Portable generators are useful when temporary or remote electric power is needed, but they also can be hazardous. The primary hazards to avoid when using a generator are carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock or electrocution, and fire.
NEVER use a generator in enclosed or partially-enclosed spaces. Generators can produce high levels of carbon monoxide very quickly. When you use a portable generator, remember that you cannot smell or see carbon monoxide.
Even if you can't smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to carbon monoxide. If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air right away! The carbon monoxide from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death. Do not delay.
If you experience serious symptoms, get medical attention immediately. Inform the medical staff that carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected. If you experienced symptoms while indoors, have someone call the fire department to determine when it is safe to re-enter the building.
Follow these safety tips to protect against shock and electrocution when using a portable generator:
- NEVER try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as "backfeeding." This is an extremely dangerous practice that presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same utility transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices.
- Keep the generator dry and do not use in rain or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Dry your hands if wet before touching the generator.
- Plug appliances directly into the generator. Or, use a heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
- If you must connect the generator to the house wiring to power appliances, have a qualified electrician install the appropriate equipment in accordance with local electrical codes.
- For power outages, permanently installed stationary generators are better suited for providing backup power to the home. Even a properly connected portable generator can become overloaded. This may result in overheating or stressing the generator components, possibly leading to a generator failure.
Good safe work practices include making sure that electrical devices are turned off before you connect them to a generator or generator-powered circuit. Once the generator is running, switch devices on one by one. Shut them down again before switching back to your utility service.
Read and follow the manufacturer's technical information carefully to ensure your generator won't be overwhelmed by start-up power needs or the total running load of the appliances or other uses you attach to it. In addition, if you plan to hook up larger appliances like ranges, well pumps, or dryers be sure your generator is rated for 240-volt as well as 120-volt loads.
Be sure to inspect and maintain your generator regularly. Keeping fresh gas in the tank and running the generator for a while periodically helps ensure it will be ready when you need it.