Are You Using Your Generator Safely?
9 critical do’s and don’ts to get you through the next power outage
Hurricanes, Nor’easters, floods and Snowmaggedons are making power outages a little too common. More people are turning to portable generators to provide back-up power to key appliances during a blackout. But though generators are a lifesaver in terms of keeping a space heater and refrigerator running and some lights on, they can be deadly if not used correctly.
Between 1999 and 2012, 725 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators. Generators pose other risks as well, including electric shock and fire.
Here are nine tips to keep you, your family and home safe when using a generator.
1. Don’t use a portable generator indoors. Generators produce odorless carbon monoxide, which can be fatal if the fumes build up inside the home. “Never use a portable generator inside your garage, a crawl space or basement,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL.
2. Place it away from open windows, doors or ventilation systems. Also think of your neighbors. “We always recommend keeping the generator away from windows and vents of other homes and buildings too,” says Drengenberg.
3. Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms. Carbon monoxide is odorless, so having an alarm in your home that doesn’t rely on electrical power to alert you to danger is critical.
4. Place the generator under a canopy. A generator may become a shock hazard when exposed to moisture, including from rain or snow. Don’t put a tarp directly on top of the generator or the exhaust, or it could melt. Keep it suspended above it, says Drengenberg. Do not touch the generator with wet hands.
5. Don’t connect the generator to the circuit breaker box of your house. You risk electrocuting power line workers. That’s because your home-generated electricity can travel out to the lines that the power company assumes are dead. The only way to connect a generator to your house directly is to have an electrician install a UL-certified transfer switch, which essentially disconnects your home from the grid. Instead, just run extension cords into your home and plug in individual appliances and lights.
6. Buy a more powerful generator than you need. Using a generator that provides more power than you need means you avoid overloading it. An overloaded generator could trigger a fire. To help determine how much power you’d want to pull from the generator, look at the power readings on the appliances you want to keep running during a power outage — the fridge, some lights, a space heater — and add up the total amps and wattage.
7. Get an outdoor extension cord. Make sure it’s rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the appliances you plan to connect. Ditto for any power strips you connect to the generator.
8. Practice. Learn to use your generator as soon as you buy it. “Standing out there in a windstorm is not the best time to figure out how to start it,” says Drengenberg. Run it every month or so to make sure it’s working properly.
9. Store fuel safely. Store fuel in your garage or shed, away from living areas and any other fuel-burning appliance. Never store fuel near the generator. Always use the proper fuel for the appliance. And before refueling, shut down the generator and allow it to cool.