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Improper Generator Use Can be Deadly

September 3, 2020

Phone: 217.546-.6815

Email: info@safeelectricity.org (for contact over weekends please call 217.546.6815)

Hurricane Laura’s wrath has left many without power. Unfortunately, the majority of the deaths attributed to Her fury has been linked to improper use of generators.

There are two major types of generators: portable and standby or permanent. During long-term power outages, many rely on portable generators for emergency power.  Their growing popularity has resulted in millions of them being placed in homes and small businesses across the nation. But it’s estimated only a small percentage are hooked up correctly. Safe Electricity urges consumers to understand the proper safety steps that must be taken.

Without taking the proper precautions, using a generator could endanger you and others; in fact, it could cost you your life or the lives of others, including your family, friends, neighbors and electric utility crews trying to restore service.

“We cannot emphasize this enough: NEVER use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces such as garages (even if garage door is open), crawl spaces, or basements,” advises Erin Hollinshead, executive director of Safe Electricity. “Make sure the generator has 3 to 4 feet of cleared space around it and place it at least 20 feet away from all doors and windows. Do not use in an area that is wet or damp and never plug a generator into a wall outlet or connect directly to a home’s wiring.

“Carbon monoxide emitted from generators is an odorless, colorless, toxic gas, making it extremely dangerous, and just being exposed to it for a few minutes can be fatal,” Hollinshead warns.

Permanent Standby Generators

Properly connecting the generator into the system is a critical step for safe and effective use. A licensed professional should install a permanent, standby electric generator and can help with proper equipment for safely using a portable generator.

All standby generators require a permanently (and professionally) installed transfer switch. (High-end generators permanently installed to power some or all rooms of the home typically have the switch built into the system. Other generators require you to manually throw the switch.)

The transfer switch as an important job, and that is to break the path of electricity between the power lines and your main electrical panel.  This is the best way to protect you, your neighbors and electric utility repair crews from ‘backfeed,’ which occurs when an improperly connected generator begins feeding electricity “back” through the power lines.  This can seriously injure anyone near lines, especially crews working to restore power.

“Safety for those who use generators and for those who work to restore power cannot be over-emphasized,” says Hollinshead.  “Consult a qualified electrician to ensure proper installation and electrical grounding, as well as to prevent circuit overloads and to meet local electrical code.”

Portable Generators

Many homeowners choose smaller, portable generators to power essential electrical equipment during outages. Safe Electricity offers these tips for the safe operation and use of portable generators:

  • Read and follow all manufacturer operating instructions to properly ground the generator. Be sure you understand them before hooking up the generator.
  • Maintain adequate ventilation. Generators emit carbon monoxide.  NEVER operate a generator in your home, garage, or other enclosed building. Place it in a dry, outside location.
  • Never plug a portable electric generator into a wall outlet or connect directly to a home’s wiring.  This can energize utility power lines and injure you or others working nearby.  Electrical back feed also can damage the generator and home electrical equipment.
  • Turn off generator and allow cooling before refueling. Gasoline and its vapors may ignite if they come in contact with hot components or an electrical spark. Store fuel in a properly designed container in a secure location.
  • Protect your appliances. Turn off or disconnect all appliances and lights before you begin operating the portable generator. Once the generator is running, turn your appliances and lights on one at a time to avoid overloading the unit.
  • Use proper extension cords. Use only safety-tested, shop-type electrical cords designed and rated for heavier, outdoor use to connect appliances.  Many generators are equipped with twist-lock connects to reduce the chance of accidental disconnections due to vibrations.
  • Shut down generator properly. Before shutting down a generator, turn off and unplug all appliances and equipment being powered by the generator.
  • Remember maintenance between uses. It’s important to drain the gasoline from the generator while it is being stored. It’s also a good idea to inspect the fuel and oil filters, spark plug, oil level and fuel quality and start the generator on a regular basis before an emergency situation happens.

Safe Electricity suggests that these safety guidelines and basic operating instructions be posted in the home and with the generator.

Safe Electricity is the award-winning, public awareness program of the Energy Education Council, a 501(c) 3 (not-for-profit organization) established in 1952 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With offices located in Springfield, Ill., Safe Electricity operates under the University of Illinois Extension and is led by the EEC Board of Directors. Since the Safe Electricity program was created in 2001, it has provided thousands of safety-minded resources to its more than 500 utility members from across the country to help save lives and reduce injuries.