Severe weather can cause extensive damage to power lines. When an extended power failure results, portable and standby generators can be great emergency resources.
LPEA Safety Specialist Trenton Webber reminds us that generators must be connected safely and used properly. The two biggest hazards are carbon monoxide poisoning and "back-feed."
Prevent carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Always place the generator outdoors and make certain it is vented to the open air. Never operate it indoors, in a confined area (such as a garage, shed, or similar area), or near windows and doors, even with fans running.
Generators produce gases, including deadly carbon monoxide (CO), which you can't see or smell. If you feel sick, dizzy or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air immediately. CO can build up and linger for hours after the generator is turned off.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Install battery-operated CO alarms or plug-in CO alarms with battery backup in your home. Test CO alarms often and replace batteries as needed.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) from generators can also be a problem if it displaces too much oxygen.
Avoid back-feed. An improperly connected generator can "back-feed" electricity from a home to the power line. The same transformer that reduces power line voltage for home use — 120/240 volts — will increase generator voltage to 7,200 volts or greater, and send it into the path of a lineman working to restore power. This can be fatal.
Consumers who plan to wire a standby generator into their electrical system should coordinate the work through a licensed electrical contractor.
The following tips may help portable and standby generator users protect themselves, their families and LPEA linemen from back-feed and other hazards. Careful operation helps prevent appliance damage as well.
Plug appliances directly into the portable generator. Note its wattage capacity to avoid a dangerous overload. Using too many appliances increases the risk of an electrical fire and may damage connected home appliance.
Before you plug in appliances, have the generator running at full speed. Appliances plugged in prior to starting the generator may be damaged as the generator starts and reaches full power.
Never wire a portable, temporary generator fired by gasoline or diesel fuel to a circuit breaker, fuse, outlet or your home's service entrance panel.
The most common portable units — like those used at home construction sites — allow you to plug individual items, like power tools and small appliances, directly into the generator. It powers only those items and is not connected to your home's electrical wiring.
Get help from a qualified electrician to connect a standby generator directly to your electrical system. Special precautions should be taken to make sure the installation is safe and complies with the National Electrical Code. An electrician can help you obtain proper switches and connections for this type of generator.
If the generator requires direct wiring, install a double-throw switch or auxiliary generator panel. The switch makes it possible to connect to the main power source OR the generator, but will not allow connection to both at the same time.
This switch protects lineworkers from the dangers of unknown "live" wires, and protects the generator and connected appliances from damage that could occur if the generator is operating when the main power source is restored.
If you loan your generator to someone else, they must also have this double-throw switch or generator panel.
Handle fuel safely and refuel the generator carefully. Make sure the engine is cool to prevent a fire, should the tank overflow. Store gasoline, propane, kerosene and other flammable liquids outside of living areas. Use properly labeled non-glass safety containers. Do not store fuel near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater. To prevent potentially fatal injuries and appliance damage, use generators with great care.