Generator safety overview: How to stay safe and well-powered
The importance of generator safety
If you live in an area prone to frequent power outages or natural disasters, generators can do a lot to protect your peace of mind. When the power goes out, your generator will provide you and your family with the electricity needed to stay safe, productive, and comfortable. However, generators themselves can pose a few safety hazards. User error can cause a number of dangers, including electrocution, fire, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Being aware of the dangers and the importance of generator safety can keep you and your family safe when using a generator.
Both portable and standby generators pose safety risks, though portable generators tend to offer more opportunities for user error. If you’re still deciding what kind of generator to buy, check out our article on the differences between portable and standby generators. You may also find AlltimePower’s free home generator calculator helpful in understanding your home energy needs. You’ll be able to calculate the size of the generator you need as well as how much it is likely to cost. You’ll also have the option to have qualified generator dealers in your area bid to give you a generator at the lowest cost.
Portable generator safety
Before buying and operating a portable generator, it’s vital to understand how to properly run it and avoid safety hazards. You should always run a portable generator outside in an open and dry area. Keep it away from water. In case of rain, you may want to buy a portable generator tent, which will keep the generator dry and the area well-ventilated. You should also be careful never to touch the generator with wet hands, as this could put you at risk of electrocution.
For maximum safety, have a transfer switch installed before operating the generator. A transfer switch allows you to connect the generator to your circuit panel without using extension cords, which keeps the risk of electrocution much lower. If you must use an extension cord, make sure it is a heavy-duty one that is rated at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads and free of cuts or damage. Disconnect the power in your home before operating the generator. You should also make sure your generator is properly grounded before running it, which also helps prevent electrical shocks.
One of the most dangerous things you can do when operating a portable generator is to backfeed your house, which is to say plugging the generator into a wall outlet in an attempt to power your home’s wiring. This not only poses an electrocution risk to you, but it may also put utility workers or neighbors at risk. Backfeeding may also fry some of your electronics or even start a fire because it bypasses your home’s circuit protection devices. If you’re ever unsure how to use your portable generator, call a qualified electrician for instruction.
The danger of carbon monoxide poisoning
Unfortunately, electrocution is not the only risk posed by portable generators. One of the most dangerous aspects of operating a portable generator is the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the U.S. In fact, in some natural disasters, more deaths are caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from the improper use of a generator than by the natural disaster itself. Carbon monoxide is an invisible and odorless gas that can cause unconsciousness, neurological damage, and death when concentrated in an enclosed space.
To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, never run your portable generator indoors or in other enclosed spaces, such as a garage or shed. You should always run the generator at least 15 feet away from your house, making sure that the engine exhaust is pointing away from any windows or doors. It’s a good idea to have a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector nearby. Some portable generators come with a built-in carbon monoxide detection system that automatically shuts the generator off when it detects high levels of the gas.
Even if you are operating the generator in an outdoor space, you should still keep yourself and others away from the exhaust pipe as much as possible. Even non-life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide can cause neurological damage. Symptoms include dizziness, confusion, sleepiness, headache, nausea, and vomiting. If you believe you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, you should immediately seek clean air and call your primary care physician or, in more severe cases, 911.
Generator fuel safety
The danger posed by gasoline doesn’t stop at carbon monoxide poisoning. The gasoline itself can be dangerous, especially if it’s not handled properly. Always give the generator time to cool off before refueling it with gasoline; if gasoline were spilled on a hot part of the generator, it could start a fire. Typically, homeowners who own a gasoline-powered generator store gasoline for immediate use in case of a power outage. When storing gasoline, it’s important to follow safety procedures to prevent a fire or explosion.
You should only store gasoline in an ANSI-approved container of 5 gallons or less in a cool and well-ventilated space. Fire codes often restrict homeowners to 25 gallons or less, but check with local authorities to be sure. Leave some room at the top of the container to allow the gasoline to expand. Keep the containers sealed to avoid spilling them. Don’t store it inside the house, and keep it away from any potential sources of heat, such as a hot water heater or furnace. It’s also a good idea to keep them out of direct sunlight.
Garages or sheds detached from the house make good storage spaces for the gasoline. If a space like this is not available, make sure the gasoline containers are at least 50 feet away from any sources of heat. Even if the gasoline itself does not spill, gasoline vapors may travel along the ground to ignition sources, which could start a fire. You should also add stabilizer to the gasoline to increase safety. For additional regulations, check with your local authorities.
Standby generator safety
Because standby generators are installed by professionals, contain weather-proof casing, and turn on automatically during a power outage, they tend to be safer than portable generators. Still, it’s important to treat standby generators as machines capable of causing serious harm. Do not tamper with the casing around the generator or attempt to make repairs on your own without the help of a qualified electrician. Electrocution can still occur if you or your family tamper with the standby generator’s wiring or engine.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is much rarer for standby generators. For one thing, since they are installed by professionals, they are usually operated in an open space. Do not build any enclosed structures, such as a garage or shed, around the generator after it is installed, and try to keep it clear of fallen leaves and other debris. A small fence around the generator, however, would be unlikely to pose a threat, and it may help keep pets and small children safe from tampering with the generator.
If the standby generator is powered by diesel or propane instead of gasoline, it will not produce carbon monoxide in as high of quantities, though some will still be produced. If it is powered by natural gas, the generator will not produce any carbon monoxide if it is functioning properly, but if a malfunction causes the natural gas not to burn completely, carbon monoxide may be produced.
Maintenance and inspection
To prevent a potentially dangerous malfunction, it’s important to properly maintain a portable or standby generator and schedule regular inspections. If you own a portable generator, you should run your generator about once a month. This keeps the engine healthy and allows you to check to make sure everything is running properly. You’ll want to check oil and fuel levels every time you run the generator. If anything seems amiss, have a professional take a look at the engine.
If you own a standby generator, you should run your generator at least once a week. Every time you run the generator, check oil and coolant levels, as well as fuel levels if the generator is not attached to gas lines. Every 6 to 12 months, you should hire a technician to perform a more detailed inspection. If you don’t already have a maintenance plan for your generator, most dealers offer maintenance packages. For more information on standby generator maintenance, read our blog post on the subject or contact your generator dealer.
Regardless of whether you own a portable or standby generator, regular maintenance and inspection plans are important steps to keeping your generator running smoothly and preventing any potentially dangerous malfunctions. Generators are complicated electrical machines capable of causing life-threatening electric shocks, fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, so it’s important to treat them with care. To find a qualified dealer in your area that will provide high-quality, safe generators, try using our free home generator service. It will also allow you to calculate how much a generator would cost and what size generator would be right for your home.
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