be relatively simple to work on.
An alternative to providing this space will be to make sure that the door is large enough so that you can just remove the machine to maintain and repair it.
However, it is perfectly adequate to instead construct a small enclosure that a generator will just fit into. Just make sure that there is adequate access to the important areas of the generator. Access can be provided in several ways, such as a top cover or flip-top roof or swing-open flaps positioned on various sides of the generator.
It is also important to note that, regardless of the generator’s size, this type of container will also need to be strong enough to withstand the weight of snow in areas that receive significant levels of snowfall.
We talked up to this point mainly about the engine side of the generator. The other part to pay attention to is the area that produces the electricity.
This is where the generator is connected, and where the power is to be used. It may be used to power pumps, equipment in a workshop, or even an entire house.
No matter what it is being used to power the generator, consideration should be made as to the type and quality of the electrical connections.
We already know (perhaps too well!) that electricity and water are not particularly good friends. When they make contact, it can result in the equipment malfunctioning. Water enables electricity to travel – and it can be lethal.
Even when great care and attention are taken to ensure that the enclosure is protected from water, there are no guarantees.
Extra protection should be given to all cables and connections just in case. There is a simple device that can be used in such electrical connections that can save lives. A GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is designed to cut the flow of electricity if it detects any moisture.
It may be inconvenient if it shuts the power off unnecessarily – however, it is always better to be safe rather than sorry. Always install these units when you’re putting in a generator, especially if there’s a chance that water will be involved.
We showed that rain, snow, and other inclement weather conditions can interrupt our usual electricity production. This is a time when we need a generator most – yet we are warned that it cannot be used in these adverse weather conditions. So what’s the solution?
With proper forethought, caution, and planning, it is possible to use a generator in these bad weather conditions without risking our safety if an enclosure or covering is either bought or built.
We asked earlier which is best – a purpose-built or DIY enclosure. The answer to that question depends on which type you prefer.
Provided that the enclosure works to keep the generator protected from the elements, they can both be good options depending on your skills, budget, and preferences.
You may notice some instruction manuals saying that the equipment has been tested for rain. This does not mean that it has been tested to run in the rain. This refers to the generator having the ability to start after it has been rained on.
I would not even try to test this. Instead, be extra cautious about getting your generator wet, and take all possible precautions to prevent this from happening.
When using any equipment, safety should be the most important factor. Remember, this equipment has the potential to be lethal when not used as designed.