One of the reasons we keep a generator around is to supply the much-needed emergency power during an outage. It’d be a shame to start the engine only for the generator to keep tripping the breaker. As you well know, the device is there to protect you, your appliances, and the generator itself, but it could be a nuisance if the generator keeps tripping unexpectedly. So, what might be causing the generator tripping?
A generator will trip the breaker whenever it senses a potential threat from an unexpected electric surge, short circuit, or when drawing power that the circuit can hold. If it’s a GFCI breaker, there might be electricity leakage caused by worn insulation, torn wires, water, faulty electrical appliance, or if the power came in contact with a human.
While it’s normal for a generator to trip the breaker sometimes, it can be frustrating if it trips it more than once a day. Since circuit breakers are there as protective features, they could be signaling a problem that needs urgent attention when they trip often. I will take you through the common reasons why your generator is tripping and how to troubleshoot the problem to avoid injuries or damages.
Why Is Your Generator Tripping? (Troubleshooting and Fixing)
Generator tripping is when the generator circuit breaker trips (cuts the power supply) through a specific outlet protected by the breaker.
Generally, a generator will trip the circuit breaker to disrupt the power supply as a protective layer to itself and the connected devices.
If your generator has Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter receptacles (GFCI outlets), the system can also trip the circuit breaker connected to the outlet.
Here are some reasons your generator is tripping:
While circuit breakers and GFCIs are crucially important lifesavers, they can malfunction sometimes and keep tripping without any good reason.
What’s more, generator breakers become more sensitive with age. Old circuit breakers can detect a mild increase in current demand and trip easily.
Fix: Replace Defective Breaker
You probably did the test, but if by any chance you did not, try plugging in the extension cord to other generator outlets to see if the connection will trip the generator.
If the generator doesn’t trip, you have a defective breaker that needs a new generator circuit breaker for replacement.
If the generator trips do, then you probably have a bigger problem. Check the status of your generator breakers by considering the unit’s age.
If you suspect they are too old, you can install new circuit breakers with your fingers crossed that the generator doesn’t trip.
If it trips, the cause of your generator tripping isn’t anywhere on your generator.
Tip: You can also try connecting the appliances directly or use an extension cord with multiple plugs and keep the wattage draw below half the generator’s rated watt. The test will help rule out a problem with the extension cord and breakers. If the generator trips, the issue is with the breakers themselves, especially if you test multiple outlets with wattage draw below half. If the appliances run without tripping the breakers, you have issues past the extension cord.
All types of generators will have circuit breakers or fuses to their AC and DC outlets that trip or burn when there is an overload in the circuit.
Tripping occurs when a circuit attempts to draw a higher electrical load than the circuit is intended to hold.
If you connect high-rated appliances or multiple devices to the generator simultaneously to the point that their circuits overload that of the generator, the circuit breaker will trip.
The internal sensing mechanism of a generator’s circuit breaker produces an electromagnetic effect that trips the breaker switch, thus rendering the circuit inactive.
The circuit will remain dead until you reset the breaker lever or switch to the ON position, thus rearming the internal spring mechanism.
The generator circuit breaker has a size that matches the outlet’s supplying capacity. So, if your unit keeps tripping repeatedly, you might be drawing too much power from the outlet. Move some appliances to another outlet.
If you’re using the 240-volt outlet, then you’re drawing too much wattage than the generator can provide. Consider unplugging some appliances or switch off their breakers in the service panel.
Fix: Make Sure You Are Not Overloading the Generator
Before you try anything, check the amount of power you’re drawing from the generator and compare it with its rated output.
Take the wattage rating of every appliance you’re connecting to the generator and add them together. Remember, some appliances such as fridge, furnace, AC and the others, require higher rating power.
What’s more, it would be best to start them one by one rather than starting all at once. If the appliance doesn’t have a wattage rating, you can calculate it. Here is the formula:
Wattage = Voltage x Amperage – these details should be on your appliance’s manual or a tag on its back.
For example, if the furnace is designed to use 120-volt socket and has an amperage of 2 amps, its wattage consumption would be 120 x 2 = 240 watts.
You want to make sure the generator can support all your appliances at 80% of its rated watts. The 20% rated watts are an allowance to protect the engine from aggressive wear and tear.
It also leaves you with enough power to charge the small devices such as a smartphone, power banks and the likes.
Another common reason your generator is tripping is a short circuit, something more dangerous than overloading a circuit.
A short circuit will happen when the ‘live’ wire comes in contact with the neutral wire when you hook it up.
When there is a short circuit, an electric surge passes through the circuit breaker, signaling danger, and it will trip to cut the current flow and prevent damage.
A short circuit can happen for several reasons. The extension cord might have an open joint where the two wires are touching each other. It can happen even under the insulation cover.
It can also be caused by faulty wiring inside the house or a loose connection. You can know if there is a circuit breaker by a rubber-burning smell or smoke residue at the point of action.
Fix: Find the Short Circuit and Rectify It
Start by inspecting the extension and work your way to the service panel before you can check the connection to the other parts of the circuit.
Ensure your generator extension doesn’t have any joints and doesn’t have any tear on its insulation cover.
If the extension cable is in good shape, move to the generator inlet box and make sure its connection is made right. Open the wall socket and check the connection.
If they are okay, the next stop is in the service panel. Start by shutting off all the breakers, including the generator breaker.
Next, take a short Wire Tracker. With the generator extension disconnected, connect the two alligator plugs to the inlet box prongs, live and neutral, and follow the line towards the service panel with the cable locator.
The reading should remain almost constant. If it reduces abruptly, there is a short circuit. Do the same test with live wire and the ground.
Suppose everything seems to be okay. Connect your generator and head to the service panel. Turn on the generator breaker fast.
If the circuit breaker doesn’t trip, start turning on and off the rest of the breakers to find the short circuit or loose connection. Whichever causes the generator tripping is the faulty line.
Check the appliance connected to see if its power rating is lower than the generator’s rated power. If it’s, then there is an issue between the appliance and the breaker.
Start by unplugging the appliance and reset the breaker. If the generator doesn’t trip, the appliance is faulty and might have an internal electric short.
If the generator still trips, shut it down and remove the breaker connected to the line with the electrical short. Check for continuity using the multimeter.
If it’s okay, use the electric short finder to pinpoint the specific with the electric short.
Electrical Leak to Ground
If your generator has a GFCI receptacle from which you’ve hooked your home backup power, it might be the cause of the generator tripping.
The GFCI system is designed to detect potential electric leakage. It indicates that the electric current is lost in an unwanted direction – it’s not following the desired path to the ground.
Some of the causes of electric leakages include:
- Torn wires
- Worn out insulation
- Water or moisture around the wires
- A defective electrical appliance, or
- When a human comes into contact with an open wire
All the above can provide an alternative current path to the ground, triggering the circuit breaker.
The GFCI system is a life-saving feature that prevents electrocution and electric shock. It’s, however, used with a 240-volt receptacle and not a 120-volt outlet.
Fix: Replace torn wires, repair worn-out insulation, or repair the defective appliance
I should mention, not all generators have a GFCI receptacle breaker. So, before moving forward, you might want to check your generator manual to be sure.
Also, both the circuit breaker and the GFCI breaker might trip at the same time. If the circuit breaker trips alone, check the wattage of the load you’re connecting to the generator to make sure you’re not overloading the circuit. If the GFCI breaker trips alone, there is an electric leak somewhere.
But if both the circuit breaker and GFCI breaker trips simultaneously, you might be dealing with an electric shock that caused an electrical leak.
Troubleshooting the problem will require you to unplug the extension from the generator and visually check for any worn insulation. If you find any, cover it with electrical tape and make sure there is no naked wire. If there is, then you need a new generator extension cord.
With that sorted, check for any water damage in the wall, especially around the sockets. Those are the places that would cause the GFCI breaker to act up if there were water present.
How to Prevent Generator Tripping
While some things can cause the generator to trip you can’t control, you can do one or two things to avoid generator tripping entirely. They include:
Use an Extension Cord with No Worn Out Insulation or Torn Wires
Before you can plug in an extension cord to the generator, check its condition to ensure no insulation tear. Also, check for torn wires anywhere in the connection.
Power Essential Appliances Only During Blackouts
Apart from ensuring the appliances you’re powering with the emergency doesn’t surpass the generator wattage, plug in the essential appliances only during the blackout. That leaves you with some spare wattage, prevents damages, and extended your generator’s life.
Avoid Using Daisy-Chaining Power Strips
Yes, using a power strip with an extension cord can help protect your appliances from overload dangers. However, the same device can cause your generator to trip.
And according to NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency), power strips continue to be one of the most common home electrical fires.
Generator Still Tripping? Consider a Pro
While knowing how to deal with generator tripping is good, getting some help from an expert in the field can be the best move.
If your generator breakers are still tripping even after trying all the above fixes, you might want to consider hiring a professional.
Unless you have an emergency, consider calling a professional electrician, especially if there is any modification you have to make and you don’t have the necessary license and permit.
If you spell a rubber-burning odor, get sparks, or there are severely heated up wires, seek professional help soon.
How long can you run a generator continuously?
Yes, but there are limits. A portable gasoline generator will run continuously but until its fuel tank nears empty. After that, you will need to shut it down and wait to cool down and refuel. If it’s a portable generator running on natural gas, consider running it for 24 hours only. Running more than that can cause early wear and tear. These units are made to run for emergency hours. Most manufacturers recommend running the unit for 500 hours, about 3-weeks continuously when it comes to standby generators.