Homeowners who want to ensure they aren’t left powerless during severe storms often choose to invest in either backup or portable generators.
These emergency-power sources are designed to keep the critical necessities, like refrigeration and lighting, up and running for a short time after outages, until power can be restored. But safely installing a whole-house backup generator is not a job for a do-it-yourselfer, and running any generator safely requires attention to important details, so no one gets hurt.
“I would have a qualified electrician install it,” says Peggy Dantzler, vice president of loss control and training for The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, Inc. “A professional can size the generator for your house and what you need to run during a storm. That can really benefit a homeowner.”
If you choose to use a generator in the wake of a hurricane, tornado or other severe storm, Dantzler says, read the manufacturer’s instructions before installing or operating it. Be sure you know how to keep your family, your property and your local electric cooperative crews safe.
The big rule: Never plug a generator—whether permanent or portable—into one of your home’s outlets or attempt to connect directly to household wiring. This is a potentially deadly mistake. Power from a generator can “backfeed” current into power lines, risking electrocution for anyone who comes in contact with the lines—especially lineworkers trying to make repairs after a storm.
First and foremost, hire a qualified contractor or licensed electrician if you are installing a backup generator. Not only will an expert be able to advise you on a properly sized generator for your needs, he will make sure installation meets local electrical codes and that the unit is properly grounded.
A professional electrician will also install an automatic transfer switch. An ATS is able to sense when the grid electricity goes off and will automatically switch to generator power and disconnect your home’s wiring from the utility grid at that time, preventing energy from leaving the generator and backfeeding into power lines. An ATS will also protect your generator from damage when the power comes back on, shutting down the generator when it senses that a sustained current flow has been restored.
Whenever a severe storm leads to power outages, electric cooperative lineworkers are on the scene as soon as weather permits to get the lights back on. While they are well trained in safety measures, the members they serve can sometimes put lineworkers’ lives in danger through faulty generator use.
Any generator that has been improperly wired into a home’s electrical system poses a threat to the crews repairing lines after a storm. Electric current that is backfeeding into the power grid from those generators can energize even power lines that are thought to be dead. Lineworkers can be electrocuted by coming in contact with these lines.
In 2005, a Georgia lineman died after coming in contact with a power line that was energized by an improperly installed generator. He was working to restore power after Hurricane Dennis hit Alabama.
Making sure a licensed electrician has installed an automatic transfer switch to isolate your generator from the grid is one way members can help protect those working to restore the power. You can also notify your electric co-op if you have installed a generator for emergency use.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless and tasteless but highly poisonous gas. Called a silent killer, it can go undetected without a CO alarm and can be fatal within minutes. More than 150 people in the U.S. die every year from carbon-monoxide poisoning, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In the month after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control reported 51 cases of carbon-monoxide poisoning—five fatal—among residents of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, nearly all from improper use of generators. At least a dozen South Carolinians were treated for carbon-monoxide poisoning after using generators following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Because carbon monoxide can build up quickly where generators are in use, generators should never be operated in enclosed spaces, including attached garages. The CO gas can seep into homes and reach deadly levels. Opening windows or attempting to dispel fumes with fans is not effective against this buildup. That’s why generators must always be located in open areas a safe distance away from residential spaces—at least 15 feet, but more is better—and away from windows and doors. Have a working, battery-operated CO detector in your home if you use a generator.
Symptoms that may arise after carbon-monoxide inhalation include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Severe exposure can lead to loss of consciousness and death. If your CO detector sounds an alarm, get everyone out of the house immediately. Get medical care for anyone experiencing symptoms, and tell the doctor there was possible inhalation of carbon monoxide.
Generators can be powered by a variety of fuel sources—natural gas, propane, diesel, gasoline. Regardless of the type of generator or fuel being used, safe operation begins with understanding your model. Read the manufacturer’s instructions first before installing or operating your generator for the first time.
Other safety tips:
- Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces or in attached garages.
- Don’t plug the generator into a household outlet.
- Don’t overload your generator. The manufacturer’s instructions will specify your model’s wattage capacity; make sure the total wattage of the appliances you plug into the generator do not exceed that capacity.
- Use the proper electrical cords. Extension cords should be sized to carry the electric load. Heavyduty, outdoor-rated cords are best. They should have grounded, three-prong plugs and should be in good condition, with no fraying or cuts.
- Keep the generator dry. To avoid the risk of shock, the generator must remain dry. Locate it on a dry surface, under cover of an open canopy to protect it from precipitation. Make sure your hands are dry before operating it.
- Keep children and pets away from generators to avoid burns.
- Unplug appliances before shutting down the generator. Make sure all equipment being powered by the generator is off and unplugged before powering down.
- Never refuel while the generator is running. Turn it off and let it cool down. Fuel spilled on a hot generator can ignite a fire.
- Keep a working fire extinguisher nearby when the generator is in use.
For more tips on choosing and using a generator safely, see the American Red Cross page Safe Generator Use.