Portable Generator Safety Guide

Portable generators are a great tool to add to your collection. Most people don’t think much about generators until it comes time when they need one. My wife, who loves to plan for things like this, always says, ‘Be prepared.’ Having a generator on hand is a great way of being prepared for natural disasters that result in a prolonged power outage such as blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. They are also a great tool for those of you who live way out in the country like we do. When the power goes out where I am we know that the power is going to be out for a while. That’s just how the things work out here. The city gets preference over us country bumpkins.

While portable generators can be a lifesaver in the above situations they can also be quite dangerous. In fact, they can be deadly if the proper precautions are not taken. That is why I wanted to take the time today to write this article on generator safety. There are dozens of reported cases each winter of people being seriously injured or even dying due to them not using their generators properly. I want to prevent these incidents from occurring in the future by writing this article.

When it comes to generators there are three main safety precautions that need to be taken into consideration. Let’s take a look at these now:

Carbon Monoxide Hazard

Carbon monoxide is the most common problem found with generators. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and poisonous gas that is emitted from engine exhaust. People do not realize that a generator emits the same kind of exhaust that a car or vehicle does. Would you sit in your garage with the door closed and your car running? Of course not. You would be overcome with carbon monoxide very shortly in this scenario. The very same thing can be said when it comes to generators. Remember, generators have engines too. There are stories that I hear on the news of folks putting generators in their living room closets, in their basements, or garages. All of these can result in tragic results. It may not be convenient to setup your generator outside during the cold of an ice storm, but it is ABSOLUTELY necessary!

Below is a quick Dos and Don’ts when it comes to running and placing your generator:

Do:

  1. The generator should be run outside of the building you are aiming to power.
  2. The generator should be at least fifteen feet away from the building. Some people recommend twenty feet, but use your best judgement here.
  3. The generator should be run in a dry and well ventilated area.
  4. The generator’s exhaust should be pointed AWAY from your home, garage, or whatever building you are trying to cool.
  5. When using a generator ensure that you have the carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home and that their batteries are up to date. In my family we have three to four portable monoxide detectors in each room to ensure that there are no accidents.

Do Not:

  1. Do NOT run a generator in your basement.
  2. Do NOT run a generator in your closet.
  3. Do NOT run a generator in your garage.
  4. Do NOT run a generator in your detached building.
  5. Do NOT run a generator inside your home with the windows open. The air flow from the windows is NOT enough to negate the carbon monoxide flooding your home.

If you suspect that you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning then exit the area immediately and either have someone take you to the hospital or call 911. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic symptoms of the Flu. These can be a dull headache, blurred vision, confusion, vomiting, dizziness, and overall weakness. Please be vigilant of these symptoms when using generators and have that portable carbon monoxide detector in the same room you are.

Fire Hazard

This is a small one and most of you who work with other machinery may know this already but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Generators need fuel and most of the time they take your standard eighty-seven octane gasoline. The problem occurs when you have to refill your generators fuel tank. Most generators will need to be refilled with gas every three to four hours. (Some can go upwards to six hours depending on the size of the tank.) When you go to refill your generator be sure to:

  • Turn the generator off entirely.
  • Wait for the engine and the rest of the unit to cool off.
  • Once it has been turned off you can then begin to refuel the tank.
  • When done refilling be sure to wipe up any spills that occurred during filling.

These steps are necessary to prevent the gasoline from accidentally igniting. Gas can ignite or catch fire if it comes in contact with a hot engine. By taking these steps mentioned above you avoid that risk and protect you and your generator from fire damage. Lastly, when you you are done refueling your generator be sure to put your gas canister in a safe and controlled environment out of reach of children and pets.

Electrocution Hazard

When using portable generators there is risk of electrocution and also fire if the system is not properly setup. First thing’s first, when using extension cords to and from your generator and to your home be sure that the you are using the proper sized cord for your generator. On top of that, ensure that the extension cord that you are using exceeds the total amperage of the appliances that you are hooking up to it. If you have too much power being routed through an extension cord the result can end in disaster. Going in that same line of thought, be sure not to overload your generator. Each generator is rated for a certain amount of watts. If you exceed those watts then your generator will most likely shut itself off to prevent damage to the system.

Back Feeding Your Generator

Do NOT back-feed your generator back into your home. I repeat, do NOT back-feed your generator to your home. Back-feeding your generator is literally plugging your generator directly into your home’s power supply by using a two male ended cord.  These two sided male cords are often called ‘suicide cords.’ This is NOT the proper way to do this. By doing this and not turning off your main breaker you could permanently damage your generator when the power does come back on. There are stories of people’s generators bursting into flames because of this. A flaming generator is not a good thing because, you guessed it, it is holding multiple gallons of gasoline. In one such incident a back-fed generator caught on fire, exploded, and caught the user’s house on fire as well as his neighbor’s home. (Story can be found here.)

Along with the fire hazard of a back-fed generator you are also putting your local electric works at risk by dumping power back into the electric grid while workers are actively repairing. This can result in electrocution injuries and even death to emergency power line workers. If that’s not enough to steer you away from this then you should also know that this act is illegal. If you plan to permanently connect your portable generator to your home’s electric system then the best and safest option is using a transfer switch or an interlock system. If you wish to purse this avenue then you will most likely need a permit and an inspection from your city or county. Along with that you will need the professional installation from a trained electrician to ensure that everything is setup correctly and safely.

Rain, Snow, or Overall Wetness

Another electrocution risk is dealing with water rather it be rain or snow in the system. In fact, you will find that most generator manufacturers have warnings on their products and on their instructions manuals explicitly saying that generators cannot operated in a wet or rainy environment. This includes snowed in areas as well. Let’s think about why this is for a moment. We all know what generators do. Their engine gives power to the alternator and the alternative generates electricity for your home. You then connect your extension cord to the generator to route the power back to your home.

Here’s the problem though folks. Water and electricity do not mix. If it is raining and your generator is out in it that water is inevitably going to get into the electrical outlet. That means that there is now a chance of electrocution. Depending on the model of generator that you have, yours may come with what’s known as a GFCI outlet. These outlets, known as a ground fault circuit interrupt, will automatically shut the generator off if water is detected within the system. Would you want to be the guy that has to go out and try and restart the generator if it shut down due to water being in the system? I certainly wouldn’t. Using, touching, or maintaining a generator that is wet can result in electrocution to the user. Generators can carry quite a bit of electricity so this electrocution risk should be taken very seriously.

Grounding Your Generator

Lastly, there can be another electrocution risk if your portable generator is not properly grounded. Not all generators need a grounding rod, but in some cases you do. Basically, it boils down to two main checks:

  1. How are you using your generator? If you plan to be plugging appliances directly into your generator using extension cords then you do NOT need to ground your unit as long as you meet the criteria from step two.
  2. Ok, the second check that you need to look over is that all components of the generator are bonded to the generator’s frame. This includes your fuel tank, your engine, the generator’s housing, and the power receptacles.

If your generator meets the above conditions then you are ok to move forward without using a grounding rod. This is because the generator’s frame replaces the grounding rod. (That is why we checked if every component was bonded to the frame.) If these conditions do NOT exist then a grounding rod will be required in order to safely run your generator.

Also, there is another exception that is very important. If your generator meets the above conditions BUT your system is plugged directly into your home’s circuit breaker via a manual transfer switch or if it’s connected directly to a building then you are required to have a grounding rod.

If you are unsure exactly if you need a grounding rod for your generator then I would highly recommend consulting with a trained electrician. Remember folks, it’s better to be safe then sorry. For more information on grounding your generator click here to be taken to OSHA’s guide on grounding your generators.

Conclusion

Well folks, that about sums it up for our generator’s safety guide. I hope that this article was able to give you some advice on how to setup your generator and how to stay safe during a power loss situation. I’m going to wrap this up by putting a disclaimer that all of the above advice is just that, advice. We at ToughAssTools.com are not liable for any mistakes, injuries, or fatalities caused when working generators.

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson

ToughAssTools

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