Learn how to safety install and operate a generator during power outages

If you choose to use a generator when power outages occur, make sure you follow the guidelines for properly installing and safely operating a back-up electrical system.

If you live in an area that experiences frequent, lengthy power outages, you may want to consider investing in a back-up electrical system. Automatic standby and portable generators are the two basic types of units that a home owner will find available for purchase. The automatic units will produce more power and are either air-cooled by fans or liquid cooled using an enclosed radiator system similar to an automobile. The liquid cooled system is generally found on larger wattage units. Michigan State University Extension urges consumers to be aware of and consider the variety of factors that help determine the correct type and size of unit for your home.

An automatic standby generator is one that operates whether you are at home or not. Within seconds of an outage, it automatically supplies power directly to your home’s electrical circuit breaker box. After utility power is restored, the generator shuts itself down until the next power outrage occurs. This type of unit is placed outside your home similarly to central air conditioning units and can operate on natural gas, diesel or liquid propane gas.

Smaller, portable generators are also useful in powering essential electrical equipment during a power outage, but do require someone be present to operate them as well as requiring the home to have an adequate supply on hand of unleaded gasoline to fuel the unit. With portable generators, one can use extension cords to power individual appliances or can have a manual transfer switch installed. This switch is a safer way to power items in your home as it blocks any power from “back feeding” in the power lines, avoids use of multiply extension cords, and can power items hardwired into your house such as a furnace fan. Back feeding occurs when an improperly connected generator begins feeding electricity back through the power lines. When this occurs, anyone near the lines, especially utility crews working to restore power, can be seriously injured and even electrocuted.

The Energy Education Council offers a wealth of useful information via their Safe Electricity.org program. Before purchasing a generator, they suggest you consult a qualified vendor or electrician to determine the best equipment for your situation. If you choose to install a permanent standby generator, they recommend having it installed by a licensed electrician. If you decide a portable generator is right for your needs, they suggest you may want to consult professionals to help with the proper equipment needed to safely use it.

The Energy Education Council’slist of tips for safe operation and use of portable generators states:

  • Read and follow all manufacturer operating instructions to properly ground the generator before using it.
  • Maintain adequate ventilation as generators emit carbon monoxide. Never operate one in your home, crawl space, basement, garage, other enclosed building or even a partially enclosed area.
  • Operate the generator outdoors away from doors, windows, and vents. Install a battery-operated CO alarm in your home, regularly testing the alarm and replacing batteries as needed.
  • Keep children and pets away from the generator at all times it is in use as parts may be hot enough to burn them.
  • Place generator in a dry location outdoors and if use is necessary during wet conditions, make sure your hands are dry before touching it. Providing an open, overhead canopy will further protect the generator and reduce the chance of electrical risk to the operator.
  • Never plug a portable generator into a wall outlet or directly to your home’s wiring.
  • Turn off the generator and allow it to cooling before refueling as gasoline and its vapors can ignite if they contact electrical sparks or hot equipment. Store the fuel outside of your living area and away from fuel burning appliances like water heaters. Before shutting down a generator, turn off and unplug all appliances and equipment it is powering.
  • Before you begin operating a portable generator, turn off or disconnect all appliances and lights. Then begin turning them on one at a time once the generator is running to avoid overloading the unit.
  • If you use extension cords, make sure you use safety-tested 3-prong electrical cords rated for heavy, outdoor use.
  • Between uses, check these cords for damage or deterioration and perform the recommended regular maintenance tasks, including oil and filter changes, on the generator.

Power failures can be short term, long term, occur in summer and in winter. Safe Electricity offers further helpful tips for successfully dealing with each of these situations. Don’t wait until your power is out to learn what steps you can take in each of these situations.

Other useful information about a variety of disaster-related topics can be found online at extension.org and on the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) website.

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