Follow 5 Safety Tips When Using Backup Generators After a Disaster
Extreme weather frequently knocks over electrical lines. Such power outages are common during disasters, and they can last for several days. With this year’s record-breaking hurricane season along with record wildfires on the West Coast, it may be a good idea to review basic safety measures when relying on a backup generator to bring a site back up and running.
Owners and residents who rely on backup generators for temporary power should be aware of the danger of inhaling carbon monoxide (CO). The biggest problem with backup generators during power outages and storms, according to reports from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is CO poisoning. Portable generators can produce deadly levels of carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. Carbon monoxide can kill you in as little as 5 minutes if the levels are high enough, according to safety guidelines from the National Institutes of Health. And data from the CPSC shows that from 2005 to 2017 more than 900 people died of CO poisoning while using portable generators.
In anticipation of a storm or future storms, you or your tenants may have obtained, or considered investing in, backup generators. Generators offer the convenience of using our everyday devices despite a prolonged power outage. They can even be life-saving in the case of hospitals or elderly persons who depend on oxygen machines. But they can be dangerous if used improperly. So before you fire up a backup generator, there are a few safety tips to keep in mind:
Tip #1: Place outside and strictly follow manufacturer recommendations. If it’s necessary to use a portable generator, manufacturer recommendations and specifications must be strictly followed. And the generator should always be positioned outside the structure. Generators emit carbon monoxide—as much as hundreds of cars, according to the U.S. Product Safety Commission—so portable generators should never be used indoors. Keep the generator as far as possible from windows and out of the rain. This means you’ll have to stay in the dark through the duration of the storm and wait for the downpour to pass before you start the engine.
Tip #2: Allow generator to cool before refueling. Gasoline is flammable and can pose a fire hazard in contact with a hot generator. The National Safety Council recommends allowing the generator to cool for at least two minutes before refueling and always use fresh gasoline. Also, generators should never be operated near combustible materials.
Tip #3: Get your wires straight. The National Fire Protection Association advises having a qualified electrician install a properly rated transfer switch if you plan to connect the generator to the building wiring to power appliances. A transfer switch connects the generator to your circuit panel and lets you power hardwired appliances while avoiding the safety risk of using extension cords. Most transfer switches also help you avoid overload by displaying wattage usage levels.
Otherwise, without a transfer switch, make sure devices are plugged directly into the generator or a heavy-duty outdoor-rated extension cord. Check all cords for tears or other signs of wear and make sure you’re using a grounded, three-prong plug.
Tip #4: Be mindful of backfeed. This is to prevent electrocutions associated with portable generators plugged into household circuits. The problem of backfeed in electrical energy is a potential risk for electrical energy workers. 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 before 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 you plug the generator 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 at or near their original voltage without the knowledge of utility or other workers.
Tip #5: Prioritize the necessities. Though it may be tempting to power your entire office or apartment to stave off the boredom of a prolonged blackout, generators ultimately are designed to power the necessities. Be careful not to overload your generator, as it could damage appliances or cause a fire, according to the California Energy Commission. Be sure the total wattage used is less than the output rating of the generator.