By Brad Salzmann, PA-C
Portable generators can provide a temporary source of electric power when “grid” power is not available. Many of us have portable generators for back-up power when the electricity “goes out.” While these generators can be very useful, there are safety considerations of which to be aware.
Carbon Monoxide: Most portable generators run on fossil fuels (gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, kerosene, propane, natural gas) and therefore emit carbon monoxide (CO) as one of the exhaust gases. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, deadly gas that causes hundreds of accidental poisoning deaths each year. These unintentional poisonings occur most often during the colder months and after disasters. Therefore, it is important to make sure the home or business has functioning CO detectors and to test them monthly.
Placement: Portable internal combustion engine generators must be placed and run outdoors where exhaust fumes cannot enter enclosed spaces. The current recommendation is to place them on a level, well-ventilated, dry area at least 25 feet from a building and away from windows, vents and doors (including the neighbor’s). It is NOT OK to run them in an attached garage, porch, or in the basement. Because most generators are not weatherproof, they should be protected from direct exposure to rain and snow. Most generators are very noisy; try to place them in a location that minimizes disruption.
Connections: Generators must not be connected directly to a home’s electrical circuit. The electricity can back feed into the power lines connected to the home. Utility transformers then can increase the voltage to thousands of volts and kill utility workers miles away. Nor should a generator be plugged into an outlet in the home or garage, for the same reason. A common, but improper practice is to plug the generator into the dryer outlet with a 220-volt cord. The best way to connect is to have an electrician install a box with a cut-off switch that prevents back feed into the grid. These are typically wired to several pre-determined essential circuits such as the furnace, water pump, refrigerator, etc. If using an extension cord, use one that is approved for outdoor use and heavy duty enough to carry the electrical load. Check the generator’s operating manual for correct grounding instructions.
Power: Portable generators do not typically have enough power to run an entire household. The wattage of the generator should be at least 1.3 times the total wattage of the appliances used. Overloading the generator can make it run hot and catch fire, and/or damage the appliances and electronics. Try to avoid starting all appliances at once.
Fuel: This seems obvious, but make sure you know the type of fuel your generator uses, and the type of fuel you have to fill it. Keep fresh fuel on hand; gasoline and biodiesel have a shelf life of about 6 months, diesel about a year. Adding appropriate fuel stabilizers can extend the useful life of these fuels. Remember, if the power is out, gas stations may not be open. Fuel should be stored in approved containers, correctly labeled, and kept outside of living areas and away from the generator and other potential ignition sources. Turn off the generator and let it cool down before refilling; never refill a running generator. Wear gloves and safety glasses while refilling, and have a B class fire extinguisher nearby.
Generator use: Test your generator regularly; once a month is best, but at least once a season. Only a qualified service technician should perform repairs. Engine parts get very hot; serious burns may result if touched.
Having a portable generator during power outages can be very handy, and even life-saving for those dependent on electric life support systems. However, if appropriate safety measures are not adhered to, generator use can be dangerous and deadly.
Brad Salzmann is an orthopedics physician assistant at Gifford in Randolph. He also has a master’s degree in disaster medicine and management, and serves as part of the national Disaster Medical Assistance Team based in Worcester, Mass.