A portable generator can keep your loved ones warm, the food safe from spoilage, and light the darkness until morning or when grid power comes back on line.
However, a portable electric generator, like any other piece of power equipment, comes with its own set of risks. The following 9 safe practices on using a generator will keep your family and home safe while you wait out the power outage in your town or city.
- 1. Never Operate Your Generator Indoors
- 2. Ground Properly
- 3. Install Carbon Monoxide Alarms
- 4. Temporary Use Only, Not a Permanent Solution
- 5. Only Use Extension Cords With a 3-Pronged Plug
- 6. Don’t Overload the Generator
- 7. Always Use a Transfer Switch
- 8. Get a Qualified Electrician to Install a Standby Generator
- 9. Keep Your Generator 20 Feet from the House
- Generator Safety Tips: Final Thoughts
1. Never Operate Your Generator Indoors
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that from 2005 to 2017 (most recent data) 880 fatalities (deaths) occurred from improper use or accidents involving home generators. Almost all of these deaths came from carbon-monoxide poisoning where the generator was inside the home, or the exhaust fumes from the generator blew into the home or RV. Hence our first and most important rule – never operate a generator indoors!
Always ensure that the generator has at least 3 to 4 feet of clear space all around it and that it is placed not less than 20 feet from open windows.
Generators produce toxic carbon monoxide gas that can easily fill an enclosed space to deadly levels in just a few minutes. It is an odorless gas, which means that the space can quickly fill with carbon monoxide and reach toxic levels without you knowing it. That’s why it is always advisable to avoid operating your generator indoors and keep your carbon monoxide alarm on at all times.
2. Ground Properly
Take care to properly ground your generator to avoid the risk of electrocution. Fortunately, most of today’s portable generators come already grounded. Also, if you plug appliances directly into the generator, it will not require any additional grounding.
To find out whether your generator requires grounding, check the manufacturer’s instructions. If you don’t have those instructions on hand, the next best way to determine if grounding is needed is to check the transfer switch. If it is designed such that it can be transferred to a neutral ground conductor, then the generator requires grounding and vice versa.
3. Install Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Generator misuse can lead to death due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, burns, and injuries from close calls, which all happen far too often during storms and power outages. Still, CO poisoning is the biggest problem. When operating, a portable generator is quickly accumulating carbon monoxide levels, which is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas.
To reduce the risk and prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, install CO detectors outside bedrooms and on each level of the home for early detection before it reaches deadly levels. Ensure that the CO alarm/detector is either battery operated or has a battery backup. You must also regularly test the alarm to ensure it still works and that you can hear your carbon monoxide alarm sounds throughout the house.
4. Temporary Use Only, Not a Permanent Solution
Portable generators provide a limited supply of electricity ranging from 2 to 4 outlets or a few specific outlets when plugged into the panel. However, they are designed for temporary use only and they are not a permanent solution to your power outage problems.
If you are looking for a permanent solution, you should consider investing in a home standby generator, also referred to as a stationary generator. These kinds of generators are permanently installed by professionals and have insulated weatherproof housing that ensures that they stay relatively quiet.
5. Only Use Extension Cords With a 3-Pronged Plug
If you are unable to plug in an appliance to the generator, use a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cord. Ensure that the cord is rated in watts or amps to more than a total load of connected appliances including any start-up requirements.
If your generator has a 3-pronged plug, you should only use a 3-prong extension cord. To prevent heat buildup, uncoil the cords or lay them flat in open locations. It is also advisable to visually inspect the entire cord to ensure that it doesn't have any cuts or tears and that all the 3 pins are undamaged.
6. Don’t Overload the Generator
The total power of connected appliance loads should always be less than the output rating of the portable generator they are connected to. Overloading the generator can easily damage the devices and appliances connected to it, as well as cause overheating or generator failure. It may even cause cord-related fires.
You can estimate the required watts using numerous freely available online calculators. For instance, let’s say that your TV requires 300 watts, your AC system requires 1,500 watts, with a starting requirement of 2,000 watts, and your PC requires 250 watts. If you wish to run all of them simultaneously, you require at least 2,750 watts of power and at least a 3,000-watt generator.
7. Always Use a Transfer Switch
If you are using the generator for backup power, it is always advisable to have a transfer switch installed by an electrician. The power transfer switch is installed next to the electrical panel and allows you to power the plugs already in your home. It can even power a well pump or furnace that’s already connected to the circuits in your home. It can also help with power management.
8. Get a Qualified Electrician to Install a Standby Generator
The electricity that a standby generator supplies pose the same hazards as regular utility-supplied electricity. If the generator bypasses various safety devices including circuit breakers built into your electrical system, you can face additional risks.
If you plan to connect your standby generator to your house wiring, it is always advisable to have a qualified and competent electrician do the installation. You need the right transfer switch that meets all the requirements of local electrical codes and is definitely not a DIY job.
9. Keep Your Generator 20 Feet from the House
It is never advisable to use a generator in any kind of enclosed space. As explained above, the combustion processes that power the generator typically produce toxic carbon monoxide gas, which is odorless, tasteless, colorless, and almost impossible to detect without dedicated equipment.
That’s why you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks by misjudging the distance you should maintain from vehicles, houses, and other enclosed structures at all times, which is never less than at least 20 feet. However, more is preferable depending on the specific make and model of the generator.
Generator Safety Tips: Final Thoughts
Portable or permanently installed generators can be wonderful backup sources of power in case of a power outage or emergency situation. However, they come with their own set of rules for safe use, which if breached, can be dangerous. That’s why it is always advisable to follow the 9 guidelines provided here when using generators.