When the power goes out, having a generator means that you can continue to have heat, light, and many of the other conveniences we’ve come to enjoy. But there’s a darker side to generators that many people fail to consider.
Indiana Electric Cooperatives (IEC) wants to make sure that local home and business owners use these generators safely. “The hazards associated with portable generators include electric shock, carbon monoxide gas, and fire,” explains Rick Coons, CEO at IEC. “Most of those problems can be avoided with proper use and maintenance.”
IEC offers these tips for safe generator use:
- Be sure that your generator is properly grounded. It’s a good idea to attach it to a portable ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) that will stop the flow of electricity if someone is being shocked.
- Do not exceed the generator’s power rating or you may damage the generator and any equipment that’s hooked up to it. Overloading a generator can also cause fires.
- If you have to use an extension cord, choose an outdoor cord that has a power rating that can accommodate the total load from the appliances and devices you’ll power.
- Never try to use the generator to power the wiring in your house by plugging it into a wall outlet. This approach, called “backfeeding,” can endanger the lives of power company workers and your neighbors by sending unexpected, uncontrolled current through the lines.
- Don’t use your generator in wet conditions. If it’s raining or snowing, place some sort of canopy above the generator to protect it from moisture.
- Disconnect and shut down all equipment that’s hooked up to the generator before you shut it down.
- Don’t refuel your generator when it’s running, because its parts will be hot. Shut the generator down and let it cool.
- Store fuel for your generator in properly sealed containers outside your home, and far away from heat sources such as the generator, a furnace, or a water heater.
- Generators tend to become hot when operating, so avoid touching them, and keep children and pets away from them.
In addition to the electrical risks associated with portable generators, owners should also be aware of other dangers. Portable generators burn gasoline, propane, or another fuel to generate electricity, and that combustion creates exhaust that contains carbon monoxide. “Carbon monoxide is deadly, but it is completely colorless and odorless, so you won’t know if it’s there,” says Coons. “In most deaths and poisonings, someone was overcome after placing a generator indoors or in a partially enclosed area. Opening a window or a door doesn’t provide sufficient ventilation. If you’re going to use a generator, it must be located outside, away from windows or vents that could draw the exhaust indoors. As an added precaution, install a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector in your home, and test it regularly.”
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, four in five carbon monoxide deaths caused by portable generators occur in the home, and a third of those deaths happen when generators are being used after weather knocks out the lights. In fact, in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, 50 cases of carbon monoxide relating to temporary generators were reported, including five deaths.
“Most of all, be sure you read the generator’s operating manual,” adds Coons. “It will tell you how to operate the generator safely and correctly, so you’ll get the results you want without creating any dangerous hazards.”
SOURCES: Consumer Energy Center, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Electrical Safety Foundation International.