Backup Generators and Your HVAC Unit – Safety Tips

After power outages experienced during ice storms and hurricanes, many homeowners in Harris and Fort Bend County are looking at backup generators to power their HVAC unit.

We received an urgent call from a homeowner who had found a hack on the internet to wire his HVAC system to a portable generator. He found a device on the internet and wired it to make it “easier” for the generator to run his air conditioning unit.

The goal was to be able to use a smaller, portable generator to run his central air conditioner because the supply of generators is currently limited. Apparently a lot of people are looking at generators in anticipation of more bad weather.

Unfortunately, his HVAC unit stopped working altogether. After listening to what happened, I was amazed he was not injured and relieved that the only casualty was a fried thermostat. When a backup generator is hooked up incorrectly, it can kill the compressor, damage the electrical parts, and cause expensive repairs.

This is why we are compiling some safety tips to keep homeowners safe if and when they choose to explore backup generators and to protect their HVAC investment!

Beware the Internet for DIY Generators

The internet has a wealth of information, but sometimes it’s hard to discern what information is reputable. If something goes wrong, you risk a backup generator and an HVAC system that are not working.

Warranties on your appliances may be void, and home insurance you count on for anything catastrophic could refuse to pay because the electrical fire was due to “faulty wiring.”  This is also why we don’t advise homeowners buy HVAC parts and equipment off the internet.

Permitting processes and building codes exist to ensure safety. Licensed HVAC professionals and electricians know how to deal with these situations safely and can advise you about your options. If you’re not sure, it’s always best to ask.

Even reputable internet retailers explain that you need licensed professionals and local permits to ensure safety. This goes for electrical generators and HVAC systems.

Don’t Backfeed Your House

Plugging your generator into a wall outlet in attempt to restore electricity to your home is called backfeeding and is very dangerous. Also, never, never use a “double-male” power cord.

These tactics can make it dangerous to disconnect power in an emergency, eliminates safety measures, and can be a fire hazard. It can also cause power to backflow through the lines putting electrical line workers in danger.

Conversely, a professionally installed transfer switch makes it possible to safely switch power from your local electrical utility to generator power. It’s also critical to make sure your generator is properly grounded.

Choose the Right Size Generator

Not every backup generator can handle the amount of electricity your home needs.

These energy requirements can be widely variable depending on which appliances you want to run. Not every backup generator will be rated to run your air conditioner or heater.  Inverters and portable generators – the type that are not permanently installed may not have enough power.

If you use an emergency generator that is not quite big enough and the power peaks, it can cause electrical damage to your appliances and any other device connected to it (Think: cell phones, televisions, laptops). You don’t want to guess in this situation.

A standby generator or whole home generator has a higher power capacity and is rated to run your entire house. These generators can be an option to safely run a residential HVAC system.

Location of Your Backup Generator

The location of your backup generator is very important. Because these devices consume fuel, usually natural gas or propane, carbon monoxide is one of the by-products that is released into the air. Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that displaces oxygen which is why it’s called a silent killer.

During the extended power outage in February 2021, many people across Texas were poisoned by carbon monoxide in attempt to stay warm. Vehicle and generator exhaust were some of the culprits.

The U.S. government recommends locating a generator at least 15 feet away from a home or business, door or window to reduce the chances of carbon monoxide building up. They also recommend carbon monoxide detectors as another fail-safe. Pay attention to local codes here because they may vary to some degree.

HVAC companies recommend carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms because gas-burning furnaces also release carbon monoxide. If you have a backup generator, that’s just one more reason to get one of these inexpensive safety measures.

Running Backup Generators in the Rain

Electricity and water are a dangerous combination. Running any generator in the rain or snow, unless it has adequate protection, can be an electrocution or explosion risk.

Even GeneratorGrid, a blog that reviews gas-powered generators, states, “…you can run a generator in the rain so long as you have a special cover to shelter it from getting wet. However, you should be extremely careful, and it is still not recommended.”

Properly Storing Fuel for Your Generator

When a hurricane or ice storm comes to town, the supply of fuel becomes a hot commodity. Unless you have your whole home generator hooked up to a continuous supply, you’ll need to safely store enough fuel to keep your generator working.  If the fuel sits for a while, it may need a stabilizer added.

This means you’ll need an approved storage device in a cool and protected place. Fuel is flammable, so keep this in mind. Don’t forget the smoke detector!

Keep in mind that generators that are running continuously get very hot, so you are going to want to let them cool down before refueling to avoid a fire.

Maintenance on Backup Generators Is Vital

With any home appliance, yearly maintenance will ensure the safe and efficient operation of your backup generator and keep your HVAC system running.

You may need to run it periodically to keep it in top shape and plan for oil changes. Consult with your backup generator installer or electrician for their best advice, and make sure you read up on the owner’s manual for the specific generator maintenance recommendations.

We Can Answer Your Questions About HVAC and Backup Generators

Having a power source during an outage can mean more comfort and freedom from worry. If you need a HVAC repair, installation or maintenance, give us a call!

If you’re aiming to run your air conditioner and heater using a backup generator,  we can point you to local electricians in the area we trust to install them for you and keep your HVAC system safe. Keep in mind that backup generators and standby generators are on a national back order at the moment because demand in our area is so high.

Photo credit Canva.com/dsmoulton