Electricity is such a necessity that some people — especially those who rely on electricity for life-sustaining devices — keep a portable generator on hand in case the power goes out. Generators are useful as a backup power source during emergencies or as the primary power source where electricity is not available.
Though they serve an important purpose, generators can also be dangerous and deadly. The energy experts at your electric cooperative warn you to be careful before firing up your generator.
“Anytime you use a generator, you’re putting yourself at risk,” Rick Coons, CEO at Indiana Electric Cooperatives said. “You can get shocked — or even electrocuted — from improper use of power or accidentally energizing other electrical systems.
“The first thing you should do when you purchase a generator is to read its instruction manual,” [NAME] said. “Since there are so many hazards associated with a generator, you need to make sure you know what you’re dealing with.”
One of the most important rules of generator use: You must NEVER attach a generator directly to your home’s electrical system unless a qualified electrician has installed the generator with a transfer switch. If you ignore this advice, your generator can energize wiring systems that are far from your home (this is called “backfeed”) which means utility workers and others could be electrocuted because of your carelessness. You could also damage utility equipment, your appliances and your generator.
“When plugging your appliances directly into the generator, only use the cords supplied by the manufacturer or grounded, three-pronged extension cords,” Coons warned. “Don’t overload the generator. If it overheats, it becomes a fire hazard.” Remember to use ground fault circuit interrupters and make sure the generator is properly grounded and that the grounding connections are tight.
A major risk from using a generator is carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. “Carbon monoxide is exhausted from generators whenever they are used and since CO is odorless and colorless, it can affect you without your knowledge,” Coons said. “That’s why you should never use a generator indoors.” Place your generator outdoors, making sure its exhaust fumes will not enter your home. When choosing a location for your generator, look for a dry, well-ventilated area and make sure it is protected from direct exposure to rain and snow.
If you are exposed to CO and experience symptoms like dizziness, headaches, nausea or tiredness, immediately get fresh air and seek medical attention.
Sources: OSHA, Briggs and Stratton, California Energy Commission
When buying a generator:
- Choose one rated for your power needs. Review the labels on the lighting, appliances and equipment you plan to connect to the generator.
- For lighting: the lightbulb’s wattage indicates the power needed.
- For equipment and appliances: power requirements are on the labels.
- The generator should produce more power than will be drawn by the lighting, appliances and equipment you connect to it. If the generator doesn’t produce enough power for your needs, don’t use all the equipment at the same time. If your equipment draws more power than the generator can produce, the equipment could be damaged or you could blow a fuse.
- If you can’t determine the amount of power you’ll need, ask an electrician to help you out.
Generator dos and don’ts
- Don’t use a generator indoors or in an attached garage. Generators are internal combustion engines that emit carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless poisonous gas that can lead to death.
- Do place your generator outside where exhaust fumes will not enter enclosed spaces. Make sure it is in a well-ventilated dry area away from rain and snow.
- Do install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your house so you know if carbon monoxide levels are dangerous.
- Don’t connect your generator directly to your home’s wiring. If you do, it can “backfeed” into the power lines connected to your home and could kill linemen who may be working to repair outages many miles away.
- Do connect heavy-duty, outdoor-rated power cords to the generator. Then, connect appliances to the power cord, being careful to ensure they are in the wattage range the generator can supply.
- Don’t overload the generator. Only use it to power a limited number of appliances or equipment.
- Do make sure your generator is properly grounded to avoid electrical shocks.
- Don’t store gasoline for generators indoors or in a garage if there’s a water heater or other fuel-burning appliance there.
- Do shut off the generator before refueling it. As well, turn off all equipment powered by the generator before shutting it off.
- Do have a fully charged fire extinguisher near the generator, just in case.
- Don’t touch a generator if you are wet or standing on a wet surface.
- Do keep children away from generators.
- Don’t leave a running generator unattended. Turn it off before you go to sleep or leave the house.
Source: California Energy Commission, Florida Power and Light