Electrical Safety and Generators
When power lines are down and homes are without electricity, residents can restore energy to their homes or other structures by using a generator as an alternative power source. Purchasing a backup generator removes a lot of the inconvenience that comes with outages. However, generators must be used properly to ensure the complete safety of all parties involved, from the homeowner to children and pets to the linemen working on your Co-op's power lines to restore full power to the neighborhood.
Tips for Purchasing Generators
When shopping for a generator for your home, there are two main types you are likely to consider.
Stationary or stand-by generators are generators that are permanently wired into your home by a professional electrician. These generators are fueled by gas or propane from existing gas lines, and will automatically turn on in the event of an outage. During installation, the electrician should install a transfer switch, which keeps your home's circuits separate from your Co-op's. This is to prevent potentially fatal backfeed which can affect lineworkers working on local power lines to restore electricity (more on backfeed below).
Portable generators that must be set up and turned on and off manually. These are typically powered by diesel or gasoline and must be refilled regularly. Appliances must be plugged directly into outlets on portable generators, using properly rated extension cords (ensuring proper load capacity and length).
When purchasing a generator, it is important to consider what appliances in your home are necessities which need to be powered during outages. A portable generator will not be capable of powering your entire home, so you will have to prioritize. Items like your lights and refrigerator are a given, as well as heating systems, water heaters, or well pumps. You should try to calculate the number of watts you will need to run the necessities in your home and ensure you purchase a generator capable of handling more than that load, to cover the extra electricity necessary to start up some appliances.
Electrical and Fire Safety
When operating a generator, adhere strictly to the manufacturer's guidelines to ensure safe and proper use. Local ordinances regarding noise, electricity, and positioning of generators should also be followed to prevent any unexpected problems. You should also follow this additional advice to prevent potential electrocutions or fires from misuse of a stand-by or portable generator:
- Always start your portable generator BEFORE plugging any appliances into it to prevent a potential power surge. Once the generator is running, turn your appliances and lights on one at a time to avoid overloading the unit. Remember, generators are for temporary usage. Prioritize your needs.
- NEVER connect a generator directly into your home's electrical system, either through an outlet or through your home's wiring. This can cause a dangerous backfeed effect which sends a dangerous electrical current from your home back that can re-energize overhead power lines, which can injure or kill unsuspecting lineworkers there to restore your community's power. Instead, appliances must be plugged directly into the outlets on your generator. Electrocutions are the fifth leading cause of all occupational deaths.
- Always use heavy duty, suitably rated extension cords to connect appliances to your generator. These must be able to handle proper electrical loads and be long enough to reach your generator.
- Generators can pose an electrical risk, especially in wet conditions. Ensure your generator stays dry during operation and that you do not handle electrical equipment with wet hands. In wet weather, you can protect the generator by operating it under an open, canopy-like structure on a dry surface where water cannot form puddles or drain under it.
- Exercise caution around generators with exposed engine parts which can potentially burn you. Children and pets should be kept away from generators to prevent any risks of injury.
- Be sure the generator is turned off and cool before fueling it. Use care when refueling to prevent potential fires or spills.
- Properly shut down your generator by first turning off and unplugging all appliances being powered by the generator.
- Make sure you perform regular maintenance on your generator before and after each use.
- You should inspect the oil and fuel filters, oil level, spark plugs, and fuel quality on your portable generators.
- Standby generators require less maintenance but should be inspected before and after outages.
When using gasoline- and diesel-powered portable generators to supply power to a building, switch the main breaker or fuse on the service panel to the "off" position prior to starting the generator. This will prevent power lines from being inadvertently energized by backfeed electrical energy from the generators, and help protect utility line workers or other repair workers or people in neighboring buildings from possible electrocution. If the generator is plugged into a household circuit without turning the main breaker to the “off” position or removing the main fuse, the electrical current could reverse, go back through the circuit to the outside power grid, and energize power lines or electrical systems in other buildings to, at, or near their original voltage without the knowledge of utility or other workers.
If there are any questions regarding the operation or installation of the portable generator, a qualified electrician should be immediately contacted to assist in installation and start-up activities. The generator should always be positioned outside the structure.
Carbon Monoxide Hazards
Generator use is also a major cause of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Generators should always be operated outside of the building they are used to power, away from your garage, windows, doors, or vents. Carbon monoxide from generators is DEADLY, so the utmost care should be taken to avoid exposure. Always operate your generator in a well ventilated area where carbon monoxide buildup will not be a problem.