Follow the Rules to Safely Use Portable Generators

Portable generators can be helpful during an extended power outage. But if not operated properly, you can place yourself as well as line crews from your electric co-op at risk of injury or death.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 190 non-fire carbon monoxide-poisoning deaths occurred in 2008, according to its most recent data. Most were related to portable generator use.

First rule of thumb? Never, ever use a generator indoors—even with windows open—or in an enclosed area, including an attached garage. Locate the generator where fumes cannot filter into your home through windows or doors—even 15 feet is too close. Carbon monoxide, which is odorless and invisible, can build up to lethal levels in a matter of minutes. If you plan to use a generator, install a carbon monoxide detector, and test the batteries monthly.

To avoid risk of shock, use your generator only on a dry surface where rain or snow can’t leak or puddle underneath. If precipitation poses a problem, create an open-air, tent-like structure above the unit, but make sure to leave at least 3 to 4 feet of space above and around it to vent carbon monoxide.

You also need to protect folks working to restore power. Never plug your portable generator into a wall outlet in your home. This produces “backfeeding”—a dangerous risk to the safety of lineworkers because it can energize power lines thought to be dead. For stationary generators that are permanently installed, a licensed electrician will need to install a “transfer switch” that complies with the National Electric Code. The switch safely cuts the electricity to the power lines. And be sure to call Pioneer Electric before you install a generator to ensure safety for yourself and lineworkers.

A few other rules are important to keep top of mind:

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety tips for your generator.
  • Plug appliances into the outlet on the generator using only heavy-duty extension cords marked specifically for outdoor use. Check the wattage use of each appliance plugged in and make sure the total does not exceed the cord’s wattage rating. In addition, the cords should have three prongs and should not be frayed or cut.
  • Shut down the generator and let it cool down before you refuel—gasoline or kerosene spilled on a hot generator could start a fire.
  • If you’re buying your first portable generator, plan ahead. Count the wattages for the lighting and appliances—you’ll want to purchase a generator that can handle the load.