What Happens If I Overload My Generator?

Generators rather they be portable or standby are a great tool to have at your disposal. Rather you are on a camping trip and needing some power for your flood lights, or if you stuck at home during a blizzard and your power goes out. Whatever the situation is generators are there and are able to provide you that power when it is most needed. Over the past few weeks we here at ToughAssTools have dedicated article after article to generators. Our goal here is to find out everything there is about them. In this section we will be an answering the common question of: What Happens if I Overload My Generator?

Watts, Running Watts, & Starting Watts

To answer this question we first have to do a short explanation of watts, running watts, and starting watts. I’m sure most of you are already familiar with what watts are. Watts are a unit of measurement when it comes to power or electricity. The larger the number the more power it has or needs. Generators can range from five-hundred watts all the way up to forty-thousand watts. It all depends on what you need your generator for. Depending on your needs you may only need a small or medium sized or you may need something to power your whole home. In order to determine this we need to understand what running watts and starting watts are.

Running watts are a measurement of how many watts your generator can sustain continuously. In other words, this your standard measurement. Let’s say you have a few appliances that you want to hook up to your generator and they total about two-thousand watts. These could be a coffee maker, a laptop, and a few phone chargers. Nothing major. In this instance the two-thousand watts would be your running or continuous watt measurement. The amount of watts required doesn’t change, it is a constant.

Starting watts, or surge watts, are a bit different. These typically apply on larger appliances like your refrigerators, air conditioners, furnaces, or power tools. Typically, when there is a motor involved then the appliance will have starting watts. These appliances have both starting watts and running watts. When the appliance initially turns on there is significant power needed to start the motor up. This extra power dissipates after a few seconds as the motor gets moving, but this extra wattage is needed in order to power on the machine. This ‘extra’ power is known as starting watts. As an example, if we look at Westinghouse’s WGen7500 portable generator on Amazon by clicking here we can see that it’s running watts are seventy-five hundred and the starting or surge watts are at ninety-five hundred. This is a great example as it states the running and starting (peak) watts right in the description of the product.

Overloading Your Generator

Ok folks, so now that we know the differences between these wattage measurements we can begin to understand how your generator can be overloaded. The first and most logical way for an overload to occur is exceeding the running watts of your generator. Yes, as we mentioned above, an appliance with starting watts DOES exceed the running watts but it is important to note that starting watts are a temporary need. They only last for a few seconds then the appliances tapers back down to running watts. An overload  can occur when having numerous appliances plugged into your generator that exceed the total running watts. It doesn’t matter if you are still below the starting watts. Remember, starting watts are temporary and your generator can only produce them for so long. After enough time has passed the generator will overload and either shut off due to the circuit breaker, or if  it doesn’t have a circuit breaker then it will keep running and eventually overheat which could lead to a fire. Starting watts are not meant to be sustained over long periods of time.

I mentioned the fire risk above but I’m going to expand on it a bit further here. If your generator is not protected against an overload by using a circuit breaker, then the system will eventually overheat. Depending on the length of the overheating the unit could eventually catch on fire. If this fire gets close enough to the gas tank then you could have a rupture or explosion. This can end very badly and there are documented cases of people burning their homes down by mistake due to this.

Even without the risk of fire though, running your generator hot or above capacity can burn out your alternator and other components of your generator which can significantly shorten the life of your system. Not only that but if the system is overload then you could have intermittent power which can damage any appliances directly plugged into your generator. It is very important to pay attention to the running and starting wattage of your generator and to not exceed it not only for safety’s sake but also to protect your wallet.

No matter what, generators cannot exceed their maximum wattage capacity. It will not happen. This capacity is based off of two things. The first is the capacity to generate electricity through the alternator. The second is the power of the engine that drives the alternator. Most generators do come with circuit breakers to limit excessive amounts of current. If after a few seconds of extra current then the circuit breaker will trip and shut down. This security allows starting watts to come through, but if the excess wattage lasts for more then a few seconds then the system trips and overloads. While your generator may survive being overloaded I cannot say the same thing about the appliances that are hooked up to it. It is best to to know exactly how many watts that you need before running your generator to ensure safety and to protect the generator as well as your appliances.


If you take anything from this article I hope that it is the importance of measuring how many starting and running watts you need for your generator. Once you have that number of required watts add an additional twenty or thirty percent just to give yourself some more leeway. If you have more questions on sizing your generator and what to look for then I suggest you visit our Generator Sizing Guide by clicking here. Also, if you are in the market for purchasing a generator then check out our ‘Best Generators’ guide by clicking here.

Remember folks, safety first when it comes to generators. While they can be great tools and can give you that needed power in hard times they can also be very dangerous. There are numerous injuries each year due to improper generator usage. If you are unsure on how to use a generator or how to set one up please check out our Safety Guide by clicking here.

Lastly, please note that this article is meant as advice and is for informational purposes only. We here at ToughAssTools are not liable for any property damage, injuries, or anything else when it comes to generator installation and usages.

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson


You may also like