The demand for portable generators has increased substantially in recent years. There are myriad reasons for this increase. Emergency portable generators can have significant benefits to individuals and communities, helping to save lives, and lessening the hardships caused by natural disasters and lengthy power outages. Consumers should, however, be aware of the dangers associated with improper use of electric generators. We will highlight a few of these in the following paragraphs.
Portable Generators Produce Poisonous Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas discharged in generator exhaust. Inhalation of carbon monoxide is often lethal, and a number of deaths occur each year as a result of consumer generator use.
In 2004, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) studied deaths from generator use following four major hurricanes that struck land in the state of Florida. Powering air conditioners and other appliances during nighttime hours was the primary factor identified in generator-related deaths in the CPSC Florida study, and in each of the cited cases, improper location of the portable generator became key to the tragic outcome. In 2000, two children swimming behind a family houseboat on Utah’s Lake Powell drowned after losing consciousness when a portable generator beneath a swim deck produced dangerous fumes. Once again, poorly planned placement of a consumer-use generator was cited as the primary cause of the tragedy.
Because of many similar incidents, the Consumer Products Safety Commission promulgated in December, 2006 that all new generators sold after March of 2007 be affixed with labels setting forth technical and performance data, in addition to the following warning:
“Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES. Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell. NEVER use (generator) inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open. ONLY use outside and far away from windows, doors, and vents.”
The CDC reported that a small portable generator will produce the carbon-monoxide level of six idling cars, a reality that surprises many consumers. Carbon-monoxide levels can be compounded with generator use because the gas is heavy and tends to linger, making it difficult to expunge from an infected area. This means that generators are never safe to use indoors, including inside of open garages, and that during operation they should be located as far from residential units or buildings as possible. In particular, operation near windows, screen doors, vents, and air conditioning ducts should be avoided. Operators should also note wind direction, and locate generators so that prevailing air currents carry fumes away from nearby buildings or residences.
Though all portable generators produce carbon monoxide, certain models create less CO emissions than others. For example, generators equipped with overhead valve (OHV) engines, a standard design in modern models, produce less carbon monoxide emissions than models sporting older side-valve, pushrod engines. Any consumer who intends to use a portable generator in locations with restricted airflow should seek a model creating the fewest emissions possible.
Portable Generators must be Dry and Free from Debris
Safe emergency portable generator use requires planning. Since portable generators are often used in inclement weather, or during the night when visibility is restricted, understanding how and where to use them in advance is critical. It is best to operate generators only in open areas, and, whenever possible, in locations where the generators will be protected from falling debris like leaves and twigs, and from blowing rain, sleet, or snow. A portable generator should never be wet during operation. An operator should likewise never be standing in water or on damp ground when he or she starts a portable generator. Portable generators should always be grounded according to manufacturers’ recommendations. Methods of grounding vary by generator model, but in general will require that a generator be connected to a fixed metal object (for instance, a cold water pipe – spigots for hoses or sprinklers on the outside of the house can be effective choices for generator use).
If heavy debris falls onto the engine of a portable generator, covering it or restricting air flow, the unit can overheat, producing dangerous levels of heat that in extreme instances can even ignite debris. If possible, an operator should dislodge undesired debris from a generator using pressurized air rather than scooping the debris out by hand.
We recommend placing a portable generator atop a concrete pad which rests at least 15 feet from all residences or buildings. Ideally a small roof should cover the pad, leaving a minimum of three feet of clearance on all sides of the generator for ventilation purposes. Other suggested generator locations are beneath a canopy, or inside an open or well-ventilated shed or carport.
Portable Generators must be Properly Connected
A portable generator should never be plugged directly into a residential electrical system (i.e., a wall outlet). Appliances should either be plugged straight into a generator outlet, or into a generator-ready extension cord (often referred to on packaging as “generator cords”). Since portable generators will be placed outdoors, operators need to be sure that any extension cord employed has been manufacturer-rated for outdoor use, and that it carries the Underwriters Laboratories endorsement for the maximum wattage produced by the generator model. Whenever possible, operators should also avoid routing extension cords in a manner that would create tripping hazards or covering extension cords with combustible carpets or padding which can cause heat build-up and perhaps even fire. Particular care must be taken when using an extension cord in wet conditions. If an extension cord is hot to the touch, it has been overloaded and must be either replaced or its load reduced. Operators should periodically inspect all extension cords for frays, cuts, cracks, exposed wiring, and plug damage, and replace any which have been compromised. An operator should always power on a portable generator before connecting a load to it (this is true whether appliances are to be connected directly or via an extension cord), and when connecting appliances, an operator should first connect the highest-wattage ones.
Rather than plugging appliances into a portable generator directly or via an extension cord, a user may wish to employ an electric transfer switch (which should be installed by a licensed electrician or somebody familiar with building codes in the operator’s area). A transfer switch serves as a bridge between the generator and main circuit-breaker panel of a building or residence. It allows a portable generator to send power directly and safely into a home electrical system. The National Electrical Code (700-6) provides that transfer equipment must be designed and installed to prevent inadvertent interconnection of normal and emergency power sources. In other words, an electric transfer switch needs to stop a potentially-lethal problem known as back feed — electricity being created by a home generator that enters outside power lines where it poses an electrocution risk to unsuspecting power-company workers. In an attempt to ensure that transfer equipment is installed according to code, some local government agencies require that the installer obtain a permit prior to installation. A qualified electrician will know when a permit is needed, and how to go about obtaining one. One type of transfer switch, referred to as a double-pole, double throw model, won’t engage unless outside utility power has been safely disconnected. Models of this kind are an excellent way to ensure that rules of safety are observed.
Operators need to keep something else in mind: Because utility workers are completely vulnerable when working on downed lines, lines that they believe are without power, many municipalities have criminalized the reckless use of portable and home generators. Violators can be subject to harsh fines, and even incarceration if convicted. Improper or reckless employment of portable or home generators can also void homeowners’ insurance in the event of property damage or personal injury. Given the number of drawbacks, engaging a licensed electrician to install transfer equipment is a sound investment.
Operators should take care not to overload a portable generator. In addition to its running watts, all generators have a maximum or surge-watts rating, reserve power which is intended to start appliance motors, and is not available for more than a few seconds at a time. During normal use, appliances connected to a generator should not consume above 80% of the generator’s maximum running watts. This reduces the chance of unintended damage or overheating. The watts used by an appliance will often be listed on a data plate attached to its back or underside. If a data plate cannot be located, a wattage meter which is inserted between an appliance and wall outlet is a good way to determine its exact wattage demands. A list of the average watts used by many common household appliances is also available on our website. Lists like ours are not intended to be comprehensive; however, such lists give some indication of the number and size of appliances a portable or home generator model ought to power safely.
Other Safety Tips for Portable Generators
Portable generators use 12 to 18 gallons of gasoline per day; for this reason, an extended blackout will require substantial fuel reserves. Gasoline, diesel, and other fuels burned by portable generators are highly combustible, and storing substantial amounts of them can be hazardous if done carelessly. We recommend that gasoline be stored in a container meeting American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requirements, as well as any applicable state requirements (the state of California, for example, has more stringent requirements known as “CARB”). ANSI coordinates the development and implementation of voluntary safety standards by United States manufacturers. An ANSI-compliant container will always be prominently marked as such.
It is advisable to use a stabilizer, such as STA-BIL, in gasoline or diesel which will be stored for emergency purposes. The shelf-life of pump gas is roughly six months, and for diesel, roughly a year. Stabilizers can frequently double a fuel’s effective shelf-life. Some stabilizers can endow gasoline with a life span of up to two years, and diesel considerably longer. T-REX recommends that, ideally, gasoline supplies be used and replaced annually. It is good practice to use fuel stored for emergency use in other gas-powered equipment — like chain saws and lawn mowers, ATVs or motorcycles. This guarantees that fuel supplies are replenished, and that gasoline is always ready for use when needed. Having a few extra quarts of oil, air and fuel filters, and spark plugs is also advisable.
There should never be open flames near a portable generator during operation. Flames, including lighted cigarettes, should also be kept away from a generator fuel supply. In particular a candle should never be used to provide illumination when preparing a generator for operation or powering it on.
A portable generator should not be refueled while running. If possible, refueling should occur after the generator engine has been allowed to cool, to prevent inadvertent fire should fuel make contact with a hot surface. To avoid refueling spills, it is always wise to store alongside a generator a funnel that can be used for pouring fuel and a rag to clean up spills. It is also advisable to have a flashlight and fire extinguisher within reach.
Keeping a portable generator in good working condition is important to ensure that it operates efficiently and safely when needed. Most manufacturers recommend that portable or home generators be started and allowed to run for five minutes every three months to insure that they remain ready for use. During down time, fuel tanks should be kept full (topped off). This prevents condensation from accumulating inside the tank, and diluting fuel. Water-saturated fuel can produce starting problems, and the engine may sputter during operation. Unfortunately, few people who purchase portable generators for emergency power needs heed this simple advice. Ignoring it can mean that a generator will not operate when it is most needed. We also advise generator owners to have their units serviced annually by a qualified technician.
It is a sound practice to keep small children away from portable generators. Even if a generator is being operated in a safe and well-ventilated area, its engine parts can become burning hot during normal use.
Finally, certain portable generator models are safer than others. Emergency generators are not intended for daily use, but are built to provide continuous occasional power in an emergency, or during a natural disaster or blackout. Inexpensive models can be more susceptible than top brands to heat failure, and heat failure in extreme instances can start fires. There are many inexpensive generators on the market — while inexpensive does not mean bad or unreliable, lower-priced brands may not last as long, or be as safe, as their higher-priced counterparts.
Here is a summary checklist of safety tips for portable-generator operators:
oOperators should always read the operating instructions or user’s manual before starting or using a portable generator. For best results and ultimate safety, an operator should adhere to these instructions. Generator owners should never remove warning stickers or safety devices from their models.
oA user should be familiar with the sound of his or her portable generator during normal operations. This allows for quick and easy identification of a problem during use; if a problem is detected, operators must immediately power down the unit.
oA portable generator should be used only outdoors and as far away as possible from open windows, air conditioners, vents or air-conditioning ducts.
oUsers should check wind direction to ensure that during operation, exhaust emissions are being blown away from buildings and residences.
oThere should be plenty of ventilation on all sides of a portable generator.
oA portable generator should be operated only in clean, dry locations. A permanent or temporary shelter may need to be built to house a portable generator during its operation. An operator should never touch any generator unless his or her hands are dry.
oA portable generator should be properly grounded before use to prevent inadvertent electric shocks.
oAn undersized or frayed extension cord should never be used with a portable generator. If an extension cord becomes hot to the touch during use, it has been overloaded and the operator needs to replace it immediately with a larger cord, or power down the generator. Operators should always route extension cords to minimize tripping hazards.
oA generator should never be connected to an existing residential wiring system unless a DPDT electric transfer switch is used to prevent back feed, and isolate generator power from external lines.
oThe main circuit breaker in a home or building should be turned off before any appliances are connected to a portable generator.
oOperators should ensure that generators are not overloaded by too many or too-large appliances; it is a good safe practice never to attach enough appliances to exceed 80% of a generator’s running watts.
oFuel for the portable generator should be stored in a safe ANSI-compliant container.
oThere should never be open flame near a portable generator during operation or fueling.
oA user should power down and, if possible, allow to cool, a portable generator prior to refueling.
oA generator should be serviced at least annually even if it has not seen use. Unless an owner is qualified, it is best to engage a specialist for generator service or repairs.
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