We rely on electricity for all aspects of our lives. When it goes away, so do climate control, food storage and preparation, lights, and many forms of communication. Many times, a large-scale power outage is one of several secondary emergencies following a major disaster like a tornado, winter storm, or earthquake. If power lines are down over a large area, it may take days or even weeks for crews to get the power back on (a fact long-time Lexingtonians will recall from the 2003 and 2009 ice storms).
Read the manual
If you have a generator or are planning on getting one, make sure you read the owner’s manual and instruction booklet before using it. If the manual is lost, find the manufacturer’s website. It’s likely you can either download and print out a manual or have one sent to you.
Never use a generator indoors or in an attached garage
A portable generator uses an internal combustion engine that exhausts a deadly gas called carbon monoxide (CO). CO is odorless and colorless. It displaces oxygen in the air. Breathing in CO can cause dizziness, headaches and nausea. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent nerve and brain damage and death.
If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air immediately. Do not delay! Carbon monoxide from generators can rapidly kill you and family members. In addition to a smoke and fire alarm, your home should have a carbon monoxide detector/alarm. These alarms should be certified to the requirements of the latest safety standards (UL 2034, IAS 6-96, or CSA 6.19.01). Test your CO detector’s batteries monthly.
Be sure to place the generator outside where exhaust fumes will not enter into enclosed spaces. Keep generators at least 20 feet away from homes and structures. Only operate a generator outdoors in a well-ventilated, dry area, away from air intakes to the home. The generator should be protected from direct exposure to rain and snow. If possible, a small tent or structure will keep the generator dry and ventilated.
Don’t plug your generator directly into your home’s existing wiring system
Connecting a portable electric generator directly to your household wiring can be deadly. A generator that is directly connected to your home’s wiring can “backfeed” into the power lines connected to your home. Utility transformers can then increase this lower electrical voltage to thousands of volts. That’s more than enough to kill a utility lineman making outage repairs many miles away. You could also cause expensive damage to utility equipment, your home appliances, and your generator.
If you want to hard-wire a generator to your home, hire a licensed electrician to install an approved cut-off or transfer switch that will automatically disconnect the home from the power grid when the generator is being used. Check with the local utility company and building office before installing a hard-wired generator.
Use your generator properly
All generators have a power rating. They should be used only when necessary and only to power a limited number of appliances or equipment.
The total wattage used by the appliances should be less than the output rating of the generator. If you put too many appliances on the generator, it could seriously damage the appliances and electronics. Overloading the generator could also cause fires in the power cord. If in doubt, don’t add that extra load to the generator.
Make sure your generator is properly grounded to avoid electrical shocks. Check the owner’s manual for correct grounding information.
The correct way to use a generator is to connect a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated power cord to the generator. Appliances can then be connected to the power cord, as long as they are in the wattage range that the generator can supply. Make sure that the outdoor-rated power cord has a sufficient wire gauge to handle the electrical load. Check that the entire length of each cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs. Protect the cord from getting pinched or crushed if it passes through a window or doorway.
Watch for fire and burn hazards
Always have a fully charged, approved fire extinguisher located near the generator.
Many generator parts are hot enough to burn you during operation. Stay away from the muffler and other hot areas. Keep children and pets away.
Never store fuel for your generator in the home. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly-labeled, non-glass safety containers. Do not store them near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater in a garage.
Extinguish all flames or cigarettes when handling fuel or the generator.
Shut off the generator before refueling. Turn off all equipment powered by the generator before shutting it down.
Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Fuel spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.
Here’s more on generator safety from the Portable Generator Manufacturer’s Association