Safety tips from Safe Electricity
Having a generator on hand, whether portable or permanent, may sound like a great idea for times when the power goes out, but misusing one is dangerous. Although they can help light your home or cool your perishable food when the neighborhood is dark, if used incorrectly you could have a much bigger problem on your hands.
When using a portable generator, there are two ways to connect it to a home. The first way is with a powered circuit panel that has a power transfer switch, which monitors incoming voltage from the utility line. The circuit panel and transfer switch should always be installed by a qualified electrician. The second option is to plug a limited number of home appliances directly into a fuel-powered portable generator with heavy-duty extension cords.
Never try to power your home by plugging a generator into a wall outlet. This is known as back feeding, and it could electrocute a neighbor or an electric lineman working to restore power.
A permanent generator must also have a transfer switch installed by a qualified electrician to avoid back feeding. Because of the harm an incorrectly powered generator can cause, the transfer switch is required by the National Electrical Code.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the primary hazards of using a portable generator include carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock or electrocution, and fire. Most of the deaths and injuries associated with portable generators are from CO poisoning when generators are used indoors or in partially enclosed spaces. A permanent or standby generator also has significant risks if not installed by a qualified electrician. Installing one is extremely dangerous and definitely not a DIY project.
Portable versions are less expensive than permanent or standby models and power only select appliances. The most expensive permanent generators — standby versions that are permanently installed and power most of the appliances in your home—are convenient but pricey. The average permanent system costs around $10,000.
Lights out? Read this before starting up your generator.
Safe Electricity points to other important safeguards to take when using a generator:
Operate a portable generator in a well-ventilated location outdoors away from all doors, windows and vent openings to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning inside. The instructions that come with it are not meant for the recycle bin. Read and follow them; they are important.
Turn the generator on before using it. Once it’s running, turn your appliances and lights on one at a time to avoid overloading the unit. Generators are for temporary use and limited load; prioritize your needs.
Never use a generator in a puddle or standing water and never touch with wet hands.
To protect a portable generator from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure.
Never use or install a generator in an attached garage, even with the door open.
Turn off portable generators and let cool down before refueling. Never refuel a generator while it is running.
Store fuel for your portable generator in a container that is intended for that purpose and is correctly labeled as such. Store the containers outside of living areas.
Keep children and pets away from all generators, especially portable ones. Many generator components are hot enough to burn you during operation.
Using a generator is serious business and shouldn’t be done in haste. Learn more about using electricity safely and efficiently at SafeElectricity.org.